Conserving heritage in Haryana, Punjab

GRLeading conservation architect restores outer walls of Pinjore Gardens.

In June last, the Red Fort steered past tough competition from 43 entries to make it to the World Heritage Site list of UNESCO. It was not by chance that the monument got its due after twice failing to register itself on the world stage.

There was a design in that victory. Behind the design was Gurmeet Rai, India’s leading conservation architect, who prepared its Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan. The plan ensured for the fort an inscription on the coveted UNESCO list.

At that time, Gurmeet had said, “The Red Fort is more than a Mughal monument. It is a national and international icon.” A year later, she is opening her heart out for the Pinjore Gardens, which she is now on conservation work for the Haryana government. “These gardens are a milestone. After the Shamilar Gardens of Kashmir and Lahore, these are the t important in the narrative of the Mughal garden architecture. We were lucky to have bagged the project, luckier to see that the garden’s landscape plan was still close to the original,” Gurmeet today told The Tribune in an exclusive interview. She was on the site visit to the Pinjore Gardens, where outer walls had been successfully restored.

What, however, bothers the architect is the distortion of the garden’s central access. That apart, she sees in it a tremendous potential to be a torchbearer for the region. This potential has roots in the garden’s water channel system, which is the soul of any Mughal Garden.

“We have prepared a traditional water management system for the Pinjore Gardens, which are fed to a great extent by waters from the ancient “kunds”. The idea is to revive the garden’s central water channel by linking it to the “kunds”. Water from kunds will be purified and taken to the garden for use. It will go down to the farmers and benefit their crop. If approved, the system will lead the way for others in the region,” said Gurmeet, referring to her lasting interests in Punjab, where she is working on the Integrated Tourism Development Plan for Amritsar. Its highlight is the restoration of the Rambagh Gardens and the Gobindgarh Fort, the only fort of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in India (the rest are in Pakistan).

Another prestigious project in Gurmeet’s hands is the first cluster of the freedom trail, which Punjab earlier proposed to mirror its role in India’s freedom struggle. Gurmeet’s firm – Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative – is preserving the Anglo-Sikh battle sites, including Aliwal, Mukti, Ferozeshah and Sabraon, in the circuit.

“Sabraon, located on the banks of the Sutlej, is historically very significant. It is the place where Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s famous general Sham Singh Attari died. The project will involve the conservation of the landscape around the battle memorials and the conservation of the museum created during the times of M.S. Randhawa. We will have interpretation panels so the visitors can have stories about the site,” Gurmeet said. The second cluster in the trail has locations related to radicals, including Bhagat Singh, while the third features Nabha and Jaiton.

Besides, Gurmeet is working on several other cultural heritage projects, which, she said, were gradually becoming a national priority. “I like to see how Punjab and Haryana have woken up to the fact that they can use huge central grants under the schemes available for refurbishing historic monuments,” she said, but not without stressing the need for changes in cultural policy at the national level.

Right now the conservation of national monuments is the sole responsibility of the Archaeological Survey of India. States are not obliged to preserve their heritage as a matter of policy. “We would want cultural preservation to be state’s obligation,” said Gurmeet.

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