25 Sep 2017 15:34 IST

The registry of vanishing history

India’s built heritage exists in countless forms, and suffers from neglect

Lal Gumbaz springs up abruptly. It is buried deep inside Nangli village, off the Gurugram-Sohna highway. Past the village market and lanes closed in by high walls, where people nonchalantly jostle with buffaloes for space, Lal Gumbaz rises desolately on a hillock against the kaala pahaad (black hills). Relentless rains that August morning had made the winding mud paths slushier. One easily spots the dome — the gumbaz — as habitation thins out, farm houses appear and villagers become scarce.

Gangaram’s family has lived close to the monument for over 50 years. He casually greets Naseem Ahmed, cleric at the local Shahi Jama Masjid and my guide to Lal Gumbaz. Gangaram describes the monument as it is now — a grazing ground for buffaloes, overrun by weeds and awaiting ruin.

The Lal Gumbaz is estimated to be around 600 years old. Those like Ahmed believe it dates back to the Khiljis. A mazaar (tomb), presumably of a Sufi saint, it has seen better days. The cleric recalls pre-Partition stories of visitors flocking there for prayers on Thursdays.

Now it is a repository of decay. Layers of plaster peel off from the smaller, domed and pillared red-stone structure in front. Inside the main dome, the mazaar has long disappeared — dug up by local treasure-hunters. “People believe they will find valuables in old tombs. I used to keep the place clean as long as the tombs were intact,” says Ahmed. A deep crack runs right through the central dome. The floor is broken. The stink of bat poop hangs heavy in the air. Small birds nest in several minute crevices. A smaller structure stands behind the main gumbaz. Here too the tomb has been dug up. A gaping hole in its centre bares the large stones used for construction while undergrowth criss-crosses the exits. The property, Ahmed adds, belongs to the Wakf board. Its steady deterioration is painful for him to watch and he hopes some authority will pitch in to save it.

From the hillock on which Lal Gumbaz rests, one can spot another dome a few hundred metres away. It appears as old. Ahmed does not know much about it. Nevertheless, we walk the slushy path towards it along with a mother and children who happen to live, well, right there. The structure is now enclosed within a private property and a household and its livestock function around it. Inside the mazaar in the main structure is a tomb — intact and covered with a chaddar. There are signs of daily obeisance in this room painted green. However, newer constructions butt into the monument. A smaller structure beside it has been turned into a storeroom for stacks of grass.

Hustle-bustle

Badshahpur is merely miles away from Gurugram. The quiet town’s new fondness for frenetic urbanisation appears inevitable. Smaller, inner roads connecting to the Gurugram-Sohna highway are getting wider, and the expanding Kadarpur road is big development. In the bustle around it, the fate of the heritage Badshahpur baoli (stepwell)hangs uncertain.

Locating the baoli is in itself a quest. Queries to passers-by draw a blank. When several pointers lead to a spot around a school, we do a few rounds, yet don’t find it. Finally, when the photographer and I manage to find out where it is — the main entrance is inside the premises of a school — getting to it proves a challenge of another sort. The baoli is private property and the entrance through the school is under lock and key. The only other way is through a settlement adjacent to the road. A young girl who lives there advises against the idea. “It is very dirty,” she says.

Nevertheless, we make our way and are bang on the baoli. The muddy waters in the L-shaped baoli are choked by layers of garbage. Further, the settlement dwellers have turned the edges of the baoli into an open defecation spot. Architecturally the baoli, built in 1905, has held up well. But encroachment has imperilled it in no small way. And new roadmaps might just be its death knell.

Unprotected structures

Lal Gumbaz and Badshahpur baoli are not aberrations, but the norm. Heritage has typically languished at the bottom of priorities. And unprotected structures, such as the Lal Gumbaz and Badshahpur baoli, are firmly outside the radar. In July, various news reports carried Union minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma’s response in the Lok Sabha where he said 24 protected monuments had been lost to rapid urbanisation and encroachment. And if this happens to be the plight of monuments protected either by the Archaeological Survey of India or the State government, unprotected historical structures across the country don’t stand a chance.

