A platform for positive and constructive discussion on ways of looking at history, architecture, archaeology, and conservation
In Delhi, as in India, there still exist so many monuments that we are spoilt for choice. We also tend to despoil most of these monuments, whose custodianship is a tricky affair, and one, that at least for the past couple of hundred years does not seem to have been resolved satisfactorily. I argue that to do so, we have to fundamentally change how we view the custody of these monuments. I intend to explain this through my experience with some monuments in Delhi, particularly the Begumpuri Masjid and Bijay Mandal, in company with a group called the Friends of ASI (FrASI). My understanding of the monuments is based on the process followed as part of the setting up of the FrASI, and the subsequent interactions we had with stakeholders. My analysis of the custodianship of these monuments, therefore, requires me to explain the formation of, and the interventions made, through this group. I’d like to do this by, first, explaining what we tried to do; and then later analysing it in the larger context of inhabited monuments. So, I’ll begin with:
The idea of collecting the FrASI into a working group as a 150th anniversary present to the Archaeological Survey of India, was a brainchild of Professor Narayani Gupta. She roped in a few more of us to see how we could do this. It wasn’t, however, a surprise anniversary present!
The ASI were very much a part of the planning of this group. In fact, when the FrASI assembled for the first time on the 25th of April 2012—not with much fanfare, but certainly with a star attendance—it was in the Committee Room of the Central ASI Office, a venue decided in consultation with the ASI, though our suggestion had been that we meet in a more public space such as Safdarjang Tomb. It seemed to us that the full cooperation of the ASI was essential for the idea of the FrASI to take off and stay on course. In the very first letter that I wrote on behalf of the FrASI to Shri Gautam Sengupta, the then Director General, ASI, I specifically requested him to identify persons within the ASI, who would actively commit to participate in this entire effort, so that the idea does not fizzle out. What was this idea, and how did we hope to get ahead with it?
The main reason for a designated group of Friends of ASI, was the gap between the ASI as official custodians of much of our tangible history, and the rest of us; as well as a need to re-evaluate what should be the role of the ASI as official custodians. The Friends of ASI was intended to be different from any other existing body, and meant to be a positive platform—one that did not merely bicker and point out problems or lecture ‘from the outside’, but highlighted what the ASI had managed to achieve as positive milestones, to be further disseminated. It seemed to us that the ASI often got ‘bad press’, and their more positive efforts were not recognised in the public domain. As one member of the group put it, ‘as friends we needed to bring out the strengths of the ASI anchored to their core objectives for the benefit of the public at large and for the future generations of this country’, and ‘move away from a ‘UNESCO-centric’ view of heritage’ to preserve our diverse cultural wealth in the light of our own distinct cultural values.
We also felt that the trust-building had to be a two-way process, and just as it was important to highlight what the ASI did ‘well’, it was equally important to have a channel where people’s opinions of what they did not manage to do so well, could be communicated directly to the ASI, without recourse to newspapers or media. Also, rather than just have reactionary responses—such as providing feedback on what the ASI has done, well or otherwise—the FrASI hoped to ensure more participation so that communities and members of society could know beforehand what was planned for their city’s monuments and they could have a say in the direction and intent of such planning. We thus, envisaged the FrASI to be an initiative of civil society supporting and supported by the ASI. 
So, we began by first identifying key potential friends, who could, in their turn, facilitate positive interaction not just between themselves and the ASI, but with other people beyond them. This was very important, because there was an inherent limitation in the fact that of the approximately 50 friends we first identified (and of whom about 30 people turned up for the first meeting), even though they came from varied professional backgrounds—they were all essentially on one side of the fence. They were mostly ‘professionals’ dealing with conservation and history, who were requested to encapsulate their ideas and publicly commit to what they could do as ‘Friends of ASI’. Given the density and proportion of various monuments in Delhi, many of them lived in some proximity to one monument or the other—but none so closely inhabited the environs of a monument that their daily routine was intimately connected or affected by its presence, and all were privileged in having access to some power and influence and no great problems in issues of daily living. This, then was thus intended to be just the starting point, and our aim was to expand and extend the circle of friends, especially among those whose lives or livelihood were most affected by the presence of a monument.
