April 18 is celebrated world over as International Day of Monuments and Sites, but it is often popularly referred to as heritage day. The word heritage comes from the same root as inheritance, something that is passed on from one generation to the next.
“If history is our past, heritage is that part of our history that has survived into the present.”
This heritage may take many forms, but on this day of Monuments and Sites, I am thinking of what heritage specialists often call ‘built heritage’. When we think of built heritage, one thing that immediately comes to mind buildings and monuments like the Taj Mahal or the Ellora caves. Within sites, we might include ruined or abandoned cities like Hampi or Fatehpur Sikri, but we should also be thinking of living cities like Venice.
Once we have defined heritage, the other question that arises is that of protection. Why should we protect our heritage, and what part of it should we preserve?
“It is clear that not everything from our past can be protected. In many cases we have to strike a balance of convenience, between preserving the past and making desirable changes in the present.”
In case of important buildings it is really a no-brainer. It goes without saying that the Red Fort or the Jama Masjid, both situated in the Mughal City of Shahjahanabad (which is better known to most of us as Old Delhi or Chandni Chowk) need to be protected and preserved for the future. But how much of their surroundings – the city of Shahjahanabad – do we need to protect? Anyone who has walked through the lanes of this historic neighbourhood knows that it is rich in beautiful old havelis. One can question the need to protect all or even most of these – why not keep a few samples as museum pieces and let the others give way to modern buildings?
This is the reasoning of those that see buildings as heritage, but not precincts or neighbourhoods. But in a place like Chandni Chowk, the whole character of the neighbourhood is based on the narrow streets, the beautiful stone haveli doorways and the specialist bazaars like Dariba or Khari Baoli.
“The sum is much bigger than the individual parts. And it is not just about aesthetics – how the place looks. Apart from the architecture, many visitors today come to Chandni Chowk to experience its very distinct culture. This culture is based on a lively scene on the street rather than on exclusive gated communities and air conditioned malls. “
This street culture is based open front shops, street-food hawkers, and the havelis with their ‘otlas’ – small platforms flanking the doorway, where the inhabitants often sit and chat with passers-by.
If the havelis are done away with, if the streets are broadened to allow motorised traffic in, this culture will also go. The physical structures are actually very important in keeping the character of the old city alive.
What we can of course do is to value the heritage that lies in these old structures and forms, and make the neighbourhood more liveable. This can be done by improving infrastructure – good paving, drainage, sanitation, laying of electric and other cables underground.
“It can also be done by a careful and intelligent restoration of the old havelis so that they can meet the needs of a modern lifestyle – for instance through modern kitchens and bathrooms, without affecting their heritage character.”
I started by musing on monuments and sites. We need to start thinking of heritage sites not only to include abandoned cities like Fatehpur Sikri, but living cities like Shahjahanabad. They are an important part of our heritage and one that has great relevance even for our future.