Nov 1,2012

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is restoring this unusually structured tomb in Nizamuddin Basti, dome by dome.

Tucked in the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti, a seventeenth-century monument — Chaunsath Khambha — is in the process of regaining its lost glory.

Under the careful ministrations of a group of engineers, architects and craftsmen, this unusually structured tomb is gradually ridding itself of its many “wounds” sustained in the course of four centuries.

Built around 1623-24 AD, the building houses the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash — son of Shamshuddin Atagh Khan, Prime Minister of Emperor Akbar. Mirza Aziz Kokaltash was also the governor of Gujarat, during the reign of Jahangir.

“Since it is considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s grave, seven centuries of tomb building in the vicinity of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah have made this area the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in India,” Ratish Nanda, Project Director, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), said.

The trust is carrying out the restoration at Chaunsath Khambha, which is being co-funded by the Embassy of Germany, following an agreement between the two in 2011.

With 64 pillars supporting 25 domes, the monument has been constructed entirely in marble. Conservation experts said the building plan may have been inspired by that of Iranian garden pavilions such as Chihil Sutun (Hall of 40 Pillars), which also influenced the design of Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas at the Red Fort.

Conservation experts involved in the project said the monument had suffered severe damages because of excessive water seepage.

The funding of the project is a precursor to the Indo-German Mela, which is being held across the country this year.

In 2009, a team of AKTC’s conservation architects did a condition assessment study here, which revealed that the building needed complicated conservation to prevent the collapse of certain sections. Each stone was documented in the process using a 3D laser scanning technology introduced to India as part of this project.

Experts said an intensive craft-based approach was being adopted for conservation of the site. Each of the 25 domes is being dismantled and the stones are being repaired by craftsmen using techniques and tools used during the construction of the monument in the seventeenth century. “Once, the stones are repaired, the domes will be reset, ” one of the engineers working on the project said.

“The first dome alone required eight months of work as we were trying to develop the most appropriate conservation method as there is a risk that the structure could collapse,” Rajpal Singh, chief engineer, AKTC, said.

“The pieces of marble in the structure had been held together using iron dowels. So the water seepage led to rusting, corrosion and expansion of the iron dowels. The monument was further damaged due to the “patch work” carried out some time ago — white cement was used to cover areas where the stone had broken off because of the pressure exerted by the iron dowels,” he said.

Elaborating on the work, Neetipal Brar, Project Conservation Architect, AKTC, said, “Once the first dome was fixed, it was important to ensure that no further damage occurred due to rainwater penetration. So the entire roof was relaid using traditional materials. All iron dowels are being replaced with non-corrosive stainless-steel ones.”

Craftsmen selected for the renovation work were given a year’s intensive training. They were then divided into three groups and are currently working simultaneously on three domes. These master craftsmen will take at least six years to complete the restoration work, Brar said.

K K Muhammed, former Chief Superintending Archaeologist of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) (Delhi Circle), said the work at the site has been quite challenging. “When the initial plan was put in front of me, I had expressed my reservations about the feasibility of the project.”

AKTC — along with the ASI and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi — has been working on a major urban renewal project in the Nizamuddin area since 2007.

By linking conservation with socio-economic development, the project includes sanitation, health, education and vocational training initiatives.

As part of the urban conservation effort, urban housing improvement programmes are also being implemented in the area.

The pillars of history

Dating back to 1623-24 AD, Chaunsath Khambha is the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, son of Shamshuddin Atagh Khan, the Prime Minister of Mughal Emperor Akbar and Ji Ji Anagh, the emperor’s nurse.

The monument derives its name from the 64 pillars which support the building’s roof. The 64 pillars divide the building internally into 25 bays — each bay surmounted with a dome. However, the tomb, when viewed from the outside, appears flat-roofed.

Located behind Mirza Ghalib’s tomb, it contains graves of Kokaltash and his wife which carry Quranic inscriptions.

While the other graves present in the building are uninscribed, they are believed to belong to the members of the Kokaltash family.

Mirza Aziz served as Jahangir’s governor of Gujarat and built Chaunsath Khambha, his own mausoleum, during his lifetime.

He died in Gujarat and was temporarily buried at Sarkhej, Gujarat. His remains were shifted to this site.

Catherine Asher, a specialist in Islamic and Indian art from 1200 to the present, has written about Chaunsath Khambha. “This tomb, perhaps more than any other surviving example of late Jahangir-period architecture, serves as a transition to the style associated with Shahjahan’s period.”


Apr 21,2011

The Nizamuddin Basti, the centre of Hindustani culture for centuries, will soon come alive with qawwali performances in its authentic settings. In an effort to revive qawwali traditions and bring alive its roots in the Nizammudin Basti, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) is documenting and archiving qawwali traditions, and now also handpicking children from traditional qawwal families to train them to carry the tradition forward.

