As Charminar remains caught between conservation challenges and historical identity, a look at the way forward

What are great cities without great monuments? Monuments lend the cities with character, bear testimonials to their greatness, are centres for commerce, and become metaphors for greatness when an empire is at its zenith. If Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Agra its Taj Mahal, then Charminar, which has seen the reigns of Qutb Shahs, the Nizams and then countless democratic governments, reflects the very microcosm of Hyderabad, the heart of the Deccan.

Inspiring countless poets, writers and visionaries over four centuries, it has remained the bedrock of the city and its culture, and an icon with which people identified themselves with. Located in the bustling old city with the Mecca Masjid on one side and the sprawling Laad Bazaar on the other, it looms large, both in size and stature, over everything it oversees.

The history of the monument

Built in 1591-92, at the cost of nine lakh rupees, by Sultan Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth Sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, Charminar was one of the tallest buildings of the world at the time, at 48.7 meters from the ground.

Marking the shifting of the capital from Golconda to Hyderabad, the reasons for its construction are varied. The most consistent accord is that the inadequacy of water and plague (or cholera, which was widely prevalent at the time) forced Quli Qutb Shah to construct a new city. Designed by Mir Momin Astrabadi, its construction also coincided with the millennium of the Islamic calendar — 1000 Hijri. Space was created for 14,000 shops to surround the monument and as the city grew it was surrounded by labyrinthal lanes on all sides.

 As Charminar remains caught between conservation challenges and historical identity, a look at the way forward

Charminar. All images courtesy of Emanuel Studios

Conservation architect Anuradha Naik calls it a monument like none other in the world. “It was designed as a specular gateway to a new and thriving city of Hyderabad,” she explains and adds, “There were several gateways to cities, the Charminar was placed on crossroads of the famous trade-routes and no walls bounded it. Its scale and location would have made sure it was visible long before travellers reached the city of Hyderabad.”

The architecture is of the Qutb Shahi style — with minarets and ogee arches. It was constructed using granite and lime plaster and exquisite stucco work — a vocabulary that had reached its acme by the time it was constructed in 1591. Historian Mohammed Safiullah says that it’s one of the few Qutb Shahi buildings still existing in the city, adding, “One cannot find a similar monument in modern history. Its unique influences in architecture shows how evolved the Deccani culture of the time was.”

Charminar is heavily influenced by the Char Bagh or four garden idiom introduced by Mughal King Babur, which finds immense importance in Persian life and culture. While the gardens are long gone, what remains are imposing minars, sweeping arches, wide galleries and effigies of pigeons, parrots, squirrels and peacocks in the delicate stucco work tucked within its folds.

In 1886, iron railings with a gate on the northern side were fixed on the occasion of the visit of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Dufferin while in 1889, clocks were fixed on the four sides of Charminar. In the early 1950s, the monument was given in control to ASI (Archeological Survey of India) which remains the custodian of the monument till date.

Conservation effects

The challenges to conserve Charminar are complex as it is located in the heart of a thriving market area and till at least a decade ago, buses and heavy vehicles could pass by it. Surrounded by hundreds of small business, which have been around for decades, the impact on them is at loggerheads with heritage conservation here.

In early May, the lime stucco work on one of its southwestern minarets fell down creating ripples in the city’s heritage circles. Safiullah says that it’s the same minaret from which the stucco work fell in 2001, 2012 and 2019. He claims that damage isn’t new to the over 400-year old monument. “In 1707 AD, the southwestern minaret was extensively damaged when struck by thunder and was repaired at a cost of sixty thousand rupees. In 1824 AD, it was re-plastered at the cost of one lakh rupees” he shares. Extensive repairs were undertaken during the prime minister-ship of Salar Jung I (1853-1883).

The Charminar Pedestrianisation Project which started in 2006 and aimed to pedestrianise a radius of 220 meters around the monument hasn’t been received well and Naik believes that the project is flawed in its design as well as its implementation. She says, “There has not been enough thought given to the logistics nor to the details of design. For example, have traders been given alternative access to get their goods into the area or residents been given special permits, or for that matter, alternative green transport provided to visitors who cannot walk that stretch? Unless alternatives are put in place at the start, how can such a big urban change be implemented?”

Charminar by night

Charminar by night

Naik adds, “The cobbled flooring that has been laid is a feature of medieval Europe! We never had such paving and since there is no precedent to such a design feature, those who have laid it do not know the technical knowhow. These are supposed to be placed on compacted earth, so water can drain into the earth. Sadly, what has happened is that they have been placed on a concrete bed — without even channels to drain off the surface water, creating in effect a concrete swimming pool. I think it is better not to make these changes — whether it is the lime plastering of the Charminar or the paving at its base — than to make interventions that are disastrous.”

Relocation of the hawkers and the stores which surround the monument have hit major hurdles in the past. Once it's completed, a buffer zone would be created which would disallow entry of all vehicles.

Way forward

Anuradha Reddy, Convenor, INTACH Hyderabad, says that local communities need to be taken in confidence for conservation. She says, “Inspite of all the neglect thrown at Charminar it still installs a sense of pride in Hyderabadis. It’s a magnet for tourists and a national treasure; its conservation should be in tandem with the social community who live around it.”

A symbol of Hyderabad more than 400 years after its creation, many opine that the onus should be to preserve and protect. Naik explains, “Interventions must be minimal and while it is necessary to re-plaster areas of deteriorated and decayed lime plaster, it is imperative that the focus be on quality rather than cost. Highly skilled craftsmen and extremely stringent quality control measures need to be taken. Further, it needs to be ensured that the scaffold is erected and dismantled with immense care and while working with lime, a great deal of patience is required as it takes time to set.”

With Hyderabad vying for the UNESCO World Heritage tag, historians feel that governmental intervention needs to be concentrated rather than cosmetic. Building infrastructure is the requirement of the day feels Safiullah, “They should approach it like they do their power and irrigation projects. A heritage tag would bring in millions of dollars in revenue, for that to happen, clean roads, landscaping and loos are a must. They should be world class.”

The five-storied building complex which houses a mosque (which can fit around 40 people) is a metaphor for all things Deccani – in its fusion of architectural styles, in its role as a symbol of heritage and in its invaluable contribution around the world as a marker for the very city of Hyderabad.

Reddy says that it is an icon for both the city and our country. “Why do we value the Taj, why did the whole of Europe rise in one voice for the Notre Dame?” she asks, “It’s because they define your identity and history, and thus need to be conserved at any cost.”

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Updated Date: May 28, 2019 09:50:52 IST