Our objectives unanimously agreed to, which I recorded after the first meeting, were to:
Since the objective of the FrASI was different from any existing body, our method of working was also very different. One of the first things we felt was, to get out of ‘the rarefied air of the professional’. So, it was decided that
We planned to do this primarily through dissemination of information, and involvement at site, both aimed at all sections of people, but particularly children and students. Information researched and culled from ASI sources and from the inhabitants at site, two different sorts of histories, gathered together and published as economical field-guides as well as detailed volumes. Involvement at site through planned activities where the inhabitants, the ASI, and visitors get to know and understand each other as well as the site better; and consequently work at improving the site and their relation with it.
All this became particularly relevant in the case of the connected and unique historic site of Begumpur and Bijay Mandal. Bijai Mandal, which presently exists as a protected area to the north of Begumpur Village, is believed to have been part of Jahanpanah, the fourth city of Delhi established in the reign of the King Muhammad bin-Tughlak. It has been declared a monument of national importance. The most prominent extant built feature here is an octagonal structure on a high platform. This has been identified as a bastion of Jahanpanah, and even linked to the Dar-Sara, the Royal Palace popular as the Hazar Sutun, ‘Hall of Thousand Pillars’. The ASI has made significant discoveries in excavations in this area, first undertaken in 1930-31, including ruins of a hammam, rows of pillar bases, chambers, drains, china dishes, lamps, iron dowels, entrance ramps, and treasure wells, etc. The Begumpuri Masjid, a large congregational mosque, also dates from the Tughlak era. One body of thought believes that it is the mosque the King Muhammad bin-Tughlak’s got constructed in Jahanpanah next to his Palace, as recorded by writers such as Ibn-Battuta. However, the general belief is that it was constructed by Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, the Prime Minister of the Tughlak King, Firoz Shah, who succeeded Muhammad bin-Tughlak. Either way, the complex dates from the mid 14th century, and is thus about six centuries old. Closely linked as it is, to royal patrons and historic urban cities of Delhi, believed to have been inhabited or used at least intermittently by the King’s retinue; it is of importance not just in Delhi’s history but also that of the subcontinent.
The Begumpur village, which has apparently existed since the late 18th century, is most directly linked to Begumpur Masjid and Bijay Mandal, though there are many other early residential localities such as Shah Ji and Kalu Serai, and later housing colonies, both plotted and flatted, bounding the site. It is uncertain how many of the present villagers have a direct familial link to the medieval inhabitants, though many of them have a connection with the Begumpur site from at least three generations. ASI photos of the area from 1950s show the village with the area around stretching for a long distance as cultivated fields. There is also a ‘floating’ population of tenants in Begumpur, who live here because of its central location in the South Delhi District, an influential area cited on its Wikipedia page as having the highest number of millionaires in India. Land pressures are consequently very high.
The case of Begumpur and Bijai Mandal is typical of many other sites in Delhi, which are hemmed in by a settlement, historically of an urban character but now dwindled to the state of an ‘urban village’, and home to both a permanent and shifting population. Many of the families of such settlements either actively inhabit the monument or use it for purposes connected to their daily routines; some of which are quite different and conflicting from what they were originally intended as, or what the ASI sees them as being intended for.
These activities were largely curtailed when the ASI began to ‘protect’ these sites. Many families living within the Begumpur Masjid were evicted in the 1920s. They now live around the Masjid, which continues to be the spatial focus of the village and is still used as a secular gathering area, playing space for children, and a refuge for all sorts of activities as well as unfortunately, a more than occasional toilet. There is free entrance to the mosque as to the nearby Bijay Mandal, an important open space for these villagers, but it is regulated, and as in most ASI sites, can be accessed between sunrise and sunset. There is thus, an inherent bone of contention between the presence of the ASI and the presence of the inhabitants. The Regulations of 1992, which state that there should be no buildings within 100 metres of a monument, cannot be realistically implemented in such sites, which for the villagers are a vital part of their shared living space and their collective community memory and not just a monument complex.
