Laws protecting India’s heritage


The Constitution of India clearly delineates the jurisdiction over India’s cultural heritage, monuments and archaeological sites. However, are heritage laws enough to protect the country’s rich heritage, asks Kunal Singh.

India is one of the few nations in the world with an unparalleled cultural heritage. It has also been the reason of innumerable foreign invasions that have marked the country’s history for thousands of years.

So, a July 2020 judgment by the Supreme Court upholding the rights of the Travancore royal family to administer and manage the property at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, one of the richest temples in the country, is deemed to be ‘landmark’ and a ‘game changer’ by many jurists. The case has also sparked discussions on whether heritage laws are enough to protect the country’s rich heritage.

The Apex Court judgment reversed the Kerala High Court’s 2011 order that had directed the state government to set up a trust to take control of management and assets of the temple. The top court also directed preparation of a detailed inventory of the valuables, ornaments and articles in the temple’s vaults (kallaras). Former chairman of the Supreme Court Committee on Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple treasures, C V Ananda Bose, applauded the Apex Court judgment and described it as, “A game changer which will value faith and religion, rituals and will respect heritage.”

Kerala temple sets example

An architectural marvel, the construction of the temple is an amalgamation of the Dravidian and Chera styles of architecture also featuring a 16th century gopura. In its present form, the temple was built in the 18th century by the Travancore Royal House that integrated into the Indian Union in 1947. Lord Padmanabha (Vishnu) is the family deity. The royal family had also been protecting the temple treasure for more than a thousand years, including keeping it safe from the preying British who eventually took over the temple administration in 1811.Even after India’s Independence, the erstwhile royal family continued to govern the temple through a trust.

The five vaults opened from 2011 onwards are said to have a treasure trove comprising gold, silver, precious stones amassed during the rule of the Travancore kings. The opening of the temple vaults led to the discovery of the treasures and initiated a debate on who owns the temple property and how it must be regulated. The assets of temples are governed by statutory laws and regulated boards controlled by the state government. The laws were introduced to ensure temples are treated as ‘public land’ and ‘all’ including untouchables are welcome to pay obeisance. With time, however, several temples got into legal battles to assert ownership and independence.

Constitution of India delineates jurisdiction

According to the Indian Constitution, the jurisdiction over India’s cultural heritage, monuments and archaeological sites is as follows:

The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological sites and remains, declared by Parliament, by law to be of national importance are under the Union List (central government).The Ancient and Historical Monuments, other than those declared by Parliament to be of national importance, are under the State List (state governments).
Besides the two categories, both Union and the States have ‘Concurrent’ jurisdiction over Archaeological Sites and Remains other than those declared by law and Parliament to be of national importance.
Article 253 of the Constitution of India enables Parliament to legislate for the implementation of any treaty, agreement or convention with any other country or countries, or any decision, made at any international conference, association or other body. Any such legislation can be enacted even if the subject matter of the legislation is an item in the State List of the Constitution of India.

Responsibility of citizens in protecting heritage

There are several other provisions in the Constitution that lay responsibility of preserving and protecting the country’s heritage on Indian state and its citizens.

Article 29 of the Indian Constitution states: “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”

According to Article 51 A (f) of the Constitution: “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture; and (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures.”

Article 49 of the Indian Constitution protects the country’s built heritage: “It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, (declared by or under law made by Parliament) to be of national importance, from spoilation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.”

Statutory provisions to preserve heritage

The first law protecting heritage was enacted in pre-Independence India through the Bengal Regulation XIX of 1810 and the Madras Regulation VII of 1817. Act XX was passed in 1863 empowering the government ‘to conserve structures of historical or architectural value’.

The Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904 allowed government authority over privately owned heritage structures. The Antiquities Export Control Act, 1947 and Rules regulate the export of antiquities.

The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Declaration of National Importance) Act, 1951 replaced the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. It was later replaced by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 that provides for “preservation of ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance, for the regulation of archaeological excavations and for the protection of sculptures, carvings and other like objects.”

The Delivery of Books (Public Libraries) Act, 1952 provides for delivery of books to the National library and Public Libraries. It was amended in 1965 and named as the Delivery of Books & Newspaper (Public Libraries) Amendment Act, 1956.

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 states, “export trade in antiquities and art treasures is regulated and smuggling and fraudulent dealings in antiquities and ancient monuments are prevented.”

The Public Records Act, 1993 empowers the Central Government in the Department of Culture “to permanently preserve public records which are of enduring value.”

Heritage-rich states create local laws

Several Indian states with rich architectural and built heritage have enacted local legislations and state heritage laws to protect their monuments and preserve history. The Heritage Commission Act, 2001 of West Bengal provides for the “establishment of a Heritage Commission in the State of West Bengal for the purpose of identifying heritage buildings, monuments, precincts and sites and for measures for their restoration and preservation.”

The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Preservation Act, 1956 of Uttar Pradesh provides for the “preservation of ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains in (the state) other than those declared by Parliament by law to be of national importance.” Some other examples include Tamil Nadu Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1966; Salar Jung Museum Act, 1961; Victoria Memorial Act, 1903; Rajasthan Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Antiquities Act, 1961; Orissa Ancient Monuments and Preservation Act, 1956; Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority Act, 2002; Jammu and Kashmir Heritage Conservation and Preservation Act, 2010; etc.

The heritage of the country is governed by the law of the land. These are ascertained by constitutional provisions; laws or acts created by the Parliament or a State Assembly; and subordinate legislation created through Byelaws, Rules, Regulations under certain acts.

In independent India’s history, several Public Interest Litigations (PILs) have also been filed in the Apex Court to highlight and resolve an issue of public interest and not of a personally motivated interest. Apart from the law, it’s the duty of every citizen of the country to protect and preserve the centuries-old rich heritage of the nation.

Kunal Singh

Kunal Singh is a legal researcher working with The History and Heritage Project – A DraftCraft International Initiative to document details, analyse facts and plug lacunae generated by oversight or to further national or foreign agenda in History and Heritage Across India and Beyond Borders.