Zameer Basrai was a SMArchS student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 2007-2009. The following are excerpts from an academic project addressing landscape heritage conservation titled ‘Recentering Nizamuddin: Exploring Conservation through Ephemeral Intervention’. The project was hosted jointly by MIT and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Delhi.

Project supervisors: Prof. James Wescoat (Jr.), MIT and Ratish Nanda, AKTC

Re-Centering Nizamuddin: Conservation through Ephemeral Intervention

Where is the Nizamuddin Dargah?

First impressions

Landscape heritage conservation is a complex practice. It is primarily ecological and so involves understanding a context composed of diverse influences, players and practices. The AKTC, Delhi has taken on a project for the conservation of the Nizamuddin village, the Humayun’s Tomb and surrounding precincts. For practical ease, the AKTC has divided the project into three inter-related parts – the Humayun’s Tomb and garden as the World Heritage Site, the Sundar Nursery as a project in landscape conservation and open park development, and the Nizamuddin village framed as a socio-economic problem. We were asked to propose strategic or tactical solutions to conserve (in the fullest sense of the word) this heritage landscape. But our first impressions of the site were scattered and all we found were fragments and indicators of a larger landscape. This larger landscape had a number of layers: built heritage, landscape heritage, public space networks, a conglomeration of different socio-economic groups, intangible heritage deeply entrenched in community life and looming pressures of economic and infrastructure development. For this project, built heritage became a central concern. But what was this landscape of built heritage?

Fragments of a larger landscape

The landscape was truly revealed for its entire splendor in an albumen print captured by Bourne in c. 1880 from atop the Humayun’s Tomb; an intense proliferation of medieval Islamic tombs covered the landscape in every direction. This was an expanse of funerary buildings that was today only visible in fragments. Post-partition development in the area, of refugee and high-end housing colonies, new roads, institutional boundaries, unused open spaces, socially inaccessible isolated pockets, ruined remains and the uneven development of an informal sector had obscured any opportunity to experience this landscape today.

A view of the site area in relation to the Yamuna river

Sufis and the City

How did this funerary landscape come about? To unravel the history and significance of the landscape at Nizamuddin, a conventional set of historical maps of the development of Delhi were prepared. More specifically the maps indicated the development of the several historic cities that comprise Delhi today in relation to the various historic spiritual centers (Sufi Shrines) in and around these cities. The significance of the Nizamuddin village area as a funerary zone prevails throughout the development of pre-Mughal and Mughal Delhi with the establishment of the cities of Siri, Tughlaqabad, Firozabad and later Shahjahanabad. The relationships between these cities and the symbolic spiritual centers make interesting anecdotes. The Delhi sultan, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, in the 14th century constructed and renovated shrines of several Sufi saints of Delhi including that of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (buried in Nizamuddin village). He also built fortified village walls around the village settlements surrounding these shrines along with infrastructural enhancements of waterworks, pilgrim travel, stay and worship. On entering Delhi after his conquest of the city, Babur the famous Mughal, visited the 14th century shrine of Nizamuddin first, then the 12th century shrine of the famous Chisti Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli followed by the tombs of the Delhi sultans. The act of visiting a spiritual place to gain blessings continues to this day. By the end of the 17th century, the Nizamuddin area is already a large graveyard, with the tombs of famous Sufi saints, poets, sultanate and Mughal patrons that have chosen to be buried there. Being buried close to a spiritual source was also a way of gaining blessings from the place for the afterlife. The shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is one of the most important Sufi spiritual centers in the country and arguably the most important in Delhi. The landscape of tombs has developed over centuries with the shrine at its centre as the most sought-after place of blessing-burial for the dead.

12th Century: Sufis and the City

13th Century: Sufis and the City

14th Century: Sufis and the City

15-17th Century: Sufis and the City

Landscape Heritage Conservation

The question of restoration or conservation is a simpler one when asked with respect to a monument. Its historic or cultural value can be ascertained or asserted based on objective analysis. Landscape heritage conservation, in this respect, becomes highly complex raising questions of ecology, precinct and intangible heritage. Furthermore, its scope enlarges to consider the context of a ‘living’ city. It brings into its fold a larger user group (larger than the tourist) and a landscape that is often contested as heritage.

The funerary landscape emanating from Nizamuddin, now consumed by the city, offers a significant opportunity for understanding and eventually deploying ideas regarding landscape heritage conservation. Our visit to the site area confirmed the extents of its fragmentation due to the myriad boundary and threshold conditions. The macro order that was so apparent in plan was completely notional or even absent as a pedestrian experience. It became imperative, as part of a proposal for the landscape heritage conservation project, to map these discontinuities formed by the different boundary conditions.

The ‘boundaries’ are simply experiential, based on physical changes in form, type, space and organization. Each transition is marked with a boundary line. Boundaries, for the analysis, were divided into categories based on physical and visual accessibility, definition and scale. These boundaries were juxtaposed against a map of the various tombs in the area emanating out of the Nizamuddin shrine. This provided a more detailed account of the present physical condition of the site.

Mapping boundaries

Boundaries and Tombs

Re-Centering Nizamuddin: Conservation through Ephemeral Intervention

The tombs become a way of structuring the experience of the heritage landscape. As points of reference in a larger landscape they are capable of raising questions of their own existence and alluding to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The exercise is then to look closely for potential in these spaces and connections between them to temporarily access this landscape as a whole without requiring re-structuring of space permanently. The idea of using ephemeral interventions (in the form of access-ways, ramps, staircases, programmatic inserts, installations) at the tomb sites and at the boundaries then implies various events of looking over, moving across, ascending, descending, using, subverting and exploring the landscape in spite of the boundaries and fragmentation in the area. The site is stitched together temporarily by these interventions so as to re-experience a heritage landscape in its historic splendor without expecting permanent adjustments in the fabric of the ‘living’ city.

The conservation proposal involved the creation of ‘changing heritage walks’ that are temporally stimulated by the presence of the interventions in the area. The location and type of intervention at either tomb or boundary implies a number of possible ways of experiencing this larger landscape. The Humayun’s tomb is the established monument and now a World Heritage Monument, its significance has remained from the time of the Mughals through the British colonial phase. Its status was only temporarily challenged during the partition when refugees occupied it. As a result, the proposed heritage walks begin at the Humayun’s tomb and end at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The act of leaving the Humayun’s tomb complex at an off-axis, obscure location, then walking across various boundaries to some other tomb sites and finally arriving at the shrine works in a performative way to re-center the shrine and to understand the logic of this landscape that ‘it has created’.

Heritage Walk 1

Heritage Walk 2

Heritage Walk 3

Some impressions of possible interventions


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