Controversy, conflict eating into heritage sites of Punjab

While the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protects 29 monuments, out of which 24 belong to the Mogul period, four to the Indus Civilization, 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, 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,’ said K.P. Ponacha, Director of Monuments, ASI.
Singh disputes this, saying the very criteria for selection of buildings for conservation is questionable. ‘Is it their antiquity, scale, 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. Further, he points out, ‘…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 that ‘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 organization 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 that ‘there is also no truth in the allegations of selling off the coverings and the stone-studded floor.’

Patwant Singh counters by 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 an 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.’ ‘A survey is on to find out the truth behind these allegations as also to ascertain the historicity of other monuments in Punjab so as to bring them under the protected list as well,’ he says. While agreeing that the SGPC has of late been more ‘busy’ in political wranglings, the SGPC member says that there were no paintings underneath the gold coverings that he is aware of. ‘However, it is true that we as a frontal Sikh organization have done nothing to save Sikh culture from outside influences and have had no time for protecting its symbols,’ he says, adding ‘when the SGPC is forever busy solving problems of ambition plaguing its members, how can we expect it to do something for monumental care’

‘Which is why the only solution to the problem is to do thorough research and earmark greater funds for the preservation of monuments,’ claims Patwant Singh. ‘A change in the attitude of the government with respect to heritage is also necessary in protecting our glorious past,’ he says, adding, ‘It is only then that we would be able to repay our debt to our predecessors.’

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