Restoring The Mausoleum That Helped Inspire The Taj Mahal : Parallels An imposing 16th century stone tomb for the Mogul emperor Humayun has been restored after six years of work. The mausoleum, which had fallen into disrepair, became India's most ambitious heritage conservation project.
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Restoring The Mausoleum That Helped Inspire The Taj Mahal

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Restoring The Mausoleum That Helped Inspire The Taj Mahal

Restoring The Mausoleum That Helped Inspire The Taj Mahal

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Bangladesh's neighbor, India, is also a major manufacturer and home to skilled artisans. Hundreds of years ago, India's Moghul rulers put that talent to work, building some of the world's greatest architectural treasures. Many of the palaces and tombs survive to this day but suffer from neglect and vandalism. One treasure that's been rescued is the imposing 16th century mausoleum of Moghul emperor Humayan. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi on the painstaking restoration of the monument believed to be have inspired the Taj Mahal.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: In the lengthening shadows of the Moghul emperor's monument, a hushed crowd settles in.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Musicians perform qawwali, the ancient music of Sufi saints. It is the unveiling of Humayan's refurbished Tomb, a symbol of Delhi's glorious architectural past. Once creeping with vines and crime, the Muslim Emperor's mausoleum, a World Heritage Site, is now lavishly restored. Acres of surrounding nurseries are being renovated to make a green space that would rival New York's Central Park. All thanks to the Aga Khan, a man so wealthy that the cost of the project - not disclosed - seems irrelevant. At the opening, he spoke of the unique nature of the mausoleum.

AGA KHAN: As you may know, this Mughal monument, which dates back to 1570, was the first garden tomb complex on the Indian subcontinent. It inspired major architectural innovations culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal.

MCCARTHY: The Agha Khan Trust for Culture revitalizes Muslim communities around the world: Cairo's mosques, Zanzibar's stone city, and Kabul's historic Gardens of Babur - Humayan's father who founded the Moghul dynasty. Restoring Humayan's tomb is the most ambitious heritage conservation undertaken in India.


MCCARTHY: An army of stonecutters, masons, plasterers, carpenters and architects have all toiled the past six years to refurbish the tomb of Humayan. Exiled to Persia, the Moghul king returned to India only briefly to rule before he died. His son, the mightiest Moghul, Akbar the Great, built the red sandstone memorial which looms above a manicured green expanse of walled gardens and whispering waterways. The foundation of the mausoleum is so sturdy that restorers say it has not shifted since the tomb was built nearly 500 years ago. Architect and restoration project director Ratish Nanda guides our tour.

RATISH NANDA: It's beautifully built. Structural stability was fantastic. There was very little of our work that was to restore structural stability. Most of our work was to restore the architectural details, the architectural integrity of the site.

MCCARTHY: Some 700 craftsmen followed only the most rigorous rules of restoration. Master craftsmen from as far away as Uzbekistan have painstakingly recreated the original decorative patterns and tiles. They in turn trained local youth from the nearby neighborhood of Nizmuddin who could carry on the skills. Nanda says most of the cost of the restoration went into craftsmen's wages and nothing was rushed.

NANDA: So, over here what we've done is employed the craftsmen, we've not told them, OK, you have to produce this much square feet of stone in so many days. We've said this is the original - match it. But the idea is to restore the confidence in the craftsmen that the important thing is not to do work quickly but to match the work of the forefathers.

MCCARTHY: The tomb known as the Dormitory of the Moghuls sprawls over two acres and is. The remains of some 160 royal family members, including five Moghul emperors, are buried in its chambers. Standing before a marble cenotaph memorializing Humayan, Agha Khan Trust for Culture General Manager Louis Monreil says the monument represents a kind of globalization of the world at that time.

LOUIS MONREIL: And in the 16th century. And you find here a number of elements, formal elements that come from Central Asia, from Iran, elements which are inspired in the Muslim faith. You see the stars that decorate the facade of this building.

MCCARTHY: Stars and geometric motifs proliferate because Islam prohibits the image of living beings on its buildings. There is very little ornamentation on Humayan's tomb. It's as if the building itself is the ornament. Much of the work by the Agha Khan Trust involved undoing damage caused by earlier restorations in the 20th century. Workers removed a thousand tons of concrete from the roof alone, using hand tools to minimize vibrations. Nanda says much of the plinth or platform on which the building sits was restored by copying a drawing from the 1880s, depicting the entire pattern of stone.

NANDA: So, we were able to judge what has changed since the 1880s and how to put the stone pattern back. And, you know, if you look at the building, the stone pattern is very critical. It's very precise. It was all part of the original intention to have this precision. For us, what's important is the original Moghul builders' design intention, and where we have not had it - and there are instances - we have not done anything.

MCCARTHY: The restorers got the stone for a song when the city ripped up Delhi's streets to lay concrete for the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

NANDA: Because this stone you cannot quarry anymore. So, we were very fortunate that we were able to get these 70 truckloads of stone at throwaway prices before they got wise, and use it on this plinth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: The residents of Nizmuddin and the young men who trained as craftsmen to preserve India's patrimony live in the shadow of their forbearers' cultural glory, often in ramshackle conditions. But the Agha Khan Trust determined that if its project was to succeed, it had to be an economic asset to the community and so it brought in toilets and health care facilities and jobs. The Trust's Louis Monreil says conservation is no longer just much about restoring buildings. It's about uplifting the lives of those who live around them. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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