Hurt Heritage: Preventing Monumental mistakes
Without Architecture, we cannot remember…”
– John Ruskin, Seven Lamps of Architecture
When The British occupied Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi as it is now known, they remodeled the city as well as the Mughal Red Fort to suit their convenience and mood: as many as 80% of the buildings inside Red Fort were demolished to make way for military barracks. Mansions and havelis were demolished to make way for broader, new roads so that they had easy access for defensive purposes, in case the populace decided to ‘rebel’ against them again.
Perhaps all may have got demolished but for a horrified Lord Canning who tried to preserve our heritage.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was formed in 1861 by a statute passed into law by Lord Canning with Sir Alexander Cunningham as its first Archaeological Surveyor to excavate and conserve India’s ancient built heritage.
In 1904, a Cambridge classics scholar who was the Director General of ASI, formulated THE ANCIENT MONUMENTS PRESERVATION ACT 1904 (modified on 1st September 1949) for the preservation of ancient monuments. Since much damage had already been done to India’s rich built heritage due to ignorance, greed and neglect, controls and checks were put in place ‘for exercise of control over traffic in antiquities and over excavation in certain places’. Checks were put in place for ‘mining, quarrying, excavating, blasting and other operations of a like nature’.
Its aim was to preserve monuments as archaeological ruin on an ‘as is where is’ basis as a simple act of indirect conservation and regular maintenance.
Sir John Marshall also drew up a conservation manual in 1922, which combined the best conservation practices from all over the world, adapted to Indian context and was one of the most comprehensive documents written on conservation at that time.
The job of the ASI, which comes under the Ministry of Culture, is to protect the cultural heritage of our nation.
The Ancient Monuments and Archaelogical Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010 was passed with provisions to safeguard and protect ancient monuments and antiquities of India as well as regulate all construction activity around the monuments.
It specified a ‘prohibited area’, which meant that no construction activity (erection or a building, including any addition or extension thereto either vertically or horizontally) could take place within 100 metres in all directions of a monument. There was another regulated area, which was 200 metres further beyond the prohibited area where persons may undertake construction, reconstruction, repairs and renovation but only after obtaining permission from the Competent Authority on the recommendation of National Monuments Authority.
Prof Ali Nadeem Rezavi of Centre of Advanced Studies, Dept of History, AMU, Aligarh says, “Any tinkering with its provisions, especially the laws around its maintenance and prohibitions in allowing any encroachment or building around it would create loopholes to undo the watertight protection which has been provided for them by law. Once you allow constructions around it, the monuments can be easily suffocated. This we have already been witnessing in heritage cities like Delhi where encroachments have drained out the life of a number of monuments.”
He further bemoans the destruction of many medieval monuments such as kos minars, dams, barrages and bridges in the path of development.
The world heritage sites are listed as category A monuments while other ticketed monuments are category B. The most vulnerable are the category C, around which dense habitation has taken place. In many cases the monument is all but stifled as it’s surrounded by unchecked construction.
A few weeks ago, I had shared a coloured lithograph from Sir Syed Ahmed’s 1847 seminal work on Delhi monuments: Asar us Sanadeed on twitter and Facebook with the caption, ‘Can you identify this monument?’ Nobody could.
The lithograph showed the beautiful octagonal tomb of Mubarak Shah Sayyid, the second ruler of Sayyid dynasty of Delhi who died in A.D. 1434 and was buried there in an area named after him, Mubarakpur Kotla. However, sometime in the past century people from neighbouring villages occupied this place. Today it is smothered by multiple storeyed houses on all sides and barely has room to breathe.
If I had found that with great difficulty, the search for its companion mosque was even worse. It’s now a dump-yard which one has to approach through a narrow passage in one of the tenements surrounding it. One jumps onto a rubbish heap to get inside as its access has been blocked on all sides by construction.
There are numerous other heritage sites, which are already under threat or have been destroyed when stringent rules were in place. What will happen if these are removed to accommodate future construction?
Ever since I remember I have been fascinated by monuments, ruins, and the stones do speak to me with tales of their past glory and drama and as a heritage lover, the news that a note has been sent by the Culture Ministry to the cabinet with a proposal to amend the 2010 Act disturbs me to the core. I realised I am not alone as many share my concerns.
Priyank Gupta a junior research fellow in Department of Ancient History, Culture & Archaeology, Gurukula Kangari Vishwavidhyalaya,
Haridwar says, “It’s going to disturb the water table of the land, it will affect ancient sewage system of a monument. Ancient foundation, which was built of wood, will be most affected. Continuous vibration of heavy vehicles will affect its strength.”
When I asked eminent historian Prof Irfan Habib, he replied, “ This is against all recognized rules of conservation and it should be opposed by all people who want to protect our heritage.”
One of the monuments which is said to be affected by a proposed elevated road within the prohibited area is Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Agra
Syed Jamal Hasan who recently retired as Director Achaeology from ASI says that “Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra has monumental importance as it was here that we see the first example of a minaret in North India in the Gateway built by Jahangir. This was later successfully copied by Shah Jahan.”
Not only will the proposed elevated road hide the tomb’s gateway but have long term damage to the structure during construction and later because of traffic within the 100 m prohibited zone.
I agree we need development but does our future have to be at the cost of our past?