At history's crossroads for more than 2,000 years, India is the birthplace of three major religions—Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism—while Christianity and Islam arrived with empires that ruled the country for centuries. All left their monumental marks, from temples to palaces. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a private NGO based in New Delhi, counts 70,000 historic monuments across the country, and R.P. Pereira in the New Delhi office of UNESCO—whose World Heritage Committee meets this week in Durban, South Africa, to review global conservation efforts—calls India "the world's biggest heritage site." But even conservationists like Thakur admit that it's impossible, even immoral, for a developing nation with a quarter of the world's poorest inhabitants to spend the fortune needed to preserve that history. The country's main heritage body, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is so constrained financially that it limits its care to just 3,653 buildings—and, even for these, worries remain. The ASI's 2004-5 budget of $58 million works out at less than $16,000 per monument—and that's before paying for 8,000 staff and the running costs of 40 ASI museums. ASI director general C. Babu Rajeev says monument protection is often reduced to a single gateman for several sites.
It's not just obscure treasures like the mausoleum-lavatory that are under threat. Even the Taj Mahal, India's (and Islam's) most famous building, may be endangered. UNESCO has warned that sulfurous pollution from the city of Agra is eating away at the building's exquisite inlaid marble and that sewage water is seeping into the foundations; the organization has also asked for a report to address claims that the 350-year-old tomb is tilting by 19 cm, leading to fears that it might eventually collapse. Meanwhile, India's foremost Hindu site, the southern city of Hampi, has appeared on UNESCO's endangered list for five years over plans to build a road nearby, and the city's magnificent central concourse has been irreparably damaged by shops, restaurants and hotels that have covered historic façades with plaster, paint and neon. In western India, the Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar is not even on the list of protected monuments. Traffic swarms around its walls, staining and rotting them with acrid fumes, while a Sikh group from England has covered many of the original murals with what conservationist Gurmeet Rai, a former student of Thakur, describes as "avocado-green bathroom tiles and plastic stickers" and has regilded the famous dome using cement, which she says is trapping moisture in the walls.
The Buddhist heartland in eastern India has fared worst of all. The original fig tree at Bodhgaya—under which Prince Siddhartha became the enlightened Buddha—burned down centuries ago. Today, hawkers sell leaves from a replacement tree for $1 apiece. A swath of hotels and shops encroach on the temple complex, and police say looters have stolen hundreds of artifacts, an allegation that temple manager Kallicharan Yadav dismisses as "baseless." What is undeniable is that Hindu priests have turned parts of the Buddhist holy site into shrines to their own gods. A day's drive away, Nalanda University, the wellspring from which ideas of Nirvana and reincarnation washed across the world from the 5th to 12th centuries, is nowadays a forgotten pile of bricks and weeds. Faced with this overwhelming array of neglected treasures, Thakur concedes: "Sometimes it's all so depressing, I don't even want to think about it."
A bright, bustling 52-year-old known for her uncompromising sense of purpose, Thakur found her calling as a conservationist when she moved from Madras—"not a beautiful city"—to New Delhi in the 1970s to study architecture. Awed by the 2,000 Mughal, Hindu and British buildings in the capital, she considered becoming a tour guide until her professor persuaded her to write a thesis on Nizamuddin, the city's Muslim quarter. She soon realized she was the first to systematically chronicle the area and was effectively "rediscovering a city." After stumbling upon a whole palace complex in the Mehrauli district of South Delhi that was being demolished, Thakur had a eureka moment. "I thought, 'This is our history. This is who we are. We've got to take this seriously.'" She trained as a conservationist in Rome, won a scholarship to the archeology school at England's University of York, then returned home a quarter of a century ago to use her restoration skills and to help set up the country's only degree-level conservation course. Thakur has trained 120 students at the School of Planning and Architecture—a small but determined army of conservationists. Even so, she often feels isolated and overwhelmed. "It's tough," she says. "I'm on my own."
Walking through Nizamuddin's back alleys, past tombs that have been converted into shops or houses, Thakur acknowledges that conservation is inevitably an afterthought in a developing country. India is "so crowded with people and monuments," she says, that it's hard to justify evicting families so that the historic buildings where they live can be properly preserved. And, she adds, preservation is often complicated by politics. The most socially divisive issue of the past two decades, for example, was a dispute over Ayodhya in northern India, where in 1992 Hindu mobs tore down a 16th century Mughal mosque they believed to be built over Lord Ram's legendary temple; the furor over the site sparked riots that killed 2,000 people. The ASI found itself entangled in the controversy in 2003 when, under orders from the then Hindu nationalist government, it produced a grandiose, artist's impression of the buried temple, which many regarded as an incendiary political gesture rather than a serious archeological initiative.