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Above: (Inset) The four men vandalised the pillars (marked in red) that stood at Hampi in 2017

In a novel approach that can be followed in other monuments, a Karnataka court has asked four vandals to re-erect a pillar they had pulled down

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

A local court did not leave any stone unturned to punish four vandals for upturning a pillar in Hampi, a UNESCO heritage site. Hampi is among 506 ASI-protected properties in Karnataka, but that was hardly a deterrent for four men who broke through the security cordon and upturned a pillar. The vandalism would have gone unnoticed, but the vandals uploaded their act on social media. After heritage lovers and angry netizens let loose their ire over this wanton act of destruction, the Bellary police swung into action and nabbed the four miscreants.

They were brought before the JMFC court in Hospet, where they were not only fined Rs 70,000 each, but asked to re-erect the pillars with some help from ASI workers. “The idea was to send out a strong message,” said M Kalimuthu, an ASI deputy superintendent.

According to additional public prosecutor Geetha Mirajkar, the vandals got a rock-solid lesson for life. They remained in custody till February 13 and were booked under the stringent Ancient Monument and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, where the maximum punishment for such an act is two years’ imprisonment or a fine up to Rs 1 lakh. Under normal circumstances, offenders have to serve the jail term if they cannot cough up the hefty fine. However, as these men were repentant, the judge ordered them to pay a smaller fine, but they had to re-erect the pillar.

This incident has forced ASI officials to pull up their socks and watch their properties with a hawk’s eye. The ASI will now deploy additional CCTV cameras to ensure that such incidents don’t happen again.

In 2002, Karnataka had created a special body—the first of its kind in India—the Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority. The Authority, headed by the Bellary deputy commissioner with a 25-member team, is now working on a revised master plan to ensure complete security and protection to the site spread over 100 acres. The buffer zone will extend to cover around 25 villages in the periphery.

One of the challenges that Hampi faces is the multiplicity of authorities and agencies within the state and the central government to manage over 2,000 historically rich and religiously significant landmarks. A single heritage authority may work better to effectively coordinate different agencies, including the panchayat.

Although UNESCO declared Hampi a world heritage site in 1986, there has been criticism at the slow pace of conservation efforts there. Social media was abuzz again with photographs of some foreign tourists disrespecting the protected temple properties.

It is thanks to the patronage of the Vijayanagara kings that Dravidian architecture survives in many parts of south India. Sculptors and masons used local granite, burnt bricks and lime mortar to showcase their skills in the two hundred years that the Vijayanagara empire ruled supreme from the fourteenth century to the sixteenth century.

Officials are, however, finding it hard to look after the Hampi monuments due to the huge inflow of pilgrims and the mushrooming of shops, eating joints and a bazaar around the complex. “The tensions between modern uses and protecting the fabric and setting of the ancient remains need to be managed with the utmost sensitivity,” said a UNESCO note.

In addition to efforts by the Karnataka government, Hampi is protected under legal instruments such as the Anc­ient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (AMASR Act) and AMASR (Amend­ment and Validation) Act, 2010, and AMASR Rules 1959, besides the Karnataka Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1961.

These Acts have also allowed the ASI to issue showcause notices to encroachers, and district collectors and magistrates can order removal of such encroachments. Another amendment to the Act envisaged setting up of a new National Monument Authority to oversee conservation and classification of monuments.

While the Hampi vandals have shown the danger India’s protected monuments face from tourists out to destroy cultural symbols, there are also whispers of discontent over the centre’s move to amend the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment) Bill, 2017, “to allow any Department or Office of the Central Government to carry out public works in the prohibited area after obtaining permission from the Central Government”. Although the rationale behind the amendment is that it is limited strictly to public works and projects essential to people and within the prohibited area, it is bound to raise unease over the future of 3,686 nationally protected monuments.

Under the National Culture Fund, the Adopt a Heritage Scheme and other government initiatives, both the private and public sector can pitch in to save protected monuments. Two years ago, Union Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma told the Lok Sabha that 24 monuments were reported untraceable because of encroachments and rapid urbanisation. He said 11 of them were in Uttar Pradesh and several others including temples, minars, tombs and forts, in Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

It is time all stakeholders leave no stone unturned to protect historical monuments.

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