India is often referred to as the land of cultural plurality and diversity where two contrasting worldviews - that of the traditional and continuous and the formal and official (inherited from the British) thrive. These two views today coexist uncomfortably, often at cross purposes, clashing with the contemporary official and is impacting our cultural resources adversely.
In the context of the above, international principles of sacred values and categories are examined on real ground situations through field experience to explore the more recent new category of cultural landscape within the context of India’s multiple faiths /beliefs, plural communities and cultural diversities. This paper tries to articulate the questions and issues raised with focus on sacred significance and values through the Cultural landscape.
Indian Cultural Resources
The Indian traditional perception of culture and its resources is based on continuity rather than preservation. It is governed by the cyclic passage of time. Heritage in India is integral part of the living fabric of society, and, like all living entities, these changes and transforms through time. History is understood as renewing and regenerating according to the cyclic concept of time and elements are never viewed in isolation, but only as a part of the larger context 1.
Indian Cultural Landscape (ICL) can be called ‘intellectual landscape’, a collection of religious, cultural and physical meanings ascribed to geographical components through collective memory, planted on the ground (shaped in real world and real time - the landscape) in active engagement of communities over generations, empowering nature and land from physical to the metaphysical. The ICL is a repository of the collective perception of geography, where memory, information and imagination converge to shape the landscape. The physical form of the landscape that still survive have a capacity to regenerate itself when associations, ideologies and continuity are re-established to engage the contemporary minds of the nation. Therefore, in content and appreciation, the ICL are distinct and have great potential to expand the UNESCO`S definition of Cultural Landscape 2 to include a regional definition called Indian Cultural Landscape as distinct; referred to ICL in this paper.
The traditional understanding of the historical ICL is characterized by the domination of cultural geography over history. They have evolved through processes of cultural synthesis and specific practices within our complex and diverse culture. It can be said that in the Indian worldview the “sense of geography” is better than history judging from the highly evolved spatial cultural resource entities of the myriad 3.
In the Indian ethos, geography has always been more than just a setting of hills, rivers and forests. It can be better perceived through its cultural understanding shared by communities. The geography formed the canvas against which the Indian traditional perspectives and knowledge are conceptualized, practised and celebrated. It also forms the context where man interacts with his surrounds based on a holistic knowledge of nature with both sacred and secular underpinnings. 4
The ICL has been described in myths, legends, lyrics, oral traditions and religious texts. These were planted/imprinted on the ground from memory in the medieval times (at the backdrop of rise Islam to reinforce faith) and given a physical form by ascribing values and association to different forms of nature. The unique pattern of natural features and forms networked with the sacred geography of faith and its secular supports integrated man, place and faith to shape a cohesive landscape 5. The unity achieved at the physical and metaphysical levels gives rise to a continuity and consistency that reinforces the holistic perception of the landscape. The bond between the physical and metaphysical parts of the landscape was further with time through man’s engagement with their geography in various forms.
The Sacredness of the ICL exists right from the memory to geography which gives greater meaning / values through collective memory and association of indigenous communities. 6
Example - The Braj Bhoomi
Braj is a mythical and religious landscape with a very sacred geography, and is represented as the Mandala with Vrindavana at its core (represented by a lotus)or the Braj-Kshetra. The word ‘Braj’ in vernacular parlance means ‘where the cows roam’ and is associated with events and places of Lord Krishna’s childhood and youth. It is a circular area of 20 Yojana (measuring unit for distance) with the river Yamuna flowing at its centre, north to south with Mathura city at the centre. 7. Today Vrajbhoomi survives with sacred natural features, planted groves, settlement patterns grounded on Krishna scriptures, water structures and temples and is bound by a continuity of shared religious and cultural values, limited within the Parikrama or circumambulation path. The core and periphery of this sacred Indian cultural landscape can change as per the beliefs of the sub-sects of a decentralized religious system within the Vaishnava mainstream accommodating multiplicity and diversity. 8
Establishment of Braj region dates back to Mahabharata when Satraps Vajranabha, the grandson of Krishna associated this place with Krishna. Archaeological evidence has established that in the 6th century B. C., this territory was known as Surasena with its capital at the prosperous fortified city of Mathura, located on the river Yamuna at a strategic location where the two main route of ancient India from the south and east to the north-west converged. During the Mauryan, Shunga and Kushana periods, till the 9th century, numerous Buddhist and Jain monuments were constructed and the archaeological explorations have determined that most of the existing settlements are located on or in the vicinity of sites of ancient settlements or monuments of these periods. During the reign of Sikandar Lodhi, in the 16th century, Nimbaraka, Vallabha and Chaitanya, religious preachers revealed this as the region, which identified itself with the mythical region of Krishna’s childhood. During the Mughal period also, Braj was a vast region and over historic time has been shrinking to now cover parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan States.
