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Bringing life to a necropolis Inside India's biggest conservation project

Bringing life to a necropolis Inside India's biggest by fountaininkseries

BY GOVIND KRISHNAN V
PHOTOGRAPHS BY HARSHA VADLAMANI

A kilometre to the northwest of Hyderabad’s iconic Golconda Fort, which once held the Kohinoor and Hope diamonds, is a vast necropolis few tourists to the fort have heard of. A blue arch over a gateway proclaims “Qutb Shahi Tombs”. When Yoshowant Purohit arrived four years ago, there was no sign to tell visitors that the entire dynasty of Hyderabad’s founding kings rested in the 108-acre complex. Purohit, a conservation architect, came from Delhi as part of an ambitious project to restore the Qutb Shahi tomb complex and make it worthy of World Heritage Site listing. On his first day driving to work, Purohit had trouble locating the tombs. Local people hadn’t even heard of the Qutb Shahis; the monuments were known simply as the “saat maqbare”—the seven tombs.

These seven tombs belong to the seven kings who ruled Golconda before the Nizams of the erstwhile Hyderabad state. The last of the seven emerges first. The two-storeyed tomb of Abdullah Qutb Shah (1626-72), which rises 137 feet, has a massive dome guarded by minarets and 28 open arches at its entrance.

Almost tucked away on one side the tomb of Abu Hasan Tana Shah, the last Qutb Shahi (they ruled for 171 years) remains unfinished—a testament to the march of time that brings to naught the plans of monarchs and men. Unplastered red bricks grown black over three centuries enclose two basalt graves and rise 27 feet where, instead of an ornate dome, a cavernous mouth opens to the skies. Graffiti and love messages are scratched into the decaying plaster of the inner walls. The birds taking wing over the open roof and the foliage growing out of the wall give the place an air of doom. The last of the Qutb Shahis died in exile, as a prisoner in Daulatabad. Tana Shah’s fate was sealed when the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb marched south in 1687, laying waste to Hyderabad after a bloody siege of eight months. It was a turning point in the history of the Deccan. The commander of the attacking army was the father of Nizam-ul-Mulk, who became Viceroy of the Deccan and eventually independent ruler of Golconda when the Mughal Empire disintegrated.

The saat maqbare Purohit saw in 2012 was in neglect. In many monuments the edges had broken off, seeping water had ruined structures, and most of the decoration and ornamentation was damaged. Algae and rain had blackened the facades. In 2013, the wall of a large stepwell (Bade Baoli) collapsed in heavy rain. Investigations revealed that most of the stucco work and ornamentation on the monuments had been added in the 19th century when a renovation was carried out under Salar Jung I, prime minister of Hyderabad. Worse, concrete had been used extensively in the 20th century, damaging the buildings made with lime mortar.

The Qutb Shahi restoration is the most ambitious heritage conservation project undertaken in India. The sheer size of the necropolis is staggering—it has 72 historical structures, 40 tombs, 23 mosques, several stepwells and a hamaam (bathhouse). A public-private partnership between the department of Archaeology and Museums of Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana), and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the project is slated for completion in 2023.

“The trust worked on Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and was looking to undertake a major conservation project in south India. We considered several sites, but the Qutb Shahi tomb complex is unique, probably the only necropolis in the world with an entire dynasty buried within it. We approached the state government and after an architectural documentation and topographical assessment of the site, we signed an MoU in 2013,” says Ratish Nanda, India CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The MoU tasked the Aga Khan Trust with the work, under the department of archaeology’s supervision. Besides preservation and structural restoration, it aims to restore the monuments where feasible to the way they were constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries. This means not only figuring out form and architectural details, but also using material originally used in the construction. The landscape around the tombs would also be restored. The total cost was estimated at Rs 100 crore.

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A panaromic view of the Qutb Shahi tomb complex c. 1860.

