Why do we, if at all we do, really care about our material cultural heritage? Is it because it reminds us of what was, and is, good and great in humanity? Or is it that we look at a cultural objet and recognise that it is the Ozymandias complex materialised, that even the great and the mighty fail? Or is it because we may never attain the great heights in purity, simplicity, or other qualities that we idolise and project on the remnants of the times past?

Or maybe, we just want the tourism dollars and euros. Be that as it may, only someone obtuse, or with an exaggerated tendency towards the behavior philistine, would say that our cultural heritage – our miniature paintings, our ruins, tombs, forts, wall paintings, temples, mosques , books, manuscripts, and other things this essay is too short to quantify – are not worth preserving. Also note here that I said we, because we might have been a bunch of separate kingdoms and separate principalities earlier, but deep down, we were one people, separated by religion and language, but united (willingly or unwillingly) by the plain and simple fact that you can’t chose your neighbour.

In that situation, the monuments and paintings and what have you are powerful reminders of our many histories and the identities that spring from them (here, I might interject what might seem like a contentious statement in the current political climate, and say that we have evolved sufficiently to realise that a larger “national” historical narrative still leaves space for local, personal, and regional histories that diverge from the grand narrative we learn in our schools). And we are hell bent on destroying all traces of them and imposing on ourselves a new, creative history.

In some cases, we may simply demolish all traces of them and build other symbols of an imagined and politicised history on the remains, as happened in the case of Babri Masjid. In other cases, we may keep them pure, so to speak, but make them look like they were made yesterday. And often, we might just indulge in willful anachronism, as seen in the case of the Somnath Temple and the Akshardham Temple.

As a citizen of this country, I get aggravated at this, and this piece is an argument for why everyone should get aggravated anytime the powers that be decide to molest our history to suit their own agendas. Or to put it simply, you should get really angry that someone high up decides to ruin a piece of history in Delhi, even if you were born in, and never left the Andamans, and should harbor the same sentiments if something goes wrong with a trace of history in The Andamans while you are in Delhi.

The case of the missing monuments

Let’s start from the beginning. The prescribed party chatter in the academic history and art world is that we were not a culture of a material history. The past was a narrative from which we could weave a million stories, but the buildings never mattered. That may or may not be true. Indology is not my cup of tea. I do know, however, from a cursory browse of the Archeological Survey of India’s website, that it was founded in 1871, and it has over 3,600 monuments, 100,000 rare books, plates, manuscripts and original drawings. Simply put, the ASI is huge and all- encompassing. Its activities are also benignly negligent and outdated. I don’t have to say anything, because the Comptroller and Auditor General of India says it all in an audit report on the preservation of monuments and antiquities.

In the report, published in 2013, the CAG had made the following observations about the "irregularities in carrying out conservation works."

  • No mandatory requirements for inspection by Superintending Archaeologist were prescribed
  • Non preparation of inspection notes after site inspection
  • Absence of complete documentation of the works estimates
  • Faulty budgeting of the conservation works resulting in inclusion of extra items
  • Delays in completion of works

What would also have been entertaining, were it not so serious, is that in the same audit report, the CAG also mentioned that out of the 1,538 monuments that it surveyed– of the 3,600 under the ASI’s ambit – 81 were missing. That factoid made headlines, mostly because monuments are hard to lose unless you have PC Sorcar nearby.

It is not as though the ASI is doing a bang-up job on the monuments that it has not managed to lose. The Taj Mahal’s white marble looks more like smoker’s teeth than the alabaster skin on Mumtaz Mahal and the Ajanta murals are yellowed, flaking off, and in such a state of disrepair that they might be in their last decades. This is the ASI, an organisation that still follows rules of conservation set down in a manual in the 1920s. Perhaps it is fitting that the organisation dabbling in ruins and relics is itself one.

In ASI’s defense (which is a rarely heard statement in cultural heritage circles) one can, of course, say that they have good intentions. Nobody would get into the field of cultural heritage if there wasn’t a deep abiding respect for culture, or at least a modicum of it. The question that really needs to be asked is: What are we doing wrong with our heritage?

