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The Jewels in India's Crown

by

David Goodall

        Former British High Commissioner to India, Sir David Goodall, remembers with nostalgia and affection, the many striking monuments that he encountered during his travels in India.

News of the recent agreement between the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) and the Tata Group of Hotels, whereby the latter will take responsibility for conserving and promoting the Taj Mahal, started me thinking with nostalgia and affection of the many great Indian monuments which my wife and I were able to visit during the four and a half years when we lived in Delhi.  Of these, the Taj is deservedly the most celebrated; but there are others almost equally splendid, a number of which, like Khajuraho, Ajanta and Fatehpur Sikri, are World Heritage Sites.

     Indeed it is hard to think of any country in the world richer in truly spectacular reminders of the past than India: from the fortresses of Rajasthan and the cathedral churches of Goa in the west to the temples of Orissa and Tamil Nadu in the east and south, it is hardly possible to travel more than a few kilometres in any direction without coming across a building of striking appearance and historical interest.

     The A.S.I has nearly 15,000 such "monuments" in its care, of which less than a third are "protected" and all too many are in decay for want of funds to conserve them. I have a frequent memory of stopping to look at some remote and crumbling ruin where the only evidence of official care of any kind was the emergence from nowhere of a custodian bent on forbidding one to take a photograph without production of a permit, obtain-able only in Delhi. So it must be good news that the central government - and apparently the government of Uttar Pradesh also - are looking for private or corporate sponsors to restore and run a number of the more important heritage sites.

The tourist potential has clearly been a major factor in this development. Commenting on the Taj project, Ratan Tata was reported as saying that it was a "sad fact" that India attracts only two million tourists a year, whereas Singapore attracts seven million. If these figures are correct, they are certainly startling, given the relative size of India and the richness of its cultural and architectural heritage, not to speak of its natural beauties.  But it should not be thought that restoration and site "beautification" necessarily add to a monument's  attractions, or that making a site accessible to large-scale tourism can be achieved without detriment to what makes it worth visiting.  

     We are all tourists now; but we have to face the disagreeable fact that mass tourism can all too often destroy what it feeds on.  Ice cream booths, kitsch stalls and hordes of tourists shepherded by rival guides shouting at the tops of their voices do not make it easy to appreciate the majestic grandeur of Elephanta Island, nor do the remorselessly persistent hucksters who are such an inescapable feature of a visit to Fatehpur Sikri.

     Heavy-handed restoration can be equally damaging.  Earlier this year I revisited the great tomb of Sikandar Lodi's brother at Tijara, in Rajasthan, one of the largest and most impressive tombs in the whole of North India. My son and I had come upon it by accident one winter's day in 1989 as we were driving back to Delhi from Alwar. Apparently untended, it stood amid ricefields on the edge of the town, its very loneliness and time-worn appearance making it a more evocative memorial to past grandeur than the comparable, and much better known, tombs in the well-manicured Lodi Gardens in Delhi. 

     Eleven years later, I found it still lonely, but no longer time-worn: a concrete road now leads up to it, the floor of the tomb has also been concreted; the whole structure has been crudely re-painted in white cement, and the dome covered in white plaster. It is still a splendid sight; but the magic has gone.

     Without care, conservation and restoration, monuments cannot survive. But  restoration on the cheap can be almost worse than total neglect. The Tata project at the Taj Mahal will be a test case for the ability of the Indian corporate sector's ability to treat a historic site with the sensitivity and imagination it deserves; and everyone who enjoys and values India's uniquely varied and magnificent heritage will wish Tata well in the responsibility it has taken on.

     Perhaps at the same time, instead of raising the entry fee for foreigners at the most important sites to levels which back-packers at least find prohibitive, the A.S.I. could consider following the example of English Heritage by offering a member-ship card which, once purchased at a reasonable cost,  would give access to all the sites it controls.

Meanwhile, when I look back on my own enjoyment of India's heritage, I think of course of some of the most famous examples: of the Taj Mahal and the Ghats at Varanasi at dawn; of Khajuraho, Mandu, Ajanta and Ellora; of the great Minakshi Temple at Madurai, teeming with life and worshippers; of the Red Forts at Agra and Delhi, of Jaipur and Jodhpur; of Udaipur and Jaisalmer, of Old Goa and Konarak. 

     But among the places I remember most vividly are some that are less well-known, less frequented and less self-consciously maintained: Alwar itself, with its secluded tank backed by sheer cliffs and ringed by chattris; the ghost city of Orchha and the massive Nrising Dev Palace at Datia, already more than sixty years abandoned when Lord Curzon held a durbar there in 1902; the sumptuous but little visited mausoleum of Maharaja Suraj Mal outside Govardhan; the astonishing basilica of the Begum Sumru at Sardhana, a piece of eighteenth century Italy improbably rising out of the Haryana countryside; and within the crowded city of Delhi, the deserted courtyard of the fourteenth century mosque at Begampur. The list could be prolonged almost indefinitely - certainly long enough to demonstrate that, however successful India may be in attracting the tourists it wants to welcome, there will always be more than enough wonders to surprise and intrigue them all. 

 

 

 

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