The case for an Indian charter


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THE once obscure discipline of architectural conservation is today a bitterly contested field. The protagonists are not only benighted professionals fighting over ideological turf, but the ‘awakened’ public which now believes that it should have a decisive role in determining the fate of historic monuments. And between them are an array of politicians, bureaucrats and activists, each with newly discovered opinions about conserving heritage. Though the hair-splitting between professionals appears poles apart from the use of brute force by mobs in the field, the issues that they are fighting over are the same: what to conserve – or not conserve – of the extant architectural heritage. The diversity of protagonists is, of course, indicative of the marginalisation of professionals in the practice of conservation in India, but it also points to the complexity with which they must contend.

The practice of conservation is complex and contentious anywhere, but in India, because of certain unique historical, cultural and political circumstances, it appears even more so. Ananda Coomaraswamy recognised this at around the time of India’s independence, when he wrote in an essay titled, ‘Young India’, ‘But India affords the most tragic spectacle of the world, since we see there a living and magnificent organization, akin to, but infinitely more complete than that of medieval Europe, still in the process of destruction questions sometimes whether it would be wiser to accelerate the process of destruction than attempt to preserve the broken fragments of the great tradition.’1

Inspite of over five decades of concerted development initiatives to modernise the country, the ineluctable fact is that many still consider India ‘backward’ because ‘the broken fragments of the great tradition’ continue to mediate the lives of a majority of its citizens. But others see the situation in another light and consider the continuity of traditions an asset that enables us to posit a new polity: environmentally conscious and ecologically sane. These possibilities imbue contemporary conservation practice with an ambiguity seldom experienced elsewhere. It also opens conservation practice to the mediation of several agents of change – some sympathetic to its imperatives, others hostile, including many who take non-negotiable positions on the matter citing ‘sentiment’ and ‘faith’.

These ground realities should determine the nature of conservation that is practiced in India, but as matters stand, they do not. Unfortunately, by seeking to pursue ideals developed in other cultural and economic contexts in the belief that they are ‘universal’, conservation policies are trying to put square pegs in round holes; this critically compromises the future of our past. Whether it is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) or the increasing number of conservation architects working outside the ASI fold or even traditional masons, each operates within a blinkered worldview, oblivious to the larger context. The resulting absence of synergy between different conservation philosophies only contributes to the continuing attrition of architectural heritage.



I would like, therefore, to propose an ‘Indian charter’ for conservation. Besides attempting to formulate a more appropriate and effective strategy to conserve our heritage and bring order out of the present chaos of diverse and ineffective policies and practices, my intentions are guided by the simple imperative that any charter or guideline for conservation must understand the nature of the problem it seeks to solve.

All societies value their architectural heritage but how they translate these values into practice varies. In India there are at least two clearly defined approaches: first, the principles and practices of the ASI and, second, the practices rooted in the centuries-old traditions of local masons: the sompuras of western India, the sthapatis of eastern and southern India and many other communities of raj mistris all over the country. The antecedents of the ASI, which became a legal entity in 1904, go back almost 150 years; the indigenous traditions are, of course, rooted in the deep structure of Indian civilization(s). While the legitimacy of both systems is recognised in their respective spheres of operation, the working system of the ASI dominates official imagination. But that situation is now changing and traditional systems and practices are increasingly being foregrounded – ironically as a result of globalisation. This is subjecting the hegemony of ASI ideology and practices to critical examination.



It is one of the paradoxes of globalisation that even as it imposes transnational values and processes on local cultures, it gives these cultures a ‘presence’ they never had before. While contemporary forces of globalisation can be viewed as a continuation of the earlier process of colonisation, there is an important difference in the area of disciplinary studies: the more globalisation disrupts, displaces local traditions, the more academic research fostered by globalisation makes us aware of the significance of what is lost in the process, bringing to light the existence and logic of hitherto obscure indigenous knowledge systems and practices. This scholarship creates provocative voices of dissent which question the very premises underlying globalisation and provides the raison d’ être to resist – or at least redirect – its further progress.2 This process of revaluation is clearly evident in the works of some local practitioners not associated with the ASI and it underpins my arguments for an ‘Indian charter’ for conservation.