The main concern of the residents of Begumpur Village is that related to daily living activities, which are under immense pressure due to overcrowding, regulations stemming from their inhabiting the environs of a site of national importance, the presence of a multitude of agencies over which they have no influence, and a perceived and real disparity in the services meted out to them versus the neighbouring government or private colonies inhabited by richer people. For instance, there is a DDA park on the other side of the village towards the Mother’s International School, MIS, but villagers feel intimidated from accessing it, and village children do not often venture in here.
Most parts of the village come within the protected or prohibited area, where no new construction is permissible. Provision of infra-structure services here is poor. During the involvement of the FrASI, we were made aware of a manhole right in front of the main gate of the Mosque, which begins to overflow from about 5 a.m., the scheduled time for daily potable water-supply from the Delhi Jal Board DJB (the water from whose leaking pipes has apparently been diverted into the sewage system or finds its way in it). The land naturally slopes in front of the Masjid entrance and rises on both sides. Therefore diluted sewage begins to flow into the main street of the village, and maximum collection of sewage happens right in front of the main gate of the Masjid. The villagers have tried, unsuccessfully, to meet and petition the councillor, and local authorities, to rectify this problem. From their point of view, the provision of adequate sanitation facilities is a pressing need—in the form of appropriate permissions to build more private bathrooms to take care of increased densities, in the form of well-kept public bathrooms, and in the form of appropriate infrastructure of water supply, sewage and garbage disposal.
The MIS students and the other residents also find the site unsafe and unhygienic—the sewage is one aspect; apart from this, there is no real provision of garbage disposal by local authorities, leading to the open area around the Bijai Mandal and the Mosque being used for such purposes. Since the villagers do not have enough toilets, they use any open space at their disposal, which tends to be the less frequented parts of the Bijai Mandal site and the less visible parts of Begumpur Masjid, especially its covered portion, believed to be the zenana mosque. Business interests from outside that have colonised the space such as a kabariwallah who has set up shop near the site, are resented by the villagers who claim it is people like him from “outside” who dirty the area and not them.
Because of the unhygienic aspect of this site, the people who most frequent it are those who have no other place to go—those with no shelter, those who want anonymity to drink liquor, or take drugs without supervision, etc. Additionally, because of its central location, many people use the site as a short cut. Every Thursday, many people of different faiths, both from the village and around, come to visit and pray at the shrine of a saint, a pir, located in the Bijay Mandal area, leaving incense sticks and matchboxes in their wake. There are four permanent staff of the ASI here, who find it difficult to deal with the large area of the site and the different users, most of whom are antagonistic to them.
The FrASI managed to do some of what we had planned to, over the span of one year, entirely through voluntary efforts by different members, both within and outside the ASI. The first part of our effort, which was to disseminate information, was done as an ongoing process through a blog formulated and formatted early on in the formation of FrASI. The blog was intended to be a space not just for dissemination but also for dialogue; it invited and contained specific information about what we were doing or intended to do at Begumpur and Bijay Mandal, and what we hoped to do at a more general level, including information of interest about the ASI’s conservation or excavation work in other sites. Whatever we were doing as a process and as outcomes were uploaded publicly on the web, couched in non-technical language.
Information was also disseminated through events planned at site with the participation of some of the inhabitants, primarily the village elders, and with some of the residents and users around the site, primarily the students of the MIS.
At one such very successful event, a photo exhibition was put up in the foyer of the Masjid, and opportunities were created to publicly share both villagers’ and ASI staff’s experiences and memories of the site, where many locals expressed their thoughts, particularly the women of the village. Tasks were shared between ASI staff and other members of FrASI to make such an event possible, including writing and editorial work for signage and information panels, and identification of old photos documenting rare views of the area from the 1950s-60s from the ASI Photography Department. Resources; the MIS lent display boards for the week long exhibition; the ASI Delhi Circle organised large prints of photographs, and ensured security by deputing extra staff, and got the entire area cleaned. There was participation of people from the nearby areas, including local school-children, and samples of drawings, writings and posters by MIS students depicting their understanding of the monuments, which lent an unusually festive air to the place. Shri A.K. Pandey from the ASI Delhi Circle, and Shri Raghubir ji, a prominent village elder, addressed everyone in the Mosque courtyard. There was much bonhomie, and the 50 odd people present joined the ASI in a pledge to protect our combined heritage. Students and villagers took centre stage, and transformed the monument into an active clean place. The ASI provided hot samosas to eat, which the children especially seemed to enjoy. Most people who attended came away with an increased appreciation of the monument and the ASI.
