A photographer leads a group of young volunteers to build a cultural repository of knowledge centred around the historic landmarks of India.

Delhi-based photographer Amit Pasricha is a man on a mission: to document India’s lesser-known and often forgotten heritage sites.

It was a desire that manifested over several years, one that finally culminated in a sprawling project titled, India Lost and Found (ILF) in 2018.

The unofficial figures of neglected, crumbling heritage sites in India tally around 700,000. Yet, the “official” list that enjoys the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is just3,650. It's impossible to know how many structures have already been lost or are at the risk of being lost because there aren't any official records of them.

“[The] ‘India Lost and Found’ project was born out of two things. One, as an artist, to do something beyond publishing books on monuments, and two to make an impact with my photography for the greater good,” says Amit Pasricha, the photographer, and author of “The Monumental India,” one of the world's most popular coffee table books.

Born into a family of photographers, Pasricha is the author of several coffee-table books, including India at Home (2017), which depicts a cross-section of the Indian populace in their own homes, telling a story through the images.

Among the many places he's photographed include Allahabad's Khusro Bagh; the Rajasthan forts Jaigarh and Mohangarh; Nainital's 1899 Raj Bhavan, with its Scottish-style wooden staircases and dark oak paneling; Chhattisgarh's beautiful and abandoned temples; as well as Daman and Diu's colonial forts.

The ILF project is dear to Pasricha’s heart because he has always had a soft spot for documenting the country’s neglected heritage sites. But he understood that photography can only do so much, where people often focus more on the art of the photography rather than on the subject of the photograph itself.

Ibrahim Roza, an ornate 1600s tomb containing the remains of Ibrahim Adil Shah II of the Adil Shah dynasty, in Bijapur, Karnataka.
Ibrahim Roza, an ornate 1600s tomb containing the remains of Ibrahim Adil Shah II of the Adil Shah dynasty, in Bijapur, Karnataka. (Amit Pasricha / )

The goal, Pasricha says, is to "redefine built heritage" and to create a forum "for engaging in a dialogue on built heritage”. In order to write about these lesser-known landmarks, he realised that he required the help of historical experts like William Dalrymple, social worker Laila Tyabji, and Arvind Singh Mewar, a member of the Udaipur royal family.

However, it was a task that could not be accomplished alone. So Pasricha decided to form a team of young volunteers, and together they are attempting to build a massive cultural repository of knowledge centred around the historical landmarks of India.

It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort as well as the cooperation of the general public in order to adequately document and research an undetermined number of cultural landmarks around the country.

With the help of more than 600 volunteers and patrons, he's scouring the country for historically overlooked sites and documenting them for posterity. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, ASI listings, and conservation architects, museologists, historians, heritage enthusiasts are all contributing to the endeavor.

Bahadur Shah Champaner, in Pavagadh, Champaner, Gujarat
Bahadur Shah Champaner, in Pavagadh, Champaner, Gujarat (Amit Pasricha / )

Pasricha also used social media to build awareness around the campaign and to his surprise, he found that the younger generation not only wanted to consume the content but also become a part of the project.

This was fortuitous because, in Pasricha’s opinion, the way to save these monuments is to evoke the culture that surrounds its, like a sense of the time, the people, their lives and aspirations.

“The idea is that through all that, we could get people to emotionally bond with these structures. In this way, they've got a reason to want to protect them, just like people will have a reason to want to protect their grandfather's home because the memory of his father was in that house and not because it was a structure,” Pasricha says.

In viewing heritage as open museums in nature, the project sees these structures beyond just brick and mortar.

Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, is known for its temples and monuments built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries.
Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, is known for its temples and monuments built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. (Amit Pasricha / )

Samanweeta Das, who leads the narration department in the ILF project, first came to know about ILF from social media and has been involved with the project since 2021.

“You might know about a place, but it is the stories behind the heritage structures that make a monument great,” she told TRT World. “It is our job as narrators to write enthralling stories that hook people to know more about the monuments and structures that they come across every day.”

For volunteers like Samwanweeta, the documentation of these neglected structures has been an eye-opening process.

She particularly mentions the Potagarh Fort, which is situated in the Ganjam district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

“The fact I am born and brought up in Odisha and still know so little about it made me intrigued to it. Certain facts like who has built it despite the controversy, how an epidemic in 18th century ruined it, and the reason it got its alternative name ‘Buried Fort.’ It’s not a single fort but a collection of forts, and the conversation written by one of our star narrators made me awestruck.”

To pique the interest of today's readers, who are sometimes too busy to read lengthy texts on a building's history or who just find history "boring," the heritage map was created as a way to provide readers with intriguing information by telling stories.

Currently, more than 1,000 people have volunteered their time to help preserve history for future generations.

The tomb of the mother of Zain-ul-Abidin, the 8th Sultan of Kashmir, in Srinagar.
The tomb of the mother of Zain-ul-Abidin, the 8th Sultan of Kashmir, in Srinagar. (Amit Pasricha / )

The organisation’s lack of funding means that volunteers take the initiative and lead the way in terms of content creation, animation, and research. A variety of theoretical and practical methods are employed by the organisation to help in the improvement of educational abilities and cultural knowledge.

Over ten states' worth of site data is being compiled into a single document called "sitelens" by a group of researchers working together. Using the sitelens, the reader can build and walk along with a story of their own, bringing them back to a different time and place.

The ILF library has an ongoing collection of more than 5,000 resource materials aimed at improving access to knowledge via a digital archive in the near future.

The Jami Masjid mosque in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh.
The Jami Masjid mosque in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh. (Amit Pasricha / )

The main challenge that ILF faces apart from funding is finding passionate people who would be enthusiastic about their work.

During the pandemic, there were issues regarding the organisation of all the departments. So ILF is looking at building a larger network with professors and educators who may help the project with mapping the vast heritage of India.

The ultimate goal is to create a mobile app that serves as both a virtual museum and a tour guide, complete with GPS navigation and the option to listen to recorded commentary as the user explores historic districts in cities.

“At the event when the app is finally live, it will not only be about pictures. Rather it will be about how we interpret the stories around these buildings today,” says Pasricha.

Source: TRT World