Law to the rescue of heritage: Standing evidence of a priceless cultural legacy

What was at stake was the disappearance of tangible evidence of the multi-cultural, plural society unique to Hyderabad.

Iram Manzil — and there is a reason why I use this spelling — was built by my great-grandfather Nawab Mir Sarfaraz Husain, Safdar Jung, Mushir-ud-Dowla, Fakhr-ul-Mulk in the late 19th century. ‘iram’, meaning paradise in Persian, was the traditional way it was transliterated into English and it is tradition that is now uppermost on my mind in this festive season.

Nawab Fakhr-ul-Mulk (1860-1934) built several palaces, but Iram Manzil was the one in which he lived in for the longest time. It was home to my father, Mir Moazzam Husain, the Nawab’s grandson during his formative years. My father grew up steeped in household lore and the stories that his grandfather told him of his life and times. As it happens in most households, the stories were passed on to the next generation and my brothers, sisters and I were the wide-eyed recipients of these tales.

This was a very special time of the year at Iram Manzil. One of my father’s most enduring memories was the celebration of Dasara. The estate in which Iram Manzil was located was a large one, with its own dairy. Cattle were washed and brushed; their horns were painted and decked with flowers, vermillion and turmeric before dawn on that auspicious day. At the appointed hour they were paraded in a procession, preceded by dancers and singers belting out traditional ballads. In the meanwhile, the bustling kitchens had bubbling cauldrons readying the feast that would follow. The most pleasing cattle earned a handsome reward for its minder. Gaiety and goodwill permeated the air.

It was not just Dasara but other festivals too that were celebrated with enthusiasm. Diwali was another special day when Iram Manzil was lit up like a fairyland palace with diyas and candles. Christmas was impatiently awaited for the choir and the presents. Muharram was marked by the all the rites and rituals that accompany it, with a huge nal saheb of solid sandal-wood paste rounding off the rituals on the 10th day. Id-ul-Fitr and Bakrid were of course very important days. Interestingly, Bathukamma was celebrated with the girls of the zenana floating flowers and sweets on clay dishes on the stream that flowed into the artificial lake that supplied Iram Manzil with water.

To many of the present generation, unacquainted with the traditions of Hyderabad, it would appear odd that Hindu and Christian festivals were celebrated on such a scale in a Muslim household. But that was the tradition at Iram Manzil and indeed in many other households of the nobility in Hyderabad.

Though I had no personal stake in the property, I was deeply distressed when I heard the news that Iram Manzil was slated to be demolished. So was Rajkumari Indira Devi Dhanrajgir, the gracious doyenne of Hyderabadi culture and a family friend of long standing.

What was at stake was the disappearance of tangible evidence of the multi-cultural, plural society unique to Hyderabad. My years at Unesco had made me particularly aware of the good that can come out of preserving such memories and monuments. Creatively fostered, these can be a powerful influence in shaping the values of present and future generations.

Nawab Fakhr-ul-Mulk had a strong conviction that if the family properties had to be disposed of, it ought to be for public use. As it happened, his notable palaces fulfilled such a purpose. Asad Bagh is now Nizam College, Iram Numah at Erragadda became the Government General and Chest Hospital and the Vikarabad Cottage became a Youth Hostel. Iram Manzil was sold to the Hyderabad State in 1951 and has housed government departments since. Ironically, it is the government, which is both owner of Iram Manzil and the custodian of built heritage of the state, which decided to demolish it.

The history of Iram Manzil is also intertwined with that of the Nizam’s era and it would have been a shame to discard a standing monument to those tumultuous times.

I was aware that Hyderabad was a pioneer in recognizing the value of integrating heritage preservation with its urban planning. I knew that the Heritage Regulations had been formulated and brought into force as early as in 1995, but learnt to my dismay that they had been repealed. Nevertheless, encouraged by the views of our very competent lawyers, Rajkumari Indira Devi Dhanrajgir and I decided to petition the High Court of Telangana to save Iram Manzil from demolition.

The decision of the High Court is an exemplary one that will go down in the annals of heritage preservation and could well become a case study internationally. Perhaps more importantly, it can provide a much needed impetus to reimagine what is required to bring the focus back on heritage and its value to rapidly expanding urban economies.

It is indeed strange that government and civil society are on the opposite sides on the issue of heritage as evidenced by the fracas over Iram Manzil. International experience shows that this need not be the case. In France, for example, laws have been enacted for closer coordination between urban development and heritage preservation and these are now ingrained in the management practices of municipalities and city authorities. This is generally the case all over Europe, where public authorities are trying to accommodate the growing public demand for more effective coordination between urban heritage conservation strategies and the overall goals of sustainable development.

Unesco is at the vanguard of sensitising urban planners and government to meet the challenges of reconciling social and economic pulls and pushes with heritage preservation. There are other resources such as the facilities offered under Unesco’s Heritage Convention as well the technical support from specialised organisations including the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation of Cultural Property (ICCROM) and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). A team was recently in Hyderabad and Warangal in connection with the evaluation of the suitability of the magnificent Ramappa Temple for recognition as a World Heritage Site.

The government of Telangana state may want to explore collaborating with Unesco to strengthen its own efforts in this direction.

The time to save the heritage of our past for the future is now.

(Dr Mir Asghar Husain is the former Director for Education, Unesco Headquarters, Paris)

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