Attempts to politicize heritage sites — first the Taj Mahal and now Humayun’s tomb — for narrow ends continually undermine the huge cultural economic value of heritage for the country… This article was published in the Hindu Business Line B Link – http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/know/politicising-heritage-sites/article9971654.ece
Barely has the world-beloved Taj Mahal shrugged off the controversial and communally divisive remarks made about it by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party than another Mughal-era site finds itself mired in politics. It all began with the Shia Central Waqf Board chairman Waseem Rizvi writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a proposal to demolish Humayun’s tomb to create additional burial space for Muslims in the space-starved National Capital Region.
Built by Humayun’s queen and her son, the great Mughal emperor Akbar, the tomb today bears a dual identity as a national monument and a world heritage site. This glocalised (global-local) status locates the monument in a neutral space, devoid of any religious identity and as a universal symbol of human creativity, knowledge, and skills.
Additionally, the tomb is a seminal part of a larger ecosystem — one in which it has always existed, and which is also constantly changing. The dynamics of the changing external environment and its own dual status together determine the site’s realistic and holistic identity.
The History Keepers
As a heritage presenter and researcher, my engagement with Humayun’s tomb and its landscape developed with my interaction with the late Khwaja Hasan Nizami Sani, the head caretaker of the Sufi shrine Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah. He gave me access to diaries and oral narratives on the area. Here, for instance, is his account of the area presently known as Nizamuddin, where “…the dargah of Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin has always dominated the surroundings of the (Humayun’s) tomb… today you see a filthy environment, but there was a time when there were swaying agricultural fields, waterways along with the river Yamuna close by. I recall a bridge that had to be crossed to enter the Sufi complex… there were orchards such as Anarkali ka bagh, which is where Ghalib is buried. Along with the ongoing Urs and festivities associated with Sufis, the basti (local neighbourhood) celebrated Dussehra for 10 days. Each day had distinct celebrations and events such as the Tesu Ka Mela (fair) and a mushaira (poetry meet) in which each participant was required to create and present extempore poetry on themes having social, political or historical relevance. A large number of these poetic renditions became popular and were passed down orally, including in the form of folk songs.”
Hasan Sani was kind enough to share an interesting poem on the events of 1857, along with small satirical poetry pieces that were commentaries on public figures and community events. Some of these cultural expressions are described in the diaries and other writings in the possession of the caretakers. These together with the oral historical narratives on Humayun’s tomb and its surroundings are an important part of the history and heritage of Delhi.
On one occasion, walking me through Humayun’s tomb, Hasan Sani carried with him a small book on the history of Delhi. He described the Arab ki Sarai (caravanserai) in the complex: “…until about the 1930s the Sarai had functioning shops and also a post office. I recall the visit of a British officer by the name of Young, who came home to meet my father. He informed him that all the people living and functioning in the Sarai were going to be relocated to a new area. Yes, that new area was named Youngpura, after the officer, and is today known as Jungpura.”
On Sufi terrain
Humayun’s tomb was, and remains an integral part of the Sufi landscape — a heritagescape comprising tombs, shops, eateries, festivities and living cultural traditions such as Sufi singers, free kitchens (langars) and water carriers (bishtis), all of which revolve around the Sufi tombs known as dargahs — with which the Mughals were known to have a close link. The khadims (caretakers) of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah were also in charge of the tomb’s management until the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took over in the early 20th century. The tomb was built close to the chilla khana (meditation rooms) of Hazrat Nizamuddin.
This heritagescape is not limited to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin but also encompasses, for instance, other dargahs like the Matka Pir and Bibi Fatima Sam in the vicinity of the Purana Qila (the fort built by Sher Shah Suri); these too were managed by the khadims of the Nizamuddin dargah. While Matka Pir’s tomb is 800 years old and belongs to the Qalandar Sufi sect, pre-dating Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, the Bibi Fatima Sam dargah is a Chisti Sufi shrine and belongs to the guru-behen (sister through transmission lineage). It follows then that both Hazrat Nizamuddin and Bibi Fatima Sam were the disciples of Baba Farid of Pakpattan (now in Pakistan).
Emperor Akbar was known to have conducted annual pilgrimages to the Sufi shrine in Ajmer and supposedly visited Matka Pir before coming to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin. In fact, Maham Anga, Akbar’s wet nurse who was a learned person, had commissioned the Khairul Manzil, an important madrasa (educational institution) located close to Matka Pir.
Today, owing to the unplanned construction of roads and other buildings, the Sufi landscape around the Purana Qila stands delinked from the original cultural-geographical setting of Humayun’s tomb. The tomb and its surroundings serve, within the 16th-century context, as an emblem of the Mughal-Sufi relationship and as a record of the strategies the Mughals adopted for their empire-building, wherein they engaged with not just the Chistis but also the Central Asian Naqshbandi Sufi sect for political benefits.
Enclosed within walls today, Humayun’s tomb is a space containing, apart from the graves, well-kept gardens, a stepwell and a mosque. However, thanks to its location amid modern-day constructions, including a railway station, its heritagescape is characterized as much by the chaos of sounds and movements, as by the spaces of silence, stillness, and peace. The area presents a potpourri of contrasting neighbourhoods — chic communities in close proximity with slums and illegal constructions, long-time residents and floating populations, visible human suffering and a frenzy of faith in mystical spirituality.
Ruins of politics
A restoration programme initiated in the 1990s by the Agha Khan Foundation, in partnership with the ASI and other stakeholders, proved to be timely. Marked by a holistic heritage conservation approach, it helped bring out the best in the visual, functional and inherent character of the heritagescape. The foundation, while conserving the monument, had the courage to address the many contested claims to rights on land and built area in the heritage landscape, and did all this with active community participation. Today, Humayun’s tomb and the Nizamuddin basti exemplify an engagement of heritage conservation as sustainable development, where the value of the past has meshed with the needs of the present, and where there is a deliberate strategy to construct a greater value for the local people, as well as visitors.
Coming back to the Shia Waqf board, its recent stance smacks of irony. On one hand it recently announced a gift of 10 silver arrows for the quiver of the proposed 100-m statue of Lord Ram in Ayodhya — the site of the demolition of a historic mosque — and on the other it seeks to demolish Humayun’s tomb in a move that conveniently ignores the historically harmonious equation between the Sunni Mughals and Shias. While it is true that Humayun’s tomb is indeed perceived as a Sunni monument, it is also as much a fact that the two most well-known Mughal queens, Noor Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal Prime Minister Safdarjung and several other influential and prominent courtly personalities were Shias.
Such attempts to politicise historic sites for narrow ends continually undermine the huge cultural economic value of heritage for the country, weaken the idea of incredible India, and erode the country’s image as a participant in the ongoing creation of glocalised heritage.
Navina Jafa is vice-president of the Centre for New Perspectives, a think-tank on traditional knowledge, an academic and curator on heritage and of heritage walks and tours. She is a well known Kathak classical dancer