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INTACH and the Revival of Elephanta Caves

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In Conversation with Tasneem Mehta, Mumbai, 2016

I think it was in 1996 that a very senior adviser from the UNESCO visited Elephanta, and he was totally shocked because there were children playing cricket outside the caves. There were people standing on top of the Trimurti and posing for photographs. They were cooking inside the caves. The walls were broken; the barbed wire was corroded. It was a complete mess. There was garbage all over the place. There were open nallahs (drains) around. When you go there today, you can’t even begin to imagine how poorly kept the site had been kept at that time. Nobody was really interested in it. And he went there, and he was in a state of shock when he came back.  He gave an interview to the Times of India that landed up on the front page, ‘Elephanta may be delisted unless something is done urgently’.


Pupul Jayakar was the chairman of the INTACH at that time. I had just joined, and I had just become convener for Mumbai. I was very young. Mrs. Jayakar said to me, ‘We have to do something.’ So the gentleman concerned came over, and we had a chat with him. And remember this is 1996, management plans were just beginning to come into vogue; they were conceived of in fact at that time. Bernard Feilden was the gentleman. He had written a definitive book on how world heritage sites should be managed. The first management plan ever had been drawn up for the Roman Walls in Britain by English Heritage. So he said we should get them in as an adviser, and we should do a management plan for Elephanta. I had no idea. And that is how the project started.


So the first thing we did was try to understand how we should prepare a management plan, because a management plan had never been done in India, and the ASI said to me and to INTACH, ‘We have never done this exercise, so what should we do?’ So because Bernard Feilden was also an adviser to UNESCO, we got UNESCO involved and we decided to have a seminar. Now because Mrs. Jayakar was there, and Mrs. Jayakar as you know was very close to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and they together set up INTACH in 1984, everybody came. We had an amazing two-day seminar, which I don’t think has ever really been repeated, because we had about 600 participants. We had every top bureaucrat there. All the ministers were involved and they came. All the people involved in culture, everybody came. Plus, we had lots of students, architecture students and other students who came. And the UNESCO representatives from their regional office in Bangkok, Thailand, came, and from Paris the World Heritage Centre people came. The British English Heritage representatives were also there. So, we had tremendous representation and the seminar made a tremendous impact. And we then set about developing a management plan. And that was a learning curve because I am an art historian, not a management expert per se—so there was a lot of learning to be done along the way. But the government did what we requested them to do, which is set up a Special Purpose Vehicle under the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA). The commissioner was given the authority to bring in all the various agencies—there are several agencies involved in the management of Elephanta, and that was one of the problems of working at Elephanta and preparing this management plan.


So under the Special Purpose Vehicle, we gathered all the agencies and then we defined what our goals will be and what we could try to do. Now of course that in itself was a very interesting story because the goals that the MMRDA commissioner had were very different from the goals that I had. The goals of the MTDC (Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation) chairman and the MTDC managing director were different from the goals that we as INTACH, which had done a lot of research around the site, had. I should backtrack and add that we had no money. INTACH was an NGO, and we thought to ourselves that we had to raise money because the ASI said that they will give us some money, but they insisted on taking the $25,000 UNESCO gave us. So, we had very little money. I came up with an idea to do a big Elephanta festival event and to do a fundraising auction. It was the first auction ever done for fundraising in this country. I had seen it happen (abroad) earlier, but in 1997, I don’t think anybody had done it before in India. There had been auctions, but not for fundraising. So I invited 25 of the top Indian artists, and because I was on the committee of the National Gallery of Modern Art, they all agreed. Some were a bit hesitant, but at the end I said, ‘You have to give the art work because it is for such an important cause.’ Every artist agreed. Today, they are all very famous. K.G. Subramanyan, Atul Dodiya, I mean everybody; it was a Who’s Who of artists. Gallery Chemould worked with us and kept a very small percentage; most of it came to INTACH to prepare this management plan.


