Beautifying the Basti

Om Pal  (photo by Robert Remington)

Om Pal, with his tile work at a children’s playground in the basti
(photo by Robert Remington)

Robert Remington
Delhi, India
April, 2015

One day, there was a great commotion in the basti. The city was repairing sewer pipes and Om Pal was upset. “Everyone ran out to see what was happening,” explains Shakeel Hossain of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Unknown to the workers, or anyone else, Om Pal had hidden his life savings in the sewer pipes, thought to be about 200,000 rupees (about $3,800 Canadian dollars) or about three years earnings for the average person in the basti. Om Pal’s money was recovered and, after an identify card was secured form, he was able to open a bank account.

In the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, a 700-year-old enclave in the heart of Delhi, Om Pal is something of a celebrity.  A former beggar who lost an arm in a construction accident, he is known to nearly everyone. Born with a hearing impairment, which makes him unable to speak, he has earned a living installing  mosaic tiles throughout the basti.

“He’s a bit a free spirit. We let him do his own thing,” says Hossain. Om Pal’s “thing” is everywhere throughout the basti. His mosaic tiling can be found in the children’s playground, on walls, and on the paved walkways that have been laid over the basis dirt paths.

The basti is a fascinating area of Delhi, an urban village that grew around the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya (1236 – 1325). Because it is considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s grave, the area of he basti has seen over seven centuries of tomb building. With more  than 100 monuments standing within or adjoining the area, “it could well be the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings in India,” according to the website of the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative. The not-for-profit public-private partnership combines the work of of the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Central Public Works Department and the Aga Khan Foundation and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The grandest tomb, of the Mughal emperor Humayun,  is adjacent to the basti. Nearly overrun by urban encroachment and desecrated by vandals, it underwent a restoration by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture  in collaboration with Archaeological Survey of India beginning in  1997 and completed in  2013.

Humyan's tomb. (Photo by Robert Remington)

Humyan’s tomb.
(Photo by Robert Remington)

Today, it is a stunning oasis of magnificent gardens and green spaces. It attracts thousands of visitors, few of whom venture into the nearby basti, where life-changing programs are occurring for the most vulnerable citizens of the crowded enclave. The Aga Khan Development Network, co-funded by the Sir Ratan Tata Trust, are improving schools, providing early childhood development programs, installing outdoor computers and more. Co-funding for various projects also comes from the Ford Foundation, the U.S Embassy, the Word Monuments Fund, the Republic of Germany and the Sor Dorabji Tata Trust.


"Hole in the wall" computers at the Nizamuddin Basti.  (Photo by Robert Remington)

“Hole in the wall” computers at the Nizamuddin Basti.
(Photo by Robert Remington)

Children being fed in the Nizamuddin Basti. (Photo by Robert Remington)

Children being fed in the Nizamuddin Basti.
(Photo by Robert Remington)

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