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In a state of ruins

For a nation that is so proud of its past, it is time that its citizens insists on a comprehensive report on the 'state of India's archaeological heritage', writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2006 04:39 IST

"It is no easy matter to tell the truth, pure and simple," said David Hackett Fischer in his endlessly amusing Historians' Fallacies, for "truths are never pure, and rarely simple."

Consider the reply that was given on August 3 by Minister of Culture Ambika Soni to a Parliament question about the destruction of monuments. The question was asked by Rasheed Masood, who wanted information about their disappearance, the role of land mafias in abetting their destruction, and about the corrective steps that had been taken to protect the surviving heritage.

Insofar as precise details go, there is candour and honesty in Soni's reply. Apparently, 35 'centrally protected monuments' in different parts of India, from Arunachal Pradesh to Karnataka, are no longer traceable. The 'disappeared' monuments are wide-ranging - medieval guns and British graveyards, rock carvings and temples, kos minars and tombs, inscriptions and siege batteries. The chief culprits are identified by her as "rapid urbanisation, construction of multi-storeyed residential and commercial buildings and implementation of development projects".

This may indeed be the best information that was made available to the minister. But it is neither the simple, straightforward truth, nor is it good enough to answer the question. For one, the query concerned historical monuments, not only centrally protected ones. The number of historical structures and sites that have disappeared is far, far larger than the 35 structures listed in the reply. Several hundred unprotected sites and monuments have and continue to be destroyed at an unstoppable pace. Anyone with a personal familiarity of the Indian archaeological landscape is aware of this, and while it is true that these have frequently disappeared because of the reasons that Soni has stated, simultaneously, there are other factors too.

Encroachments and destruction have been initiated in many cases by religious lobbies. The high profits of the antiquities trade, protected by mafias of various kinds, have resulted in destruction as well. An impressive array of outstanding early terracottas from Chandraketugarh in Bengal are today with private collectors in the West. Enamul Haque's beautifully illustrated Chandraketugarh: A Treasure House of Bengal Terracottas showcases the wealth that has been smuggled out of this centrally protected site. These terracottas could only have been dug out in such large quantities because of unmindful guardians and policy-makers. Destruction in this case has happened because only a miniscule portion of the ancient city ruins were protected by legislation.

In several instances, monuments and sites have disappeared because  threats to them have been ignored by their institutional guardian, the Archaeological Survey of India. More than 20 years ago, a former director general of the National Museum, RC Sharma, pointed this out in print in relation to Govindnagar in Mathura. Apparently, when Sharma became curator of the Mathura museum, the large imposing mound at Govindnagar was more or less intact. "Repeated efforts were made to persuade the authorities of the Archaeological Survey of India to declare the entire land as protected area and to start excavations at the earliest." Nobody in the ASI appears to have showed any concern.

Instead, the local housing society  "got its project of house building approved and the devastation picked up at a terrific speed. Three hundred labourers were engaged for levelling the spot rapidly". The files of the ASI must certainly contain the details of such destruction. They are also mentioned in many prominent publications. If proper statistics were provided to the minister, Soni's statement in Parliament would have been even more sensational than it was.

Even in the case of 'protected' monuments, there are at least three unmentioned factors that have contributed to their 'disappearance'. First, if developers and land mafias have successfully destroyed monuments, correspondingly this means that the ASI is powerless to act as their institutional guardian. This requires explanation.

If we look at the act under which 'protected' monuments are governed, there is a comprehensive legal framework in place. One of the sections of the 1958 Act states that in the protected area no person can "carry on any mining, quarrying, excavating, blasting or any operation of a like nature". Again, the rules of 1959 under this Act deal with all kinds of issues such as "access to protected monuments", "construction and other operations in protected areas", "excavations in protected areas", and even "copying and filming of protected monuments". Where does this lead us? Simply, to the conclusion that laws and rules, of the kind that are mentioned in the Parliament reply, are unlikely to prevent disappearance of monuments in the absence of adequate vigil on the part of those who superintend monuments.

Second, even where the ASI has been vigilant, its officers have been unable to prevent unlawful encroachments. The state of officially protected temples in Bhubaneswar shows that hundreds of FIRs filed against violations have not been acted upon by the police. They are, in fact, unlikely to be acted upon if political heavyweights continue to be among the prime movers and shakers in heritage desecration. The protected status of the 13th century Rameshwar temple did not prevent an influential local minister from hosting his daughter's reception there. Nor was anyone prosecuted even though this case was reported in India Today in 2000.

Finally, some 19th century monuments listed by the minister have been deliberately destroyed or dismantled because of government policy. In 1949, the British government made an announcement of policy to the effect that it could not provide full-scale financial commitment for the maintenance of its cemeteries in parts of its former empire. Consequently, when local Christian organisations failed to provide support, these were to "revert to nature in a dignified and decent manner", a polite way of saying that they were to be abandoned. Again, after Independence, a few British memorials were considered as being degrading to the nation and were deliberately removed. The statue of John Nicholson, which Soni specifically mentions, was one of them. It used to stand near Kashmiri Gate but was removed and taken to Ireland with the consent of the Indian government. It now stands in front of Nicholson's old school in Dugannon in Northern Ireland.

It is bad enough that India's monuments continue to disappear. What adds insult to the shameful spectacle of a defenceless disappearing past is that the State itself does not seem to have reliable information about either the scale or the character of the missing monuments. Surely, there is an urgent need to compile a national register of sites and antiquities, one that can form the basis of a report on the 'state of India's archaeological heritage'. This register ought to encompass the heritage that is lying in the public and private spheres abroad.

For a nation that is so proud of its past, it is time that its citizens insisted on a comprehensive report of this kind. Assessments of disappearing forest cover and other kinds of environmental degradation are regularly made and help articulate legislation and policy. If this exercise is extended to monuments and sites, it would help generate pressure on those who are paid to preserve our past.

The writer teaches archaeology at the Department of History, Delhi University