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Sunday, 14 April 2024

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ASI forced to delist 18 monuments lost to public callousness

The ASI is the state organisation responsible for archaeological research, conservation and protection of the ancient nation's cultural and historical landmarks

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A significant number of Indian monuments have disappeared or been lost forever, to the extent that there is not even a photograph available of them in the public domain. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has removed 18 monuments from its list of 3,693 centrally protected monuments as they cannot be traced.

Monuments that have stood for millennia, embodying the essence of our nation’s identity, history, and heritage, are disappearing from the face of India, according to a report in India Today.

Even the Telia Nala Buddhist ruins, located in a deserted village in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, do not have any images available in the public domain. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2022 revealed that houses had been constructed on this historical site.

A similar tale of loss unfolded in Almora, Uttarakhand. The ASI was unable to locate the Kutumbari temple, which dates back to the 8th century.

The temple had come under ASI protection in 1915, but over time, its condition deteriorated, leaving only ruins behind. Strangely, around the year 2000, the temple’s ruins vanished without a trace. In 2018, the temple was added to the ASI’s “untraceable” list.

Subsequently, the ASI discovered that the remains of the temple had been taken away by villagers to construct their own houses. A survey by the Dehradun circle of the ASI revealed that the temple has now become a part of the courtyards, verandas and doors of the local houses.

In Dwarahat, around six houses were found to have incorporated some part or another of the temple.

The Tamluk Rajbari, established in the 5th century BC by the Mayuradha dynasty, is currently in its final stages of disappearance in Bengal. The site, which played a significant role in India’s struggle for Independence, now only features a horse stable covered in overgrown weeds.

According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the palace served as a refuge for our freedom fighters. In 1938, Raja Surendra Narayan Roy cleared an entire mango orchard within the premises to make space for a meeting between Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and other revolutionaries.

image 5
From the CAG report referred to above

According to folklore, the location is also associated with the swayamvara sabha of Draupadi in the epic Mahabharata.

ASI not delisting Hindu spots alone

But this sorry state of affairs is not affecting Hindu spots alone. Some Muslim and Christian-made monuments have completely faded from public memory. For instance, many locals are unable to identify Delhi’s Barakhambha cemetery, which was recently declared untraceable or ‘lost’.

Several significant monuments in India have been removed from the list of ‘national importance’ because they were untraceable. These include a Kos Minar (a monument that served as a milestone) in Mujessar village, Faridabad, Haryana, Gunner Burkill’s tomb in Jhansi, a cemetery at Gaughat in Lucknow, and the Telia Nala Buddhist ruins in Varanasi.

image 4
A Kos Minar located on Ajmer-Kakaria Road in Kakariya, Rajasthan, India (PM-EAC report).

In addition to these, there is another monument that holds great historical significance but has also been lost over time. This monument was highly regarded by India’s ‘secular’ community. It is the grave of Dara Shikoh, the liberal heir-apparent of Emperor Shah Jahan, who would have ascended the Mughal throne in Delhi if not for Aurangzeb’s intervention. After Emperor Shah Jahan died in 1658, Dara Shikoh was killed on Aurangzeb’s orders, and his body was tied to an elephant and paraded through the streets of Shahjahanabad.

Just like the memory of Dara Shikoh, his grave was lost and forgotten. However, in 2020, a municipal officer named Sanjeev Kumar Singh from the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) made a remarkable discovery. Among the numerous marked and unmarked Mughal graves in Delhi, Singh found the grave of Dara Shikoh, much to the admiration of renowned historians such as Irfan Habib, BR Mani, and KK Muhammad. Singh’s relentless efforts for four years led to the successful tracing of Dara Shikoh’s final resting place.

This discovery sheds light on the unfortunate reality that many Indian monuments have either gone missing or have been lost forever. Some of these monuments have vanished to such an extent that not even a photograph of them exists in the public domain. The government informed the parliament last year that a total of 50 monuments in India are untraceable.

Zamrudpur, an urban village located near Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, is filled with numerous cattle sheds. This village is also home to a significant number of historical structures such as gumbads (domes), baradaris (pavilions) and gumtis (small domes) that date back to the late mediaeval period.


