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August 31, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Darryl D’Monte

Plundering the Past

For all its bluster about protecting cultural values, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena coalition in Maharashtra turns a blind eye to its most precious heritage – the archaeological sites in the state. While it may be excused for being preoccupied with dreaming up populist schemes to pay attention to Ajanta and Ellora, which are out of sight and mind, the same can hardly be said of monuments right under its very nose, in Mumbai itself.

Elephanta, or more appropriately Gharapuri, its original name, is also not within eyesight and remains vulnerable to the depredations of peddlers and others of their ilk. Indeed, it has unfortunately become more of a picnic ground rather than a monument to visit. The fact that 900,000 people boat to the island every year, but only 300,000 venture into the caves, speaks for itself.

Kanheri too has fallen prey to picnickers. At this time of the year, teenagers cavort under the waterfalls that cascade down the channels that the Buddhist monks carved out of solid rock nearly 2,000 years ago. If you happen to venture further atop the hill, which commands a magnificent view of the forest beneath and the teeming urban jungle further afield, you will be warned by the Archaeological Survey of India guards to beware of anti-social elements who prowl there.

Worse still, cocking a snook at the ASI’s blue board announcing that it is a protected monument, there is a flourishing Hindu temple cheek by jowl with the viharas, which appears to be growing in acreage and influence. During Mahashivratri, as many as 150,000 people throng to this temple to pay obeisance to the deity installed there. The temple is built on the site of an ancient dam for the monks.

Perhaps the worst-maintained site of all is Jogeshwari, which most Mumbaites are not even aware of, let alone visit. You will have to battle through tiny congested lanes only a few hundred metres east of the railway station to find the entrance to the caves, all but obscured by shops and dwellings. As Professor Walter Spink, from Michigan University, who has spent a lifetime studying Ajanta and related caves, observes: “The Jogeshwari cave is a monument of crucial importance.” It is the missing link between the last phase of Ajanta architecture in the late 5th century and the Great Cave at Elephanta and is actually “the first huge (rock-cut) cave that the Hindus built” (in this country).

Because of its Shiva deities, this monument has been appropriated by a family of pujaris, who are alleged to have been there for seven generations. Today, the inner sanctum is surrounded by hideous white ceramic tiles and people stream in at regular intervals to pay homage. On one corner, openly signposted as such, is a Shiv Mandir and, for good measure, a vermilion Ganesh adorns the formal entrance, now a less-used exit.

Slums have mushroomed astride the top of the monument, although the ASI’s writ should extend over 4 acres. Waste water from these tenements streams into the open yard of the caves; detritus from temple offerings occupy corners of the site. The crowning insult to this revered monument is a pissoir, also hewn out of rock, which pujaris can be seen using at will.

The ASI has posted a single forlorn-looking guard at the site who, in his unkempt clothes, could well be mistaken for an impecunious devotee. He clocks out at night and the monument remains open to all and sundry, with only the pujaris calling the shots. There is also a somewhat crazed Baba in residence, who claims to have been there for 40 years and once tried to stage the Ramayana at the site, in defiance of the police!

Only 3 km away are the Mahakali caves, now better known by a road named after them, a busy corridor connecting the eastern and western suburbs. Neither the state archaeological department nor the ASI is in attendance here, and the site is up for grabs. The Mandapeshwar caves, in Borivli, have been appropriated by a Christian institution. The promoters of a new five-star hotel at Bandstand, Bandra, are showing the department-protected Portuguese Fort as part of their property and claming FSI on it…

All heritage-lovers are outraged by such desecration of the cultural past of this commercial capital of the country, which is all set to become the world’s second most populous city by 2010. The state authorities are obviously suffering from some form of collective amnesia, although they claim to be proponents of Hindutva. Surely no devout Hindu would tolerate the abuse of these ancient sites?

Besides, in any other metropolis in the world which also swears by commerce (recall that Mumbai’s best-written biography is titled City Of Gold), companies and businessmen’s associations would have come to the rescue of these monuments, but we seem to have turned our backs on our past. One of the supreme ironies the city’s fledgling heritage movement is that foreign banks and multinationals have been restoring their buildings and sponsoring cultural festivals at sites.

Some conservationists would like to wreak vengeance on the destroyers. Sir Bernard Fielden, a noted British restorer, last year set a cat among the pigeons by threatening to write to UNESCO, asking it to remove Elephanta as a World Heritage site after he found a youth sitting astride one of the murtis for a photograph! This triggered off a chauvinistic reaction from the ASI and others, with the familiar: “Who is this foreigner to tell us how to preserve our monuments?”

The fact is that all sites, anywhere in the world, belong to humankind, irrespective of nationality or creed, but it is the responsibility of every government to protect them. Instead of knee-jerk responses, we ought to reflect on how surveillance can be so lax as to permit such violations.

A familiar refrain from die-hard conservationists is that entry to monuments ought to be restricted, if not banned, in order to protect them from vandals or the sheer pressure of numbers. This smacks of elitism of the worst kind – a sense of superiority over those ordinary mortals who cannot appreciate what’s precious about our past. On the contrary, the more people are exposed to our cultural heritage, the more they will learn to love it and only then will they discipline themselves to care for it.

One has only to see the song and dance made in the US about what can only amount to trivia in archaeological terms to realise how a well-knit nation treasures what may be just two or three hundred years old. The far better policy would be to encourage more people to visit sites and, at the same time, generate resources to manage them better. The ASI’s antiquated rules about minimising entry fees ought to be changed to usher them into the 21st century. If a family has travelled several kilometres to visit a site, it can surely afford more than the pittance now charged.

In Ajanta, where there is a genuine apprehension about numbers damaging the fragile rock paintings, the simple expedient of issuing different coloured tickets for different caves will automatically reduce visitors. If anyone is really interested in seeing more, he can pay for the pleasure.

The truth is that funds are not the problem. Money can be sourced internationally. The Japanese are most interested in preserving Buddhist sites (even if some Indians aren’t!) and are putting up some $ 60 million for the uplift of facilities at Ajanta and Ellora. UNESCO and other agencies are always prepared to pitch in with resources in cash or kind. Commercial organisations in this country have still to be tapped as potential sponsors. To cite only one example, Bajaj, one of the world’s biggest scooter manufacturers, is based not far from Aurangabad. It is more a problem of management and, not least, the will to preserve the genuine multi-cultural history of this country.

Darryl D'Monte

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