Photo: Col. Horatio Biden/ The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Nanda assembled a multi-disciplinary team to draw up a conservation plan—specialist architects, civil engineers, archaeologists and historians. The first step was extensive documentation of the existing tombs and mosques. Before any restoration could begin, all architectural details of the monuments as they existed had to be recorded. By the end of the year, the team had made over 200 architectural drawings, which along with photographical documentation filled five thick volumes. The team also carried out a condition assessment, recording deterioration and damage to various structures, and setting priorities for preservation work. While damage that threatened the buildings could be rectified, restoration was a different ball game. The challenge was to uncover, as best as could be done, how the monuments had looked originally.

“None of the original patterns could be seen. They were covered under layers of cement or lime plaster. The patterns that were visible, we had no way of discovering whether they were added by the Nizams or whether they were part of the original 16th and 17th century architecture,” says Purohit. There was little information on the monuments. The restoration team had to start from scratch. They started talking to local historians for clues. To help with archaeological investigations, the team invited K. K. Mohammed, a former archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to join them.

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The tomb of Hyat Bakshi Begum. She was one of the most powerful women in the history of the Deccan. She enjoyed royal power as the daughter of the fifth king, the wife of the sixth, and the mother of the seventh. She negotiated a treaty with Aurangzeb during her son's reign that saved the kingdom from annexation

Harsha Vadlamani

After Tana Shah surrendered, Aurangzeb’s army laid waste to Hyderabad. The city went through a period of great decline, fully reviving only a century later. Legend (history has little to say) has Tana Shah facing his captors with equanimity, inviting the Mughal captain to breakfast with him. As he is being taken away from his capital as a prisoner, he gives his last silver coin to a water carrier who offers him water.

Sultan Tana Shah’s detachment has an almost spiritual quality. There are several stories where he appears in connection with the mystical, perhaps because he was the disciple of a Sufi saint whose tomb he built in another part of Hyderabad on a scale larger than that of any that inter his ancestors. During his reign, he imprisoned Kancherla Gopanna, a famous Carnatic music composer who preceded Tyagaraja and a tahasildar in Bhadrachalam province. Popularly known as Bhakta Ramadasu, Gopanna had appropriated government revenue to renovate a Ram temple. An angry Sultan had him carted off to prison. Telugu legend has Rama and Lakshmana appearing in Tana Shah’s bed chamber one night to pay the gold Ramadasu owed. The Sultan, who immediately recognised the spiritual meaning behind the incident, set Ramadasu free. He also began an annual tradition of sending pearls to the Ram temple. Ramadasu was heartbroken that in spite of a lifetime’s devotion to Ram, it was the Sultan who had been granted a vision of the deity. It was revealed to him that Tana Shah was a devotee of Ram in his previous birth, but gave up his austerities before he reached the goal.

“The enduring legacy of the Qutb Shahis is the syncretic culture and religion of the Deccan that they inherited and which they perpetuated. It is reflected in everything they did, including architecture which combined local traditions with the Mughal style. Unlike north India, where the first encounters with Islam were violent, in the south it happened through trade. This allowed for mutual understanding and sympathy and the evolution of a distinctive culture of religious syncretism, which the Qutb Shahis patronised when they came to power (in 1518),” says Sajjad Shahid, one of the historians consulted for the project.

Ironically, the kingdom’s syncretism was the political excuse Aurangzeb used to justify Mughal imperialism. As Shias the Qutb Shahis proclaimed loyalty to the Iranian Safavid empire rather than the Turkish Caliphate. They tolerated not only Sunnis, but also Hindus, who were allowed to rise through the administration. In Tana Shah’s Golconda, all administrative and military power was concentrated in the hands of two Hindu brothers. All this served Aurangzeb, who accused Tana Shah of being an infidel Shia who consorted with idolaters and portrayed his military campaign as a crusade.

