Apathy over antiquities
In the 70th year of Independence, a grim reminder, with photographic evidence, about the mismanagement and neglect of our rich heritage
The importance of our built heritage has never been fully appreciated. As in the case of Delhi whenever a new city was built, the old was stripped to provide readymade building material. The tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana, which looks like a plucked hen without its red sandstone and marble cladding, is another example. After the First War of Indian Independence when the British Crown established its full control over India, many laws were put in place to protect whatever built heritage was left.
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.
Sir John Marshall also drew up a conservation manual in 1922 which combined the best conservation practices from all over the world, adapted to the 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 Archaeological 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 and ‘regulated area’ which meant that permission may be given after due consideration.
Nayanjot Lahiri’s book comes at a time when many monuments are under threat with a proposed amendment being considered to allow construction within the prohibited zone.
Interestingly, this idea of a prohibited zone came from the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana as Lahiri notes in the book, “The idea itself, that a security net ought to be created around heritage buildings, can be traced to Jawaharlal Nehru. As Prime Minister, he complained to the Union Minister of Education in 1955 that India’s old and historical places were getting spoilt by new buildings being put up around them. In order to prevent intrusions, Nehru suggested that the government ‘lay down that within a certain area no building should be put up without permission’.”
A lovingly written and well-researched book, it shows the author’s passion and commitment for India’s rich heritage. As such her anger at the mismanagement and neglect of our antiquities and monuments is palpable. “Ironically, while the ministers and government functionaries who live in Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone in New Delhi have not permitted any overhead metro line in front of their bungalows there, they have no compunction in pushing for a legislation which would allow ugly overhead contraptions in the vicinity of our national monuments,” she writes.
Detailed photographic evidence is provided to show the utter apathy in some of our museums and archaeological sites.
The tracing of India’s ‘archaeological heritage since Independence’ is the most detailed work that I have read. In a very interesting chapter on the partitioning of the ASI’s collection of Museums and Archaeological Remains she describes the process of dividing around the middle. Her horror at the absolute equity when dividing the jewellery, in particular the two golden necklaces from Taxila and Mohenjodaro’s famous carnelian and copper girdle, can be felt. A famous archaeologist like Mortimer Wheeler ‘should have known that he was severely compromising their integrity’.
I have heard many stories about the refugee camps in the wake of Partition inside Delhi’s Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. Lahiri describes an incident of intentional vandalism of the Qila e Kuhna Mosque and its subsequent and excellent repair work by the ASI.
Through changing frontiers
The book scores in its reader-friendly style as many academics write only for an academic audience, presuming a certain level of proficiency in the reader themselves. It guides the reader through prehistoric India and its changing frontiers as well as redefining the world of protohistoric India.
Today, with awareness as well as controversies over monuments raring their heads more often than in the past, this book also gives details of how audits are done for our archaeology and museums. Any lover of heritage would be horrified to hear that a local politician has installed his own statue in the historic site of Hastinapur.
The author also touches on litigation around protected sites and the controversial events around the Babri Masjid leading to a judicial order by the Supreme Court for an excavation of the disputed site. What will be the ramifications of doing archaeology under court orders? Will this serve as a precedent for other disputed sites are some of the questions raised.
It is a timely book coming as it does at a time when the Taj Mahal is being called un-Indian and being denied a share of the state exchequer under ‘sanjhi virasat’.
Monuments Matter: India’s Archaeological Heritage Since Independence; Nayanjot Lahiri, The Marg Foundation, ₹2,800.