While Delhi’s rich architectural legacy has yet to receive the attention it deserves, a nascent conservation movement is giving heritage buffs good reason to linger.
Photographs by Justin Rabindra
From the rooftop of Haveli Dharampura, Old Delhi stretches toward the horizon. Turning slowly, I can pick out the towering minarets of the Jama Masjid, the red Lego blocks of the Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir temple, the gleaming onion domes of the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, and the bustling market of Chandni Chowk. As dusk falls, the sky is fluttering with hundreds of kites, and the neighborhood pigeon caller is readying his birds for flight. It’s a glimpse of a culture that has endured for hundreds of years, practically since the days of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose architects built much of what is still sometimes called Shahjahanabad in the early 17th century.
First settled in the sixth century B.C., Delhi has been the capital of a dozen-odd empires dating back to the dynasty of the Pandavas, the five sibling heroes of India’s ancient Mahabharata epic. Remnants of that storied past are scattered throughout the city—some dating to 300 B.C., others from the medieval and colonial periods. But so far, the government has failed to capitalize on this rich trove of monuments, which could make Delhi a tourist center on the order of Athens or Rome. Until now, perhaps.
Old Delhi, in particular, is always slated for a grand redevelopment. One year it’s the centerpiece of a pitch for UNESCO World Heritage City status; the next, it’s the focus of a movement to increase tourism arrivals and create jobs. Like most of India’s best-laid plans, however, these schemes rarely progress beyond spreadsheets and white papers. Which is why Haveli Dharampura is so inspiring.
“From a traveler’s perspective, this is a unique place where you can truly live in Old Delhi—in what you eat, what you see, in everything you do—in a luxurious setting,” explains the owner’s daughter and “designated storyteller” Vidyun Goel as she shows me around the former mansion, or haveli, an old Persian word meaning “enclosed space.” “The success of this private restoration will increase the government’s confidence in the public-private partnership model. There’s a long, long way to go. But in some ways, this is the first step.”
Opened as a 14-room boutique hotel in March 2016, Haveli Dharampura is one of the flagships of a nascent heritage renaissance underway across Delhi, a movement facilitated by the Internet, corporate sponsorship, and private initiatives. Another is the dramatic transformation of the area surrounding Humayun’s Tomb and the Nizamuddin Dargah shrine, where the Aga Khan Trust for Culture completed a massive restoration and expansion project in 2013 in an effort to create a template for conservation that could be emulated across the country. Other endeavors—sometimes haphazard, sometimes centralized—have also turned once-ignored monuments like the ruined 13th-century mosque and madrasa of South Delhi’s affluent Hauz Khas neighborhood and the colonnaded colonial center of Connaught Place into thriving entertainment hubs.
A growing environmentalist movement, meanwhile, has made strides toward restoring this surprisingly leafy city’s natural heritage, through the conservation of the 80-hectare Mehrauli Archaeological Park as well as the creation of the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary and the Yamuna Biodiversity Park—projects that have involved uprooting invasive species and clawing back forests from slums and garbage dumps.
As a longtime resident of Delhi, I had witnessed all this without really registering what was going on. That’s probably because when you are surrounded by its whirling throng, India’s capital always seems to be coming apart at the seams. Up close, it looks like nothing is changing or ever will change. But after living in the city for close to a decade, I moved to Berlin for 18 months—just enough of a hiatus for me to register the transformation I’d missed upon my return in early 2015. This summer, I revisited some of my favorite haunts and discovered a new sense of optimism.
A late Mughal–style mansion built in 1887 in the Chandni Chowk area, Haveli Dharampura is among the few local conservation projects to turn heritage into a straightforward commercial proposition. So-called “heritage hotels” have become the lynchpin of neighborhood conservation in Rajasthan, where, in 1971, former prime minister Indira Gandhi inadvertently created a new generation of hoteliers when she abolished the privy purses awarded to the state’s erstwhile royals. Haveli Dharampura marks the first significant hotel-conversion project in the historic center of Delhi.
Fronted by a massive arched gateway, the mansion had been carved up into warehouses and shoebox apartments when Vidyun’s politician father (and current minster of state) Vijay Goel acquired the property in 2010. The weight of the roof was causing the building to collapse on itself, and most of the original fixtures had been stripped away and sold. Perhaps even worse, a thicket of well-intentioned government regulations designed to protect heritage buildings paradoxically made every attempt at renovation a maze of bureaucratic hurdles.
