Did you know that in 1806 the English East India Company’s Marine Board urged the Council in Fort William, Calcutta (now renamed Kolkata), to save the ‘Black Pagoda’ on the eastern coast of India as it was growing shorter in height? The 'pagoda' served as a navigational landmark when they sailed through the Bay of Bengal. An investigation into the matter led to the discovery of Odisha’s famous Sun Temple of Konark. The magnificently carved temple—which was built in the 13th century to resemble the chariot of the Sun god, pulled by seven straining horses and running on 24 giant wheels, yet maintaining all the rules of Indian temple architecture—was lying forlorn and in ruins, with local people removing the stones to be used in their own houses. Under protection since then, the Sun Temple, which now draws a large number of visitors, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.
When UNESCO inscribed Ahmedabad as a World Heritage Site in 2017, the first city in India to be tagged thus, there was a lot of excitement. Until then, not many knew that the so long taken for granted ‘pols’ or traditional neighbourhoods of Ahmedabad, one of the major reasons behind the UNESCO award, were examples of a unique architectural identity.
These are but two of the many incidents that speak volumes about the state of awareness as well as about the protection and preservation of India’s heritage structures.
According to media reports, India has over seven lakh heritage structures of which less than 4,000 are under the Archaeological Survey of India’s protection while the different state archaeology departments are the keepers of some. Without any formal records of the structures, it is not possible to say how many have already been lost or are on the verge of being lost.
"Heritage sites are like windows into the world of aspirations and whims of those that build them,” says Amit Pasricha, photographer and author of The Monumental India which is considered one of the Top 10 Coffee-table Books of the World. “If we are to preserve them then we must think upon and imagine them and their lives. Otherwise we must prepare to lose our heritage at a rapid pace, to neglect, to real estate pressures. It would be indeed ironical that these monuments, which today we know so little about, will disappear before we even get a chance to hear their stories."
So Delhi-based Pasricha decided to use his years of accumulated knowledge to protect India's monuments through a unique project called India Lost and Found (ILF). The project envisages to ‘redefine built heritage’ and create a platform ‘for engaging a dialogue on built heritage’.
But it is a mission that cannot be undertaken by a single person or even a small group of people. It is a colossal task that requires a large network of people working across the country. So Pasricha decided to build a team of young volunteers and renowned subject experts and together they are trying to build a vast cultural knowledge base centred around the monuments of India.
"Documenting is a humongous task. It involves photographing and researching an unknown number of heritage sites across the country, and the best way to achieve this is through people participation. It is for this reason that I have been enlisting youngsters as volunteers, even approaching college students to participate in and build the Heritage Map Project in ILF. It is my belief that we are all on a journey and in participation, the youth will carry with them an interpretation of heritage which goes much beyond the bookish knowledge they have thus far been subjected to."
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The project began with mapping and documenting the heritage structures in the major cities including Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. Volunteers visit the monuments, photographing them and collecting information, and even stories surrounding these heritage structures. According to Kulbir Sandhu, a lead volunteer from Delhi, documenting a structure can be a tricky job. Volunteers are often quizzed by the local people, especially living in and around heritage monuments that have never attracted any tourists. “We have to assess the situation and explain our intention accordingly,” says Sandhu, whose qualification as an architect comes handy. “I tell people I am a student of architecture and want to study the monument." Lead volunteers from other cities too spoke about similar experiences but all agreed that in most cases, people are friendly and open after an explanation.
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Pasricha believes that enthusing the youth and arming them with cultural knowledge around lesser-known sites will eventually even impact the people who live in the vicinity of these structures, sometimes in faraway places. "At the least, it will make them question their current relationship with these derelict structures that they live close to, and arm them with a reason to raise their voice should the need arise, as will be the case with developmental pressures or degradation of the site due to sheer neglect. It might even give them knowledge to spread to others."
For the volunteers too the documentation is a learning process. Sandhu spoke about the time when he found ruins of what he presumes to be old residential complexes hidden among the vegetation when he went exploring the Sultangarhi ruins. Nearly every volunteer has a tale to tell. Barsha Dasgupta of Kolkata found there were several buildings in Janbazar that went by the name of Rani Rashmoni’s house and it took her a while to locate the actual one. Deepakshi Mishra, lead volunteer from Mumbai and a photographer, pointed out to a statue of a dog just above the watchman’s cubicle in front of the former Tata residence, Esplanade House. “I have looked at this beautiful building many times but never noticed that the dog was sitting with a suitcase.”
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The images taken by project members and annotated by the subject experts form the bulk of ILF’s social media outreach and are ‘projected towards creating permanent exhibits at key experience centres across India’. India Lost and Found has built a strong presence on social media through their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. Pasricha mentors more than 500 heritage campaigners who are photographing across 35 cities and images of more than 4,000 sites have been uploaded since June 2019, according to a presentation by ILF.
While the COVID-19 lockdown has currently halted the outdoor work, the team remains active on social media.
Like others involved in protecting the heritage monuments, Pasricha too believes that it is not possible to preserve the monuments without people’s participation.
"The main idea is to get the message across to the people,” says Pasricha. “Architects and historians interpret the monuments in their own way. But when you point to something and say 'this is an Indo-Saracenic architecture', it means little to a lay person. The main idea behind the project is to make people connect with these monuments and use the resultant awareness to garner support, thereby increasing its chance at preservation for the future.”
Pasricha believes that people can fashion their own stories if provided with enough clues, just like the scene from Mughal-e-Azam where actor Madhubala dancing to the song ‘Pyaar kiya toh darna kya’ brings alive the life of the Sheesh Mahal or the Hall of Mirrors.
He does not deny the role historians play in bringing alive the past. But, says Pasricha, "Historians too can get stuck in the box. Their need for authenticity stops them from going beyond mere facts about the monument by way of who built it, when was it built, why was it built. But my idea is to gather the cultural details, the very whims and aspirations, and put them out to the public. A story woven around a monument may not have only facts to back it but it is the story that will draw people to the monument."
The article was first published in November, 2020.