A Heritage Festival that doesnt help save heritage

Understandably, it is quite difficult to re-discover the ancient history due to the paucity of primary sources, which were probably difficult to preserve by the people who continuously faced foreign invasions from 712 A.D. However, the new generation will have to own up the blame for demolishing heritage sites spread over four centuries. The authorities concerned have failed to preserve the one-and-a-half-century-old Sikh art belonging to the time of the legendary Maharaja Ranjit Singh, what to talk of the heritage of Amritsar district since the beginning of the 16th century when Bhai Lehna (who later became the second Guru of the Sikhs), a resident of Khadoor Sahib (Amritsar), became a devoted follower of Guru Nanak Dev.

Earlier it was British, who not only renamed the historical buildings, but also demolished many sites on the pretext of modernity and development. Now, the local administration is involved.

It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who took keen interest in the development and beautification of Amritsar during his rule. He followed the Mughal pattern in laying out beautiful gardens and constructing beautiful buildings, including forts, t of them now on the brink of ruin. He got Sri Harimandir Sahib gold plated. This was how it received the name Golden Temple. It was at this time that the Sikh school of art got the much-needed patronage.

However, the successive state governments, including the Badal government that had promised to give governance on the pattern of “Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule” and the SGPC failed to preserve the invaluable art of Maharaja’s time. Amritsar looked like a fortified city in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The fortification consisted of an immense rampart of earth and a wide ditch, apart from twelve gates, to save the town from foreign invasion. While t of the gates have been demolished, there is no trace of the ditch. Unmindful of their heritage value, t of the gates were pulled down in the past. After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, many old buildings were replaced by “modern monuments” constructed by the British.

The Amritsar chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture (INTACH) has documented about 300 buildings in the walled city, t of which are facing slow-death due to indifferent attitude of the authorities concerned. Dr Sukhdev Singh, state convener of INTACH, expressed his apprehensions that many of these buildings would disappear if the state government failed to amend the law to preserve heritage sites.

The inventory of historical buildings, prepared by INTACH, is a pointer towards the indifferent attitude of all concerned. The 250-year-old SGPC-managed Gurdwara Lohgarh fort, constructed by the sixth Sikh master, Guru Hargobind, to secure the place from foreign attackers, was re-built with concrete structure due to indiscriminate repair done in 1997 through “Kar Sewa”. Its original design, however, was retained. The repair, carried out in 1995 with modern material, has also given a new look to the 350-year-old Gurdwara Guru Ka Mahal — the birthplace of Guru Arjun Dev. Nobody bothered to preserve the beautiful frescos of an ancient Shivala near Ghee Mandi.

Another temple of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s period — Shivala Noormahalian Da, having domes with floral pattern, is in private hands. Some of the ques within the walled are not in good condition due to their poor maintenance. Dr Sukhdev Singh said there was a dire need to preserve buildings like Chitta Akhara, where frescos are still in better condition.

Against this backdrop, the Heritage Festivals are a welcome step. However, the experience of the previous festival showed that neither the state government nor the district administration bothered to take any measures for conservation of the heritage sites. The Heritage Walk, organised last year, should have been an eye-opener for all those interested in preserving heritage.

Mr Charanjit Singh Gumtala, former president of the Amritsar Vikas Manch (AVM), alleges that the Deputy Commissioner had publicly promised during the previous Heritage Festival that no building more than 100 years old in the city would be “touched” but he recommended the demolition of 150-year-old Saragarhi Government Senior Secondary School in his capacity as Project Director, Golden Temple Beautification Project. In place of this government school, a multi-crore parking complex was to be constructed.

Ms Neeta Mohindra, a renowned artiste, says that it is a boon to have heritage festivals. However, during the previous festival, there was no mention of great novelists Nanak Singh, Gurbax Singh Preetladi and Thakur Singh, who hailed from the city. Holding such festivals would serve their purpose if local artistes are given chance to perform, she adds.

Earlier, due to lack of adequate provisions for preserving heritage buildings, many old buildings, including Temperance Hall, wher Shaheed Bhagat Singh and other freedom fighters used to hold meetings, had already been replaced by Pink Plaza.

The tehsil building, constructed in 1856, was pulled down. The portion of District Courts, constructed in 1876, has been demolished, while the rest of the building is in a dilapidated condition. The Victoria Jubilee Hospital ( now renamed as Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital) is on the “hit list” of PUDA, which has planned to construct a shopping plaza .The proposal of PUDA is in gross violation of the act, as this hospital is less than 100 mt from the protected Ram Bagh. The old Sant Ram Hospital, which was built in 1904, has already been demolished.

