Piazza San Marco Venice, Italy, Western Europe
World Heritage Day is an international day for monuments and sites. I have visited many world heritage sites. I visited these sites in different geographies. Museum Island in Berlin, Duomo Cathedral in Milan, San Marco Venice, Jungfrau mountain Switzerland, Old town of Bern, Switzerland, Swiss Vineyards of Lavaux, Statue of Liberty New York, Eiffel Tower Paris and Tower of London are just some of them.
Travel is a great experience for those who have the privilege. I get to enjoy time with my family, and it is a learning–filled experience for my family members. On World Heritage Day, I look up the list of world heritage sites. India is one of the world’s last surviving most ancient cultures and has many heritage sites. If you look at the criteria UNESCO uses, these are what they are. There are six of them:
- Represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.
- Exhibits an important interchange of human values.
- Bears a unique testimony to a cultural tradition of civilization.
- Is an outstanding example of an architectural or technological ensemble throughout history.
- Is an outstanding example of traditional human settlement or interaction with the environment.
- Is tangibly associated with traditions, ideas, beliefs, and works of universal significance.
I noticed three differences in the heritage sites I visited in Western Europe versus the ones I visited in India.
- The number: Western Europe has more sites attributed to heritage and culture by UNESCO than the Indian subcontinent has. (See screenshot of UNESCO map)
- The diversity: While landscaping and architecture are very eye–catching in the heritage sites of Western Europe, heritage sites showcase a diversity of art-forms going beyond physical architecture alone, spanning across the whole of the Indian subcontinent, that is simply unmatchable.
- The focus on sustainability: The Western European heritage sites show the world the dominion of Man. In India, visits to all the cultural and natural heritage sites showcase a peaceful co-existence of all life forms, flora, fauna included; of life on land and in the water included.
An old Haveli conserved, Amer, Rajasthan, North India
Personally, I have had the good fortune of visiting these UNESCO World Heritage sites in India: Amer fort Rajasthan, Taj Mahal Agra, Big Temple Tanjavur (Brihadeeshwara Temple), Bharatpur Bird sanctuary, Airawateshwara Kumbakonam, Fatehpur Sikhri Agra, Meenakshi Ammal Madurai, and Qutab Minar Delhi. Let me then explain each of these three points further.
Apart from these sites which are on the list of UNESCO Heritage sites, there is a lot more to see in India. At the time of writing this article, many examples of Indian heritage aren’t yet listed by UNESCO. These unlisted places form a very important part of Indian culture and heritage. Numbers then become a subjective quantification. If you look at the list of sites available on the UNESCO website, Europe has almost double the number of sites than India has.
Screenshot UNESCO certified World Heritage Sites
India is a much older civilization than Europe. Isn’t it curious that Europe would then have more sites? A big reason for this is the process that goes behind the World Heritage Site certification granted by UNESCO. It costs a particular culture significant money, time and resources for cleaning and conservation, and then invite a UNESCO team to visit a site to ascertain its heritage status. It is only obvious that countries with larger budgets at their disposal for conservation of their heritage will have more tangible UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Diversity of Art
To give you an example of the diversity of heritage present in India, from the Taj Mahal in Uttar Pradesh in North India to the Great Living Chola Temples in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, I stood speechless. It is not just the impressive continuity of civilization one gets to witness. Indian art forms are diverse and many. My team and I made this short video that shares some of the classical arts that can still be seen alive and well in India. Some of these I have grown up watching, imbibing and even enjoying by doing! They range from temple frescos, rock–cut sculptures, saris, rangoli, jewelry, and paintings.
Watch: How Elegant is Indian Art?
India also has a very rich performing arts scene that has kept its ancient storytelling culture alive. Many of these performing arts are alive not only for entertaining the masses but also to pass on traditions of faith and spirituality that keeps India’s family values in place in society. Some of these traditions are so valuable that Sangeet Natya Akademi, India’s central body for performing arts, that is responsible for preserving Indian culture (and comes under Ministry of Culture), nominated the Durga Pooja for UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage for 2020.
