New Delhi’s marooned mausoleum finds the light!

You know that there is an architecture and heritage loving God up there when some proposals do not pan out. For the 2010 New Delhi Commonwea...

You know that there is an architecture and heritage loving God up there when some proposals do not pan out. For the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games, a committee proposed in 2006 that a Rs 560 crore tunnel connecting Nizamuddin bridge to Neeli Gumbad (Lodhi Road) be constructed to funnel traffic into the city from NH24. Luckily that philistine plan (conceived by engineers and bureaucrats with no affinity for old structures) fizzled out.

Had that been allowed to happen, it would have marked yet another dismal chapter in the chequered history of Sabz Burj—often mistakenly called Neeli Chhatri—the much-abused 16th Century mausoleum now marooned on a busy traffic roundabout. For then this last resting place of some unremembered medieval notable would have been condemned to eternal strangulation by the concrete-barricaded carriageways of 21st Century traffic.

Of course, for most of the 20th Century and the first 15 years of the 21st, increasing numbers of vehicles had been doing parikramas of the cement-caked tomb with a dome belatedly clad in tiles in an odd shade of purplish-blue (not unlike those in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi), scarcely sparing it even a pitying glance. After extensive and thoughtful restoration, however, the Sabz Burj has made a triumphant leap into the Instagram era in 2021.

Sabz Burj has been the most well-kept secret in the entire medieval monument-studded zone around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb. Image courtesy: AKTC

Whereas once traffic routinely zipped past the tomb enclosed behind an iron fence, today scarcely a vehicle passes without a phone being whipped out to capture it, especially at night. Some of them must be wondering how it had hidden in plain sight for so long. And well they should, for Sabz Burj has been the most well-kept secret in the entire medieval monument-studded zone around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) which has been spearheading the restoration of the countless medieval era structures in the Nizamuddin area under the indefatigable leadership of Ratish Nanda, got quite used to being gobsmacked by the forgotten marvels that their careful conservation protocols unearthed. Each project had its share of amazing revelations but what they found in Sabz Burj outdid the rest, because it was so utterly unexpected.

As monuments go, Sabz Burj looked modest: octagonal, compact and well below the tree line. Moreover, in living memory at least, its plastered walls were plain, its dome and supporting drum bore only vestiges of the coloured tiles that were once arranged in geometric patterns, and there was no grave. No wonder a little over a century ago the British thought nothing of converting it into a kotwali (police station) for Nizamuddin, adding to its debasement.

Decades later, the kotwali was gone and the tomb left to gently decay due to desuetude. But what followed was worse. A badly conceived and thoughtlessly executed ‘restoration’ entailed removing what was left of the original tiles and replacing them with modern ones of a different genre and affixing them with cement instead of the traditional lime mortar. This led to more dampness through the dome and hastened the decay of its internal surface.

Providentially, Unesco regulations regarding World Heritage sites finally led to initiatives by the authorities to undo all the harm that had been done, even if inadvertently. That led to AKTC turning its restoration skills to this seemingly minor building among all those it was already working on in the Humayun’s Tomb area. Roping in the electricals company Havells was a natural progression as it has collaborated with the Tatas and InterGlobe earlier.

Serendipitously—a divine hand can really not be ruled out either!—the effort to deal with the water damage led to the discovery of a wondrously painted surface on the inside of the dome that looked like a grand Persian carpet. Despite centuries of damage and neglect, rich reds, ochres and greens painted in intricate floral patterns and highlighted in pure gold were revealed, standing out against a deep blue base made with powdered lapis lazuli.

That the relatively small Sabz Burj would contain such stunning examples of medieval artistry was totally unexpected. Image courtesy: AKTC

Sadly, the depredations of the past have literally left their mark on what otherwise would surely have been a ceiling reminiscent of the painted interiors of the blue-tile domed Kok Gumbad and Dorut Tilavat in Shahr-i-Sabz in Uzbekistan, built by Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg in the 15th Century. Standing below, looking upward it is still difficult to discern the Sabz Burj’s ceiling’s splendour although AKTC’s experts have done their level best to cleanse it.

But thanks to phone cameras—and some thoughtfully mounted illustrative panels outside the tomb—it is possible to ‘see’ the lines and swirls and discern the gleam of jewel colours dimmed by time and carelessness. That our medieval Indian Michelangelos lay on their backs for years painting this ceiling not long after the Renaissance maestro did the same in Rome’s Sistine Chapel immediately comes to mind. Only Sabz Burj has been a hidden jewel. Till now.

