‘Missing’ monuments of India tell a tale of neglect

The reintroduction of the AMASR Amendment Bill sparks concerns over the future of India’s protected monuments and archaeological sites.

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

The Panchayatan temple in Sarnath, Varanasi. Also in Varanasi, the Telia Nala Buddhist ruins are among the 50 protected monuments that have gone “missing”. 

The Panchayatan temple in Sarnath, Varanasi. Also in Varanasi, the Telia Nala Buddhist ruins are among the 50 protected monuments that have gone “missing”.  | Photo Credit: Md Shoeb Ansari/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It is difficult to get clear directions to the Barakhamba cemetery, which is rumoured to be in the centre of New Delhi. The name suggests the cemetery should be near Barakhamba Road, but history enthusiasts and experts point you towards Nizamuddin, a few kilometres away. Old-timers familiar with the intricate lanes and alleys of Nizamuddin direct you tentatively towards Lal Mahal or Ghalib Park, imagining the cemetery might have been integrated within these two landmarks.

The Afghan-era Barakhamba graveyard was in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), but is lost now, with only its name proof that it ever existed. When its demise was finally noticed, the ASI tried to rediscover the cemetery using modern scientific instruments, but it appears unlikely they will be able to recover it from the quicksand of urbanisation that has sucked the region in.

The Barakhamba cemetery is not the only national heritage building to be lost. Other “missing” monuments include religious and secular structures, sites and statues of significant cultural and historical value such as the 16th-century guns of Emperor Sher Shah in Assam; the pre-13th-century Copper Temple Ruins in Arunachal Pradesh; a 16th-century Kos Minar in Haryana; a 9th-century Kutumbari Temple in Uttarakhand; a 19th-century Old European tomb in Pune, Maharashtra; a 12th-century temple in Rajasthan; the Telia Nala Buddhist ruins in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh; and rock inscriptions in Madhya Pradesh.

Ruchika Sharma, who teaches History at the University of Delhi, feels the AMASR Amendment Bill fundamentally violates the basis of the Act by allowing construction activities within the protected areas of each monument. | Video Credit: Reporting by Ismat Ara; Edited and produced by Frontline News Desk

‘We lost it’

In December 2022, the Ministry of Culture, under which the ASI is housed, told Parliament that 50 of India’s 3,693 centrally protected monuments had gone missing. The Ministry made the submission on December 8 to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture as part of a report titled “Issues relating to Untraceable Monuments and Protection of Monuments in India”.

The Ministry said it was committed to “finding” these monuments, but it might not always be possible, as in the case of the Barakhamba cemetery. Bricks and pillars, sculptures and bas reliefs, carved beams—all these are frequently stolen from historical monuments. Often, families move into a 16th or 17th-century structure and simply make it home.

Also Read | ASI Mysuru works on preserving history from inscriptions in estampages

In the case of Barakhamba, it is likely a settlement simply came up on the land. With no documentation or oversight, and given the immense pressure of population and poverty, such instances are impossible to prevent. But, as culture writers and historians point out, the loss of so many structures will have a profound impact on the documentation and archiving of cultural heritage.

The renowned Muslim traveller and scholar from Morocco, Ibn Battuta, is said to have stayed in Lal Mahal in Nizamuddin area in the 14th century. Located inside the Tablighi Jamat complex, today there is only a little dome left of it. Lal Mahal is an important relic of the Delhi Sultanate era as well as one of the earliest surviving Islamic palaces in the country.

Lal Mahal (Red Palace), located inside the Tablighi Jamat complex in Nizamuddin. Today there is only a little dome left of this 14th-century structure. 

Lal Mahal (Red Palace), located inside the Tablighi Jamat complex in Nizamuddin. Today there is only a little dome left of this 14th-century structure. 

The historian Rana Safvi chanced upon it when she began to document monuments for her Delhi Trilogy, which was published by HarperCollins. She told Frontline: “The 800-year-old Lal Mahal is not a notified building and so access to it is not available to conservationists or even the ASI. Since it was not listed, it was encroached. In 2009, a four-member heritage conservation committee was appointed by the Supreme Court after news about the partial demolition of the Lal Mahal was shared widely. The inspection team could not access it because the area was sealed off. Nothing came of a petition called #SaveLalMahal that was started in 2013.”

The Lal Mahal was allegedly sealed off by the MCD in 2009. It falls in a zone declared prohibited for construction activities by the ASI, as it is only 20 metres from a centrally protected monument, Bada Khamba. A.G. Krishna Menon, architect, urban planner and the former head of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), was also part of the 2009 heritage conservation committee appointed by the Supreme Court. He said: “Isn’t it a paradox that a society that takes so much pride in its past cannot protect it? We have a system of preservation, but no culture. In a country like England, if a heritage cottage is going to be demolished, you will find hundreds of people out in protest.”

Even this so-called system of preservation leaves much to be desired. Historian Narayani Gupta told Frontline: “Many more historic structures might ‘disappear’ unnoticed. And nobody will mourn them. They are not considered of ‘national importance’. Why does no one suggest digital methods to keep a watch on the existing structures? If libraries can track books, why can’t the Ministry of Culture track its protected properties? Obviously, because it is not considered a matter of concern.”

