India

Return to the Zero Stone – Pune

Those of you who have been following my blog for a number of years will be familiar with my interest in the plight of what is quite possibly the smallest monument to be seen in Pune, the Zero Stone located right outside the GPO compound wall.

Installed by the British in the 1870s, the Zero Stone marks the exact geographic location of the city, and is one of 80 such stones installed by the British to mark the zero points for a survey of the country. From this stone distances were measured to other Zero Stones in neighbouring cities and locations, most of which seem to have been located near the main post offices which were considered a central place. Pune’s Zero Stone is inscribed with the following locations; Poona, Bangalore, Sholapur, Ahmednagar, Nasik, Purandhar, Alandi, Sinhgad and Paud.

My first visit to the Zero Stone in 2018 highlighted a little-known monument that was at great risk of being damaged or worse still lost forever. Almost nobody in the city seemed to be aware of its existence. Shortly after blogging about the stone it was drawn to my attention that plans were being made to raise awareness and to add some structural protection for the monument.

My return visit in 2019 showed the results of these efforts. Whilst it may not have been the ideal solution from my perspective as an archaeologist, it was heartening to see such efforts being made that should prevent this little stone from being lost forever.

You can read about my observations and more of the back story in my blog post here, which combines my visits from both 2018 and 2019.

My return visit in early 2020 was a completely different experience yet again, everything has changed once more for the Zero Stone, and in a very dramatic way…

Inaugurated on 6th September 2019, the entire pavement space in front of the GPO has undergone a “beautification project”, with mixed results from my perspective. At a cost of Rs 37.35 lakh ($50,000 USD) this initiative was spearheaded by Arvind Shinde, a senior Congress corporator, as a part of his ward development work. One cannot argue that the whole area has been utterly transformed, and clearly a lot of thought, planning, and expense has been ploughed into initiative. Unfortunately, it also immediately struck me that so much effort has been directed into realizing a vision and achieving the end result, that almost no thought has been given to the longevity and on-going maintenance of these significant changes.

What follows is a brief run-down to what can now be seen at the Zero Stone, the good, the bad, and I’m sorry to say the ugly as well. Note that everything documented here is just three months after the project was completed.

The most obvious visual change, especially to those driving past the site, is a large “Pune Zero KM” sign erected close to a tree.

This certainly draws one’s attention to what is located here, but I do wonder how well this sign will last being located so close to a dusty busy road. There’s probably not many monuments where the sign for it is 10x the size of the monument itself, it did strike me as a little over the top. A further small nitpick for me was that the entire survey of India was done in miles, not kilometers, so technically it’s inaccurate as well for the time when the zero stone was installed. Along the widened path are a number of benches, which I thought was very a good addition.

Next we have four installations in the form of pedestals, with information boards and some associated artwork. They commemorate the efforts of :

George Everest (1790-1866)

William Lambton (1753-1823)

Nain Singh Rawat (1830-1882)

Radhanath Sikdar (1813-1870)

These were all key players in the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, which commenced in 1802 and was completed 69 years later in 1871.

For me this was the highlight of the changes that have occurred here. The information is provided in both English and Hindi/Marathi, and is extremely well presented.

It was here that I encountered what is one of the major failings of the entire beautification project, the ill-thought out deployment of lighting. Provision has been made to illuminate everything to be seen here at night. I’m sure on inauguration day it must have looked hugely impressive after sunset, but three months on almost all the lights are either damaged or have shifted their angle to render them utterly useless.

In many cases the electric cable servicing the lights has come away, leaving bare wires open to the air. Goodness knows how dangerous this has been. These angled lights have also been fixed at ground level, all of them now being damaged. It struck me as an odd decision to use protruding lights at ground level where they are liable to be kicked by passers by.

The entire paving along this stretch in front of the GPO has been replaced, so why were the lights not set into the ground with the small area of glass set flush to the pavement ? The extra cost of doing this would have been negligible, so for me it was a perplexing decision to have made. An alternative solution would have been to set the lights in more robust upright pillars.

Next we have a series of statues, I presume representing people performing a survey although there is no information to describe exactly what they are doing. These are intended to be “interactive statues”, the interaction part comes from a flat mirror replacing the actual facial features of each statue, the idea being that you will see your own face reflected there instead.

It’s an interesting concept and not one I have seen before, but the idea unfortunately does not translate to complete success in execution. Just three months on half the mirrors are now missing, I presume from vandalism, which renders the statues looking somewhat odd. The first two statues I inspected didn’t have their mirrors, which left me extremely confused as to why the facial features were missing.

The other issue is that you need to be the exact right height in order to see your reflection, so for many people it simply won’t work. This of course is especially so for children, who unfortunately would not appreciate what is happening here at all. Where mirrors were still secured in the statue heads, they were quite dirty and not being very reflective at all. Again, this is another example where the longevity of the changes here has not been thought about extensively.

I also question just how long these statues will last. Some of the detailing appears to be quite fragile, and I fear even just a minor attempt at vandalizing will result in permanent damage. None of this seems to be built to last, the statues themselves appear to be made from fiberglass, but I may be wrong.

There are two further upright information boards, one with more good information on the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, but the other has been left unfinished. As this is a few months after the changes here were “completed”, I’m guessing nothing will happen with this board and it will simply remain an eyesore.

Other additions to the overall project include inscribed stones set into the pavement with quotes from William Wordsworth and Don W Thomson, and a sort of memorial stone remembering those who lost their life during the Great Trigonometric Survey of India. These are well executed, aside from all the damaged lighting that surrounds them.

At the far end of this stretch of pavement after some more seating is a signpost, showing directions to various landmarks outside Pune. This didn’t strike me as very necessary, and it felt a little detached from everything else here. It’s a shame the distances were lot added to the signpost, which was the whole idea of the zero stone in the first place.

Finally we come to the Zero Stone itself, the whole reason for all these peripheral installations. Gone is the protective structure I saw 12 months earlier, and instead the stone stands in relative isolation, which I liked very much. Of course, the light intended to illuminate the stone at night is broken.

The lettering on the stone is now gold, an improvement on the white painted half attempt from last year but not entirely necessary either. I can understand people wanting to highlight the lettering, but personally I would have preferred the stone to remain preserved as it was originally created.

In 2018 I left the Zero Stone having recorded it with a strong concern that without awareness being created, this small stone was a risk of getting lost forever. I was glad to see on my return in 2019 that efforts had been made to recognize the stone’s existence with the provision of protection.

In 2020 I leave this stone with mixed feelings. I’m now absolutely sure that this stone will never be forgotten about, and the information boards are fantastic, but the beautification project that has been undertaken does introduce new issues.

I sincerely hope that lessons will be learnt from this, any attempts to beautify what is a heritage site needs to be undertaken sympathetically, and with a long-term plan for maintenance and upkeep. It’s not all about how great the changes might appear on inauguration day, it’s about the longevity of the changes in the years and decades to follow.

Update January 2021

Sadly, due to COVID-19 my plans to return to India in early 2021 have been abandoned. My concerns about the upkeep of the changes at the Zero Stone seem to have been validated. In 2020 the Hindustan Times reported the poor upkeep of the site, observing gross neglect from the civic staff.

More recently, in December 2020, The Indian Express reported that several of the statues at the installation have been vandalized, with mirrors broken, hands of statues mutilated and thrown away.

I look forward to revisiting the Hero Stone once more in 2022, I’m sure there will be more to report…


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KevinStandage1@gmail.com
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Categories: India, Maharashtra, Pune

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