Opinion: Hyderabad’s heritage faces a constant threat from all sides

Hyderabad: That the city’s heritage faces a constant existential threat is no secret here. There is always a damocles sword hanging over the heads of concerned citizens. While there have been some welcome changes when it comes to restoration and preservation of historic sites, there is also a general lackadaisical attitude with regard to some structures that come in the way of any kind of development works. This time however, a more serious issue that will impact our heritage going forward has come up.

The current situation with the proposed demolition of the Victoria Zenana hospital building, that is situated right beside the Telangana High Court is in fact a rather important one that needs to be examined. It is actually a peculiar situation, given that it is the top court itself that seeks to demolish the important structure without any consideration of the kind of impact it will have on Hyderabad and its heritage in the future.

The Victoria Zenana building is one of the heritage structures that was built during the reign of Mahboob Ali Pasha, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad (1869-1911). It is one of the markers of the city’s built heritage before Hyderabad was modernized and rebuilt by the seventh and last Nizam Osman Ali Khan (1911-1948) after the Musi river flood 1908.

Ironically, the Telangana High Court is part of the modern buildings constructed as part of that modernisation by the last Nizam.

Demolition orders

A letter dated April 15 from the High Court’s Registrar granted administrative sanction for dismantling ‘H-Block High Court Legal Services Committee building, dog canal and the structures abutting the same’ for the construction of a multi-level car parking. The order was issued based on a writ petition (no. 735 of 2023) seeking more parking space in the Telangana High Court premises. It essentially also includes demolition of the Zenana building.

This was also easily done by state government, as the Victoria Zenana building was denotified from the state’s list of protected monuments in 2010 via government order No. 47. Ironically, the High Court and the structure in question were in the same list of protected monuments under the HMDA.

Zenana building (Photo: Syed Akbar/Twitter)

Until now, the city and its citizens reposed their faith in the High Court always to ensure that our heritage was protected. Many a times have people knocked on the court’s doors as a last resort, and even won. Case in point is the Irrum Manzil palace, which the state government wanted to demolish. The court rightly ruled that the cabinet’s decision was arbitrary.

Other structures that have been demolished are the Khusrau Manzil, the old IAS Officers Association building (which was demolished in spite of activists getting a stay on it), and even the old Nizam-era State Secretariat, to name a few. It may also be noted that private owners of heritage buildings have also been keen on pulling down their historical structures to construct newer buildings.

The Irrum Manzil at least in consideration is just a palace. It lies abandoned and one can always argue about its use. We often tend to forget the utility and importance of structures like the Victoria Zenana Hospital, which are markers of Hyderabad’s different epochs of history. Built as a maternity hospital for the city’s elite, the Zenana building, which became operational in 1908, is also one of the few structures that withstood the devastating 1908 Musi river floods.

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The 1908 flood was a major landmark in Hyderabad’s history, for it changed the city’s contours and resulted in its modernisation. Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam, decided to rebuild the city via the City Improvement Board (formed in 1912) and also flood proof it. One of the many structures that were built is the High Court itself. So it tomorrow there is a need of more space, will our lordships decide to even tear down the beautiful indo-sarcenic court building as well?

An archival image of the Zanana building. (Image: By arrangement)

More often than not, it is the state and private builders that is usually at loggerheads with activists and heritage enthusiasts when it comes to saving historic monuments in Hyderabad. However, with regard to the Victoria Zenana hospital building, the state is merely a facilitator, while the High Court has given sanction for its supposed demolition. And for what? For more parking. How then will citizens look to the court to save anything of importance if our lordships itself want to demolish our heritage?

I hope greater sense prevails. I am sure that the great minds which run our state can come up with a solution. One that does not involve the destruction of our heritage. Before this, the Osmania Hospital’s main building was also facing a threat of demolition. It is time that the city is developed without it coming at the cost of our heritage, because if this continues then the only heritage we will be able to pass on to the next generation will be photographs of places that once existed.

That will be a great tragedy for the great city of Hyderabad, that has a continuous history of over 430 years.