World Heritage Day

Travel Heritage Nizamuddin Renewal Initiative
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture project has ensured conservation works benefit local communities around the Nizamuddin Renewal Initiative.

For over 30 years now, World Heritage Day is celebrated across the world on 18 April each year to commemorate and spread awareness on the shared built and natural heritage of mankind.

Almost a thousand sites world over are today designated, by UNESCO, as 'World Heritage Sites' of value to mankind as a whole on account of their Outstanding Universal Value. The entire list is available at

State Parties, which include most countries of the world, are encouraged to spread awareness on the value, significance, potential development potential of our shared heritage on the occasion of World Heritage Day.

India today boasts of 28 World Heritage Sites including the Taj Mahal, Jaipur Jantar Mantar, Kariranga National Park, Churches and Convents of Goa, Mountain Railways of India, amongst others. At each of these sites, the Archaeological Survey of India will celebrate, occasionally in partnership with civil society agencies, with banners, children's awareness programmes, free entry to ticketed monuments amongst other programmes.

In India, on the occasion of World Heritage Day, we need to reflect on how our heritage — built and natural — can be presented to future generations in a better condition than we inherited it in but also use this heritage in a sustainable manner for socio-economic development of the communities that inhabit their setting.

A city like Agra, boasting three World Heritage Sites — Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and the Red Fort — amongst several thousand other great monumental buildings, in any other part of the world, would have led to a high Quality of Life for its residents and a most memorable experience for visitors to the city. Instead, poor policy, lack of proper incentives for conservation, destruction of the river Yamuna and separating the development agenda from conservation of a great city, has on occasion led to people's movements displaying placards such as 'Agra Bachao, Taj Hatao'!!

Speaking in December 2011, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Hon'ble Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh acknowledged that, "Archaeology bridges the past with the present and defines our journey to the future. We ought to give the highest priority to the conservation of the amazing diversity in creative expressions and the pluralist traditions represented in our material culture". He also went on to say, "In some of the advanced countries, the preservation movement has evolved in innovative ways that are meaningful to the living communities that surround historic monuments… In India too we need to evolve a more holistic understanding of conservation that combines our preservation efforts with the social and economic needs of the community. I would urge the Ministry of Culture and the ASI to seek greater integration of preservation and conservation efforts in cities with public policies and schemes for urban renewal. Successful conservation efforts in the past have incorporated local area development through employment generation, boosting local crafts and arts, building of infrastructure, environmental conservation and landscaping".

In 1997, on the occasion of India's 50th anniversary of India's independence, His Highness the Aga Khan gifted to India the Garden Restoration of the Humayun's Tomb world heritage site. The project at its completion in 2003 marked India's first privately funded and implemented conservation project ( and similarly the first scientifically carried out garden restoration by a multi-disciplinary team.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture projects promote the conservation and re-use of buildings and public spaces in historic cities in the Muslim World. The restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures and public spaces is undertaken in ways that can spur social, economic and cultural development. Individual project briefs go beyond mere technical restoration to address the questions of the social and environmental context, adaptive re-use, institutional sustainability and training. In keeping with this philosophy, on the completion of the Humayun's Tomb garden restoration, a new project that would integrate conservation, socioeconomic development and urban and environmental development objectives in consultation with local communities and relevant stakeholders was planned.

In 2007, after over two years of discussion and negotiation with multiple government agencies the Aga Khan Trust for Culture & the Aga Khan Foundation established a new partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, Central Public Works Department and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to initiate a large Urban Renewal Project in the presently segregated three zones of Humayun's Tomb — Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti and Government Sundar Nursery. The project commenced with the dual objectives of integrating the segregated sites into a Conservation area of international Significance while ensuring that the Quality of Life for inhabitatnts of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti improved through simultaneous action in the fields of education, health, vocational training, sanitation, culture, urban improvements, waste management and conservation of the built heritage.

The Nizamuddin Renewal Initiative ( has since the signature of the MoU been able to draw in other public partners such as the Delhi Development Authority through subsequent MoU's and significant private sector/ civil society involvement through co-funding from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Ford Foundation, American & German embassies, World Monuments Fund and HUDCO amongst others.

