Monumental challenge

By: | Published: September 27, 2015 12:05 AM

Overshadowed by prominent structures like Qutab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb, there are many historical monuments in Delhi that have escaped the public eye

ASK ANYONE about Ugrasen ki Baoli in New Delhi and chances are your question will be met with a puzzled expression. That’s because not everyone is aware of the existence of this centuries-old step well, which is located on Hailey Road, hidden snugly behind the buzzing commotion and tall buildings of Connaught Place. The baoli, made with rubble and dressed (cut) stones, is said to have been built by Raja Ugrasen, the forefather of the Agrawal community in the 14th century.

Similarly, many people travelling on the Dilshad Garden-Rithala stretch of the Delhi Metro often catch glimpses of a tall red tower when they reach the Tis Hazari station, but not many know about it. The 33-metre-high structure is the Mutiny Memorial tower, which was erected in 1863 in memory of deceased soldiers of the Delhi Field Force during the Revolt of 1857. One of the oldest monuments in the capital, it is located on the northern ridge in the Civil Lines area of New Delhi.

These are just two of the many monuments in Delhi that have escaped the public eye and have been, literally, consigned to history. Sadly, they are also in dire need of restoration. There are also some that suffer because they are in the shadows of bigger, more prominent structures—the incomplete Alai Minar within the Qutab Complex is one such specimen. The unfinished minar was part of Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s plan to build a monument that would be taller and more spectacular than the Qutab Minar. Its construction started in 1311, but was abandoned when
Khilji died in 1316. Today, the 24-metre-high structure lies in ruins, just next to the majestic Qutab Minar.

In fact, many monuments, including the Dara Shikoh Library, Turkman Gate, Ghalib’s Haveli and the aforementioned Mutiny Memorial, only find space in the ‘lesser-known monuments’ category on the Delhi Tourism website. While negligence and vandalism remain the main points of concern for such architectural structures, climatic and maintenance issues also add to the dismal scenario.

Rana Safvi, historian and author of a recent book, Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi, says there are many monuments in Delhi that remain unsung. “The reason they are hidden from the public eye is because they are in very congested areas and not publicised enough,” says Safvi, whose book looks at the monuments in Mehrauli, the oldest of Delhi’s seven cities (the capital is said to have been the site for a total of seven different cities in the old days).

One such monument is the Firoz Shah Kotla fort, which is all that remains of the fifth city of Delhi, Firozabad—it was built by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 1354. Though the high walls of the fort attract plenty of devotees every Thursday, when prayers and offerings are made to the djinns of the fort’s mosque, its popularity dims before the floodlights of the Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium, which lies adjacent to it.

Conservation and creating awareness are equally important, say experts. “Awareness can only come via active promotion on social and print media, and through books and programmes, which are interesting enough to make people want to go and see these monuments for themselves,” says Safvi.

One of the primary problems in conservation is the lack of sufficient resources, says AGK Menon, the convenor of the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), an NGO that regularly conducts heritage walks and talks in the city. “There is no money to develop the areas in and around such monuments. Therefore, a lot of heritage sites remain neglected. They are vandalised, encroached upon and eventually lost,” he says. The second and probably the biggest problem, Menon says, is to do with awareness. “There are 174 monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Delhi. Qutab (Minar) and Humayun’s Tomb are, of course, known because they are prominent, but how many people know about the others?” says Menon, adding that Intach has undertaken conservation work on many monuments around the city, including the Mutiny Memorial tower.

While Menon believes the government, public and media each have an equally important role to play, Safvi thinks the best way to conserve monuments is by public participation. “Conservation is possible with the participation of the general public. Also, if corporate houses were to partner with the ASI and help it restore or fund conservation, we could see them in much better shape,” says Safvi, adding, “We need stricter laws for encroachment. The ASI is doing the best it can with the resources it has on hand, but the repairs needed in conservation efforts are very expensive—in some cases, the ASI has to match the original material used, which is very costly.”

Menon says undertaking conservation projects requires “various levels of action”, but it all comes down to inculcating a sense of pride in residents. “We have to value the fact that we are living near a historical monument. We need to have pride in our city. It is absurd when politicians say they will transform Delhi into Shanghai,” says Menon.

Safvi agrees, “We go for holidays to Europe and the far east and come back awestruck, but rarely notice the treasures in our own backyard. When you go abroad, the one thing that stands out is cleanliness. In India, we don’t think twice before littering or scraping our names on walls of historical monuments… We have to see these structures as part of our cultural and historical legacies, not just as bricks and stones from the past,” Safvi adds.

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