Historical ‘Tourist’ Sites of Guwahati on the Disastrous Path of Extinction
The historical background of Guwahati
Guwahati, the largest metropolis of northeast India today, traces back its existence to thousands of years. Although the exact origins of Guwahati are unknown, references of the city can be found in the Puranas and other traditional histories. Many historians assume the city to be one of the oldest in Asia.
According to the Mahabharata, it was the capital of the kings Narakasura and Bhagadatta.
Pragjyotishpura, as the city was earlier known, along with Durjaya (North Guwahati) were the capitals of the ancient state of Kamarupa.
With history that harks back thousands of years, Guwahati has many sites of historical and archaeological importance scattered across its length and breadth.
However, most of them are on the verge of destruction, mostly due to lack of proper care and human vandalism.
Although there is immense possibilities of ‘Archaeotourism’ or archaeological tourism within and around the city, the current conditions of the monuments and artefacts are devastating.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Directorate of Archaeology, Assam are the two civic bodies that are responsible for the protection and preservation of ancient archaeological sites, monuments and the remains of historical and archaeological importance.
List of monuments in and around Guwahati
1. The rock-cut sculptures known as Vishnu-Janardan near Sukreswar Temple, Panbazar
2. The carvings inscription and pillar of the Urvashi Island
3. Duargarila Rock Inscription, Nilachal Hill
4. Rock-cut figures and a stone gateway in the Nilachal Hill
Under the Directorate of Archeology
1. Ambari Archaeological Site
2. Umananda Temple
3. Chandrasekhar Temple, Umananda
4. Hara-Gauri Temple, Umananda
5. Chatrakar Temple, Uzan Bazar
6. Na-Math, Kamakhya
7. Persian rock inscription, Kamakhya
8. Umachal rock inscription, Kalipur
9. Vasistha Temple
10. Karbi Memorial, Dakhinbam, Sonapur
11. Nazirakhat Archaeological Site
12. Manikarneswar Temple, North Guwahati
13. Kanai Boroshi Bowa rock inscription, North Guwahati
14. Aswakranta Temple, North Guwahati
15. Dirgheswari Temple, North Guwahati
16. Madan Kamdev Archaeological Site, Baihata Chariali
Apart from the mentioned sites in the table, there are also various others across Kamrup district.
G Plus took note of the present conditions of these sites and its potential for revenue generation, given that the state government is spending crores on promoting the tourism prospects in Assam. What has been found is highly disappointing.
Except for a few sites that can be labelled as tourist spots, the others are being used for religious activities. Archaeologists blame it on the lack of awareness of the masses and also the negligence of the government towards preservation of the same.
However, those sites which could have been major tourist attractions have also fallen victim to negligence and cash crunch.
The Ambari Archaeological site that is located just behind the Directorate of Archaeology was discovered accidentally while digging the foundation for the Reserve Bank of India building in Guwahati back in 1969. It is protected under the Ancient Monuments and Records Act, 1959, and major excavations were made between 1970 and 2003. The different figurines and artefacts found from this site are from two distinct cultural periods, ranging from the 7th to 12th century AD and 13th to 17th century AD respectively.
An actual visit to the site presented a completely different picture of the area rather than the one shown on the government website. With no signs of excavation, only piles of brick signifying the reminiscence of walls could be seen. The place is covered in grass and moss. The artefacts discovered are displayed in a room nearby but neither are there any proper signboards nor any effort made to attract tourists.
Deepi Rekha Kouli, Director of the Directorate of Archaeology, said that they have done significant work in restoring old structures in Umananda and areas outside Guwahati.
ASI Deputy Superintendent, Bimal Sinha on the other hand, said that the organization does not take up restoration work although they make every effort to preserve the original structures.
Officials claim one of the major causes of destruction of heritage sites is modern construction activities within close proximity of the monuments.
As per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010 specific areas around a monument are marked as protected.
Beginning from the boundary line, a minimum of 100 metres is prohibited area, beyond which another 200 metres are regulated areas. No construction whatsoever including any public projects, are permitted within this and any permission for construction or reconstruction are governed by heritage by-laws.
The quantum of punishment meted out to violators ranges from three months to two years imprisonment and fine from Rs 5,000 to Rs 1 lakh, or both.
However, people do not adhere to the rules and the department has significantly less manpower and authority for strict implementation of the same.
As stated by authorities, every monument or historical site should have at least one monument attendant for regular inspection. But the present number of technical and conservation officers are significantly less than the required numbers.
The Directorate of Archaeology, which has the jurisdiction of the entire state, has just 3 exploration officers with one post remaining vacant, 1 archaeological engineer, 3 senior conservation officers with one vacant post, and 27 monument attendants of which 5 are vacant. The post of the technical officer is also currently vacant.
Similar is the case with the Archaeological Survey of India.
Given the lack of presence of officials, illegal and unauthorized construction cannot be monitored in real-time.
Talking about the laws to prevent such illegal construction, Bimal Sinha said, “Although we provide notices to prevent such work, the district authorities have never taken any serious action on the same.”
He further stated that as most sites are of religious importance authorities refrain from fear of hurting religious sentiments.
Talking about awareness programs, the chiefs of both the organizations said that they have been doing regular awareness programs but the results have not come as per expectations.