In some cases, as in that of the Babri Masjid, it is blatantly obvious. In other cases, the problem is a lot more subtle. To illustrate this, a textbook case is that of Humayun’s Tomb and the surrounding complex in Delhi. In the last decade the complex has undergone a massive restoration, alongside a community renewal project. Now, the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana is undergoing a similar restoration.

The ethics of restoration

This restoration project, done under the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, with funding from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and in partnership with the ASI, started in 2007 and was completed in 2013. The aim of this project was ambitious: to prove that heritage sites can not only become self-sustaining but can also act as catalysts of revitalisation of surrounding areas and historic districts.

In keeping with the grandiose ambitions of the project, a conservation plan was formulated that was “a major departure from a “preserve as found approach””, as the trust said. This project was to be “a model conservation process for the Indian context”, wherein a mixture of hi-tech methodology was to be used in addition to the traditional crafts based approach to restoration.

A semantic analysis to see how problematic the statements made in the literature published by the Aga Khan Trust about the restoration would be a tiresome process. However, one can look at the ethical questions behind the entire act of restoration, in an attempt to see where the restoration falls on the ethical continuum. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb, the question is also muddled because of the aim to use architectural restoration as a tool for social change, and urban revitalisation. For the time being, in the interest of brevity, let us concentrate solely on the ethics of restoration of the tomb.

The restorer’s conundrum

To restore is to return to an earlier state of functionality and purpose. The important part here is the question of function, and how to bring an object to a state of optimal functionality. Thus, when you go out to get your shoe mended, you are getting it restored, because it helps you walk better. Similarly, when classic cars are restored, they are brought back to the state they were when they rolled out of the factory – that is, when they were as fresh and efficient as they were going to be. A similar aim comes in when we look at the restoration of art and built heritage. The aim is to regain optimal functionality.

The optimal functionality of cultural objects, however, is not as easily gauged as that of a mass-produced good, such as a car. For one, a cultural object is usually not mass- produced. In addition, there is a cultural and historical meaning that the object has gained over time. Thus, to restore functionality, the aim would be not only to make the object visually and aesthetically functional again, but for it to also become culturally and historically functional. Herein lies the problem of the restorer – how to restore in a manner that the object regains original function, while also keeping in mind aspects that help the object retain the cultural and historical meanings it has gained over time.

We can divide the various functions that the object, in this case, Humayun’s Tomb into three large categories – structural, aesthetic and cultural. Going through them one by one, I can hopefully expose the nuance that is necessary in the world of art restoration. The structural function of the tomb is the easiest to deal with. It is a built structure, and to retain its structural function, it has to keep on standing. Any damage to its structural integrity has to be repaired in such a manner that it does not decrease the other functionalities. This is in many ways, the easiest task, which any competent civil engineer can undertake.

That, however, does not mean that such as restoration cannot be botched. Consider the case of the Matrera Castle in Spain, where an architecture firm decided to restore the Castle in Cadiz by what looks like a solid poured block of concrete. The castle, over 1,000 years old, will certainly stand for a 1,000 more now, but will look like a Brutalist masterpiece, rather than an example of 9th-century Spanish castle architecture. And herein lies the first hazard that strikes the restorer; doing something that fulfills a condition, but causes harm in another manner. The castle is structurally stable, but the remaining two functionalities are neglected.

The next functionality we have to come to terms with is aesthetic. All objects have a certain aesthetic function that is associated with them, whether de facto or post facto. Humayun’s Tomb is aesthetically important not only because of its own appearance, already a product of a syncretic style of architecture, but also as a precursor to the Taj Mahal. Thus, a restoration has to take into consideration the aesthetic values that were in vogue when the structure was constructed. The aesthetic sensibility to be restored is not the one that is preferred today but one that was of the time. In this manner, repairs done should be unobtrusive, so as to not draw attention to them, but to the aesthetic whole.

This aspect of a restoration needs the input of a person who is not only proficient in civil engineering, as needed with the structural restoration, but also in art history and aesthetics. The restorer now becomes a person inhabiting the world of both art and science.

