By Karan Saharya, Master in Design Studies ’20, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

In the past, conservation studies in India have mainly focused on architectural preservation efforts to protect and maintain designated monuments. In many ways, this is the legacy of the former colonial regime, which enacted stringent preservation laws and laid the academic foundation for the predominant mode of conservation we now see in modern-day India. This is exemplified in the manner in which state agencies, advocacy groups, and academics have dealt with archaeological sites, as plots entirely removed from their urban contexts.

More than ever before, these issues are coming to light in the face of rapid urbanization, technological innovations, and majoritarian politics. As a young, engaged architect and a student of the Critical Conservation program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I am interested in investigating the relationship between the production of urban space through preservation designations, and contemporary issues of spatial cleansing, social justice, and cultural transformation — particularly in post-colonial nations.

This year, I was fortunate to receive a research grant from the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, allowing me to perform research in Delhi through the summer. The focus of my study was the iconic Qutub Minar Complex, located in the ancient settlement of Mehrauli in southwest Delhi. The Qutub Minar was constructed in the 12th century and symbolized the beginning of the Islamic Sultanate in northern India. Under the British regime in the 19th century, what began as an imperial project to document ancient monuments in a new colony soon became a platform to implement preservation regulations framed by orientalist conservationists, including Alexander Cunningham and James Ferguson. Post-independence, the same frameworks continue to shape the discourse around conservation. In 1993, the Qutub Minar was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, given the influence of international cultural organizations, there is a tangible impact on urban “heritage” districts.

The methodologies I adopted entailed research of local history, policy, and urban planning relevant to India and Delhi, specifically. This study aimed to develop a new understanding of historical monuments by situating them in contemporary urban contexts rather than viewing them as revered relics. My research was performed in three broad phases.

Firstly, I conducted preliminary archival research of various textual and photographic sources, located in various institutions and libraries across Delhi. This gave me a historical understanding of the site and lay the foundation for my study of the Qutub Complex.

Secondly, I conducted interviews with various stakeholders associated with conservation in Delhi, particularly those invested in the formulation of preservation and planning regulations. My interactions with architects, archaeologists, sociologists, planners, and historians gave me a deep understanding of the site and its importance in contemporary Indian consciousness, while learning about the various processes, challenges, and implications associated with conservation in Delhi.

Thirdly, I conducted field research in Mehrauli. This was perhaps the most rewarding part of my summer, because I had the opportunity to interact with locals who reside and work around the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This uncovered the everyday exigencies that communities in Delhi’s urban villages face, from civic issues to economic activities. My research benefitted immensely from the stories I heard, the people I met, and the places I visited, allowing me to bridge the gulf between conservation as an academic endeavor and the tangible pressures of on-ground urbanization. I delved into how communities with little political agency can engage with conservation and how they can benefit from planning processes.

The study I undertook resulted in significant findings. I realized that architectural preservation is often deemed paramount to the living conditions of individuals. The creation of a palatable tourist-zone, set against the backdrop of “heritage” monuments like the Qutub Minar, entails the removal of “blighted” informality and the superimposition of state authority to cater to international capital and foreign tourists. With this form of “development,” there is large-scale eviction of low-income, historically marginalized communities around the monument complex. The process of monument designation, therefore, may infringe upon the fundamental “right to the city” for many in Delhi.

A deeper study of the Qutub Minar revealed how the monument itself has been historically used as a culturally mutable object to reiterate social and political divergences, beginning with imperialist notions of “us” and “them.” Here, multiple narratives of “heritage” presumed to be imbued in monuments like the Qutub Minar are often weaponized by political groups for electoral gain in the name of social identity. At one level, this apportions certain groups with greater “cultural capital” to organize and parcel land. Religion- and caste-based urban segregation is on the rise — all while hundreds of households continue to deal with poor sanitation facilities, improper garbage disposal, and undrinkable water. More importantly, it is symptomatic of the changing democratic landscape of India, currently witnessing a rise in religious nationalism. In this process, I was able to make connections between conservation, culture, urban identity, capitalistic development, and their impacts on marginalized communities where land remains the principal urban resource.

As a young student, this summer research project made me aware of urban inequities and has re-aligned the way I now approach architecture, planning, and conservation. None of this could have been possible without the support I received for fieldwork from the Mittal Institute, which gave me the chance to visit and learn in India. This project is therefore unique in its approach, as it shifts the focus of conservation studies from the monument as an architectural object to communities inhabiting urban land. I believe this can serve as a model for further studies across South Asia. I wish to use the learnings from my summer research to develop my graduate thesis — which will focus on other case studies across not just in India, but in other South Asian nations as well, each of which are experiencing seismic shifts by way of urbanization, migration, and politics — to ask how architects and planners can engage with future challenges.

The long-term objective of my research going forward will be to challenge deep-set notions of conservation and urban politics, to academically analyze the role of capital in shaping contemporary cities, and to search for solutions that would help communities become informed stakeholders in South Asian cities.

Saharya’s trip was supported by the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute. All photos taken and provided by Karan Saharya.