Formerly a parliamentarian representing the constituency of Chandni Chowk, Goel understood those obstacles as well as anyone. He had initiated the first, halting efforts to restore the 17th-century bazaar district to its former glory in 1998, spearheading a government-led effort to repaint the facades of all the buildings along the main road from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid and remove the rats’ nests of improvised electrical wiring strung overhead for a first-of-its-kind cultural festival that attracted some 500,000 visitors. But since then, he’d seen dozens of grandiose plans to turn the city’s historical center into a top-flight tourist attraction broken by their own ambition. Every square meter of Chandni Chowk is occupied by shops and residences. Nobody has any money (or much motivation) to invest in renovation. And the city’s strong culture of tenant rights makes evicting people to make way for historical restoration all but impossible.
Rather than a grand plan, therefore, Goel envisioned an anchor project that would be like throwing a pebble into a pond, sending ripples outward into the city even as it inspired like-minded entrepreneurs to develop their own heritage properties.
“Ten years ago, my father brought me and my brother here and told us he was taking us to the Taj Mahal of Delhi,” Vidyun recalls as we sit beneath one of the scalloped arches in Haveli Dharampura’s ground-floor restaurant. “I was standing in this complete ruin! It was ready to fall apart at any time.”
Today, the property is a stunning example of late-Mughal architecture. Over six years, Goel and his son, Siddhant, painstakingly reviewed documents and photographs and scoured the country for artisans to recreate the original structure, replacing the terrazzo and sandstone flooring, stripping out partitions, and restoring the original scalloped arches, columns, and marble latticework.
“They didn’t want to restore it to how it was 10 years ago, but to how it was 100 years ago,” Vidyun says.
You can already see the impact the hotel is having on its neighborhood, in the form of new businesses catering to the comparatively well-heeled guests Haveli Dharampura attracts to an area that had hitherto featured only backpacker accommodations. While it’s a long way from the posh medieval lanes of Italy’s Siena or even the rebirth that turned Beijing’s hutong district into a warren of art galleries and hip restaurants, it offers just enough evidence to inspire hope that such a revolution could be possible for Old Delhi, where as many as 200 historic havelis survive in a sad state of neglect. (One notable exception is the Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli, a private residence in the Chhota Bazaar area that was recently restored using traditional building materials and techniques—including grout mixed in a specially made circular mill—by young Delhi architect Aishwarya Tipnis.) But first, the bureaucrats will need to get out of the way.
“The government should come to the support of the people,” Vijay Goel says. “We should relax the rules that have prevented renovations and give concessions to people who want to restore other havelis.”
Neither Goel nor many other Delhiwallahs expect that kind of government support to materialize anytime soon. But across town in another of the city’s remarkable historical centers, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has demonstrated that civil society can accomplish the same kind of transformation, combining conservation with urban renewal.
Despite achieving World Heritage status in 1993, the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb complex has never drawn as many visitors as the Red Fort or Qutub Minar, the city’s other two UNESCO sites. That’s in part because of the name, explains AKTC’s Ratish Nanda, who has devoted most of his career to the site’s restoration. While the Taj Mahal is also a burial site, it’s known as a “palace,” not a “tomb,” and promoted as a testament to emperor Shah Jahan’s love for his favorite wife. For some reason, the Empress Bega Begum’s devotion to her late husband, Humayun, has never attained the same cachet.
To me, though, that has always made Humayun’s Tomb and the neighboring Nizamuddin Dargah more exhilarating. On the off-season morning when I meet Nanda for a walking tour of the restoration project, I am one of perhaps a half-dozen tourists exploring the 12-hectare Persian-style garden that surrounds the massive, domed tomb of India’s second Mughal emperor. It’s not always so deserted, Nanda assures me. The number of visitors has increased from around 200,000 to more than a million per year thanks to the restoration project. But because the complex is so large, you don’t get the fish-in-a-barrel feeling that hits you amid the thicket of touts at the Taj Mahal.
