Agra’s heritage being bulldozed to dust

August 12th, 2008 - 11:12 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Ambika Soni
By Brij Khandelwal
Agra, Aug 12 (IANS) The city of the Taj Mahal is home to the crumbling mansions of erstwhile royalty where dozens of families still live cheek by jowl. They are now part of a heritage that residents are trying desperately to protect from looming bulldozers. Their lone success came last weekend, when union Culture Minister Ambika Soni intervened to save Bharatpur House in the city’s Khandari area, a mansion over 150 years old.

A builder had moved in about two months ago to demolish the five-storeyed mansion, leading to a hue and cry from citizens. Now the district authorities and the state archaeology department want Bharatpur House to be declared a heritage building.

The All India Jat Maha Sabha has formed a Save Bharatpur House Committee, which has filed a public interest petition in Allahabad High Court. It was Surendra Singh, president of the group’s state unit, who met the minister and got her to intervene.

Other mansions have not been so lucky. One by one some of the finest homes of yesteryears have been falling to the bulldozer. Jaipur House, Bardhman House, Awagarh House - only the names remain, the buildings have vanished. The Jat House and Jatni ka Bagh are under threat, as are many other grand mansions of the city.

The mansions that remain no longer look grand. They have been divided among heirs again and again, sold off in bits and pieces and are not maintained at all. The current residents live with few mod cons and less privacy.

But they don’t want to let go of these old structures that once combined Mughal and Rajput influences in their architecture.

“The artistic welcome arches, the domes and the multi-pillared corridors, the series of courtyards with high balconies, the latticed canopies, the tasteful décor, the high ceilings, the spacious rooms and the open terraces are the features of these mansions, many of which are definitely inspired by the Rajput style,” says local historian Raj Kumar Sharma Raje.

Bankey Lal Maheshwari, a resident of the Raja ki Mandi neighbourhood, hotly refutes the suggestion that these mansions have now turned into slums. “They showcase a way of life, demonstrating a rich cultural pattern.

“There are very few burglaries and other petty crimes in these neighbourhoods, compared to the so-called posh colonies which are targeted by criminals every other day.”

Security apart, the residents have a sense of history and pride. Schoolteacher Hari Dutt Sharma moved out of one of these mansions to a new suburb. “These old mansions and neighbourhoods are like fortresses,” he says. “Within them, people live in harmony their space without ego clashes.

“Till recently, most of the families living in these mansions had to share taps and toilets. This forced people to learn how to adjust to the needs of everyone. That attitude was reflected in social life also.

The new town planning and architectural models are enforcing alienation and isolation.”

Apart from the mansions, Agra once had over 50 gardens around them. Now they are turning into concrete jungles. “People are losing their pride and sense of belonging and one by one we are witnessing the mass demolition of heritage pieces,” laments Surendra Sharma, president of the Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society.

“The Yamuna river bank lost its beautiful bathing staircases and temples long back. Now some of the older temples in the Rawat Para area, buildings like Mubarak Manzil, or Dauji ka mandir in Nai ki Mandi area, some really attractive houses in Maithan, Phulatti, Chilli int Ghatia, the Sheron wali Kothi, Mangleshwar temple haveli in Gokalpura, call for attention and should definitely be preserved as heritage pieces.”

After the Mughal period, the British also built some beautiful houses in Agra that need to be preserved, says N.R. Smith, for long a chronicler of Agra’s modern history.

“The beautiful house once belonging to Col Filose of the Gwalior army, the same chap who built the St Peter’s College in 1846, stands out for its outstanding balcony with exquisite wooden lattice work,” he says by way of an example.

Smith adds to Surendra Sharma’s list of buildings that need to be looked after - Peeli Kothi in Wazirpura, Huzuri Bhavan in Peepal Mandi, Nawab of Fatehgarh haveli in Gur ki Mandi (now a municipal school), the two Bagchi buildings, Khadim Ali’s mansion in Heeng ki Mandi, the Chawal Wala Bagh haveli in Sultan Ganj and the glazed house in Seo ka Bazar.

(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at brij.k@ians.in)

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