A natural calamity not only kills people, destroys infrastructure and hits the government of the day politically but it also has the monstrous ability to hit a society at a subliminal level, something which cannot be measured in monetary terms. The flood-hit Kashmir Valley is a case in point. The floods that swamped the southern part of the state last month not only killed people but also destroyed the 116-year-old Shri Pratap Singh Museum (SPSM) located on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar. The swirling waters have irretrievably damaged the centuries-old Gilgit manuscripts, which are among the oldest in the world. They are considered to be an important milestone in the history of Buddhist writing in India. Other than the manuscripts, the museum housed miniature paintings, weapons and armoury, musical instruments, textiles and carpets, sculptures and natural history collections, which shed light on the region's - and the country's - historical socio-cultural-economic links with the world that lay beyond its borders.
At a press conference in New Delhi on Wednesday, cultural and conservation experts talked about how the artefacts, now wet and covered in mud, have been left unattended in the SPSM and questioned why the central government took almost a month to send an expert team to assess the damage sustained by these precious items. A survey by INTACH reveals that antique shawls are now being dried outside on the pavement under the sun with dogs trampling over them, damaging them further. A preliminary official assessment indicates that 90% of the 18,000 artefacts have been damaged. The central team, which is in Srinagar, will now submit a report and then some work is expected to take place. At this point of time, one can only pray and hope that after the report, the government will send the best team available to do whatever is required to save these artefacts that have transnational value. Many of these can still be saved through technological intervention but we have very little time on our hands. Even if they are damaged, they must be digitised so that there will be some record of the artefacts that were housed there.
Conservation is a time-consuming activity and considering the scale of the damage in SPSM, it is surely going to be a long haul. But the way the SPSM case has been handled till now reveals the apathetic attitude that India has towards its rich heritage. It is a heritage that has the power to make India a huge tourist destination, but only if it is preserved and showcased in a proper manner with the respect it deserves.