In a sense that was the creation of the little corpus for INTACH in Mumbai that has sustained us over the last 20 years and has enabled us to do so much other work. Of course, we have raised more funds since then, we have done more projects, but we spent a good 10 lakhs, twenty years ago, preparing this plan. Because we had to pay the architects, we had to do the survey. We contributed to the restoration of the site and of the site museum, which had earlier been the caretaker’s cottage. The cottage was one of the things that we had suggested that we don’t need. It is a lovely little colonial cottage, but we didn’t want to remove it from the site, so we thought about how we could repurpose it. We suggested a site museum because I would visit the site almost every week, and I would see that people didn’t understand anything about these sculptures. There was no information. And if you didn’t have a guide, and if you had to pay Rs. 500 for a guide and did not want to pay that money, what do you do? So I said, let us make this into a site museum. ASI and INTACH paid for that total exhibit. But that was 20 years ago. If you visit it today, it’s locked up and is in a completely derelict condition again.


Anyway, we had an incredibly successful event where Shubha Mudgal sang shlokas to Shiva that she had composed herself and Alarmel Valli danced within the caves. People talk about that event till today, because we had a dinner and we took boats out, we festooned the boats, and everybody knew everybody, and it was really wonderful and the auction was a huge hit because everybody bought. It is documented, but it is documented with photographs. We don’t have a video of it. Again, 20 years ago the technology was very expensive, and we just didn’t have the funds to do things like video documentation.


So, we then worked on both the management plan. It was tremendous documentation that was commended by UNESCO as one of the best management plans they have received from Asia, not just from India. And then in fact, because they were so happy with our work, they recommended that we should do the documentation for the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus for World Heritage status. Then we did the site museum—what we were trying to do with the government was ensure that there was an interpretation centre and the conservation went forward.  Now I have to say that in conservation, the ASI doesn’t let any other agency get on board. They were doing a lot of cement work, and we had experts from the World Monuments Fund and other organisations come and say what is very obvious today—you can’t mix two materials. When you put cement on stone,  at some stage it becomes a kind of repair job. One, it corrodes the stone, because it stops the stone from breathing. Stone is a natural organic material and it must breathe. So, if you put cement on it, since it is not porous it would prevent air from going in. So the area that is joined to the cement will start to corrode. So you are in fact damaging the site instead of improving it. We have been saying this to the ASI. What they can do is just ensure that it is stable, which means that water ingress is stopped. What are the factors that contribute to deterioration? Salt water and salty air are the main causes for the deterioration of limestone. And so you need to establish environmental controls to ensure that further deterioration does not happen.  


What we were trying to suggest was that we should have an interpretation centre where we can actually recreate what these caves must have looked like when they were carved. Now if you go to the caves, when you enter on the left-hand side, if you look at the ceiling, you will see remnants of paint. Not paint really, but of colour. Some kind of material that was like paint was applied. I talked to many great experts, one of whom was Dr Nagaswamy, who was one of the great experts from the south. Dr Nagaswamy said to me that you see these paintings in all the other sites, including Ajanta and so we must assume that Elephanta would have been like that. So I said let’s recreate it using what we know from Ajanta, let us recreate a sense of what these caves must have looked like. There would have been oil lamps hanging, there would have been carpets. What would the effect of that have been? That is where we should invest money, to recreate and give people the sense of how incredible this is. They are incredible even now because the workmanship is so highly skilled. When you think about it, these caves have been cut into the rock, and they are so perfect, these sculptures. There is not even an inch which is off. But to get people excited, we needed to show people what they must have been, who would have used this site, and how would they have used it.


So when you do the research on that, the earliest mention of this site comes from the emperor Pulakesin II, who calls it the ‘Jewel of the East’, and he says it is because this was the first piece of land that all the ships—there was a lot of trade in that area—would see after a long journey at sea and they would stop there. They would collect a kind of tax from them to berth at the island, and then they would come to the mainland, to Nalasopara and all those areas, from where they could go to the Konkan area. They didn’t come to Bombay so much as make additional trips to the Konkan areas. That is where it was much more developed, not Bombay, because Bombay was too marshy. It was a swampy marshland at that time.


And so that is the earliest indication of the fact that it was very wealthy, because they used to get a lot of money for many reasons. Maybe it was because of  the wealth that was created on this island that they built these caves, we don’t know why. But we do know that there were probably earlier Buddhist caves, because there are two stupas which have not been excavated, one on the top of the hill and one at the bottom. The one at the bottom is very derelict. The other one which is on the other hill, not the one where the Elephanta caves are,   is very clearly a mound. We have climbed up there and looked at it. It has not been excavated. In a way it is good that it has not been excavated, because God knows how it would be looked after and maintained. But at some stage, once we have the technology and the wherewithal to manage Elephanta, I think we should explore its Buddhist origins.


