The Deccan Heritage Foundation revives a legacy
While preserving the memory of Khairunnisa and James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the restoration of the Rang Mahal gardens persists in the Deccan Heritage Foundation’s repurposing initiatives
In approximately 3,000 years of history, the Deccan region has witnessed emergence and fall of numerous strong kingdoms. The Deccan of old, though, is still one of India’s best-kept secrets. This year, we shall see the restoration of the Rang Mahal Gateway and the gardens adjoining it. With funding support from Sonata Software, it is a part of the Deccan Heritage Foundation’s three-year restoration project contributing to chronicling and preservation of Hyderabad’s history. Ficus Landscape Architects, based in Bengaluru, designed the terrain of the Rang Mahal Gardens during the restoration process.
The British Residency mansion was one of the earliest examples of European design in Hyderabad, founded in 1802, with its large flight of stairs, and sphinxes on either side of the gateway. The Rang Mahal, which was constructed at the same time as the massive edifice adjacent to it, shared aesthetic coherence with its slender curving pillars, exquisite scaffolding, and stucco work.
Dr Helen Philon, an expert on Decani Sultanate architecture and art, and Dr George Michell, one of the most eminent South Asian architecture historians, formed the DHF, a non-profit organisation, aspiring to protect, revitalise, and promote the Deccan region’s cultural legacy through conservation projects, cultural outreach initiatives within an integrated framework for sustainable socioeconomic development.
The Rang Mahal, which is Hindi for ‘colourful palace,’ housed Khairunnisa, a Hyderabadi Sayyida noblewoman and wife of James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764–1819), a Lieutenant Colonel in the British East India Company and resident in the princely state of Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805. Inside the building, the Durbar Hall’s papier mache ceiling is another distinctive aspect of the structure and is likely the last of its kind in India.
“Gardens are emblems of the generative natural environment that have to go hand-in-hand with the restoration of a monument as it was built for a particular environment, enhancing it. So, the restoration of the garden in a college devoted to women’s education stresses the importance of the environment while also encouraging well-being and knowledge,” Helen shares with us.
The refurbishment will highlight different architectural features at the beginning of the 19th century when the courtship between Khairunnisa and Kirkpatrick began. “We are using more methods of cutting the gardens – incorporating shrubs and scented flowers, which would suggest the different periods – when Khairunnisa died and Kirkpatrick was no longer a resident at the place, the British that succeeded him in the residency opted for a more English garden. Whoever is coming to visit the garden will be able to witness the changes between the periods from the early 19th century to the time when the residency was converted into a university,” Helen adds.
“The foundation is trying to revive the Decani Garden which is a linear garden, a unique feature. What we see are the char bagh patterns. But a linear garden is not something which we commonly come across. To turn away from the western influences in our restoration process, we looked back at our traditions – oriented to the vegetation and landscape of the region. We looked at tropical plants, which are lawn-based and have a different feature from the English gardens,” conservation architect, Akhila Udayashankar tells us.
In early 2020, while DHF was restoring the British cemetery near the gardens, they found a model of the residency amid dilapidated and overgrown ground covers and wild bushes. “The presence of the model was always known historically. If one looks at the archival images of the college, one would realise that it has always been a central focal point. But when a huge tree fell on the model, it got fairly destroyed after which the Rang Mahal gardens fell into low or no maintenance, because of which it got hidden, ruined and forgotten over time. Our first restoration project on the ground was the model. Looking at the model stylistically, there are differences between that and the residency which led us to believe that it is parallel to or could slightly predate the main building – probably it served as a sample for the residency,” Akhila adds.
The Rang Mahal gardens will open on January 15, for an invite-only event. The Warsi brothers will perform a Qawwali concert, and Dr Molly Aitken will deliver a talk about Yogini paintings from the medieval Deccan.