As per report, Sivasagar is the only district where the rules are strictly adhered to and permission of the Town Planning Committee is mandatory for construction near any ancient structure or remains.
‘Monumental’ degradation in the name of religion
The majority of the city’s historic monuments are in the temples premises and have not been registered under any of the civic bodies.
These monuments are renovated and restructured whimsically and without permission or guidance from the experts. This leads to the degradation of the original structures.
Deepi Rekha Kouli, Director of the Directorate of Archaeology said, “Although we have been continuously requesting concerned authorities to abide by the rules and laws of the archaeology department none have adhered to these.”
Conservationists from both the Directorate and ASI claim that lack of understanding of the subject of archaeology among the locals is one of the major causes that prevents them from preserving the monuments and artefacts.
Kouli said that many sculptures and figurines have been destroyed due to the smearing of vermilion (sindoor). Vermillion contains mercury that damages the stone carvings.
Further, locals around almost every historical site demand the construction of new religious buildings over the old remains.
Every temple or ‘devalay’ has its own ‘Doloi Samaj’ or committee for managing every aspect of the temple including the maintenance of the monument itself.
Citing their significant historic connections and religious importance, they have refused to register the monuments under any of the civic bodies to date.
Kailash Sarma, Principal Secretary of “Sadau Asam Devalaya Sangha” claims, “As the archaeology department has never done any restoration or development for the up-gradation of the temples we have taken matters in our hand.”
He proudly pointed out the construction of the new ‘bhog-ghar’ in the Ugrotara temple premises in lieu of Ahom architecture. Similar constructions are also seen in many other ‘devalay’s across the city.
But given the above mentioned prohibited area rules for the preservation of ancient sites, the questions that arise are: Does the construction of new buildings, even if for public benefit, do justice to the grandeur of the old monument? How does it affect the original structure?”
Conservationists claim that the chemical formulation of the new construction materials is different from the old techniques. The new elements react with the old bricks and other materials and lead to gradual degradation.
Many city temples get facelift in the name of restoration and development
G Plus visited the Sukreswar and Vasistha temples and found that both had modern architectural additions. While the main Sukreswar and Janardan temples are covered with marbles and tiles, authorities have also painted the stone figurines in the temple walls with chemical paint.
Archaeologists are of the view that the damage has already been done. Even if efforts are now made to restore the original by removing the paint and other additions, the original carvings would also be removed.
Similar paintings could also be seen in the Vasistha temple although it falls under the jurisdiction of ASI.
Both Suresh Chandra Bhattacharjee, President of the Sadau Asam Devalaya Sangha and member of Sukreswar Mandir Committee as well as Kailash Sarma agreed that these chemical paintings should not have been done.
However, no authority has taken the responsibility for the same.
It is to be mentioned that temples receive monetary donations from devotees for development of the premises and buildings (using modern beautifying materials as marbles, tiles, and chandeliers, etc).
While these additions do bring a glamorous and updated look to the monument itself, the ancient grandeur and value of the structure is lost. Also, continuous disturbances in and around the body disturbs the balance of the monument.
As such cracks have been reported in the main dome of the Sukreswar temple.
Also, new idols of the ‘Devi’ could be seen inside the temple that originally was a Shiva temple.
It is to be mentioned that the grand ‘Linga’ in Sukreswar is one of the largest in the country and the temple was constructed in 1744 by Ahom King Pramatta Singha (1744–1751). King Rajeswar Singha, who also promoted the cause of the Shaiva cult, made financial provisions for the temple in 1759.
Archaeologists have also said that the paint used for polishing the Kamakhya temple is also not organic which would eventually lead to decay of the monument.
Both the Directorate of Archaeology and ASI are of the view that although restructuring of old monuments have to be done for preservation, concerned authorities should abide by the guidelines of experts.
The originals colours of the monuments during Ahom rule were made from a combination of lime, surkhi (brick powder), adhesive extracted from bel fruit (quince or wood apple), haritaki or hilikha (Terminalia chebula), meethi (fenugreek), molasses and white katha or latex.
This colour could be easily washed off and repainted when required. As acquiring these in recent times is difficult and highly expensive, archaeologists are of the opinion that research work is ongoing to find alternatives.
However, the use of chemical paint or any other modern construction material is highly unadvisable.
Kailash Sarma said, “We have urged the government to set up a different town committee or department, bringing together all the temple committees under one roof, so that we could work for the upliftment of the devalays following religious sentiments as well as preserving its historical importance.”
As per the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, the Directorate of Archaeology, Assam has said that they have approached every temple and institution in the city to register their antiquities with the department so that records could be maintained of the same. However, most temples have refused to photograph their idols and artefacts.
It is to be mentioned that when the century-old idol of the Ugratara temple was stolen, police and authorities had a difficult time as there were no officially recorded photographs of the idol. As such authorities have requested the registration of the artefacts now.
Scope of Archaeotourism in Guwahati
The archaeological sites are not conducive for revenue generation as on date. However, authorities of both the civic bodies have welcomed the idea of inclusion of these sites and temples for tourism. The devalay committees have also agreed to the matter, albeit reluctantly.
It is to be mentioned that if efforts are made for preservation of whatever is left of the history and archaeology of the city and packages made for tourists to visit these sites, Guwahati has a great scope in 'archaeotourism' like the rest of the country.