Seventy per cent of Elephanta is covered by the Forest Department’s protected forest plan. The other parts of it are protected by CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) and then it comes under the rural development industry and tourism development corporations. Now all their intentions clash, and this is essentially where the problem lies. And then we have a very, very difficult sarpanch. We tried very hard with him when we started out, because with great enthusiasm we wanted to carry the whole community, and we did a lot of work there with the Rotary Club. We set up a bal-wadi, we set up a women’s self-help group, and we set up a skill development unit to help them because they sell all these objects. We even did some workshops for them as to what they might want to do. There are issues and problems that they have, and of course I worked for over 10 years at Elephanta, so they all know me extremely well. I know every villager at Elephanta. I have been to all their houses; we have done detailed documentation of the village in fact.


I think that the important thing for Elephanta is that we respect what the site demands, which is that it was a religious site, it was a great site. Now in India, religious sites do tend to be a little carnivalesque. There is no question about that. But that can be done in an organised fashion. If you go to any temple, it is like a carnival and there are people sitting outside. I am not saying that that aspect of it should not be there, but the government intended to put up an Essel World there and I was just absolutely shocked since it would devalue the site. What you are saying is that the people would come for the Essel World, not for Elephanta. I was just a little shocked because I really felt—and maybe one can have a debate about these things—but I felt that the island is green, it is quiet, it is beautiful; people would love that. That is the character we should encourage. Outside the hustle and bustle of the city can we provide Mumbaikars an alternative space that was naturally and environmentally green and beautiful? Instead of doing that, they cut the Forest Department size. In the 70’s there used to be about 20–30 people to manage that whole area, because there is a fairly substantial amount of land. When I visited 10 years or 15 years ago, when we were working there, they had reduced it to four people. So those four people would say, ‘Now how can we manage, we can’t do anything.’ So now this forest has become dry and is in such a poor condition because the manpower was not supplemented. If somebody passed away, they would just not refill the job.


The other thing is that the sarpanch totally dictated everything on the island. The whole emphasis was on just that little spine of shops. He controlled everything because he paid off everybody. Everybody was in his pocket. We went there, and we found that the policemen who were supposed to be patrolling the island were working as waiters in his shop. He owned all the shops; he owned the restaurants. Almost half the boats are owned by him. So he has completely captured the economics of the island and has been holding everybody to ransom because he was keeping all the right people happy. He threatened to throw me into the sea. He threatened to throw my architects into the sea. The big battle with him started because he had a shop and a restaurant right outside the caves and we said that this was prohibited by law. He threatened me and he threatened everybody, but the ASI demolished it.


And therefore, today, if you go to the site, it is very peaceful. It wasn’t like that earlier. We covered up the nallahs, we did all the paving, we worked with the whole wall and the railings, we worked with the ASI to plan it. But the ASI also ran into problems. I remember this one time the archaeologist called me and said, ‘Madam, he is not letting our boats land’, because he controls the boats and they had got another boat. He was preventing the ASI boat which carried the cement and the bricks to do the walls and the work; he was not letting them land.


As INTACH, one of the big problems we have everywhere, at all sites—because we are involved with construction, we are involved with the restoration of major monuments—is that we do not give bribes, we are scrupulously honest, and this is a problem. It is one of the reasons we get targeted.


So we prepared the management plan which was submitted to UNESCO in 2004, and we got a very high commendation. It is the official plan that went from the ASI to UNESCO. We did a lot of work. The Act (The Elephanta Island (Protected Monument) Rules of 1957) is very important because it gave it a legal status. The entire island of Elephanta is covered by the Act. And then working with that, we were able to develop buffer zones and make sure that CRZ and all the other laws that can ensure this is a protected area, were developed. 


