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Saturday, Sep 21, 2019

Monumental travails

Did the unprecedented communal carnage accompanying the birthing of India and Pakistan adversely impact our Islamic architectural heritage? Nayanjot Lahiri finds out.

india Updated: Nov 25, 2007 20:26 IST
By Nayanjot Lahiri
By Nayanjot Lahiri

Monuments did not make headlines when a new India and a Pakistan were created in 1947. An extraordinary irony, though, must have stared everyone in the face. The new boundaries had partitioned the archaeological map in such a way that, as Mortimer Wheeler, India’s Director General of Archaeology put it, Pakistan was “found to include almost the whole of the known extent of the earliest civilisation of India, that of the Indus valley”. Simultaneously, “almost all the Mohammadan monuments of the first importance” remained in India.

Did the unprecedented communal carnage accompanying the birthing of India and Pakistan adversely impact our Islamic architectural heritage? How did monumental complexes like Feroz Shah Kotla and Humayun’s tomb survive the refugee camps set up in their precincts? Who became the arbiter of their fate in those extraordinary times? While we know that in situations of religious polarisation — when real and imagined histories are unfurled like banners of war — monuments inevitably become targets, this issue has not figured in the literature that 1947, and its aftermath, has spawned.

What is certain is that many ‘Mohammadan’ monuments were under siege in 1947. In Delhi, several, including the Moti Masjid in Mehrauli, Sultan Ghari’s tomb at Malikpur Kohi and Sultanate period tombs in Wazirabad, suffered damage because of communal tension. The Mehrauli masjid’s Makrana marble minars were torn off and smashed — marble chips and shaft pieces were found littered all over the place when it was inspected. At Wazirabad, the grave of Shahi Alam was completely ‘wiped out’. Sultan Ghari was systematically pillaged, numerous graves outside the walled enclosure were dismantled, while four tombs in the crypt were demolished. Presumably, this included the grave of Nasiruddin Mahmud, better known as Sultan Ghari, the eldest son of Iltutmish. Before the Deputy Commissioner stepped in and issued prohibitory orders, the demolishers had also planned to convert Sultan Ghari’s crypt into a temple. That was the intention at Chauburji mosque on the Delhi Ridge as well. A cement effigy of Hanuman actually came to be set up there, and it could only eventually be removed with police help.

If looters and squatters targeted Delhi’s mosques and tombs, State authorities oversaw more organised campaigns of destruction. At Alwar and Bharatpur, the profits to be made from demolitions seem to have been the primary motive. The task of demolition at Alwar was entrusted to one Sardar Joginder Singh of the Public Works Department, who distributed selected mosques and tombs for demolition among various contractors. The conditions of contract demanded that whatever building material was got out of the debris would be appropriated by the contractor, and ‘virgin soil’ over which such a structure stood would get forfeited to the State. So, several mosques, graveyards and tombs were either damaged or demolished, including the singular Gumbad Fateh Jang or tomb of Fateh Jang. The Gumbad’s brackets and balcony chajjas were pulled down, while the mosque situated in its northern enclosure was dismantled. That it happened to survive at all was because refugees came to its rescue. Apparently, the premises were occupied by refugees from Pakistan’s Dehra Ismail Khan and Bahawalpur regions. They persuaded the contractor that they be allowed to stay there till they got suitable living accommodation elsewhere.

As in the case of Alwar, Islamic monuments in other places also provided displaced refugees much-needed shelter. Gyanendra Pandey’s Remembering Partition (2001) recounts such instances in Delhi, which had been transformed into a kind of ‘refugee-istan’. Initially, thousands of Muslims escaping communal terror sought refuge in camps at Purana Qila and Humayun’s tomb. Later, Hindu and Sikh refugees took shelter in such camps, which continued to exist for several years after Partition. Even in 1949, there were 3,061 refugees in Humayun’s tomb, with 450 in the main tomb and the rest in tents; 1,400 refugees were housed in Safdarjang’s tomb, 250 in the main tomb with the rest in the pavilions; 4,500 people lived in the tents and colonnades of Purana Qila; and 1,500 refugees were accommodated in the tents pitched at Feroz Shah Kotla. For all practical purposes, during those years, these structures were no longer in the custody of the Archaeological Survey. It was the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation that decided how they were to be used.

Exceptional times probably needed such exceptional measures, but in this case too, the damage caused to monuments was appalling. In some instances, refugees deliberately defaced monuments in camps. Shankar Das, an ASI official, wrote a number of reports on the fast-deteriorating state of monuments housing refugee camps. His 1948 report about the Qila-i-Kuhna masjid at Purana Qila highlights this: “I beg to report that a number of stones inside Sher Shah’s Mosque at Purana Qila have been broken by the refugees intentionally. Out of this damaged lot unique pieces of carved marble in the Mihrab have been mutilated. Attempts were also made to rake out black marble ornaments from the geometrical pattern incised in the splays adjoining the Mihrab.” He requested that “the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation may please be sounded so that this lovely mosque is saved from further acts of vandalism”. This request, in retrospect, compels us to recall that in monuments that had become refugee camps, the ASI was not allowed to step in and prevent further damage. Under these circumstances, all it could do was inspect monuments and prepare notes of strong protest — which it did — about how its suggestions were being completely disregarded by those in charge of relief and rehabilitation.

As for the staff of the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, preserving monuments in a situation when there was an exceptional demand for space was not a matter of priority. To create usable spaces, its camp commandants themselves carried out mindless mutilations. For instance, around Arab Sarai, where a Vocational Training Centre was to be set up, ruthless removal and renovation was the order of the day. Shankar Das, again acting as the ASI’s watchdog, reported that he saw that “the walls of the mosque known as Afsar Wala were being demolished according to their pre-planned designs. The historic northern enclosure between the Bu-Halima’s Gate and the western entrance to the Humayun’s Mausoleum was being bored through… The demolitions and the new constructions were going on simultaneously and that too at a top speed. Even the magnificent gate in this wall which once stood over the highway winding its way from Purana Qila down into the Sarai and opening through the Jaghangiri Gate was not spared. Perforations were made in its wall and wooden frames for doors and windows fitted”.

Unsurprisingly, these measures attracted adverse publicity in Pakistan, and internationally. Enquires about various Muslim shrines were regularly made by the Pakistan government. On many occasions, photographs were sent to illustrate how the Government of India was treating its Muslim monuments. Ruined gardens, gaps in fortifications made for egress and ingress of refugees, soot-blackened tombs, bulldozer operations levelling mounds that contained foundations of old habitations inside monument compounds — these figure frequently in the letters and memos of the ASI and, surely, they must have figured in media reports.

Yet, by the early 1950s, as refugees moved out, as always, it was the ASI that had to tidy up the mess around our mauled monuments. It did this with such speed and so well that hardly anyone who visits them is aware about the tribulations and travails undergone by those edifices some six decades ago. These rusted 60-year-old stories recounted here have simply been hauled away into the dust heap of forgotten histories. They need to be recalled if only to appreciate the traumas that the nation went through and the long distance that we have travelled since those unhappy days.

Nayanjot Lahiri, Professor at Delhi University, has examined data on the Indian side but realises that a comprehensive study will be possible only after Pakistani and Bangladeshi data are also examined

First Published: Nov 25, 2007 20:16 IST