As news of the Colosseum’s vandalism sparked widespread condemnation across the world, many in India have raised an amused eyebrow. Defacing heritage monuments with love notes etched into ancient walls is a common sight in India. Despite stringent laws, what makes vandalizing an accepted norm?
Last month, a British tourist’sact of carving names into a wall at Rome’s ancient Colosseum amphitheater prompted outrage in Italy and world over.
The incident was filmed by another visitor who criticized the act and handed over the footage to security officials.
In the video, the UK tourist is seen carving on a Colosseum wall–in what is believed to be his and his woman companion’s names.
Now the man, a fitness instructor, is facing possible jail term and a huge fine, if charged and convicted.
Officials in Italy took the matter seriously calling it an ‘absurd act’.
But many in India found the irony amusing, comparing it to the vandalism culture in India where defacing of walls is a permanent feature at protected heritage sites.
The Reporter’s View
It is fairly common to see scribbles on walls of India’s long list of heritage monuments.
India has nearly 3,700 centrally protected monuments. Of these, 40 are World Heritage Sites. This means that they are of ‘outstanding universal value’.
But most monuments are filled with scrawls – markings that announce visits to the heritage site, declarations of love, slogans, scandalous accusations, or simply profane words.
‘Chal mere bhai’ (‘Let’s go, brother’); ‘Sunil was here’; ‘Raju loves Soma’; ‘Tumerijaanhai’ (‘You’re my life’); ‘Mujhemaafkar do’ (‘Please forgive me’); ‘Hassan and Sultana’… these are just some examples of the kind of defacement the monuments face in the country and the list is endless.
According to historian Sriram V, people often go beyond merely scribbling on walls. “They inscribe their names or scribbles using sharp objects so that they stay forever,” he told a local media outlet.
Why do people like to deface monument walls?
Experts believe it is to mark their presence in history.
“It has been an age old practice,” says archaeologist Milan Chauley in a report by The News Minute, adding that it started from the time of the “cave paintings made by early humans.”
“In that sense, it is in-built in us,” he said.
Many also believe that it is a lack of awareness and education that leads to less civic sense among visitors.
But critics point out that it is the duty of the government to protect these monuments from defacing.
Monuments attract tourism and add to the nation’s economy.
According to the World Tourism Organization, 40% of international tourism is inspired by cultural and heritage sites.
Earlier this year, India’s Finance Ministry allocated a $150 million to the Archaeological Society of India for protection, preservation and conservation of centrally protected monuments.
There is also the challenge of rapid urbanization in the country’s budding metro cities.
The national capital of Delhi for example, has a population of nearly 33 million people. Nearly 29,000 people live within every square mile, making Delhi one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
This often results in urban villages and housing sprouting everywhere around a monument, blocking it in, or completely encroaching upon it. It attracts more vandalism as there is hardly anyone left to visit these sites or guard them properly.
According to conservationist and historian Swapna Liddle, authorities need to think more about integrating heritage sites with public parks or open spaces.
There is a lack of micro-level planning, Liddle is quoted as saying in local media reports.
The Indian government’s ‘Adopt a Heritage’ initiative, started in 2017 allowed corporates to adopt a heritage site for its maintenance and upkeep. But it faced criticism for leasing out heritage sites to private enterprises.
Earlier this year, the government launched a revised version of the scheme, called ‘Monument Mitra’ or a friend of the monument – that aims to hand over a part of a heritage building could be handed over to one or more bidders for maintenance – including protection against vandalism.
In addition to the initiative, India already has stringent laws against defacing heritage sites.
Destroying, misusing, or altering a protected monument can result in up to two years of jail term and up to 100,000 rupees of fine, according to the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
These laws came into light especially after the incident of vandalism at a UNESCO World Heritage site in the southern Indian town of Hampi in 2019. In a video that went viral, four teenagers were seen pulling down an ancient pillar, causing it to break.
The teenagers were made to pay $980 each and fix the pillar along with officials.
While this hasn’t really stopped miscreants from scrawling at the walls, experts believe another measure could be to increase the ticket price for entering the monuments – or a special fee for access to a separate or special area of the monuments.
Preserving heritage seriously is a lesson recently learnt again from Italy. Robust policies and resources are needed to ensure that no only more guards are put in place to check wall defacing, but also visitors are reminded at entry of the damage they would be doing to history if indulging in vandalism – or the harsh penalties they could face.