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stephanie nolen

Sikander Shah ,70, (R) and his wife Shah Begum, 60, a Kashmiri couple rest in their house inside the ruins of Dara Shikuh monument in Srinagar March 8, 2007. The couple arrived in the ruins of the 440-year-old monument, which was built by Mughal prince Dara Shikuh, about 38 years ago and now live there with their four children and two grandchildren, the couple said.© Danish Ishmail / Reuters

Here is a decorating tip from the Indian capital: A few throw rugs, a portrait of granddad on the wall and some bright tile in the kitchen can turn the darkest, draftiest national monument into a cozy home.

Delhi, the seat of a succession of empires over the past 2,500 years, is embarrassingly rich in ancient monuments. There is one about every 100 metres or so, in the exhausted estimation of the country's superintending archaeologist, Ashok Kumar Sinha.

The city is also home to tens of thousands of homeless people, and millions more who are desperately poor. Many of the otherwise homeless have made the reasonable assessment that the stout marble walls of the tombs and shrines and mausoleums that litter the city make a much nicer home, especially in monsoon season, than the sidewalk.

Some seek only temporary shelter. But others such as nine families living inside a federally protected monument called the Atgah Khan tomb, built in 1566, are so thoroughly ensconced that they can produce title deeds going back generations. They have plastered the walls, had the crypt wired to run the television and installed a fine kitchen, with wood cupboards built into the handy arched recesses.

The cash-strapped, understaffed and overwhelmed Archaeological Survey of India wages a continual battle to evict the squatters and end encroachments.

"We cannot make even basic repairs because people are living there," said Mr. Sinha, the ASI's superintending archeologist.

The ASI is responsible for the 3,684 sites deemed protected monuments by the central government, of which 174 are in Delhi; state and city governments are responsible for thousands more across the country. Scores more are simply not protected at all, Mr. Sinha added; the sheer wealth of heritage sites in India has eroded the value of all but a few, such as the much showcased Taj Majal.

Encroachments, as the ASI deems them, are the bane of Mr. Sinha's existence. He quickly sketched the neighbourhood around the Atgah Khan tomb on a notepad: Down a lane to the right lie the ruins of another 700-year-old Moghul tomb, which until recently had 45 families living in it. The preservators managed to move the people out, but they cannot persuade the city to protect the surrounding land, so goats still graze and residents of the crowded basti , or poor neighbourhood, all around it dry their laundry around the tomb. Fifty metres down another lane stands a Moghul tomb over which the city and its own archaeological authority are embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit. The nine families living inside, who string their TV wire over the crumbling stone buttresses, insist it has been in their family for 300 years. Other neighbours nod knowingly at that claim; that's the usual argument of squatters. At the end of that lane stands a massive dargah , a Sufi shrine and mosque where, in the course of evicting more encroachers last month, the archeologists uncovered access to a huge 800-year-old step well, still fed by a spring, that once secretly served the Sufi pir , or leader. It had been covered over for at least a century by a series of small homes erected against the sturdy walls of the shrine.

"Targeting these people, making them as friends, that is the most difficult thing for the Archaeological Survey of India," Mr. Sinha said. "Heritage gives nothing to them. Heritage is only a curse for them. Unless and until heritage gives something to them, no amount of lecturing or pamphlets is going to help."

And indeed, the ASI has few friends around the tombs. "My grandfather's grandfather's grandfather was born here!" said a stout resident of a house on the Atgah Khan tomb. She, like all the others, refused to give her name, wary of attracting any more attention to her family. "It wasn't something we bought, this place to live was given to the people who took care of the dargah . And if they didn't want us to live here, they should have thought about that before they gave us electricity and water!" (It is not clear whether the municipal government, in a fit of misguided benevolence, brought utilities into the tomb or whether these were pirated by local operators who make a business of this and are rarely distinguished, by residents, from actual city employees.) And, she pointed out, all of the occupants have been paying house taxes for years, the receipts of which they intend to furnish as evidence in a court case to oppose their eviction.

The ASI promises to resettle the people it evicts, and puts up most of the money; the Delhi municipal government is involved, too. But the families living in the tomb say the site proposed for them is kilometres away when their businesses, their children's schools, their community and their history are all in this neighbourhood. And they are not budging. "Yes, we hang our laundry there, and yes, our children play cricket in the tomb, and yes, we have built a kitchen [around the area where the sarcophagus is housed]" said another resident, a young woman in a bright orange kurta . "But we haven't caused damage. And anyway, we live here. Its always been our home."

In fact, of course, the daily living activities of several hundred people, counting those living in the tomb and those whose houses are built up against the surrounding wall, do cause damage to the monument. Mr. Sinha laments the loss of mosaic work and historic engravings, as well as the loss of the original character of the building, through plaster and whitewash, and the more esoteric loss of the appearance intended by its architect, who no doubt meant the imposing domed tomb to stand in an open area, not blotted out in a snarl of slum dwellings. The imposing two-storey Atgah Khan tomb is not visible from more than three metres away in any direction.

The ASI wages a constant battle; at most of the monuments, squatters and encroachers are back within weeks of being cleared, and often get court injunctions that tie up evictions for years. The department's budget does not extend to the kind of staff who would be needed to properly protect, let alone restore, all of the many sites on its list. Humayun's Tomb, for example, one of India's best-known monuments, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, has only one ASI officer (a junior one, Mr. Sinha noted) and some untrained staff, to handle tourists, infrastructure, conservation, accounts and security. "Its not humanly possible," the archeologist said.

He would like to see the area around the tomb, and the Sufi dargah sites, developed with high-quality souvenir stands and tea shops, something to employ neighbourhood residents and give them the sense that the preservation of monuments has an economic benefit. But there is no staff or time for that, he said.

Instead, efforts at the tomb have focused on driving out the dozens of people who were living in the 700-year-old structures all around it. The ASI is also engaged in an ongoing battle with the pro-development forces in economically booming Delhi. Recently, for example, the city wanted to put in an above-ground metro line next to the majestic Qutab Minar, a 73-metre carved-brick minaret that is one of the city's main landmarks. It compares roughly to running a monorail line along the front lawn of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Mr. Sinha spent months fighting that plan.

Local residents, the city government, everyone sees the preservators "as a villain," he said. "But some things must be protected."