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The writing on the wall

Monideepa Sahu, Jan 27, 2013

Heritage Matters

While India’s rich cultural heritage is praised in distant foreign lands, we Indians fail to value it. The writing on the crumbling wall is clear. It is up to us to see that our common cultural inheritance continues to be an integral part of our daily lives, writes Monideepa Sahu.

India’s rich legacy of art, architecture, ideas and ideals has been built up over many thousands of years. But today, how many of us pause to appreciate our common cultural inheritance? Our cultural tradition is widely praised in distant foreign lands. It offers humanity a beacon of hope from its dangerous course of rampant greed and aggressive rivalry. Meanwhile, Indians like us focus our energies upon the rat race.

We are so immersed in the daily grind of making money and competing with neighbours that we don’t even find time to visit our parents and relatives. Foregoing a weekend at malls and resorts to visit places of historic interest? Browsing through museums to view glorious relics of our cultural heritage? Not for us, thank you!


When we do get around to visiting our ancient monuments, we scratch our names on timeless relics and leave behind trails of plastic and litter. How can our children learn to appreciate our culture and heritage if we ourselves are callous? Does our general apathy and lack of appreciation for our heritage stem from some ingrained deficiencies within us? Or, are we overwhelmed by the vastness of it all?

Perhaps lack of awareness and perception makes us like the proverbial blind men examining an elephant. We are conscious of our heritage only in bits and pieces, and are unable to fully grasp its significance.

India’s cultural legacy is threatened from many quarters. Overpopulation, natural forces, unbalanced town planning and growth, and wanton human greed are major factors in the gradual degradation of historic monuments and spaces of natural diversity and beauty. The writing on the crumbling walls is clear wherever we look.

In the historic town of Thanjavur, several Pallipadi temples, mausoleums of Martha royalty who ruled Thanjavur for 175 years, are now falling apart. People are building houses and living amid their rubble. Till recently, the battlefield of Kalinga was a serene green open space on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, Orissa. A Buddhist stupa perched on a hilltop commemorates Emperor Ashoka’s change of heart and renunciation of war. Today, the surrounding area is teeming with apartments and shops built over ruins of ancient temples.

Sepoy Mangal Pandey fired the first shot of the 1857 uprising against the British, in Barrackpore, in the suburbs of Kolkata. Today, many of Barrackpore’s imposing structures from the colonial past lie in ruins, smothered by wild undergrowth. In Sunet Village near Chandigarh, archaeologists have unearthed remnants of six cultures dating back 3,800 years to 1800-1400 BC.

Coins belonging to the Hermaeus, Gondopharnes, Chandragupta and Samudragupta eras have been discovered here, as well as traces of the Harappan civilisation. The Archaeological Survey of India has declared this area a protected site, and a wall has been constructed for its protection. But heaps of garbage pile up beside the excavated mounds, while children play games there, oblivious to the cultural significance of the site. The story repeats itself elsewhere in our land with alarming frequency.

Laws and governmental authority are meant to sustain our heritage. But they can also force us to watch helplessly while our legacy dissipates before our eyes. While civic authorities quibble over whose jurisdiction holds sway over the relics in Barrackpore, some of the heritage buildings are also mired in litigation. Restoration work cannot begin until the court cases are resolved.

Long-term benefits

Inappropriate and incompetent attempts at restoration can be equally damaging. Conservation and restoration are a must for the survival of heritage monuments and artworks. But at times, restoration is done ham-handedly, without keeping in mind structure, historical accuracy and aesthetics. Cheap and tacky attempts at repairs can actually further weaken ancient structures.

In many parts of India, heritage buildings are covered with concrete, plastered over and garishly painted by locals with good intentions. Employing qualified archaeologists, art restorers and related experts may be costlier in the short term, but the lasting benefits outweigh the initial expenses.

The old order must necessarily change and make way for today’s people to live, work, play and engage in commerce. When land and resources are limited, decaying relics from the past are compelled to make way for those living today. Money is necessary for feeding, clothing and sheltering our masses. Hospitals, schools, dams and industries, many will contend, must take precedence over spending crores to repair and beautify dilapidated tombs and temples. But it will be a tragedy if future generations lose forever antiquities which are vital for them to understand who they are, and where they come from.

When most of us are compelled to spend the better part of our lives providing for our material needs, how can we find the energy and resources to appreciate and uphold our heritage? The young merely follow their elders by aping crass consumerist trends and seeking shortcuts to wealth, knowledge and health.

Government and non-governmental agencies are battling valiantly against natural and human forces to preserve our heritage for posterity. But ordinary people like us also have a role to play. Instead of damaging monuments, tossing out garbage and sitting back and laying the blame at someone else’s doorstep, we can take a stand. Each of us, according to our limited capabilities and resources, can make a positive difference.

Money and effort spent on preserving the legacies of our great civilisation are far from wasted, as short-sighted critics will have us believe. Rather, it is an investment leading to widespread social and economic benefits. The Andhra Pradesh Government has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Aga Khan Foundation for a Rs 100 crore project to restore and conserve the Qutb Shahi tombs.

Projects such as this will generate employment for archaeologists, art historians and restorers, and related experts, as also contractors, artisans, stone masons, gardeners, landscapers and others. Once restored, the 106-acre complex will be a tourist attraction, supporting hotels, shops, transport services and tourist guides, among others. Local residents will benefit from increased economic activity, and enjoy a beautiful green lung space.

