The Heritage Hoax


Even before the first run, the Chennai Metro rail is running over sensitive toes. It is expected that such a project would upset the existing topography and displace businesses, educational institutions and livelihoods. The courts are presently seized with many such issues relating to status quo and compensation in the normal course. But when a chosen few, profit-oriented businesses at that, seek immunity under the lofty camouflage of heritage, our hackles are raised. The hypocrisy of modern heritage-wallas is starkly evident.

Of course, there are some who think past is irrelevant, but for a normal nostalgic mind, it is a sanctuary of escape. So if indeed, the past calls for celebration, what then constitutes heritage? To nations the world over, heritage is almost synonymous with religious symbols and traditions. But with such an option shunned in secular India, heritage here loses its very foundation. Also the age of the heritage of those nations and faiths is at best 20 centuries of violent domination. But for Bharath whose cultural roots run deep into antiquity and whose legacies are still alive despite onslaughts, heritage is a far-flung and bottomless ocean that cannot be confined to a convenient time-bottle.

Besides business enterprises, the British left behind many public institutions, all housed in stately colonial style buildings, built to serve their purpose. Their vintage could hardly be a couple of centuries, though from the vantage point of the present they may seem hallowed. And being recent they also have the advantage of their glory days being depicted in sepia toned photos and portraits which ironically add to their ‘oldness’ and heighten the romanticism of the high-brow heritage class! To them, anything British has to be brilliant and Mughal is as far back as their mind’s eye can see. So every time one such structure comes apart or needs to be pulled down on safety concerns, this culture crowd rises in rapturous cries of heritage crisis, in streets, seminar halls, media and of course, fund raisers! But how can it be heritage if it is so much here, near and now, well within grasp of those in blinkers?

Such a shortsighted time view can be excused if the land is bereft of pre-British or pre-Mughal structures. Chennai and its surroundings, nay, entire TN abounds in true heritage sites that are as old as sand and stone. Kanchi for instance, just 75 kms away, is known as the city of 1000 temples and is ageless. The art, sculpture and structure of these temples have no modern peers. But many of them as those all over TN and India are in abject conditions of decay besides being a perennial target of thieves. None of this art or structure can be reproduced, unlike the eminently replicable Indo-Saracenic ones that elicit so much elite sympathy. Now which heritage deserves real attention?

But I am yet to see any of our neo-heritage champions filing PILs or doing marathon runs or converting their morning walks into heritage walks or lighting candles to protect or preserve these priceless treasures! Of the role of a ‘secular’ regime or the people who are supposed to relish and cherish these, the less said the better. Perhaps, in the case of such ‘older’ heritage, it is thought that their dilapidation should be kept intact to certify their vintage! But if ignoring the residual real heritage that speaks our real glory is itself a crime, Macaulay’s children raising a toast instead to the victory symbols of their conquerors is most ugly. For, if we delve deep, most modern ‘heritage’ structures are either monuments of our slavery or tribute to some brutal past master! And worse is our new masters occupying them in same pomp and at great expense: The office of Governor is probably retained just to keep the ‘heritage’ Raj Bhavans occupied! Now one does not have to pick up axes, but one does not have to mourn either if these buildings meet a natural nemesis or are pulled down for public good or put to better use.

Besides such ‘slave heritage’, we also have this morbid ‘grave heritage’. Delhi and its surroundings for instance are a land littered with Mughal-time tombs passing off as heritage tourist spots. Apart from the exalted emperors and their pet wives/concubines housed in eerie enclosures you cannot also tread the terrain without walking over the remains of scores of historical characters lying underneath, cremation being taboo. Wonder how Delhi metro rail dealt with the royal ‘heritage haul’ of skeletons and bones when the Capital was dug up. And as if the Mughal dynasty’s continued occupation is not enough, we also have independent India’s most prominent dynasty posthumously grabbing huge acreage of prime real estate for their eternal rest. What irony that while the places that make for a truly pleasant heritage-walk are dying, the ones accompanied by the unsavoury stench of death are thriving!

The future of the past and its glory seems scary. Besides samadhis sticking out as sore thumbs on city scapes or as blots on beach-fronts, statues of politicos are also gaining the heritage halo. So a few years hence, Mayawati’s elephants, Maya herself, scores of current leaders – the caste, the corrupt, the criminal and the contemptible alike – all cast in stone on pedestals or slabs, would be vying with our holy temples, hoary Ajantas, the elegant Elloras and the matchless Mahabs, for heritage status, of course with their attendant champions. Political plaques in black granite are already outnumbering inscriptions of yore in heralding our ‘heritage’ to the coming generations. I dread to imagine my great grandchild writing a history essay after a school excursion to the samadhi of a politico who looted his great-grandfather’s tax money!

I think it is time I pulled the chain to stop the train of thoughts. The Metro rail’s heritage ride is getting a bit too depressing for comfort!

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