In the short term, this was an important achievement—the students of MIS, whose efforts to clean and green the outlying area of Bijay Mandal, had been earlier facilitated by the FRASI by liaising with the ASI Horticulture Department, and who participated regularly in the meetings, were very enthused by the entire exercise. They came away with a feeling and regard for at least this monument. Some of the villagers had an opportunity to interact with other citizens of Delhi and express their views; and relive and share memories of the site, through the older photographs; for the space of a few days they saw another side to the ASI.
At a less ‘exciting’ level, the FrASI met on different occasions at site with local and central ASI officials and staff, and had formal and informal public consultations with villagers; with representatives of other authorities connected with Begumpur, such as those from INTACH and the National Monuments Authority, working on bylaws for Begumpur, and with children from the MIS. Some FrASI trained children from MIS to lead heritage walks in the site. Awareness about the site and its importance was also disseminated through assigned studio work to students from the ID Department of S.P.A. Delhi. There was, for that year, increased visitor footfall and general interest in the site.
These, however, were ‘flash in the pan’ events. Our long term objectives of the FrASI could not be met. We were unable to formulate a sustainable format for the Friends of ASI, which could be then taken as an overall guide to be followed at regional levels. Though the long-standing sewage overflow from the manhole pipe was rectified, thanks to the media-coverage possible through the efforts of FrASI members, we were unable to initiate measures for essential sanitary facilities, water supply, garbage disposal; or systematic and sustained cleaning through community service outreach programmes that may have helped the development of Begumpur and Bijay Mandal as pleasant, safe and inclusive public spaces. Suggestions that a designated area inside the DDA Park in the vicinity of Begumpur village be used for composting its wet vegetable waste, and a project of recycling/water-harvesting be developed with students of MIS, ASI, and Delhi Government, remained just suggestions.
The villagers had tried unsuccessfully for many years to get the ASI to improve health and safety in Begumpur, by clearing up of debris in the Masjid precinct left over from previous conservation work. We had hoped through the FrASI to get this done, as well as to facilitate the plantation of appropriate ground cover and local species of fruit trees by the villagers, but we were unable to do so. We also could not involve village children in most of our activities since they attended MCD Schools, which had very strict timings; and could not come to participate in any events during school hours.
We were able to get sporadic involvement of experts with visitors and residents, but not with the RWAs. There existed insufficient collection and analysis of primary data on social, spatial and architectural structures of the village, both in the public domain and in preliminary reports of NMA and INTACH towards formulating proposed bye-laws of the area, since they considered it outside their purview, the byelaws dealing with the area beyond the 100 m and 200 m circles. The FrASI did not consider this practice of looking at the site in a fragmented way as appropriate, but we could not influence a re-evaluation of this practice.
A completely voluntary initiative of this kind, can only keep its momentum if all the participants are convinced of the rightness of the objectives. The impetus from the FrASI dwindled drastically over the length of one year from April 2012 when the first meeting took place, to May 2013 when only about 5 Friends in all turned up for a meeting with the village elders at Begumpur Masjid. This was something that had been anticipated. The intention had always been to catalyse communication between the villagers, other local residents and stakeholders and the ASI, to increase the band of Friends at the local level. Some of us lived 40 kms away from the site. Over a long term this was evidently not sustainable, and local involvement was essential.
But the most important locals, the villagers, and the ASI staff deputed at the site, could not be made to communicate with each other. The overwhelming perception in the village was that the ASI staff at site are more often to be found in the village looking for ways to make money, rather than in or around the monument; the Councillor stated that the ASI is ‘involved in more destruction rather than in constructive activity’. On the other side, the ASI saw the villagers as unclean, destructive and unreasonable, who dirtied the site and threatened their staff.
