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Delhi ruining its share of priceless built heritage

Flanked by an impressive bell tower, medieval buildings, some brilliant cafes, pubs and curio shops, the centuries-old Rynek square in Krakow, Poland’s medieval capital for 500 years, is a lively, majestic town centre even by the European standard. But there is also a lot happening underground. Shivani Singh writes.

columns Updated: May 27, 2013 13:23 IST
Shivani Singh

Flanked by an impressive bell tower, medieval buildings, some brilliant cafes, pubs and curio shops, the centuries-old Rynek square in Krakow, Poland’s medieval capital for 500 years, is a lively, majestic town centre even by the European standard. But there is also a lot happening underground.

Just five metres underneath the busy square you can experience many Krakows lost in time.The Rynek Underground is an archaeological site, excavated, researched and preserved in an in-situ museum. You can see 11th century necropolis, 12th century homes, roads and bridges from the 14th century—in exactly the same places where they existed back in time.

In 2005, Polish archaeologists started digging up the square which, much like any historical town centre of Europe, was a hub of medieval life. The square was ravaged twice by the Tatars and later gutted by a fire. For centuries, town authorities paved new roads over the old ones that were covered with layers of waste, making the square ground five metres higher than it was 1,000 years ago.

Once they stopped digging, the Krakow authorities covered the site with a roof at the upper ground level. The excavated portions, including roads, bridges, cellars, workshops and artefacts such as coins, decorations, slabs of precious metal, pottery — protected in glass enclosures — were put on display in exactly the same place and depth where they were found. Supported by multi-media commentaries and films, this treasure trove that went on display in 2010 has since been a big money-spinner. In the peak tourist season, tours have to be booked at least a day in advance.

Being born and raised in one of the oldest living cities in the world, I must confess, I am a heritage snob. Nothing can beat the layers and layers of history Delhi offers at a single place. But this exhibition got me thinking if we could have pulled off anything this innovative, and with such finesse.

Delhi has 174 national monuments and more than 1,000 culturally important places. But we hardly value our abundance of physical heritage. It is not about lack of funds. Modest economies such as Poland have done a fine job in preserving their past. There are enough private funds available here and showcasing Delhi’s heritage may even earn revenues from tickets. Yet, every year, numerous heritage structures are lost to encroachment and indiscriminate construction.The 100-acre Mehrauli Archeological Park, home to nearly 300 buildings of historical importance, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas of the city.

Since the days of Lal Kot, the first fortification established by Tomar Rajputs in 1060, this place had presence of the Turks, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodhis, Mughals and the British over the last millennia. But its conservation plans are still mired in red tape, with government agencies fighting over land jurisdiction. Meanwhile, the park has become a dumping ground. Every year, residents from the neighbourhood organise a clean-up drive but the sheer volume of garbage dwarfs their effort.

Last month, HT surveyed the site and found a building being used as a public toilet. Fresh constructions were on at least at three sites, one of them for a madarsa.

Even the few conservation efforts initiated by the government have neither been adequate. Nothing has been done to conserve 17th century Shahjahanabad that resembles a slum. The New Delhi Municipal Council is redeveloping Connaught Place as part of its “Return to the Heritage” project and has already spent almost as much time on the job as the British did on its construction. After four years of so-called restoration, CP still looks war ravaged. But, of course, we have demanded the World Heritage City status from the UNESCO.