What happens to heritage? Reflections at Adalaj, near Amdavad
A peaceful morning, beautiful clear morning light. My pictures looked like I rendered them monochrome, though I didn’t. Such was the magical ambience of the Adalaj step-well as I entered it last friday.
On our way there from Amdavad airport, we drive past many grand mansions on single family lots. Plenty of plotted development, malls, organised retail in other forms as well as a smattering of multi-story apartment complexes fill our view. Yet, there is plenty of green, wide well-laid out roads. Overall, the impression a visitor gets is of a city that kind of has a grip on things, especially compared to Delhi where we come from!
A bit further on, we drive past fields and vegetable patches, brick factories and ready mix concrete plants…clearly, the hinterland works hard to serve the city here and it seems like a peacefully symbiotic existence without traffic jams and pollution to mar the picture, yet.
Adalaj turns out to be a typical kasba, a busy intersection with many state transport buses going to other towns in Gujarat. Wires criss cross, vendors selling fruit and drinks aplenty. The ubiquitous large greco-roman homes, and the more ordinary run down smaller versions as well. And then, all of a sudden, we drive up to a fence. Right in front of us, is a thriving little temple. It seems busy, too! Confused…(the last time I came here was 12 years ago as an architecture student and my memory takes a while to ignite)…my eyes dart right and I am drawn slowly into the magic of the Adalaj step well. I am vaguely aware of John and Nipesh (my colleagues at work and also fellow-architects with an equal passion for heritage and all things beautiful) moving in the same slow trance. We don’t exchange glances or say anything at all. At our own pace, we all descend, cameras and camera phone at hand down the steps, down and down and into the heart of the ‘baodi’ or ‘vav’ as the locals call it.
We spend about an hour there, inside, back up to ground level, over it, around it…we talk in smatterings, we observe the few tourists who do the same kind of walking in and out like we did, but in a speedier check-list kind of manner. There is also a group of schoolkids with their teachers. Eager, young faces, boys about 6 years old, taking in the vav with wonder but also a fair bit of confusion about what they are supposed to see, really.
Which brings me to my point here. To the city dweller and to the professional community of architects, planner and city managers, heritage is always slightly off priority. Unless we consider major international attractions like the Taj, heritage monuments seem to be placed in the ‘nice to see’ category that implies a neutral attitude (a shrug would describe the attitude perfectly). To me, this does not gel with the sheer beauty and historical ambience of the sites that pepper our cities, nor the fact that many millions live within and alongside spectacular heritage as well (more on that soon!). Neither does it reconcile the reactions of visitors, who experience and exhibit awe, fascination and admiration as tourists, but would hardly ever visit a heritage site in the city they live in! In the city planning structure, heritage is considered something that can be attended to when all the ‘real’ problems have been addressed. Of course, we know that even the so-called real issues need tremendous time and patience and experimentation to get addressed. That there are never any clear answers in planning because circumstances are constantly evolving and stakeholders numerous. We all talk about an inter-discplinary approach to city planning, but heritage still sits a little outside this inter-disciplinary nexus!
This needs to change. Not only because heritage is precious. Not only because it can be monetised through tourism. But because it is beautiful, and these spaces have meaning. When a child enters a space as special as Adalaj vav, he experiences magic from the past. He sees texture (material, light and shadow), he hears a fresh echoing sound he has never heard before, he wonders why something like this was built, he sees the stagnating water at the bottom, he stares at the carved floral and geometric patterns. He is shaken out of his taken-for-granted everyday urban existence. He, for a few moments, is someone other than the blase, confident and often brash young street-fighter! He is taken back through time, his heartbeat slows down, or quickens.
To me, these are priceless experiences that not just children, but adults in India must not miss out on because we are unable to place heritage into the proper context in our education system, in our understanding of our urban identity, in our tourist itineraries, in our minds.
Try this. This winter, take your family to a heritage site in your city. There has to be one, if not many to choose from. Doesn’t matter if it is small or big, famous or not, listed or not, written about or not. Just go with a small picnic (don’t litter, please!) and spend more time there than it takes to walk around it. Experience the magic and then ask yourself if it was worth it! I don’t know what your answer will be, but I am going to do this all winter and I know my answer will be a resounding YES!