Canons of Preservation of Indian Monuments and Humayun’s Tomb “Conservation” by Agha Khan Trust

In December 1861, in response to a memorandum of Alexander Cunningham pointing out the necessity of ‘preserving’ monuments in different parts of India ‘by accurate and faithful descriptions of archaeologists’, Lord Canning, the Viceroy of India, established a body with Cunningham as Surveyor to carry out archaeological surveys and explorations of ancient remains.

The Archaeological Survey of India, as a proper organization, however, came into existence only in 1870 when the then Viceroy, Lord Mayo, acceded to the proposal of the Secretary of State, Duke of Argyll, for establishing such an organization.

In 1871 General Cunningham formally joined this organization as its Director-General. Known for his reliance on written records, especially the Buddhist travellers’ accounts, like those of the Chinese Fa-Hien (also spelt Fa-hsien, Fa Xian, AD 337 – c. 422) and Yuan Tsang (also written as Hsuan Tsang, Xuanxang, AD c. 602-664), Cunningham by the end of his tenure (he demitted office in 1885) firmly laid down the tradition of ‘Historical Archaeology’ in India. The modern day trend of a preference for archaeology of the pre-historic period was to come much later.

Till the late 1870’s the work of conservation of the monuments was the responsibility of the provincial governments. However, the first systematic step towards repairs of the monuments was undertaken in 1873 when the Government of India, through a circular (Circular no. 9 Public Works, dated 15th February 1873) assigned the local governments the duty of preserving the buildings and monuments of historical and archaeological importance which were in their jurisdiction. In 1875 Sir John Strachey, the Lt, Governor of the United Provinces, proposed to create a special Archaeological Public Works division with its headquarters at Agra and an annual budget of Rs. 70, 000 /-. The division was assigned the duty to not only list the monuments but also prepare notes on conservation to be carried out on them.

The first systematic conservation of monuments was done under its aegis. The brief given by Sir Strachey was not to try to restore the buildings in accordance with their original design:

It is clear there should be no attempt to restore buildings to what we chose to suppose may have been their original appearance. Our duty is simply one of preservation against further injury.

Further progress was made during the 1880’s. The Viceroy, Lord Lytton, being of the firm opinion that ‘the preservation of national antiquities and works of art’ was an imperial duty, created in 1881 the post of Curator of Ancient Monuments, and appointed Major H. H. Cole who as a result went on to publish 10 folio-volumes of selected major monuments, including those of Agra, along with detailed illustrations.

A new era opened when John Marshall was appointed Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India by the Viceroy Lord Curzon (1898-1905) in 1902 at the young age of 26. Marshall remained in his post until 1928, and continued to work for the ASI until 1934. Between 1902 and 1928, he oversaw seminal excavations at 49 sites across the subcontinent, from Taxila in today’s Pakistan to Sanchi and Sarnath in India, and Pagan in Mandalay division of Burma. It was at his instance and persuasion that legislative and administrative measures were taken for the protection of the Indian monuments. Under Lord Curzon the centrepiece of such measures, the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, 1904, was passed.

A new preservation policy was initiated through a government resolution introduced and passed on 7th July 1903, which was later incorporated by Marshall in his pamphlet Conservation of Ancient Monuments (1907), and in his Conservation Manual (1922). The latter was to become the Bible for the archaeologists and conservationists of ancient monuments in India.

Conservation Manual of Sir John Marshall

One of the clauses [no. 25] of this Conservation Manual lays down the basic principles of preservation:

“Archaeological, Public Works, or other officers charged with the execution of conservation work should never forget that the reparation of any remnant of ancient architecture, however humble, is a work to be entered upon with totally different feelings from a new work or from the repairs of a modern building. Although there are many ancient buildings whose state of disrepair suggests at first sight a renewal, it should never be forgotten that their historical value is gone when their authenticity is destroyed, and that our first duty is not to renew them but to preserve them. When, therefore, repairs are carried out, no effort should be spared to save as many parts of the original as possible, since it is to the authenticity of the old parts that practically all the interest attaching to the new will owe itself. Broken or half decayed original work is of infinitely more value than the smartest and most perfect new look.”

