Apathy and arrogance wrecking India’s heritage

Many years ago, when I saw India’s best known icon, the Taj Mahal at Agra (a city close to New Delhi), I was pained and appalled, and my first sentence in an anguished article I wrote in The Hindu then read: Shah Jahan must be a very unhappy man, wherever he is.

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Built by the fifth Mughal emperor in India, Shah Jahan, in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz, the Taj Mahal was completed in 1648. Built with marble by thousands of slaves, the mausoleum then presented a picture of decay.

The Yamuna River, which ran just behind the edifice, was virtually a sewer with the city’s waste being dumped into it.  Worse, the fumes from hundreds of small factories and a huge oil refinery in Agra were turning the gleaming white marble into a sickly yellow. Adding to this was the acid rain that robbed the sheen off the Taj.

A recent visit to Shah Jahan’s monument of love revealed that very little has changed since my newspaper feature.

A report by India’s National Environment Engineering Research Institute found that many conservation schemes costing millions of dollars had failed to protect the marvel in marble. In fact, $ 135 million have been spent since 1998, when India’s Supreme Court ordered new measures to save the Taj. But they have really not done the trick.

Fumes from the city traffic and the dirty waters of the Yamuna — among other pollutants — continue to contribute to the damage and destruction of Shah Jahan’s creation of love.

Added to this is the callousness of visitors who jaywalk over the lawns, spit out betel juice inside the mausoleum and dirty the place in several other ways.

If this is the state of the country’s most famous monument, often called one of the Wonders of the World, one can well imagine how smaller, less known historical sites must be faring.

Here are some examples: Delhi’s Qutub Minar  (whose construction was started in 1200 by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak, founder of the Delhi Sultanate) or Madurai’s (a city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu)  centuries-old Meenakshi Temple or the ruins of Hampi (which was part of the glorious Vijayanagar Empire — around 1500 — in the southern Indian state of Karnataka). And these have all been sadly neglected. Mind you, there are dozens of other historical sites in India facing a similar fate.

A deep disregard for history and heritage may also been seen in the utterly pathetic conditions which prevail in many of the other Hindu temples — which are also historic, having been constructed centuries ago. The celebrated Nataraja temple in Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu) and the Kapaleswarar temple in Chennai (also Tamil Nadu) are considered sacred by Hindus. But walk into the Nataraja temple through its main gate, and you will be greeted by a huge garbage dump, perhaps not cleaned in weeks. The picture is not very different in Kapaleswarar temple, whose outer walls are used by men to ease themselves!

Such contempt for history takes on many other hues. Some years ago, the majestic Police Commissioner’s Office on Chennai’s seafront, Marina, was all set to be demolished to make way for a modern skyscraper. But hundreds of petitions to the administration stopped this sacrilege, just in time before the magnificent building would have become mere memory or a photograph.  A beautiful heritage was saved.

But not every historic structure has been as lucky. Chennai’s Moore Market, a superb Indo-Saracenic structure, went up in flames one night. Months before that, there had been a government plan to bring the Moore Market down to make way for a multi-level shopping arcade — a plan that was opposed. Was the fire just an accident?

Mumbai’s Gateway of India, an extraordinarily striking edifice raised in 1911 to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary, today presents a sad picture.  Not even properly lit and frequented by anti-socials and drunks, the Gateway on the city’s Arabian Sea, is perhaps the first thing one sees as one sails into the city.

If heritage is desecrated, history gets trampled upon. Many street and city names in India have been changed, and with every such change, a bit of the past disappears.  Kolkata’s Dalhousie Square (named after Lord Dalhousie in British India) is now Binoy Badal Dinesh Bag. Chennai’s Lloyds Road is now Avvai Shanmugam Street, Bangalore is Bengaluru, Madras is Chennai, Bombay is Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata and it goes on.

But beyond the government’s foolhardiness in erasing history lies people’s apathy and arrogance. People have scant respect for the past.

In striking contrast to all this stands, for instance, Three Lanes and Seven Alleys — an important heritage site in China’s Fuzhou where I stayed during my recent trip to cover a film festival. I was just amazed at the way the area has been preserved.  The place retains the basic street patterns of Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279) with 159 buildings in the styles of Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). Three Lanes and Seven Alleys is regarded as the “architecture museum of styles of Ming and Qing dynasties” as well as the “living fossil of ancient city street system”.

Why China, I have seen a sense of dedication for history in other parts of the world. Old women would lovingly tend to their ancient houses in Paris. While Madrid has a modern infrastructure, it has preserved the look and feel of many of its historic neighbourhoods and streets. The city’s landmarks include the Royal Palace, the Royal Theatre with its restored 1850 Opera House and so on. Florence still preserves many pieces of its history with a lot of pride.

But, as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been saying — though in a different context — that nobody can dirty this country if every citizen vows to keep it clean, similarly its ancient heritage can remain safe only if every man and woman take a pledge not to destroy it.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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