The Hynmer Obelisk aka Yale Monument as seen in 1939, courtesy Elihu Yale, the American Nabob of Queen Square by Hiram Bingham

The High Court of Madras in its order earlier this month has ordered the relocation of the Hynmer Obelisk. The monument in question, dating back to the 1670s, is the last remnant of the Guava Garden cemetery, where the British buried their dead till the 1750s. The High Court and the Law College came up on the site in the late 19th century, long after all tombstones barring the Hynmer Obelisk and the Powney Vault, had been removed to St Mary’s Church in Fort St George. Of the two survivors, the Powney Vault, which had the tombs of several members of that family, vanished rather mysteriously when work began on the Metrorail. The Hynmer Obelisk is now in the news.

The Hynmer Obelisk

This enormous piece of masonry was originally constructed to house the remains of Joseph Hynmer, second in command at Fort St George. His wife then married Elihu Yale in 1680, and when that couple’s son David died, he was buried under the same obelisk. Owing to Yale’s greater prominence in history, it has since been known as the Yale Monument.  

Why has the shift been necessitated? With the High Court needing greater space to deal with its congestion, it has since been decided that the Law College building, now empty and undergoing restoration, will be used for that purpose. The presence of the Yale Monument, which being protected falls under the law that prevents construction within 100 metres of it, has proved a hindrance. The Court is eyeing the space for parking. It is in consequence of this that the shift has been ordered.  

Shifting, and not Demolishing, the Hynmer Obelisk

There are many aspects of the judgement that demand close scrutiny and study, for their long-term impact on built heritage. The first is the order stipulating the shifting and not demolition of the obelisk. While there are many armchair patriots who may question as to why a colonial remnant needs preservation, it is necessary that both pleasant and unpleasant monuments of past are retained, so that future generations can appreciate the freedom they enjoy. In this context this part of the judgement is to be welcomed.

All over India, we have had instances of colonial memorials being shifted (not demolished) and this too is no different. The ASI will find the task a challenge, but it can perhaps consider its compound within Fort St George, or the St Mary’s Cemetery on the Island, or the Government Museum premises as alternative sites.  

How the ASI bungled

The second aspect of the judgement concerns deeper questions. These concern the ASI, whose shoddy manner of representation has led to such as adverse judgement. The petitioner, an advocate, had written to the ASI that the tomb needed to be removed in the larger interest of the High Court and the response was a summary rejection citing that the monument had been declared protected in 1921 under section 3 of the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act of 1904.

That the ASI chose not to point out that the 100 m law was under debate in Parliament is surprising. It also did not explain the historic, archaeological or aesthetic reasons as to why this monument needed preservation. As a consequence, in its judgement, the Court declared that the obelisk does not meet any of the criteria to merit preservation.

The Court has also pointed out that the ASI does not revisit its monuments list, which it is expected to do as per Section 20 (I) of the Act. Both of these are valid observations that the ASI would do well to ponder over.  

Who decides on What Needs Preservation?

There is also a passage that states that it is high time that the ASI “divest its slavish mindset carried on from the colonial era.” This sets a new precedent – of the law choosing to interpret what is worthy of preservation and what is not. Once again, this has come about because the ASI did not present its case carefully. At a time when political regimes are choosing to deliberately wipe out history, the ASI needs to become more proactive in protecting what is under its control.

If it were to function the way it is, with no regard to presenting its case, there is every possibility that more and more monuments that stand in the way of ‘development’ will be brought to court notice and then cleared. History will be the loser.  

In the immediate short notice, it is necessary for the ASI to focus on shifting the Yale Monument to a safe location where it can be preserved. 

This article appeared in Madras Musings dated July 16, 2023 and can be read here-

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