When Indira Gandhi wanted heritage sites shut down rather than leaving them filthy

Monumental mistakes.
Monumental mistakes.
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishore KK/TW
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The mere fact that a monument has been declared as protected or put on a notified list does not ensure that it will be properly conserved. In fact, the track record of government agencies in maintaining protected places of historic interest, to put it most charitably, is an indifferent one. This can be observed in all parts of India, and here one is not even drawing detailed attention to the ways in which the executive arm of government uses museums and monuments for purposes that have very little to do with their character and ambience.


The lack of adequate conservation and cleanliness at monuments has been pointed out on many occasions by citizens, both powerful and ordinary. Among these, the letter of Major General KS Randhawa to the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) poignantly sums up what such neglect implies. Randhawa had gone to Lucknow in December 1985, and used the opportunity to visit the Residency there. It turned out to be an appalling experience. His letter is worth quoting in some detail:

I am writing of my own accord as an individual citizen to say that as someone dedicated to history, it pained me to see how ill-kempt the whole place is and what havoc has been played since I last saw it in 1952. It were as if we are reconciled to wish away this bit of our history, simply because of the British connection. I do not think that one can wish away or ignore any period, however traumatic it may be. Each reflects periods of glory and periods of subservience. How will our children’s children be told of the siege and surge of nationalist feelings and equally how will they ever know what the British were and who was who among them.

… It is a cruel joke to charge 50 paise even if so little, for a glimpse of this sad state of affairs. May I as an Indian citizen request you and the ASI Delhi to kindly give this thought so that our history is not lost to us. So that we will not have to go to London to know of Lucknow history and future generations will not forgive us.

It is not merely relics of British India, about which Randhawa spoke so feelingly, that have suffered this fate. This is also true for many famous ancient monuments. During her tours across India, Indira Gandhi as prime minister made it a point to visit monuments, and followed up with letters to various authorities providing eye-witness accounts of the state of affairs there. For instance, her visit to Elephanta in 1974 resulted in a letter to VP Naik, chief minister of Maharashtra, where she pointed out the squalor of the surroundings in no uncertain terms. As she put it,

The Trip to Elephanta was very pleasant but I was shocked to see how dirty the surroundings are. Empty coconut shells, paper, tins and all kinds of things were strewn around. The toilets were also very dirty with broken seats and the flush not working. When I spoke about this to the person who was with us, he thought he should have cleaned up for my visit. It is not at all important how things look when I go. What is important is the impression our visitors—especially foreign—take with them. I am strongly of the view that if it is not possible to keep such places clean, it is better to close them down to tourist traffic.

Usually, monuments are spruced up when there are visiting dignitaries but, in this instance, the eagle-eyed prime minister cared to look beyond the cave itself and picked out all the dirt in the public areas and toilets.

In many instances, the squalor at protected sites is because of the absence of watch and ward staff. This has been the situation for decades. In 1987, in reply to a question by SS Ahluwalia in the Rajya Sabha, the government of the day accepted that of the 3,521 protected monuments and sites, 1,181 were without monument attendants. Since then, the situation has only worsened. In 2010, the ASI stated on record that its staff strength did not permit the deployment of even a single person on a regular/full-time basis at more than 2500 of its monuments. This means that more than two-thirds of India’s centrally protected monuments are poorly guarded. This state of affairs is witnessed at several state-protected monuments. My personal experience during fieldwork in the Junagadh district of Gujarat in 2011 confirmed this. On paper, there was an impressive list of monuments that are supposedly protected by the state department of archaeology—without a single employee to man them. Beautiful monuments like the Pancheshwar caves, as a consequence, had been turned into rubbish dumps.


A major problem with regard to several protected sites is that of encroachments. These take various forms, ranging from constructions on the site area to those in the prohibited and regulated zones. Hastinapur is an example of this where a number of encroachments have come up with complete impunity on the mounds that make up the site, ranging from a temple to the statue of a former legislator. In many instances, this happens because of the value of the land on which the monuments are constructed. In the case of the Tughluqabad fort in Delhi, 928 of the 2,661 bighas of land transferred to the ASI after demarcation in 2000 were under encroachment. The encroachments were part of a systematic land grab by the land mafia with the help of what were described as “local residents” and “influential people”, with the intention being to then sell the property.

The problem of encroachment is compounded by the lack of support for the ASI from the executive authority. This is evident from the details of action initiated by the ASI, for instance, in its Delhi Circle where between 2003 and 2006, as many as 1,171 first information reports (FIRs) were filed against individuals and entities who had built unauthorised constructions in the prohibited/regulated areas of centrally protected monuments. These, in many cases, were followed by show cause notices and intimation to the concerned civic agencies. However, the support required from such agencies to execute demolition orders was largely missing.

Other instances reveal that sometimes politicians support the interests of encroachers at protected sites. India’s top political leadership from Nehru to Manmohan Singh has generally been sensitive to the importance of preserving archaeological and architectural remnants of the past. This, though, cannot be said for all rungs of the political leadership and, in fact, there are instances where state leadership has attempted to push the central government to allow the destruction of protected sites.


Finally, there are protected sites where the character of monuments has changed through atrocious conservation work. Having seen a fair number of monuments across the country, it is possible to say with some confidence that there is no protocol followed across India for conservation and restoration. If the old fabric in many instances is maintained, in other cases, restoration work results in the disappearance of old features.

Excerpted with permission from The Marg Foundation from Monuments Matter: India’s Archaeological Heritage since Independence by Nayanjot Lahiri.