Chaunsath Khambha to stand tall again

Chaunsath Khambha to stand tall again

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is restoring this unusually structured tomb in Nizamuddin Basti,dome by dome.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture is restoring this unusually structured tomb in Nizamuddin Basti,dome by dome.

Tucked in the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti,a seventeenth-century monument — Chaunsath Khambha — is in the process of regaining its lost glory.

Under the careful ministrations of a group of engineers,architects and craftsmen,this unusually structured tomb is gradually ridding itself of its many “wounds” sustained in the course of four centuries.

Built around 1623-24 AD,the building houses the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash — son of Shamshuddin Atagh Khan,Prime Minister of Emperor Akbar. Mirza Aziz Kokaltash was also the governor of Gujarat,during the reign of Jahangir.


“Since it is considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s grave,seven centuries of tomb building in the vicinity of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah have made this area the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in India,” Ratish Nanda,Project Director,Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC),said.

The trust is carrying out the restoration at Chaunsath Khambha,which is being co-funded by the Embassy of Germany,following an agreement between the two in 2011.

With 64 pillars supporting 25 domes,the monument has been constructed entirely in marble. Conservation experts said the building plan may have been inspired by that of Iranian garden pavilions such as Chihil Sutun (Hall of 40 Pillars),which also influenced the design of Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas at the Red Fort.

Conservation experts involved in the project said the monument had suffered severe damages because of excessive water seepage.

The funding of the project is a precursor to the Indo-German Mela,which is being held across the country this year.

In 2009,a team of AKTC’s conservation architects did a condition assessment study here,which revealed that the building needed complicated conservation to prevent the collapse of certain sections. Each stone was documented in the process using a 3D laser scanning technology introduced to India as part of this project.

Experts said an intensive craft-based approach was being adopted for conservation of the site. Each of the 25 domes is being dismantled and the stones are being repaired by craftsmen using techniques and tools used during the construction of the monument in the seventeenth century. “Once,the stones are repaired,the domes will be reset,” one of the engineers working on the project said.

“The first dome alone required eight months of work as we were trying to develop the most appropriate conservation method as there is a risk that the structure could collapse,” Rajpal Singh,chief engineer,AKTC,said.

“The pieces of marble in the structure had been held together using iron dowels. So the water seepage led to rusting,corrosion and expansion of the iron dowels. The monument was further damaged due to the “patch work” carried out some time ago — white cement was used to cover areas where the stone had broken off because of the pressure exerted by the iron dowels,” he said.

Elaborating on the work,Neetipal Brar,Project Conservation Architect,AKTC,said,“Once the first dome was fixed,it was important to ensure that no further damage occurred due to rainwater penetration. So the entire roof was relaid using traditional materials. All iron dowels are being replaced with non-corrosive stainless-steel ones.”

Craftsmen selected for the renovation work were given a year’s intensive training. They were then divided into three groups and are currently working simultaneously on three domes. These master craftsmen will take at least six years to complete the restoration work,Brar said.

K K Muhammed,former Chief Superintending Archaeologist of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) (Delhi Circle),said the work at the site has been quite challenging. “When the initial plan was put in front of me,I had expressed my reservations about the feasibility of the project.”

AKTC — along with the ASI and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi — has been working on a major urban renewal project in the Nizamuddin area since 2007.

By linking conservation with socio-economic development,the project includes sanitation,health,education and vocational training initiatives.

As part of the urban conservation effort,urban housing improvement programmes are also being implemented in the area.

The pillars of history

Dating back to 1623-24 AD,Chaunsath Khambha is the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, son of Shamshuddin Atagh Khan,the Prime Minister of Mughal Emperor Akbar and Ji Ji Anagh,the emperor’s nurse.

The monument derives its name from the 64 pillars which support the building’s roof. The 64 pillars divide the building internally into 25 bays — each bay surmounted with a dome. However,the tomb,when viewed from the outside,appears flat-roofed.

Located behind Mirza Ghalib’s tomb,it contains graves of Kokaltash and his wife which carry Quranic inscriptions.

While the other graves present in the building are uninscribed,they are believed to belong to the members of the Kokaltash family.

Mirza Aziz served as Jahangir’s governor of Gujarat and built Chaunsath Khambha,his own mausoleum,during his lifetime.

He died in Gujarat and was temporarily buried at Sarkhej,Gujarat. His remains were shifted to this site.


Catherine Asher,a specialist in Islamic and Indian art from 1200 to the present,has written about Chaunsath Khambha. “This tomb,perhaps more than any other surviving example of late Jahangir-period architecture,serves as a transition to the style associated with Shahjahan’s period.”