Chronicles The Sands of Time

India 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 legacy.

In 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.

Faced 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.

But 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?

Despite 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.

The 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 level.

The 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.

There 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.

The 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.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, December 29, 2005



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