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The Remains of Days Past

In a state brimming with historic towns, monuments and artefacts, the quake was also a wrecker of heritage

The Remains of Days Past
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IT'S a truly majestic 18th century palace, ironically flanked by a modern-day 500,000-litre water tank. If you ignore this brick-and-mortar monstrosity, the Darbargadh in Morbi—a bustling 800-year-old trading outpost for some 230 villages in western Gujarat—is a revelation: fine ashlar masonry—masonry of hewed or square stone—on handsome yellow sandstone where strains of neo-Gothic and Graeco-Roman styles clash happily in a high noon of eclecticism in architecture. Look down from the palace and you see indelible signs of European city planning: a straight processional road flanked by what used to be a pretty, 120-year-old, low-slung bazaar of 300 shops with semi-circular arches. Walk down the road and you reach a town-gate tower, the cast-iron for which was shipped in from Birmingham. With its crescent-shaped boundary and low buildings, mostly two-storey with colonnaded pillars, Morbi looks like a dusty, frayed, tropical echo of a 'classical' English town like Bath.

But all that was largely before the fateful January 26 earthquake that flattened most of the historic town of 150,000 people and left 250 of them dead. Glorious history has now become depressing detritus. The palace is badly damaged and out-of-bounds, with the debris spilling out on a narrow town roundabout. A 134-year-old, red-tiled girls school, the first in Morbi, opposite the palace has crumbled. The famous 72-year-old Manimandir, a great specimen of 19th century regional style with a perambulatory path, carved timber pieces and red-tiled roof built at a cost of Rs 100,000, has been damaged. The historic bazaar, which the king rented out to traders for a rupee a shop, looks carpet-bombed. "I am numbed by the sight," says Delhi-based architect Hemen Sanghvi, who's returned to his quake-ravaged hometown to explore the damage. "I can't relate to Morbi any longer."

The quake has been a great leveller in more ways than one: it has swallowed up the present and the past in its fell swoop. The upshot is incalculable damage to Gujarat's historic towns, palaces, monuments and antiquities. For one, nearly half of India's 580-odd princely states were located in quake-hit Kutch and Saurashtra. So, entire towns have lost their unique character and signature Indo-colonial architecture. Historic monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (asi) have also been either destroyed or badly damaged. Of the 213 asi-protected monuments in the state, a 'good number have been damaged', according to D.R. Gahlot, the Vadodara-based superintending archaeologist of the circle. In Ahmedabad alone, nearly half of the 53 asi-protected monuments—most of which are mosques and tombs with their fabled swinging minarets—have been damaged, at least ten of them very seriously. "After the loss of human lives, the loss of antiquities in Gujarat has been enormous," says Rabindra Jayendralal Vasavada, fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects and member of the Intach, Gujarat chapter.

He's right. What gave, for example, Dhrangadhra, a once-pretty and proud town of salt makers, cotton growers and stone-cutters in Surendranagar district, a historic touch was its 110-year-old palace belonging to Kumar Siddhrajsinhji, the 47th-generation scion of Harpal Dev, the local king. Thirteen years ago, his wife Kavrani Kanchande converted this beautiful palace—now home to a half-blind watchman and an ailing nanny—into a school.Till the quake cracked its floors, walls and part of a stunning 80-ft dome, prised open its arches, and tore apart its rich teak doors, 30 teachers used to turn up daily to teach some 1,000 local children. In terms of human loss, Dhrangadhra, a once-fortified city whose cowdung-plastered walls have collapsed, was luckier: only six people died in this town of 70,000 people. Nestling amidst bat-infested trees, the gorgeous, 500-year-old, sandstone palace in Halvad, a sister town, some 30 km away, has also been damaged badly: the foyer roof has caved in, sturdy handsome wooden panels with engravings have collapsed and broken stone, plaster and bricks lie all around. The 80-ft-high ornate watchtower with a wooden staircase and 40 balconies, the piece de resistance of the 18-room palace, has developed cracks and needs urgent repairs. Caretaker Prabhat Bhouba says the tower swayed like a storm-tossed boat during the quake and it is "surprising that it didn't fall down."

No such luck, of course, lay in store for Aina Mahal, once the showpiece of Bhuj, the town which bore the brunt of the earth's wrath. Writer Bill Aitken, on a visit to the 248-year-old palace, had once quipped that he was 'greeted by a clatter of mail-catalogue art objects that 19th century royals ordered with abandon' inside its Durbar Hall. Still, it drew 80,000 people a year up its marble stairways to gape at the Belgian glass paintings, dresses, sepia-tinted rare photographs, embroideries and textiles in the collection. Today, the king Rao Pragmalji's old palace, designed by a seafarer-architect who cut his teeth in Holland, is in ruins. Next door, the sturdier-looking ornate Italian marble and sandstone Prag Mahal or the new palace, is also severely damaged with its roofs and balconies crumbling. A fortnight after the quake, the caretakers haven't been able to enter the palace. "How are we going to fund the restoration of these palaces?" asks a dishevelled scion, Raghuraj Sinh Jadeja, who's been camping in the courtyard since the quake to prevent thefts of antiquities strewn around. "Repairing this will not get any politician votes all right, but this antiquity belongs to all."

