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Struggling to Preserve History: India's Heritage Sites in Crisis

Delhi's rich history is filled with architectural wonders, but behind their grandeur lies a silent struggle. Neglect, encroachment, and conflicting narratives threaten these heritage sites. As modernity advances, the battle for conservation intensifies, leaving a crucial question unanswered: Who will preserve our cultural legacies?

By The Probe
New Update

Produced below are the abridged version of the transcripts of the video story on the dire state of heritage sites in India

Delhi: Echoes of an Ancient Civilization

India, the land of diverse cultures and rich history, stands as a testament to the grandeur of ancient civilizations. In the heart of the country lies Delhi, its capital, a city steeped in history and heritage. The echoes of empires that once thrived here resonate through the ages, leaving behind a trail of architectural wonders and cultural legacies. From majestic forts and palaces to intricate tombs and temples, Delhi is home to countless historical gems that have weathered the sands of time.

However, behind the façade of grandeur lies a silent struggle unfolding. Heritage sites once adorned with splendour now cling precariously to the brink of oblivion. Neglect, encroachment, and a clash of narratives between history and mythology threaten to erase these cultural treasures forever. As modernity marches on, the battle for heritage conservation seems uphill, leaving a profound question in its wake: Whose responsibility is it to preserve the treasures of the past for the generations to come?

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The Forgotten Legacy of Lal Mahal

In the impoverished Nizamuddin Basti area of Delhi, the 13th-century historical gem, Lal Mahal, is almost lost and remains invisible to most passersby. Over the course of centuries, the Lal Mahal has fallen into disrepair, and sadly, many people are unaware of its existence as it has gradually faded into obscurity.

Architect and Urban Planner, A G Krishna Menon, laments the alarming state of heritage conservation in India, asserting that hundreds, if not thousands, of heritage sites remain unrecognised and on the verge of extinction. Whose responsibility is it to protect and preserve these architectural wonders? Is it solely the concern of government bodies like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) or a collective responsibility of citizens and society at large?

Heritage Sites Across India: A Struggle for Survival

The challenges facing heritage conservation in India extend beyond Delhi alone. Throughout the country, historical marvels bear the brunt of neglect and indifference. Crumbling forts, decaying palaces, and weathered temples cry out for preservation and protection. Take the example of the Shamsi Talab in the Mehrauli area of Delhi. Once a beautiful lake where people used to gather and bathe, it has now shrunk significantly, plagued by garbage and sewage water seeping in through breaches.

Despite the ASI listing certain monuments for protection, many of them continue to face distress due to lack of awareness and support. Architect and Urban Planner A G Krishna Menon points out that the number of ASI-protected monuments in distress is just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of other heritage sites, not officially recognised, face the threat of extinction. As India modernises, the fate of these historical treasures hangs in the balance.

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Illegal Constructions and Encroachment: A Menace to Heritage

As India urbanises and cities expand, illegal constructions encroach upon heritage sites, posing a significant threat to their preservation. In areas like Delhi, where space is at a premium, the clash between tradition and modernity escalates. Dr. KN Dikshit, Former Joint Director General of the ASI, stresses the need for a comprehensive policy and collaboration with experts and communities to safeguard heritage.

Conservationists and builders often find themselves at odds, with conservation efforts hampered by bureaucratic hurdles and insufficient funding. While some steps have been taken to remove encroachments and preserve heritage, the continuous emergence of newer structures presents an ongoing challenge. Dr. Vasant Swarnkar, Director of the ASI, acknowledges the need for public awareness and cooperation to protect heritage sites effectively.

The Battle of Narratives: History vs. Mythology

In India, the battle for heritage conservation is further complicated by conflicting narratives between history and mythology. For instance, the debate over the authenticity of the Purana Qila as Indraprastha highlights the clash between historical evidence and cultural beliefs. Sohail Hashmi, a writer and filmmaker, emphasises the importance of recognising the difference between history and mythology and argues that mythology should not be reduced to historical events.

The influence of colonial narratives, which downplayed the significance of certain historical periods, has also impacted the perception of heritage among the masses. Many citizens feel disconnected from their heritage, believing that structures built by invaders are not part of their cultural legacy. This attitude further contributes to the neglect of heritage sites, as a large portion of the population does not relate to or value them.

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Conservation Efforts and Challenges

While some heritage sites in India are well-preserved and draw crowds of visitors, the majority are left to struggle against time and negligence. The iconic monuments, such as the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal, receive significant attention and funding, but numerous lesser-known historical sites are left to wither away.

Conservationists like A G Krishna Menon argue that the approach to heritage conservation needs to change. Rather than focusing solely on iconic structures, a more comprehensive strategy should be adopted, which recognises the value of all historical gems, irrespective of their popularity. Heritage conservation should be viewed as a joint effort, where citizens, government bodies, and private organisations work together to protect the nation's cultural legacy.

Empowering Citizens for Conservation

As citizens, we can play an active role in heritage conservation. While the ownership and management of government-protected monuments lie with government bodies like the ASI, citizens can contribute significantly to the preservation of city-level heritage, which belongs to all. Aishwarya Tipnis, a conservation architect, emphasises that citizens can make a difference in preserving municipal-level heritage, treescapes, and other buildings with cultural value.

By raising awareness, promoting responsible tourism, and engaging in community-driven initiatives, citizens can strengthen the collective commitment to heritage conservation. Regular people have a significant role to play in protecting the country's heritage and ensuring its survival for future generations.

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Striking a Balance between the Past and the Future

As India marches towards progress and modernity, it must also reckon with the importance of preserving its historical treasures. The battle for heritage conservation is not just about saving individual monuments; it is about protecting the soul of the nation's past and cultural identity.

The responsibility of preserving India's heritage should not rest solely on government bodies like the ASI but should be a shared endeavour involving citizens, communities, and private organisations. It requires a shift in attitude and policies, a greater appreciation for the value of heritage, and recognition of the rich cultural legacy left by our ancestors.

As we seek to strike a balance between the past and the future, we must remember that heritage is not a burden but a privilege—a privilege to inherit the wisdom and creativity of those who came before us. The battle for heritage conservation is one that will shape the identity and character of India for generations to come. It is a battle that demands unity, commitment, and collective action to safeguard the priceless treasures of the past and ensure their existence in the tapestry of India's future.

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