Why Is Historic Building Conservation Necessary in Kerala?
Creating modern physical structures have often been equated with development. We need change. A city, which does not change, is dead. But why should we destroy historic buildings for new buildings which can go anywhere? When I was a school student in Trivandrum, one of the composition exercises in English was to write ten sentences on Trivandrum City. The first sentence I wrote was that “Trivandrum is the cleanest city in India”. Is this true anymore? Thus, this article explains the importance of conserving the built heritage in Kerala, and how it can become a model for the rest of the world.
List of Contents
Examples of Kerala Built Heritage
Padmanabhapuram Palace is one of the oldest examples of conservation of buildings. Although the capital was moved to Thiruvananthapuram in the nineteenth century, the buildings inside the Palace Complex were carefully preserved, despite the fact that none of the royal family members lived there.
We had set another precedent by combining old and modern components in the construction of the Napier Museum. Mr., J.A. Brown, the then director of the observatory in Trivandrum, suggested in 1852 A.D. that a museum be established there. A museum society was started with Utthram Thirunal Maharaja (1857-60) as patron, the British resident as the President and Mr Brown as the secretary. The museum was named Napier Museum after a former Governor of Madras. It started functioning in the observatory buildings and then shifted to the public offices at the instance of Captain H.Drury, who succeeded Mr Brown. The present building was constructed according to the designs of Mr Robert Chisholm, consulting architect to the Government of Madras. It was completed in 1880. It is one of the earliest examples of vernacular architecture being used in a public building, while British Architecture and Indo-Saracenic Architecture were copied in the other princely states.
Kerala had many other firsts too. The Madhava Rao statue erected in 1894 was the first statue of an Indian statesman in India. The zoo in Trivandrum started in 1859 is the oldest zoo in the country. The observatory started in Trivandrum in 1836 is one of the oldest in the country.
We have many other historical examples for adaptively reusing our historic buildings. The old State Archives building inside the fort area was used as a store. Before the store, it was used as the jail before it was shifted to Poojappura in 1887. Before it became the jail, it was used as the barracks for the Nayar Brigade.
Another example is the security press opposite the general hospital in Trivandrum. It was the old mint. Before the mint, it functioned as a lunatic asylum for which the government had purchased the building in 1869.
The Swati Thirunal College was the residence of the Assistant British Resident and was known as the Chennai Durai Bungalow.
The East Fort in Trivandrum, Thazhathangadi in Kottayam, or the Fort Cochin would have become big tourist attractions if they were in a western country.
Sensitiveness of Our Ancestors Towards Conservation
It is to their credit that the buildings designed by the British had respected the traditional architecture of Kerala. Captain Harold Ferguson who was the Director of the Government Museum and Public gardens wrote to the Diwan of Travancore on 2nd November 1901 regarding the construction of a Bandstand-“It is very desirable that the gardens should possess a building of this design peculiar to the country and unique for the proposed purpose. It will harmonize too with the museum building, which was designed to accord with the architecture of the country. Such a Bandstand will be a credit to the gardens and a source of interest to visitors.”
Mr Ferguson replied in the negative when the dewan asked if a Bandstand like the one at the Kanakakunnu palace would suffice in his reply dated 13 November 1901. He said, “As I propose to put up the new Bandstand close to the museum it must be in harmony with it.” Moreover, the protection of a site has always depended on enlightened government support. For instance, When it was time to build a record room on the northern side of the two-storey public offices, the Diwan advised the chief engineer that it should be three stories high due to a lack of space.
“I could not well recommend a third storey being added to the present design –I feel it would not be satisfactory architecturally alongside the public buildings,” Chief Engineer A.H. Jacob wrote back on 3rd July 1891. Later, this building was demolished to pave way for the construction of new buildings. Therefore, we always had a tradition of respecting the architecture of our ancestors. To quote more examples, when we had to build an extension to the Public Library and the University Men’s Hostel in the 1950s, we did those matching in style, scale, proportion and materials to the existing architecture of the state. This sensitivity had been lost from the 1970s onwards with the advent of the so-called ‘modern architecture’.
Conservation and Development
The issue, as everywhere else, must not be seen as conservation Vs development as both should go together. The motto of the sierra club, “not blind opposition to progress, but opposition to blind progress”, is apt. The view that we should preserve everything is a romantic one. At the same time, we cannot enable natural selection or survival of the fittest to take place. The argument is not against development but against the manner in which it has done.
It is not against all demolitions but against unnecessary and avoidable ones. Conservation should be seen in a very broad sense. It is a necessity, which should be seen as a stimulating challenge. It is very positive, finding new uses for old buildings, and passing them on to the next generation. It is not opposed to new buildings that are sympathetic in character, the texture of materials, colour, scale and other visual elements.
Conservation Is a Priority
Conservation is a crucial priority if it can solve the housing problem. A significant number of the old buildings are not used to their full advantages now. The number of old and dilapidated houses is also quite high. When we demolish old buildings, we are destroying resources. It is foolish to destroy sound structures that may still be helpful during national adversity; by doing so, we are practically destroying inherent capital. Conservation can become a priority if it can generate income.
It is not the admission fee to the historic buildings which matters but the custom attracted to the hotels, restaurants, shops, transport, etc., that are substantial income for the state. It should not come down to giving the historic neighbourhood a makeover. The installation of traditional lampposts, paving, and luring tourists alone should not be termed conservation. The people of the region also should benefit from the conservation schemes. It should be linked with the other Government projects.
Resources for Conservation
Conservation does not always require large physical resources. The demolition of historic buildings does not take place due to a lack of resources for conserving them. It actually happens in times of overflow of resources as more damages are caused in periods of economic prosperity.
Need for Legislation
The limited resources should be used in a possible way. Here the legislation can help in a very positive manner. Now there is no legislation. What INTACH is doing is to aid the various state governments in making legislation. Bombay, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc., are far more advanced than Kerala. Conservation of the built heritage should be incorporated in the planning process at all stages. Regrettably, the Government still relies on laws made many years ago to protect the built environment.
Even the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 was a modification of the Ancient Monuments Preservations Act 1904. These changes were mainly brought about because of the constitutional amendments since independence; there was no radical departure from the original 1904 Act. The 1958 Act proved to be ineffective in many respects. The setting of the monuments is not protected. High-rise buildings can come close to the monuments. There is no control in the Act to control the location of the Industrial units in close proximity.
The historic buildings are part of our history. When we destroy them, we are destroying history. Kerala is one of the pioneering states in India on conservation. We started conserving our old buildings from the 19th century onward. I think we might lose that status. If the heritage of Kerala is not going to be preserved, it is going to be poor in what it is rich at present. We have to be proud of our heritage; we do not realize the value of our heritage. Perhaps we might realize it slowly. But there is no point in realizing it when it is too late.
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