Do we suffer from heritage fatigue? On the one hand, we talk passionately about our heritage, but on the other hand we leave it in utter neglect
We have a strangely ambivalent even a contrarian attitude to our heritage. At one level we never tire of extolling the virtues of our ancient civilization, its greatness and antiquity and how it has influenced other civilisations, even a barely literate person would talk with great passion and given a chance at great length about thousands of years of our history, culture, and heritage.
But look around, go and visit any monument and it is not difficult to see that all this talk about our heritage does not extend to caring for it. We have some amorphous ideas of a haloed heritage, untouched by events in the present. No matter how unkempt, dirty, betel leaf juice splattered, scratched, graffiti covered and downright filthy and greasy our built heritage may become, it cannot sully the pristine purity of our ancient civilisation, our culture, our heritage.
Our faith in our heritage, it would appear, is like our faith in the Ganga. No matter how much sewage and untreated effluents, half burnt bodies and half burnt logs of wood and dry and rotting flowers and plastic and non-biodegradable trash we throw in the Ganga, it can never be dirty.
How else does one explain the horrible conditions that prevail inside and outside our historical monuments? Looking at the scene in Delhi, one can easily imagine the conditions around all our protected, listed and unlisted monuments spread across the country.
Why am I raising it in a column that is supposed to talk about Delhi?
I am doing it because Delhi has been the Capital of India from ancient times to the present, holding this position for more than a thousand years, with minor breaks now and then, and therefore the norms set at Delhi are followed all over the country. The other possibility that whether in Delhi or Ajanta, Agra or Sarnath, Golkunda or Mammalpuram, we are utterly lacking in a sense of history is more scary. It may sound strange but we could have become oblivious of and inured to our heritage due to the sheer familiarity of being constantly surrounded with monumental structures, to the extent that we have ceased to bother about them --- something that could be called ‘heritage fatigue’.
If heritage fatigue is the case and the entire population suffers from it, then it is a serious malady but if it is just a question of lack of awareness and sensitivity to our heritage, I hope it is just that, there is a possibility of doing something about it. It is necessary to urgently draw in and involve the population of the city, especially those living in the vicinity of the monument, in campaigns for protecting and looking after these monuments.
Take for example the Tomb of Adham Khan, one of my favourites and the starting point of my walks in Mehrauli. Go there any day of the week and any time of day, what stares you in the face is a picture of utter neglect. The ASI with its meagre resources can at best deploy a guard here. I do not know if a guard also sleeps there at night, but on several morning visits to the site I have seen empty plastic bottles, wrappers of potato chips and other savouries that are traditionally paired with alcoholic beverages. The place is also the favourite of many druggies who sleep there at night and leave behind rags and such other properties which they had dragged with them when they staggered in.
Those living nearby visit Adham Khan’s mausoleum for an early morning walk, their post dinner constitutional or to just sit there watching the setting sun. Surely they treat it as their own, can we not try and start a dialogue with them.
One ASI guard, on daily wages, hired from a security agency is never going to work. The ASI needs to be given the resources to look after these monuments properly. It also needs to evolve mechanisms and create spaces to draw in and work with the constantly growing community of heritage enthusiasts, and those living in the vicinity of the monuments.
This is not going to be easy, because the ASI created in the late 19 Century is used to treating the people as an unwelcome nuisance. Times have changed, many of our colonial laws are being repealed, the guardians of our heritage also need to open up to democracy. It has been around for a while and has proved to be rather useful. No harm in trying it out, for all you know it might work and make the work of ASI a little more rewarding.