Over the last decade, at least 10 MPs, from different political parties, had the same question: how many of India’s monuments were missing?
In the winter of 2009, the count was 35. In the nine years since then, the list of missing monuments submitted in Lok Sabha grew, then shrunk, and as of January 1, 2018, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the custodian of India’s 3,686 protected monuments, said 14 were “affected by” rapid urbanisation, 12 were submerged by reservoirs or dams, and 24 it simply could not trace.
In the last decade, Jammu & Kashmir and Karnataka appear to have found theirs — both states had at least a couple of “untraceable monuments” in 2009 but are not on the latest list. In Uttar Pradesh and other states in central India, many more monuments have gone off the radar — UP, for instance, had eight untraceable monuments in 2009. The number is now 10.
In its response to “efforts” made to trace these monuments, the Ministry of Culture has, over the years, alluded to an expanding India to explain the case of missing monuments. Last year too, in his reply submitted in the Lok Sabha, MoS (Culture) Mahesh Sharma said the untraceable monuments — these include the ‘Guns of Emperor Sher Shah’ in Assam, a whole ‘Copper Temple in Lohit’, European tombs in Pune and ancient cemeteries — could have been lost to urbanisation.
However, Sher Shah Suri’s guns, which top the list of “untraceable monuments”, may not be missing after all. In 2014, the guns reportedly surfaced in a circuit house in Chapakhuwa in upper Assam, ending speculations of its whereabouts.
As for the Kutumbari temple in Almora, which is on the ministry’s “untraceable” list, the website of ASI’s Dehradun circle states that while the temple itself is lost, “architectural members of the temple can be seen on the houses nearby” — that is, they have been taken away by villagers for construction. In essence, the temple lives on in villagers’ homes.
Heritage enthusiasts cite poor maintenance, vandalism and attrition as reasons for monuments going untraceable. “Certainly, not all 3,686 monuments are protected like the Taj Mahal is. Those on the periphery are neglected or destroyed due to vandalism or attrition,” former convenor of INTACH-Delhi A G K Menon told The Sunday Express.
A former senior official with the ASI, who did not wish to be named, called attention to the quality of the list itself. “Not all the monuments on the list are lost. Some have been relocated, some just require a properly structured investigation to seek them out,” he said. “The real issue is the ASI functions with a skeletal staff and is in desperate need of trained manpower.”
Yet, every time a Member of Parliament has raised a question about untraceable monuments, a variation of this list is submitted as an annexure. This year, the ministry said in its reply that ASI has taken steps to “locate/trace/restore and recover the missing monuments” through “verification of old records, revenue maps, referring to published reports” and deploying its men to physically inspect sites — an oft-repeated reply.
In December 2017, field offices were asked to dig up revenue records and carry out physical inspections to trace the monuments and sites. ASI’s Director of Antiquities, D N Dimri, says it is possible some of these monuments may have ‘changed addresses’. “For most of the monuments, we have already collected revenue records but in some situations, the records were made a long time ago and the kasra numbers may have changed,” Dimri said. “In many instances, the monuments are not missing at all. They have been encroached upon and have become ‘living monuments’” he said.
INTACH’s principal director of architectural heritage Divay Gupta said some monuments were lost due to road-widening projects. “…But remember, these are protected monuments…India has several unprotected ones,” he said.