Conserving or Manipulating Architectural Heritage Structures by ASI: Some Instances from Fathpur Sikri

Let us deal with some instances of blatant ‘tailoring’ and ‘manipulating’ structures to suit particular interests.

According to the report on the excavations conducted at Fathpur Sikri by the Aligarh team under the National Project in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India, a structure identified at that timer officially as “the Ibadatkhana” was exposed as a result of excavations conducted in the years 1980-81, 1982-83 and 1983-84.

The Aligarh team which under Professor R.C. Gaur, as its director, exposed this structure included Jamal M. Siddiqui, K. K. Muhammad, Sami Alam, Nasir Husain Zaidi, Muhammad Anis Alvi, Muhammad Abid, Q.S. Usmani and some others.

By 2001, one of the ‘technical assistants’ of the Aligarh team, K.K. Muhammad, after joining the Archaeological Survey of India came to be posted at Agra as Superintendant Agra Circle. Soon after taking charge as Superintending Archaeologist, he started claiming the questionable identification of the ‘Ibādatkhana’ as his “discovery”. This is far from the truth, not only because the suggestion is an old one, made in published lists, but also because he was merely a junior member of the team which carried out work at Fathpur Sikri.

His role in the matter was limited to one, acknowledged by late Prof. R.C. Gaur who thanks him in a foot note for bringing to his notice in 1982 ‘a miniature copy of the painting’ housed at India Section of Victoria and Albert Museum, based on which the ibādatkhāna was identified by Gaur himself.

Akbar the Great (r. 1556–1605) holds a religious assembly in the Ibādatkhāna (House of Worship) in Fathpur Sikri; the two men dressed in black are the Jesuit missionaries Rodolfo Acquaviva and Francisco Henriques. Illustration to the Akbarnama, V&A Museum, Ms 117, London: miniature painting by Nar Singh, ca. 1605.

After making his claim, Muhammad made the matters worse by resorting to active measures to “conserve” the site. Taking a cue from the miniature, he started “tailoring” the site to suite it.

The Akbarnāma miniature in question depicts a screen wall of foliated blind arches behind the platform where Akbar, some religious divines, including Jesuit fathers, are shown seated. The excavated site comprised a screen of two full and a partial arch of some structure, which however does not seem at all aligned with the exposed structure. The Superintendant Archaeologist went on to extend (and thus bring it to an acceptable distance) and ‘complete’ the “mosque” by providing it with the missing arches. Totally ignoring the orientation of the structure vis a vis other Akbari structures around it, but in a hurry to prove his point, Muhammad re-shaped the structures to confirm his theory.

The Original Structure: Mark the niches

Below: The Tailoring of the structure

Had the interest been genuinely academic, then the attempt should have been directed at publishing the report of the excavations conducted by the ASI team! This attempt is best summed up by the well known historian of Mughal Architecture, Prof. Ram Nath:

It is a pity that the Government department which styles itself ‘Archaeological Survey of India’ and claims, authoritatively, to conduct and supervise all public archaeological activity in the country…acted under the guidance of an ignorant presiding officer. He misused his official position and floated a hoax, in order to earn the credit of discovering the ever elusive ‘Ibadat Khana of Akbar, and he did this, not for any pious academic purpose, but for self-glorification through publication of this wonderful news in the press, as he also did in respect of his (so-called) discovery of Akbar’s Gang Mahal (Dumb-House) at Churiyari (Fatehpur Sikri), and several other adventures….He is guilty in wasting public money on his private venture and whim, outside the scope of the ASI’s protection and conservation of national monuments and he is guilty of altering the original form and fabric of a protected monument which is an offence under Section 30 (1) (i) of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, besides being in flagrant violation of the ASI’s Conservation Manual (1923) Section 25. This amounts to ‘official vandalism’ which must be taken seriously in the interest of our cultural heritage.

Dr. D.V. Sharma, who had served the ASI as its Superintending Archaeologist in different circles and branches of ASI including Delhi and Agra Circles, and been involved in a number of major archaeological projects like those of BB Lal and KN Dixit and has been one of the esteemed colleagues of Muhammad at Agra, has the following words for him:

“… (he) has not only misinterpreted it grossly, he has also fabricated the things which are not there..”

Sharma goes on to sum up K.K. Muhammad’s work as follows:

“Not only did he claim, academically, to have discovered Akbar’s Ibadat-Khanah, he has also rebuit, anew, both the Qiblah-wall and the platform, in the name of archaeological conservation and restoration, in his capacity as the incumbent superintending archaeologist of Agra Circle of the ASI. He has rebuilt, at enormous cost, both the terraces of the platform (i.e., their floors) with red sand stone which was not there originally. He has also extended the Qiblah-wall (Qanati-Masjid) of the graveyard, lying at a distance of 39’1” from the platform, in order to bring it in line of the north-east bastion of the Jami Masjid, to prove its resemblance with the painting, and add three arches to it, a largest one in the middle and two smaller on the northern side. Their form has been changed and the broad intrados of the original two arches is missing in the three new arches. Instead of the original material, viz., rubble masonry, the new arches have been built of Lakhauri bricks. Instead of the original cusped niche, he has built a plain oblong niche on the other side of the central arch. Thus he has altered the original form and fabric of these protected monuments, and he has also destroyed their original historical character.”

What the Archaeological Survey of India did under the guidance of its Superintendant, Agra Circle, in 2002 was in direct contrast to the demands of the well established conservation policy of the government. The late- Sultanate style rectangular tāqs (niches) with multi-foliations in the mosque were converted by K.K. Muhammad into square niches. Secondly, in the three newly constructed arches, as pointed out by Sharma, the very architectural technique and material of construction was changed and given a new form. This amounts to planting evidence to perpetuate a false notion of the site under consideration.

K.K. Muhammad’s ‘inspired’ commissions do not end here:

There are other structures as well whose original form was drastically changed by him.

An example can be given of two structures situated on the edge of the ridge beyond the Diwan-i ām, adjacent to the so-called ‘Treasury’ in front of the ‘Mint’ (Karkhanas). Exhibiting a slight tapering of walls (still visible in the original portion on the left) these structures are considered amongst the earliest constructions on the ridge at Sikri.

K.K. Muhammad, in the name of its upkeep, rebuilt one of its walls (thus destroying the tapering effect) and added drooping red-sand stone eaves where none existed before!

Fortunately, another extension of contemporary structure, jutting from the southeastern side of the diwan-i ām escaped Muhammads’s attention.

Another structure whose form got transformed as a result of ASI’s version of conservation was the Stone Cutters’ Mosque near the Chishti quarters. According to the Indian Archaeology-A Review, the restoration work on mosque involved the construction ‘dwarf wall on the east and south of the mosque’. What remains unsaid but becomes apparent from two photographs appended to the report (pls. 181-182) is that a trabeate entrance raised on stone pillars (visible in the photograph) is now transformed into a typical radiating arch – an architectural feature entirely missing in the original structure.

The Original Structure: Mark the travesty doors

After Conservation: Arch replaces trabeate entrance!

This is the mosque about which Smith is very explicit when he writes:

This masjid is about the oldest building in the capital, and was probably erected before Fatehpur Sikri had attracted the notice of Akbar….

Similar was the treatment meted out to the Karkhāna structure (‘Mint’) situated between the Daulatkhāna-i ām and the Naqqārkhāna: thanks to the overzealousness of Mr. Muhammad. It is now provided with red sand stone jālis and lime plaster.

Thus what the ASI did was ‘create’ a new architecture where it did not exist. But then is the radiating arch not “Muslim” and thus appropriate in the eyes of the ASI officialdom?

Copyright Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Extracts from

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi