Encroachments Ruin Bishnupur’s Chance Of Making It To World Heritage List


Bishnupur: Unauthorised constructions buildings, shops and eateries stand at a stone’s throw from a famous 300-year-old 3.8 metre-long exquisitely crafted cannon called Dalmadal that was used in 1742 to repel Maratha attackers in Bengal led by Bhaskar Pandit.

Ironically, a signboard by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) nearby declares the site a protected area and prohibits construction within 100 metres.

The mostly one-storied concrete structures, stand in the way of Bishnupur, the centuries-old terracotta temple town, making it to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre list from the tentative one that it entered 20 years ago. Violations being the rule instead of exceptions, Bishnupur’s wait may never end.

In a glaring example of administrative negligence, a cluster of unauthorised houses – some brick-built and the rest thatched huts – stand uncomfortably close to the ASI’s Bishnupur sub-circle office, situated inside a protected compound housing the temples of Kalachand and Radha-Madhab, both declared monuments of national importance.

“As per notification issued under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Rules, 1959 (32 of 1959), the areas up to 100 metres from the protected limits and further beyond it up to 200 metres near or adjoining this monument have been declared prohibited and regulated areas, respectively, for purposes of both mining operation and construction,” reads the signboards.Take the case of Rash Mancha, built in 1600 A.D., about which the ASI says, “Its parallel has not been found elsewhere in India”. More than a dozen one-storied and two-storied constructions occupy the prohibited range of 100 metres from the boundary. It’s same with Jor-Bangla AKA Keshto-Rai temple, built in 1655 and considered among the finest examples of terra cotta temples of Bengal.

India has 36 World Heritage Centres, including seven natural sites and 29 cultural sites.
In 1998, Bishnupur – the seat of the Malla dynasty famous for the cluster of 22 temples made of brick and laterite stone and covered with intricate terracotta ornamentation, the Bishnupur gharana of dhrupad music and Baluchari saree – was one of India’s 11 submissions to the UNESCO. All submissions were ‘deferred’ by UNESCO, seeking more information from India.Over the next two decades, India resubmitted eight entries, including Buddhist Monastery Complex at Alchi (Leh), Golkonda Fort (Andhra Pradesh), Dholavira (Gujarat), Mattanchery Palace (Kerala), Tomb of Sher Shah Suri and Rani ki Vav (Gujarat), in a more comprehensive manner. Rani ki Vav went on to be inscribed in the list.

But the case of Bishnupur, along with Group of Monuments in Mandu and ancient Buddhist site of Sarnath, was never pursued.

“Bishnupur was not pursued mainly because of the violations of the construction norms around protected monuments. In case we resubmit the entry, everything will lie exposed when UNESCO undertakes verification,” said Bimal Sinha, deputy superintendent, archaeology, Kolkata circle.If the violations are to be rectified, more than 100 constructions will have to be demolished.
Asked why ASI did not act to prevent violations, Sinha said, “We lodge police complaints whenever violations come to our notice.”

A 2013 CAG report noted that near one of the prime terra cotta structures, Rash Mancha, “FIR against the unauthorised construction was lodged only after the joint physical inspection by the Audit team along with the staff of Sub Circles.”

Conservation experts almost unanimously agree that Bishnupur is an ideal entry from India for world heritage list.

“Except for some architecture in Cambodia, Bengal’s terracotta temples are unique in the world and Bishnupur offers the best of the lot. It’s a perfect candidate for world heritage centre. Violations are not a major issue and WBHC is taking steps to pursue the case with the Centre,” said architect Partha Ranjan Das, a member of West Bengal Heritage Commission.

Sanghamitra Basu, a professor of architecture at IIT Kharagpur who served as a member of Nation Monuments Authorities between 2011 and 2014, differs. “I have visited many world heritage sites in India and abroad and I see no reason why Bishnupur should not be in the list. However, with the kind of violations observed, it all seems a distant dream,” she said.

Earlier in 2010, in a document titled Heritage-based Sustainable Urban Development, published by UNESCO-IHCN and the Embassy of Switzerland in India, Basu had written, “Bishnupur in West Bengal, with its rich heritage of terracotta temples and sculptures, an integrated water management system (now almost extinct), an intangible heritage of painting, music and weaving… has the potential of being declared a world heritage site but is languishing in utter negligence.”

The town’s civic chief-cum-MLA, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, pleads innocence. “The constructions completed before I took charge,” said Mukherjee, who is an MLA since 2011.

Asked whether he was aware of the new brick house being built just behind Rash Mancha, he said, “ASI has not informed us.” The employees of ASI’s Bishnupur circle office refused comment.