Delhi’s Bara Lao ka Gumbad Gets a Facelift, but What Does Conservation Really Mean?

Efforts toward heritage improvement, beautification and renovation have important socio-economic implications but also uncomfortable contradictions.

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Delhi recently witnessed the renovation of Bara Lao ka Gumbad, a Lodhi era tomb in South Delhi’s Basant Lok, complete with new lighting and beautified gardens. The gumbad is part of a longer list of monuments that have got makeovers over the past decade. This drive toward heritage improvement, beautification and renovation has important socio-economic implications and uncomfortable contradictions, particularly if we turn to the supposed “encroachers” in and around these sites.

There is also the post-neo-liberalisation trend of deals between private contractors, heritage organisations and the government in organising such drives to consider. These have led to both successful projects and miserable failures.

For example, the Taj Heritage Corridor plan in 2003 involved multiple private sector and government bodies. It proposed a corridor connecting the Taj to various monuments and beautifying the complexes, and cost the government Rs 17 crore. It led to multiple FIRs and a case in the Supreme Court. On the other hand, sites like Sundar Nursery have been extremely successful.

The politics of heritage conservation has many nuances and I am not attempting a verdict on them. Rather, I will tell the story of Bara Lao ka Gumbad based on what I could gather from various documents to see whether conservation efforts to retain the ‘original form’ are misplaced.

Bara Lao ka Gumbad. Photo: Jahnavi Sen

During the colonial era, Bara Lao ka Gumbad was located in what was the Palam tehsil of Delhi. South of Shah Jehanabad, Delhi was primarily divided into villages. The area behind the Priya complex (bordering Munirka village) was Kusumpur village, and it was here that you would have found the gumbad.

Often, the impression is that these old monuments were left to decay. In a sense that is true: villagers used them but had no desire for the modern historian’s aesthetic and fidelity to the “original” form. They plastered and built according to their needs. The gumbad was not ‘conserved’ by any definition – meaning an attempt to maintain its form with no change whatsoever. If a roof leaked, it may have been repaired without the previous form and material being replicated.

Also Read: Why Does Delhi Hide Its Treasures?

By the 1900s, Delhi was gearing up for the Durbar of 1911 and replacing Kolkata as the British empire’s capital. Additionally, tourism had increased. From this period, efforts to conserve Delhi’s historic structures took off on a massive scale. Part of these efforts was the publication of a comprehensive four-part report of every structure big and small across all tehsils and villages of the district, with description, condition, ownership, value, and worth for conservation.

In the case of the Bara Lao ka Gumbad, records from 1914 show that the building was used by villagers to store fodder. The record also tells us that the villagers closed two of the doors to the tomb, but it does not explain why. The bulk of the document is a detailed description of the monument – its measurement, conditions, orientation, material and so on. The document states that stones “have been removed” – presumably by villagers from the baradari adjacent to the gumbad, speculatively for some construction. The structure was deemed worthy of conservation in the report.

Entry from the Archaeological Survey of India, List of Muhammadan and Hindu monuments Volume 4 (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, 1916).

Today, the Bara Lao ka Gumbad is part of a larger park complex that connects and contains other small monuments, also from the same period. All these monuments, including the gumbad, were classified as shamilat deh in terms of ownership. This means that they were common lands (in possession of the panchayat) of the Kusumpur village. More often than not, at least some of the land around the monument would also be shamilat deh land. The remainder of the land (the park and adjacent) would contain the residences of villagers. Conservation and garden landscaping was clearly an upheaval.

Bara Lao ka Gumbad is certainly not an outlier. Most monuments (that I have read on) were occupied by villagers – Purana Qila, Hauz Khas, Begumpur, Isa Khan tomb, Tughlaqabad fort and Lodi Gardens to name a small selection. The colonial Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) did not recognise village residences as rightful ownership, arguing that these spaces were always government land and that the residents were “squatters.” Incidentally, this meant that they were compensated for loss of belongings but not of land. The compensation was based on many social stratifications, primary amongst which was caste.

British attempts to conserve structures often faced setbacks over the years: spaces would be re-occupied by families, fall into disrepair, or be put to use by adjacent urban villages crammed to the brim. I’ve been going to the Priya complex since I was quite young, having lived close by, and the park was clearly dilapidated. The restoration of Vasant Udyan and the gumbad is an improvement. The park is greener, safer and is more welcoming to women and families.

For better or for worse, it has been restored rather than conserved: a facelift to its imagined “original” form rather than conserving it as is. This involved re-tiling, replastering, repainting with new materials. But the new repairs to the site carry some echoes of the past. The praise of beautification is instantly a condemnation of need-based use. There were a number of people evicted from the gumbad, though I have not found information on compensation or resettlement, if any.

Most reports describe the residents as “encroachers.” One report gives us more details: there were about 15 families living in huts, while one was living in the tomb itself. The huts were bulldozed. The family in the tomb had been living there since 1943. The resident (Anup Singh) contested that the land belonged to them via the wakf board and had been handed down by his grandfather. Both Singh’s justification of intergenerational use, and the eviction drive against “encroachers” are clear reminders of British conservation processes. “Squatting” and “encroachment,” terms persisting from British legalese, remain popular to define this use with what is arguably a class-inflected understanding of heritage. A look at the INTACH reports and Google searches for “monument” and “encroachment” will demonstrate that evictions are part and parcel of conservation.

Left: One edge has been renovated and the rest has been left in its earlier conserved state. Right: The front part has been repainted but the back has not been. Photo: Ragini Jha

Authentic preservation is just one way of staking a claim to Delhi’s heritage. Within a longer timeline and across wider spatial distributions, there are other ways of having a relationship with history: it would be hubris to pretend otherwise. I would contest that need-based land use in the monument has been no less historical or relevant – it is built on generations of ownership and/or use.

Monuments have changed shape and form over the years. They have been rebuilt, their fragments have been reused and they have been repainted, changed and added to by successive regimes. An original form often becomes hard to define: is it before or after an emperor added to the work of a previous one? Or a ruler added a jali around a shrine’s enclosed tomb a century later in imperial patronage? A different example: Akbar built Adham Khan’s tomb in obscurity to reduce upkeep and patronage. The concern with the building as a frozen time-stamp is just one perspective in a dynamic system of engagement.

Today, monuments often (though not always) tell stories of nobility and are restored to recuperate imperial Delhi. But just like kings, villagers and workers have improved, rebuilt, extended and painted monuments according to their requirements. They have made their claims to history. In one of many instances, the soon to be evicted villagers of Hauz Khas petitioned the government in 1914 that they and their ancestors have lived there for over a hundred years and therefore had a valid claim to the land. Who is to say that is not the case?