My favourite definition of the word preserve is to “to maintain or keep alive a memory or quality.”
It sounds so simple – and yet in reality of course the process of historical preservation throws up impossible challenges. Here are three very different approaches to the preservation of iconic medieval sites. All have their undeniable appeal; all have their unacceptable downsides. See which one you like best.
First, Tughlaqabad, an extraordinary 14th century site to the south of Delhi, where in just three or four years the Sultan (and former slave) Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlaq constructed a new citadel – a vast, impregnable symbol of the dynasty he founded. Yet on his death, the place was believed cursed, soon abandoned, and never again served a role in the Delhi Sultanate. Now, just remnants remain – a wall here, a gateway there, these fragments of a once-great city being slowing subsumed back into nature, calling to mind the legend of Ozymandias.
The Indian authorities have called it a “symbol of lost heritage” and there are those who would berate them for allowing it to fall into such a state of ruin. Important as it is historically, Tughlaqabad has been denied the chance of world heritage status because there is simply not enough of the city left.
Yet the contemporary visitor to this site feels a great sense of the history of this place, of its antiquity, the inexorable passage of time, and the brief, mistaken hopes and dreams of its creator.
Next, let’s look at the Great Wall of China, in reality a series of fortifications commenced in the 5th century BC, with what remains today largely from the time of the Ming Dynasty (14th century onwards). While many parts are completely lost or in ruins, masonry sections near Beijing have been extensively renovated and serve as major tourist attractions. In complete contrast to Tughlaqabad, these are so fully restored and carefully maintained that they give a strong sense of how the walls must have looked when they were first constructed centuries ago.
Indeed they have been condemned as too “picture perfect” – appearing to have been built yesterday, and offering no sense of antiquity or what Ruskin called “that golden stain of time.” With their ski-lifts up to get up and toboggans to get back down, the walls can feel like a Disney version of Chinese history.
And for my third example, the Hindu temples of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, created by the Chandella dynasty between 950 and 1050 AD. Twenty or so of these soaring, intricate buildings have survived over the centuries, and have recently been designated a world heritage site. (These days, they are probably best known and visited for their sexually explicit carvings.)
After the Chandella dynasty declined, the temples were largely forgotten and, by the nineteenth century, the site had been reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. Only the local villagers remembered the existence of the temples and one day told of them to a young British captain in the Bengal Engineers. The British then cleared away the trees and restored what they described as “these splendid monuments of antiquity,” with replacement sections clearly differentiated by their colour from original material.
Nowadays such an approach is often seen as aesthetically unpleasing and unnecessary, a disfigurement of the original appearance of the site. Yet there is arguably an honesty in the way new material does not pretend to be old, and a pleasure in the way visitors are thus reminded of the history of the temples, their virtual loss and dramatic recovery, and the role of the British in preserving many sites of cultural heritage during the Raj.
So where is memory or quality best maintained? Is it in the deliberately patched temples, or the perfectly renovated wall, or the fortifications gradually fading into oblivion?