  • The Barakhamba cemetery in New Delhi, rumoured to be located near Barakhamba Road, is difficult to locate, and experts believe it may be integrated within Lal Mahal or Ghalib Park in Nizamuddin.
  • The Barakhamba cemetery is one of several national heritage buildings in India that have been lost or gone missing, including religious and secular structures and statues of historical value.
  • The Ministry of Culture acknowledged that 50 centrally protected monuments have gone missing. The loss of these structures has significant implications for the documentation and preservation of cultural heritage.

The Act & the amendment

In 1958, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act was enacted to protect and preserve cultural heritage. Over the years, the Act has been amended several times to address emerging challenges. In 2017, the BJP government proposed several changes, including the introduction of new categories of prohibited and regulated areas around protected monuments, streamlining the process for granting permission for construction activities within protected areas, and strengthening penalties for non-compliance with the Act.

The AMASR (Amendment) Bill was introduced in 2017 and cleared by the Lok Sabha. However, it became the subject of intense debate because of two provisions. One, it allowed the government to take up infrastructure projects within a 100-metre radius of heritage monuments in a bid to strike a balance between heritage and development.

A kos minar (milestone) in Gudimalkapur, a suburb of Hyderabad, overrun by a tenement. 

A kos minar (milestone) in Gudimalkapur, a suburb of Hyderabad, overrun by a tenement.  | Photo Credit: SERISH NANISETTI

The original Act prohibits construction, even for public works, in this area. The amendment allows infrastructure projects such as highways, airports, and railways, as well as private buildings such as houses, hotels, and malls, claiming it would encourage development and modernise the country and create more job opportunities.

Secondly, the amendment introduced a new definition of “public works” to include any infrastructure work recommended by the National Monuments Authority and carried out by the Centre for public purposes.

Under the proposed amendment, the Ministry of Culture can allow construction in prohibited areas for infrastructure projects taken up by the Centre in rare cases when there is no other alternative.

In the Rajya Sabha, the Amendment Bill was referred to a Select Committee in 2018. The committee presented its report in February 2019. The report said: “It was noted that modern construction activities have been undertaken in Britain, Italy, France, etc. for development of infrastructural activities very close to the historical structures in those countries without having any impact on structures.”

It added: “Some Members of the Committee were of the view that the decision to permit construction works in the vicinity of Centrally protected monuments should be done on a case-by-case basis by a body of experts which includes historians, people involved with culture, engineers, urban architects, etc. since there is no logic or scientific basis behind the limits imposed by the present blanket ban. It was suggested that the appointment of the Committee should be left at the Ministry level each time a decision is to be taken on a big project, and that such a Committee of experts should hold public hearings with the affected local population to bring transparency to the decision-making process.” But the Committee noted that there was no consensus among the various Ministries on several provisions of the Bill and said it needed to collect more information to arrive at specific conclusions.

Bill to be reintroduced

In February this year, the government announced its intention to reintroduce the controversial AMASR (Amendment) Bill.

It was reported that the amendment would now also seek to give a new definition to the word “ancient monument”. Currently, this is defined as anything that is at least 100 years old, but sources said there was a view to change this because most “100-year-old monuments pertain to the time of the Britishers”.

Razia Sultan’s tomb  near Turkman’s Gate in Old Delhi, in a decrepit state despite being notified by the Archaeological Survey of India. 

Razia Sultan’s tomb near Turkman’s Gate in Old Delhi, in a decrepit state despite being notified by the Archaeological Survey of India.  | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This argument does not take into consideration that preserving a 100-year-old colonial building does not prevent the government from preserving a 200- or 300-year-old structure.

The danger of diluting the 100-year-old clause, however, becomes apparent when read along with the likelihood that the government might redefine the term “national importance” itself.

Since several centrally protected monuments were included in the list during the days of British colonialism, when the ASI was set up, the two clauses together will pave the way for the denotification of the 3,693 centrally protected monuments. S.F.A. Naqvi, a senior advocate in the Allahabad High Court, said a new Bill was unnecessary: “The old AMASR Act already includes everything and no new Bill is required, especially when the implementation of the old Act is still not fully effective.”

Religious factors

The politics around the AMASR (Amendment) Bill is also influenced by the fact that several monuments and archaeological sites in India are associated with specific regions and religions. The Hindutva nationalist ideology seeks to emphasise ancient Hindu civilisation as the only true and authentic culture of the country. Archaeology, as a tool for understanding India’s ancient past, has been used to support this nationalist agenda.

Also Read | Could a 12th-century well in Kerala be the clue to a kingdom long lost?

Ruchika Sharma, Assistant Professor of History, University of Delhi, said: “Most protected monuments like the Kos Minar did not have guards. It is not like the ASI does not have funds; it is how the ASI chooses to allocate these funds. There also seems to be some communication gap between the ASI and the State government. The Kos Minar area in Haryana was simply sold off to HUDA and they made commercial and residential buildings on it. The ASI filed a case, but nothing came of it. The ASI blames the government, the government blames the ASI, and it’s an endless blame game. It has led to many monuments just disappearing in plain sight!”

It is for this reason that Sharma believes the AMASR amendment bill will erode the very basis of the Act, which was to create a safe perimeter around monuments to prevent encroachment. The proposed amendment, she said, would give the state undue power over heritage, which can be misused. She explained: “Makeshift shanties built by homeless people around monuments are called encroachment but is the government building a road or station okay? State infrastructure is also encroachment.”

Sharma also pointed out: “If you look at the list of 50 monuments that have disappeared, a significant portion of them were built from the 12th to the 17th centuries, a period that the current regime decries as that of ‘outsiders’.”

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