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In 2012, Purohit and a few members of the Aga Khan team started searching various archives for photographs of the Qutb Shahi tombs. Purohit’s first port of call was the internal archive of the department of archaeology and museums, which had a huge collection of photographs dating from the merger of Hyderabad with India. The department had not kept detailed records of its conservation interventions over the decades. The photographs helped plot rough time periods of these interventions. But a couple of his colleagues struck gold while going through the collection of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the collection of the British Library, UK. This consisted of photographs from the 1860s taken a few years before major alterations and rebuilding by Salar Jung. Colonel Horatio Biden and Captain Allan Newton Scott, both of the Madras Artillery, photographed several tombs and other monuments. These photographs gave valuable information that was unknown, showing details of ornamentation and stucco work covered over with lime plaster or cement, additional constructions and so on. But the picture was far from complete. Photographs from this period were not available for all monuments. The kind of detail available depended on the angle of the photograph and the resolution. There were also no photographs of the interiors. The research extended to paintings, lithographs, descriptions given in Persian and Urdu manuscripts and published books.

On the basis of all this, Nanda and his team evolved a conservation plan. The work started towards the end of 2013 and Purohit took charge as the site manager.

***

Heritage monuments in India are protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1958). The ASI implements the Act and is responsible for conservation of protected monuments. The ASI lists 3,682 monuments as protected monuments of national importance. Uttar Pradesh has the highest number, while Karnataka has 506 and Tamil Nadu 413. There are 3,334 monuments under the state protected monuments list. (This excludes Uttar Pradesh for which the figures are not available).

“Apart from the national and state protected list, maybe over 7,000 monuments are legally protected. All together, that is just 15,000. In the United Kingdom alone, there are 600,000 protected monuments and there are 29,000 in New York City,” says Nanda. (The 600,000 monuments are “listed buildings” in the UK, which are also protected, though not to the same extent as “scheduled buildings”. Unlike scheduled buildings, listed buildings can be lived in. The number of buildings designated by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission as landmark properties has been updated this year, and is currently 35,000. This means that no alterations can be made to the building without permission.)

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) submitted a scathing audit of ASI in 2013. The report said ASI had made no efforts to conduct a comprehensive survey or review of sites to be included in the “centrally protected list”.

“The ASI did not have a reliable database of the exact number of protected monuments under its jurisdiction. During joint physical inspections we found that out of the sample of 1,655 centrally protected monuments selected by us, 92 monuments (6 per cent) were not traceable,” the CAG report said. The audit report stated that the ASI had no approved conservation policy and no prescribed criteria on the basis of which to prioritise conservation work. “As a result, monuments were selected arbitrarily for carrying out conservation works. Further, many monuments were never considered for any kind of structural conservation despite need for the same. Inspection notes on the condition of monuments were not being prepared by the ASI officials. There was poor documentation of the conservation works. Even basic records such as measurement books, log books and site registers were not being maintained properly,” the report said.

The protected list is rarely updated. “Especially with the state lists, there are almost no additions. Additions happen only in instances where there is huge pressure. The ASI also has a severe lack of manpower,” says Sharat Chandra, a conservation architect based in Bengaluru. Tamil Nadu for instance has only 86 state protected monuments, while Karnataka has 747 and Kerala, with 26 national monuments, protects 102 under the state list.

“Heritage conservation in India is 50 years behind Europe, where it began seriously after the Second World War. We are far behind in various aspects. But we can pick up. Our idea of conservation is always dependent on the perspective of tourism. It is not heritage that is addressed and authenticity gets compromised. Above all we follow British legislation where one is legally bound to conserve and protect monuments. This is a very limited approach. We need to create incentives for conservation and create the financial support and people skill needed,” says Chandra.

Heritage conservation in India is 50 years behind Europe, where it began seriously after the Second World War. We are far behind in various aspects. But we can pick up. Our idea of conservation is always dependent on the perspective of tourism. It is not heritage that is addressed and authenticity gets compromised. Above all we follow British legislation where one is legally bound to conserve and protect monuments. This is a very limited approach. We need to create incentives for conservation and create the financial support and people skill needed.

Conservation architects interviewed for this story said the number of heritage monuments in India that the ASI protects is only a fraction of the total. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural heritage (INTACH), a private conservation society, has conducted a study that tries to estimate the number of heritage monuments. The study, expected to be published in November, makes projections for the number and different kinds of heritage monuments.