The truth is that there are problems on both sides. Many of the villagers, in the absence of insufficient appreciation and awareness about the larger historic importance of the monuments and insufficient sanitary facilities, use the site in unsuitable and undesirable ways. The ASI too has insufficient staff or insufficiently motivated staff to take care of the monuments. Rubble lies around the mosque, at least since 2009, the result of unfinished work by the ASI itself, a circumstance that various officials at various levels are aware of. The process was also hampered by two main things:
Also, for the ASI to keep its friends, it has to believe that it needs friends. Despite all the bonhomie, and the support given at the outset to the FrASI venture, the higher authorities within the ASI did not see it as a necessary part of their core activities. Since this is an organisation which works under the directions of a centralised authority, in the absence of specific instructions, the lower hierarchy could not take decisions. There was no written commitment towards the FrASI, and thus, as DGs changed, the momentum flagged. With time and attention repeatedly spent in saying the same things, it was difficult to get on with the job of doing things.
Inhabited monuments present a different set of issues from non-inhabited monuments. In one sense, inhabitation is directly contrary to our conventional perception of a monument. Be that as it may, several structures that we deem monuments have changed over their lifetimes either in that they were originally actively inhabited, but are no longer so, as in the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad; or were originally not actively inhabited at all times, but are now. In both cases, the sites have evidently transformed, but those in which inhabitation has reduced are generally easier to manage and comprehend, than sites in which inhabitation has increased.
Sites that are actively inhabited today, have a wide-ranging set of questions to be looked into—questions of sanitation, services, water, food, refuse disposal, etc. which come under the ambit of authorities different from the ASI. So, not only are the issues different from what ASI normally deals with and therefore has less experience of, but also the authority to intervene does not lie with them. In sites such as Begumpur, historic urban settlements that have transformed into urban villages, and were at one time jointly managed by Delhi administration and the Gaon sabha, village council,  there are far too many administrative bodies with overlapping domains of power—RWAs of DDA colonies, private plotted colonies, schools, MCD, ASI, etc.. For instance, the recurring problems of water and sanitation are not under the purview of the ASI but that of the Delhi Jal Board and the MCD. The issue of constructing anything within the ambit of the protected or prohibited area requires permissions from ASI. The villagers have to therefore petition a multitude of agencies for resolution of day-to-day problems, most of whom are unwilling to listen to them or do not have the time to do so. To compound matters, there is now a larger agency, the NMA, that has been given the authority of developing bye-laws around monuments, which seems to be proceeding with a mandate of seeing all sites in a standard way.
Most of these authorities work on a principle of exclusion, working within their individual domains, and always without the participation of the locals. So, while individually, the ASI officials were extremely reasonable, helpful, hard working, they saw themselves as protecting the monument against the villagers’ acts. And they are historically an institution whose job is to keep people away. But, the health and safety of the monument and the inhabitants is directly linked. A monument can only be attractive to visitors, researchers, or heritage enthusiasts when it is first accessible, attractive and safe for local inhabitants. Without the involvement of the locals, even enhanced security will not provide any great protection to the monument. In fact, aspects of the inhabitation around a monument can be used as a conservation tool rather than seen as a threat. In the case of Begumpur, the secular social and recreational aspect of the mosque can be retained, even strengthened and extended to include purposes of education and conservation. For instance, the presence of the village elders who play cards every morning under the tree next to the entrance of the Masjid, can actually be used to limit ‘profane’ activities by a measure of social control. The local histories of the area known to them can be shared with visitors, and with the larger history of the site known to the ASI. The ASI, as official custodians, and the inhabitants of the site, as day-to-day custodians, can work together, and be sympathetic to each other’s problems. They can then unite to protect the site from itinerant inhabitants, such as drug users.