Now it is the turn of Town Hall school, a 156-year-old school. “Thandi Khuhi”, which finds mention in Punjabi literature, has been covered and “sales” are being organised there.

Historical gates like Ahluwalia Gate, Lohgarh Gate, Gilwali Gate have also been demolished . A haveli, belonging to the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was demolished recently, reportedly for constructing a shopping complex. This haveli is opposite Hindu College here. This is the second haveli to be demolished in the past few months. Earlier, one “Jainian di Haveli” situated at the “Chatkian wala Bazaar” in the walled city was demolished.

The old heritage haveli having frescos depicting Maharaja Ranjit Singh along with his courtiers holding a durbar, unique floral designs and patterns, different floor patterns, tiles and beautifully-carved wooden doors and windows — has also been lost. The walls of the haveli had a beautiful wall painting, which was white washed indiscriminately. The haveli also had unique elegant Japanese tiles. The “Mohrakashi technique” of frescos, stained glasses, carved wooden windows, floor patterns — all show that this building was a part of the heritage belonging to the British era.

In his report, “Re-inventing Amritsar heritage —Agenda for action”, Mr J.K. Gupta, a heritage expert, said that haphazard and unplanned development of the city over a period of time posed a serious threat to heritage. He added that Amritsar, growing from a small village to the status of the t vibrant city and metropolitan centre, had inherited enormous wealth of heritage.

The heritage pyramid of the city had been acknowledged with reverence not only within the state, but also all over the world. However, rapidly changing city profile, misuse of built space, uncontrolled traffic and unauthorised building activities had damaged the very sanctity of the heritage areas.

Mr Gumtala alleges that the district administration and the MC should be held responsible for the violation of the acts enacted for the conservation of the historical buildings. To substantiate his point, he quotes a letter of the Director, Cultural and Historical and Museum Department, written to Deputy Commissioner on July 8, 1999. The letter reads “You are well aware that whole of Ram Bagh has been declared as the protected monument, as per Government of Punjab’s notification number 1/14/97- TS /2051, dated October 10, 1997. Now, this garden is totally developed as per rules of historical monuments by the department…”

The letter also stated that was decided that no activity in this garden, including holding of marriage parties, political activities, would be conducted and no allotment would be made to any organisation. Besides, it was also decided that the clubs functioning in the Bagh would be closed and shifted to some other place. However, holding of marriage parties, political rallies and other functions there continued unabated. Interestingly, the venue of the Heritage Festival would also be the Bagh.

The Ram Bagh has a cluster of traditional buildings and canopies of traditional style. But due to the fast pace of modernisation being allowed, the Bagh is losing its original identity. Now, “Panorama”, in the name of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, is fast coming up after de-notifying the area. This is in gross violation of the law. Surprisingly, this is being done even though a case is pending in the court.

The Supreme Court, in Rajiv Mankotia v/s Secretary to President of India, on March 27,1997, ruled, “ We direct Government of India to maintain all national monuments under the respective act and to ensure that all of them are properly maintained so that the cultural and historical heritage of India and its beauty and grandeur of the monuments, sculptures secured through breathless and passionate labour workmanship, craftsmanship and the skills of the Indian architects, artistes and masons is continued to be preserved. They are pride of Indians and places of public visit.” A question arises whether there is anybody to implement the ruling of the apex court in Amritsar city.

A shrine in the old city being renovated with bathroom tiles.

The significance attached to heritage sites of Amritsar could be gauged from the notification issued by Secretary, Local Government and Archeology, on November 17,1925. The notification reads, “Governor-in-Council is pleased to declare the ancient monuments specified here in below to be protected monuments to be maintained out of provisional revenue. Out of eight, two monuments are in Amritsar, including Gobindgarrh Fort and Ram Bagh Gate, while five other monuments are in Hisar and Gurgaon.”

Today, the Ram Bagh Gate has disappeared, while the Gobindgarh Fort is in dilapidated condition. Since the fort is in the possession of the Indian Army, even residents of the city cannot enter the building.

One response to “A Heritage Festival that doesnt help save heritage”

  1. Yes there is no feeling for saving historical memories building
    About Temperance Hall in Amritsar
    I grow up in Temperance Hall
    Use to be my house
    My father look after this hall from lala Nand lal use to be secretary
    Until govt.took over and made Pink plaza
    My father great man spend whole life for this hall to save by himself
    Mukand Lal

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