A few Sundays ago, my friend Sohail Hashmi took me to visit Humayun’s Tomb. Although I’ve lived in New Delhi for the better part of two decades, “sightseeing” has, regrettably, never been part of my agenda. Now that was going to change.
Despite it being a Sunday, the tomb was practically deserted. Desultory foreign tourists wandered about and the even fewer Indians there preferred taking refuge in the shade of the trees. It was obvious that there were far too few people at the World Heritage site, the Indian subcontinent’s first garden tomb. Where were the hordes that should have been descending on this site? They were simply not there.
The irony hit me harder when a few weeks later I found myself in Rome, from where I am writing this column. At close to midnight, thousands of people throng the Colosseum, the Pantheon and other heritage sites. In the morning, people will queue up for more than an hour under the blistering sun to enter the place where gladiators once fought.
As Indians we take huge pride in our heritage and culture. In recent times, however, “culture” has become an ambiguous word often used politically to defend a certain stand. Hence, it is not in our “culture” to drink. It is part of our “culture” to respect our parents and so on.
Globalization has made the cultural debate more shrill. Even as we move towards a flatter world, there are attempts to protect what we see as uniquely “our” culture. In the past few months, we’ve seen this debate flare up in different forms: Cheerleaders are not part of our culture, so at the Indian Premier League matches, cheerleaders dressed from head to toe in skin-tight leotards. Kareena Kapoor’s drastic weight loss had the mainstream press tut-tutting over Western norms of beauty where size zero is a desirable goal. The business process outsourcing debate is defined in cultural terms: When Shanti becomes Sally, what does this do to her outlook? And when Shanti takes her expendable monthly income to the mall to blow it up in a nightclub (or on Western brands), we bemoan the loss of our culture.
Yet, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty in terms of palpably appreciating our heritage and our magnificent monuments, we somehow seem less enthusiastic. Sure, we’ll take part in SMS polls and vote for the Taj Mahal as one of the new seven wonders of the world (a mission promoted by Swiss-born Canadian Bernard Weber) but by and large we seem happy enough to let our monuments crumble away in neglect.
Stories of neglected or misused monuments have been repeated so often that we’ve become immune to them. Within shouting distance from Humayun’s Tomb is the dargah of Delhi’s most famous Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya. While the dargah itself is well maintained, some of the other monuments in the area are in sad disrepair. Sohail Hashmi took me around. The baoli (water body) at Nizamuddin, believed to be holy, has untreated sewage trickling in from the ring of houses at its perimeter. To enter the mausoleum of Atgah Khan (who died while defending emperor Akbar), you have to literally walk into somebody’s house and exit from the back door. The better known Chaunsath Khamba where Mirza Kokaltash, Atgah Khan’s son, is buried, is mostly kept locked by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to prevent it from becoming a hang-out for the local undesirables. And the mosque of Junah Shah (also known as the Jama Masjid of Nizamuddin) is managed by the Wakf Board which has, in the name of renovation, gone and plastered marble tiles on the gate, built a concrete staircase and constructed a steel structure on the terrace where you will also find a row of toilets. As for Lal Bangla where it is believed that Ibn Batuta lived while in India, ASI has filed a case to evict the squatters who inhabit it.
Encroachment is part of the problem; ASI is continuously fending off squatters from protected monuments. But the greater part of the problem is simply a lack of respect for what we describe as khandhar (ruins). I’m not just talking about graffiti scrawled on walls of the 12th and 13th century forts and monuments (“Bunty loves Babli”); I’m talking about a totally casual approach to conservation. Even as I write this, ASI has started restoration at another historic baoli at Tughlaqabad. Unsupervised labourers are removing original slabs of the Delhi quartz stone of the baoli’s supporting wall by breaking them into little pieces to clear the rubble.
In January, the ministry of culture headed by Ambika Soni announced plans for the country’s first ever Census of monuments and sites of archaeological interest. The previous year, an embarrassed Soni was forced to admit that we had already lost 35 “protected” monuments — 12 of them in the Capital — due to encroachment and urbanization. The setting up of a National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities and a National Heritage Site Commission, it is hoped, will prevent more monuments from being lost.
But more than another sarkari mission, what we need is collective pride in our history and the monuments that once defined us. Otherwise, we have our modern malls and ugly cities that tell their own story.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org