Many people in Bhuj, which drew a fair share of tourists because of its palaces and monuments, are asking the same question. Along with Aina Mahal, another big crowd-puller in the city was the 123-year-old Kutch Museum, the oldest in Gujarat. Originally know as the Fergusson Museum after its founder James Fergusson, a governor of Bombay, the museum had a large collection of Harappan artefacts, 17th century miniature paintings of traditional Kutch architecture, a 7th century statue of Buddha, jewellery and diamonds, rare weapons, including an inscribed 18th century cannon gifted by Tipu Sultan to the Kutch ruler. It also had a collection of coins in circulation before World War II, and vintage wooden artefacts and embroidery from the region. Today, the museum is in a sorry shape: the facade has cracked, the roof has caved in on its collection, and even its gates are lying open on a busy Bhuj street. Only the cannon standing in the courtyard seems to have survived. There's no caretaker in sight. "The museum was an unique capsule of Kutch culture," says Kalpana Desai, director of the Mumbai-based Prince of Wales Museum.

The 452-year-old town, founded by Rao Khengarji I, who started a 400-year-old dynasty of Jadeja rulers in the region, has lost more than a palace, museum and a vintage crafts bazaar.Even its famous chhatris (memorials to the former rulers) have been reduced to rubble. Standing to the west of Hamirsar lake, the most imposing of them all, Maharao Sri Lakhpatji's chhatri, once a polygonal monument with stylistically covered roofs and a central dome, is in ruins. For the last few years, the chhatris had become a favourite Bollywood location: caretaker Mohammed Bacchu remembers Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai cavorting under the chhatris during a 17-day-shoot for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam a few years ago. Even director J.P. Dutta shot the picturesque cenotaphs for his Border.

For Ahmedabad's legendary shaking minarets, this was the second jolt in nearly two centuries. Most of the city's mosques and tombs—some of them were partially damaged in the earthquake that struck Gujarat in 1819—date back to the 15th century Sultanate. They have been a major tourist draw for decades now in spite of a 15-year-old asi ban on visitors going up the spiral stairways to the top to shake the minarets. Why the minarets actually sway if one just physically shakes the topmost portion of one of them remains an enduring mystery.

Now, according to V. Nair, Ahmedabad-based senior asi conservation assistant, some of the minarets have developed "dangerous cracks". Take, for example, the Bibi-ki-Masjid, a famous 547-year-old mosque in Rajpur whose 40-ft-tall minarets have suffered extensive damage. The mosque is one of the finest examples of synthesis of Indo-Islamic architecture in western India. Years ago, one of the minarets was damaged after lightning struck it, now the others have been damaged as well. Even the city's famous Jamia Masjid, the 577-year-old oasis of peace in the noisy old city bazaar with its sprawling 87,096 sq-ft open courtyard, an ornate 256-pillar prayer hall, corbelled domes and coloured marble has suffered damage: the entrance porch to the south side has developed cracks, the stones have opened up, and the grilles have fallen.

A part of the city's rich history has also been obliterated after extensive damage to Bhadra fort, the city's oldest, which once housed royal palaces and had beautiful gardens. The brick masonry of the stone-clad fort on the southern side of the tower has collapsed and wide cracks have developed in the minarets. Carting the debris away is another problem as it has piled up high. "The fort seems to have suffered maximum damage among all the monuments in the city," says Nair. That's not all. Three mansions, owned by the Sarabhai family, have developed cracks: the Shanti Sadan estate, the 100-year-old Sarabhai family home outside the old city, which was used as a school, is the worst hit.

The restoration of towns and monuments is certain to stir up a controversy. Already municipalities are making noises about pulling down damaged palaces and towers and building anew. In Morbi, for example, the municipality is mulling over the possibility of pulling down the damaged bazaar. "They could shore up the bazaar. But they will pull it down and hand it over to promoters," fears architect Sanghvi. Then there's the question of funds: the asi alone will require Rs 1 crore, according to a preliminary estimate, to restore its damaged monuments. The state archaeological department is in near-penury: it reportedly has an annual upkeep budget of Rs 30 lakh.

As for the palaces damaged, nobody in the government seems to be bothered.This despite the fact that large areas of these palaces now house unkempt government offices, banks and godowns paying paltry rent. In fact, the Dhrangadhra authorities told Siddhrajsinhji to demolish a cracked palace dome in "24 hours" when there was no equipment—cranes or bulldozers—available in the town. It's another matter that most of the palace now houses government offices. "Just how are we supposed to do it?" asks Sinhji. Good question.Neglect and mutilation of history is nothing new in India.Gujarat, however, will have to live with something more painful: the obliteration of some of its history and the passing away of the wisdom that goes with it.


Soutik Biswas in Surendranagar, Rajkot, Kutch and Ahmedabad

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