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The future of the Past


Paris got a makeover in the time of President Mitterrand with the creation of La Defense and the revitalisation of the Louvre. And yet, its most visited tourist spots are the Eiffel Tower and historic district of Champs Elysees.

New York too embarked on an ambitious journey from inner city decay to Soho chic, reviving its rundown districts into fashionable areas; romanticised living in a historic brownstone became the ultimate New York real estate dream. Closer home, New Delhi is investing in its renaissance through infrastructure improvement and restoration of its medieval monuments in time for the Commonwealth Games.

And yet, whenever Mumbai’s makeover is discussed, we forget that the city need not be packaged as a business destination alone, with two World Heritage Sites in the city (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Elephanta Caves) and two more in the state (Ajanta and Ellora), making Maharashtra a state with the maximum number of World Heritage Sites. (via The future of the Past).

Neglect of 2000 years of history

The most remarkable feature of Mumbai’s history are Buddhist caves from 1st century to 11 th century. In her article of more than 1800 words, how many times does the author, Abha Narain Lambah, mention Mumbai’s Buddhist caves?

Nil. Yes. That is right. Zero. Zilch. 零. Nul. Null. μηδέν. ゼロ. нул. cero.

Magathane Caves
Magathane Caves

The other aspect is the totally foreign (read Western) idiom that Lambah uses. Assuming she wanted to use international benchmarks, could she not find any conservation models from Turkey (Boghaz Koi for example), Egypt (the Cairo Museum?), Japan, China (The Forbidden City), Thailand (Ayuthya) – which comes to my mind at least. This ‘narrow-casting’ makes me shudder at the shallowness.

Motivations

Abha Narain Lambah, is a practising conservation architect in Mumbai. A recipient of the Eisenhower Fellowship (USA) 2002, Sanskriti Award 2003 and the Charles Wallace Fellowship (UK) 1998, her projects have won five UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Heritage Conservation.

Now how much of a chance does she have of winning commissions from Western multinationals and Western clubs (like UNESCO, et al) or from the ‘Westernized’ South Mumbai types – if starts off on Buddhist and Hindu shrines. For that matter, I doubt if she will win the Rs.28 crore contract /grant /sanction /approval it even from the Maharashtra Government?

As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)

As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)

Then there are others

To the lengthening line of non-specialists, who are re-writing Indian history, like Amaresh Misra (War of 1857), Anant Darwatkar (on Sambhaji Maharaj), Parag Tope (on Tatiya Tope’s role in 1857), Savitri Sawhney (on the Ghadar Party’s contribution to Indian Freedom Movement), Benoy K Behl (photography of Indian history), it may be early to now add the name of Anita Rane-Kothare. Her work on Buddhist caves of Mumbai is yet to make an impact.

Benoy Behl’s work is particularly very attractive.

Awesome Work

Capturing Indian history across more than 20 countries, Benoy K Behl has spent,

almost two decades now, … to document the spread of Buddhism; his work evident in over 30,000 unique photographs that he has taken all over the world.

He has found that

“At many of these places people may not have seen present-day Indians but they still hold Indian culture in great regard”.

In Mumbai …

Two years ago, a historian, while researching traditional Indian methods of water harvesting, stumbled upon a series of ancient Buddhist caves in Borivli, which its custodians scarcely knew or cared about.

Initially, she was scared that the historical caves would crumble under the weight of the slum colonies that encroached upon them, but now she fears that the construction works being conducted on an adjacent plot might bring the structures down. (via Historian on a mission to save little-known caves – The Times of India).

Old Mumbai mills are valuable - but not the Buddhist caves
Old Mumbai mills are valuable – but not the Buddhist caves

While India has managed to obtain funding for ‘saving’ the gargoyle-infested colonial railway structures from UNESCO, breast beating activists have managed to increase awareness of structures funded by colonial loot and drug trade (of opium).

In all this, two things are forgotten.

One – Colonial versions show the start of Mumbai’s history when the Portuguese gave Mumbai as dowry to the British in 1661 – including a Government of Maharashtra website.

If there was no Mumbai before the British, where did these Buddhist caves (at Magathane, Kanheri, etc.) come from? Or did I miss the ‘fact’ that British first came to India in the 2nd century, made these Buddhist caves – and came back again to India in the 17th century, built these Gothic Victorian structures, and went away – which we ‘uncultured’ Indians are trying to save?

Did the British come in the 1st century and make these caves?
Did the British come in the 1st century and make these caves?

Two – The liberal establishment in India is worried about all the colonial ‘heritage’ and structures. Old Mumbai mills are included – but not the even more ancient Buddhist structures.

The Mumbai Municipal Commissioner, while decrying the attempts by the Indian neo-Colonial Rulers, to ‘save’ Mumbai’s colonial past, makes no mention of these Buddhist caves. While Kipling’s bungalow is a ‘hallowed’ institution, these Buddhist caves are dying of ‘active neglect’.

<img title=”As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)” src=”http://www.thehindu.com/fline/fl2425/images/20080104242506605.jpg&#8221; alt=”As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)” width=”218″ height=”340″ />

As Ganga descends from the heavens, it starts teeming with Nagas (fertility symbol)

Awesome Work
Capturing Indian history across more than 20 countries, Benoy K Behl has spent,

almost two decades now, … to document the spread of Buddhism; his work evident in over 30,000 unique photographs that he has taken all over the world.</p>
He has found that
“At many of these places people may not have seen present-day Indians but they still hold Indian culture in great regard”

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