In India the process of globalisation in the field of conservation began, arguably, with the founding of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 1984. In keeping with the climate of the time – India was beginning to liberalise its dealings with the world – INTACH’s founders wished to emulate the National Trust of the United Kingdom. It took as its agenda the conservation of the vast multitude of legally unprotected buildings in India and invited English experts to teach local professionals how to go about this task and frame conservation guidelines.3



Indian students were sent to York University to imbibe those values first hand and learn western methods and devices to use in India. Interestingly, as happens with globalisation, this western orientation had unintended consequences. Many Indian conservation architects who got the opportunity to work on local conservation projects began to recognise the value of indigenous systems of building to accomplish their tasks. They realised that these systems had been practiced by local craftspeople all along, in the interstices of the official system. In this manner, both systems – local and global – began to be more clearly delineated in professional consciousness.

Before the advent of INTACH, conservation of Indian architectural heritage had been the exclusive preserve of the ASI and its state-level counterparts. It was ASI’s ideology and practice that were benchmarks of the profession. In this respect the ASI continued, in letter and spirit, colonial practices; the ASI Act of 1958, for instance, is the same, mutatis mutandis, as the 1904 Act formulated by the British.4 In other words, the ASI’s relationship to Indian architectural heritage mirrored that of the Raj: minimally interested out of a sense of enlightened obligation, but fundamentally unengaged. The depth of this tragedy can be gauged by the fact that in their own country the British protect over 30,000 buildings and accord special recognition to another 500,000, while in India, the ASI and its counterparts protect only 9,000 monuments.



Perhaps the colonial government restricted its conservation work because it was dealing with an alien culture and believed a focus on only exemplary Indian monuments to be adequate. But why does ASI adopt the same vision in independent India? Like the colonial conservators, it too avoids engaging with the hundreds of thousands of less than exemplary monuments that exist in the crowded heritage precincts of our historic cities. These remain as incomprehensible to the ASI as they were to its colonial predecessors.

The ASI still follows conservation guidelines drafted by the English archaeologist John Marshall, the first Director General of ASI (1904-28). These guidelines represent a profoundly English sensibility towards the past. This sensibility was the product of the very particular English historical experience of the Romantic Movement and the industrial revolution on the one hand, and their interpretations as conservation ideology by such seminal thinkers as John Ruskin and William Morris on the other. John Marshall transported this very context-specific sensibility to India and incorporated it into his guidelines. It has permeated Indian consciousness, at least in the formal sector of governance, and continues to be the ASI’s bible. Like fundamentalists of all ilk, the ASI strongly profess ‘the word’ as revealed by John Marshall despite new vistas opened by changing circumstances.

In Europe this intellectual tradition got translated into ‘universal’ charters for conservation like the Venice Charter of 1964. Unesco promotes the Venice Charter, along with subsequent documents dealing with specific conservation topics, as an international benchmark. International aid is tied to its acceptance by recipient nations.



As a venerable department of the government, the ASI has admittedly accomplished its limited task of maintaining status quo ante (relatively speaking, very few monuments have been added to the list initially compiled by the British5), but has done so with the perverse logic of the dog in the manger. Besieged by the forces of change brought about by rapid and generally unplanned urban development, the ASI responded by promulgating a draconian rule in 1992, which prohibited development within 100 meters of a protected monument, and allowed only controlled development within the next 200 meters. This has legally frozen the slum-like conditions that surround many heritage buildings in the cores of historic cities. Such reflexive action makes one suspect that what ails the ASI is not a lack of resources as it claims, but a lack of imagination.



