Historical splendour People gather at the 17th century Jama Masjid, India’s biggest mosque, in Old Delhi Image Credit: Nilima Pathak

Amid all the negative tags Delhi has acquired of late, it could see a high point if awarded a Unesco World Heritage City (WHC) status in January 2014.

From the nine heritage zones listed in the master plan of Delhi, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), an NGO, set up in 1984 to protect and conserve India’s vast cultural heritage, has focused on two areas of Delhi. These are: Shahjahanabad (areas of Old Delhi earmarked by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan for his capital between 1638-1648) and New Delhi (the British capital designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1912-1931).

A dossier has been prepared on these by Intach, based on which it will bid for the WHC tag. Pitched as “Imperial Cities of Delhi”, the dossier highlights the contrasting lifestyles, cultures and architecture of two differing time periods in Delhi.

Convenor of Intach (Delhi chapter) Professor A.G.K. Menon informed: “Earlier, four zones — New Delhi, Shahjahanabad, Mehrauli and Nizamuddin were earmarked. But after rounds of debate, academic discussions and views on the subject, it was decided to concentrate only on the first two zones.”

While New Delhi zone covers 2,000 hectares and includes Connaught Place, India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rajpath and Lodi Garden, Shahjahanabad at 675 hectares covers the dilapidated Mogul-era havelis, Jama Masjid, Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and the by lanes of the walled city.

Before submission to Unesco, the final database will do the rounds of several expert committees comprising historians and archaeologists.

Professor A.G.K. Menon provides details to Weekend Review.


How does it benefit Delhi to bid for the WHC status?

The most tangible advantage would be that it would boost the economy of the city. Normally, when tourists come to India, they go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and to Jaipur to view the forts. So, statistically, they spend just about a night in Delhi and take the flight out. But if Delhi becomes a WHC, it will be seen from a different perspective. Dotted with a variety of amazing monuments, markets and food choices, one can easily spend 2-3 days here. But for that it has to be marketed and promoted properly, which has not been done.

There are over 220 heritage cities in the world, but none from India. While Delhi has three World Heritage sites — Qutub Minar, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb — and 174 monuments of national importance, it struck us why a place with an enormous amount of heritage was not given the prestige of a WHC such as Paris, Rome and Beijing. And we realised that it had an equal chance to be considered thus. Unesco will not come and tell us that India should apply. But for us to approach it, we must first be aware of our potential. Intach is promoting only Delhi, but we have other cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Madurai and Varanasi — that are also of exceptional character.

Delhi can be capitalised with better town planning and we can work it out with more sensitivity and care. Planners often talk about making the city into Shanghai or Singapore, but we feel that the city should have its own prestige and identity. This enables us to shift gear and look towards our heritage, which certainly is not well kept because if you don’t look at something as heritage, you tend to neglect it.


But shouldn’t this promotion and upkeep be done otherwise too?

The process is already on. Taking a cue from the “no crackers” campaign initiated by the Delhi government to reduce pollution in the city a few years ago, children are being made aware of their heritage, as they take immense interest and begin to appreciate it. This percolates down to the families and society at large. People in Delhi are not aware of the several smaller monuments scattered all over the city and heritage structures have a rather negative stamp. People feel there are too many restrictions that go with it and avoid visiting such places. With awareness, we need to see that these structures are judged in a positive light. Also, heritage is not just about structures; it is the whole urban landscape, on which we want to shift the gaze. The heritage tag, though, is important and extremely meaningful, yet if it does not work, nothing goes waste. For, in the process of doing it, we are creating awareness as well as beautifying the city. So, every which way, the ends are met.


What took Intach nearly three years to prepare the dossier?

When we began, we thought of including several places, but after discussions, only New Delhi and Shahjahanabad, known as Old Delhi, were finalised. These have the best chance because the narrative has to be very compelling and the character of both is unique. We cannot just say that Delhi is a historic city, but also have to provide reasons as to what makes it stand out. Here, the importance of New Delhi and Old Delhi is that they were built anew at the height of the power by the empires. Shah Jahan built Old Delhi during the Mogul rule. It represents the Mogul town of the 17th century. And the British did the same when they decided to shift the capital from Kolkata and came up with New Delhi, which represents the colonial town of the early 20th century. Nowhere in the world do we have situations when cities have been built afresh. So, the story of the two imperial towns was picked up and the narrative woven around them.


Has there been unanimity regarding these two locales?

It was decided after much deliberation and that is because one person may see heritage in Old Delhi, but another may see it as “dirty”. So, it motivates us to make it look better and we are spending money to upgrade Shahjahanabad, which in its present form is not good enough. It may have a compelling narrative, but anyone can point out and say it is like a slum. So, we have to raise its standard. Whereas in the case of New Delhi, being the seat of political power, it is well looked after.


What new aspects of the city were discovered in the process?

While surveying Old Delhi, wherein we checked about what was left of the Mogul legacy, we discovered that apart from usual monuments, the place had 700 havelis. Though modified over the years, they still have Mogul layers. This feature was not [there] in our original plan, but we included it, which made it all so interesting. And I believe, these resulted in the city having been put on the “tentative list” for a year.


When was the outline sent and why must a city remain on Unesco’s tentative list for a year?

The outline was sent in January 2012 and it was put on the tentative list in May the same year. Unesco has to be first shown the outline of the city and that is when it puts the city on the “tentative list”. Once this was done, we had an edge and it was relatively easier for us to tell the government agencies to be proactive in the upkeep of the city. The country has, in the past, presented its case in several ways, but our dossiers were never crafted properly and the required issues were not addressed. But this time, we have been following the guidelines and are being assisted by national and international experts.


So, what will be the next step?

Intach can only present the documents to the Delhi government, which has nominated Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation to pass it on to the Archaeological Survey of India. The ASI has an advisory committee on world heritage matters, which will then seek the permission from the Ministry of Culture to be forwarded to Unesco by January 2014.

We hope Delhi to be one of the two cities whose dossiers will be sent to Unesco. But it will be the government’s prerogative to decide what to send. Intach is only making a bid for it, but then other cities including Mumbai and Ahmadabad are also known to be pushing their case. So, one never knows because a lot of politics is involved. And that is why we are not treating it as the be-all and end-all of it.


Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.