Vanishing City | Why Patna Must Worry About Its Heritage !

In my living memory, I have seen people of Patna worry over a number of issues, from crime, to IIT exams and caste-based marriage, but never about the heritage of their city, let alone it soul.

The occasional display of ‘concern’ related to things of the past have been manifested either in terms of forced realignment of a flyover to ‘save’ a small worship place from being relocated or vociferous demands for rechristening an old park or street ‘named after an Angrez’.

Lately, even the speculation of a big mall in Patna facing closure triggered anxiety among people but Dutch-era Patna Collectorate facing the wrecking ball hardly left anyone moved, as if it was ‘business as usual’.

The microscopic minority, group that I also belong to, which are shocked by the demolition move, is an exception that proves the rule that people in general in this historic city have turned apathetic towards preservation of their past, especially built heritage, a sign that doesn’t bode well for its future.

From the dismantling of the iconic Dak Bungalow in the 90s to the proposed razing of the historic Patna Collectorate, Patna has changed in multiple ways, but what has remained constant in these over two decades is apathy of people towards heritage.

Dak Bungalow as seen in the 70s PC Rajiv Soni

The demolition of the Dak Bungalow should have spawned a preservation movement in the city just like the Pensylvinia railway station (a Beaux Art jewel) dismantling did in New York City leading to enactment of a heritage preservation legislation and setting up of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965.

The legislation is said to have saved over 2,000 heritage buildings in New York and the city’s Grand Central station stands as the finest testimony to that vision. A couple of years ago, US Consulate in Kolkata even hosted a travelling exhibition ‘Landmarks of New York’ in Patna displaying rare black and white images of the city, marking 50 years of the passing of the heritage legislation but it hardly interested anyone. I wish people had poured in to understand New York that it is more than just skyscrapers as stereotyped in Bollywood films.

But, unlike the New York City, where people demanded from the government laws to protect their built heritage, in Patna, the apathy and indifference only got magnified with passing years. And, so buildings after buildings, some of them palatial and majestic, and bearing signatures of historic past, kept disappearing, without as much as a whimper of protest.

How many people from today’s generation would know that a historic Central Jail stood on Fraser Road at the site currently occupied by the Buddha Smriti Park, the jail in which so many of our revolutionaries were imprisoned and which should have been kept as a memorial to them.

Or, the ‘Indian Nation’ press building opposite it, a palatial building of the Raj Darbhanga which ran the celebrated daily. Or the grand ‘Nawab Manzil’ next to the newspaper office, which disappeared long ago without a trace, for lack of any preservation policy on the part of government.

After Bankipore Central Jail disappeared in 2010, the colonial-era heritage bungalows on Bailey Road followed next to make way for a world-class museum. The project was ambitious and praiseworthy and could have been located in open areas like Bailey Road western extension or Anisabad or Phulwari Sharif, but lack of proper urban planning policy dealt a blow to the city’s built heritage.

The Civil Surgeon’s Bungalow and District and Session Judge Bungalow near Gandhi Maidan soon made way for an under-construction international convention centre right next to the existing S K Memorial Hall. But, then if people of Patna were exulting about the new infrastructure explosion in the city and not ruing the loss of heritage buildings which carried history within their walls, both architectural as well as socio-political, why should the government of the day be just held responsible for loss of Patna’s heritage, after all it listens to the will of the people.

And, the will of the people doesn’t seem to favour preservation of the city’s past for posterity, painting a sad commentary on the future we are going to bequeath to the next generation.

And, as real estate prices hit the sky, even private heritage buildings like ‘Hasan Manzil’ either made way for high-rises or were obscured by ugly apartments erected in front of them in areas which once were their gardens. ‘Rizwan Castle’ and ‘Sultan Palace’ perhaps two of the grandest buildings in Patna are still ruing their woeful fate. But, then does any Patnwallah feel their pain? They would rather be happy to see them replaced by malls and multiplexes I guess.

The fate of heritage building in old Patna City area, the least said the better. Development is taking its toll and instead of moving toward a holistic growth plan where old and new can co-exist in harmony, the old buildings are being demolished ruthlessly with as much derision as ignorance.

The ones which have survived to this day are either in very bad shape or waiting for the wrecking ball. The plight of heritage buildings in Patna is unbearable to say the least.

And, while it is easy to apportion blame to the government for the mess our old buildings and landmarks are in, people must wise up and realise that in a democracy, they have the power to protest, oppose, challenge and demand a law if need be.  Sitting silently first and then shedding tears on the day the bulldozers move in, is not a sign of a matured democracy or a healthy society.
Patna Collectorate, parts of which are original Dutch structures dating to early 18th century having high ceilings and hanging skylights, also contains a handsome British-era building erected in 1938, the District Board Patna, the inside walls of which supporting the high ceilings are endowed with flat Corinthian columns and floral motifs.

In the Record Room (Dutch building) and the DM Office, parts of Oscar-winning film ‘Gandhi’ were shot. I wonder how many of you knew that connection? And, will you still sit silent and watch the wrecking ball move closer or do something and intervene?

Our campaign – Save Historic Patna Collectorate – kickstarted on April 3 was triggered by the successive loss of built heritage of the city, and it ultimately seeks to foster a people-driven preservation movement in Patna and Bihar, and enactment of a separate legislation for saving unprotected heritage buildings in the state.

Patna has a population of nearly 20 lakh but in the first 50 days, we have managed to get just 800 supporters (likes on our campaign page on Facebook, many from outside India), but a murder in Siwan or Sunny Leone performance in Patna goes viral.

A commerce-driven city that rejects is past, art, architecture and aesthetics for a mere glass-and-concrete future ends up endangering its future.

Patna seems to be on growth steroids right now where people are getting seduced by big buildings projects which, incidentally also increase carbon footprint of the place. Blinded by crass commercialism of ‘Big Bazar’ and ‘McD’ and ‘KFC’ culture, we are being fooled by the market forces to believe that these are the indices of development and keeping our heritage is obsolete notion.

Heritage builds are the ornaments of a city and all world-class cities from London to Prague and Paris to Berlin and Amsterdam to Tokyo have preserved their built heritage with pride and showcased it to the wider world. Cities which have destroyed their past have paid their price in future.

India is a country of glorious civilisation and glorious decay and no other city is perhaps more symptomatic of that notion than Patna.

If properly preserved over these nearly seven decades after Independence, Patna could have been a top contender for a UNESCO World Heritage City, but alas we lost the vision long ago, and, instead we have turned into a poor photocopy of metro cities, equating malls and multiplexes with its development while conveniently forgetting or worse choosing to ignore its very soul that now resides in its decaying heritage, albeit wounded.

But, there is never late for course correction. And, so it is time, we shrugged off our inertia, let go of our apathy and walk out of our cozy shells to actively contribute towards building an organic city that allows heritage to breathe and survive as memories of our past, to preserve history indiscriminately and hand it over to the next generation.

If we can come together in huge number, the government will listen to us and spare the demolition. If we can together save the Patna Collectorate, we will set a precedent for saving other heritage buildings across Bihar from demolition. But, if we fail save this landmark, it will set a precedent that will further jeopardise the fate of rest of built heritage of Bihar.

There is no greater tragedy for a city than it losing its memory. Patna seems to be heading precariously in that direction. So, let us come together and make sure we bequeath a beautiful future to our posterity and not a concrete jungle, filthy rich but devoid of any soul.

For showing support to Save Historic Patna Collectorate  campaign you can visit and like this page.

 Views expressed are personal and not related to any organisation Author is employed or associated with.