Hampi Vandalism: What Thrills Do Indians Get By Destroying Public Property?


Hampi Vandalism: What Thrills Do Indians Get By Destroying Public Property?

Illustration: Arati Gujar


Scrolling through Twitter this weekend, I thought the Islamic State had returned to its old tricks. There was a video of three men at what was obviously a historical site, toppling over pillars that were erected centuries ago, captioned “Ruining the ruins”. Destroying the ancient temples, statues, and pillars at sites like Palmyra was after all one of IS’s favourite attention-seeking tactics, but no matter the similarities, this video wasn’t from them. Instead, it was a group of Indian tourists destroying priceless history at Hampi, solely for the laughs.

Authorities are on the lookout for the culprits, but the video from Hampi is evidence that nothing unites Indians like a bit of good old-fashioned vandalism. At national monuments and UNESCO declared heritage sites, we love to tack our own legacies onto these already legendary structures, whether it’s declaring our love for someone (Bunty 💘 Babli), writing “Mukesh was here”, or just writing down all the cuss words we know. There are all those single, lonely souls who scribble their mobile number on walls or inside trains, hoping that after all the prank calls, perhaps one day your soulmate will call you as well.

It’s tragic to think how in 1632, Emperor Shah Jahan was looking out over the town of Agra and planning to commission the construction of the Taj Mahal, an undying monument to love. Centuries later, in 2019, some rando can leave his own undying love note on the once-pristine, now-stained white marble walls of the tomb. Lord Curzon, who had ordered the restoration of the Taj Mahal in the early 1900s had written to his wife saying, “If I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy.” Perhaps we’re taking the former Viceroy’s words too literally.

And it’s not just the monuments; we also want to leave our mark (literally) on any government-funded amenities. Remember when passengers on the Tejas Express between Mumbai and Goa damaged its entertainment screens, stole the headphones, tore the seats, and stole the neck rests? The misconduct was so rampant that Indian Railways took the call not to fit future Tejas Express trains with such aircraft-like entertainment features. From ticketless travel, to stealing health faucets, mugs from the toilet, and even blankets and pillow covers, there have been innumerable instances of passengers playing with national property on the Indian Railways network.

And it’s not just the monuments; we also want to leave our mark (literally) on any government-funded amenities.

While the Railways might bear the worst brunt of our destructive tendencies, we see this blatant disregard for civic sense in practically every public space, as motorists drive down the wrong way, pedestrians decorate pavements with paan stains, and lines for queues are treated like the optional question on the exam paper. In India, public property is treated as free stuff, and free stuff is there to be used as recklessly as a bumper car at an arcade.

An article on HuffPost asks the question “What Joy Do Indians Get Out of Vandalising Public Property Like the New Tejas Express?”, and the answer is as simple as “We are like that only.” In it, the author writes, “For decades, the people of this country have defecated in the open, treated any wall or street as a spitoon, touched priceless statues found in historical sites, and carved their love letters on the walls of ancient monuments. Millions of them still do all these things without impunity — because they know they can get away with it.”

The article goes on to point out how a lack of education and unawareness about civic sense, paired with a lax attitude toward preserving heritage from law enforcement, promotes this attitude of disrespect toward public property. However, it’s not just about a lack of access to education and privilege that turns ordinary Indians into Muhammad Ghori. Even A-list celebrities and their entourages don’t seem to know any better. Recently, an open-air gym was set up at the garden complex of the tomb of Isa Khan, while a 200-plus crew shot a sequence for Salman Khan’s upcoming film Bharat. In 2014, Rowdy Rathore, starring Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi was permitted to shoot at Hampi. The unit violated many norms, and also disrupted the site. The presence of about 20 vehicles on the site, where none are permitted, was enough to trouble conservation activists, as well as how the shoot unit’s security barred other visitors from accessing the site.

Until we learn to act differently, we won’t be able to go forward as a nation.

Protecting Indian culture and way of life seems to be on top of the agenda for our government, but when it comes to conservation of the actual structures and monuments, which are the vessels of our storied history, there seems to be a whole lot of talk and very little action. Look at Shivaji, whose legacy is being remembered not through the restoration and conservation of the hill forts where he lived and fought, but by an embarrassingly expensive statue being erected outside of Mumbai. Meanwhile, his forts are plundered for building materials by locals who don’t know any better.

The concept of responsible civic sense hasn’t yet been fully formed in the mind of the average Indian citizen yet, and until it does, our history, this record of the oldest living culture on the planet, will remain at the mercies of the kind of men seen in the video from Hampi. Until we learn to act differently, we won’t be able to go forward as a nation. Even worse, we will end up actively destroying our treasured past.