Some heritage antiques actually support economic activity in their own right. The iconic Padmini taxis of Mumbai are a vanishing breed. In their heyday, they not only attracted tourists and served local residents well, they also nurtured ancillary industries. Experts in interiors, repairing worn parts, and tinkering damages caused by accidents, they all earned their livelihood from the Padminis of yore.

Celebrating the past


Heritage monuments not only help define the greatness of our culture, but also help us in appreciating India’s dynamic links with the rest of the world. The spectacular Danish fort and historic coastal settlement in Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu, has an exclusive legacy of European art, architecture, and social and religious customs.

The site marks, among other things, the beginning of the Protestant Church in India, when the King of Denmark sent two religious scholars here in 1706. These influences from ‘another India’ played a role in shaping our free and contemporary India three centuries later. The historic site was severely lashed by the tsunami of 2004.

While the State and Central Governments are working to restore the monuments, the Danish Government is contributing towards restoring the Danish governor’s bungalow. Such projects, apart from preserving valuable historical relics, promote international co-operation and understanding.

While Indian culture welcomed outside influences through the ages, it also spread its own influence in distant lands. The magnificent Angkor Wat of Cambodia is the world’s largest Hindu temple complex, while ancient Hindu influences are visible in Java, Bali, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The Bali Yatra festival of Orissa commemorates the voyages of Indian mariners to Bali in ancient times. Emperor Babur came from Afghanistan, founded the Moghul Empire, and made India the home of his illustrious descendants. When we visit such heritage sites or participate in age-old traditions armed with the knowledge of their significance, it broadens our outlook and makes us more tolerant.

Time to act


It is time for people like us to come forward and help spread awareness about the numerous advantages of preserving our nation’s historic legacy. While bonding with our near and dear ones during tours of heritage sites, we can also pass on a positive influence to children close to us. Sadly, the average Indian student knows little about the cultural heritage of his homeland.

Universities in the West offer more courses on Indian culture and wisdom than institutions of higher learning in India. Indian students are taught about Western humanism, but remain clueless about our own traditional values focusing upon the divine potential in all human beings. They are urged to develop a ‘scientific temper’, but are largely unaware of India’s very own scientific traditions.

Few youngsters know, for example, that the concept of zero and the decimal system originated in India. Radical changes are called for in an educational system which burdens young minds with its emphasis upon rote learning and competitive performance in exams.

Projects conceived with noble intentions can go awry if not implemented properly. The innovative ‘Adopt a Monument’ activity was recently devised by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to instill in young minds an appreciation of their heritage. But months after its inception, schools are not implementing it.

While many schools wait for others to start the scheme, they blame the CBSE and authorities in charge of monuments for not issuing clear instructions. The onus falls upon our policy makers to make our cultural heritage relevant and exciting to young people. The focus should not be upon regressing into a dead past, but to nurture a dynamic connection between the modern day, and the best relics and values from the past.
India’s cultural heritage is not restricted to ruined monuments or musty showcases in museums.

It is up to us to see that it continues to be an integral part of our daily lives. Our philosophical traditions can continue to guide us and nurture our spirits in these times of violence and greed. Small shrines and structures connected with local heroes can be a rallying point for community feeling and pride. In historic cities such Jaisalmer or Delhi’s walled city, people continue to live and work within and around heritage buildings. In 2003, the ASI commissioned an Integrated Management Plan for the entire Vijayanagara site.

This plan recognised the unique value of the Hampi Bazaar, and recommended involving local people in its management and future development. Hampi Bazaar was a hub of commercial activity in the heyday of the Vijayanagara Empire. It continues to bustle even today, with the local people appreciating that their personal welfare is related to the site’s preservation. Our heritage belongs to us all, and each of us has a stake in preserving it. Unless we take pride in our rich common inheritance, unless we feel involved and committed to preserving what belongs to us all, our cultural legacy will not survive for future generations.

Before we condemn the ugly, greedy, apathetic Indian, we must note that such destruction of cultural heritage is also happening elsewhere in the world. The world protested in horror as the Bamiyan Buddhas were blasted to smithereens by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Yet, today, with the encouragement of American authorities, Chinese engineers are readying to wreck a vast complex of richly decorated ancient Buddhist monasteries at Mes Aynak near Kabul.

The driving force is no longer cultural terrorism, but greed. The monuments are perched upon massive copper deposits, and they must be pulverised so that the copper can be mined. Cultural intolerance worldwide is another threat to treasures from the past. Recently, there were international protests when an Egyptian leader declared that the Sphinx and the pyramids at Giza should be flattened. Meanwhile, war continues to take its toll in strife-torn lands. Sufi tombs in Timbuktu, Mali, were recently destroyed in what is widely perceived as a war crime.

Small but sincere efforts from individuals like us can add up to far-reaching benefits for our heritage. As individual parents or teachers, we can help by introducing young people to our heritage through interesting books, films, and trips to heritage sites. We can take part in heritage walks, and even organise them in our own communities. As professionals, we can facilitate our employers to maintain heritage sites as part of corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Technology has made information-sharing more efficient than ever. We can use it to connect with like-minded people not only in India, but across the globe, and learn more about foreign cultures. Scholars and museum curators are no longer the sole authorities on matters relating to our heritage. We too can participate in spreading knowledge about our heritage, and share our personal insights and perspectives.

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