Not many people protest this ill-conceived ordinance: government officials do not because it gives them greater power of denial to exercise over hapless citizens and others do not because, like all rules in India, this one too is easily circumvented. Consider, for example, the recent cause célèbre: the proposed construction of the Taj Heritage Corridor on the Yamuna riverbed to link the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort.6 The very guardians of the 1992 rule in the state of Uttar Pradesh – the political and bureaucratic machinery of the government – violated it, along with other environmental protection laws, which prohibited the development of the riverbed. That the Union Minister of Culture, Jagmohan, put a stop to this ill-conceived venture by citing the ASI rule demonstrates its power. But when this power is used capriciously to prevent the rebuilding of a modest residence that is collapsing in a dense residential area adjacent to another monument, then it must be recognized that the zeal for conservation that the rule intends to uphold has gone awry.

Seen in this light, the irrelevance of the ASI and the values it represents becomes quite evident. It is the victim of an all too common post-colonial malaise of thoughtlessly continuing colonial routines because that is the easiest thing to do. For over fifty years the ASI has been content merely to stand its ground and protect its turf. But the ground has shifted from under its feet. There are many more actors on the conservation scene than before. Several citizens groups, including INTACH, are expressing their opinions on architectural heritage and are less inclined to take John Marshall at his word or to leave matters in ASI’s hands. The certainties underpinning Marshall’s guidelines and Unesco’s Venice Charter of 1964 are beginning to unravel.7 The groundswell for formulating an Indian charter for conservation is now manifest.



Before anyone concludes that the thrust of my argument is to abandon the principles enshrined in Marshall’s guidelines or the Venice Charter, let me clarify my stand. I believe that the Eurocentric perspective enshrined in those documents is intellectually compelling; both documents are worthy blueprints to conserve the exemplary monuments in India. However, the ideology those documents uphold should not be imposed to conserve all heritage buildings, because there is a great, still living indigenous tradition of building that could be re-energised to undertake the task. How the two paradigms of conservation can be dovetailed into a single document is the critical dialectic issue facing the conservation movement in India. The Indian charter for conservation will have to undertake that exercise and thereby provide an answer to the question posed by Coomaraswamy.

The fundamental difference between the two systems hinges on what each considers ‘authentic’ in the architectural heritage it seeks to conserve. It reflects the manner in which architectural heritage is negotiated by traditional craftspeople in India and professional conservators in Eurocentric societies. The ideology of indigenous practitioners like the sompuras, the sthapatis and the raj mistris views heritage as evolving over time and accommodates ‘authentic’ contemporary interventions undertaken in the ‘traditional’ way. There is great latitude in the definition of ‘tradition’ and this muddies the debate on what constitutes acceptable practice. The problem is compounded when such latitude permits proclamations of ‘sentiment’ and ‘faith’ to enter the debate. Nevertheless, traditional craftspeople believe that buildings live, die and are rebuilt in an organic process and that its authenticity inheres in the continuously evolving integrity of the historic building for its intended use. In this view, the site is more venerated than the building built over it. This represents the putative ‘cyclical’ concept of time.



On the other hand, the ideology of the Venice Charter, which defines ASI practices, reflects the ‘linear’ concept of time. In this view, the ‘authenticity’ of a building is fixed in the past and cannot ‘evolve’ over time. There is a clear distinction between time past and time present and the job of a conservator is zealously to protect all traces of time past. Because all contemporary intervention compromises the original ‘authenticity’ of the building, the objective of conservation is only to attempt minimum intervention in order to conserve its existing status, even as a ruin. Thus, one system restores and rebuilds the ruin, while the other consolidates it as it exists.

Both perspectives represent India’s culture legacy and reconciling their imperatives in a single charter is not going to be an easy task as the debate over the demolition of the Babri Masjid makes clear. But the criminal act involved in the demolition of the legally protected Babri Masjid should not divert attention from appreciating the legitimacy of indigenous practice and placing it on the same platform as that of ASI.



