Renewed demand for heritage tag for Agra (Letter from Agra)

Agra, April 27 (IANS) Renewed demands have been made for granting heritage status to Agra, which is home to three World Heritage monuments – the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri – and several other historical structures. This will protect and conserve historical buildings, old havelis, structures, water bodies, forests and even the oriental markets in the old city, experts say.

The Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society has demanded heritage city status for the city to help conservational efforts and streamline civic amenities for tourists, the Agra Vikas Foundation has sent memorandums to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to demand shifting of the army personnel occupying a greater part of the historical fort.

Demands have regularly been made by conservationists and local tourism organisations, but the union government “has not shown any interest” in pursuing the issue to its logical end, alleges Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

In 2007, the union tourism ministry told the Supreme Court that Agra could not be granted heritage city status because it lacked basic infrastructure, and sought time to develop amenities. But till date, the city does not have regular air connectivity, streamlined roads, adequate security arrangements for visitors and other related facilities.

Travel writers like Lucy Peck have suggested starting Heritage Walks through the interiors of the city to acquaint the foreign visitors with the live heritage, the life and vocations of the locals.

Several international bodies including the UNESCO have supported projects to restore the old glory of the Taj city.

A World Bank team recently visited several sites and interacted with officials to explore how the city’s heritage could be promoted and preserved. A few projects have been short-listed.

“A city so rich in culture and architecture, where every street has a historical building needs to be recognised as a heritage city and the union ministry should draw up plans to remove encroachments around tourist sites,” says conservationist Shravan Kumar Singh.

The chief reason why tourism has not become “everybody’s business” in Agra and not directly benefited the locals in a substantial manner, is the lack of heritage consciousness.

“The city is neither tourist-friendly nor do its residents feel a sense of pride in its history and culture,” social activist Padmini Iyer told IANS.

And the builders’ lobby in Agra does not favour heritage city status for the city as they fear new constructions would not be permitted.

Still, Agra is India’s number one tourist centre but continues to lag dismally in modernising its urban base and developing a comfortable ambience for promoting culture and tourism, handicrafts exporter Abhinav Jain said.

The city hasn’t changed much if one takes into account a ghazal written in 1723 by Lakshmi Chandra, who describes in great detail the roads and the localities of Agra – from Agra Fort to Charsu Darwaza and beyond to Lashkarpur – which was then the tenting ground for the Mughal army.

Agra, some historians say, was founded in 1504. Even today the city retains the original names and functions of various places also remain largely the same.

“Yes, in the so-called modern Agra there is evidence of haphazard planning and irrational growth, but then those are not the heritage pieces one would like preserved,” N.R. Smith, a meticulous chronicler of Agra’s modern history through his columns, told IANS.

“We have to begin by demarcating the areas as Mughal Agra, the British Agra and the Agra Development Authority’s Agra. Only then can one go ahead with conserving the real heritage of the city of the Taj Mahal. And those who think people and their work places need to be demolished to make way for modern malls or parking slots are only hurting the spirit of conservation,” Smith added.

Were emperor Akbar to rise from his grave in Sikandra some day, he would have no difficulty reaching Agra Fort without asking for directions. “The road plans have not changed, the landmarks are all there,” social activist Rajan Kishore said.

Eminent Mughal historian R. Nath said the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is not doing enough to sincerely conserve monuments according to the manual laid down by John Marshall, who was the ASI chief during 1902-1928 and was responsible for the discovery of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, the two main cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at [email protected])

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