April 20, 2006 11:39:10 pm
Fellow citizens, do not touch even one stone…the old buildings, articles, documents; all this is your history, your pride…These words are not those of a sentimental conservationist but of one of the world’s great revolutionaries — V.I. Lenin. Preservation of past assets ensures that heritage is passed down the generations. World Monument Day was celebrated on April 18, and it gives us a chance to grasp the significance of our architectural legacy. In essence, our monuments are the “voices of silence” from our past. Not to hear them is to deprive us of invaluable treasures of creative thoughts and deeds which our great ancestors have bequeathed us.
India’s cultural space extends from Mahabalipuram and Hampi in the south to the Amarnath Cave and the Ladakh monasteries in the north; and from Ajanta and Modhera in the west to Konark and Bodh Gaya in the east. It has as many as 3,606 monuments which have been declared as “protected” under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act. For years these monuments had remained in a state of neglect. It was Lord Curzon who rescued them. He wrote: “As a pilgrim at the shrine of beauty I have visited them, but as a priest in the temple of duty have I charged myself with their reverent custody and their studious repairs…” Curzon enacted the Ancient Monument Act of 1904 and laid the foundation of a scientific policy of preserving India’s archaeological assets. The country owes a deep debt to him.
The creative and constructive impulse which the Archaeological Survey of India provided continued for quite some time. But by the mid-1970s, the culture of current governance began to assert itself and things started falling apart. Quite a few monuments were vandalised and encroachments became the order of the day. An idea about the pathetic state of affairs prevailing at that time could be formed from the way India dealt with the case of securing recognition of Indian monuments and sites as world heritage sites. In ’72, the UNESCO adopted a convention “concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage”. In accordance with this convention, it started the practice of calling for nominations for inclusion in the World Heritage List. By virtue of its vast cultural and natural wealth, India should have succeeded in securing inclusion of a very large number of monuments in the world heritage list. But its approach was casual. Compared to India other countries much smaller in size and with less architectural wealth have got many more sites included. For example, the UK, France, Spain, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, Austria and Belgium which together have an area equivalent to India, account for as many as 153 out of 812 total sites. At present, India has only 26 on the list.
When I took over as minister for tourism and culture, I launched a programme called ‘New Initiative’, which sought to clean, restore, conserve and upgrade environmentally almost all the famous monuments of India. Take what was done with regard to the World Heritage site of the Humayun Tomb complex in New Delhi. The conditions prevailing there were, to say the least, depressing. At the main entry of Humayun’s Tomb, shabby stalls had been put up under a notoriously corrupt system of municipal patronage known as tehbazari, and all sorts of heavy vehicles were allowed to be parked illegally in these open spaces. On the Nila Gumbad side was a huge citadel of India’s vote bank politics — thousands of ‘slum dwellers’ were kept by an influential section of the political leadership to serve as ‘bonded voters’ during elections. The environment of the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya had also been savagely degraded and the holy tank had become a huge cesspool.
After the implementation of various projects under the New Initiative Programme, the conditions in and around this complex underwent a sea-change. All the stalls and other intrusions were removed and the monuments and green spaces restored. Elegant gardens now surround the monuments, adding to their dignity and grace. When illuminated at night, the monument looks truly magnificent.
Many other monuments, including Ajanta, Ellora, Bodhgaya, Red Fort, Quila Rai Pithora, Mahabalipuram, Hampi, Chittaurgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Modhera, Pushkar and Bhimbetka, were simultaneously dealt with along similar lines. But my mission could not be completed because of the verdict of May 2004. “As Faith wills, Fate fulfils,” wrote Sir Edwin Lutyens, Delhi’s builder. In my case, this was not to be.
The writer is a former J&K governor, and former minister of tourism and email@example.com
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