The brief experience with the FrASI shows that it is possible to work towards integrating the needs of the inhabitants and the monuments. To my mind, the main reason why the experiment lapsed is the persistence of the conventional conservation philosophy of “not trusting the natives”. And of treating monuments as museum pieces. But if the people who are closest to a monument, are kept away from it by expending great effort in creating a lakshman rekha, are not given any responsibility, deemed untrustworthy, unfit, and unaware of the correct etiquette about how to behave in a monument, we will only jeopardise our monuments further—akin to parallel situations in environmental conservation, where communities that have lived in harmony with forests and unbuilt space are now treated as interlopers and kept away from forests by legislation and force, which has endangered the existence of both the forests and the communities. We will continue to alienate people from their histories. We must remember that the dictionary meanings of custody are both ‘protective care’ and ‘imprisonment’. Custodianship should be positive and not take on the hue of imprisonment.
We should also remember that the very fact of the existence of our unparalleled built heritage even before the formation of a formal agency such as the ASI, shows that local people had responsibilities that they lived up to—in their care for such heritage. All this begs the question, who are we conserving for? That of the people most closely linked to it, who share physical and mental space with it? Or for what is touted as “the greater common good”, “the larger public”—which ironically seems to mean the reverse, and comprises of a few but more influential minority of the educated elite, tourists? So, whose site is it anyway? This is something we must ask, and answer.
 Letter, ASM to DG ASI, March 2012, Subject: Venue and Time – First Meeting of ‘Friends of ASI’
 A.R. Ramanathan, Email in response to the invitation to the First meeting of the Friends of ASI
 A core team of the following members: B.M.Pande, Narayani Gupta, Janwhij Sharma, B.R.Mani, Sohail Hashmi, Vivek Jindgar, Robinson, and Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, was allocated the task of taking these suggestions forward, with help from Shilpi Rajpal and Jennifer Chowdhary. Anisha was asked to serve as the node for coordinating activities, and to summarize the way forward reached at the end of the discussions of the First meeting to be shared with the rest of the core team. Dr. B.M.Pande, ex DG ASI, Dr Narayani Gupta, Dr. Gautam Sengupta, the then DG ASI, were seen as senior advisors to this group.
 Invitation to First Meeting, Friends of ASI’
 Minutes of the first meeting,
 Following from the 21 May 2012 Site Visit to Begumpur and Bijay Mandal, and the follow-up meetings/ email correspondence between various members)
 Delhi and its Neighbourhood, pp. 72-3, ASI 1990, First edition 1964
 Annual Reports of the ASi for the Years 1930-31, 1931-32, 1932-33, & 1933-34, Part Two, Excavations, Bijai Mandal, Delhi
 Zafar Hasan, List of Monuments, 1911, p. 155
 village elder Shri Raghubir Singh
 In 1928, according to a village elders information; and in 1921 as noted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahanpanah#Begampur_Mosque, accessed 17 Aug 2015,
 Minutes of the Site Meeting at Begumpur on 21 May 2012, Dr N. Gupta’s observation
 Held on 30th January 2015
 Mr Ajay Singh, C.Asst. and Mr A.K. Pande, Dy SA, ASI Delhi Circle
 Shri R.D.Sharma, Shri Raghubir Chowdhary, 127 Begumpur, who represents the village elders.
and Rohtas Kataria)
 Dr Meera Dass and Dr Sanghamitra Basu
 Sohail Hashmi, Robinson
 Meeting with Divay Gupta, INTACH, 5th June 2012
 Letter to Dr Mani, Dy. DGASI, re meeting with village elders of 6 May 2013 at Begumpur Masjid.
 Letter to Dr Mani, Dy. DGASI, re meeting with village elders of 6 May 2013 at Begumpur Masjid
 Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City, Ranjana Sengupta, p. 35, ‘Remembered Villages’.
 The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) was a municipal corporation, an autonomous body that governs 8 of the 11 Districts of Delhi. It was one of three municipal corporations in the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the others being New Delhi Municipal Council, and Delhi Cantonment Board. “The MCD was among the largest municipal bodies in the world providing civic services to more than estimated population of 11 million citizens in the capital city.The municipal corporation covers an area of 1,397.3 km² (539.5 mi²)., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Municipal_Corporation_of_Delhi#South_Delhi
 Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City, Ranjana Sengupta, p. 35, ‘Remembered Villages’: ‘Learning the inherited narratives about such monuments, understanding the way into which they fit into the village’s work, is one way of unravelling attitudes to history’.