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The Future of Delhi’s Built Heritage

May 21, 2010

One can hardly walk two kilometers without stumbling upon a monument, relic, or historic site in Delhi.  They are scattered everywhere, serving as reminders of the seven successive cities built in this place, and the various builders and designers who worked on them over a span of 5000 years.

Delhi’s built heritage reflects the layers of the history of the city.  Delhi’s various rulers and their conquests, battles fought and won, and the lives and needs of the everyday people are all reflected in the city’s historic architecture and monuments.  “Delhi’s history is recorded by its monuments.  Text book details of past events can be boring; dates, emperors, battles and dynasties can be unmitigated drudgery, but one tends to forgive all tedious historians once you are in the portals of the vibrant relics of the past.  Thousands of years of history get compressed into a living experience as you traverse through Delhi’s palaces, forts, mosques, mausoleums or any one of the 1,300 monuments that have been officially declared as being of historical importance.”[1]

Spending a sunny afternoon on the lawns of the Hauz Khas Monuments

Structural changes to built heritage sites are often indicative of the values and ideals of the people building them.  Their uses too, can reflect these values.   When visiting heritage sites and historical monuments throughout the city, I was always surprised to see several examples of “adaptive reuses” of these structures that I was not anticipating.  Young couples were holding hands and flirting on grassy patches inside the Purana Qila; schoolboys were playing a pick-up game of cricket inside the walls of the Hauz Khas Memorial; men were washing their clothes in the stepwells of Mehrauli Archaeological Park.  Individuals had found creative ways to adaptively reuse the historic structures, making them not completely obsolete in the modern world.

Sitting on the stepwells of Mehrauli Park

Many of these “adaptive reuses”, however, are potentially harmful to the structures themselves.  I am conflicted over this idea, for I love how accessible the sites are to the public, but do not want that accessibility to permanently damage the site so it won’t be available for future generations.  I’m of the belief that it’s very important for people to have an appreciation for and understanding of their material history and their past.  I realize, though, that a lot of people don’t have much of an interest in this, so will make little effort to seek out that information.  Therefore, it’s important that the information be easily available and accessible to the general public.  Making historic sites accessible to the public to the point where individuals feel comfortable spending an afternoon there creates an appreciation for that place, if not for its historical significance, then just for the fact that it’s a place where people enjoy spending time and may have created some personal memories.  However, in creating accessibility, one must also be wary of the fragility of historic sites, and how increased visitation and traffic can negatively impact a site without the proper maintenance.

Sadly, much of Delhi’s built heritage is in a state of disrepair today.  Old monuments, tombs, and mosques stand crumbling – the grounds often

Humayun's Tomb in Delhi

scattered with litter and the walls defaced by graffiti.  Both time and human activity have left these structures for the worse.  What is perhaps the saddest injustice to the history of these structures is that some of them stand completely unmarked and unidentified, and therefore unnoticed.  People pass by the monuments everyday, not knowing for what purpose they were built or the story behind the people who built them.  This occurs throughout Delhi, too, not just in more remote areas.  For example, in Nizamuddin, in the area immediately surrounding Humayun’s Tomb there are a handful of smaller tombs.  These, however, are not protected, nor are they maintained in the same way that Humayun’s Tomb, a World Heritage Site, is.  Their names and histories are unknown to residents of the colony, and so they stand virtually unnoticed.  Many of them serve as temporary shelters for squatters, and so are avoided by most residents, as they are perceived as dangerous.

Commendable efforts have been made by groups like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to work towards protecting and preserving many of Delhi’s heritage monuments.  And INTACH, The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, is working to list all of these unmarked sites so there is some written record of them, which is an important step towards their protection and conservation.

[1] Dube, D.N. & Jaya Ramanathan.  Delhi: The City of Monuments.  New Delhi: Timeless Books, 1997.  Pp. 24.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. colmutd permalink
    April 29, 2011 9:13 pm

    I was browsing for blogs on built heritage and I stumbled across this. This is sadly the case for so many historic towns and cities. A general neglect of the built heritage that is taken for granted by locals. I believe myself if it is a properly managed tourist attraction, whether it be an old ruin or a well preserved monument, there needs to be that regulation. Otherwise they do go into disrepair like so many of the sites my hometown in Ireland. I just put up a post on it if you are interested.

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