Cultural Continuum

As Mumbai continues to develop rapidly, Abha Narain Lambah is fighting to preserve its historic architecture.

Abha Narain Lambah Associates


Given its 5,000-year history of architecture, India has done very little to maintain its more recent built heritage. Preserving a few ancient and medieval monuments has been the focus of the Archaeological Survey of India, which didn’t employ conservation architects until 2004. It was only in 1995 that Mumbai became the first Indian city to introduce any guidelines at all (with the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay Act) to preserve its beautiful colonial-era and early modern buildings that are still in use today. When you have such an ancient culture, “a 150-year-old building really isn’t considered a big deal,” says Abha Narain Lambah, an award-winning conservation architect who has recently been nominated to the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, which operates under the city’s municipal corporation.

Narain Lambah explains that what sets Mumbai apart is its tradition of private entrepreneurship. “In Mumbai, people don’t wait for the government to do things. It is a city built on private initiative and funds,” she says. One of her earliest projects, in 1996, was the rejuvenation of the Kala Ghoda area, organized by a group of benefactors and committed citizens. With approximately $20,000 collected from various privately-owned trusts, the 1880s facade of Elphinstone College, a local landmark, was restored. “It was a win-win situation for the government,” she says. “We cleaned up the place and handed back their building to them for free.” As a result of this initiative, the area now hosts an extremely popular annual arts and literature festival.

Lack of knowledge and training has often resulted in the government advocating some ill-advised maintenance efforts. When Narain Lambah restored the University of Mumbai’s Convocation Hall in 2006, she first removed all the ad hoc wiring, plaster, and new flooring that had been added over the years by government-mandated maintenance procedures, revealing spectacular wood, stone, and metalwork underneath. Only then did the process of restoring the original Burma teak balconies and Victorian stained glass begin.

A list of 800 proposed heritage sites and structures released by Mumbai’s municipal corporation last August has sparked an intense debate about finding the balance between preserving the past and embracing the new. The issue is particularly polarizing in a rapidly developing city with high stakes in the politics of real estate development.

While she is not anti-development, Narain Lambah believes that some of “the city’s buildings must be recycled,” perhaps through adaptive reuse, to maintain its cultural continuum. Mumbai has finally embarked on the long journey of bringing together government, private initiatives, an aware citizenry, and committed professionals like Narain Lambah, to build a global city where heritage buildings and new growth can coexist.

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