On February 2, TNM reported on a distressing video from Hampi which showed two men pushing an erect pillar at the ruins of a temple in the UNESCO heritage site, causing the pillar to topple and fall down. While the reckless and audacious act has enraged many, it is not exactly uncommon to find marks of vandalism at historical monuments and heritage sites across India.
Most people who have visited a monument of historical importance would have seen scribblings on its walls. Sometimes, they are declarations of love or friendship, or profane words. Other times, the monuments bear gaps where there was an ancient stone or some other piece. And experts say that itâs no one else, but mostly Indians who desecrate heritage sites in the country.
TNM spoke to experts about the vandalism that they have seen at Indian heritage sites, and why they believe citizens indulge in such activities.
Vandalism by people
Sriram V, a historian and writer in Tamil Nadu, says that in several places, people go beyond scribbling their names â they inscribe them using sharp objects, especially where there is plaster work. âIt's sad we donât value the history that we have. What they donât realise is that something valuable that we should have left for posterity is being destroyed,â he states.
Milan Chauley, Superintending Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in Telangana, says that he has even seen scribblings in places which are difficult to reach without external support. âAt the Golconda Fort, we have found that people have a habit of picking up the big stones and throwing them, perhaps to show their strength. Cannons from the bastion have been displaced or are missing due to vandalism,â he adds.
Meera Iyer, convener, Bengaluru chapter of the non-profit charitable organisation Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), argues that vandalism does not always take the form of physical damage to the premises or physical property. âIt often happens in the form of littering too â not just by visitors, but my commercial establishments such as eateries and resorts nearby too,â she says.
Something similar was recounted by an archaeologist who did not wish to be named. She visited Nandi hills in Karnataka, a popular getaway for short vacations, and found that waste from a nearby restaurant was being dumped at the Nandi Hills fort, at the âbreachâ, which marks the spot where the British breached the fort and ultimately took control of it from Tipu Sultan.
Further, in rural areas, people often do not know the historical significance of monuments in their vicinity, especially old temples or ruins, says Ruchika*, an archaeologist from Tamil Nadu. âThey start treating it as a leisure spot, and thatâs how they use it. Or they make up their own myths or stories about it, because they are just not aware of its cultural and historical importance. Without this knowledge, they cannot protect the site,â she argues.
Some vandalism also occurs because some heritage sites and historical monuments are not in use or neglect. âThey become spots for antisocial elements. We often find glass bottles there. And because locals know that these activities happen there, they donât visitâŚ itâs a vicious cycle. Ultimately these sites are just abandoned, and people use them as they please. We have found walls blackened with smoke from people cooking there!â Sriram shares.
Why do people desecrate monuments?
Milan says that marking physical structures and rocks to indicate oneâs presence or visitation there is an old practice â originating from the cave paintings made by early humans. âIn that sense, it is in-built in us. But even with the onset of civilization, the problem is that there is not enough emphasis on the harms of vandalising and spoiling historical monuments in schools and among children. Further, children will learn from teachers and parents. If they litter or are flippant about such things, kids will emulate the same attitude.â
Sriram opines that people indulge in such vandalism because of several reasons. He emphasises on the societyâs disregard for social sciences and history, which results in people not learning about the importance of heritage and historical sites.
âFurther, we are becoming increasingly polarised as a country. Sometimes, the vandalism is a result of this sentiment. A person who is against what Tipu Sultan may vandalise monuments which figure in his story. It can also be due to religious animosity,â he says.
The archaeologist from Karnataka said that she had seen people use materials like stones used in monuments for their own domestic use, especially in Aihole in Karnataka. âStructures at the Nandi Hills fort, have granite on the outside and bricks or rubble on the inside. People have removed the outer granite and taken it for their own use. Apart from the damaging aspect, itâs also dangerous, because it weakens the structure,â she explains.
Another problem, Sriram points out, is that sometimes locals are in conflict with sites of historical importance. In Pallavaram for instance, a palaeolithic era site has been cordoned off for preservation. âThere are locals who have bought property there but cannot develop it now because itâs a site of historical importance. Either the government should not have allowed sale of property there or should have made some effort to fulfil the localsâ demands. The people have also not been made aware of how having a place of historic importance there is beneficial, so they view it as a roadblock,â he says.
Government bodies face resource constraints
After the Hampi video went viral, several people and locals demanded that the ASI take better care of heritage sites. However, Milan says that the ASI is short staffed and has very limited resources. âI have only 32 people to take care of everything at Golconda Fort. The allocation of funds is also insufficient. People have to take some responsibility too, especially when it comes to littering,â he argues.
âWe need someone urgently to reassess the ASIâs needs and overhaul the structure. Currently, the ASI is like a titular head â it has little administrative or financial power. We need more decentralisation as well,â Milan argues.
Damage to monuments in name of restoration
Not just by people, monuments also suffer damage due to incorrect restoration and renovation.
Sriram explains that not all historical sites and monuments fall under ASI or the state departments of archaeology. Many of these years old structures are temples, and are under the administration of the locals or, in the case of Tamil Nadu, under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. Therefore, not all of them may have the knowledge of how to do restoration in a way that does not damage the delicate inscriptions and intricacies of age-old monuments.
âMany times, ancient paintings are whitewashed, damaging them. The authorities at the temple are told that the only way to get rid of the oil and grime is by sandblasting. Though the procedure is no longer allowed in temples, it goes on tacitly. What that does is fill and cover inscriptions that are shallowly carved into the structure,â he says.
Ruchika adds that donors who often give money to temples for such purposes focus on outer appearance. But in the process, restoration and renovation is not done in ways that scientifically preserves the inscriptions and properties. âIn south India especially, we see several cases where a pillar from the Chola empire will have a top thatâs from the Vijaynagara empire. Each pillar from a certain time in history has its identifiers and markers. But people doing the restoration work do not know this, and hence, pieces are misplaced,â she observes.
In some cases, heritage sites are lost because the government itself does not realise the value of a building and wants to demolish it to build another structure, widen roads, and so on, Meera says.
(*Not her real name)