Restoring the Nabha Fort: A conversation with Gurmeet S. Rai
By Sonia Dhami and Inderjit Singh Takhar
Nabha Fort is located in the historic township of Nabha. Gurmeet S. Rai and her organization, the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative, are working on restoring and preserving the historic fort. “The history of Nabha goes back to the times of Guru Hargobind. It is popularly believed that once Chowdhry Kala along with his nephew Phul visited the Guru. There the boy Phul began beating his stomach with his hands. To the Guru Sahib’s query Kala replied that perhaps the boy was hungry. ‘That cannot be’ said the Guru, ‘this boy can never be hungry, for he and his sons will rule over this land’.” .
Nabha Fort is unique in many ways, the diverse construction layers of the fort have been built over a span of more than 150 years. The complex is an interesting example of the use of traditional materials along with relatively more modern materials of the early 20th century. Moreover, Nabha fort has a variety of decorative features. The most prominent among them are the painted surfaces in various spaces of the complex. The Fort also consists of painted chambers, gilding and mirror work, colored glass and decorative fanlights, wood carvings, decorative plasterwork, stone door frames and stone jaalis.
Additionally, Nahba fort still is socially significant to the people of Nabha. The Fort invokes stories of the past Maharajas who were known to have been great institution builders and philanthropists. The conservation of the fort will allow for the restoration of a rich heritage which still hold meaning in the contemporary world and will give future generations the opportunity to experience the magnificent architecture of the Sikhs.
We at the Sikh Foundation had the unique opportunity to ask Ms. Rai about the Nabha Fort restoration. We posed a few questions relating to her current projects, her team and how she started on this journey of conservation in India. Below are the unedited responses by Ms. Rai.
Sikh Foundation (SF): What is the scope of the work entrusted to you and what does your team look like?
Gurmeet S. Rai (GSR): The project is being undertaken through the funds being made available through a loan from the Asian Development Bank. The project is called IDIPT (there is a lot of material online on this project). The objective is development of the state as a tourism destination. In order to achieve this, two circuits are being development, one with Amritsar as the gateway and the other as Chandigarh as the gateway. The one with Amritsar at its heart is called the Western circuit while the one with Chandigarh as the gateway is called the Eastern circuit. The Imperial highway more popularly known as the Grand Trunk Road is the connector between the two circuits. The Nabha fort is part of the Eastern circuit.
The Nabha fort is an unprotected monument (only a small part, the painted chambers in one of the bastions is the protected extents of the monument). Punjab government included this fort as part of the larger circuit of Patiala, Nabha and Sangrur. The allocation of funds for this building is INR 15 Crores. The building was in a very poor condition and several parts of the fort were inaccessible. This required the project to be divided into two parts. Part one, which is currently underway is for emergency stabilization, scientific investigation and removal of debris and vegetation. The next phase would entail conservation of the precinct.
The document for the Phase I was prepared by CRCI (India) Pvt Ltd, a conservation firm and was commissioned by The Nabha Foundation. The team comprised conservation architects, architects, structural engineers and civil engineers.
SF: Before a restoration project is started, is there any outreach to educate, inform and include the surrounding communities?
GSR: The outreach work was undertaken by The Nabha Foundation several years ago at the time when conservation was undertaken of the Samadh of Raja Hamir Singh (the founder of Nabha), Samadh of Maharaja Jaswant Singh and Duladhi Gate, one of the only surviving gates of the historic walled city of Nabha. More work certainly needs to be undertaken in engaging the community and to understand the needs and aspirations of the people in the context of their heritage. The ADB-IDIPT project certainly is committed to ensure that the development of tourism positively impacts the local community both as expanding knowledge, capacity building and enhancing livelihood opportunities. Resources have been allocated for this work and Government of Punjab would be required to undertake these activities in the coming months/ years.
SF: Why is this restoration important and meaningful for the people of Nabha in particular? Does it excite them and are they supportive?
GSR: My experience in Punjab is that local communities do appreciate conservation of heritage and are intrigued by the work as well. Unfortunately the state sponsored models for heritage conservation benefits very few, and seldom the marginalized. Very little is done to engage local community and to address the local needs for meaningful spaces. The understanding is normally to develop heritage for the ‘tourists’. For instance in the case of Serai Lashkari Khan the women of the nearby villages come to the serai for the grass as fodder for their cattle. This is important for them as the lands around are being built over (their families are not land owners) and village commons are given out on lease to farmers by the rural local bodies. Similarly, the larger complex along with the open spaces can be used for recreational purposes defined by the needs of the local communities in the neighboring villages. Unfortunately models of development are in favor of encouraging tourists and the local communities are undermined.
SF: There must be numerous challenges to overcome while working on a site like the Nabha Fort ? Can you please share some?
GSR: Challenges can be technical or related to inadequate skills of the workers. It could also be related to availability of resources, including financial. The biggest challenge however is to achieve a model for conservation and development based on a shared vision with the local government and the political masters…
SF: What are the other projects you are working on in Punjab? What other key monuments would you like to see restored?
(Gurmeet is currently working on several projects of which include detailed conservation plans for Serai Lashkari Khan and the conservation and reuse planning for the Qila at Patti, Tarn Taran, Punjab. For more information please visit her website at www.CRCI.co.in)
SF: Being a Sikh yourself, does this project have any personal significance and unique appeal for you?
GSR: Yes, the entire cultural landscape of Punjab inspires me. At the same time I become deeply affected when I experience comprised interventions that are not true to the values of Punjabiyat. Heritage is the manifestation of the values that I hold dear to us as both, a Punjabi and a Sikh. In the case of Nabha, the need to conserve its heritage is for the sake of the profound legacy of both Maharaja Hira Singh and Maharaja Ripudaman Singh. This must be protected and recognized by all, both in the region and Nationally. I also believe we as a community are not understood because we have not made a collective effort to present our world view which has at its centre the legacy of the Sikh faith.
Gurmeet S. Rai is currently working the restoration/conservation of Nabha Fort through the conservation consultancy firm, the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI). She is a conservation architect based in New Delhi, India. She graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from the Chandigarh College of Architecture in 1988, followed by Master’s in Architectural Conservation from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, in 1989-1990. In her initial years of professional practice she worked in the Architectural Heritage Department of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in New Delhi. This gave her the opportunity to observe and understand the challenges of conservation practice in the country and in 1996 she set up the CRCI and began her own work to preserve cultural architecture.