is blessed with what Lord Curzon described as 'the greatest galaxy
of monuments in the world'. Yet the great monuments, the Taj Mahals
and a handful of forts and palaces, do not exhaust the enormous
wealth of her heritage. Centuries of a rich and varied history have
bequeathed to her a built heritage that is spread across the great
cities and lesser towns, and is to be found in even in the smallest
of settlements and villages. Along with their tumultuous history
these monuments have been subjected to the vicissitudes of war and
the ravages of time. Despite all this, at the time of Independence
we were inheritors of a stupendous, mind-boggling, architectural
a startlingly short span of time, however, we are seeing the rapid
erosion of these marvels, either through sheer neglect and the uncaring
attitudes of the bureaucratic machineries that have been handed
the responsibility of preserving this legacy, or the indifference
of the public and acts that border on vandalism.
with the overwhelming pressures of urbanization, towns and cities
alter and change almost overnight, with the result that our historic
cities are rapidly losing their unique characteristics and edifices.
In the late 1950s a Japanese team led by Matsuo Ara surveyed the
336 major buildings of the Delhi Sultanate When the team returned
40 years later they found that 30 per cent of the monuments photographed
and documented by them were no longer standing.
Delhi is not India's only city with history. Often undocumented,
thousands of structures of great historical and architectural significance
across the country are being demolished, encroached upon, irrevocably
altered, sometimes in violation of the country's feeble laws, but
even more often in the absence of any such protection whatsoever.
Within this scenario, how is it possible to preserve and maintain
our historic cities and architectural heritage?
the presence of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and other
bodies concerned with the preservation of monuments, this purpose
remains largely unfulfilled. Part of the problem lies in the fact
that we have failed to reinvent and conceptualize heritage preservation
as a profitable venture. Preservation, as a concept extends, only
to individual buildings and lacks a holistic approach. Many of the
older cities have seen their historic core turning into degraded
areas - indeed, most 'old city' centres seem to be patterned around
this phenomenon. Wheher it is Delhi or Bhopal, Lucknow or Ahmedabad,
you will find that the 'old city' is not inhabited by the city's
wealthier residents. In fact, one of the noblest of these, the city
of Shahajahanabad - the last capital of the Mughal empire - in Delhi
is a notified slum and is administered under the slum act! The final
ravaging of Shahjahanabad took place during and after Partition,
when elite families of the city fled to Pakistan leaving their homes
to be occupied by the millions of refugees who were pouring into
the city. These magnificent, palatial, havelies were cut
up and partitioned into a warren of tiny establishments, shops and
residences. In an attempt at preservation, the ASI has brought several
endangered buildings and monuments onto its list of 'protected buildings'.
Unfortunately these isolated attempts at preservation did not go
far in altering the circumstances. While the more prominent buildings
and parks have received some semblance of 'protection', the lesser
known buildings and residences have chafed under the restraints
of such 'notification' as heritage buildings, and have quietly violated
many of the rules by which they were supposedly bound. In many cases,
the incongruity of such laws is brought out starkly when the situation
and circumstances of the inhabitants are juxtaposed against the
character of the buildings they occupy. In many cases the families
are economically backward or landlords simply allow properties to
rot because of completely unreasonable rental laws. Today the original
beauty of the city seems almost unrecoverable - yet even within
these circumstances it is possible to recover a little of what once
was, that is, if the authorities who hold the future of the architectural
past within their hands sit up and take an radical departure from
the way heritage is currently handled.
Indian city is a complex web and preserving its heritage has to
be subtly woven into the larger context of its administration. Putting
heritage onto city master plans is not enough. The master plan for
Delhi has a completely inadequate chapter on heritage, where it
states, "The agencies concerned with heritage are ASI, GNCTD,state
archaeology department, NDMC, MCD, Cantonment board and DDA,"
and adds, "it is suggested that with the aim of framing policies
and strategies for conservation, appropriate action may be prepared
by all agencies." With such a vague and feeble mandate, it
is unlikely that anything significant will be achieved by the master
plan's attempt at bringing heritage into city planning at a conceptual
ASI role has been static rather than visionary and inventive, and
the country's premier agency for the protection of its built heritage
remains caught in a colonial time warp. In a country endowed with
tens of thousands of monuments and structures of architectural distinction,
the ASI and its counterparts in the States protect only 9000. The
Governmental efforts at turning heritage into profit-making projects
have met with little success. Recently the west Bengal Government
shut down the 164 year-old Great Eastern Hotel in Kolkota as it
said it could not subsidize its annual losses of up to Rs. 40 million.
The Gothic style hotel was once known as the jewel of the east,
and has, today, been reduced to a rundown, shabby building with
rancid, musty interiors. The same property in the hands of more
enterprising owners could have been a potential money spinner.
is, however a gradual realization dawning, and Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh recently issued a directive to the Ministry of Culture, under
which it has now proposed the formation of a National Heritage Sites
Commission (NHSC). The NHSC perspective is based on the idea of
the 'heritage site', which extends protection and the task of conservation
well beyond individual buildings, to comprehend the larger environment
within which these stand, , and is intended to evolve a uniform
policy to preserve heritage sites across the country, including
those under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India.
This notion is, however, still in its infancy, and it remains to
be seen whether the NHSC lives up to its promise, or ends up as
just another moribund bureaucratic commission.
sheer pace of the destruction of India's built heritage demands
a far greater sense of urgency than is reflected in such a limited
initiative. Our efforts at conservation will have to move at the
same rapid pace - indeed, need to outpace - the rate at which our
cities are being transformed by their seemingly uncontrolled growth.
The beauty of our cities lie in their harmonious development - in
a modernity within which the past is cherished in equal consonance
with the present.
Published in The Pioneer, December