Four Years On: Sabz Burj restoration complete, rare painting on ceiling discovered

For a century, the ceiling painting — which uses real gold and lapis lazuli — remained buried under layers of chemicals used during its restoration in the 1920s.

It took four years to complete the conservation and restoration project for Sabz Burj, the 22-metre high octagonal monument located at the intersection of Mathura Road and Lodhi Road. It was a chance discovery during conservation that the intricate artwork on its ceiling was revealed, putting the ASI-protected monument in the league of most unique landmarks in the country.

For a century, the ceiling painting — which uses real gold and lapis lazuli — remained buried under layers of chemicals used during its restoration in the 1920s. “It has lost its lustre and paint patterns because of application of chemical layers in the 1920s,” said Ratish Nanda, CEO of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), which undertook the work in collaboration with the ASI.

He added that no restoration work was done on the ceiling considering its heritage value and only preservation has been carried out.

It is believed that the tomb was built between AD 1530-40, and an important nobleman or a royal is buried here considering the usage of gold and its location.

But it is more important than what it appears to be, said Nanda. It’s an architectural treasure as it is one of the earliest examples of Mughal architecture in Timurid-style and is also one of the first instances of double-domed tombs in the country.

Historian Ebba Koch, in her book Mughal Architecture (1991), wrote about the use of glazed tiles on the dome and commented that “it was popular in Iran”.

Apart from restoration work, the tomb has been illuminated by Havells India Limited, which joined hands with the AKTC and ASI, and funded the entire conservation exercise as part of its CSR project.

Around 1904, Nanda said this structure was converted into a police station and functioned like that for another 10-15 years. That is when most of the decay happened since it was plastered and whitewashed before being used. Originally, the dome had glazed green tiles on the top (giving it the name Sabz Burj), besides green, yellow and blue tiles on the lower parts of the dome.

But the original tiles were replaced with blue ones during its restoration in the run up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Those tiles were removed with due permission, and new ones have been put up — again green, blue and yellow — to revert to original.

The tiles have been created by craftsmen from Nizamuddin Basti, who were trained in the craft by artisans from Uzbekistan, said Nanda. Most of the conservation fund went back to the local community, he added.

The restoration of this 500-year-old structure started in November 2018 and was supposed to be completed in about 18 months. Owing to pandemic-related lockdowns and other official back and forth during the project, it has taken four years.

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