While preserving the dying qawwali tradition, the Trust hopes to simultaneously create spaces in the Nizamuddin Basti, like the Chaunsath Khamba, the Central Park opposite the MCD school and the Dargah, where regular performances can take place. As part of a cultural revival initiative called the ‘Aalam-e-Khusrau’, co-funded by the Ford Foundation, the Trust is facilitating public performances, discussions, research, archiving and documenting, research fellowships, scholarship programmes and multimedia exhibitions on Khusrau.

Since its beginning in the 13th-14th Century by the Sufi Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Ghiyaspur, qawwali is said to have been adapted in many situations and variations, but all of them display the distinct musical style and structure of the present-day qawwali. Amir Khusrau, the most beloved disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, supposedly created this style of music as a form of veneration.

Scholars, however, say the tradition is now dying out. Children in qawwal families are found to carry the tradition forward, but without any formal knowledge of music. To train them, AKTC is now in the process of hand-picking children from these families from the Nizamuddin Basti, Chitli Qabar in Old Delhi and Fatehpur Sikri. They will be sent to maestros in classical music for formal training.

Last year, the ‘Jashn-e-Khusrau’ programme included khanaqahi qawwali performances, poetry-reading, lectures and discussions on qawwali and Amir Khusrau, exhibitions depicting the world of Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin and the Basti area urban renewal projects, as well as heritage walks through the settlement of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti.

A similar programme is being planned for 2012, when a travelling exhibition-cum-workshop will also travel to UP, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Jammu-Kashmir, where the AKTC is documenting and archiving the existing qawwali traditions.

The AKTC has also put forth a suggestion to the Ministry of Culture to set up an Amir Khusrau Resource Centre that can house books, manuscripts, illustrations, recordings and artifacts pertaining to Khusrau’s legacy.

The AKTC has proposed that the centre be located in the Nizamuddin area, while regular events can be organised at central locations like the India International Centre and monuments such as Chaunsath Khamba that will create an interface between performers and scholars to ensure that Khusrau’s legacy is carried on.

“Qawwali traditions initiated by Hazrat Amir Khusrau here in the Nizamuddin area in the 14th Century are as much our contribution to the world’s heritage as Humayun’s Tomb. Hopefully this programme will lead to the revival of the pure art and generate greater interest amongst the younger generation while giving the qawwals new performance venues and greater recognition,” Ratish Nanda, project director, AKTC, told Newsline.

“Nizamuddin Basti has been the cradle of Hindustani culture for 700 years and we hope to revive it through these programmes.”

Oct 19,2010

TORONTO— The Aga Khan Museum, scheduled to open in 2013, is the centerpiece in a new $300-million complex set within a landscaped park based on Islamic design principles and that will also include a new Ismaili Center. The museum will showcase treasures from the Aga Khan’s collection of outstanding works of art drawn from all over the Islamic world, while the Ismaili Center will provide a social, educational, and religious focal point for Toronto’s 30,000-strong Ismaili community.

In a foundation ceremony attended by almost 1,000 people, the Aga Khan was joined by Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, who granted honorary Canadian citizenship to him. The event also marked the unveiling of the design and layout of the new museum complex, which will be built on a seven-hectare site in the Don Mills area of Toronto. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader to 15 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide, has repeatedly affirmed his belief that art and culture should serve as platforms of understanding between cultures.

Designed by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, the museum will include a large permanent gallery housing works of art from the collection acquired over the years by the Aga Khan and his family, as well as extensive exhibition spaces to accommodate temporary shows, a 350-seat auditorium, a reference library, multimedia center, classrooms, and workshop spaces. It will have a defined educational vocation, covering different periods and geographic areas of the Muslim world, with a focus on their preservation and display, alongside further collecting and research.

The construction of the museum in North America represents a blow for London, which lost out to Paris 30 years ago in the race to be the venue for what is now l’Institut du Monde Arabe. The British capital has now missed the boat again, despite being the frontrunner in the early years of the project, which started life over a decade ago. The choice of Canada generally, and Toronto specifically, as the location for the new museum has raised some eyebrows, something the Aga Khan was eager to address in his foundation ceremony speech. Citing the context of “Canada’s pluralism… and historic welcome to displaced Ismailis in the 1970s and later,” he drew particular attention to the values he believes that Ismailis share with Canadians. Perhaps equally pertinent is Toronto’s location: 50 million potential museum visitors live within a two-hour journey of the city, which is North America’s fifth largest.

Members of the Aga Khan’s family have long been recognized as important collectors of Islamic art, none more so than the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. On permanent display in the new museum will be a replica of the Bellerive room in Prince Sadruddin’s home in Geneva, as well as up to 200 flagship pieces from the collection. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture‘s director-general, Luis Monreal, explained that while the acquisition of works of art for the museum collection will continue, there would not be an unbridled shopping spree as undertaken in recent years by some museums in the Middle East. Pending construction of the new museum, objects from the collection will continue to be featured in a series of traveling exhibitions, with the next show scheduled to open in Istanbul’s Sakip Sabanci Museum in October.

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