Malvika Bajaj Saini, who led the study, says: “The report estimates that there are 11 lakh heritage monuments in India. This means that protected monuments are only 0.7 per cent of the existing heritage monuments. We also created an index of degradation of the monuments. The national average is 21.85 per cent degradation. Punjab ranks highest with 72 per cent degradation while Jammu and Kashmir comes second with 62 per cent. Rajasthan scores 41 per cent while Kerala scores 40. In terms of good preservation, Goa, Andhra and Bihar have done the best at 61 per cent, 57 per cent and 48 per cent respectively.” The study did not have data for the Union Territories and Delhi.

***

The style of the Qutb Shahi tombs is a blend of Persian, Pathan and Hindu conventions. The large squat tombs of the kings sit on raised platforms, with the basalt gravestones of wives, sons and other close relatives resting beside the mausoleum. Favourite courtiers found place, sometimes meriting their own mausoleums. Two domed tombs contain the graves of Taramati and Premamati, Hindu courtesans who were favourites of the sixth king Abdullah Qutb Shah. Prominent women of the royalty, generals and other important personages have tombs of varying sizes, from spartan mausoleums to domed structures of imposing size and grandeur. Apart from the many mosques, there are half a dozen stepwells. One supplied water to a large mortuary bath, which historians believe was used to wash the bodies before burial. The team now believes that the structure is actually a hamaam, an Iranian style bathhouse.

The conservation plan has divided the complex into three phases and restoration will proceed chronologically. The first phase contains the tombs of the first five kings and Purohit hopes this will be done by 2017. In the beginning of 2015, work started on the main tombs; first in line was Sultan Qutb-ul-Mulk, the founder of the dynasty.

“We expected Sultan’s tomb to be the easiest, because the architecture and ornamentation looked simple. But as we explored, it turned up quite a few surprises. It has been one of the most challenging parts of the project,” says Nitya Khendil, an architect associated with the project.  Sultan’s tomb is among the smaller of the grand tombs, at 12 by 12 metres, with a height of 21 metres. A pear-shaped dome with a diameter of 8 metres, adorned with a ribbon of petals at its base, rises above twelve minarets standing between four columns of decorated merlons.

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South view of the tomb of Bibbi Miriam, c. 1860.

Photo: J. H. Nixon/The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

The dome and walls of Sultan’s tomb were blackened by decades of algae and damp. The lime plaster was cracked and peeling. The walls were pockmarked with graffiti. Before starting restoration, Purohit and his colleagues used laser scanners to map the tomb with greater precision. The data can be used to create a 3D map of how the tomb originally looked. When the team compared archival photographs from the 1860s with the present structure, they spotted that the petals on the dome had intricate patterns that had disappeared.

The photographs also showed details on the minarets which had been plastered over. However, they were too grainy to pick out the exact details. They started removing the plaster (added during the Nizam period) layer by chipping it away. Beneath the plaster, impressions left by the 16th century etchings emerged. But most were too faint to trace details. Of the 42 petals, craftsmen recovered patterns in nine and restored them. Dismantling the plaster on the minarets revealed details that were invisible before. Here the conservationists had to tread carefully.

“The first goal of our philosophy is long-term preservation. But where possible, the principle is to leave things in their original state. If some detail is missing and we cannot establish it with evidence, we leave it as it is. Where the patterns are intact and in reasonably good state, we don’t intervene. Where the state is bad, the craftsmen repair it.  And where it is completely gone and we have exact knowledge of what the detail is, we restore it,” said Purohit.

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What the experts first thought to be a mortuary bath, turned out to be a hamaam according to an Iranian historian. This is one of the most interesting discoveries at the site.

Photo: Harsha Vadlamani

While many of the patterns were repeated (for example, the minarets at the four corners are identical), there was significant variation between individual minarets. Here, the archival photographs came in handy. Collaborating evidence from physical investigation and photographs, the team repaired and rebuilt the patterns on all the minarets. The recovered and restored patterns are some of the most ornate in the complex.

