Heritage Matters: India’s Lost Capitals

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    The Indian subcontinent once had some of the grandest capital cities in the world. Today, while India’s modern metropolises such as Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are booming, very little remains of the old capital cities that once defined India’s power.

    For example, in 300 BCE, Greek ambassador Megasthenes described Pataliputra as a grand capital, comparable to the powerful Persian cities of Susa and Persepolis. The only tangible evidence of ancient Patna is a small archaeological park with broken pillars. The city of Sisupalgarh near Bhubaneswar in Odisha is believed to have been as big as Rome in the 2nd BCE. Today, even its meagre ruins are under threat by encroachers. It’s the same story for once-glorious cities such as Parihaspora, Gauda,Hampi, Patan, Paithan and many others. The list is long.

    Why are our ancient cities victims of neglect and decay? Where did we go wrong? And what can we do to save them?

    To find answers to these weighty questions, we invited leading historians and conservation experts to participate in our online panel discussion, India’s Lost Capitals – the first panel discussion in our weekly series, Heritage Matters. The discussion included four guests – Swapna Liddle, Convenor, INTACH Delhi Chapter; Debashish Nayak, Member Secretary, Heritage Conservation Committee, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation; Deepanjan Ghosh, heritage enthusiast and blogger; and Pushkar Sohoni, author and historian.

    Each of them has worked with different aspects of heritage in cities across India for many years and presented valuable insights into the state they are in today and what we can do to preserve our heritage in these urban centres. Cities such as Delhi, Murshidabad, Ahmadnagar and Ahmedabad, a UNESCO World Heritage City, were taken up as case studies during our discussion.

    Status of our old capitals

    Monuments surrendering to neglect, historical sites being encroached upon, structures being demolished as the urban sprawl relentlessly marches on, heritage sites falling off the mainstream tourist map – sadly, instances like these are common across many cities in India. But what are the factors that are causing this to happen?

    Swapna Liddle has documented and researched 19th century Delhi. The city, now the national capital, has been the seat of many powerful empires over the centuries. Shahjahanabad, the Old Delhi area, was the great 17th-century capital of the Mughal Empire. Even today, it hides several sites and monuments, some of which even predate Shahjahanabad. Sadly, not all of them attract as many visitors as do the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid.

    Take, for example, the 13th-century tomb of Razia Sultan, which lies in obscurity, a sad fact considering she was the only woman to ascend the throne in Delhi. Taking the tomb as an example, Liddle offered an interesting perspective on our perception of heritage and monuments. She pointed out that monuments need not be looked at in isolation, detached from the community around it.

    I think the lesson to be learned from Razia’s Tomb is (that) it is a monument which is in a very living, thriving community, and there are maintenance and management problems. We need to bring in the communities who live around it because it is so intensely hemmed in. And we should stop thinking of them as encroachers. They are not encroachers. In fact, the people who live around Razia’s Tomb… there's been a community living there for centuries. Razia was buried in 1240. But particularly after Shahjahanabad was founded in the 17th century, this became a part of a fairly densely populated area. So it has had people living around it for a long time. Those problems can be turned into positives, this is not abandoned heritage,” said Liddle.

    Pushkar Sohoni, an expert on the Deccan Sultanate, has been researching many cities in the Deccan, including Ahmandnagar, Golconda and Hyderabad, among others. Ahmadnagar was founded by the Nizam Shahs in the 15th CE and was the seat of their kingdom for over a century. Home to many historical buildings such as mosques, palaces and tombs, the city is slowly losing its legacy.

    Sohoni pointed out that the major problem in Ahmadnagar seemed to be lack of awareness among the citizens – they don’t even know the significance of the monuments around them, let alone see the importance in conserving them. Lack of proper listing and documentation of monuments is another issue. “Very few monuments within the city have any kind of protected status… a lot of monuments, which used to be on the periphery of cities, are increasingly coming within the ambit of fast urbanizing areas,” he pointed out.

    Deepanjan Ghosh, who has been researching cities such as Murshidabad, Gauda and others in West Bengal, observed that we are losing our heritage because monuments are not mapped in many cities. The once-grand city of Murshidabad was founded in 1702 CE by Murshid Quli Khan, who moved the capital of Bengal from Dhaka to Murshidabad. But this medieval capital is fast losing its historical legacy.

    Ghosh stated that the city was last properly documented in 1904. He said, “When you go there now, it's so difficult to imagine what the city was like, even around 250 years ago, because we have completely failed to look at Murshidabad as a site, we have failed to look at it as a historic city. The way we are operating now is to look at it in terms of isolated monuments… Every time I've gone back, I've either found the monuments in much worse shape than they were in, or I haven't managed to find them at all, because either the monument itself has disappeared or the place names have changed, which makes it very difficult to try and locate something.”

