Saving our heritage

The National Commission for Minorities (NCM) received a letter from the Jamiat-ul Ulama-e-Hind. The letter wanted 31 protected mosques to be opened for prayers. “Although the commission was not very keen that heritage monuments should be opened for prayers, it decided to suggest a joint survey for ascertaining the condition of these mosques.” Officials from the NCM, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Wakf Board will carry out the joint inspection according to the suggestion made by the commission in its letter sent to the Ministry of Culture towards the end of July.

This reference made by the NCM needs to be looked at a little carefully, because the issue is not likely to remain restricted to these 31 mosques nor will it remain confined to Delhi. The reference impinges on questions of law and will eventually inform our attitude to the wider question of heritage protection.

In 1958, Parliament enacted The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 in order to protect and preserve monuments, archaeological sites and remains that had historical or architectural value and were more than a 100 years old.

Among the provisions of the Act, it was stated that any place of worship which was considered worthy of protection but was being used for worship/prayers at the time of enactment of the law would continue to be so used. But if a place of worship, considered fit for protection, which was not being used for prayers/worship when the act came into force, will be taken over and preserved as a protected monument.

The implication of this understanding was that such monuments will not subsequently be used for worship but would be preserved as national heritage.

It is under this law that the temples of Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) Khajuraho and Konark, the caves at Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta, the Stupa at Sanchi and hundreds of other structures and sites have been taken over and preserved as historical monuments where no worship is permitted.

The mosque built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak — the first mosque built in Delhi — falls under the same category as do all the 31 mosques including the Jamali Kamali mosque, the Sher Shahi mosque at Old Fort, the Mohammadi mosque near Siri Fort, the Neeli mosque near Hauz Khas Market, the Begumpur mosque near Vijay Mandal Enclave, the Khirkee mosque at Khirki Village, the Khair-ul-Manazil mosque near the Sher Shah Gate, the mosque at the Mausoleum of Isa Khan and the Afsarwala mosque, etc.


The question of law that is involved is rather basic — can the 1958 Act of protection of monuments be relaxed in the case of mosques? Will it not open up the floodgates for similar relaxations for a whole lot of other protected monuments? Having once made an exception in the case of one community, can the state afford to refuse it to others?

And what would happen in cases where there is a dispute with two or more communities claiming the right to pray at the same site.

The only solution to this issue is to follow the law uniformly for all and not to make any exception. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, the strange creatures that crawl out will be impossible to put back.

There is another dimension that you need to consider. What would happen to these monuments if they were ever to be handed over to those who are currently wanting to use them as places of worship or to those who might raise similar demands for other protected monuments in the future?

There are enough examples to demonstrate the excesses that would be visited upon these protected monuments once they were opened for prayer/worship. Look at the 14th century Kalan Masjid in the Turkman Gate area. Considered to be one of the most remarkable mosques to be built in Delhi, it has been painted and repainted so many times that it now looks more like a multi layered cake than a mosque. Go and see the arches of the Jama Masjid at Firozshah Kotla that have been painted a horrible shade of green. The arches at the Nizam-ud-Din Jama Masjid have met a fate which is not less heartbreaking — aluminium frames and glass panes have been fixed into the arches of this 14th century mosque.

Do not for a moment think that this strange rush to renovate and recast structures, to an extent that they become unrecognisable from what they were, is confined to the buildings mentioned. Far from it.

Go and see what has been done to Kalkaji Mandir and the temple of Yog Maya and you will see what I am talking about.

Our heritage is too precious to be handed over to those who claim to speak for entire faiths and entire communities. The protection of our heritage is a secular act and should be left under the care of secular institutions created for this purpose.

(First published in The Hindu.)




12 thoughts on “Saving our heritage”

  1. Would like to point out that Afsarwala Mosque in the Humayun’s Tomb complex is used regularly for Friday prayers and Eid ki namaz.


    1. There are a large number of Mosques that were deserted for a long time, there are records that the mosque at the Mausoleum of Isa Khan, the mosque at Begumpur, the Mosque at Khirki and the Mosque at Rajon ki Baoli were being used by people as their living quarters and not as mosques for a long time, the trend had started with the collapse of the Mughal empire and perhaps even earlier when one capital site was deserted for another.

