Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

India's disappearing monuments

In the early 20th century, a British historian listed 24 graves in the cemetery. In 2005, scholar Omar Khalidi documented 15, and in 2012, the number had decreased to just six

For India’s heritage buffs, their passion can sometimes throw up perplexing riddles. Here’s one: Will Delhi’s oldest Christian cemetery still be called that when it ceass to exist?

Located in Kishanganj in the northern part of the capital, D’Eremao Cemetery holds the graves of Armenian Christians, who are believed to have died sometime in the early 1700s. Named after a once-influential family in the courts of the Mughal emperors, the cemetery acquired a chapel more than a century ago.

In the early 20th century, a British historian listed 24 graves in the cemetery. In 2005, Indian-American scholar Omar Khalidi documented 15, and in 2012, according to an Armenian traveller, the number had decreased to just six.

As the surrounding congested neighbourhood creeps on to its land, the cemetery has nearly disappeared. The chapel — although largely visible — is dilapidated with the paint peeling away to expose the brick underneath.

Mahesh Sharma, India’s culture minister, said that the cemetery is one of a number of Indian monuments that have historical importance and that have been threatened by the unchecked growth of the cities around them.

“Twenty-four monuments across the country have disappeared altogether … swallowed by encroaching structures,” Mr Sharma told parliament on Monday. “These include a set of Buddhist ruins in Varanasi, a Mughal-era tomb in Delhi, the remains of a copper temple in Arunachal Pradesh, and temples in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.”

Of the 24 monuments, 11 were in Uttar Pradesh, according to the ministry.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) — a state-run body charged with protecting buildings considered vital to the country’s heritage — has spent 7.7 billion rupees (Dh439.3 million) to conserve monuments under its care, Mr Sharma said.

Although the ASI has the authority to remove structures that have intruded upon land of the monuments it protects, legal procedures can drag on endlessly due to India’s slow-moving judiciary.

The body has, over the years, also blamed severe understaffing for preventing it from being as efficient as possible.

However, even accounting for the 3,686 sites currently under ASI’s jurisdiction, hundreds of other monuments — major and minor — suffer from neglect.

Unattended, they fall into disuse and dilapidation. If they happen to be situated in towns or cities, which are typically starved for space, their land is annexed and put to private use.

“People begin to live in these lesser known monuments, or they build their house against one of the old walls,” said Dr Swapna Liddle, a historian who heads the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “Some of this has been going on slowly for decades, but the process has accelerated over the last few years.”

In a 2015 survey of 150 lesser-known monuments in Delhi, INTACH found that 90 per cent of these sites had been encroached upon. In several cases, the intruder is the state itself.

Shikha Jain, an architect and conservation consultant, recalled a story of a piau — an old water station meant for the use of travellers — on the road between Delhi and Gurgaon.

“The Delhi Metro was coming this way, so they razed [the piau] to the ground,” Ms Jain told The National. “Even with the state, the problem is that there are multiple agencies operating upon a piece of land. So on this national highway, there was the metro authority and the local area authority.

“The stronger authority, or the one with more money, gets its way.”

Until recently, several Indian cities did not take their heritage buildings into account while preparing their master plans, but this is starting to change.

Delhi’s 2021 master plan includes designated “heritage precincts” in addition to stronger laws to protect old buildings.

However, according to Dr Liddle, there is a gap between making the law and implementing it.

“You’re supposed to apply to the municipal authorities for permission to build anything, but who knows if people actually do this everywhere?” he said.

Formal protections may count for little. For two years, INTACH has been pursuing a lawsuit to evict encroachments on Mehrauli Archaeological Park.

The park is full of buildings ostensibly guarded by the rules of the ASI and the state archaeological authority.

“But it’s still getting ruined,” Dr Liddle said.

Ms Jain pointed to one strong ray of hope: a two-year-old government programme, Hriday, which has been working with a budget of 5 billion rupees to revive heritage infrastructure in 12 of India’s secondary cities.

“I’m helping with the programme’s assessments in Ajmer, and I can see that they plan to fund the preservation of even smaller or otherwise unprotected monuments,” Ms Jain said. “So there has finally been some recognition of their value. I’m hopeful about that.”

Updated: July 25, 2017 10:03 PM