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Humayun Tomb finial: How the king got its crown back


New Delhi : In a first of its kind restoration, a dedicated team of experts brought traditional craftsmanship with industrial precision to return the gilded finial to 16th century Humayun Tomb here after the iconic mausoleum’s crown was knocked down in a storm two years ago.

The 18-ft ornamental ensemble, consisting or  Sal wood core and 11 copper vessels topped with a brass piece was given a coating of 22-carat gold to match its original crowning splendour, but it took more than a year to restore the World Heritage Site its pristine glory.

The celebrated monument which served as an architectural inspiration for Taj Mahal, was hit by a massive storm in May 2014 which had dislodged and damaged its old finial.

Archaeological Survey of India then commissioned Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) to begin work on the new finial on December 31, 2014.

“By March last year we had installed a makeshift finial, as we did not want the dome to be left bald. The challenge before us was to restore the finial to its original splendour with original composition,” CEO, AKTC India, Ratish Nanda, told PTI.

According to ASI archives, the finial was last dismantled and repaired by the British in 1912, who also did a documentation of the object, which helped the team in its reconstruction.

Nanda, a conservation architect, says “a motley team of artists, craftsmen, architects, engineers and scientists worked on this project to return the famed mausoleum its crown jewel.”

“In the finial, the 11 copper vessels, covered with a gold finish, were in a friable state and had been repaired several times over the last five centuries. Each of the vessels was weighed and studied separately to allow comparisons with the original profile and carefully map the damage,” he said.

“The biggest challenge was lending the gold finish to the finial as it was in the original. And, that is where Titan Industries came into play and they not only funded the restoration but also brought in their expertise in jewellery and watchmaking to execute this project to the finest scale,” he said.

The AKTC CEO claimed that this gold restoration was “first of its kind” work in India, as far as monuments are concerned and over “3 kgs of pure gold was used” in the project.

“And, while scientists and engineers worked out the metrics and modalities of the project, carpenters, coppersmiths and goldsmiths laboured on getting the old craft right as per our requirements. It was a perfect marriage of traditional craftsmanship and industrial precision,” he said.

Elaborating on the process of gilding, he said, “For the copper plates, six-eight layering of gold was used which was done manually, while the precious metal was deposited on the brass piece through electroplating,” he said.

The tomb of the late Mughal emperor stands in the centre of a square garden, divided into four parts by causeways (‘charbagh’), in the centre of which ran shallow water-channels.

The red sandstone double-storeyed structure sits majestically in a landscaped complex that has been dubbed as the ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’ owing to presence of several other graves there. It neighbour the famous shrine of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in south Delhi.

The AKTC is currently working on the construction of the “country’s first” sunken museum at the iconic Tomb site, which after its completion in 2017 will showcase the heritage of the Nizamuddin Area over the last seven centuries.

“The old finial will be the centrepiece of the new interpretation centre here and every detail of it has been documented,” he said.

Nanda says that the British while repairing the finial had also installed a lightning conductor which was also knocked down during the 2014 storm. A makeshift lightning conductor was then installed by the ASI soon after the storm had rendered the monument vulnerable.

On the composition of vessels he said “Titan commissioned manufacturing of copper sheets of required 99.4 per cent purity, as impurities in the copper would result in the deterioration or peeling away of the final gold layers. On the availability of copper in required purity and thickness a traditional workshop in the Shahjahanabad area was employed for further work.”

“Master craftsmen skilled in the traditional process of gilding gold onto copper were identified and several rounds of experimental gilding carried out and subsequently tested for various factors, including durability,” he said.

The Sal wood core in fact goes another 4 ft deeper insider the dome to anchor the finial, and Nanda said, “We were able to get the wood, with the make and the age that we were looking for from merchants in Delhi only.”

The celebrated monument was inscribed on the World Heritage List of UNESCO in 1993, one of the three such sites in Delhi, the other two being – Red Fort and Qutub Minar.

Centrally-protected, the Humayun’s Tomb annually receives a footfall of 2 million including over 5,00,000 children.

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