For example, indigenous practices could be formally sanctioned by the Indian charter to conserve legally unprotected buildings. This is not to suggest a hierarchy of techniques where ASI practices, judged superior, are devoted to the 9,000 ‘exemplary’ monuments, while indigenous practices, judged somewhat inferior, are applied to ‘less important’ buildings. On the contrary, one could, to begin with, question the second-tier status of unprotected architectural heritage. Moreover, since the number of unprotected buildings vastly outnumbers the protected ones, applying indigenous techniques to the former might have the interesting effect of subverting a norm.

Legitimising indigenous systems of conservation will also ensure the continuity of building skills and traditional knowledge bases of indigenous craftspeople. This objective is supported by the economic benefits that flow from increased employment opportunities it will create for crafts-people. In balance, many believe that the continuity of traditions also strengthens societal well-being. The skills and knowledge base of crafts-people constitute an equally important part of the architectural heritage in India. Thus, we need to conserve not only historic buildings, but also historic ways of building. The Indian charter for conservation should recognise this important distinction while framing policies.

Establishing the continuity of traditional building practices will also have a profound impact on the production of new architecture in the country. Conservation charters usually do not address this perspective but, in India, there is a strong link between traditional building systems and the objectives of the practice of alternative architecture that many non-mainstream architects are focusing on to meet the habitat needs of society.



For a tradition to survive it must have contemporary relevance. Its use should not be restricted to dealing with the repair and maintenance of old buildings, but should be deployed for constructing new ones as well. Considering it as an option for new buildings will, inter alia, encourage inventive adaptive reuse of old buildings, and to the extent that it promotes and brings into the market traditional craftspeople and crafts, the production of new heritage buildings.

The ASI and Eurocentric conservators, of course, frown upon this practice; many modernist architects also dismiss it as an artistic fraud. What attracts their ire is its reliance on the process of imitation in the act of creativity: imitation is an unpardonable shibboleth in their lexicon. In fact, one of the foundational principals of modern conservation practice is the imperative that conservation stops when conjecture begins. ‘New heritage’, ‘imitation’ and ‘inventive adaptive re-use’ of heritage buildings are always conjectural, and hence prohibited.

But in India, the situation is ambiguous because imitation is the preferred strategy in craft production and to a large extent, determines the production of new architecture as well. This is the ground reality, and perhaps reflects the deep structure of civilizational aesthetic norms. Only architects and conservators, who overtly profess the creed of ‘universal’ values, distance themselves from what could be considered a natural propensity. Hence, invention in conservation, and resorting to the process of imitation to create new heritage buildings, does not attract the same opprobrium among large sections of professionals and lay people as it well might in the West.8 Even ASI practices are not free of these ambiguities: it is now clearing monuments of encroachments and thereafter, restoring its architectural and decorative features and introducing contemporary landscape in a manner that is wholly conjectural and guided primarily by the objective to beautify the monument and its surroundings.9

As should be clear by now, I do not advocate a wholesale rejection of either a modernist or an indigenous agenda in architecture and conservation. Neither do I recommend an uncritical acceptance of either agenda. The Indian charter should not view these legacies in oppositional terms; rather it should seek to weave them into an effective strategy to conserve the bulk of the extant architectural heritage of the country. This may not be easy, but what I have in mind is something along the lines of the Burra Charter that forged an accommodation with Australian aboriginal heritage.

The Indian charter must also address issues other than merely technical concerns of building conservation. There is a strong relationship between historic buildings and urban heritage. Modern town planning as it is practiced today is detrimental to conserving the built heritage; perhaps it has caused the destruction of more architectural and urban heritage than wars. Town planners direct their attention towards development not conservation.



Not surprisingly, most historic cores of cities are neglected and become slums: Shahjahanabad is, in fact, classified a slum. While Shahjajanabad contains 44 protected buildings, its heritage value as an urban entity is elided. Neither town planners nor the ASI has a clue about how to deal with the concept of urban heritage. It was to address such situations that INTACH formulated the concept of ‘heritage zone’.10 The heritage zone concept requires that the conservation plan for historic areas be prepared on a case to case basis by judiciously mediating the imperatives of both conservation and urban development.

