Under my byline

Hope in ruins

Posted in Architecture/Design, Living by Rrishi on 11 April 2009

It’s almost impossible to get a neglected monument “listed” — and not much use

Walking through the enormous Siri park near his home in Delhi, BBC journalist Sam Miller says he passed it “about 50 times” before he saw it: a narrow mass of masonry rising above what looked like a dense thicket. Stepping off the path to investigate, Miller discovered it was, in fact, a sizeable, overgrown ruin — a building, he explains, that is neither mosque or barracks, but clearly palatial in scale and detailing. It is not frequented enough even to serve as an open-air toilet.

Miller quickly located other large ruins as well. This is no surprise, because Siri’s 14th-century walls enclose the site of Alauddin Khilji’s imperial capital. Much of that ancient city has been built over and obliterated by the urban village of Shahpur Jat and the Asiad Village of the 1980s.

When Miller looked through the NGO Intach’s authoritative 1999 publication, Delhi: The Built Heritage — A Listing, which identifies over 1,200 historical buildings in Delhi “of archaeological, historical and architectural importance”, he was surprised not to see these structures there. Nor did he find them on the much shorter list of sites protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

So he decided to bring these buildings to official and professional attention. “An ASI official was coming round to discuss work being done on the ancient wall at the end of the garden with my former landlord,” Miller says, “and I planned to join the discussion and raise the issue of the unlisted buildings. Just before he was due to arrive, I went out to examine the work being done on the wall. I climbed on top of the wall — only to look down and see a man urinating against it. I scowled at him and he went away rather sheepishly. Ten minutes later, I went to my landlord’s flat — only to discover that the urinator was, in fact, the man from the ASI. I decided not to raise the issue of the unlisted buildings.”

Then Miller tried the next best thing. “I’ve called Intach twice,” he says, “and they did come round when I told them that I thought one of the buildings was going to be demolished. I showed the person round and he was very interested and took pictures — and said he would get back in touch. He didn’t, despite me emailing him. Fortunately, the building wasn’t demolished.” Miller was worried because he had seen what he judged to be a 14th-century mosque vanish in summer 2007, to make way for badminton courts for the Commonwealth Games.

Delhi is peppered with old buildings, only a few of which are both protected and easily accessible. You yourself may have come across a neglected structure and wished to see it rescued. How should it be done?

Intach is an NGO, after all — for official sanction you must turn to the ASI. “Many people approach us,” says a senior ASI archaeologist. “They write letters, or come through some political bigwigs.” This happens for sites “in MP and UP — there are so many far-off places where [sites have] not been identified; people go and send photos.” In general, “You can send the photographs and the location to ASI or the state archaeology department.” The first agency handles monuments of “national importance”, the second handles the rest. Then a team is constituted. “The main investigation is conducted by ASI. They will say if it’s for the central or state body to manage.”

But the process is only apparently simple. It is not easy to get a building “notified”, that is, declared a “protected monument” in the official Gazette. The figures tell the story: the ASI is responsible for 174 monuments in Delhi; the moribund Department of Archaeology manages just six; remember that Intach listed 1,200. Hundreds have vanished since the first such list was made in the 1920s; and many since 1999 when Intach’s survey was published.

“What’s happened to the ASI list?” asks conservation architect Ratish Nanda, of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India, a co-author of the Intach list. “Why has that not changed in 100 years?” Ideally, he says, the state archaeology department should care for 250-400 monuments, and municipal authorities like the MCD, NDMC and DDA should protect the remaining one or two thousand — how many there are is unknown.

Unless a system is in place, notification, even if concerned residents like Sam Miller can make it happen, will be meaningless. For monuments on private land (that is, many) there’s a lengthy process of inviting public objections and waiting, as one hardened amateur said, which stretches to half a year. There are simply too many monuments for the small community of conservators and archaeologists to study or safeguard; and no budget with which to do it.

“Intach’s been struggling to have them protected since 1999,” says Nanda. “Except for the 174 ASI [monuments], the rest can legally be destroyed… The government talks in terms of penalties,” Nanda says, “which is immediately unpopular.”

“I wouldn’t bother to bring [a building] to anybody’s attention,” says conservation architect Nalini Thakur of the School of Planning and Architecture, “because they are not going to do anything.” She adds: “You have to understand that [conservation is] important. It’s not [that you] know just enough to exploit [heritage], the fact is you have to invest in a very serious way to get knowledge. Who is interested in this kind of long-term work?”

(I’d like to thank Sam Miller for the idea behind this story, although of course he is not responsible for the execution.)

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