***

Near the Bade Baoli, whose collapsed wall has been rebuilt, a yellow painted machine on two wheels stands near open concrete tanks, its green hosing rolled up idly. The work has stopped temporarily and a few labourers walk around the place. Nitya Khendil, a tall young woman in T-shirt and jeans and wearing a pair of sneakers with pink laces, points to the bluish liquid that fills the tanks. “This is where we produce our lime mortar—powdered lime is left to slake in the water for two days. It’s a chemical reaction that produces a lot of heat. You could burn your hand if you touch the calcium hydroxide formed,” she says.

Khendil is a year out of architecture school and joined the Qutb Shahi project in 2015. She explains how sand is mixed with slaked lime and then ground to form the concrete. “Bel (wood apple) fruit pulp.”  She removes the lid on a plastic barrel to uncover a brown, sickly sweet smelling liquid. “We sent the material from the tombs to a laboratory to analyse its contents. Other than lime, the mortar contains bel fruit pulp, gum and molasses. The results also broke down the percentage of the components so that we can mix them in the right proportion,” she says.

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The Bade Baoli, the biggest stepwell in the tomb complex c.1860.

Photo: Captain Allan N. Scott /The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

The project gathered traditional limestone workers from Telangana, and Rajasthan, who know how to use lime mortar. The technique survives in pockets despite lime construction becoming extinct. To restore the stucco work and ornamentation, the project employs craftsmen skilled in carving lime plaster. “From the 1970s onwards all around the world, there was a realisation that cement concrete in heritage buildings, tended to damage them. A consensus emerged that all conservation work should use lime mortar and ingredients that were used in the original construction,” Nanda says.

Before cement changed the face of construction in India in the 20th century, all buildings were constructed with lime mortar. It takes as long as two months to set, unlike cement which dries instantly, making it the preferred medium for rapid urbanisation. But the buildings last much longer, as evidenced by ancient monuments. The reason is that lime buildings “breathe.” They continuously take in air and exhale water.  Limestone is calcium carbonate and when slaked in water, it reacts chemically to form calcium hydroxide. It is mixed with sand to form lime mortar, which is then used in construction. As time goes by, the lime starts turning back to stone. The calcium hydroxide absorbs carbon dioxide from the air to form calcium carbonate and releases water as a by-product.

When concrete is used on ancient buildings, the impermeable cement suffocates the lime and stops the absorption of carbon dioxide. The older the building, the stronger it gets.

***

The most unexpected discovery was the result of the investigations by K. K. Mohammad, the chief archaeologist. Excavation around the tomb uncovered the remains of a wall which had enclosed a garden around the tomb when the complex was still in use. Historians had believed up to now that unlike the Mughals in the north, the gardens that surrounded Islamic architecture in the Deccan were not enclosed by walls. The granite wall has now been restored. In the final phase of the project, a garden will be recreated around the tombs.

Mohammad made yet another finding that excited the conservation team—a passageway linking the tomb complex to Golconda Fort where the Qutb Shahi royalty and nobles resided.

“We do not yet know what the passageway was used for. But it’s possible that body for burial was brought from the Golconda Fort through the passageway,” Purohit says.

***

Towards the end of the 16th century, Golconda Fort was becoming uninhabitable because of overcrowding and pestilence. The nobles started to move and build palaces surrounded by gardens and orchards, stretching from the fort to the banks of the Musi River. A bridge was built over the Musi (now called the Purana Pul) and this allowed people to settle on its southern bank. These were the beginnings of the city of Hyderabad.

In 1580, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, fifth of the Qutb Shahis, ascended the throne.  He established Hyderabad as the centre of his administration in 1591 and thus commenced a period of rapid, planned construction. He built the iconic Charminar and the Makkah Masjid, which served as the centre of the new city. Roads, Gardens, rest houses, office buildings and hospitals followed.

The Nizams who came to power in 1724, after the collapse of the Qutb Shahis made Hyderabad their capital. Though not many Qutb Shahi buildings survive in today’s Hyderabad, their influence is present in many Nizam period buildings. When Salar Jung started his project of renovating the Qutb Shahi tombs in the 1860s, it was a turning point for Hyderabad’s identity. Though independent, the Nizams ruled in the name of the Mughal emperor. After the 1857 revolt, Hyderabad felt the need to evolve its own identity apart from the Mughal one, including in architecture. Heavily influenced by British colonial architecture, the Nizams also wanted to establish their link with the regional.

