Preserve India’s heritage. It gives us an identity
Preservation and restoration are the way forward for so many of our historic towns and cities. The benefits are not just the preservation of our past but also by way of tourism and all its attendant economic benefits
Why do old places matter? Why do we have preservation laws to protect heritage sites? What difference does it make to the lives of people?
If you were to go by Thompson M Mayes of the United States National Trust for Historical Preservation, who delivered a lecture in Delhi last month, they conjure up emotional bonds and a sense of continuity. Historical places affect our identity and well-being. There is also a sense of collective memory.
An example of collective identity is Dupont Circle in Washington DC, which was going to be demolished. Preservation groups sprang up to protect it due to the public collective identity associated with the place. A sense of civic identity and patriotism is also evoked by old places, such as Independence Hall, where the American Declaration of Independence was written. Mayes also elaborated on the recent inclusion of black history and identity in southern United States plantation houses.
Old places enhance history and learning. For example, visitors love to visit Lincoln College, associated with one of America’s greatest presidents. Old places also matter, because they connect with ancestry. The Chinese temple in California is seen as a symbolic landscape representing the history, culture and lives of Chinese immigrants.
Urban India has witnessed the impact of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, and Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana — the schemes and missions aiming at the renewal, adaptive reuse, heritage conservation, and the restoration and preservation of historic old places, sites and cities. The walled city of Jaipur, known for its iconic architectural legacy and vibrant culture, has entered the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage Site list in the footsteps of Ahmedabad. With this, the number of Unesco World Heritage Sites across India grows to 38, including 30 cultural properties, seven natural properties and one mixed site.
India proposed Jaipur as “an exceptional urban example (of) indigenous planning and construction in South Asia.” The citadel city of Jaipur was founded in 1727 by Sawai Jai Singh II. It was built on a level plain grid iron pattern following facets of Vedic architecture. There are still old streets focusing on old public squares known as chaupars, markets, stalls, residential complexes and temples with remarkable motifs, and, of course, the renowned Govind Dev temple, City Palace, Jantar Mantar and Hawa Mahal. Jaipur landscapes exhibit a blend of ancient Hindu, medieval Mughal and Western culture in a manner similar to the Hindu, Muslim and Jain havelis and pols of Ahmedabad.
In the West, the preservation and renewal of historic towns began in the late 19th century with increased awareness of their specific value, characterised by an exceptional concentration of magnificent buildings combined with a well-preserved basic historic tissue. Venice, Florence, Bruges, Nuremberg, York and Fez
are eminent examples of these cities. They were, and still are, called villes d’art. Once recognised for their unique artistic and romantic qualities, these qualities led to their preservation, restoration and occasional
over-restoration, to enhance their beauty, historic character and tourist attraction.
This is the way forward for so many India’s historic towns and cities. The dividends are not just the preservation of our past, but also by way of tourism and all its attendant economic benefits.
Aditi Chatterji is an honorary associate, University of Calcutta
The views expressed are personal