Magazine article History Today

The Legacy of the Gujarat Earthquake

Magazine article History Today

The Legacy of the Gujarat Earthquake

Article excerpt

THEY BATTLED THE MOGHULS and withstood the passing of a millennium; modernisation could not deter them -- until January 26th, 2001, when the Great Indian Earthquake shook Gujarat and nearby areas of Rajasthan with a fury mapping 8.1 on the Richter Scale, scattering amongst its rubble the heritage of a valiant land.

Jaisalmer's Golden Fort and Badal Mahal, Wankaner's Ranjit Vilas Palace, Bhuj's Old Palace complex and Prag Mahal, Morvi's Darbargarh Palace, Modhera's Sun Temple, Ahmedabad's Shaking Minarets, Mahatma Gandhi's ancestral house in Porbandar: all ravaged, all beckoning like voices from the past, with the haunting quality of a shattered dream.

Long cracks now threaten the ancestral home of Mahatma Gandhi in Porbandar, Saurashtra. The Father of the Indian Nation was born here on October 2nd, 1869, and lived here to the age of twelve years, making the century-old building a site of patriotic pilgrimage. The house where Kasturba, Gandhiji's wife, was born also suffered partial damage.

Worst hit of all was Wankaner's flamboyant Ranjit Vilas palace -- symbol of the country's regal heritage. Standing 39 kilometres northeast of Rajkot, the palace was built between 1899 and 1914 -- a symmetrical building whose spectacular arches revealed a riot of Moghul, Italian and Victorian Gothic styles along with large windows, domed towers and a frenzy of hunting trophies that loomed from the walls. The palace is today razed to the ground, with only a pile of stones left to speak for the past that once was.

Bhuj's Old Palace fared no better. The eighteenth-century century ornate balconies and stunning facade were decorated in a style unique in India, with rare glass lanterns, exquisite tile-work and intricate enamel design inspired by traders from Venice and contributing to the air of eccentric majesty, which used to be one of the state's star tourist attractions. The palace museum housed historical artefacts including letters between Viceroy Mountbatten and the Maharao of Kutch, sequined royal robes, classic Kutchi embroidery, vintage currencies and a painted scroll over 20 metres long depicting Maharao Pragmalji with an entourage of courtiers, cavalry and elephants, celebrating victory over the Moghuls in the 1850s. While the full extent of damage is still being ascertained, the damage to the collapsed ceremonial arch, which now lies upside down in a mountain of old masonry and dust, is only too obvious. The bill for reconstruction is estimated at 3.5 million pounds.

Prag Mahal, built nearby in the 1860s, displaying a combination of Moghul, British, Kutchi and Italian styles, shares the fate of its illustrious ancestor.

Rajasthan, to the north, did not escape untouched. The border city of Jaisalmer still wears a haunted look, and the 800-year-old Sonar Qila or Golden Fort, growing out of a rock of brandy topaz and set in an undulating sea of ochre sand, embodies the devastation. The yellow Jurassic sandstone fort that seems to ignite into golden flames under the desert sun, sprawling across ninety-nine bastions that house more than a quarter of the town's 40,000 residents, will need extensive efforts to reclaim its internationally celebrated glory. One of the few living forts on the planet, the Fort is the seat of the Bhatti dynasty. Also badly damaged is the brilliant Hawa Pol, one of the four gates to the fort complex, also referred to as the Echoing Wall, and the site of the johar (religious self-immolation) of the Jaisalmer womenfolk. …

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