Under the amber glow of street lights in an overcast evening, the domes of the Byzantine structure of Nyaymandir, in the heart of Vadodara, remind one of its glory of 120 years until its doors were shut in March last year when the judiciary shifted out to a new premises in Diwalipura area. Since then, the heritage building is ironically awaiting justice to be done to its legacy.
Having housed the district court since the early 1900s, it now wears a deserted look — its doors and windows shut to even curious tourists, as the future of the building is in limbo, while the judiciary takes its time to hand it over to the Vadodara Municipal Corporation, which has been considering plans to turn it into a museum. For now, the majestic building’s open spaces serve as a parking lot for visitors to the city’s largest local market Mangal Bazaar across the road, while its pavements serve as bedding for street dwellers at night.
For 62-year-old Jayesh Shah, who grew up in a bylane across Nyaymandir, the shifting of the court brought a strange silence to the surrounding. “The bustle is missing and it feels deserted,” he says. “Business in most shops around here has dropped too, as earlier those visiting the court would often make impulse shopping visits.”
He recalled his childhood days spent watching watch people stream in and out. “Be a good citizen,” elders advised him as they pointed in warning to those walking in handcuffed with their heads lowered, accompanied by the police.
Shah, a retired government executive engineer, says authorities must act fast to preserve the building. “We cannot afford to lose the monument to neglect.” He worried that the monsoon would already have caused damage to the unoccupied structure. “They should turn it into a library or something people can visit. It was a gift from Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad. We should cherish it,” says Shah.
Speaking of the status quo on the building, a senior officer of the court, on condition of anonymity, said, “We are awaiting instructions from the Chief Justice. Until that time, we cannot do much. We just get it cleaned once in a fortnight.”
In June 2015, the district administration held a preliminary meeting to discuss the fate of the heritage structure. It supported a proposal that the Vadodara Municipal Corporation made to the Road and Buildings department, seeking handover of the building to turn into a heritage museum. The state tourism department also proposed to protect it as a heritage site.
In July that year, the VMC Commissioner sought power from the Standing Committee of the municipal corporation for clearance to acquire Nyaymandir and establish a city museum.
But nothing has moved owing to the delay in the judiciary handing over the building, say senior officials. Meanwhile, Vadodara city police too expressed interest in using a part of the building and opening another part to commercial activity. Municipal Commissioner Ajay Bhadoo said, “The R&B department can decide to put the building to use again and other things can be coordinated with the district judge because the court has already moved out. But nothing has come through yet.”
The absence of heritage status to the most prominent architectural landmarks of the city is the biggest hurdle in their preservation. In 2014, the snow-shite Nazarbaug palace in Mandvi was brought down by its owners —the erstwhile royal family of Sangramsinh Gaekwad —to make way for a sprawling mall. While a part of Bhadra Kacheri is in the possession of city police, the remaining structure is in a shambles, as are most privately-owned heritage structures.
Heritage conservationists had moved a PIL in the Gujarat High Court in May 2014 to stop the royal family from demolishing the 1850 palace. A team of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cutural Heritage (INTACH), Gujarat State and Indian Institute of Architects, Baroda and Gujarat (IIA) contended that the palace was a ‘deemed Grade I Heritage Building’. Experts cited a March 2014 INTACH report at the insistence of Sangramsinh Gaekwad’s own family, in which, after evaluating the structure, INTACH had recommended restoring the palace.
In 2015, the city police had sought the property to convert it into a state of the art modern crime detection centre. However, while a part of the structure was restored by the police department, nothing remained of the rest of the building apart from an ornate marble jharoka, carved in lotus shape out of a single stone, which adorned the front facade.
The court in 2014 refused to express any opinion on whether the Nazarbaug owners were wrong in demolishing the building in spite of restraint orders from VMC. However, it directed the state government to file an affidavit explaining why a Heritage Conservation Committee had not been formed to protect other sites from a similar fate.
At the time, the high court had also directed the VMC to form a heritage cell within a span of three months. But the VMC is yet to comply and is yet to frame regulations under GDCR (General Development Control Regulations) for conservation of heritage structures. When questioned, Commissioner Bhadoo attributed it to procedural delays but said a budget will be allocated this year.
Similarly, there has been structural damage to the landmark Damajirao Bhavan located across the railway station in the city, where the ambitious transport hub called Janmahal is being constructed under a Public Private Partnership arrangement, which Opposition in the VMC has raised objection to.
Chandrashekhar Patil, who has been documenting the history of Vadodara’s royal family and is a founder member of the Nav Chetana trust that works for the preservation of heritage buildings in old Vadodara, says his trust had made representations to the VMC to implement the regulations for heritage preservation as directed by the high court on the 2014 PIL. “Heritage is the least important of issues for the government,” Patil says. “Allowing huge heritage structures to fall piece by piece makes it easier for the administration to give away the land to private builders in the guise of development.”
Patil says the need of the hour is for the administration to come together to create a cultural centre within the structure of Nyaymandir to preserve its heritage. He says, “We are a city that is culturally rich. There is the Sursagar lake on one side of Nyaymandir, which is undergoing restoration and there is abundant opportunity to turn this structure into an art lover’s paradise, like in many other countries, where youth are informed about contemporary art because they have art centres to visit and learn.
Meant for a market, turned into a court
Nyaymandir was constructed during the rule of the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III by Robert Chisholm and was intended to be a two-storeyed vegetable market in the centre of the city. But when Chisholm completed the byzantine structure in 1896, with motifs of Moorish architecture and Italian marble tiles for its facade, Gaekwad changed his mind and turned it into a town hall and a court.
The 80,000 sq feet building built at a cost of Rs 7 lakh at the time was inaugurated on November 30, 1896 by Viceroy Lord Elgin and was called Chimnabai Nyay Mandir — after the maharaja’s beloved first wife. The central hall of the building has a statue of Maharani Chimnabai’, created by Italian sculptor Augusto Felici. Pre-independence, when Gaekwad ruled the erstwhile royal state of Baroda, Nyaymandir was its supreme court.
According to historians, Gaekwad had a rule in place — each case must be disposed of within 360 days, in order to deliver “undeniable justice”.
Chandrashekhar Patil of Nav Chetna Trust has an interesting fact to share about Nyaymandir. He says that in the early 1900s, a tram pulled by horses used to run from the existing Clock Tower in Raopura to Nyaymandir. A ticket window was located outside the structure, at the back of the Chimnabai hall to allow litigants to purchase bus and tram tickets.
Until 1985, the Chimnabai hall hosted cultural programmes and art exhibitions, mass weddings and community events, many of which were attended by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad during his lifetime. The 28 courtrooms in the structure were handed over to the judicial system of independent India after Baroda’s last ruler Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad gave his final speech before acceding to the Indian union, from the balcony of building in 1947.