The project has fulfilled several objectives of which the principal ones have been to return to a craft based approach to conservation, follow an urban landscape approach to conservation which emphasises the importance of the setting of the World Heritage Site as much as the importance of the structure itself and finally ensure that local communities are involved in the decision making process and are able to benefit significantly from the conservation effort.

1.    Craft Based Approach.

With three millennium of stone building traditions, Indian societies had developed traditional processes and systems for conservation that were traditionally centred around craftsmen and their families being attached to a site and being 'paid' through the revenues generated from lands attached to the site and donations to the site. These practices were dismantled with the formation of the Archaeological Survey of India by the then British Government in favour of a European system wherein Archaeologists and Engineers became responsible for India's heritage. With no understanding of traditional building crafts, this led to our great monuments being inappropriately repaired using modern materials such as cement which often accelerated the decay process, leading to the collapse of several buildings of national importance.

With building crafts now dying, future generations will be unable to carry out conservation works and inappropriate repairs have left many of our monuments in a state of neglect or even worse, a state of ruin, much favoured by the British. This in turn has led to the 'wow' factor being lost from most of our structures leading to a lack of interest amongst the public often followed by decay, encroachment and even demolition for roads and other infrastructure projects.

Several of our World Heritage Sites have suffered on this account and continue to do so. After intense dialogue with the Archaeological Survey of India, several Peer reviews with national and international experts, there was unanimity that in order to ensure long term preservation of the Humayun's Tomb World Heritage Site it had become necessary to remove inappropriate 20 th century materials and replace these with traditional materials applied with traditional tool by master craftsmen (see

2.    Urban Landscape Conservation approach

It was established at the onset of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture project that the Outstanding Universal Value of the Humayun's Tomb complex lay not only in the grandeur of Humayun's Tomb but in the fact that this was an ensemble of 16th century garden-tombs.

It was thus necessary to look not only at Humayun's Tomb but also at the Isa Khan's garden-tomb, Bu Halima's garden tomb — Afsarwala complex, Nila Gumbad garden-tomb, the Batashewal Complex and the Sunderwala complex.

After prolonged effort portions of the Nila Gumbad site have been restored to the ownership of the Archaeological Survey of India by the Railways and similarly the Batashewala complex — a 12 acre garden tomb complex — has been rescued from total destruction by Bharat Scouts and its ownership reverted to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Conservation works now being undertaken or planned as part of the project on over 50 monuments will eventually enable the Archaeological Survey of India to seek expansion of the World Heritage Site boundaries from the present 26 acres to over a 100 acres and include the other garden-tombs mentioned above.

3.    Conservation led Development

For conservation to succeed in India, it requires to become a mass movement which would be possible only if local communities and craftsmen benefit from the conservation effort. Our built heritage requires to be treated as an asset that it is rather than the burden it is often perceived to be.

Despite living in the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings anywhere in the world, many of those residing in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti had no access to even the most basic urban services — health, education and sanitation.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture project has ensured conservation works benefit local communities. Working in close collaboration with partner agencies, the project team has ensured connections between conservation and socio-economic development in a synergetic and enabling manner to create and ensure a self sustaining and improved quality of life for the indigenous community. This landmark non-profit initiative establishes both an innovative practical paradigm and a benchmark for similar projects worldwide. The project interventions focus on three core areas, Urban Improvement, Health and Education. Their common goals are hygienic and sanitary environment through sustainable ecological reformation and life style changes; accessible and improved health care for women and children; quality education and vocational training to generate income and build employment capacities in women and youth. See

Over 35000 people accessed the health facilities created in 2011 alone; the MCD primary school has seen a 300% increase in enrolment, new toilet blocks have been built as over 20% of the local population had no access to private toilets and millions of pilgrims visit here annually. When it was discovered that under 2% of the local population visited parks, the open spaces in the basti were sensitively landscaped for community use.

Finally, there is even an World Heritage List for intangible heritage and it is proposed to include the famous Quwwali traditions on the list. Quwwali was created by Hazrat Amir Khusrau here in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti and the project celebrates 700 years of living culture by working with the Quwwals from India and Pakistan to document, disseminate and build awareness on the contribution of Hazrat Amir Khusrau to Hindustani culture.

Happy World Heritage Day, 2012.

Ratish Nanda is the Project Director for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India.