The state of India’s unprotected built heritage is the focus of a new report by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). The report, prepared by Intach’s architectural division and set to be published soon, focuses exclusively on structures of historical significance across the country and studies their present condition. An uphill task, it was executed with the support of an extensive volunteer system. “The objective is to establish the threats, issues and challenges that our unprotected built heritage faces by collating ground data,” says an Intach official about putting together The State of Built Heritage of India.

Officials at the society, which works on heritage awareness and conservation, say unprotected heritage — structures, gates, monuments as well as tangible and intangible history — listed by the organisation runs to well over 57,000 in number. And that count is by no means comprehensive.

Listing is an ongoing process at Intach. But The State of Built Heritage of India is meant to be an intervention. “It is a research to get the issues out in the open for built heritage pan India,” says the official. Under way for the past three years, the report banks on primary and secondary studies as well as contributions from volunteers from Intach’s chapters across the country. It is enriched by inputs from co-professionals outside of Intach who work on conservation. The research involves the work of 114 volunteers and professionals.

While culling out the condition of unprotected built heritage state by state, it aspires to not just remain a caution report. The purpose is to get state authorities on board and make action plans, and step in with exhibitions and seminars. “The intent is to solicit involvement of government bodies, the private sector and the community in working towards safeguarding neglected built heritage,” the official adds.

An outcome of The State of Built Heritage of India is the Heritage at Risk Register, which has evolved from the research. Both Lal Gumbaz and Badshahpur baoli are among the 359 structures from across the country that are at risk. “It is not an exhaustive list and is meant to be periodically updated,” says the Intach official. The risk register reflects only a minuscule part of the crisis. For some structures, such as the Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, it is already too late.

The risk register is a call to not only save heritage structures, but also a reminder to the learning it offers. The Lal Gumbaz, for instance, the official says is an excellent educational resource. It reveals much about the building construction methodology of the era. “The complex is in danger of disappearance as all structures are crumbling down. Domes of two structures have already collapsed,” the official adds.

The Badshahpur baoli is valuable in more ways than one. In modern-day glass-and-chrome Gurugram, it is a rare reminder of heritage from a different era. Built over 112 years ago, this late-Mughal construction reflects both Mughal and colonial elements. “It had a zenana and a mardana ghat for functional reasons. The main square reservoir still holds water,” notes the official. And the imminent threat to it is not missed on anyone. “The Kadarpur road under construction by HUDA may engulf or obscure it. Further, the development plan of Gurugram-Manesar does not have any marking of the baoli,” the official points out. All it needs to survive may be is a minor realignment of the road.

Badshahpur baoli merits protection not just for its past. In a parched city such as Gurugram, it has the potential to be revived as a functional source of water. But before that it would need to retrieve its catchment area destroyed by building activity. “Badshahpur baoli features as an important Indo-Islamic monument of Haryana in the collection of Virtual Museum of Images and Sound, which was supported by the ministry of culture,” points out the official.

Unprotected built heritage is a also a minefield. Issues begin with ownership. A lot of them, such as the Badshahpur baoli, are privately owned. Some are owned by multiple government agencies. Hence, to set off talks of conservation is a challenge. Awareness and dialogue are what Intach intends to raise through the seminars and exhibition that will follow the publishing of the report.

The official rues the absence of heritage awareness. Masonry from unprotected monuments are often hauled away for newer constructions, while most unprotected sites are just handy garbage dumps. It surely does not help that conservation brings no incentives. “There are no real incentives for owners to save and maintain these properties. Community involvement is nearly absent,” says the official. If we remain slow to intervene and preserve, officials warn, we are set to lose a major chunk of our heritage within decades. It is not an unfamiliar warning. But are we listening? More pertinently, do we care?

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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