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India ratified the Convention in 1977, and in 1983, got the first set of sites inscribed on the World Heritage Site list - the Ajanta and Ellora caves, Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort.
That was then. Today, there are 35 sites in India that have been declared World Heritage.
WHS is a much sought after status. It instantly leads to greater visibility worldwide, leading to an influx of heritage tourists from around the world. What were once little known and scarcely visited monuments or sites, often in remote areas, are suddenly catapulted onto the world stage when they are inscribed on the WHS list.
Dr SVP Halakatti, who retired as director of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), points out that an important benefit is that the site gets better-protected. WHS managers can draw on technical expertise from UNESCO and other international bodies to better-conserve and manage the site. Additionally, WHS norms are stringent. "Ensuring that the site meets these norms raises the bar on conservation of the site,” he says.
Hampi provides a great example of this. In the late 1900s, when local authorities began building a bridge across the Tungabhadra, UNESCO reacted by placing Hampi on the list of WHS in danger. The bridge, they averred, would ruin the ambience of the site, dominate the vista, and take away from the natural grandeur of the boulders and ruins. UNESCO recommended shifting the bridge elsewhere. Construction halted and eventually, in 2009, the bridge collapsed on its own. But meanwhile, the incident spurred the setting up of a Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority which now guides, advises and oversees development in the site and its surroundings. Later, a similar management body was set up in the WHS of Champaner in Gujarat. These management bodies involve all the stakeholders, and so lead to a better management of the site.
Basket of hopefuls
It’s no wonder then that everyone wants to get onto the WHS bandwagon. Currently, we have 44 sites that are on the Tentative List. These are a basket of hopefuls that the country presents to UNESCO, with the intention of nominating them sometime to be inscribed on the WHS List. In other words, they are thought to have Outstanding Universal Value, besides meeting at least one of the 10 qualifying criteria for being declared a WHS. There is no bypassing some time on the Tentative List since only a site that is already on the Tentative List can be nominated for the WHS List.
Even a cursory glance at India’s WHSes-in-waiting brings out the incredible diversity, multiculturalism and depth in our history and heritage. These sites span a time period from 3000 BC to the mid-1900s. Though they all have outstanding value, in the absence of the coveted WHS tag, many of them are still a little off the tourist track, which makes them must-see places.
The Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat is decidedly remote and not on most tourists’ to-do lists. Getting to Dholavira means traversing mile after mile of vast brown lands, relieved only occasionally by the sight of women in typically colourful Gujarati attire. After hours of emptiness, you reach the bewitching, glistening, salt-encrusted Rann of Kutch which again stretches as far as the eye can see. And finally, there on an island in the middle of this gleaming white, long-dried sea lies Dholavira, a fortified city dating from at least 3000 BC. It is an amazing example of how sagacity, foresight and planning can help you thrive even in the most inhospitable climates. Check dams across two seasonal rivers nearby channelled water into a series of inter-connected reservoirs which girdled the city. Within the citadel, even the water that fell on the fort walls was collected and channelled to be stored in another set of interconnected reservoirs. One of the must-dos in Dholavira is to enter the underground stormwater drain, easily six feet high and comfortable enough to walk through. And of course, you can see examples of the well-planned sewage system of the Harappans that we have all heard of. This evidence of elaborate and meticulously-thought-out water management by the Harappans is one of Dholavira’s Outstanding Universal Values, the other being its town planning.
Archaeologists believe the raison d’etre of Lothal, near Baroda, was its dockyard. During the excavations at the site in the 1950s, archaeologist S R Rao, the lead excavator, found a large tank, measuring 217m x 26m, on the northern end of the town. Following the discovery of inlets and outlets in two of the walls, he postulated that the structure was a dockyard: boats would have entered here from channels that connected it to the rivers nearby.This makes Lothal the only Harappan-period port town known so far, which is why it was added to the Tentative List in 2014.
Besides these ancient Harappan cities, the Tentative List also has the three living cities of Ahmedabad, Delhi and Jaipur. In 2011, the Historic City of Ahmedabad was added to the Tentative List primarily on the strength of its pols, its communities, and its traditional wooden architecture. A year later, the many-layered city of Delhi found a place on the Tentative List for its unique cultural landscape, a product of the amalgamation of several cultures. Jaipur was added in 2015 for being an example of 18th century town planning. There’s more to Lothal than the tank, of course. You can wander around the 3,000-year-old settlement, potter about the remains of ancient houses and workshops, or imagine yourself a trader in one of Lothal’s once-bustling old warehouses.