      The demands for opening this or that mosque began to be raised in the 70s through the aegis of the so Called Masjid Basao Committee, many years after the passage of the 1958 act, and this new spurt in this demand is actually a fallout to this earlier pandering to these sectional demand at the cost of heritage protection.


  2. I first read this piece in the Hindu. Your last line hits home a truth which had somehow escaped me all this while (and seems self evident once you have said it). Thank you for this article.

    I must raise one issue here. The first provision, where a place of worship which is continuously in use will continue to be used is not followed strictly (Or rather followed too strictly). In Aihole and Pattadakal in Karnataka (Included in the world heritage list by UNESCO) the locals who were residing around the monument were displaced. This is the uprooting of entire villages I am talking about, now replaced by manicured lawns pleasing to the tourist eye. Though worship had been stopped in these temples, they were used by the locals for several reasons. What is this heritage worth to us? It is indeed invaluable. But what is the human cost we should have to bear to preserve them?


    1. The issue of living monuments has been raised and discussed for a long time. As of now there is no consensus among conservationists on the issue. The problem that is faced by conservationists is that if a monument is opened to public use we begin to redesign, re paint, re construct.

      unless a large scale and ongoing campaign to sensitise people to the importance of not rebuilding and “beautifying” heritage structures is put in place and those disfiguring monuments are brought to book and handed down deterrent punishment this problem will not be solved.

      As for manicured lawns, this is one British inheritance that we need to get rid of as fast as possible. we need shade giving trees and not grassy lawns that can not be used for sitting for 10 months a years because of the hot sun.


  3. Worship should be permitted in either all protected religious structures or not at all. The mullahs tend to ruin ancient monuments, as in the case of the oldest mosque in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh being covered with green bathroom tiles.


  4. I think the law that permits continuation of the practice where it was on at the time of the enactment of the law and disallows it at other sites that would be protected if they merited protection is fairly reasonable.

    The question is how to ensure that political expediency will not allow for loopholes to be created


  5. I don’t think that it is reasonable at all. I agree with the idea that if deemed as heritage, then worship should be stopped. If not, change should not be allowed.
    Political expediency should be challenged and met the way it always has. By the judiciary. If the ASI takes the case to the court and asks them to stop worship, political expediency will not be an issue.


  6. The protected monuments whether it belongs from Hindu or Muslim community should be opened for worship.
    For example I have seen many monuments especially in Murshidabad( The old capital of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, at the time of Nawab’s) are almost has abandoned. Because those are out of use and thus these monuments affected by rust or bricks are fallen down. But if those are in using condition then these will get some repair or care. So the longevity will be automatically increased. But there should be some exception where there is a dispute between two or more communities.


    1. @ Hasan Khan
      My position is a little different and you will see the point I am making if you were to visit the Jama Masjid buult by Shahjahan in Delhi, The Kalan Masjid and the Jaama Masjid of Basti Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din and Kalji Mandir. The first is a picture of utter and absolute neglect while the rest have been repaired and redone so many times that they have lost all traces of being heritage structures. All of these are places of worship currently in use.


  7. I had read this urgent and admirable article in The Hindu but could not add my two bits since comments had been closed. The issue is presently of much urgency in Delhi, where the diggings related to the Metro have uncovered the ruins of a mosque — allegedly of the famous Akbarabadi Mosque. There have been public demands and petitions that ruins should be handed over to this or that group of Muslim “leaders”. It has received much coverage in the Urdu press, but hardly any in the English. One hopes the authorities would use the occasion to put in place some a national policy, not an ad hoc decision, after making full use of the expertise of archaeologists, art historians, historians, and civic groups with experience in similar sites.

    The issue was always there, and in general the ASI had done a good job of allaying the needs of the local people while preserving the monument to their best ability. Yes, that ability was always limited to the money they had and the professionalism a bureaucrat was willing to show. In Delhi, the issue came up in a big way, I remember, when the Asian Games were held there. Suddenly the “property value” aspect of Delhi’s ruins became apparent, and was much exploited. Now, of course, urban spaces have become premium properties all across India, and one can see everywhere a grabbing of Waqf and Municipal lands in the name of a suddenly appearing Shiva Linga or a “Saint’s Grave.” Not to mention reclaimed temples and mosques, where the original spaces are both vertically and horizontally expanded into properties that are then rented or sold.

    I wonder if there has been any response to the article or the issue from the academic historians across the country.

    C. M. Naim


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