Research in India, or how I spent my winter vacation

Over the break, two contingents of architecture undergraduates specializing in historic preservation traveled to India for an unprecedented research project.  Led by Professor Krupali Krusche, DHARMA (Digital Historical Architectural Research and Material Research – a play on the DHARMA Initiative from the TV series LOST) uses both traditional methods and cutting-edge technologies to document historic structures to aid in their protection.

After recovering from the jet lag of American Airlines’ direct flight from Chicago, we spent our first day in Delhi.  After a whirlwind tour of old Delhi by rickshaw, a meeting with the director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and a tour of Sir Edwin Lutyen’s colonial government complex, we boarded a bus for the ride to Agra.  We were told the ride would take 4 to 7 hours, depending on traffic.

It took about three hours of gradual progress amidst incessant horns just to break free of the human, animal, and mechanical congestion radiating from Delhi before we finally came to a standstill at the border of the state of Uttar Pradesh.  I wonder if you could put an iZoom on a camel… Once past that barrier, we soon entered the traffic of Agra proper, which was just like Delhi but with narrower streets.  We were based in Agra for the remainder of the 10 day expedition.

Extensive planning during the fall semester yielded detailed schedules that would, in theory, maximize the use of our limited time on the ground at the sites. We spent all but the last day focused on two Mughal-era tombs, laser scanning, hand measuring, and photo-documenting every last detail.  The tombs were built in the two generations prior to the Taj Mahal, and are, thankfully, far less touristy.  With the cooperation of the ASI field office, we began our documentation of the Tomb of Akbar at Sikandra, on the outskirts of Agra.  The third emperor of the Mughal dynasty, Akbar’s tomb combined elements of both Hindu and Islamic architecture.

Construction was started during his lifetime, but was ultimately finished by his son, Jahangir, around 1613.  This makes it roughly contemporary with Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.  Although the tomb was substantially completed within a decade of Akbar’s death, a considerable portion of what exists today dates to reconstructions under British rule.  Particularly active in this period was Lord Curzon, who was viceroy at the turn of the twentieth century.  During his administration the “Golden Room” at the entrance to the tomb chamber was refurbished, and the CHHATRIS (small pavilions) were finally completed atop the minarets of the entrance gate.  Extensive repair of damaged marble inlay was also carried out.  Enormous sums of money were used in the restoration, with the colonial gazetteer from one year reporting expenditures of 100,000 rupees for archaeological work in the Agra district alone.

The mausoleum, which is 320 feet square at its base, sits in a walled park, or CHARBAGH, with raised causeways linking the tomb platform to four gates, one at the midpoint of each wall.  This garden was originally conceived as a reflection of paradise.  The raised paths were once lined with fruit trees so that persons walking upon them could pluck fruit at eye level.  Although this orchard has vanished over time, the idealized nature of the scheme is no less apparent today.

Interestingly, the most remarkable aspect of the Mughal construction was not its ambitious scale or lavish detail but the hydraulic engineering necessary to irrigate such planting in an arid climate.  Even today, the remains of a massive well, some 20 feet in diameter and at least 4 times as deep, instill a sense of awe in the visitor.

In our privileged access to the upper levels of the mausoleum, the grandeur of the whole complex becomes apparent, culminating in the marble screened cenotaph at its summit.  (In Islamic practice the tomb is supposed to be unroofed.  Since the actual grave is buried under 5 terraces of sandstone, there is a dummy sarcophagus atop the structure to satisfy the letter of the law.)  The JALI screens that surround this “courtyard in the sky” give a sense of near-total seclusion from the cares of the world, an impression shattered only by the ubiquitous truck horns calling from the arterial road a quarter mile to the south.

As I joked one night before dozing off after a long day’s work, “This hotel room is quiet as a tomb.  As opposed to the actual TOMBS around here, which sound like Corso Vittorio Emmanuele at rush hour.”

Matthew Balkey is a fifth-year architecture student.  Somehow, in a nation of 1.21 billion persons, he was the only one wearing a pith helmet.  He can be reached at