While the Mumbai office of the Archaeological Survey of India, or the ASI, prepares lectures and college exhibitions to mark World Heritage Week from November 19 to 25, violations of heritage conservation laws seem to be taking place right under its nose.
Within the precincts of a 500-year-old Portuguese fort in Chaul, 20 km from Alibaug, a private bungalow has been built inside an Augustinian church built in the 1560s.
The bungalow has a garden, a grilled gate fixed into the arched stone entrance and a children’s swimming pool in what would have been the church’s inner sanctuary.
According to ASI officials in Mumbai, this church, along with four other churches in Chaul fort, features on a list of ASI-protected heritage monuments in Raigad district.
In the list, a copy of which the Hindustan Times has, the church has been allotted a notification number in 1910 — a number that is given by the ASI to all protected monuments.
This would mean that any new constructions built within 100 metres of the monument could be legally deemed unauthorised by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.
When the Hindustan Times visited the site of the Augustinian church earlier this week, the bungalow’s caretaker who lives in a hut outside the church walls, said that the house was built five years ago by a Mumbai-based businessman who visits it with his family a few times a year.
ASI officials in Mumbai, when questioned by the Hindustan Times , claimed that they were unaware of the bungalow’s existence and that the heritage status of the church was questionable despite it being on their list of protected monuments.
“We are yet to verify whether the building that is known as the Augustinian church is in fact an Augustinian church,” said MS Chauhan, superintending archaeologist of ASI’s Mumbai circle. “There are several such monuments in our records, which are listed by name but lack details such as the plot number and area number, and so cannot be labelled as ASI protected.”
Chauhan added that the list of protected heritage structures in Raigad was passed down to the Mumbai office from the Aurangabad circle of the ASI in 2004, when Raigad was shifted to the jurisdiction of ASI Mumbai.
But a few hundred metres around the church in question, four other churches as well as the two gates of Chaul fort have been marked as protected sites on large ASI signboards placed outside them.
“The Augustinian church is the only site in the area with the sign mysteriously missing,” said David Cardoz, architect and former member of the state government’s heritage committee who has visited the site thrice.
When told this, Chauhan said he did not know how one church, which is just as old as the other ruins of the fort, could not be verified as heritage. “We will look into it soon,” he said.
Members of the Archdiocesan Heritage Committee, the heritage conservation wing of the Mumbai archdiocese, came to know about the bungalow in the church more than a year ago, and in August used Right to Information procedures to obtain maps of all the heritage structures in Chaul from the ASI.
The ASI sent the committee a list of 18 structures, of which five are churches. It also attached floor maps of each structure. The Hindustan Times has a copy of this.
The Augustinian church was listed third in the index of 18 structures, but its floor map is missing. “It’s rather strange, isn’t it?” asked Father Warner D’Souza, a member of the Committee.
Shailendra Kamble, the local official in charge of heritage sites in Alibaug, claimed he had known about the bungalow since 2007 when he was posted there, but did not look into the matter because he claimed that it had not been certified as a heritage structure by archaeologists.
“Our job is conservation, but only after the archaeologist has notified the structure as heritage,” said Kamble. But when told that the church appears on the ASI protected monuments list along with the other churches within the fort, he said, “I will now question the local gram punchayet about the bungalow.”