In yet another clause, while elaborating the duties of the Conservation Assistants, the Manual laid down that they

‘should endeavour as far as possible to foresee mistakes and take action to prevent then before they occur’,

and that it would be the duty of the Conservation Assistant that, if such mistake occurs,

‘to bring to notice, as soon as he sees it, any departure from the requirements of the Archaeological department’,

to the subordinates at work, and failing rectification,

‘report in writing to the Archaeological Superintendent’.

The Manual then went on to the details of repair work to be done, viz., the materials to be used and the methods of repair for each type of work at hand.

For example, it laid down the rule that no modern bricks whatsoever were to be used on any old building. While in case of repairing brickwork, bricks of the same size and fabric were to be used and that they should be laid in the ‘same bond and the mortar joints should be of the same thickness and toned to the same colour as in the old work’.

Similarly, if the task at hand concerned fresco or tempera-paintings or the work involved removal of whitewash, such tasks ‘should only be performed under the supervision of an expert’.

The manual thus contains minute, as well as technical details, including the type of trees to be planted in the garden around a particular monument. An advice given in this regard was to observe a ‘happy mean between antiquarian accuracy, on the one hand, and aesthetic beauty, on the other’.

In the light of the above, one would expect an impeccable record of the official body which is expected to conserve and preserve the monuments, specially those which are identified and named as World Heritage Sites.


Unfortunately each and every of this rule was violated by the Agha Khan Trust when they were handed over the iconic Humayun’s Tomb, the Arab ki Sarai, the Sundar Nursery structures by the UPA government. Subsequently the tombs at Bijapur and Golcunda too met the same fate!

Humayun’s Tomb was initially handed over to the Trust surreptitiously in 2007 and the given brief was merely maintenance of “gardens”!

All these Monuments were denuded of their original plasters and painting, which were mercilessly scrapped off in totality and replaced by modern plasters and designs! So much so that Humayun’s Tomb no more is the work of Mirak Ghiyas Beg, the original Central Asian architect who came along with Babur to India, but of the architects of Agha Khan Trust!

The Agha Khan Trust claims that it imported and planted 3000 varieties of flowers and shrubs to recreate the Mughal garden around the monument. What they forgot was that Mughals knew of no such lawns: grass was alien to them and a European import! Mughal gardens were more like orchards with shade giving, fruit bearing and fragrant trees!

Further, pray from where did they get the names of the 3000 “Mughal” plants and shrubs? Which source mentions them?

They also claimed that they imported and applied the Central Asian techniques and employed master craftsmen from Central Asia and also ‘reproduced’ the Mughal mortar!

What they again forgot was that all the Mughal Monuments in India, may have been planned by Central Asians, but were actually built by the sons of the soil, the indigenous masons and craftsmen!

And which source provide the information on the making of a typical plaster? If they actually made a chemical analysis to reach the answer, then which lab? For in reply to an RTI they denied any prior chemical analysis!

The Agha Khan Trust completed its work at Humayun’s Tomb in 2013, crores of rupees from the hard earned public funds got spent, yet the new plasters started peeling off and falling by 2017! Syed Jamal Hasan, former Director (Archaeology) with Archaeological Survey of India, showed us the slides of the weak plaster which is getting unstuck within a few years of being applied.

Let us get together and save our Monuments from further damage and say no to vested interests and private players, whether Agha Khan Trust, or now, the Dalmias who want to do the same with the Red Fort!

Today Red Fort is being handed over, apparently to “maintain” gardens and toilets! The Modi government which had launched Swachhta Abhiyan can build thousands of toilets all over the country but is incapable to build and maintain a few at our heritage sites? The real intentions are different: the clue lies in “interpretation centres” which will be maintained by these private entities and which would prepare “pamphlets” and “publicity material”! The endeavour is to replace history with myths!