If the fire that ravaged parts of the 18th century Kalas Mahal in Chennai this week is symptomatic of the callousness with which we treat precious heritage buildings in this country, the eagerness of the Tamil Nadu Minister concerned to demolish what remains of it suggests a disregard for history and aesthetics that is, quite simply, monumental. What is happening in Chennai is indicative of the state of heritage conservation in the country. At a time when the Archaeological Survey of India is celebrating its 150th anniversary, doubts about the protection of the Taj Mahal still persist. Many monuments have gone mysteriously missing as in Delhi. Varanasi, one of India's ancient cities, is yet to be comprehensively conserved. The greatest concern of all is the future of 700,000 unprotected heritage structures spread across many cities. As important as protected monuments, these buildings are the most vulnerable since they are in use and do not have sufficient legal protection.
Home to about 600 heritage structures, Chennai is notorious for losing its historic buildings to mysterious fires. Kalas Mahal is the fifth victim. What lies damaged, if not entirely lost, is an important piece of Indian history. The Kalas Mahal along with its adjoining structure, Humayun Mahal, is an early example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. A hybrid building style that combined Hindu and Saracenic elements originated here, spread across the country to reach Ajmer and Baroda, among other places, and eventually influenced the architecture of New Delhi. When the British took over this palace from the Nawab of Arcot in 1859, they enhanced its architectural importance and creatively used it as a public office. Unfortunately, post-Independence, this nationally significant complex was neglected. Had these buildings been properly retrofitted, much of the damage could have been prevented. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has done well to intervene and stop the Public Works Department from hastily demolishing the Kalas Mahal. The committee she has constituted to study the condition of the building should do a scientific analysis, with nationally respected conservation experts leading the decision-making. It should also look at the entire building complex, and come up with a comprehensive plan to highlight the heritage value of the place. A well-restored Kalas Mahal will set a good precedent and Chennai could show the way for other cities to follow.