Unesco award highlights restoration of stepwells at Qutb Shahi Tombs

Neglected for decades and filled with mud and debris, they were an eyesore on the sprawling complex of historic Qutb Shahi Tombs but after restoration the six stepwells are now adding to the tourist attraction of the world’s largest royal necropolis.

With the Unesco recognizing the conservation of six stepwells (Baolis) with 2022 award of distinction, the focus is on the historic stepwells and the restoration undertaken by Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in association with heritage department of Telangana and Quli Qutb Shah Urban Development Authority (QQSUDA).

The conservation work was supported by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) and the TATA Trusts.

The project was funded by AFCP to the tune of $112,560 and it was months ago that six restored stepwells were inaugurated.

This was one of the components of restoration work undertaken by AKTC to restore the past glory of the royal necropolis spread over 106 acres. With 72 monuments including mausoleums of rulers of the Qutb Shahi dynasty (1518-1687), the sprawling complex at the foot of the majestic Golconda Fort is getting a new lease of life.

The complex called Qutb Shahi Heritage Park has 40 mausoleums, 23 mosques, stepwells, a ‘hamam’ (mortuary bath), pavilions and garden structures, each with its striking grandeur and a unique synthesis of architectural styles.

The stepwells Badi Baoli, Hamam Baoli, Baug Baoli, Mashriqi (eastern) Baoli, Maghribi (western) Baoli and Eidgah Baoli were all believed to have been constructed between 16th and 17th century under the first ruler of Qutb Shahi dynasty Sultan Qutb-ul-Mulk.

According to Arvind Kumar, special secretary, municipal administration and urban development, government of Telangana, these wells were in an extremely dilapidated condition and had turned almost into water puddle.

Unesco Asia-Pacific award for cultural heritage conservation has highlighted the significance of the restoration project.

“In recovering the stepwells and associated aqueducts from a state of neglect and partial ruins, the project has revived the function of the historic waterworks of irrigating the surrounding orchards and forests, thus enabling the holistic restoration of the historic landscape,” noted the UN body.

“The conservation work was based on thorough research and understanding of the original engineering technology and was carried out with careful attention to the appropriate use of traditional materials and techniques. The conservation project at Golconda creates a renewed appreciation for the continued relevance of heritage-based solutions for sustainability,” it added.

The AKTC sees the award as the validity of the public-private partnership for heritage conservation.

According to officials engaged in restoration work, several of these Baolis were filled-in and lost, and required several years of painstaking effort to remove accumulated rubble and debris before repairing or even reconstructing collapsed portions.

The conservation effort of the stepwells has demonstrated that heritage conservation can fulfill several government objectives including employment creation, rainwater harvesting, and creating a significant tourist destination, they said.

Ratish Nanda, conservation architect at AKTC, pointed out that the restored stepwells collected 21 million liters of rainwater in 2022.

Telangana’s minister for municipal administration and urban development K.T. Rama Rao hailed the Unesco recognition for restoration of stepwells.

He believes that this will further strengthen the case of Hyderabad for UNESCO world heritage tag. He is of the view that with Qutb Shahi Tombs, Golconda Fort, Charminar and number of heritage structures, Hyderabad richly deserves the honour.

The restoration of the royal necropolis started in 2013 when a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed for an integrated conservation and landscape restoration project of the Tomb complex by the then Andhra Pradesh State Department of Archaeology and Museums, QQSUDA, AKTC and Aga Khan Foundation.

The entire complex has been divided into three zones — the core archeological area, a visitor facility area and a biodiversity zone.

The conservation activities have been implemented by master craftsmen working with stone and lime. The project involved craft-led approach, reviving traditional building crafts and utilising traditional materials in the conservation.

The conservation project is now in the final stage. The restoration of the mausoleum of Muhammed Qutb Shah is likely to be completed next year.

Once completed, Qutb Shahi Heritage Park is expected to draw visitors from all over the world.

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