Nakul Chhabra, an organiser of heritage walks and awareness campaigns through his initiative “Delhi Roots”, mentioned that incidents like this were not uncommon. He shared an experience where he had encountered a heritage enthusiast carrying a 2,000-year-old brick from the Kushana age during one of his walks.

Chhabra explained that the brick was discovered near his village in Mewat, which could have originated from an ancient structure dating back to CE 1st-to-3rd century. Additionally, he noted that individuals from neighbouring villages often visited the area to collect bricks for constructing their homes.

Bibek Debroy, the head of the committee that submitted the report, “Monuments of National Importance: The Urgent Need for Rationalisation,” explained the ill-fate of the Indian monuments using a quote by Oscar Wilde from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Debroy wrote in The Indian Express in 2023: “ASI’s monumental performance transcends both misfortune and carelessness. The agency has lost 24 monuments. They are untraceable.”

A few restorations

Nevertheless, there have been instances where structures that were on the brink of disappearing from history have been meticulously restored and designated as monuments of ‘national importance’.

One such example is the Anang Tal Baoli, a stepwell believed to have been constructed a thousand years ago by King Anang Pal II, who is widely regarded as the founder of Delhi. In the year 2022, this remarkable architectural marvel was officially recognised as a monument of national significance. It is worth noting that during that time, Delhi was referred to as Dhilli or Dhillika.

This decision was prompted by a review report conducted by the CAG, which revealed that the reservoir was being contaminated by sewage from nearby areas and that the structure itself was in a state of neglect. However, despite the declaration, the restoration work is yet to commence.

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Images of the Anang Tal Baoli as they appeared in the CAG report

The Anang Tal Baoli holds immense historical value, as an excavation carried out by the ASI between 1992 and 1995 uncovered evidence of two distinct cultural periods – the Rajput period and the Sultanate period (11-12th century).

In his book Delhi, Threshold of the Orient: Studies in Archaeological Investigations, BR Mani, former Additional Director-General of ASI, highlighted a notable feature of the stepwell: the presence of incised mason marks such as the swastika and trident on the stone blocks used in its construction.

These marks were discovered also in the Bhojpur temple in Madhya Pradesh, which dates back to the same period, as well as in the stone slabs of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the first mosque built in Delhi using rubble masonry, located near the iconic Qutb Minar.

Factors and solutions

The disappearance of these monuments can be attributed to various factors. An archaeologist based in New Delhi, who preferred to remain anonymous, highlighted the lack of public awareness regarding our architectural heritage and culture as a significant cause for the deterioration of monuments and historical sites in India.

According to the archaeologist, people need a sense of connection to a structure or site; otherwise, it remains vulnerable to encroachment. Numerous mediaeval monuments in the Delhi-NCR region are currently facing encroachment issues. If the very capital struggles to safeguard these structures, the situation in suburban and rural areas is even more concerning.

During a visit to Pinangwan in Haryana’s Nuh district, Chhabra discovered that villagers had excavated an unknown tomb in hopes of finding valuable items beneath the cenotaph.

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A tomb unearthed by residents in Pinangwan, located in the Nuh district of Haryana (Image courtesy: Nakul Chhabra)

In 2013, the CAG surveyed 1,655 protected monuments, which accounted for 45% of the total 3,693 monuments. The survey revealed that 92 monuments were missing, a figure significantly higher than the one reported by the Culture Ministry in 2006.

In addition to encroachment, urbanisation and inadequate monitoring resources, the CAG report criticised the Ministry of Culture for its negligence in addressing the issue of disappearing monuments.

For instance, the story of British Brigadier General Nicholson’s statue serves as an example. The statue, a protected monument near Delhi’s Kashmere Gate during India’s Independence in 1947, was gifted to Ireland by the Indian government in the 1960s. However, the ASI was unaware of this transfer, and the statue remains on its list of protected monuments.

To prevent further disappearances of monuments, Vineet Bhanwala, the founder of Heritage Haryana Foundation, organises heritage walks to raise awareness. He emphasised the importance of government involvement in engaging local communities and educating them about the significance of these monuments. Bhanwala also noted that many centrally protected monuments lack proper fencing, making them susceptible to grazing cattle, occupation by miscreants, and anti-social activities during the night.

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