The parameters for conserving the heritage value of legally protected buildings or other important evidence of heritage are to be carefully considered in the context of local needs for urban renewal and not by mindlessly applying ASI’s 100-meters ‘no development’ zone rule. There is sufficient precedent to adopt such a flexible strategy in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) of the Ministry of Environment. CRZ regulations define development restrictions based on ground realities and so differ from site to site. Likewise, the needs of urban development should not be determined primarily on engineering or economic criteria – as it is at present – but should carefully take into account the characteristics that define the building and urban heritage of the historic town.

The heritage zone plan operates within the parameters of the Town Planning Act. Its objectives overlap those of urban renewal. It permits changes to take place by improving local conditions but conserves those aspects of the habitat which define its heritage value. It emphasises that the objectives of conservation, far from being synonymous with conservatism and anti-development, in fact promote development in order to protect the heritage.



In other words, the process does not envisage the ‘museumification’ of the area but rather the pragmatic development of the precinct while retaining its historical ambience and meaning. Crucially, a heritage zone proposal involves local residents in its drafting and implementation, in the belief that when their needs are respected local residents are the best partners in conservation. This is also in conformity with the provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution.

Well aware that a heritage area does not exist in a vacuum, the heritage zone concept also seeks to integrate conservation proposals for heritage precincts with broader Master Plan for the city. In this manner, funds that are routinely allocated for projects and civic improvements proposed in the master plan can be leveraged to achieve the conservation objectives at the same time. This is a significant achievement when conservation has to be undertaken in a resource-constrained administrative environment.

Over the last decade and a half, several heritage zone plans for historic cities have been drafted and accommodated in the master plans of those cities. As a consultant to INTACH, I have developed conservation plans for the historic precincts of Chanderi, Bhubaneswar, Ujjain and Varanasi. These projects demonstrated that the gap between the work of the urban development and the objectives of urban conservation could be bridged.

It is important to note that to accomplish this it was not necessary to modify or amend the Town Planning Act. However, it must also be noted that ASI’s 1992 rule was generally ignored. When the ASI ‘wakes up’ to what has been implemented in the vicinity of protected monuments, perhaps it will object (as it did in the Taj Corridor case). However, it is expected that better sense will prevail and that it will recognise the transparent benefits that have been secured for local residents and, rather than antagonise them, prefer to look the other way. Relying on the rule’s capricious invocation is hardly a long term solution, and it is such anomalies that the Indian charter expects to remedy. The main lesson learnt from these exercises is that the vision of both the urban planner and the archaeologist is the real impediment to achieving the objectives of conservation. The Indian charter for conservation can correct that perspective.



There is now an increasing awareness in the country that the problems of conserving heritage precincts can be tackled. Concerned professional groups in many cities, most notably Mumbai and Hyderabad, have taken up this cause leading to a general change in attitude both among officials and the citizens.

The Indian charter will also need to address the problem of giving recognition to legally unprotected monuments. The ASI’s current criteria for classification are inadequate and monument-centric. For example, it currently protects only 166 monuments of ‘national importance’ in Delhi; the Delhi State Department of Archaeology is considering the protection of another 150 monuments of ‘state importance’. However, INTACH has identified 1,200 buildings and 26 historic urban areas possessing significant heritage value, which need to be conserved. Listing this evidence and inscribing it on the legal master plan document will be a necessary first step.11 This process will also have to be backed with appropriate legislation and building bye-laws whose formulation will be an important task for the Indian charter.



But the process of listing often catalyses public opposition to conservation: while people are generally happy to see heritage conserved, they are reluctant to have their own building so classified because they fear a loss of productive use. The Indian charter will have to formulate public education strategies to garner public support for its implementation. It will have to empower citizen’s groups and non-governmental organisations along with professional conservators to undertake this work. Philosophically, the Indian charter should rely on enlightened public participation rather than the police powers of the state for its success.

