Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains in India

The 1958 Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Remains Act mandates the almost 150 year old Archaeological Survey of India to research, maintain and protect the cultural heritage of India.  Since partition in 1947, the ASI today has about 3600 sites under its custodianship. While it may be doing a fair job of researching, maintaining and protecting, it is certainly lacks the capability to leverage these sites in terms of tourism and cultural development.

The onus of that falls on local bodies who may see the potential in these sites. Even here, there is some kind of a stratification. There are the World Heritage sites led by the Taj Mahal. These sites are like the pampered sons in a family. Beautiful manicured lawns, spotless clean walkways, regular cleaning, security, etc etc etc. Humayun’s Tomb is another example. In all these places, the contribution is made by specific agencies like the tourism department or specific trusts which look after these sites. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, it is the Aga Khan Trust.

Humayun's Tomb: Spick and Span

Contrast this with other historically significant sites but not necessarily high profile and glamourous. At least it does not fall in the regular tourist trail. For example Aihole. Take any of the top travel sites and you will not come across this place in the list of destinations. In fact, you may be able to search for it in Google Maps. Fortunately there is a wiki article.

The state of repair (or disrepair) of the first capital of the early Chalukyas and the nursery of classical Indian architecture is in sharp contrast to Humayun’s Tomb. While there is one part which is fenced with green lawns, there are hundreds of other sites scattered all over the place. And most of them you would actually miss because they are almost like dump zones for the local villages.

Aihole: 1000 year old structures meant for kings now serve as dump zones

The fundamental problem with ASI is that they seem to have strictly drawn the line with “protect the monument” mandate. But monuments and sites like these cannot be protected where the present day communities consider them as unproductive occupiers of space. Whether in backward villages or city slums, these monuments will become filthy and destroyed. And will completely vanish from the maps. Many Buddhist and Hindu caves in Mumbai city itself are completely engulfed with slums.

The solution is not to remove these villagers or slum dwellers but to include them into the picture. The ASI (or if they can’t do it, any other competent body) should look at developing a sense of purpose with these local communities. Treating these sites as assets with potential to earn revenues through tourism, locations for film shooting, research and education, etc these communities can be co-opted into preserving them. It will build a sense of pride. After all, in many cases like Murud Janjira, most of the locals are in a way descendents of people who once flourished in these parts of the world.

Tourism is a big industry and is something that the local communities can and will adopt as a big livelihood earner. This is where the ASI’s narrow “protect the monument” muzzle fails.

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