    But there’s some good news too. Even though it one of the busiest metropolises in present times, the city of Ahmedabad has managed to get recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage City, the first city in India to be granted this status. Debashish Nayak, who was closely involved with Ahmedabad’s journey in securing this recognition, believes it was the combined and sustained efforts of citizens as well as the administration which worked for the city.

    Ahmedabad has a history that goes back 600 years but it is one of the most well-documented cities in India. It may have taken almost 20 years to get Ahmedabad listed as a World Heritage City but, Nayak pointed out, it was a planned approach and this is what worked in its favour. “The first step is how you restore the perceptions of the community about their own place. That is the secret. And that's why the management plan is very important,” he shared.

    How can we save our heritage?

    Based on the insights of our experts, here a few factors that can help us save our cities.

    1. Ownership of our heritage

    Whose heritage is it anyway? Who is responsible for the preservation of heritage monuments and historical sites? Is it only the government authorities who must take care of our heritage?

    Experts believe that citizens and the administrative authorities need to work in tandem to preserve and promote their cities and their heritage. Also, there is a need for guidelines and laws that clearly define what counts as heritage, and awareness to help people connect with it. Pushkar Sohoni said, “I think people need to have a sense of ownership over a lot of these things (monuments). People (need to) feel some kind of stake in the preservation of these, and this can only happen through informing them of what these things were, and why they are important.”

    2. Involvement of the local community

    A common thought underlined by all the experts on the panel was the participation and engagement of the local community in heritage preservation. Once citizens get interested and realise the value of what exists in their cities, it is easier to get them involved. Debashish Nayak, who was closely involved with Ahmedabad’s journey in becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, believes it was the interest and awareness among the city’s citizens that really worked for Ahmedabad.

    He cites an example, “So, one day, I took 40 artists for a heritage walk and they came and painted the Old City (of Ahmedabad). And, today, hundreds of our new artists, our students, are painting the Old City, they are retired art school teachers, they are now taking classes in the pols in the Old City with their local community students to paint their own neighbourhood. So, in Ahmedabad, community resources and institutional sources have been explored.”

    3. Role of administration and policies

    The role of central organisations such as the Archaeological Survey of India, and of local administration, like the municipal corporation, state tourism board and the district administrations is very important when it comes to the preservation and restoration of monuments and sites. This includes other factors such as laws and policies, government schemes and funds allocation, documentation, listings etc. Debashish Nayak observed that, in Ahmedabad, it was the municipal corporation’s sustained efforts, along with community participation, that paved the way for their success. For instance, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation is probably the first one in India to establish a heritage department in the municipality.

    Another important factor for the preservation of old sites and buildings is town planning. The experts on the panel believed that there should be ways to incorporate the old neighbourhoods and areas into the bigger picture, in a systematic way. They should not be neglected and the communities living in these neighbourhoods should not be ignored.

    4. Public-private partnerships

    Private organisations as well as NGOs are important stakeholders in the heritage management process. They can work with citizens and create campaigns for conservation of monuments. But the experts also stressed that this called for transparent communication and implementation. Organisations such as INTACH and the Aga Khan Trust are examples of how organisations with professionals and experts can make a difference in protecting our heritage.

    5. Education and Awareness

    When it comes to history, school textbooks are often blamed for making the subject boring. Yet education and awareness about heritage and history form the very basis of preserving and conserving our heritage. Deepanjan Ghosh, a blogger with experience as a broadcast professional, expressed an interesting thought. “It's probably because of the way we've been taught history in school. You know, if you're taught about a site that is in the city or a few hours’ drive away, think about taking a bunch of school students there and saying, ‘You know, chapter 3, page 12, that thing you read, this is what it actually is, you can actually touch it.’ If we could do something like that, it would be fabulous.”

    In this context, initiatives like heritage walks become very vital, in not only involving the local community but also in the engagement of people with history and heritage. Books, walking guides and other publications, especially about sites of historical significance, are another way to educate people about the historical treasures that we have in our country.

    It’s time that we mainstream history and make it engaging enough for even the layman to get excited about stories from the past, because it is these stories that really make India.

    Cover Image: Ruins of the New Palace, Murshidabad- Deepanjan Ghosh

    You can watch the complete conversation on India’s Lost Capitals here:

    Through our online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as to showcase the work that has been done to address the many problems faced on the ground, all across the length and breadth of India. If you also have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, please write to us at

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