W ith reference to the protection of our heritage — our vast array of temples, mosques, churches, stupas, forts, palaces, historic gardens and historic cities, the Indian Constitution provides some directive principles for state policy — “It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest declared by law to be of national importance from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export as the case may be.”
If this were being written today, we would add words from our experience. Words, like neglect and disinterest, that partially describe what is happening to our heritage and the legacy of our past. This paragraph needs to read like this — “The State is obliged to protect India’s heritage from spoliation and neglect, from destruction and disinterest, and from export and theft.” What is also hidden in this paragraph is the phrase that reads, “the State is obliged to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest declared by law to be of national importance”
The question that begs to be asked is — actually how many places and objects of artistic and historic importance have been declared by law to be of national importance' The real numbers are staggering in their disproportion and inequality. The Archaeological Survey of India, under the ministry of human resources development, inherited from the British a set of buildings declared to be of national importance such as the Taj Mahal, the temples of Tanjore, and the Jama Masjid of Delhi, and many others that represent our composite cultural heritage. The number of buildings protected by the ASI is in the region of 4000. This includes, for example, several kos minars, built to measure distance (kos), set up by the Mughals along the road from Delhi to Agra.
The great jigsaw
Each state in India also has its version of the state departments of archaeology, archives and museums which, in turn look, after another 4000 monuments and museums. This brings, in round numbers, the grand total to 8000 protected sites of national importance in the whole of the country, in spite of the size and antiquity of India. In England alone, the number of listed protected buildings is over 500,000. Five hundred thousand against an Indian total of 8,000 listed monuments. The United States of America has 1 million sites on their national register, and India, that boasts of 5,000 years of creative history, cannot muster up a list that amounts to even 10,000 buildings.
The city-wise count is even sadder. New York City protects, by law, over 980 buildings. Compare this with Delhi, India’s capital that boasts of 7 historic cities within one, which has only 200 buildings and sites protected by the state government and the Central ASI.
Is it disinterest on the part of the state never to have expanded this list' The expansion needs to be, not by ones and twos, but by thousands to encompass the rich material heritage of our country. Is the state exempt from criticism for caring for so few, while so many parts of that great jigsaw puzzle of our history languish from neglect. While we are concerned about the lies under the Babri Masjid, have we ever stopped to think what lies below our cities, towns, villages, and seas' Have some of us lost our hunger and curiosity' Can those still hungry not ask for more' Many city authorities around the world have programmes by which they identify landmarks of their area. Once designated as City Landmarks, they make sure that these treasures are kept clean with adequate signage to explain why that building or natural site is of importance to the people and their history.
If every city in India were to designate its landmarks with the help of experts, leaders of various communities and by the free choice of the citizens, we would have a country full of interesting places to visit, that still hold a significance to people who remember the stories, tales and myths about the place and remember those who built them. We would then be able to see and enjoy in the city a variety of distinct buildings and sites that, through the passage of time, bring grace and beauty to our everyday lives.