Sunday, January 4, 2004

Resurrecting a dying heritage
 Suvir Saran

Historical monuments need protection
Historical monuments need protection

IN Delhi, the historic Humayun’s Tomb has found an unlikely benefactor in the Aga Khan Foundation, which has invested $ 650,000 on recreating its garden. Till the other day, street urchins, stray dogs and parked cycle rickshaws encroached upon the space.

Likewise in Goa, the famous Portugese cathedral, Our Lady of the Mount, is being restored to its former glory by the Macao-based Fundacao Orient. Another restoration drive is under way at Kochi, thanks to the Jewish Yad HaNadiv Foundation chipping in to repair the clocks of the 16th century Pardesi Synagogue.

These are just three instances of how decaying heritage structures in India have suddenly drawn world attention, generating funds from some unusual sources. More recently, the privately run World Monuments Fund (WMF) in New York, put three other structures on its ‘watch list’ of 100 Endangered Sites.

"India has 3,622 monuments listed for protection under the Archaeological Survey of India and another 2,000 protected by the state governments," informs Shyamal Sarkar, a heritage activist working with architect Manish Charaborti for the decongestion and restoration of Kolkata’s historic Dalhousie Square.

"The tragedy is that we wake up to the existence of our national treasures only when foreigners remind us and tell us what we should do about them. Till then, nobody is bothered. Our monuments and forts could well disintegrate into dust for all the government could care.

The absence of state help in heritage conservation has also led to private initiatives at several places. For instance in Mumbai, eight ancient buildings at the city’s Horniman Circle recently received a fresh lease of life when the locals raised Rs 2,000,000 from a gala dinner and auction.

The Basgo story of Ladakh is even more encouraging. A civil engineer, Tsering Angchuk mobilised the villagers of what was once the capital of Ladakh to restore three Buddhist temples. He set up the Basgo Welfare Committee with the community leaders and together they raised Rs 4.2 million for the repair work.

In 2000, Basgo was nominated to the WMF, thanks to the efforts of a Tibetan scholar in New York, Lobsang Jamspal and after two years, the community has not only got $45,000 from American Express, but also $80,000 from the Robert Wilson Challenge Grant, a fund created by a New York art patron.

Corporate sponsorship has also been forthcoming from within the country. For instance, the Tata Group has put in Rs 140 million on a conservation project for the Taj Mahal at Agra. Despite a delay of two years, work has taken off with the building of a riverside wall on the banks of Jamuna.

However, such initiatives do not always yield desirable results. As Amita Baig of the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), points out how between 1994 and 1996, Rs 8 million were spent on basic repairs of the Qila Mubarak in Patiala, but once the Shiromani Akali Dal party came to power in 1997, the restoration plan for the fort was dubbed as a "royalist ploy" and scrapped.

Baig cites another example: "We spent a long time on the restoration of the Sir Ronald Ross Building in Hyderabad, where the scientist discovered the malaria parasite. Now it has gone to rack because no one has a sense of ownership about it."

In Hampi, the Karnataka Government faced a piquant situation when the UNESCO threatened to take it off the World Heritage list (which guarantees cultural prominence to the site) following plans build a highway alongside the famous ruins. Eventually the former had to succumb and a new route was found for the road.

"Whatever be the attitude of the government, the fact remains that heritage sites bring in the tourism dollars," Sarkar points. "This is the reality worldwide. If the Indian Government does not recognise the fact, even God cannot save our heritage."

There is also a lurking suspicion among activists that the right wing government in New Delhi could not be bothered about Muslim and other non-Hindu monuments and would rather concentrate its efforts on projects like tracking Swami Vivekananda’s pilgrimage route from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Culture and Tourism Minister has dismissed this perception as a predetermined viewpoint: "Where were all the conservationists when clothes were being dried at the main gate of Humayun’s Tomb?" he counters. "Kurukshetra was nothing but a little pond. Red Fort had a slum around it. We are working on all other Mughal edifices, including the Qutab Minar and Agra Fort..."

Surely, such assurances aren’t enough. MF