Lesser-known Agra monuments cry for attention

By Brij Khandelwal, IANS,

Agra : Heritage protection in Agra is “Taj centric”, ignoring in the process dozens of lesser-known protected monuments that are in a shambles, say conservationists as World Heritage Day is observed Friday.

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Local historians point out dozens of structures that need immediate attention and repairs. “Our total approach has been Taj-centric, paying very little attention to other historical monuments like Babar’s Ram Bagh or Chini ka Roza. Several important monuments including the Jama Masjid of Agra and the tomb of Rasul Shah in Fatehpur Sikri have been wilfully neglected,” said R. Nath, a Mughal historian.

Amit Mukherjea, head of the history department at St John’s College, says the Jama Masjid, overlooking the Agra Fort, is crying for attention. “It has been under repair for years, and god alone knows when the total renovation and maintenance work of this beautiful structure will end.”

“The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is neither following guidelines drawn up in various manuals nor adhering to the Unesco rules for heritage monuments. Some buildings in the Agra Fort complex are still under repair and not open to public, without justification and in blatant violation of the 1958 Act,” he added.

Conservationists feel that except for the Taj Mahal other lesser-known monuments are in a shambles calling for urgent restoration work.

The ASI in the Agra circle has close to 400 protected monuments under its charge.

“Ritualistically celebrating World Heritage Day without doing anything tangible other than allowing free entry to the monuments makes no sense as half a dozen other recommendations of the International Council for Monuments and Sites (Icomos) as also of the Unesco have not been implemented,” said Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

Superintending Archaeologist D.N. Dimri denied these charges and said all the monuments in the Agra circle are being properly maintained. So many delegations and even members of parliament have appreciated the ASI’s work, he added.

The ASI has announced ticket free entry to the Taj Mahal and other monuments on World Heritage Day.

Distortion of history is another serious charge against the ASI in Agra. Two years ago, a structure bearing an inscription in Persian and invocation to Allah was identified as Haveli Ratan Singh in the Fort and opened with pomp to the tourists by local MP Raj Babbar.

Work on the so-called Ibadat Khana of Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri had to be abandoned when historians raised several questions about its veracity. Similarly, a structure in the Fort was identified as the jail Shivaji was lodged in by Aurangzeb. Historical records indicate Shivaji was never detained in the Fort but was perhaps lodged in a haveli now in the Jaipur House colony of Agra.

Perhaps the most alarming lapse has been the ASI’s abject failure to rid the monuments of illegal structures and encroachments.

Most smaller protected monuments in Agra – and there are scores of them – have been virtually overwhelmed by new structures which threaten their existence. Delhi Gate, Etmauddaula, Sikandra, Ram Bagh and dozens of others have been dwarfed by encroachments.

A recent decision of the ASI to review a ban on allowing construction within a radius of 100 metres of the protected monuments has been questioned by historians.

Encroachments are the biggest threat to survival of historical monuments in Agra. “Take the case of Babar’s Ram Bagh, one of the most beautifully laid out Mughal gardens. It is obscured by encroachments and is hardly visible from the road,” said Mukherjea.

With land prices skyrocketing and builders making a beeline to usurp every inch of available space in the city, the survival of some of these structures has become uncertain.

Even Christian cemeteries are going off the map, their land taken over by colonisers and government town planners. The encroachers’ long arm now threatens to gobble up Babar’s Ram Bagh across the Yamuna, Mariam’s tomb near Sikandra, Bagh Farzana and Begum Samru’s garden to name just a few of the relatively better known places.

The ASI routinely sends out notices about the encroachments, but the district administration rarely ever takes any action, say conservationists.

They allege the police usually look the other way.

This year’s Icomos theme on the International Day for Monuments and Sites is ‘Religious Heritage and Sacred Places’.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])