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Need to get rid of colonial mindset in conserving heritage monuments

Gurugram | ByShikha Jain
May 27, 2019 08:34 AM IST

Like other places in India, Haryana and Gurugram also need to focus on decolonisation of history, heritage or even urban planning for this Millennium City.

Not many of us are aware that 25th-31st May is celebrated as the International Week of Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories — 17 of which are still listed with the UN for decolonisation. India, which has a history of colonisation, has repeatedly emphasised its commitment to the objective of decolonisation. It is important to mull, at this moment, that even though India was officially decolonised 70 years ago, the colonial mindset prevails in most of our day-to-day practices, including our understanding of history, heritage and its conservation.

Representative image(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Representative image(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Like other places in India, Haryana and Gurugram also need to focus on decolonisation of history, heritage or even urban planning for this Millennium City. Probably, the process of renaming Gurgaon to Gurugram was a step in this direction, but one needs to look deeper into more in-depth approaches to decolonisation, rather than just a superficial name change.

Such a decolonisation process for heritage needs to be addressed at two levels — first is our understanding and interpretation of what history and heritage, locally, are for the people of Gurugram, its possible links at the national level and further associations at the international level, if any; secondly, our approach for conserving such heritage also needs to be addressed in terms of local values and traditional craftsmanship vis-à-vis existing colonial perceptions of the picturesque ‘ruined look’ promoted by the British as an ideal conservation strategy for monuments.

So, the current historiography of Gurugram definitely needs to be reviewed in terms of its evolution from the Mahabharata period to various chronological phases, including later colonialization under the British and the role of local freedom fighters. The gazetteer records are interesting and authentic, being most referenced to explain the city’s history, but we need to understand that the gazetteer itself is a continued product of the colonial period. It is surely an excellent and possibly the only existing historical record for Gurugram, but it is possible to piece together the city’s history by searching for more historical details and maps through earlier texts written in different historical periods, ranging from Rigveda, Manu Smriti to records of Bana Bhat and Huan Tsang or later inscriptions of Muhammed Bin Tughlaq and the Mughal Atlas of India. Its role in later periods, during the civil disobedience movement, is notable. Deeper research on the city’s history, local voices, sites and their continuous associations is essential. This becomes increasingly difficult since the data and existing monuments in Gurugram region are largely from the colonial period. However, it is heartening to see attempts at rewriting history of the region in decolonised perspectives such as Michel Danino’s book ‘The Lost River’ on the search for Saraswati or Shail Mayaram’s anthropological approach to the search of Meo identity.

On the other hand, we have a parallel challenge in conserving Gurugram’s built heritage. INTACH was earlier questioned on the white shades of limewash while conserving the lost monument of Dhauli Pyao and the recently protected Taoru tombs, due to people’s perception that old historic structures should retain their antique and dilapidated look.

In Haryana, like other places in India, we are fortunate to have the knowledge of traditional materials, such as lime and stone carving, along with living craftspeople from adjoining regions of Rajasthan, whose forefathers even built the historic monuments in Delhi and Haryana.

However, we often face the challenge that our colonial mindset is more comfortable with the ‘ruined’ and ‘ancient’ look of the monument as practised since colonial times through the dictums formulated for the Archaeological Survey of India in early 20th century. It is true that some of our ancient and early medieval heritage is irreplaceable and any conservation attempt should be minimal to retain this important record of history, but at the same time, there are later-period structures that can be restored well by our craftspeople.

It is extremely important for us to continue and promote the traditional knowledge of building materials and crafts, which is at an increasing risk of being lost.

The historians, conservation architects, heritage practitioners as well as the people of Gurugram, today, need to rise to these challenges of decolonising Gurugram’s and Haryana’s history and heritage.

Shikha Jain is state convenor, INTACH Haryana Chapter and member of Heritage Committees under ministries of culture and HRD. She is co-¬editor of book ‘Haryana: Cultural Heritage Guide’; director, DRONAH (Development and Research Organisation.

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