Clearly, conservation in India has to be development oriented. This is of particular relevance to the conservation of those monuments not currently protected by either the ASI or its state-level counterparts. Such an orientation, in fact, distinguishes ‘Indian’ attitudes to conservation from ‘universal’, Eurocentric ones propagated in documents such as the Venice Charter. It also provides the rationale for undertaking conservation work in the resource-constrained Indian context. This rationale will accommodate the imperatives of urban development and promotion of heritage tourism, and coalesce their objectives with those of heritage conservation. It is only in this manner that our society can translate our social, cultural and economic values into an appropriate conservation practice for our times.

I began by pointing out the complexity with which Indian conservation professionals must contend. The Indian charter does not hold out any promise that such complexity can be avoided. What it does do is to come to terms with the problems that result and deal with them in a realistic way. The case for the Indian charter is strong, but there are no known precedents to follow in framing it so, initially, it will be difficult to articulate its clauses with the clarity and compelling power of other charters.

I know this because when I have attempted to discuss this subject in the past, I have generally been met with skeptical tolerance. Perhaps the sheer weight of intellectual inertia when faced with something as unconventional and challenging as the idea of an Indian charter is difficult to overcome for most people. I also suspect that the continuing allure of ‘modern’ ideologies propagated by Unesco, The Getty Foundation,, is another hurdle I face in propagating the Indian charter.

There is still another category of problems with which to contend, and that is the suspicion that the Indian charter seeks to conserve the past by valorising it. On the basis of contemporary political machination of history the suspicion is well-founded, and one must be abundantly cautious that the charter does not fall into a revivalist trap. My vision in proposing the charter is to mediate the future – one that is born of the past but not trapped within it.



1. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva, The Noonday Press, New York, 1957, p. 155.

2. A.G. Krishna Menon, ‘Conservation as a Critical Activity: The Sulima Strut Story’, in The Sulima Pagoda, East Meets West in the Restoration of a Nepalese Temple, edited by Erich Theophile and Niels Gutschow, Weatherhill Inc., CT, USA, 2003, pp. 106-109.

3. Among the prominent experts who assisted INTACH was Sir Bernard Feilden. He drafted the Guidelines for Conservation: A Technical Manual that was published by INTACH in 1989. Feilden’s Manual is based on the Conservation Manual written by Sir John Marshall in 1923. As B.K. Thapar, the Secretary of INTACH acknowledges in his foreword: ‘...we have to be conversant with the principles and methods of conservation as understood and applied internationally.’ p. xi. Feilden’s Manual had a section on the conservation of urban heritage.

4. The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904 (India), was modelled on the British Ancient Monuments Act of 1882. It is pertinent to note that while the British government went on to make several amendments to their 1882 Act, the Indian Act was modelled after it. After independence, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, was promulgated based on the already outdated 1904 Act. This characteristic of unquestioningly accepting someone else’s laws and ideologies is the source of my complaint.

5. For example the colonial government was wary of including religious and secular buildings that were in use in their list of protected monuments; only ‘dead’ monuments were protected. After independence, the Indian government by and large, continues this policy.

6. The Indian Express, New Delhi, 20 June 2003.

7. A.G. Krishna Menon, ‘Re-thinking the Venice Charter: The Indian Experience’, Journal of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge, No. 10, 1994, pp. 37-44.

8. In fact, in the West too, the situation is changing. I have attended two conferences at the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands on architectural reconstruction (15 May 1998) and architectural imitation (10-11 October 2002) in which there was wide represen- tation from European academics and professionals who discussed the subject in positive terms.

9. For example, The Red Fort, Delhi.

10. A.G. Krishna Menon and B.K. Thapar, Historic Towns and Heritage Zones, INTACH, New Delhi, 1988.

11. This process is underway in the Master Plan of Delhi, 2001-2021, which is still under preparation. In the meantime, both the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Council have notified for legal protection the buildings in INTACH’s list which fall within their jurisdiction.