A sandstone precursor to the white marble Taj, Humayun’s Tomb had deteriorated steadily even after it was named a World Heritage site in 1993. Poorly planned and underfunded preservation efforts using cement had marred the main structure and devastated some of the 100-odd outlying monuments, while overlooked stone walls and gardens had simply decayed into ruin. Using funds donated by the Aga Khan on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, in 1997, Nanda undertook the restoration of the gardens surrounding the building. Then, when that project was successful, he began a comprehensive restoration of not only the tomb itself but also the adjoining neighborhood—a medieval colony surrounding a vibrant shrine to the Sufi saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya that is now essentially a slum, though it is nevertheless interesting to visit.
According to Nanda, the idea was to counter the perception that conservation was the opposite of development. Bringing in artisans from all over the country, the 200,000-man-hour project created employment and reestablished a sense of ownership among community residents. “Almost 75 percent of our budget goes to wages for our craftsmen,” Nanda says. Along with restoring buildings, the trust improved access to education and healthcare and invested in parks and other public infrastructure, including performance areas for Qawwali music, a devotional genre that began here in the 14th century and is still popular today. (Every visitor should take in a Thursday-night Qawwali performance at the shrine; they’re one of the city’s cultural highlights).
Like the owner of Haveli Dharampura, though, Nanda is equal parts optimistic and pessimistic about the future of similar conservation projects. He’s convinced the AKTC project has ably demonstrated the way forward, and he is encouraged that corporate funding has poured in since the government ruled that heritage conservation projects qualified under a recent law requiring companies with a turnover of more than one billion rupees (US$150 million) to give at least two percent of their profits to charity. Low-cost airline IndiGo, for instance, is sponsoring the restoration of the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khannan, who was a prominent courtier during the reign of Akbar the Great. And the chari-table arm of Mumbai-based conglomerate Tata Group partly funded the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb.
Nanda, however, remains skeptical that anyone will pick up the torch when the AKTC project—which was recently extended another five years to undertake the restoration of more monuments in the area surrounding the tomb—officially comes to an end.
“This cannot go on in perpetuity,” he says pensively as he shepherds me through the warren-like Nizamuddin shrine. “There will be things left undone.”
Among other issues, AKTC is only responsible for the restoration project. Though Nanda is working on a 1,000-square-meter museum that promises to improve the standard of curation and interpretation (a weak point here as at most Indian historical sites), the job of running the complex as a tourist site falls to the overburdened and underfunded Archeological Society of India (ASI). This leaves it vulnerable to the same pressures that have allowed ill-informed and irritatingly aggressive freelance guides to take over so many of the country’s remarkable landmarks.
Fortunately, the Internet has facilitated a boom in “software” that more than compensates for the city’s failures in the “hardware” department. Facebook-based event calendars and dedicated websites like Meetup.com now make it easy for travelers to find guided food tours, heritage walks, and nature hikes organized by young volunteers or nonprofit groups like the Bombay Natural History Society and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
Perhaps more than anything else that has happened over the past decade, this has liberated visitors to Delhi from the tyranny of touts and package tours, says INTACH’s Alisha Pathak. “The most exciting thing about it is that now Delhi is discoverable on foot,” she tells me.
Every few weeks, for instance, the Bombay Natural History Society organizes a morning hike of some kind through the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, where not long ago I joined an excursion to search for proof that the park has attracted its first leopards. Each winter, the Delhi Walk Festival inaugurated in 2016 by the nonprofit Delhi, I Love You group now offers some 85 culinary, architectural, and bird-watching walks through some of the city’s most fascinating neighborhoods, led by volunteer historians, gourmands, ecologists, and flaneurs. And groups like Delhi By Foot and INTACH itself organize similar outings on a weekly basis that have earned local experts like historian Sohail Hashmi and environmentalist Pradip Krishen a cult following.
“If you walk around the hinterlands of Delhi, you keep stumbling on forgotten monuments that are intimately connected to the city’s history,” Pathak says.
To me, that’s the most amazing part of this renaissance. I’ve lived in Delhi for more than a decade now, and every year I continue to “discover” major archeological sites such as the 12th-century Qila Rai Pithora (the fortified citadel of the so-called Slave Dynasty) or the 17th-century tomb of the Mughal general Azim Khan.
Now, everyday visitors to India’s capital have the chance to discover these hidden gems too—and it finally looks as though they may survive to make Delhi a rival to the other great ancient cities of the world.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Restoration Drama”).