Durga Pooja is celebrated worldwide by the communities belonging to Bengal, the Eastern state of India, that was divided into West Bengal and Bangladesh. During Durga Pooja, the feminine divine is worshipped and celebrated by all genders in India, across all social divisions. In a significant role reversal, the woman is recognized as the creator, the one with the power to destroy and the power to sustain. She is recognized as the one with the power to give wealth and wisdom. It is a celebration that goes on for ten days. The same Goddess is revered in a traditon in Southern Indian state of Kerala called Mudiyeetu. Mudiyeetu is now a UNESCO world heritage as it is an intangible cultural ritual art form.
Watch this video, to get a glimpse of how various parts of India keep intangible cultural heritages alive, during just one of the many festivals that take place simultaneously across the land.
Here is a list of a few more examples of intangible cultural heritage of India that UNESCO has already recognized. However, there are many more examples of India’s intangible cultural heritage that does not have a UNESCO recognition.
Browse our courses on Mastering India to know more about Indian culture.
|Name in English
||Name in French
|Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre
||Le théâtre sanscrit, Kutiyattam
|Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana
||Ramlila, représentation traditionnelle du Ramayana
|Tradition of Vedic chanting
||La tradition du chant védique
|Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala
||Le Mudiyettu, théâtre rituel et drame dansé du Kerala
|Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur
||Le sankirtana, chants rituels, tambours et danses du Manipur
||La Kumbh Mela
India’s Intangible Cultural Heritage
Focus on Sustainability
India has a fascinating living culture coming down since ancient times that focuses on what we today define as “sustainability”. The Indian art that has been displayed in ancient sites of heritage still lives on to this day and not just in its man-made architectural marvels. India’s natural biodiversity is showcased amongst its flora and fauna in the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. It is represented in Indian clothes, jewelry, performing arts and traditions that lay emphasis on peaceful-coexistence between man and Nature, rather than on domination of Man over Nature.
Big Temple Brihadeeshwara, Tanjavur, Tamil Nadu, South India. Image credit Divya Badri
During my visit to the Brihadeeshwara Temple, I saw how women’s health was spoken about openly in ancient India. A statue of a woman during natural childbirth and another clearly emphasizing on the importance of breastfeeding are there. (Look at the image on the left carefully.) It is a temple that was built by Tamil King Raja Raja Chola I and completed in 1010 CE within 6 years. The entire temple structure is made from hard granite. It’s a place of worship, for devotion and meditation and it is also a centre of learning. I observed these statues of women. If you think about it, we are talking one thousand and twenty years ago. Fast forward to 2020, aren’t we still trying to educate our societies about women’s and child’s health? Something that been carved in stone in ancient India, these thousand-year-old stone statues of ancient Indian women expound the health benefits of both natural childbirth and breastfeeding – two phenomena that were challenged in the West with the advent of the industrial age. I could not but help compare times. It is said that we are not to judge history from today’s lens, however, nothing is to stop the past from judging the present from the lens of yore.
Present–day concepts of sustainability like good health, gender equality, quality education and life on land and water were amongst the various takeaways for me on my visits to remnants of ancient India.
Efforts to Preserve Cultural Heritage in India
Invasions and colonisation over the past (approximately) 500 years have left a mark on Indian culture and heritage. Not only were ancient structures aggressed, but the great library of Nalanda was burnt to the ground with its 9 million books (read thousands of years of ancient cultural heritage went up in flames in a few months). Apart from the attacks that Indian heritage and Indian art suffered historically, the cultural richness and diversity of present-day India are challenged with globalization’s missions of imposing conformism to global trends. To truly imbibe the theme of ‘Shared Cultures, Shared Heritage, Shared Responsibility’ a multipronged approach is necessary. Future generations of not only Indians but also the rest of the world can thereby learn about their collective past in India and educate themselves to be responsible for the continuity of South Asian culture, tradition, and heritage.
There are several organisations which are working towards preserving India’s cultural, natural and intangible heritage alive. Some focus on conservation of heritage buildings, and maintain research and documentation, in order to build capacity for preserving heritage sites; some on teaching ancient art forms; and some on teaching Indian history. Go through Swiss Learning Exchange which has a community called Mastering India which focuses on blending various methods of learning (blended learning) through its online courses, events and travel-based experiences. Exploring India’s heritage is an excellent way to demystify India’s complexities and begin a journey of Indian cultural appreciation. If then, a map was to be made, the dots over India would clearly be a lot denser on a map showcasing cultural heritage.
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