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Shaming the past

 | October 27, 2013

By disregarding history and heritage, India shames its past, and with not a care!


The other evening I took a walk around the famed Gateway of India, by the Arabian Sea, in Mumbai. It shattered me, disappointed me.

I had seen the monument a decade ago. It had sparkled then.

The Gateway of India was built during the British Raj to celebrate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style, the Gateway’s foundation was laid on March 31, 1911, and the edifice, designed by the English architect, George Wittet, was completed in 1924.

The Gateway once overlooked a crude jetty that was used by small-time fishermen, but served as a ceremonial entrance to British Viceroys and Governors of what was then Bombay.

Curiously, the Gateway was also a point of entry to infamous terrorists in 2008, when the men went on a killing spree in Mumbai. The Taj Mahal Hotel (the first of the Taj group in India) that stands bang opposite the Gateway was also not spared, and several residents and even visitors to the restaurants there fell to the terrorist bullets.

Of all the extremists, only one was caught alive (the rest were gunned down by the police on the streets) and he was later executed after a long trial.

It is this Gateway of India, with a history that is both famous and infamous, which is decaying. With hardly any light, the otherwise imposing structure looked like a haunted place, barricaded and battered.

Sadly, this is how India treats its rich history and heritage.

When I stood there looking at the Gateway that evening, my mind went back to another memorial, the Arc de Triumph at the head of Paris’ Champs Elysees. That has been kept like a beautiful piece of treasure, wonderfully illuminated at night and sparkling at day.

But the Parisian structure is not alone. I have seen many, many historic monuments all over the world that have been maintained with love and care.

In India, the Gateway is not the only one in such a sorry mess. Even the wondrous Taj Mahal in Agra has had its share of woe. Long ago, when I visited Shah Jahan’s memorial to his beloved Queen Mumtaz, it presented a not too happy picture. In a feature that I wrote then, I began by saying that Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan must be an unhappy man, wherever he is.

The Yamuna River which runs just behind the Taj is huge open gutter where pigs feed on human waste.

Even the memorial’s interiors appear blackened for want of regular cleaning. Time was when the marble used to build the mausoleum had yellowed, but the relocation of the small factories nearby had halted this degeneration. Even a large oil refinery had been guilty of polluting the Taj.

If this be the case with the Taj Mahal, arguably India’s best known icon, one can imagine the plight of other historical places.

Delhi’s Qutub Minar looks like a ramshackle piece of heritage. Qutub-ud-din Aibak, one of the Muslim rulers of Delhi, began building it in 1192, and it was completed later by Illtutmish, another Muslim ruler. It is the tallest minar in the country. Made of red sandstone the Qutub Minar’s walls are inscribed with verses from the Quran.

And in south India, Mamallapuram — which is renowned for its rock carvings and structures — tells us the same story. I had been there some weeks ago and was absolutely disillusioned by what I saw.

As the sun sets amidst lengthening shadows, the town of Mamallapuram begins to wear a desolate look. Some lanes and bylanes look positively creepy in contrast to daylight hours when Mamallapuram is bustling with tourists, mostly those who visit the historic spot from nearby places, including Chennai, which is a 90-minute drive away along the road that runs by the Bay of Bengal.

Mamallapuram, once the capital of the Pallava Dynasty with a flourishing sea port, is now bereft of all that grandeur. Though boasting of some magnificent architecture carved with amazing precision in rock and which is part of the World Heritage Site, Mamallapuram is yet another sad example of how India neglects or even treats callously its archaeological treasures.

These are but only a very few examples of how history and heritage are disregarded in the country, a country where temples and churches and other monuments are unmistakable symbols of extraordinarily rich times that have gone by. India shames its past — and with not a care!

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]


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