The final aspect of the functionality of the object is the hardest to put a finger on, because it flits between many meanings, but in the interest of brevity, we can reduce it down to a simple statement – the object is a document. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb, the document contains information that everyone interprets differently. A historian might look at the historical role of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. A sociologist might look at roles it plays in the areas surrounding it and how life is affected there because of it. A folklorist might study the stories involving the tomb to gauge a greater understanding of it in time and place, and so on and so forth. The onus then falls on the restorer to maintain the maximum legibility of the various aspects of this document, which not only is a moment crystallised in time, but is constantly evolving.

This aspect of restoration is the most challenging, for it requires the most nuance and sensitivity to the object, and here the wheat is separated from the chaff. Your average restorer will do a competent job in the structural and aesthetic restoration, but a cultural restoration requires an astute mind with not just sensitivity but also empathy.

And this aspect of restoration truly brings about the social role of an art restorer, for the restorer becomes not only a guardian of material culture, but also of the intangible culture that constantly evolves and gains greater meanings. Sadly, we have been let down in this very aspect by the team at the Aga Khan Trust.

The vanished years

When you come to Humayun’s Tomb these days, the walls are white, the paint is fresh, and the plasterwork crisp. It feels like the building was made just yesterday and that the gap of centuries, and the history that filled them just disappeared. What happened to the time when the entire complex was a refugee camp for the migrants from the partition? What about the time the British caught the last of the Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, hiding in the tomb of his ancestor after the failed mutiny of 1857? What about the English-style landscaped garden that surrounded the tomb? And what about the feeling of entering the tomb of the Grand Mughal, a man who ruled over large parts of the subcontinent? It has all erased under the whitewash and plaster and paint of contemporary restoration.

How can we as a nation have a sense of history when we just whitewash and plaster over it?

People might rise to the defense of the restoration by saying that it served as a valuable catalyst for urban revival and was a departure from the preserve-as-found approach. This is true. When I walk down Nizzamudin Basti, I do see the difference the restoration has done to the fortunes of the area. Tourist dollars and influx of visitors has done the place well. The question I want to raise is – at what cost?

In keeping the structure stable and aesthetically pleasing, but divorcing it of all context and history, has the restoration not left us with a caricature of what was? As someone involved with cultural heritage, I often ask myself that is the collective blame not on us who are tasked with being the stewards of our heritage? Or is it on us as a people who only care about our history when it fulfills political aspirations?

The same story everywhere

It isn’t just about Humayun’s Tomb. All over the country, traces of our heritage are decaying and disappearing. Sometimes, they are under the stewardship of the ASI, sometimes under private trusts. Often, they just lie forgotten by the roadside.

Consider the examples of the Fatehpuri mosque in Old Delhi’s famous Chandni Chowk, and the Bada Imambara in Lucknow. Both are in multiple states of decay and well-intentioned but mangled upkeep. They are not under the ASI, but are wakf property, which allows the trust to do what they see fit. Which they do. Both are still used by the congregation for prayers.

The same is the case with many temples in my home town of Jammu, which are decaying, but still under trusts, which allows them to decay. We can say that the mosques and the temples and the churches are in use, so they can fulfill their role, and are not infested by bats and pigeons, which is the general fate of ASI properties. But that is akin to taking the typical Indian stance of chalta hai – anything goes. What is interesting, however, is that the chalta hai attitude is only when it comes to the structural and aesthetic function.

We are still ready, willing, and able to rise up in arms when the temporal aspect of the structure is called into question. Babri Masjid is a chilling reminder of that.

The question invariably comes back to our attitude towards history, where we, it seems, are more willing to transact in symbols then tangibles. Of course, leads to gradual and imperceptible decay, until we suddenly find out that we lost our material history somewhere down the line, and all we have left is stories. Stories proliferate in this country. Maybe there is something to the Indologist chatter of us Indians not being a material culture.

This problem raises questions for people working in the field of heritage preservation, and the arts in general. Everything decays in the end, and the heritage preservationists are in the business of slowing, not stopping the decay. So what does the preservationist do with monuments and objects like the Humayun’s Tomb, which on the exterior, now appears as if it was made less than a decade ago?

