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Preserving India’s Past: Law, Bureaucracy and Historical Conservation in Colonial India 1904-1925

Indra Sengupta

The project examines the ideology and practice of monument preservation and built heritage in colonial India, concentrating largely – though not exclusively – on the period 1890 to 1925, which is generally regarded as the high noon of monument preservation in India. It is also regarded as the final stage of the high noon of the British Empire in India. The study focuses on pre-colonial, mainly Hindu religious structures that, as a result of colonial official thinking on heritage and monuments, were brought under the purview of state-regulated preservation practices by means of legislation, such as the Ancient Monument Preservation Act of 1904.

The project addresses three main aspects of monument-making in colonial India:

  1. Since monument-making practices in colonial India were essentially state-driven, with colonial bureaucrats assuming the role of professional archaeologists and culture makers, the study analyses the functioning of the archaeological apparatus of the colonial state, engaging with the question of nature and implications of management of the past by a colonial bureaucracy.
  2. At the same time the study engages with the question of the extent to which a colonial state, very far removed from the locality, was in a position to ensure the success of its policy on the ground. Focusing largely on case studies drawn from the eastern region of Orissa, characterised by an abundance of ancient Hindu religious structures, the study analyses the considerable agency that rested with local religious communities and the ways in which they tried to set the agenda and drive the practice of monument preservation. By moving beyond colonial discourse and examining social practice on the ground, the study will contribute to the more recent trends in historical research on indigenous agency in colonial knowledge systems in India.
  3. A final question concerns the ways in which heritage management and monument preservation in colonial India became a part of discussions on the preservation of past structures, on the relationship between human societies and their past, on history, heritage and monuments, and the role of the state in these processes in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

The study breaks new ground by linking the practices of conservation at the level of the locality and region in India with the broader, late Victorian preservationist concerns with heritage and monument protection. It does this, not by trying to understand practices in India as a mere extension of ideas and practices common in the British metropolitan culture, but by examining the ways in which monument-making practices in colonial India became a challenge for contemporary British and European heritage thinking. It analyses how the ‘peculiarity’ of the Indian case with its often unbroken tradition of artisanship and excessively interventionist policy of a ‘guardian’ colonial state had to be accommodated in an ideology of heritage and monument-making that by the end of the nineteenth century had acquired general consensus in Europe. It will thus contribute to the on-going discussions on the ways in which colonial culture left its imprint on British metropolitan culture.

Project related publications

  • Culture-keeping as State Action: Bureaucrats, Administrators, and Monuments in Colonial India, Past and Present 226 (2015), suppl. 10, 153-177
  • Monument Preservation and the Vexing Question of Religious Structures in Colonial India, in From Plunder to Preservation. Britain and the Heritage of Empire, c. 1800-1940, eds. Astrid Swenson and Peter Mandler, Oxford, 2013, 171-85
  • “A Conservation Code for the Colony: John Marshall’s Conservation Manual and Monument Preservation between India and Europe”. In Archaeologizing Heritage?, eds. Michael Falser and Monica Juneja, Berlin, 2013, 21-37
  • Sacred space and the making of monuments in colonial Orissa, in H.R. Ray (ed.) Archaeology and Text: The Temple in South Asia, OUP, New Delhi, 2009, 168-188