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Historian raps ASI over Sikri descriptions

English: Fatehpur Sikri, India Español: Fatehp...

English: Fatehpur Sikri, India Español: Fatehpur Sikri, La India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Aligarh: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), founded in 1861, is tasked with preserving and conserving monuments in India. At the recently concluded Indian  History Congress in Malda, West Bengal, however, one author whose book won an award for the best work on medieval India published in 2013-14 has cast doubts on the professionalism of the ASI.Associate professor of history at AMU Nadeem Rezavi, who won the Prof Mohammad Habib Award at the congress for his work ‘Fatehpur Sikri Revisited’, published by Oxford University Press, told TOI, “The names of structures within Fatehpur Sikri that the ASI mentions on its plaques are taken from tourist guides of the 19th century who were often local villagers with no professional training in history or archaeology. ASI continues with this identification, with no concern for historicity.”

Rezavi’s book is not about the architecture of the monument – it studies aspects of town planning and dwells also on the nomenclature of the structures. It attempts to track down the offices, workshops, the living quarters of the nobles and the residences of commoners.

Rezavi says ASI has done a disservice to the historical site of Fatehpur Sikri. “Officials have attempted to ‘tailor’ the structures to suit their fancy,” he says.

As examples of ASI’s disregard for history, Rezavi says, “The haramsara or Shabistan-i Iqbal is erroneously named “Jodhabai’s Palace!” Jodhabai was not part of Akbar‘s harem, he points out.

He pointed to how another building within the premises of the harem is called “Birbal House.” It would be quite impossible for Birbal to have occupied the building – no male, not even a prince, was allowed to enter the female quarters, Rezavi says.

And just as implausibly, a building within the Daulatkhana (male area) is named “Turkish Sultana’s Palace” – Akbar had no Turkish Sultana!

Rezavi said it is possible to multiply these examples. “ASI has aided the destruction, rather than preservation of history,” Rezavi says, adding that in the name of “renovation”, eaves, locally called chhajjas, were added to the structure where none existed. Two separate structures with slightly tapering walls were “renovated” in such a manner that the taper was almost corrected and two squares became a rectangular structure.

Also in the Stone Cutter’s Mosque, a trabeated entrance was converted into an arched one -Rezavi says it must have been done by an ASI official incredulous that the Mughals could conceive of a trabeated entrance – having horizontal beams, not arches.

Rezavi also came down heavily on the ASI for its failure to preserve the marks left behind by masons and the signatures on the original stone slabs.

“In the renovations, original pieces are removed without recording what was inscribed and carved on them. The surface decorations like wall paintings have also been allowed to disappear,” Rezavi said.

Rezavi is among few historians who had looked closely at the organization of the builders and masons engaged for the construction. ASI, however, has done next to nothing to preserve the lesser structures, Rezavi says.

“In ASI’s view, only imperial structures are to be maintained. How common people lived appears not to concern the ASI. Nor are they concerned with waterworks, channels, ducts and aqueducts, which they are sometimes guilty of removing,” he said.

So how did Rezavi come to digging up ASI errors?

“I came to see that the plaques were misleading. I started working on the town of Fatehpur Sikri to get answers to many questions about which the prevalent belief was that there isn’t enough information.”

Rezavi said there are original sources that offer a mine of information – only, these sources are not often recognised or studied.

Rezavi was awarded the PhD for research on “Urban Professional Classes under the Mughals”. He had studied architects, and had grown more and more interested in their work. He would often accompany scholars to Agra and Fathpur Sikri. It was from the queries of some scholars he toured with that he discovered that despite the many books on Sikri, many unanswered questions remained.

Sikri is a town built from scratch and then “abandoned”, all in the lifetime of one ruler, Akbar. It survives as it was built, and is thus a rich minefield of information of town planning at the time.

“Fatehpur Sikri is a fossilized town which survives as it was built,” he says, adding that what the ASI has conserved was mostly the “palace”, ignoring dwellings of common people.

Rezavi admits a debt of gratitude to researchers who have preceded him like VA Smith and S Athar Abbas Rizvi. He said he had collated information available from the site with written sources, something that few had attempted before him. In this exercise, he was aided by the excavations carried out by RC Gaur.

Asked for his reaction to Rezavi’s views, ASI superintending archaeologist for Agra Bhuvan Vikram said, “Fatehpur Sikri has been maintained by ASI since the 1920s. Whatever we have been preserving has been professionally conserved. There are still areas within which are in private ownership, and these structures we have little control over. It is not true that our focus is on palaces – we have maintained the bazaars too. As for the descriptions on the plaques, these cannot be abruptly changed. There is folklore around the place, but we have attempted to be true to history. If we have sound historical research that questions our descriptions, we will accept the wisdom of those and make the changes, once we verify those descriptions.”

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