An eye for detail
A settlement of a very different sort is the cluster of villages in Chettinad which was included in the Tentative List in 2014. These villages showcase the urban design and architecture typical of the Natukottai Chettiars. These Chettiars were Tamil merchants who, in the mid-1800s, ran thriving businesses in Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere in the Far East. With their fortunes, they built flamboyant houses in their hometowns in Chettinad. These opulent mansions are characterised by a unique combination of European designs and Tamil vernacular sensibilities. Though several have been lost in the recent past, enough jaw-dropping examples of the distinctive Chettinad mansions still survive to make a trip there well worth your while.
Far further south of Chettinad and at the far end of the spectrum from it in terms of style and colour is the palace in the tiny town of Padmanabhapuram. Padmanabhapuram was once the capital of the old Travancore State and its palace is one of India’s oldest and best surviving examples of traditional wooden architecture. Though it is now in Tamil Nadu, the palace is maintained and managed by the Kerala Department of Archaeology. The beginnings of the palace date to the 1590s. The last additions were made in 1800s. Understated and elegant, every feature in the palace - from the glossy black floors to the wooden slatted corridors, from the medicinal wooden bed to the polished metal mirrors - can draw a sigh of admiration (or envy!) from the visitor. This palace was added to the Tentative List in 2014.
The temples of Bishnupur have been on the Tentative List since 1998. Built in the 1600s with brick, laterite and terracotta, most of the temples are in a style specific to the region. A few, like the Rasmanch Temple, are in a style all of their own. Built on a square, laterite plinth, the temple has a colonnade of arches topped with a series of jharokha-like roofs out of which arises a pyramidal superstructure that at first seems straight out of Teotihuacan - quirky, unusual, and certainly of universal value. The temples that were built here a few years after the Rasmancha took on a wholly different avatar: they came alive with terracotta panels on their outer walls depicting hunting scenes, dancing, and of course, scenes from the puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Make a beeline to Bishnupur, for you will not see such terracotta creations anywhere else in the country.
While every site on the Tentative List is unique, none is perhaps quite as unique as the island of Majuli in Assam. This, the world’s largest river island and India’s only island district, lies in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra. The ever-shifting river has created a network of smaller islands that encircle Majuli, like stationary satellites. Majuli itself is a mosaic of green rice fields interlaced with water channels, all incredibly scenic. But being in the middle of the restless river means parts of the island are washed away every monsoon. Apart from its geography, Majuli is also unique for its villages and settlement patterns, such as its stilt-supported houses for example - clear responses of people to the dynamic and unpredictable environment they live in. Majuli was added to the Tentative List in 2004. Some scholars believe it will disappear in a few decades, having already been whittled down by the river from 1,200 sq km in the 1800s to about 800 sq km today.
In this, our 70th year of independence, perhaps you could visit some of the sites connected with our freedom struggle. In 2014, a plethora of sites from all over the country, all connected with the freedom movement, were added to the Tentative List. They include ashrams associated with Mahatma Gandhi; routes along the Dandi March; places where the flag Satyagraha took place, including Shivapura near Maddur; and places associated with the Quit India Movement, among others. In a world that was and is rife with wars and violence, we fail to realise just how rare a mass movement the freedom struggle was. One of the most poignant places where you can get a peek at the non-violent yet steely character of the struggle is Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, where Gandhiji stayed from 1917 to 1930. This was the crucible for many of his ideas including on ahimsa, physical labour and education. The 36-acre ashram preserves the house where Gandhiji and Ba lived, the little hut where Vinoba Bhave lived, and the guest house where visitors stayed. It is quite a moving experience to imagine Gandhiji meeting other leaders of the freedom movement in the small front room of his house, discussing and charting the course of the struggle even as he continued spinning on his charkha.
So, what next for these 44 sites on the Tentative List? The Archaeological Survey of India, the designated nodal agency that liaises with UNESCO, believes all these sites are worthy of being declared WHS. But the recent UNESCO guidelines mandate that only two sites can be sent up for nomination by any country each year, and further, that at least one of these must be a natural or cultural site. This means that some of these sites might have to wait a long time before they acquire that coveted status of being a World Heritage Site.