Patna’s Heritage Nightmare: Razing Historical Buildings to Make Way for Luxury Hotels
Bihar heritage is not confined only to what is buried below the ground,” fumes a Patna-based historian on the mindless demolition of heritage buildings in the city to make room for vanity projects
Bihar’s heritage is not confined only to what is buried below the ground,” fumes an exasperated Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed, historian and former director of the prestigious Khuda Baksh Oriental Library in Patna. He was reacting to the mindless demolition of heritage buildings in the city to make room for either vanity projects or shopping complexes or offices and even new housing.
New five-star hotels are also a big hit, it seems, with the bureaucracy, possibly driven by the felt need to give the state capital an image makeover. Plans have been cleared for three new five-star hotels at a distance of less than three kilometres from one another.
How many five-star hotels does Patna need, people ask. Most are convinced that prime public land is being given away to real estate sharks and hotel chains. They are clinging to the hope that the new government will do something to reverse this trend.
The proposal to demolish Sultan Palace was in some ways the last straw—it really upset people who take some pride in Patna’s built heritage. Sultan Palace, built in 1922, is the only structure of its kind in the city, representing what architects and conservationists refer to as a modified Indo-Islamic style. Mercifully, civil society has managed to get over its initial shock to try and mobilise support to save Sultan Palace.
Sultan Palace draws its name from barrister Sultan Ahmad, who had it built, and served as a judge in the Patna High Court. He was also the first Indian vice-chancellor of Patna University between 1923 and 1930, and a member of the Indian delegation, led by Mahatma Gandhi, to the Round Table Conferences in the 1930s between the British Government and Indian political personalities to discuss constitutional reforms in India.
Aditya Jalan, who runs a private museum he inherited, sees a familiar pattern. Several heritage buildings in the city, he says, have not been maintained for years. It then becomes relatively easy to declare the structures to be unfit and call for their demolition. The real estate mafia, he is convinced, have set their eyes on the buildings.
It was criminal to use the Sultan Palace as the office of the state transport corporation, says Jalan. Former head of department of ancient Indian history and archaeology, prof O.P. Jayaswal, and former director of Khuda Baksh Oriental Public Library prof Imtiaz Ahmed are equally anguished.
In a letter to the Governor, members of the civil society have urged him to intervene and stop the demolition of Sultan Palace. Former IPS officer Amitabh Kumar Das, who returned his Police Medal in protest against the proposal to demolish a part of the Khuda Baksh Library, plans to put up a legal challenge along with the grandson of Sultan Ahmed.
Conservation architect Manish Chakrovarty who led the UNESCO’s award-winning restoration project of Dutch heritage buildings in Serampore (West Bengal) had weighed in favour of proper restoration of heritage buildings instead of demolishing them.
The suspicion that the real estate mafia are eyeing the property was fuelled because the government jettisoned an earlier proposal to turn Sultan Palace, located in the heart of the city on Beer Chand Patel Marg (Gardiner Road), into a heritage hotel. The state government now plans to demolish the building and hand over the sprawling ground to the highest bidder to build yet another five-star hotel. Another plot at the former bus depot next to iconic Gandhi Maidan and the former ITDC Pataliputra are also expected to be auctioned for hotel developers.
While protests by civil society saved the Curzon Reading Room at the Khuda Baksh Library from the bulldozers, Dutch buildings at the Collectorate had no such luck. The then Dutch ambassador had urged the chief minister in vain to preserve the collectorate, describing it as a ‘shared heritage’ of the two countries.
However, even the Supreme Court rejected the plea by heritage body INTACH, which was fighting a legal battle since 2019 to save the collectorate complex. Now 80 per cent of the collectorate stand demolished.
Historian Syed Irfan Habib pointed out that Patna’s is not an isolated example. “The Jallianwala Bagh has been reduced to a picture gallery and major portions of the National Archives and the National Museum are also being demolished,” he pointed out. The National Museum, he recalled, was built under the constant supervision of Jawaharlal Nehru and “rare manuscripts and documents from the archives are dumped in some rooms in Delhi’s hotel Janpath”.
The Bihar government is also reportedly planning to construct a chain of eateries (dhabas) on national and state highways for tourists and pilgrims. They will come up at 30-kilometre gaps on way to Gaya, Bodh Gaya, Rajgir, Nalanda, Pawapuri, Kaimur, Sitamarhi, Vaishali and Valmikinagar.
While officials hope to generate employment and attract more pilgrims and tourists, people question why the government plans to construct the dhabas before allotting them to individuals, and also facilitate loans on easy terms to the entrepreneurs.
Sources in the tourism department claim that the red carpet became necessary because there were no takers when the state government invited entrepreneurs to build these dhabas at their own expense.
There has been no dearth of planning for tourism promotion in the state though. Even the Government of India had engaged M/S Consulting Engineering Services Pvt Ltd in 2003 to prepare a 20-year plan for tourism in Bihar. A voluminous, 241-page document is still available in public domain but successive governments and bureaucrats do not seem to have looked at it yet.