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Isa Khan’s Tomb: Conservation & Garden Restoration

Isa Khan’s tomb (A.D. 1547) has often been considered, including by some experts, as a minor tomb within the Humayun’s Tomb complex (a World Heritage Site), and comparisons with the much grander later building have been made without an understanding of the smaller building’s enormous cultural significance.

Isa Khan’s tomb not only pre-dates Humayun’s Tomb by two decades, it is also the culmination of an architectural style used for royal tombs in Delhi during the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties from the early fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. It is the only surviving octagonal enclosed tomb complex with walls, mosque, and gateway intact.

In 2007 the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) commenced a major urban renewal project with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) focusing on the Humayun’s Tomb complex that included a conservation component coupled with significant socio-economic and environmental development components. Through a four-year partnership project with the World Monuments Fund, funding for the conservation of Isa Khan’s tomb – Bu Halima gave the AKTC-ASI team an opportunity to plan a model conservation project for the entrance zone of the World Heritage Site.

Physical work at the site commenced in January 2011 following extensive documentation, including 3D high-definition surveying, condition assessment, archival research, and a peer review of the conservation plan involving WMF staff and its advisors. The studies and discussions leading up to the commencement of work revealed that the Isa Khan Tomb complex is possibly the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in India. The architectural significance of the ornamentation on the tomb building—the ceramic tiles, ornamental stone finials, lattice screens, and incised lime plasterwork—sets it apart from its predecessors. Finally, the discovery that the outer half of the tomb enclosure was sunk at least 2 meters below the inner enclosure, makes this the earliest known sunken garden in the country.

An enormous amount of work was required to remove some 325,000 cubic feet of earth from the site in order to restore the landscape to its original level while being careful not to destroy any archaeology. During the earth removal, terracotta toys as well as stone fragments of finials and columns from the building were discovered. In the process of earth removal the full extent of the arched niches of the enclosure walls has also been revealed allowing future visitors to understand the intention of the original builders.

It has long been believed that the Mughals introduced the "sunken garden" form, the most prominent example of which is Sikandra, Emperor Akbar’s tomb-garden near Agra. The discovery of the sunken garden at Isa Khan’s Tomb—with which Emperor Akbar would have been familiar—is thus extremely significant, as it predates Akbar’s tomb by over half a century.

One component of the Isa Khan Tomb project is the replacement of missing ceramic tiles from the roof of the tomb building. Since the craft of making ceramic tiles matching the sixteenth-century versions has been lost in India, four skilled craftsmen from Uzbekistan were invited to spend six months working alongside the AKTC team to experiment and produce tiles that match the originals. This was again preceded by three years of research co-funded by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust on tiles at Humayun’s Tomb.

By mid-2013, while conservation works on the mausoleum continue, Isa Khan’s tomb enclosure will once again be open to the public with the restored sunken garden. Conservation and landscape works carried out with due care of authenticity of material and building tradition will restore the integrity of the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Site.