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Posts Tagged ‘Humayun’s Tomb’

As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

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and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””

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Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

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and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:

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But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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Decadence is defined as

moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.

In terms of Mughal design, Safdarjung’s Tomb in Delhi is a fine example of decadence. It follows in the pattern of the great garden tombs, which began with the sandstone mausoleum and geometric garden of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, laid out by his widow around 1564.

An aerial view of Humayan's Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

An aerial view of Humayan’s Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

The tradition reached its undoubted peak with Agra’s supremely elegant Taj Mahal, created in marble amidst park-like surroundings in the 1630s for the wife of fifth emperor Shahjehan. Both Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal today are World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj represents the artistic pinnacle of the Mughal empire, created at the height of its cultural and political power. Just over a century later, Safdarjung’s Tomb was the last Mughal building to be created in Delhi, and the last of the Mughal garden tombs. It is the mausoleum of the prime minister to the fifteenth emperor, created as his empire disintegrated. According to some accounts, Safdarjung himself played a part in the the downfall of the Mughals.

The entrance gateway to the site.

The entrance gateway to Safdarjung’s Tomb.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Safdarjung’s Tomb is a strangely appropriate monument. It sums up in stone the decline of the once-great empire. The mausoleum and its Mughal gardens are clearly modelled on Humayun’s. But the proportions of the main building feel strange, with an over-sized dome and chunky corner-towers, and the decorative marble elements are ostentatious, lacking all the elegance of the Taj Mahal’s exquisite inlaid stone work. The garden’s four water courses, one leading from each side of the tomb, also have a rather clunky, overly-literal feel. It is as if the architect was trying too hard to show off the main features of the design, without understanding the subtleties and balance require to create a great building.

One of the showy marble panels (left).

One of the showy marble panels (left).

View of the mausoleum.

The strangely scaled vertical elevations of the mausoleum.

Despite its central Delhi location, Safdarjung’s Tomb is today little-visited. The garden has that typical combination of lawn and little clipped shrubs that bears no relation to the orchards and scented flowers that were once essential features of a Mughal garden. Much of the stonework is rather shabby, some of the pathways are uneven and overgrown, and all the water channels have long been empty. But it undoubtedly remains important as a late, decadent example of Mughal funerary design.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site's library.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site’s library.

One of the derelict water channels.

One of the derelict water channels.

Sandstone slabs.

Sandstone slabs, stacked among weeds in the garden.

This week the Archaeological Survey of India (the Government agency that maintains the tomb) has announced plans to restore the fountains and water channel at the entrance to the site. The original Mughal drainage system has been unearthed and apparently the water should soon be flowing again. Similar work may be possible in the other three channels. It is hardly full restoration but, in a country keen to look forward, and where heritage is often viewed as an unnecessary relic of an irrelevant past, it is still encouraging to see state intervention such as this for a great example of decadent Mughal design.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

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... or why we should(n’t) put the nose back on the Sphinx.

The merits -  or otherwise – of historical conservation was the subject of a splendid debate last week at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Delhi.

In one corner was Sam Miller, BBC man and author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, who argued in favour of a gentle sort of conservation that quietly shored up picturesque ruins, preserved only what was genuinely historical without replacing lost elements or incorporating new additions, and that paid full regard to the importance of personal memory and nostalgia. In a sentence, his position was perhaps that old places should feel old.

In the other corner was Ratish Nanda, project director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who contended that the original intent of the creator was the most important factor in preservation, and that on occasion it was appropriate to use traditional skills and materials to restore a site to its original state. In other words, old places could be best served by becoming new again.

The recently restored Humayun’s Tomb.

The main example both men discussed was the area around Humayun’s Tomb, a sixteenth century world heritage site in Delhi, where Ratish Nanda has been leading a major programme of conservation. His work has been criticised for ‘too much use of the paint pot,’ with formerly crumbling Mughal buildings becoming suddenly dazzling white and red. He showed us a number photos to illustrate the work he has been doing (drawing some gasps of horror from the journalists in the audience):

One of the buildings in the Tomb complex before restoration (left) and after.
Image from the project website.

It was easy to sympathise with those who chorused the restored buildings looked too bright, too new, too like images (as Sam Miller said) on a chocolate box lid.

An archway before restoration…

…and afterwards. Both images from the project website.

But Ratish Nanda explained that years of substandard restoration work to the buildings – often using cement – had led to waterlogging, structural cracks, and corrosion. After extensive research, his team had removed the ill-advised materials, and uncovered and repaired many original features. Nowhere had been painted – the bright whites and reds were coloured plaster which exactly replicated how the Mughals themselves had first decorated the buildings. After two or three monsoons, the colours would soften and start to look more mellow and appropriate. But Ratish had resisted calls for the plaster to be made ‘biscuit’ coloured from day one, as white and red was the authentic scheme.

Sam Miller maintained his position that such extensive restoration was a kind of fakery. At the very least he argued that any new materials or repairs should be clearly marked, so that people knew what was original and what was contemporary work. Ratish Nanda agreed that, in some cases, simply preserving what was left would be the best option. But so much of Humayun’s Tomb had survived the centuries, and it was so significant a site and so well-documented, that full restoration in this case, he argued, was the most appropriate action.

After all this discussion and dispute on Humayun’s Tomb, the two men did agree on one thing: neither of them would put the nose back on the Sphinx.

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In our first few weeks in India, we have seen several examples of ancient Hindu or Mughal architecture surrounded by gardens that turn out to be partly or largely twentieth century British. I’ve already posted about the controversial gardens at Lodi, from where two villages were relocated in the 1930s to allow an English-style park to be installed.

Next up, the sixteenth century Humayun’s Tomb, one of the most beautiful and significant sites in Delhi, and an inspiration for the Taj Mahal. Arranged symmetrically around the elevated marble tomb, its grounds retain the four-square layout of the traditional paradise garden. But the sandstone of the rills and many of the planting choices, although recently restored, apparently owe much to a British intervention in the first decade of the twentieth century, itself intended to correct an earlier British project that had replaced Mughal water features with Victorian circular flower beds.

The red and white marble of Humayun's garden tomb, with the sandstone rills and planting added later by the British

An aerial photograph of Humayun's Tomb, showing the grid layout of the gardens. Image on display at the site.

At the Agra Fort, a World Heritage Site 200km south of Delhi, we learnt that the lawns and planting around and within the stronghold (which was constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) were again put in place by the Brits, establishing grass and shrubs where formerly had been paved and carpeted gathering spaces.

British shrubs and grass at the Agra Fort

Twentieth century lawn inserted among seventeenth century buildings at the Agra Fort

The Taj Mahal was also influenced by its time under British management. While the exact layout and planting of its original gardens in the seventeenth century are not known, there are early descriptions of the monument surrounded by a profusion of roses, daffodils and fruit trees. As part of a major conservation programme, the gardens were replanted in 1903 in a more Western style, with lawns and clumps of trees.

Irregular clumps of trees and lawn adjacent to the Taj Mahal

English-style grass long established in the grounds of the Taj Mahal

All these horticultural and design changes were part of well-meaning efforts to restore or enhance crumbling historic sites. Some would now argue that much of this work was inappropriate, examples of misguided attempts at restoration by people who did not understand the culture of the country or the history of its landscapes. (It makes me wonder which conservation projects of today will in future years be seen as ill-judged or unwise, introducing incongruous elements or removing historically significant features.)

Yet gardens are always going to change over time. For me, one of their joys is the layers of history that they contain, with designs and planting from different periods jostling and intermingling around the largely static architecture. The British are just one of many influences on Indian landscapes, and there is a certain pleasure in seeing their (our) brief, particular impact.

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