Time to clinch restoration of Mubarak Mandi

Ajay Khajuria
Describing of ‘Reverence for Heritage’ as one of the two main pillars of India’s progress in the 21st Century, on an equal pedestal with ‘Development’ as the other pillar, by the Prime Minister in a recent tweet, bodes well for Jammu’s historical and political stature. A foretaste of this was the unequivocal endorsement of declaring a holiday on the birth anniversary of Maharaja Hari Singh by the Home Minister of India during his visit in early October 2022 and the unveiling of a statue of Maharaja Gulab Singh, the iconic founder of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir at its gateway, Lakhanpur, by the Union Minister of State in PMO in March 2022, followed by the emphatic assertion of the positive role of Maharaja Hari Singh during the cataclysmic events of 1947 by the Union Law Minister.
The role of heritage conservation in nation building is discernable from the special importance accorded to preservation of their heritage by countries, regions and communities across the globe, with its most visible aspect being the monuments comprising outstanding heritage buildings and structures displaying unique architecture and embodying the past grandeur in arts and culture, achieved by their ancestors. One over-riding raison d’etre behind conservation of monuments is that, as symbols of historical achievements of the glorious past, they provide a sense of continuity, identity and pride to successive generations thereby boosting their collective self-esteem and inspiring them towards higher achievements. To ensure the protection and preservation of their integrity, specific laws have been universally enacted and National as well as International conservation protocols stand adopted.
The second, though not the lesser, rationale is that such monuments provide immense economic benefits to local economies in terms of tourism generation. In fact, heritage and culture based tourism has traditionally comprised a major segment of the tourism industry across continents, and studies have revealed that a tourist spends more, and stays longer, at destinations showcasing these assets. As per the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), this segment accounts for around 40% of the total International tourist traffic worldwide, with umpteen heritage sites, like the Tower of London (UK), the Palace of Versailles (France), the Himeji Castle (Japan), Independence Hall (USA), etc. attracting millions of tourists every year and contributing substantially to the National incomes of the host countries.
In India, Culture and Heritage are the back-bone of the tourism industry which yielded over $ 30 billion in foreign exchange during the year 2019. Rajasthan which accounts for over 11% of the total foreign tourist arrivals in India has hundreds of protected monuments, with several having been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These serve as virtual magnets attracting foreign as well as domestic tourists in lakhs, and making tourism in Rajasthan a multi-billion dollar industry. Similarly, several other States and Union Territories, like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, etc., are also raking in huge returns from the tourism industry based on their heritage and culture. The question is that why Jammu should not get its due share by appropriately conserving and showcasing its rich heritage, especially the Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex which has the potential to put Jammu on the World Heritage Tourism Map.
The symbolic recognition of the erstwhile Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir has fired the enthusiasm of Jammu’s inhabitants, and has lifted their morale after decades of somewhat cynical brooding. To translate this energy into tangible social, economic and political outcomes the legacy bequeathed by these great personalities needs to be befittingly highlighted in its complete historical and cultural context. For this, it is important to bring into focus the rich and multifaceted heritage passed on by the entire pantheon of Maharajas, Generals and warriors of the Dogra era, including the geographical outcomes of their military prowess and political astuteness; the core values demonstrated by their successful, even handed governance of a multicultural population for over a century; and, their progressive social, economic and developmental perspectives which laid the foundations of this modern State/Union Territory.
Amongst the numerous vestiges of their pioneering achievements in different fields of human endeavor, the architectural genius of the magnificent Mubarak Mandi Palace Complex, Jammu, their erstwhile seat of power, stands out as an iconic edifice symbolizing Jammu’s identity and culture. It presents the most appropriate platform for showcasing, before the World as well as the future generations, the history and past glory of the people, of all faiths, who inhabit this region. With around 25 heritage buildings built around several courtyards, it has sufficient space to dedicate galleries to highlight the life and achievements of not only Maharaja Hari Singh, Maharaja Gulab Singh, and other Maharajas in the lineage who made sterling contributions in consolidating the State, but also of the outstanding warriors like General Zorawar Singh, Brigadier Rajinder Singh and others who crafted history by their deeds of valour and sacrifice. It also has the appropriate spaces to display the culture, pageantry, cuisine, arts and crafts of all diverse regions of the erstwhile undivided State including, besides Jammu, the Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral territories.
It was in pursuance to this vision to place Jammu on the Global heritage tourism map that comprehensive, and professionally driven, conservation of the Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex mooted by the J&K Tourism Department in 2006 was approved by the Union Ministry of Tourism, and funds released for initiating conservation of the complex as a cultural tourism attraction. Implementation was taken up in all seriousness and the State Government constituted the Mubarak Mandi Jammu Heritage Society, under the chairmanship of the Chief Minister, comprising top Government functionaries and an equal number of prominent and knowledgeable citizens of Jammu as members, to ensure fast track decision making, transparency and close monitoring of the conservation work.
