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Project Profile


2007 Award of Merit

Astana of Syed Mir Yahya

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Project TitleAstana of Syed Mir Yahya

LocationTehsil Shigar, Skardu District, Baltistan, Northern Areas, Pakistan

Size73 square metres

CostUS$ 8,350

Responsible PartySyed Muhammad Khan

Heritage ArchitectAkhon Ali, Muhammad Ali, Syed Hussan Shah, Arif

                                    Akhon Muhammad Jan, Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

ContractorAga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan

Date of Completion2006

Project Synopsis

Built in commemoration of Syed Mir Yahya, a missionary from Chinese Xinjiang, the eponymous Astana (tomb) is a significant monument of the Nurbakhshi order of Shia Sufism in Baltistan. Initiated upon the death of Syed Mir Yahya in 1632, the mausoleum was reportedly constructed over a period of 10 years. Located in Tehsil Shigar, it has remained, over the centuries, a place of pilgrimage and reverence for the local Nurbakhshi community, although its declining physical condition over the years had gradually limited its viability as a place of worship.

The architecture of the astana is a blend of Tibetan and Kashmiri styles typical of Balti saintly tombs. It is built on a square plan with pitched-roofed porticoes on all sides to allow for the circulation of pilgrims. The tomb lies in the square chamber at the centre of the structure, behind a latticework screen known as a jallie through which prayers may be transmitted to the saint buried within. A square cupola with a conical cap rises above the roof of the edifice. Construction is of traditional stone, timber and mud render.

Although listed buildings in Pakistan are technically protected under the 1975 Antiquities Act (amended in 1991), the mandate of the Ministry of Culture and the Department of Archaeology and Museums has yet to extend to buildings like the astana. In practice, ownership and responsibility for the maintenance of cultural monuments often rests in private hands, meaning that buildings are often at risk from neglect or local development. Furthermore, insensitive reconstruction efforts involving the use of modern materials and techniques have jeopardized the integrity of much of the physical heritage of the region.

Due to the perishable nature of its materials and a long period of physical neglect, the astana was in a state of considerable structural peril before the conservation efforts began in 2005. The roof had collapsed, the mud and thatch roof insulation had eroded, the wooden tower was damaged and the entire structure was tilted, a problem that was traced to the settlement of the foundation.

Conservation Approach

“Minimum intervention and maximum retention” was the defining strategy throughout the restoration project. Traditional building methods and materials, such as stone, mud and wood were utilized in a flexible timber frame structure, and this served to provide thermal comfort and earthquake-proofing. To protect the structure from sun and moisture, timbers were stained, in the traditional manner, with boiled walnut rind. In the interior, linseed oil and turpentine were employed to preserve the wooden parts and discourage termites.

The restoration project employed local artisans, who brought with them a wealth of knowledge of vernacular construction techniques. Expert consultants from the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) provided technical inputs, beginning with the preparation of detailed drawings documenting the building’s condition. 

Structural problems were addressed first, as the building had collapsed at the western corners due to insufficiently deep foundations. Slate was added to the wooden foundations as a means of expanding the inadequate plinth, thus transferring the building load to a larger area and guarding against subsidence.

The roof and wooden tower were then repaired. The decayed timbers were removed, and one third of the beams and rafters were completely replaced while one tenth of the boards were spliced with partial replacements. Wooden dowels were used to peg the beams. Millet stalks and birch bark were laid over the roof boards for water proofing, followed by a top layer of mud thatch in a ratio of 1 part clay: 1part wheat straw: 4 parts local soil. Two coats of soil wash were applied to fill in cracks that had appeared as a result of shrinkage of the top layer of mud thatch.

Rather than replacing the loose soil and boulder fill of the cribbage walls, which had developed gaps and cracked, a more stable fill of pure boulders was used, bonded with stabilized mortar that also provided defence against rat holes. Finally, a slate floor was added to the burial area, replacing the original rammed earth floor.  

Conservation and the Community

The Nurbakhshi community in Shigar formed a committee for the supervision of repair works and maintenance that drew upon local donated resources. Local involvement was sustained from the early planning steps, through the execution phase, to the continuing management of the astana.

The reaction to the conservation effort from the wider community has been overwhelmingly positive. As a result of the success of this project, the first restoration effort initiated by the Nurbakhshi community of Shigar, it was decided by the community to prepare, in consultation with the AKCSP, plans for a similarly sensitive restoration of the historic Friday Mosque in the centre of Shigar, a project that was originally to be executed in modern materials. The revival of traditional skills and the interest in employing them in future projects has been an attractive windfall of the conservation effort.

The conservation of the Astana of Syed Mir Yahya has had significant spiritual implications. With the reverence of saints playing an important role in Sufi practice, the renewed use of the astana serves as an iconic link to the arrival of Islam in the area and a physical manifestation of this spiritual lineage.

Quote from the Project Team

“One of the major impacts of this conservation project is the local realization that if the fragile structure had been allowed to collapse, Shigar clearly would have lost a major landmark and an important part of its cultural identity.”