A great way to explore a place is through the lens of culture and heritage and local distinctiveness. Cultural heritage stimulates a respect and understanding of other cultures and, as a consequence, promotes peace and understanding. India is one of the most diverse places in terms of cultural heritage with different heritage routes offering unique experiences based on UNESCO recognised heritage. And, as UNWTO says, culture and cultural heritage can help to achieve inclusive and sustainable development. Cities and regions can be regerated through cultural heritage. Responsible travel ethics can also promote adaptive re-use of heritage buildings. Heritage-based tourism can also spur investment in culture and the creative industries that are community-centered. Here's a look at some places in India that showcase the diversity of its cultural assets.
If you are in Delhi, do check out the Sunder Nursery. It has won the inaugural UNESCO Special Recognition for Sustainable Development in 2020. The Sunder Nursery got the award for its transformative management of the historic premises adjoining Delhi’s popular Humayun’s Tomb. The 90-acre heritage, ecological and nursery zone, which was opened to the public in 2018, was renovated over a decade by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), in partnership with the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). According to the jury, they chose Sunder Nursery because of the “transformative impact in turning a barren site into an urban oasis in the heart of New Delhi”. The jury also appreciated the fact that the Sunder Nursery paid “equal attention to ecological restoration, thus underscoring the message that heritage conservation is beyond monuments and is only truly sustainable when essential linkages between nature and culture are profoundly understood and nurtured.”The Sunder Nursery also received the Award For Excellence in this year’s UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
A Railway Station
Having borne the weight of great names, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus is a World Heritage Site under UNESCO. With its imposing stone dome, turrets, pointed arches, and eccentric ground plan, VT was chosen as an example of late 19th century railway architecture in the British Commonwealth. The building, designed by the British architect F.W. Stevens, took ten years in the making and was finally complete in 1888. The terminal was built over a period of 10 years, starting in 1878, according to a High Victorian Gothic design based on late medieval Italian models. Its remarkable stone dome, turrets, pointed arches and eccentric ground plan are close to traditional Indian palace architecture. It is an outstanding example of the meeting of two cultures, as British architects worked with Indian craftsmen to include Indian architectural tradition and idioms thus forging a new style unique to Bombay/Mumbai.
An Example Of Community Living
The old city of Ahmedabad has several housing clusters (called pol) which comprise families of a particular group, linked by caste, profession, or religion. And the pol has been one of the key reasons that earned Ahmedabad (or Ahmadabad as Unesco spelled it) a place on the Unesco World Heritage List in 2017. It was the first Indian city (the second being Jaipur) to be thus honoured. The couple-of-centuries-old neighbourhoods that dot the earlier parts of the city are an example of community living. Architectural diversity is a key attraction of Ahmedabad. And it is fortunate that Ahmedabad has seen some of its centuries-old havelis (palatial homesteads) saved from demolition, thanks to several initiatives. For instance, the Deewanji ni Haveli, a dilapidated over 250-year-old residential house with ornate architecture, was restored and turned it into an office of the City Heritage Centre (CHC) from where a heritage preservation and restoration enterprise is run. The walled city, with more than 20 monuments protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and other attractions, including several key museums, preserves within itself a rich architectural heritage and cultural legacy, which is an integral part of the local lifestyle. “The walled city of Ahmadabad, founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century, on the eastern bank of the Sabarmati river, presents a rich architectural heritage from the sultanate period, notably the Bhadra citadel, the walls and gates of the Fort city and numerous mosques and tombs as well as important Hindu and Jain temples of later periods,” said Unesco in its introduction to the city.
Churches and Convents
Apart from visiting its beaches, no trip to Goa is complete without visiting the Church of Bom Jesus in Old Goa where the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier lies. But did you know that the casket (encasing the glass box with the body), built by Goan craftsmen in the mid-17th century, is considered a rare work of art, blending Indian and Italian styles? Old Goa or Velha Goa, the former capital of the Portuguese possessions in India, with its churches and convents, have been put under the umbrella of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. So instead of rushing through them on a whirlwind tour, do spend time exploring them, learning about their architectural style, the artefacts within, and their history.
An Archaeological Park
Round the year, hundreds of Hindu and Jain pilgrims visit Pavagadh, around 55km from Vadodara, the third largest city in Gujarat. But only a handful know that they are entering a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Known as the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, the area won the honour in 2004. The archaeological park is spread across the twin towns of Champaner and Pavagadh, located about five km apart from each other. One of the key features that earned the region its World Heritage Site status is the perfect blend of Hindu-Moslem architecture seen in many of the buildings. The Great Mosque (Jami Masjid) is said to have served as a model for later mosque architecture in India. Both towns contain several Jain temples, mostly belonging to the Digmabar sect. Some of the other attractions include prehistoric (chalcolithic) sites, a hill fortress of an early Hindu capital, ruins of fortifications, palaces, religious buildings, residential precincts, agricultural structures and water installations, from the 8th to 14th centuries.
Ancient Rock Shelters
Bhimbetka Caves, also known as the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, is an archaeological site located in the Raisen District of Madhya Pradesh. The rocks are believed to have been a witness to the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods. Spanning across 10 km, there are close to 750 rock shelters and seven hills in the area. These caves have now been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, owing to their historical significance. The rock shelters are a canvas for some of the oldest paintings in India and the rock caves are believed to be among the oldest petroglyphs in the world. Some of the rock paintings in the area are very similar to aboriginal rock art found in Australia and the Paleolithic Lascaux cave paintings discovered in France. Despite there being more than 700 rock shelters, only 12 to 15 are open and accessible to visitors. Most of the paintings are done in red and white on the cave walls. A multitude of themes were covered in this form of rock art and it depicted scenes like singing, dancing, hunting and other common activities of the people staying there. This also adds strength to the argument that the caves used to be home for hundreds of people sometime during 300 BC. The oldest of the cave paintings in Bhimbetka is believed to be about 12,000 years ago. The paintings have been divided into various periods like Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early History and Medieval history. They are present in 500 caves out of the total of 750. However, experts are of the opinion that there may have been many more which got eroded with time.
A Modern Architectural Trail
In 2016, UNESCO inscribed a selection of works by world renowned architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier (1887–1965) as ‘a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past’. Chosen from the work of Le Corbusier, the 17 sites comprising this transnational serial property are spread over seven countries and are a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past, said UNESCO. They were built over a period of a half-century, in the course of what Le Corbusier described as “patient research”. The Le Corbusier works are spread across several countries, but in India, it is The Complexe du Capitole in Chandigarh that has made it to the list as it reflects the solutions that the Modern Movement sought to apply during the 20th century to the challenges of inventing new architectural techniques to respond to the needs of society. So next time you are in the city, do check out this over 100-acre government compound which contains, among other things, the Palace of Assembly or Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, High Court, Open Hand Monument, Geometric Hill and Tower of Shadows.