On the 20th of October 1984, the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California opened to the public. The ticket prices for entering it were $7 for general admission, $5 for students and senior citizens, and $3 for children. Twenty-five years later while on holiday in the States in 2009, my family and I found ourselves dishing out around $25 per person for adult tickets to enter the very same aquarium, instituted to protect and preserve the abundant marine life in and around Monterey Bay. The current prices for entering this not yet thirty-year-old venue range between $25 and $40. This is not an attempt on my part to drive traffic to this Cannery Row marine attraction but to gain a rough idea of the revenue being generated by a non-profit organization like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation through the roughly two million visitors it receives annually.
In this first week of 2014, in hosting a friend visiting me from Russia, I have had the joy of reacquainting myself with the historical and architectural wealth of Delhi. Barring the last year and a half that I have spent studying in the United States, I have lived in Delhi and Gurgaon since 2003, and yet, other than an occasional walk around Lodhi Gardens while residing at South End Road, and a few sporadic drives down Rajpath, I have, like many others in the city, forgotten the wonders it has to offer.
Unlike Monterey Bay Aquarium, the idea for which was conceived in 1914, yet saw completion only in 1984, Delhi’s first Muslim ruler –Qutb-ud-din-Aibak – commissioned the building of the Qutb Minar in 1199 AD. Standing in line to buy tickets to enter the complex housing this archaeological wonder that was completed by Feroz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th Century, I was shocked, no, utterly dismayed, to learn what it would cost me to enter this hallowed space. As Indian citizens, my sister and I had to pay a pittance of Rs. 10 each as an admission fee, while my Russian friend’s ticket cost a ridiculous Rs. 250, which, as per current conversion rates, equals a mere $4. This means that in order to view this World Heritage Site, the highest tower in India, which was completed no less than seven centuries ago, we ask our tourists and citizens to pay less than what was being asked of visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium which came in to being in the 20th Century. And it isn’t just Qutb Minar that you can access at these abominable prices. Safdarjung Tomb, the imposing 18th Century mausoleum of Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan, described on site as perhaps “the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal Architecture” allows Indian citizens to enter its grounds for Rs.5 per person, while foreigners have to pay Rs.100. The National Museum, home to artifacts ranging from the Harappan Civilization (3300-1300 BCE) to miniature paintings from the period between 1000 AD and 1900 AD, among others, has a ticket price range between Re. 1 and Rs. 300. In contrast, a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in Moscow today will cost you $17.95 for a single ticket.
The repercussions of these low admission prices, or complete lack thereof, were apparent at each of these historical venues. Inside the vaulted inner chamber of Sheesh Gumbad in the Lodhi Gardens complex, school children ran amok, launching themselves from the ledges of the arched windows, to the floor, yelling at each other in complete disregard of signboards asking visitors to desist from making noise. Outside, picnicking families stretched in the sun, the remains of afternoon repasts littered across the green of the grounds. At the Qutb Minar estate, guards blew feeble whistles at unruly visitors who chose to pose for photographs by climbing the remnants of what was once an imposing archway. Meanwhile, the cacophony of honking cars, tooting buses and screeching brakes defined the mayhem at the ill-planned parking lot for visitors to the Minar and its monuments. Holding on to my five Rupee ticket, the printing of which perhaps cost more than the price to buy it, I marveled at the incredibly jarring contrast of the blue and silver signboards announcing the location of the public toilet with the fading sandstone of the Safdarjung mausoleum’s ramparts.
My pride at our heritage was quickly replaced by a sense of dismay and disbelief at the glaring absence of maintenance, the callous attitudes of our visiting public and the general air of lethargy surrounding those associated with its upkeep. It is not my aim to offend, but I do believe that one reason, in large part, for this apathy is the utter disregard we have for the abysmally low prices we pay to access our history. Each of these venues is in dire need of a revamp not just in terms of the manner in which they are maintained, but also in our perception of them. Unfortunately, and I may be speaking for just myself, the proclivity to respect things that are owned or accessed in exchange for wads of hard earned money seems to be unanimously higher than for those gained for a song. The slightest scratch on an expensive car hurts. However, if I watch my dog maul a five Rupee bauble, I wouldn’t flinch.
It is essential that our monuments and history be accessible to each of us, irrespective of our financial reach. But, a system needs to be created which allows for generation of revenue at par with global standards that can be reinvested in the maintenance and enhancement of these historical sites. By instituting certain days in a month or perhaps one day every fortnight on which admission to these monuments can be gained at subsidized rates may help in keeping these heritage sites accessible across strata, while simultaneously causing a perceivable reduction in the number of visitors accessing them on a daily basis. This ebb in the flow of traffic will help on site guards check errant behavior, allow for better maintenance of the grounds and provide a substantially more qualitative experience for visitors. Equally important, in my opinion, is the estimation that higher ticket prices will perhaps engender a sense of respect in our visitors, something that was conspicuous in its general absence as I made my way through these architectural exemplars earlier this month. In addition to this, added revenues can help our agencies in developing more viable infrastructure for these sites, including, but not limited to, organized parking areas, gift and souvenir stores, which can generate viable proceeds in themselves, public conveniences and increased accessibility for the physically challenged. That our mindset toward our heritage is in itself demanding refurbishment is an unequivocal estimation. However, my hope is that executable measures like these will bridge the gap in the interim, and perhaps stem the obvious decline that these treasures will undoubtedly suffer in the current circumstances.
© Ayesha Sindhu 2014