From where I sit - Not just preserve of the state

July 28, 2011

This year is an archaeological milestone of sorts. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the government department involved in the preservation of antiquities and monuments in India, will celebrate its 150th anniversary.

The ASI, of course, is celebrating a wrong date. What was launched in 1861 was a government-sponsored one-man survey of "upper India" - to be carried out by Alexander Cunningham, who had just retired from the army - with the ASI being set up as a government department only in 1871.

This hasn't deterred the ASI from treating this year as its 150th anniversary, which it sees as an "opportune moment" to consider the state of conservation in India and draft a new policy relating to it. Usually in India, when one thinks of conservation it is government institutions such as the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian Museum in Kolkata that come to mind. These were established by our British rulers in the 19th century and they, along with the institutional practices associated with them, have been continued and expanded.

But perhaps the launch of a new conservation policy should be a moment to reflect on other kinds of practices. These are community-based, frequently rooted in religion and have been consistently ignored by the British-inherited institutional framework of conservation.

Within that framework, for instance, the work of individuals of antiquarian bent, who have spent their lives searching out antiquities and sites in out-of-the-way towns and villages, is never acknowledged. One of them was the late Swami Omanand Saraswati, who had links with the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reformist sect, and who set up a museum in the Indian state of Haryana. This is at Jhajjar, where his vast collection - coins, idols, pottery, terracotta and weapons - is displayed. Several books in Hindi about that collection, which regrettably receives no state support, have been published.

Likewise, across large parts of India, the collection, preservation and worship of sculptural fragments and architectural relics is a little-known conservation practice. An example of this, very close to the national capital of Delhi, is Kheri Kalan, where an open-air enclosure within the precincts of a modern temple is marked by a range of early medieval fragmentary images that were unearthed from the mound on which the temple stands. By integrating them in their shrines and mythologies, villagers ensure the survival of ancient artefacts and antiquities in the vicinity of their settlements.

And then, there are temples that have storehouses where antiquities are kept and, occasionally, displayed. About 110km east of Delhi, for instance, is the Shantinath Digambar Jain temple of Hastinapur, where there is a collection containing a range of artefacts from bronze and stone images to architectural panels.

These practices of collecting and preserving antiquities were first systematically described by Cunningham himself 150 years ago. But while the facts were documented, the identification of these as methods of local preservation was missing from his work. So, my advice would be: if the ASI wants to honour and carry forward Cunningham's legacy, it can begin by acknowledging community antiquarianism in the conservation policy now being drawn up.

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