From Bihar to West Bengal, heritage lovers have welcomed the court’s stay on the proposed demolition of the historic Sultan Palace, and asserted that the society must come together to ensure the 100-year-old landmark in the state capital does not go the Patna Collectorate way. A cluster of heritage buildings which constituted the historic Patna Collectorate, parts of which were built during the Dutch era, were demolished in the span of last few months starting mid-May, for a redevelopment project.
Historians, scholars, lawyers, architects, conservationists and other heritage lovers have welcomed the stay granted by the Patna High Court on Friday in response to a PIL, saying it was a “glimmer of hope in times of demolition”, but some felt the “spectre of the Collectorate still haunts” them. On the eve of World Tourism Day, they also suggested that the palace, once saved, can be turned into a “dazzling heritage hotel” which will attract tourists to Patna from near and far.
Patna-based senior journalist and author Pranava K Chaudhary, who has also written books on heritage sites of Bihar, says, for him, seeing the demolition of the Dutch-era Patna Collectorate was akin to “revisiting the Dak Bungalow nightmare of 1990”.
“It was depressing 30 years ago when they tore down the late 19th century Dak Bungalow, and devastating to see the erasure of the Collectorate, and the society feeling almost no remorse. Patna has already lost a large number of old, heritage buildings in the last 10 years or so, and then the government came up with a proposal to raze the Sultan Palace for a five-star hotel. We have to stop this mad cycle of demolition,” he told PTI.
Dak Bungalow, in its heyday, hosted the likes of Jim Corbett and E M Forster only to make way for a high-rise complex later. All that has survived the ravages of time is its name and the legend of the British-era landmark in the heart of Patna. “I want to be hopeful, and we must be thankful to the court for the stay on demoliton of Sultan Palace, given our poor record of preservation,” said Chaudhary, who had reported on the demolition of Dak Bungalow as a young journalist then.
Delhi-based historian S Irfan Habib in a tweet on Sunday said, “Congratulations to the people of Patna and thanks to the Patna High Court for intervening to save this beautiful heritage building”, and hoped for a positive outcome eventually. A senior official of the Patna Chapter of INTACH said he was praying that this stay will turn into a “positive verdict” and that “Sultan Palace will not meet the same fate as the Collectorate did”.
Delhi-based INTACH had fought a long and rather unsuccessful legal battle to save the Collectorate, starting August 2019 in the high court, the matter eventually reaching the Supreme Court.After an initial stay granted by the apex court in September 2020, a division bench rejected its plea on May 13 this year, paving the way for the demolition of the centuries-old landmark, triggering a wave of grief among heritage lovers in India and abroad.Sriram Krishna, the lawyer of the petitioner in the Sultan Palace case, said, “A future cannot be forged by erasing our past, it has to be a holistic development”.”We already lost Patna Collectorate to demolition, which should have been protected and preserved by the state government. And, now the sword of demolition was dangling over this beautiful palace, so we decided to intervene to save it for the posterity. We do not wish to let Sultan Palace go the Patna Collectorate way,” he said.
Many scholars, conservationists and other heritage lovers lamented that a “serial and systematic loss of built heritage” over the last decade or so in Patna also reflect the “abject failure of heritage institutions and the civic society” in preserving the past for the future. Sultan Palace, the latest public landmark to have faced the wrecking ball in Patna, was built in 1922 by barrister Sir Sultan Ahmed, who also briefly served as a judge in the Patna High Court and as the first Indian vice-chancellor of the Patna University from 1923-30.
Kolkata-based architect Sandipan Chatterjee said, “We lost a heritage site in the Collectorate that could have been turned into a tourism goldmine, but saving Sultan Palace will be only apt as we mark 75 years of our Independence. The government and people, both must wise up.” Chatterjee, who is associated with Save Historic Patna Collectorate, a citizen-led initiative that fought for over six years to save the heritage landmark, is also a member of the international heritage body ICOMOS’s eastern zone unit.
Paris-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is a professional association that works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places around the world. “Since, Sir Sultan Ahmed was also the first Indian vice-chancellor of Patna University, a university tourism circuit can be set up, linking the heritage buildings of the varsity campus and the palace,” he said.