Without architecture, we cannot remember.” — John Ruskin, ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’
When the British occupied Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), they remodelled the city and the Mughal Red Fort to suit their convenience. Around 80% of the buildings inside the Red Fort were demolished to make way for military barracks. Mansions and havelis were brought down to make way for broader, new roads so that the British had easy access for defence purposes, in case the people decided to ‘rebel’ against them again. Perhaps everything would have got demolished but for a horrified Charles Canning who tried to preserve our heritage.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was formed in 1861 by a statute passed into law by Canning, with Alexander Cunningham as its first Archaeological Surveyor, to excavate and conserve India’s ancient built heritage.
In 1904, a Cambridge classics scholar, who was the Director General of ASI, formulated the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904 (modified on September 1, 1949). Since much damage had already been done to our rich built heritage, control “over traffic in antiquities and over excavation in certain places” and checks for “mining, quarrying, excavating, blasting and other operations of a like nature” were put in place. The aim of the Act was to preserve monuments as archaeological ruin on an “as is where is” basis.
John Marshall also drew up a conservation manual in 1922, which combined the best conservation practices from around the world and adapted them to the Indian context. It was one of the most comprehensive documents written on conservation at that time.
The job of the ASI, under the Ministry of Culture, is to protect the cultural heritage of our nation.
The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010 was passed with provisions to protect ancient monuments and antiquities and regulate all construction activity around them. It specified a ‘prohibited area’, which meant that no construction activity (erection or a building, including any addition or extension thereto either vertically or horizontally) could take place within 100 m in all directions of a monument. There was another regulated area, which was 200 m beyond the prohibited area where persons may undertake construction, reconstruction, repairs and renovation, but only after obtaining permission from the competent authority on the recommendation of the National Monuments Authority.
Professor Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi of the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University, says, “Any tinkering with its provisions, especially the laws around its maintenance and prohibitions in allowing any encroachment or building around it, would create loopholes to undo the watertight protection which has been provided for them by law. Once you allow constructions around it, the monuments can be easily suffocated. We have already been witnessing this in heritage cities like Delhi.” He also bemoans the destruction of many medieval monuments such as Kos Minars, dams, barrages and bridges in the path of development.
World heritage sites are listed as category A monuments while other ticketed monuments are category B. The most vulnerable are those marked category C, around which dense habitation has taken place. In many cases, a monument is all but stifled as it’s surrounded by unchecked construction.
The Culture Ministry’s proposal
A few weeks ago, I had shared a coloured lithograph from Syed Ahmed Khan’s 1847 seminal work on Delhi monuments, Asar-us-Sanadid , on social media with the caption, “Can you identify this monument?” Nobody could. The lithograph showed the beautiful octagonal tomb of Mubarak Shah Sayyid, the second ruler of the Sayyid dynasty of Delhi, who died in 1434 A.D. and was buried there in an area named after him, Mubarakpur Kotla. However, sometime in the past century, people from neighbouring villages occupied this place. Today it is smothered by multi-storey houses on all sides and barely has room to breathe.
If I had found that with great difficulty, the search for its companion mosque was even worse. It’s now a dump yard which has to be approached through a narrow passage in one of the tenements surrounding it. One jumps onto a rubbish heap to get inside as its access has been blocked on all sides by construction.
There are numerous other heritage sites which are already under threat or have been destroyed even when stringent rules were in place. What will happen if these rules are amended to accommodate future construction, as is the plan being mulled by the Culture Ministry?
Priyank Gupta, a junior research fellow at the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Gurukula Kangri Vishwavidyalaya, Haridwar, says: “It’s going to disturb the water table of the land and the ancient sewage system of a monument. The ancient foundation, which was built of wood, will be most affected. Continuous vibration of heavy vehicles will affect its strength.” I asked eminent historian Professor Irfan Habib what he thought. “This is against all recognised rules of conservation and it should be opposed by all people who want to protect our heritage,” he said.
One of the monuments said to be affected by a proposed elevated road within the prohibited area is Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra, Agra. Syed Jamal Hasan, who recently retired as Director of Archaeology from ASI, said: “Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra has monumental importance as it was here that we see the first example of a minaret in north India in the gateway built by Jahangir. This was later successfully copied by Shah Jahan.”
Not only will the proposed elevated road hide the tomb’s gateway but it will also damage the structure during construction, and later because of traffic within the 100 m prohibited zone. Do development and our future have to be at the cost of our past?
Rana Safvi is a historian, author and blogger documenting India's syncretic culture via its history, monuments, cultural traditions and food.