We as a publication have always maintained that Fort St George needs to be the administrative headquarters of our State. It, after all, symbolises the beginning of modern history for the whole country and has been the seat of administration of Southern India and, later, our State for 374 years. What is, however, forgotten is that the Fort is also a historic precinct that draws visitors from the city, the State and the world over. Their interests are not considered at all by the administrative juggernaut. In the process, the Fort is increasingly becoming a disappointment.
Take the very process of entry. The north and south sea gates are closed to the general public who need to access the Fort from a side entrance that has to be searched for and located. Names have to be entered in mouldy registers. Visitors then need to be frisked, the women in a makeshift shelter that only the hardiest of sightseers would like to enter. Once inside, there are no maps, brochures or routes. The average tourist simply wanders around, the Church of St Mary and the Fort Museum being the only two fixed landmarks.
Where a person can wander around is also highly dependent on official whims. Thus, on a normal day, walking down St Thomas’ Street (also known as Snob’s Alley) is allowed, but on certain days this can be blocked off without reason. More consistent is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which, seated in Clive Building (really Admiralty House), has a placard at the reception table, which categorically forbids visitors beyond that point. As for its own excellent initiative, ‘Clive’s Corner’, which served as an information centre on one of the Fort’s most colourful occupants, this is kept locked all the time.
When it comes to upkeep, it cannot be denied that the areas under the control of the State Government are the worst off. Haphazard parking of vehicles, litter from juice and tea shops and, above all, the continued and seemingly endless renovation of Namakkal Kavignar Maligai, the ten storey tower, add to the chaos. Posters on the walls contribute still further to the poor image that the Fort presents. What is the point in putting up signs that warn everyone against littering, when this practice is routinely carried on with impunity by the occupants themselves?
The ASI has put up its standard blue boards at various places declaring that the building alongside is a historic monument and that those caught defacing or damaging it will be fined or punished. But what about the monuments that have already collapsed or are very near to that? What is the purpose in putting up these signs next to Wellesley House, for instance, part of which fell in the 1980s and has remained rubble ever since? There are some other buildings that the ASI is supposed to be forever restoring. One of these, the last house on Snob’s Alley, is in the picture above. It is anybody’s guess as to what restoration is going on.
As for any information on any of the buildings, just forget it. Barring St Mary’s and the Fort Museum, buildings that have their histories inscribed on marble, none of the other structures has any detail. You are expected to walk around and form your own theories as to what each one stood for. As for the ravelins that form the Wallajah and St George’s Gates, the space beneath them has been made over for debris. The gates are at least kept clean as they provide access to the Fort Station. But the North Gate perhaps is the worst off, completely littered, with the road leading to it doubling up as a bazaar where vendors sell flowers and other things.
If this is the way we present one of the best known monuments of our city, what price the other historic structures?
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