Restoration architect: companies lend a hand to restoration architects to preserve abandoned places and monuments

Abha Narain Lambah knows when to leave a stone unturned. This is a rare quality among restoration architects. Six years ago, she received an order from the government of Rajasthan to restore the abandoned and ruined Kuldhara, the 13th century village near Jaisalmer.

Lambah’s restoration file had one line written in bold: Do NOT rebuild the village.

The plan was simply to retain the ruins, undertake peripheral development of the village’s main square, and build facilities for tourists visiting the place. But what makes Kuldhara a tourist attraction? Over the years Kuldhara has gained a reputation as an abandoned haunted village – with many claiming to have seen moving shadows, voices and other paranormal activity at night. You may or may not believe the folklore, but the label of being a haunted place draws tourists from far and wide to this desert village.

“Many times, conservation means letting a place be as authentic as possible. Kuldhara is still an abandoned ruin…outlying work has been done using locally sourced materials and by traditional craftsmen residing in the area “, explains Lambah.

The Kuldhara Project was carried out in consultation with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and funded by the JSW Foundation. This is just one of many public-private conservation/restoration projects undertaken across the country over the past seven years.

“It is heartening to see companies stepping in to support heritage conservation projects. Previously, they only funded causes such as health or education; now they even use their CSR funds to restore or conserve historical monuments and heritage sites,” says Lambah.

Data from the National CSR Portal showed that corporate funding for “heritage art and culture” has steadily increased from ₹117 crore in 2014-15 to ₹395 crore in 2017-18 and ₹931 crore ₹ in 2019-20. The allowance fell to ₹65 crore in 2020-21 as corporate CSR spending focused on covid and migrant crisis relief work. Large and medium-sized companies such as JSW Group, Tatas, RPG, Dalmia Bharat, Yatra Online, Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels, Interglobe Foundation (Indigo Airlines), American Express and Reliance Industries, among others, are taking the lead in heritage restoration. projects.

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“We have developed a long-term preservation and restoration strategy to protect heritage for future generations. These projects are taken up across the country in a very non-partisan way,” says Sangita Jindal, President of the JSW Foundation, who has also undertaken projects such as the restoration of the Chandramoleshwara Temple complex in Hampi, the Kedarpuri Samadhi, the Keneseth Synagogue Eliyahoo. and the David Sassoon Library in Mumbai.

“We carry out the restoration and then hand the monument over to the owner or user organization. We have no commercial connection with our restoration strategy, nor do we intend to rebuild or operate such facilities,” she adds.

Heritage conservation projects can often become tricky because these sites (monuments) are clustered around local communities. In 2018, when Dalmia Bharat won the tender to restore the historic Red Fort, it raised a nasty narrative that money-rich private parties were grabbing national heritage treasures. This stalled the government’s Adopt-a-Heritage program for some time.

“Involving private parties and companies in heritage conservation projects is a great idea, but government and local communities should be at the center of it all,” says Radha Goenka, director of the RPG Foundation, which recently restored the 11th century Banganga. Reservoir in Mumbai.

“It is better to revive or preserve a site, and not to go for a complete restoration. Respect the ruin – and only take action to prevent further destruction (of the site) or encroachment. A good restoration project will also bring out the history or experiences of a particular heritage site,” she adds.

According to India’s National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), there are more than a crore of monuments or heritage sites scattered across the country. Of these, just over 10,000 sites are under some form of protection – provided by government, private parties or local communities. There are also several heritage monuments under private care, and many of them are poorly maintained.

“Business intervention to conserve heritage places is a good sign, and it has had a positive impact,” says Divay Gupta, Senior Director (Architectural Heritage Division), INTACH.

“The restoration of heritage sites comes with its own set of challenges. Unavailability of skilled workers, insufficient knowledge of traditional construction methods, undue dissent by communities living around these sites, and difficulties in obtaining the right raw material (such as stones or timber) can lead to delays in the projects,” he adds.

In 2017, the Ministry of Tourism launched the “Adopt a Heritage” scheme which invited companies to develop selected monuments and heritage sites across India. The project failed to attract corporate interest following the Dalmia Bharat – Red Fort fiasco. According to the ministry, only 27 restoration/conservation memorandums of understanding have been signed under this project so far.

“It’s a great idea, but it needs stricter regulation. You cannot expect corporations to be custodians of heritage sites or monuments; such arrangements can raise serious allegations later. We can only finance the restoration… the upkeep and maintenance of the place after the restoration should be done by the government,” says the CSR manager of a large company.

Despite repeated attempts, ET was unable to obtain comment from the Ministry of Tourism or ASI. Emails to key ministry officials went unanswered at press time.

The cost of heritage restoration projects ranges between Rs 5 and Rs 15 crore – depending on the scale of the work. Besides funds, these projects require a lot of archival research and fact-checking.

“If it is a monument, the principle of restoration would be to keep it as original as possible. A lot of detail is needed when it comes to designs and structural models. We even guarantee the authenticity of the materials used – the stones, the woodwork, the stains and the tiles,” says Lambah.

It may be the best way to stay true to your heritage.

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