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In a ruinous state

A number of monuments that were given on perpetual leases have been defaced or destroyed, large parts of them having vanished altogether, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2008 21:44 IST

Why are some monuments carefully preserved, and under what conditions do others decay and disappear? This is a question that many who have walked in and around Humayun’s tomb in Delhi must have asked themselves.

Humayun’s resting place and the gardens that surround it are among the better preserved historic landscapes in Delhi. No doubt, the inclusion of Humayun’s tomb in the World Heritage list in 1993 dramatically raised its public profile, and played a part in attracting the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to restore its garden, even if this was a gift on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.

Since the garden restoration, and the clearance of the entry into the complex, visitor numbers have increased by over 1,000 per cent. The trust is now back in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), co-funded by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, to conserve the tomb itself, and its surrounding buildings. In other words, one can easily see why restoration work has proceeded so well here.

The archaeological landscape in Nizamuddin East, though, is not subsumed by the enclosure around Humayun’s tomb. It is made up of a large number of other tombs and mosques, graves and gardens. The surroundings in which they stand, on the other hand, are frequently at variance with the monuments themselves. The exquisitely proportioned Sundarwala Burj, for instance, dominates a plant nursery — the Sundar Nursery — overgrown with all kinds of foliage, including fields of roses and cannahs.

Again, the Nila Gumbad, less than 50 yards outside the eastern enclosure wall of Humayun’s tomb, used to be surrounded by jhuggis. These were eventually cleared through the intervention of Jagmohan when he was Minister of Culture. Even he, however, could not get a group of more powerful residents evicted from a couple of monuments that lie to the north of the tomb complex. These are known as the Chota Batashewala Mahal and the Bara Batashewala Mahal, the latter being the tomb of the grand-nephew of Emperor Humayun himself.

Both tombs are in the list of the monuments protected by the ASI. And yet, in a bizarre twist, nearly ten acres of land around these two monuments is not with the ASI. This land was given, on perpetual lease, to the Boy Scouts Association of India, now known as the Delhi State Bharat Scouts and Guides, in 1941. What makes it strange is that this was done many years after the tombs had been declared protected monuments. Why the Governor-General signed such a lease remains a mystery, as do the reasons for the perpetual lease of two further plots to the Scouts and Guides in the early 1960s, within the same monument complex.

In any case, a camping ground was thus created, in the middle of Mughal monuments. The only saving grace was that the original lease did mention that the Scouts Association could not alter or imperil the monuments in any way.

But do leases and clauses come in the way of defacement and destruction? Evidently not. The photographs of the Chota Batashewala Mahal, one of the monument as it appeared in the 1960s and the other as it looks today, visually capture what is starkly visible on the ground. (See photos above.) A protected tomb, made up of a chamber and doorways, no longer exists. There are only some scattered ruins on the platform where the monument once stood.

Disfigurement in other ways has also been inflicted on the monuments. In 1989, a modern cultural complex (comprising more than 150 rubble masonry huts and structures) was created here. Known as the ‘Bharatiyam complex’, this was constructed at the behest of the Delhi State Bharat Scouts and Guides. Meant to be temporary structures, the fact that nearly 30 years later, they still continue to dot the landscape has given an entirely new meaning to the word ‘temporary’.

Equally amazing are the stories about the commercial uses to which the Delhi State Bharat Scouts and Guides put this land. Among other things, they are known to have entered into an agreement with Parkland Club which, for a fee, ‘allowed’ physical and entertainment facilities for its members. These facilities included swimming, lawn tennis, billiards, even a cafeteria ‘with cultural ambience’. That these facilities existed is evident from the inventory of structures there — including a large shed used as a tent house, a swimming pool with toilet blocks, a double storeyed ‘hut’ of bricks adjacent to the northern boundary wall of Humayun’s tomb, and a stadium.

What is, perhaps, even more outrageous is that the swimming pool was constructed with funds provided by the Lt Governor of Delhi some decades ago, and the work carried out by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation itself. In fact, one smells in this scam a much more general problem concerning the lack of coordination and vigilance among the different arms of the government. Most of the building work here was undertaken either by the local body or by the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs with government funds, even though the ASI did not give permission for any type of construction in the tomb premises.

Mercifully, the Bharat Scouts and Guides land was sealed in 2006. But by then, Chota Batashewala Mahal had practically disappeared. The ‘temporary’ and illegal structures, though, still stand, and till date, the land has not been handed over to the ASI.

In 2006, the very year that the Delhi State Bharat Scouts and Guides facilities in Nizamuddin were sealed, the Ministry of Culture stated in Parliament that the chief culprits for the disappearance of protected monuments were “rapid urbanisation, construction of multi-storeyed residential and commercial buildings and implementation of development projects”.

In the light of what has happened to protected monuments in the buffer zone of the World Heritage site of Humayun's tomb, the list of culprits should have included voluntary educational organisations and the government itself.

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the Department of History, University of Delhi