After two years, century-old Ma Hajiani Dargah restored to glory

Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari’s work on Worli shrine is a significant chapter in the city’s built heritage

Cocooned in the shielding hold of the bay, just off the arterial, traffic-clogged road that hugs the coastline, is the 111-year-old Ma Hajiani Dargah, restored to its former glory. The restoration of the building began in November 2017 and was completed by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari on April 19, which also marked the eve of Shab-e-Baraat.

The dargah is one of the lesser-known spots of quiet in the city, often interchanged with the more popular Haji Ali Dargah, a stone’s throw away. Built in 1908, when Sir George Sydenham was the Governor of Bombay — primarily in Porbandar stone and basalt ashlar plinth — it is an ideal example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Subtle influences of the colonial style of construction are evident, particularly in the ornamental work. “This is a very unique building. It is a magical place, of tranquillity, at the tip of the land on a natural rocky outcrop, elevated so gracefully,” Dilawari said.

Vantage point

The dargah is wisely planned and designed on an exceptionally high-filled plinth. “It’s a natural outcrop but has been designed to give a masonry [stonework] finish. There is perhaps no other building in Bombay that has a three-to four-storey-high plinth,” says Dilawari. The aforementioned portal leads to an open-to-sky courtyard, flanked by verandahs on both sides for devotees to sit. In the original east porch adjoining thesite of the graves(maqbara), a skylight is now installed, offering a view of the dome.

He says, “[With the dargah], the exercise of repairs and restoration is three-fold — firstly, to remove vegetation growth and carefully dismantle and re-erect the leaning stone minarets to make it safe. The second component is the waterproofing of the dome and terraces. The third is the restoration of carving the missing Porbandar stone pieces, and removing the paint specifically.” Since the main dargah is constructed with stone, it has withstood environmental impact fairly well. Initiallyrecorded as a Grade I heritage building by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, it was listed as Grade IIA in 2012. If it were still Grade I, the concerns surrounding the adjoining high-rises and the coastal road could possibly have been raised.

Crowning glory

The hemispherical dome is unique in its shape. Domes are usually built on a square base, whereas this is on a rectangular one. The mechanism of squinches — arched structures across interior angles to support the dome — integral to Islamic architecture, is used cleverly here too. Once the structure was opened for assessment, the edifice of the dome was the most fascinating element Dilawari came across. “It is built amazingly by skilled masons using brick and lime and has survived so well for more than a century. Had it been made out of reinforced concrete (RCC), it would have not lasted so long, as it is so close to the coast,” he explains.

The petals at the base of the dome are very similar to that of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) dome, which is of the same vintage, i.e. 1908-1914. The cerulean blue of the dargah’s dome, which makes it stand out from a distance, is owing to the use of China mosaic. “It was not always blue; it originally had lime-plaster. This was a later intervention, perhaps during the 1960s-70s, at the same time when the dome of the CSMVS was being treated, and the use of China became popular,” explains Dilawari. Following the restoration, it has been lime-plastered and then lime-washed internally, and the ceiling painted sky blue, symbolising heaven and the sea.

A blend of typologies

While the two finials atop the dome, the minarets, the spandrel, and the multi-foiled arches with glass windows all borrow stylistically from Islamic architecture, the floral ornamentation and coats of arms on the front facade largely derive inspiration from colonial buildings. “The roots of ficus trees caused the minarets to shift from their [original] alignment. We had to dismantle the minarets and re-erect them in plumb for safety. The eroded ornamentation and missing details below the cornice were replaced with new Porbandar stone by traditional stone carvers from Palitana in Gujarat,” elaborates Dilawari. The ornamentation skirting the internal ceiling was damaged owing to earlier repairs and had layers of paint which were carefully removed. “Porbandar stone is very soft to carve, but to have such enormous relief-work and decorative motifs [like pineapples and petals] internally in a dome with a rectangular base is very rare,” he shares.

Elements of wonder

The dargah is not without features that spark intrigue. A brick arch under the main staircase is like a flying buttress, creating a half-vault. It was constructed under the flight of steps with the purpose of allowing the passage of sea breeze from the void below to the rest of the property. This space, facing the west, was enclosed earlier and is now refurbished as a room for women to pray. On the same plinth, along the alley that leads to the staircase, were once located a few dormitories — almost like serais — for pilgrims from out of the city so they could rest or stay. “Moreover, something surprising which not many people know are underwater springs of fresh water. There is a beautiful arched buttress below; I presume that was once a clear opening. Perhaps while the dargah and complex were planned, the basement was made incorporating these sources within a storage facility,” explains Dilwari.

Challenging, yet satisfying

While the dome is the pièce de résistance, the most interesting aspect, for Dilawari, involved replacing the broken, embossed, coloured glass panes and instead use two-coloured glass. “We chose glass with blue and green borders — blue to depict the site’s closeness to the sea, and green [that is] usually associated with the religion. The rest of the area of the glass is plain. This was done deliberately as, during both dawn and dusk, the reflection of sunlight naturally creates varying colours, making it so special,” he says.

The process of conservation is not just restricted to the built form; a comprehensive understanding of the social and cultural fabric is crucial, and the ethos of the immediate community ought to be preserved. With minimum intervention, Dilawari has achieved just that. “Among sacred spaces, this is the first dargah that I have worked on, and feel very fortunate to do so,” he concludes.

Source: The Hindu

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