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His Highness the Aga Khan

Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Ceremony to Inaugurate the Restored Humayun's Tomb Gardens (New Delhi, India)

15 April 2003

 

Your Excellency, Shri Jagmohan, Minister for Tourism and Culture
Excellencies,
Distinguished Guests,

I would like to begin by expressing my warmest gratitude to the Government for inviting me to India, and to the Minister for Tourism and Culture, His Excellency Shri Jagmohan, for honouring this inaugural ceremony with his presence.

We are gathered today, near the twilight hour, surrounded by the signs of paradise, at what is clearly a defining moment in world history. The need for better understanding across cultures has never been greater - nor more pressing, the requirement to recognise, value, and protect what is greatest in our common heritage.

Breathing new life into the legacy of past civilisations calls for a creativity, imagination, tolerance, understanding, and wisdom well beyond the ordinary.

These are some of the qualities that we celebrate in the collaborative outcome represented by the project being inaugurated today.

Conceived in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India's independence, the restoration of the gardens of Humayun's Tomb was formalised two years later. Implementation began in 2001 and was completed yesterday.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India recognised in this project a symbol of Indian history and of the world's cultural heritage. The role of the National Culture Fund also has to be acknowledged.

The task has been a vast one. Water channels were re-laid to such exacting standards that their beds rise only one centimetre every 40 metres. Over 2500 trees and plants were introduced in accordance with our knowledge of the original palette of landscaping. Wells were re-excavated and incorporated into a rainwater harvesting and irrigation system. Sixty stonecutters prepared 2,000 meters of hand-dressed red sandstone slabs.

These restored gardens are the first chahar-bagh, or four-part paradise garden to surround a Mughal tomb on the sub-continent. Built nearly a century before the Taj Mahal, the Tomb and its gardens were an expression of the love and respect borne towards the Emperor Humayun by his son, Akbar and widow, Haji Begum. The chahar-bagh was more than a pleasure garden. In the discipline and order of its landscaped geometry, its octagonal or rectangular pools, its selection of favourite plants and trees, it was an attempt to create transcendent perfection - a glimpse of paradise on earth.

The hues and scents of these gardens, the varied sources of the design elements and of the chosen construction materials, make this monument an important reminder of the power and elegance of diversity, while the sentiments that moved its patrons, united them in a shared virtue.

Revitalisation clearly is not just about replacing stones or replanting lawns. It is a process underpinned by careful research, in the present instance, drawing on archives in India as well as abroad. The project had to draw upon many disciplines - archaeological excavation, conservation science, soil analysis, stone carving, and civil and hydraulic engineering. It also benefited from, and contributed to, the skills of local artisans. Where encroachments had obscured and diminished the grandeur that was once enjoyed by all, we have, together, restored a glory that now becomes ours again.

Endeavours such as this are vital for countries like India, well-endowed with historical and cultural treasures, but also burdened by the responsibility of preserving them for future generations. It is my hope that this project will serve as a model for more collaborative ventures among the private and public sector, national and international entities and civil society.

Speaking of civil society, central to my broader concern is the fact that investing in such cultural initiatives represents an opportunity to improve the quality of life for the people who live around these remarkable inheritances of past great civilizations. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture insists that each of its conservation and restoration projects should be able to have an important positive impact on that quality of life. We are keen that our investments create a multiplier effect in the local economy. Accordingly, we monitor their impact on the physical environment as well as on disposable income and other indices of better living conditions. We also emphasise self-sustainability.

Here, as with the Trust's other urban projects such as in Cairo, Kabul and Zanzibar - a significant long term outcome will be the enhancing of the quality of leisure for residents and visitors alike.

A richer educational encounter at a sensitively restored monument will prompt more tourists to seek out other culturally significant sites in India.

These restored gardens can thus become the fulcrum and catalyst for socio-economic development as well as an irreplaceable resource for education.

I spoke a few minutes ago of this juncture in history, of reviving a legacy and of shared aspirations. Whether through neglect or willful destruction, the disappearance of physical traces of the past deprives us of more than memories. Spaces that embody historic realities remind us of the lessons of the past. They constitute valuable national assets but also represent the patrimony of mankind.

And, as we witnessed most poignantly across Afghanistan and now in Iraq, the very survival of so much of this heritage is today at risk.

What, then, of the deeper values that we risk abandoning under the dust of our own indifference, or that might be crushed to rubble by our own destructive human forces?

In the troubled times in which we live, it is important to remember, and honour, a vision of a pluralistic society. Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples' cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world. Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence. Never perhaps more so than at the present time, must we renew with vigour our creative engagement in revitalising shared heritage through collaborative ventures such as the project we are inaugurating today.

Thank you.

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