India's historic Pink City of Jaipur threatened by tunnelling for new subway project

Construction workers at a Metro Rail site on Nov 14, 2014, in the old city area between Chhoti Chaupad and Chandpole in Jaipur. -- PHOTO: AFP
Construction workers at a Metro Rail site on Nov 14, 2014, in the old city area between Chhoti Chaupad and Chandpole in Jaipur. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAIPUR, India (AFP) - As she expertly leads tourists past honking cars and rickshaws to a majestic dusty-pink palace, Ms Sunita Sharma voices fears for the north-eastern Indian city's historic landmarks as a new transport link looms large.

The authorities are building an underground metro near the Hawa Mahal or the "Palace of the Winds" in Jaipur's old city, a bustling place that blends historic charm with the allure of ancient royalty and draws millions of domestic and foreign visitors.

But archaeologists as well as tourist guides like Ms Sharma fear the multi-million dollar project will disturb the foundations of the monuments, built in the 1700s by the all-powerful Maharaja rulers. "Jaipur is known worldwide by these monuments, and if any loss occurs, the grandeur and architectural heritage can never be revived," Ms Sharma told AFP.

Tour operator Sanjay Kaushik agreed, adding he feared visitor numbers would also drop because of the years of looming construction work and the resulting traffic chaos. "Tourist season is beginning next month and we fear a decline in the footfall," Mr Kaushik said from his office in the old city.

Tunnelling in the old city is also expected to start next month for the project, which the authorities hail as a much-needed upgrade of infrastructure in the "Pink City", capital of the desert state of Rajasthan.

The Jaipur Metro Rail Corporation (JMRC), which is spearheading the multi-year project with a loan from the Asian Development Bank and state government funding, denies the monuments are under threat from tunnelling or from eventual vibrations from the trains.

"An environmental impact assessment report was prepared a year ago which said that the vibrations created during the boring and operation of the metro would not be of a level which can harm any structure," JMRC chairman and managing director N. C. Goel said.

"The vibrations will be low hence the monuments will be safe," he told AFP, adding that preparations for the tunnelling were at an advanced stage.

But some are not convinced, arguing it is almost impossible to guarantee centuries-old buildings will not be weakened by modern-day construction underneath.

"Today's engineers can guarantee strong foundations of a building they are constructing today, but not those of a structure which was built 200 years back," archaeologist Rima Hooja said.

"The government should reconsider whether they want to create a facility at the cost of heritage," Mr Hooja, a member of the National Monument Authority, told AFP.

"Who will be responsible if a loss to these sites occurs?"

One of the metro stations is set to be built at a market that lies just 100m from the palace.

The tunnel will pass near the neighbouring Unesco heritage-listed Jantar Mantar site, with its giant astronomical instruments carved from sandstone.

Even slight damage to the 20-odd instruments, designed to observe astronomical positions with the naked eye, would be "a great loss", said Mr Hooja.

Known as India's first planned city, Jaipur was built in 1727 on a grid system with a fort, palace and other impressive buildings.

Construction was overseen by the Maharaja ruler Sawai Jai Singh II, who had a keen interest in architecture and astronomy.

Its thick perimeter walls and imposing entrance gates drew merchants from around the country who settled in the new city to ply their trade in relative safety.

Designed in the form of the crown of the Hindu god Krishna, the five-storey palace has more than 900 small windows.

Decorated with intricate latticework, they were designed to allow ladies of the royal court to sit and observe everyday life in the street below without being seen.

Another archaeologist Akshya Jagdhari said he was concerned that damage to some of the monuments may not be immediately noticed, but could have terrible consequences if left unattended.

Mr Jagdhari also pointed to the recent discovery at one of the proposed railway stations of a buried structure that he believes may date back to when the city was built.

"This shows that the city has many such ancient structures not only above ground but below the ground too, which need to be preserved," he said.

Tourist Vijay Khandelwal, from neighbouring Gujarat state, pondered the impact of the new rail network as he took a break from listening to a lecture on the palace.

"We read and hear about the Pink City, its architecture and structure, but it is very disappointing that its heritage is at stake for a metro project," Mr Khandelwal said.

"Archaeological treasures should not be ignored."