What came about was the unique style of Hyderabad—visible in buildings such as the Arts College building in Osmania University—a blend of Mughal, colonial and Qutb Shahi styles. The lasting reminder of the Qutb Shahi legacy in Hyderabad is the annual Muharram procession to the Maula Ali dargah. It was built on top of a hillock by Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah in 1578, inspired by a court eunuch who had a vision of Ali Ibn Talib, son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, on the hill. Ali is the first emir of the Shias, and Ibrahim instituted a pilgrimage from Golconda Fort to Maula Ali. Though the Mughals stopped the practice, it was continued by the Nizams who were Sunnis. During their rule, it became one of the most important religious occasions, drawing not only Shias, but Sunnis, Sufis and Hindus.

***

At the office of the Aga Khan trust inside the tomb complex, Prashant Banerjee sits in front of his computer, a black and white printout of the site’s map on the desk. The screen displays a larger map in colour. Using a blue pen, he sketches additions to the map on the table.  He is studying a stepwell to the north of the mortuary bath. In the 17th century, water went from the stepwell to the bathhouse. The bodies of the kings and the nobility were, it was believed, washed there before being taken to the tombs prepared for them. Exploring the mortuary bath, the team found the terracotta pipes which had brought the water up from the stepwell to the bath. What interests Banerjee at the moment is something visible in the photograph that does not exist at the baoli today—a large ramp at the top. Water must have been drawn from the ramp using buffaloes and then fed into the pipes.

The question before Purohit now was whether the ramp that existed in Qutb Shahi times should be restored. The photographs gave a detailed picture and digging at the baoli had given evidence of its structure and location. Purohit asked Banerjee to figure out the geometric design of the structure. Last year, Purohit had used a drone to take aerial pictures of the site. Putting the archival photos and the aerial photos side by side, Banerjee reconstructed how the ramp would look on the altered baoli. The result is the pen sketch of a ramp to the map of the baoli. This is the first step. Banerjee is creating a detailed image of the structure on the computer, trying to work out the proportions and location of the ramp. Purohit has already decided that what they have is promising enough to start working on a restoration proposal.

There are two main principles in the conservation philosophy that guides the team. The first is to document in minute detail interventions they make in the monuments. Every repair, alteration and restoration has to be photographed. In nearly three years of work on the tombs, the project has accumulated over one lakh photographs. The idea is to create a historical record of the monument at every stage of the conservation process. Any future conservationist accessing the architectural drawings would know exactly what was changed and how. They would also be able to know why. That is the second principle.

Every change goes through a decision-making process that spells out the reason for the intervention.  Every week the architectural team meets to discuss the various proposals and Purohit takes a final call. The more important changes go through a quarterly review committee which includes Nanda and officials from the archaeological department. At the final stage, an annual peer group comprising independent experts from India and abroad reviews the work. They also clear major proposals slated for the coming year. The proposal to reconstruct an entire ramp is a major civil engineering intervention and will go up before the next peer review, says Purohit. “The most exciting thing about working on the Qutb Shahi project has been how much we have learned from the site. The previous peer review had an expert on Persian architecture from Iran, who on seeing the mortuary bath recognised it as a hamaam. He said the bathhouse is too large and complex in its design to have been a mortuary bath. It has to be a public bathing house,” Purohit says.

The discovery raises more questions. What is a hamaam doing in a necropolis? “This is unique. You will not find a hamaam in a necropolis anywhere else. We have archaeological evidence of habitation at the site. We found remains of a mosque and of a sarai (rest house). The habitation could have predated the necropolis. But if it is at the same time, it could give us an answer to the use of the hamaam. The next season of archaeological work should help us uncover more,” he says.

Harsha Vadlamani is a freelance photographer based in Hyderabad. 

The cover story of the October 2016 issue of Fountain Ink.

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