Not only is the structure perfectly proportioned—just like the also-octagonal Humayun’s Tomb that came up later—but even the characteristic incised plaster work on the exterior sides is different from other contemporary structures as each side has a distinct design. It is almost as if the architects and artisans had fun doing up the building, making it a tabula rasa to showcase their creativity rather than merely sticking to the usual rules of symmetry.

There is an incredibly contemporary vibe to the red, black and white incised plaster motifs that somehow survived centuries of neglect and misguided repair. They are evidence of an unusual free-flow of medieval design sensibilities when it comes to embellishment. The motifs are complex and beautifully executed; luckily, now they have been equally meticulously researched, restored and also replicated wherever the originals have disappeared.

In fact, the motifs on one particular section of this 16th Century building bear such an uncanny resemblance to the signature four-petalled flower motif on the Monogram logo of Louis Vuitton, and to a lesser extent to Van Cleef & Arpels’ range of Alhambra jewellery, that a case could well be made for their trademarks to be re-examined! Their resemblance to traditional Ajrak block printing in terms of colour palettes and actual shapes is also striking.

Coco Chanel famously linked architecture and fashion with the comment, “La mode c’est de l’architecture, c’est une question de proportions.” (Fashion is architecture; it is a question of proportions.) Had she seen the designs on Sabz Burj, she would have surely also endorsed the universality and timelessness of form that such medieval motifs stand testimony to. So much so that confining them to a modern brand or even an era seems presumptuous.

Like their western counterparts, several top Indian fashion designers have turned to architecture for inspiration. The Taj Mahal and other grander edifices may be the usual choices, especially as such monuments have high buyer recall but now it is clear that Sabz Burj has plenty to inspire as well, albeit packed into an astonishingly small package. A tour of this bijou structure should be a must-do for all desi designers—textile, jewellery, fashion et al—this winter.

Unfortunately, very little of what was on the interior walls survive except for that magnificent ceiling. But the brilliance of what is left on key sections of the exterior walls indicate that the niches and arches of the interiors must have been intricately embellished too. There are even faint traces of inscriptions and remnants of motifs. Sadly, they are too small and fragmented for AKTC’s restorers to attempt even partial re-creations of sections.

That the relatively small Sabz Burj would contain such stunning examples of medieval artistry was totally unexpected. But they all point to the probability that it was built for a person who was not only important at that time (given its placement in the prized area next to the dargah of Delhi’s most revered Sufi, Nizamuddin Auliya) but also someone with a keen appreciation of aesthetics—or someone with a spouse or benefactor with such qualities.

The motifs on one particular section of this 16th Century building bear an uncanny resemblance to the signature four-petalled flower motif on the Monogram logo of Louis Vuitton. Image courtesy: AKTC

As the grave is long gone, and along with it so has all evidence of who was laid to rest there, the name Sabz Burj is a deliciously tempting clue. Naming a building with a predominantly blue dome ‘sabz’ or green seems incongruous. Unless the name has nothing to do with colour but a place, that too one with a Timurid (Central Asian) link given that the structure is estimated to date back to the 16th Century, most probably after Babur’s conquest of India.

As mentioned earlier, the glorious deep blue painted interior of Sabz Burj’s dome is curiously reminiscent of its counterpart inside Uzbekistan’s Kok Gumbad and Dorut Tilavat, though the tiled exteriors of the Indian and Uzbek domes are in very different shades of blue despite being made using the same technique. The Uzbek buildings also have different designs painted on each of their walls like Sabz Burj, albeit not in the red-black-and-white combo.

Add to these similarities in the generous use of geometric tiled patterns on the Uzbek buildings and their echo on the drum of Sabz Burj, and it seems too much of a coincidence. More so as the word Sabz is also part of the name of the Uzbek town where the older buildings are located: Shahr-i-Sabz. Could the once-ornate little tomb be the resting place of a Timurid noble from Sabz whose family (or he himself) wanted to retain a link with their ancestral home?

Someday another lucky discovery—maybe even in some unexpected corner of this World Heritage Site—could finally shed light on whom the decidedly blue Sabz Burj was built for and why. For that we may once again have to probably depend on the benevolence of same divine force that saved this little jewel from a slow suffocation by a modern roadway back in 2006. Meanwhile everyone can at least marvel at what has been revealed so far.

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India World News: New Delhi’s marooned mausoleum finds the light!
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