Agraites show no pride in Taj city's rich heritage (August 18 is World Heritage Day)
While World Heritage Day was celebratd globally on Friday, Agra's residents seem unconcerned and indifferent to the Taj city's rich historical legacy.
Even with three World Heritage monuments and two more, Akbar's tomb at Sikandra and Etmauddaula, in the pipeline, the people in Agra displayed no sense of pride in their history and rich architectural legacy that draws millions of visitors to the city every year.
The Archaeological Survey of India chief in Agra, N.K. Pathak, lamented: "It's a pity that residents of this city show no sense of pride in their spectacular heritage. Which other city in the world can boast of so many wonderful architectural marvels?"
Pathak said this year's World Heritage Day theme is "Commemoration of History". "Monuments and sites, including those more complex and diversified forms of heritage places such as living landscapes, are tangible carriers of the memory of a part of the human experience. Thus, through their authenticity and integrity, they contribute, in their way, to the commemoration and transmission of values which include history," an official annoucement said.
An ASI official said commemoration of heritage could include engraved inscriptions, mausoleums of exceptional architecture or works of monumental sculpture, more modest elements reflecting vernacular traditions or dedicated landscapes such as cemeteries or memorial gardens.
Its a ritual observed each year. The ASI does nothing to promote awareness or educate people on the importance of heritage, conservationists in Agra feel. The occasion could have been used to sensitise locals about the diversity of cultural heritage Agra offers and the huge efforts required to protect and conserve history.
It was on April 18, 1982 at a symposium organised in Tunisia, that the holding of the "International Day for Monuments and Sites" to be celebrated was suggested. The idea was also approved by the Unesco General Conference at its 22nd session in November 1983. This has traditionally been called World Heritage Day. Other suggestions made included restoration of works, publicity in the media to create awareness about preservation of cultural heritage, holding conferences and seminars, exhibitions, publication of books, involving educational institutions to honour people and organisations which have helped promote heritage, explains a retired ASI official.
The ASI in Agra, has not only not been able to involve the local populace in the restoration and upkeep of the heritage monuments but even its own efforts to clear most historical monuments in the city of encroachments have been tardy. Allegations have regularly been hurled against its top officials of corrupt practices and promoting the re-sales of tickets. Even its expertise in conservational has been questioned.
Local historians have pointed out dozens of structures that need immediate attention and repairs. "Our total approach has been Taj-centric, paying very little attention to other historical monuments like Babar's Ram Bagh or Chini ka Roza. Several important monuments, including the Jami Masjid and the tomb of Rasul Shah (in Fatehpur Sikri) have been wilfully neglected," well-known Mughal historian R. Nath pointed out.
Perhaps the most alarming lapse has been ASI's abject failure to rid the monuments of illegal structures and encroachments.The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act gives it sweeping powers but the mandarins in the ASI have never had the will to act. Most smaller protected monuments in Agra and there are scores of them, have been virtually overwhelmed by new structures which threaten their existence, conservationists say. Delhi Gate, Etmauddaula, Sikandra, Ram Bagh, and dozens of others have been dwarfed by encroachments, they point out.
Pathak says demolition notices have been sent to more than 70 people and action would be initiated once the general elections are over.
But conservationists argue that the World Heritage Day should have been used by the ASI to present its new profile and a specific plan for restoring the grandeur of the priceless monuments that Agra is heir to. "But the height of its callous apathy was exposed when it failed to take any action to stall (former UP chief minister) Mayawati's controversial Taj Corridor between the Fort and the Taj," a conservationist pointed out, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The question now being debated in the Taj city is whether the ASI alone should have the exclusive right to restoration and preservation of monuments or should the 150 year old monolithic organisation share the responsibility with other professional bodies.
One reason why the locals are indifferent to the city's rich historical heritage is that many mistakenly believe development in the area has been stalled by these monuments.
"While disposing of the MC Mehta PIL in the Taj pollution case, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions of industrial expansion, shifted industries and forced closure of polluting industries. Heritage is thus looked at as a villain. It is for this reason there is no support for the demand to declare Agra a heritage city," explained Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 18-04-2014)