So we did a detailed study. If you see our management plan, we hired Tata Institute of Social Sciences to do a detailed demographic economic profile of the island. We had an IIT professor come and do an environmental geographic profile of the island. Now what people don’t know is that Elephanta is on the faultline. There is a fault line that runs through Bombay and through this whole region, and it goes in a couple of directions and one of the lines goes under Elephanta. So it is in a seismic zone of up to 6 or 5 on the Richter scale. We had Professor [V.] Subramanyan from IIT, who is these days a big expert, come and do a geological study of Elephanta. We did everything. One of the reasons we did that is because they were dredging the rear part of Elephanta for JNPT (Jawaharlal Nehru Port). And because they were dredging on the rear part of Elephanta for JNPT, it was destabilising the caves slightly. We felt that if they kept chopping away the island, at some point it will impact the caves.  We looked at disaster management—what are the [possible] disasters? So we looked at seismic activity, and we looked at this dredging. We did work with the mangroves—we worked with Bombay Natural History Society to work on the mangroves, on a mangroves rehabilitation plan and on a forest rehabilitation plan.  


So the potential of the island is enormous. You can have artists go there and have artists’ camps; you can have music festivals. We should be doing a music-dance festival every month, every weekend at Elephanta. If you really wanted to open it up, that is what you should do, because Shiva is a God of dance. Ganesh is the god of music. These are the things that we should be putting out there, encouraging art institutions and people to work there. Instead, they want to put in an Essel World. If I have to, I will go to the courts. We went to the courts in the case of the mills—we have managed to save four mills which they are going to now turn into a museum. We went to the courts to save Khotachi Wadi. We are now helping Rajan Jayakar with the High Court. So we, in case of very serious aberrations, if nothing else works, can go the courts.


So what we were able to do in the end is that we were able to create the management plan and send it to UNESCO. We were able to do much more—draft guidelines, create the tourism management plan, make a comprehensive development plan, and we were also able to create a site museum which unfortunately is in a bad state. We cleaned up the entire site. So what you see today is the result of INTACH’s work. We also created the working drawings to redo the whole jetty. We built the toilet. I haven’t seen it for some years now, but hopefully it is in a decent condition.   


I do know that there is a plan to electrify the island, and I just think that is the beginning of the end. Electrifying, what is the intention? We need to work with a vision. What would we like this island to become? No one is saying that you shouldn’t have a restaurant, or that you shouldn’t have amenities or that you shouldn’t have shops. But the question is how you develop them, how you present them, and how you respect the environment in which it is. It is in a very green environment. The focus should be on greening the island, the focus should be on restoring some of the mangroves and the beaches. There is no effort to clean up the garbage. So those are the things which need to be addressed. Also the steps—what has happened to the steps going up now? Because the villagers have all created pucca sites on the steps, those steps which are a hundred years old are now all collapsing. And the steps are owned by the ASI, but the land on either side of the steps is of the Forest Department. So they are half managed by Forest Department, and half by the ASI. It is all very confused.


That is why we created that Special Purpose Vehicle. We also did designs for the people sitting there. They insisted on sitting on the steps. We asked them to at least not have the tall plastic covers. Let us put some beautiful green tarpaulin, let us do it well. Let it be environment friendly. So we were trying to raise the funds to do all this. It is not a lot of money. It costs nothing. It would probably cost Rs. 50 lakhs. That is where the MTDC should invest their money.


My intention has been to preserve the site as an environmentally sensitive site, as a green site. It is a forest site, a protected forest, and you respect that part of it. So you try not to make the rest of it into entertainment. I have worked with many people, Dr Gorakshankar, Dr Jamkhedkar, Dr Nagaswamy, M.N. Deshpande, all the important art historians and archaeologists who have worked on our great history, and they have all agreed with our intentions. So I think we need to respect what this site asks for, and not impose our views of what it should be. That sensitivity has to be there if you are going to preserve our culture.


 It is not just Elephanta, I feel strongly about all cave architecture in Maharashtra. UNESCO has said that they will be happy to do a serial nomination if we would consider Kanheri-Karla-Bhaja, Jogeshwari also. I have worked on Jogeshwari as well. Now I am vice-chairman of INTACH, and there are many responsibilities as a result of that, and so it becomes difficult. But definitely, Elephanta, I feel, was my initiation into conservation and is therefore still very important to me. And I hope that as long as I am alive, I am able to protect it. I think not just myself, it is a consensus amongst scholars, archaeologists, and art historians that this is how the site should be preserved. Its sanctity should be preserved.