Though the Society initially entrusted the conservation work to the Archeological Survey of India (ASI), in the face of slow pace of the work, which invited public criticism, and the categorical expression of their inability to execute the work beyond a specified amount of expenditure every year by ASI, the Society decided, in the year 2016, to adopt a well established and quicker alternative. This entailed engagement of qualified, reputed and appropriately experienced conservation consultants to assist in the execution of the work as per International conservation norms, on several heritage buildings simultaneously, through different, carefully identified, expert agencies.
Efforts to push the pace of work accordingly got a boost when, in 2019, a comprehensive ‘Conservation and Adaptive Reuse Plan’ for the Complex prepared by internationally acknowledged consultants appointed by the Society, was approved by the Government and an amount of Rs 65 crores sanctioned for immediate commencement of work on 6 components in the first instance. These included the Central Courtyard; Durbar Hall, Dogra Art Museum, Raja Amar Singh Palace, Raja Ram Singh Palace; and Mahals of Raja Ram Singh’s Queens. Start of work on these components in right earnest appeared to set the tone for quick progress in conservation of the Mubarak Mandi complex and raised hopes of its completion within a couple of years.
The proposed reuse, based on interactions between a cross-section of society associated with the project for over a decade, includes activities permissible within the constraints of architectural conservation, and envisages activities expected to provide economic opportunities for locals; and to generate income for sustaining its operational and maintenance costs besides re-organizing the existing archives, library and the Dogra Art Museum. For this purpose the complex is proposed to be organized into six zones. This includes Zone 1 comprising the Central Courtyard which will be the focal point for renewed civic pride, and a centre for cultural activity including sound & light/lazer shows, etc, Zone 2 as the Knowledge Centre with activities like Exhibitions and Conferences, Visitor Information Centre, Archives, Manuscripts library, Conservation Resource Centre, etc; Zone 3 comprising Interpretation Centre and Collection Based Galleries providing historical displays and experiences, paintings, armory, sculptures, museum shops, etc; Zone 4 having Lifestyle Galleries of the royals and different regions, music galleries, etc; Zone 5 offering experiences of the architectural marvel of Gole Gole, etc; and, Zone 6 comprising the Crafts Centre.
The restored and culturally active Mubarak Mandi complex, is envisaged as the primary hub for representing the unique and rich cultural heritage of Jammu & Kashmir, and infusing pride and motivation amongst coming generations, besides promoting fusion between different cultures. It is further expected to give a boost to the local tourism industry by inducing a portion of the Vaishnodevi Yatris to spend an extra night or more in Jammu, as well as by attracting tourists interested in the diverse Indian heritage from all over the World. It will also contribute to the urban rejuvenation of the old city areas lying in close vicinity of the complex, like Chowk Chabutra, Panjtirthi, Pakki Dhaki, Jain Bazaar, etc.
With the new approach to heritage, as indicated by the UT Government and the Central leadership, it is hoped that the apparent jinx on conservation of Mubarak Mandi will now be broken. People are fed up with the ambivalence demonstrated by delays as well as diversions like the ill conceived, and blatantly illegal, ‘Expression of Interest’ issued for destroying priceless and protected heritage to construct a commercial hotel. Images appearing in media showing parts of different Palaces in Mubarak Mandi collapsing in quick succession during the recent monsoons too are fresh in public memory. The apparently perfunctory approach exemplified by removal of the roofs of heritage buildings in the complex just before the recent monsoons, leaving the centuries old walls open to sky during heavy downpours, and the commencement of work on the old library building without first providing the mandated support to its old heritage roof and walls, resulting in its total collapse, have brought the citizens patience on edge. Concerns are also rife about possible damage to the murals, paintings and other artful designs existing on walls and roofs of the heritage buildings, besides other unique features of its architecture.
It’s high time that the required corrective measures are vigorously taken for putting the restoration of this priceless heritage back on rails in accordance with the norms, and the approved conservation and reuse plan implemented in letter and spirit. Besides being a true tribute to the founders of the erstwhile State and immortalizing its past glory, this will also position Mubarak Mandi, according to its due, as an outstanding show-window on heritage and culture of Jammu and Kashmir, contributing substantially to its tourism economy.
(The author is a retired JKAS officer and formerly, the Director Tourism Jammu and founding Member-Secretary (ex-officio) cum Executive Director of the Mubarak Mandi Jammu Heritage Society.