Punjab – an endangered heritage

While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protects 29 monuments, out of which 24 belong to the Moghul period, four to the Indus civilisation and one to Sikh history, the state department of archaeology maintains only three buildings namely, Patiala's Qila Mubarak, the moorish que in Kapurthala and Maharaja Ranjit Singh's summer palace in Ram Bagh in Amritsar.   Apart from ASI, the Shiromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), is responsible for looking after all the shrines including those associated with the sikh gurus.  

But historians and conservationists rue that with no defining criteria existing for including monuments in the protected list for Punjab, the SGPC and ASI, neglect and degradation is bound to set in.   "Since the gurus of the sikh faith occupy a unique and exalted place in the hearts and minds of the people of the state, it goes without saying that sites and structures associated with them should have a place of pride in the listing," says noted Sikh historian Patwant Singh.  

"In the process invaluable evidence of past forms, materials, craftsmanship and construction techniques is lost forever and with it the subtle and elusive nuances of history," says conservationist architect Gurmeet Rai, who is working on a UNDP-sponsored project for conserving monuments in Punjab.  

However, ASI officials discount these charges saying that it is for the SGPC to monitor Sikh religious places and not the ASI.   "As it is, we have included 29 monuments in our list after thorough research and a survey is going on to include others as well," says K P Ponacha, director, monuments, ASI.   But Singh disputes this saying the very criteria for selection of buildings for conservation is questionable. "Is it their antiquity, scale or grandeur or something else which we don't know about," he asks citing the example of the Moorish que in Kapurthala as a case in point.  

"While there is no disputing the inclusion of the Moorish que, since it is the only one of its kind in India, it is of comparatively recent origin, being a 20th century structure," he says, adding "equally, the inclusion of the Ram Bagh gate is pointless unless the entire Ram Bagh of which the Summer Palace is part is protected by the ASI."  

But the t glaring example of misguided reconstruction is the recent renovation work of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) and its environs, alleges Rai.   "In the recent large-scale renewal work undertaken there – from 1995 to 1999 – the entire original gold-plate covering of the Harmandir Sahib's external facade has been replaced by new plates," she charges pointing out that the old ones were installed during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century and are of immense antiquity value.   "The old covering had a particular patina – a more subtle, non-garish subdued dignity which was warm and enduring," Rai says, adding "by contrast the glitter of the present covering is overbearing and ostentatious".  

However, SGPC, in charge of the renovation work at the Golden Temple denied these charges.   "The renovation work was carried out by a Sikh organisation from Britain, who had collected crores for this purpose. Why would they do such a thing just for money," says Harinder Pal Singh, member, SGPC.   "Also, the gold coverings were just coated over the old ones with the result that there is no question of minting money by selling them," he says, adding "there is also no truth in the allegations of selling off the coverings and the stone-studded floor."   But Patwant Singh disagrees saying that worse still is the mystery with regard to the original gold-covered plates. "Where are they, for as priceless objects d'art, they should have pride of place in a museum of sikh arts, especially as there is need to establish such a museum," he says.  

Also, when the gold covering on the outer walls was removed, beautiful wall paintings were found under them, but instead of carefully removing and preserving them for posterity they were plastered over with cement to prepare the surface for new ones, he alleges.   "The result is that the paintings on these walls inside the Harmandir are already beginning to flake," he says lamenting that it is difficult to think of a more unscientific approach to irreplaceable heritage. However, Ponacha terms these "findings" as mere allegations saying all monuments of historical importance in the state are already protected by the ASI and whatever is being projected is not the "correct scenario"

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