One argument, first promulgated by John Ruskin, could be that it should have been kept in the state it was in, and merely stabilised. That would be the standard response of a museum conservator. On the other hand, it could also be argued that – to quote from the Aga Khan Trust’s publications – the “splendor” of the tomb deserved to be restored to the heights of its greatness.

Of course, this debate has been going on for a long time in the trade of heritage management, whereby the aims of preservers, conservators, and restorers are not in sync. The question is – where do these internal debates end and come out to be discussed in open public forums?

These, and many others, are questions for the people in the business of heritage management to answer. As an art lover, I can say that drastic interventions such as in the case of Humayun’s Tomb made it more palatable to tourists and the uninformed. Manicured parks, and running fountains and streams make the place an ideal picnic spot and the clean monument makes it appear grand, but to people who appreciate history as a living thing, and monuments not only as tangible traces of the past, but also as reminders that even the great and good fall, the restoration was not a restoration, but the death of the monument.

No longer can one go inside the monument and feel frail and human under the main dome, because the white paint job inside makes it so well lit that it feels like an auditorium rather than an overwhelming expanse of dim light that envelops you and draws you to the cenotaph of The Grand Mughal. The tiles that abound everywhere in their mosaic perfection are garish, and look like they were purchased from a sanitary-ware supplier, not made by master craftsmen who practiced their trade from here to Samarkand and Bokhara. The restored plaster on the walls keeps on falling off in chunks, unlike the original plaster that remained on the walls for much over 500 years, only to fall to the chisels of the supposedly well-meaning craftsmen of the restoration project. These little things add up to create a feeling of cognitive dissonance, where you see traces of the original architects work surrounded by, and competing with, an overly garish and eye-catching restoration. Hardly the experience one looks for when searching for the sublime in our past.

Collective responsibility

The Humayun’s tomb complex today, is like a classical marble sculpture, painted over in gaudy colours – ostensibly because that is how they were when they were made –disregarding all the time and cultural associations in the middle. This, and other acts of historical recreation are worse than the plain and simple destruction of monuments, and theft, because the monument remains – only mangled and fooling the unknowing and leaving a caricature of what was for the generations to come.

By taking a chalta hai stance at all these acts, we, as a people are doing gross disservice not only to our past, but also to our present and future. By lack of knowledge, or willful disregard, if we let our cultural heritage be destroyed, then we are dooming ourselves and the coming generations to a rootless existence – one with no culture except television, movies, and pulp novels.

It is all fine and dandy to get aggravated about the ISIS destroying Palmyra, the artefacts in Mosul Museum and other sites of history in the Middle East. But it is a a bigger responsibility to get even more aggravated when we let our heritage slide into a downward spiral for tourist dollars and foreign grants. If we don’t, that smacks of the highest grade of doublethink. Not knowing is not an excuse, for the only defense of democracy and vibrant culture is a well-informed citizenry.

So, I urge you to visit the nearest museum and the nearest monument to see for yourself the state of things to come. For, how we treat our past is how we are going to be treated ourselves. Get angry. Write letters. Sit down in front of offices of ASI and trusts and gherao them. For only if we act can we make a difference. And hurry, because as the fire at the National Museum of Natural History showed, the past isn’t as safe as we like to think it is.

These days, I rarely go Humayun’s Tomb, and even then, only to enjoy the char bagh with its running channels of water and fountains. I don’t go inside the tomb, even though I would like nothing better than to feel small in front of the massive double dome, and be near the cenotaph of Humayun. Being in such places puts one’s life in perspective, and I think feeling small in front of something is an important feeling. But then, I would rather commune with the creation of a medieval architect – even if it was vandalised by the British and refugees of the Partition and amorous couples willing to etch their initials on the walls as a sign of eternal love – than with a gussied-up building that reflects a committee’s view of what Mughal architecture felt like. I just take a metro to Munirka these days, and amble in the ruins still unmolested by overeager restorers.

Rahul Sharma is from Jammu and Kashmir. He is a student of Art History and Conservation, and is currently working towards his Masters Thesis in Art Conservation. In his down-time, he makes photos using obsolete photographic processes.

This article was first published on Kafila.