As if pollution and vandals weren't enough cause to worry, Indian heritage sites are now being harmed by the carelessness of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the very institution in charge of protecting what are some of the oldest historical sites in the world.
According to a report in Times of India, the Red Fort (Lal Quila) in Delhi has recently undergone considerable damage due to ASI. The organisation allegedly uses thick blue ropes made of artificial material as makeshift barricades to keep visitors and tourists out of the Diwan-e-Khan, a structure within the Fort.
The blue ropes are tied around the many marble spires across the gallery. According to the report, the ropes have left big, blue marks around the columns.
Conservationists have raised an alarm at the seemingly nonchalant manner in which the ASI is going about preserving heritage sites of such stature as the Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site and an important relic of India's own rich history.
But this is not the first time the protector of archaeological sites in India has failed its ward. In a 2013 audit report, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India called out ASI for not keeping timely reports on conservation works, negligent documentation, faulty budgeting and unwarranted delays among other things.
In the last year itself, several instances of damage to archaeological relics due to carelessness on part of ASI authorities made news.
A parliamentary committee report in July reproached ASI for not taking enough measures to keep out encroachers after Lal Mahal, a 13th century monument built by Ghiyasuddin Balban was encroached upon and being used as a residence. ASI officials were not even allowed into the premises when they went to investigate the matter.
The report also said ASI needs to work better at integrating Mughal era monuments such as Red Fort and Qutab Minar with their surroundings. It clearly refers to the areas right outside the monuments, which are usually filthy and overcrowded (as with Red Fort in Old Delhi) or dank and poorly lit (as with Qutab Minar in South Delhi).
The Taj Mahal, usually considered the crown jewel in India's list of heritage sites, has also witnessed decay in the recent years, with some even calling for foreign intervention to restore the crumbling structure. Things came to a head when in July, a visitor was hit on the head by a stone which fell out of an under-repairs minaret. The ASI had been renovating the Taj Mahal for several months, even as the structure continued to lose bits and pieces to gravity and other natural and unnatural killers.
The recent practice of using traditional 'mud packs' to clear the surface of the Taj Mahal from environmental damage has also come under the radar of scrutiny by archaeologists who claim that the mud packs maybe adding to the discoloration, which is largely a result of increasing pollution. In fact, even the water body around the Taj Mahal is so polluted, that an insect infestation actually bred in it and caused further staining on the already graying walls of the majestic monument. So much for short term solutions.
In April, the pinnacle of the fort of Fatehpur Sikri, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was damaged by vandals. Such vandalism is common in the vast monument complex where there are just 10 security persons allocated at night. ASI had floated a Rs 1.8 crore tender for installing 17 high quality, night-vision security cameras in the premises, but the cameras have not yet materialized. Illegal makeshift encroachment by local hawkers and vendors selling Sikri curios and mementos to tourists is also worrisome.
Razing of monuments is another issue that requires ASI attention. Thiruverumbur Malaikkoil in Trichi, known alternatively as the rock temple, is a 7th century (or older) fort erected on 3,800 million years old rock, and has played an important role in Southern India's political and cultural history. The area surrounding the fort was allegedly acquired by National Highway Authority of India under the pretext of 'public interest', despite the area being under the heritage zone. Despite there being a ban against acquiring/using land within a 100-metre radius of a heritage site. The ASI did not object.
In a 2013 report on ASI, the CAG says that 92 historical monuments have disappeared in India before this.
In August, the 11th century Jamshedpur Temple was damaged when the temple was struck by lightning, causing damage to its walls. (chunks fell out and cracks appeared). Media reports blamed the 'lackadaisical attitude' of the ASI for the damage. Allegedly, the ASI had, over the years, been asked to provide the monuments with lightning arresters, following several such incidents, but no action had been taken. There are 78 protected monuments under ASI's Bhubaneshwar Circle. but only a few have lightning arresters.
The 10th century Udaygiri caves are also falling to pieces due to ASI delay and negligence in applying chemical coatings on the walls of the ancient Jain structure.
In August, the ASI damaged about 400 metres of the remains of a 4,500-year-old Harappan mud-brick wall which was lying under the Harappan city of Dholavira. The ASI dug up the area even though it was aware of the existence of the wall in the area (the outward projection of the wall had crippled away, leaving traces). ASI had been trying to build a new protective wall around the south of site. But careless drilling and digging of the trench for laying the new wall completely destroyed the old, original wall.
Recently, in November, ASI was criticised for its 'renovation' and 'beautification' of the Nagardhan Fort in Vidarbha. The 300 year old, erstwhile neglected fort was given a gaudy facelift using paint and steel railings, which ISI officials themselves agreed was improper considering the age of the monument and that the renovation had flouted conservation norms.
ScoopWhoop spoke to the Joint Director General of ASI, Dr. RS Fonia about why the ASI had been committing so many lapses.
'These are not lapses. This is just a maintenance issue. That rope in Delhi was wrongly used but such things are taken care of by the Circle incharge of the area.'
The ASI's functioning is divided into specific Archaeological circles. Due to the vast wealth of heritage sites and monuments in Delhi, the capital has its own 'Mini Circle', only the third city in India after Leh and Hampi, to get a super specialised circle.
Why would such lapses still take place in Delhi? To this, the Joint DG said that man-power and proper infrastructure was a very big problem, that is, there is a serious lack of both. However, the DG seemed more inclined to blame the lack of 'cultural discipline' in overall Indians, on both parts of authorities as well as common citizens, which leads to such incidents across the country. Quick to blame vandalism, Dr. Fonia said:
"Monuments are like teeth. Just like teeth, they need to be cleaned regularly to maintain health. Sincere maintenance and development of cultural discipline, both on part of authorities and citizens."
Feature Image Source: Twitter/@CNTraveler