Charminar — a symbol of Hyderabad — is synonymous with the city. Referred to as the Arc de Triomphe of the East, it is Hyderabad’s first monument to represent its culture, history and architecture. Standing tall for more than four centuries, the edifice has been witness to the the development of the city from scratch.
When a portion of ornamental stucco came crashing from one of its minarets on May 2, questions about the safety of the monument were raised. However, it was not the first time that the Charminar — which is older than Taj Mahal — suffered a damage of this nature. Incidents of lime plaster peeling took place in 2010, 2001 and even earlier.
The damage to the minaret has highlighted the neglect of heritage in the city and has brought the role of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under scanner. Lack of sufficient funds, lack of coordination among various government agencies, and the alleged use of sub-standard material for conservation triggered another round of blame game.
The latest episode occurred despite the much-hyped Charminar Pedestrianisation Project (CPP) which diverted vehicular traffic around the monument to save it from pollution. In fact, ASI officials have gone on record blaming civic departments implementing CPP for the latest damage.
In recent months, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board (HMWS&SB), electricity and other departments had dug up the area around Charminar to either lay tiles or shift water and sewerage lines closer to the monument.
In utter disregard of heritage conservation rules, which prohibit any digging or construction activity in a 100-meter radius around the monument, these departments used earthmovers for digging. However, ASI officials reacted to this only after the damage was done.
“Vibrations caused by pipelines being laid about 45 feet from Charminar fencing during CPP recently and use of pneumatic drills could be the reason behind the collapse of the stucco work,” said ASI superintending archaeologist Milan Kumar Chauley.
He also voiced apprehension that the outlet of water from the pipelines under the monument could have an impact on long-term stability of the structure. As the main structure is made of stone with iron pillars, water seepage may lead to rust and widening of grafts, leading to cracks in the stones. Ultimately, the stability of the monument will suffer, they explained. They also feel vibrations due to traffic, road repairs and other digging activity will directly affect the monument. The ASI experts, after analyzing the damage, found layers of black deposits between the samples of lime plaster.
Charminar was built in 1591 by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, the fifth king of the Qutub Shahi dynasty, as foundation for Hyderabad. Hyderabad was an city just coming up Golconda Fort, the capital of the dynasty, was bursting at its seams.
The 428-year-old edifice, which stands at 160 feet from ground level, has char minars (four minarets in Urdu) — hence the name. Each minaret of the imposing structure has 4 stories with 149 steps to reach to the top. It is famous for its profuse stucco decorations and arrangement of impressive balustrades and balconies.
There are various versions as to why Qutub Shah built the monument. Many historians say it was to mark the completion of the first millennium of the Islamic calendar. It is also believed that the Charminar was built to celebrate victory over plague. There is also a legend that he built Charminar for his lover Bhagmati at the spot they first met, though the very existence of Bhagmati is questioned by historians.
The monument, made of locally sourced granite stone and lime plaster, is the finest example of Indo-Islamic or Indo-Persian style of architecture. To give strength to the structure, engineers and architects ensured that the calcium oxide in the lime plaster did not exceed 30%, while silica dioxide (sand) is below 47%. Egg white and other materials were believed to have been used for curing the lime.
Hyderabad’s first mosque
Charminar is also said to be the first mosque built outside the Golconda Kingdom, and the first government-run school. The mosque, located on the second floor, has three levels, two galleries, and an open area. The main gallery has 45 covered prayer spaces with a large open space in front to accommodate more people for Friday prayers.
Each side of the Charminar opens into a plaza-like structure where the giant arches overlook the main thoroughfares. Tourists are allowed to climb the stairs and go to the top. However, in 1986, it was closed after a family of five jumped to death. After a gap of 17 years, the ASI opened the monument for visitors in 2003. However, the visitors are not allowed to go beyond the first floor.
“Charminar is different from Taj Mahal and other monuments, which have open spaces and gardens. Charminar has been serving as economic centre from Qutub Shahi period. It is different in character. When it was built there were open spaces and there was no pressure,” P Anuradha Reddy, convenor of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) told The Federal. “Today all sorts of constructions were allowed to come up next to the monument, near it and around it which is creating complications,” she added.
With a bustling population and ever-expanding markets around the monument, it has been reduced to a traffic island. Heavy vehicular movement, pollution and smoke from nearby workshops all have robbed it off its golden yellow sheen.
Nearly 15 years ago, city buses were stopped from going too close to the monument, and recently, vehicular traffic was stopped with the implementation of CPP. “What is the use. They stopped vehicles but still use JCBs,” said Anuradha Reddy.
CPP is being implemented without consulting ASI, the custodian of the monument. “I saw how they used earthmovers in the immediate vicinity of the monument for laying the pipeline,” she said. “Charminar has an identity. It needs breathing space which we have invaded. It needs special protection which we have ignored. Every organization, authority and department has duty to protect it,” the activist said.
She feels the implementation of CPP is wrong as no comprehensive plan was made. “They do something today and some other thing tomorrow. What is required is a comprehensive plan keeping Charminar as main feature and all actors coming together,” she said.
Elusive world heritage tag
Besides Charminar, Hyderabad has ancient and unique monuments like the Golconda Fort and Qutub Shahi tombs. However, none of them could secure the coveted World Heritage Tag of the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The activists say the neglect of heritage and official apathy in proper documentation denied the monuments a place on the UNESCO list.
The organisation recognises specific landmarks as World Heritage Sites based on their historic value. In fact, the application to the UNESCO in 2010 to secure the World Heritage Site tag for Charminar was incomplete. UNESCO revealed that the Government of India submitted a nomination dossier for this site in 2010, but it was incomplete. It was not re-submitted.