Leaving no stone unturned

The draft National Conservation Policy’s exclusive focus on the preservation of ASI monuments is akin to a project solely to protect the tiger without factoring in the other elements in an ecosystem

August 17, 2013 01:11 am | Updated June 07, 2016 03:52 am IST

For the purpose of public discussion, in May 2013, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) released the draft of a new “National Conservation Policy” (NCP). It pertains to monuments, archaeological sites and remains protected by the ASI. Although the ASI has periodically amended its conservation policies to broadly adhere to international charters, the draft represents the first serious relook of conservation guidelines that it has followed since 1923.

This new 2013 draft has lofty aims. All edifices at the approximately 3,600 ASI sites are to be preserved in a strategic and sensitive manner. For instance, eroded or defaced, figural, relief carvings and wall paintings are not to be reconstructed and chemical cleaners are to be used sparingly. While conducting renovations, newly quarried and dressed stones are at once to be harmoniously fitted into a building’s original fabric and to be discernible from it. All conservation efforts are to be documented. Furthermore, in recognition of our country’s vast and varied population, the draft policy permits diverse uses of monuments. It also acknowledges the importance of making monuments more accessible to visitors including those with disabilities.

Biodiversity parallel

However, despite its scope and content, the NCP draft leaves much to be desired. First, it barely acknowledges the existence of thousands of sophisticated monuments that are not protected by the ASI. Standing in every part of the country in various states of completion and preservation, some of these monuments are today under the jurisdiction of State archaeology and culture departments. Trusts, committees and even private individuals control others. Shared architectural typologies, pilgrimage circuits, patronage structures and the circulation of processional images are some ways in which these sites are connected to those that are today recipients of ASI protection. A comparison with some programmes pertaining to the conservation of our nation’s biodiversity is helpful in appreciating why the ASI’s disengagement with non-ASI monuments is a serious lacuna of the draft policy. The draft policy’s attempt to conserve only ASI monuments may be likened to a scheme that envisions the conservation of a charismatic species such as the tiger, without adequately making provisions for understanding or protecting co-predators, prey-species and habitat variables.

Continuing a comparison of the protection of our monumental heritage with biodiversity conservation, it is worth contrasting the NCP’s relatively insular outlook with the attitude of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and State Forest Departments. In recent years, in many parts of our country, they have established working relationships with non-governmental organisations to monitor endangered species populations, lead multiyear scientific studies and work with villagers living in and around forests. The ASI could conserve many high-medieval and early modern step-wells, tanks, kundas , naulas and other water structures that are currently threatened by forces of man and nature by initiating partnerships with organisations such as the Peoples’ Science Institute and the Centre for Science and Environment that have expertise in water management.

Furthermore, as the case of the exquisitely sculpted stone door jambs of temples at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Pavagadh in Gujarat attests — they are currently lying amid heaps of non-biodegradable waste — the ASI could actively partner with civic groups to promote the use of natural materials and construct incinerators. Meanwhile, initiating collaborations with groups involved in wildlife conservation work holds forth the possibility of receiving up-to-date reports on the state of little known antiquities and bringing new finds to the ASI’s notice.

For instance, in recent months, a team of ecologists working in the Terai forests has encountered remains of a sandstone surround dateable to the First-Third century CE and several monolithic, votive shrines dateable to the 10th-12th century CE. Finally, instead of confining public-private partnerships at ASI sites to the construction of restrooms and drinking water fountains, the ASI could meaningfully engage interested institutions, non-governmental organisations, corporations and individuals to develop and maintain interpretation centres.

Tapping hereditary skills

In seeking to protect monuments, the proposed NCP policy advocates the utilisation of the skills of hereditary craftspeople, by arguing that they are living repositories of ancient architectural formulae and construction techniques. Giving livelihood to accomplished masons, stone carvers, and stucco-workers is undoubtedly a worthy endeavour. However, one is unsure how many master craftspeople working today are knowledgeable of techniques used to excavate the Fifth century caves at Ajanta or to adapt the Vastupurushamandala to generate aspects of the plan and elevation of the 11th century temples at Khajuraho. In those few instances, where master craftspeople are knowledgeable of traditional forms and construction techniques, it is of rather late typologies such as the Nayaka period architecture of Tamil Nadu or the revivalist Maru-Gurjaraesque tradition of western India. Therefore, the careful conservation of monuments cannot be left to a few modern practitioners with limited abilities.

Revision and training

In my opinion, the raising of an army of highly qualified and self-motivated individuals to follow the guidelines of the proposed policy, to carefully interpret its provisions, and to develop new measures are critical needs that have been insufficiently considered by the draft policy. Such endeavours may begin with revising the curriculum of the ASI-run Institute of Archaeology, the training ground for its officers. In revising the curriculum, framers may wish to bear in mind that the goal of a specialised-training programme cannot merely be to impart elementary facts. Teachers therefore ought to train students to recognise local, regional, and trans-regional forms and meanings of Indian art and architecture. This is important as builders often self-consciously incorporated or juxtaposed forms, iconographies and construction techniques. For instance, at Mahakuta in Karnataka, Eighth Century temples built in northern and southern Indian modes stand side by side.

The NCP draft wisely and repeatedly cautions against the completion of fragmentary inscriptions. However, not once does the draft propose training ASI officers to read inscriptions. Rigorous epigraphy and paleography courses need to be instituted and enrolment in them encouraged. In addition, the ASI might increase its ranks of highly trained individuals by hiring professionals in formal advisory positions and on short-term basis as consultants to specific projects. Attractive schemes similar to the Army’s short-service commission may be instituted and widely advertised. Finally, it is proposed that the ASI regularly organise scholarly symposia to deliberate on vexed questions that lie at the heart of its draft policy. For example, what does it mean to preserve the “authenticity” and “integrity” of the Lingaraja temple complex at Bhubaneswar in Odisha, which has been a consecrated site since at least the Eighth century and where shrines and sculptures continue to be renovated and installed? Or, how might a site such as Batesara in Madhya Pradesh, where the remains of over a hundred Pratihara period shrines lie strewn about, be conserved?


One long followed ASI policy that has received official sanction in the NCP draft also needs to be reassessed. This is the conversion of certain arbitrarily selected monuments into locked ASI storerooms and offices. At Menal, in Rajasthan a Twelfth Century Pashupata Shaiva monastic complex — one of the few surviving examples of this building typology — has been converted into a warehouse to store sanitaryware and construction materials. At Baijnath, in Uttarakhand, a sizeable temple assignable to the Eleventh Century has been transformed into a godown for storing hundreds of medieval schist stelae. The storage of these sculptures has undoubted safeguarded them from vandalism and theft. However, the next imperative step would be establish a site museum to display these images, which are hitherto unknown to scholars and to hundreds of pilgrims from all over India who visit Baijnath daily.

To conclude, along with institutions such as the census and the topographical survey, the ASI was partly established as an instrument to aid colonial rule. Many British administrators saw it as part of a broader effort not only to better understand India but to also classify and striate the colony, and to make its heterogeneous past usable to contingencies of the colonial present. Setting carefully selected and tactically conserved monuments on cushions of velvet grass, they sought to capture and display trophies of their conquest. Sixty-six years after independence, we need to reflect on what remainders of the past mean to us today and how we intend to look after them for generations to come. Sustained conversations between the ASI and other custodians of our monumental heritage, more meaningful public-private partnerships, greater efforts to train a multitude of highly skilled persons, and a deeper commitment to working closely with scholars worldwide may help achieve the previously mentioned aims.

(Nachiket Chanchani is assistant professor of South Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, U.S.)

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