On conserving some historic gardens and landscapes of Delhi.

The built heritage of Delhi is more commonly defined both by experts and lay people by its historic buildings. What it eludes in the process is, of course, the city’s considerable landscape heritage, both constructed and natural. Examples of the constructed landscape heritage would include the extant Moghul Gardens, such as the Safdarjung Tomb Garden, Shalimar Bagh among others, and examples of the natural landscapes would be the Ridge and the River Yamuna. Both need to be conserved for the same reasons we invoke to conserve the heritage buildings; but they are not.

At one level the problem is related to the question of what remains of the significance and integrity of the landscape heritage that one proposes to conserve? At the Humayuns Tomb, for example, it was decided to restore the British layer of the garden; that decision has been the source of much professional criticisms. At another is the problem of how to conserve a living heritage — after all, gardens have a much shorter life than buildings and so the problem of dealing with conserving its authenticity is more complex; unfortunately, not much disciplinary knowledge or expertise is available in India to guide the process.

UNESCO Charters on the conservation of historic landscapes do exist, but few in India acknowledge or practice its message. Thus, heritage gardens are neglected, brutally modified or its land treated as real estate and assigned to other functional uses; this has been the fate of Shalimar Bagh, Roshanara Gardens and Qudsia Bagh, where different municipal authorities have between them addressed their own short-sighted interests to the simultaneous detriment of the landscape heritage.

At INTACH Delhi Chapter we have taken the initiative, with the assistance of domain experts, to remedy the situation. I will briefly mention two quite different projects to explain the initiative.

One, we are in exploratory discussions with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to restore the Mughul layer of the Safdarjung s Tomb garden. It is probably the last grand Mughal Tomb Garden built in Delhi, and it offers a good opportunity to showcase this landscape genre for public edification. This will be a doubly daunting task because, on the one hand, it will require credible multidisciplinary research to identify and justify what is to be restored, and on the other, it will have to challenge the cherished shibboleths of ASI proscribing any form of restoration.

Second, we are making die case for conserving the extraordinary landscape created in Imperial New Delhi, which was designed by Edwin Landseer Lutyens and planted by William Robertson Mustoe. Most of the trees they so meticulously planned and planted are now reaching the end of their lives and many have already started dying thus leaving gaps in the carefully structured pattern of the landscape. These gaps are becoming visible along Central Vista, where unfortunately, different species of trees are being introduced as replacements. On occasions like van utsav for example, thousands of alien species of trees are planted to green’ the city, oblivious to the fact that it simultaneously desecrates the heritage landscape.

Conserving heritage landscape is a challenging task under any circumstance. In the fledgling conservation movement in India, its imperatives are, not surprisingly, seldom acknowledged and therefore we are losing valuable heritage. More academic research and field work is required to be undertaken to reverse this process.

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