Many places within this region are associated with the life of Krishna. It is an associative landscape – a stage for early and boyhood years of Krishna`s life. From memory and sacred texts, the landscape is sculpted by the Vaishnavites anchored on ground where a distinct place is designated for a event in the life of Krishna like Gokul his place of birth, Vrindavan a pastoral landscape where he played with the gopis etc. The Chaurasi Kos yatra, visits all the places thus appropriating the act through its pilgrimage. 9
Instance of multiple understanding of sacred
The larger Indian society is pluralistic giving rise to cultural diversity and a symbiotic relationship among communities, reflected in ICL. Communities developed their sacred geography based on their faith and the belief in structures specific to their individual cults by marking on the ground their meanings for places and natural features. Although they differed in ideology, faith and actions, their fundamental understanding of the extent and properties of geography and the ascribed associations to its features remained characteristically similar. Therefore within the framework of a pluralistic society, the different communities co-existed symbiotically, lending to the diversity extant in the sub-continent, which had been achieved over centuries. Example the popular belief of Char Dham, the four corners of the idea of India is equally understood by the majority, irrespective of their value-system within the Hindu sects
Layers in settlement
There are numerous ICLs presenting a range of urban, rural and regional sub categories that are distinct and unique to the sub-continent. For example capitals of princely states, historic cities with its own typological variations as planned, designed or walled; sacred settlements, other royal and imperial capitals, colonial towns, hill stations, 19th and 20th century modern habitats, to name a few that transcend historic times on land to inform and communicate the true story of the nation not found in books. The evidence of their history remains preserved as ‘historical layers’ interwoven with the tangible and intangible resources and this embedded knowledge requires to be deciphered and dissected.
However, the recent incident and verdict of Ayodhya stands as a example of the fracture in the construction of co-habiting plural narratives that had once ensured an underlying symbiosis within the larger populace. It must be mentioned here, that the Ramtek Hill, located in Ayodhya (at the summit of a an elevated land form ) remains immortalised in the Epic Ramayana as the birth place of Lord Rama. This location associated with the Lord Rama has been explained by Dr PS Rana as the “mesocosm” on land that is the intersection of the “macrocosm” and the “microcosm”. 10
During the 16th century, under the rule of Babur, a mosque was constructed in the same spot, a common practice during the rise of Islam. Evidences also show the reuse of parts of an older structure in the Mosque. Since the 19th century, there were instances of conflict that ensued over the location of Babri Mazjid. This culminated in December 1992, resulting in the demolition of the structure 11. Close to two-decades later, to regain status-quo, the issue was addressed by equal division of land among three conflicting groups, and the complexities of overlayed multiple and plural values that require complex interpretations, was overlooked 12.
In 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India, its Ancient Monuments Sites and Remains Act’5813 and INTACH a National Non- Governmental Organisation set up for the safeguard of unprotected heritage were not able to save this structure. On the one hand the ASI under its Act could have brought the Babri Masjid under official protection because it had the ability to protect structures over 100 years old and INTACH could have taken initiative because the mosque was unprotected structure. Babri Masjid is a rare surviving structure belonging to Early Mughal period, hence imperative to protect. This unfortunate event brought to the forefront uncomfortable but pertinent questions and exposed the gulfs/ divided within the country and society. The diversity of world views and their perceptions of values. 14
The resolution of the differences between the two mutually conflicting world views requires an in-depth understanding of our cultural resources and an informed stand by decision-makers. It also may need adopting new tools perhaps the Historic Urban Landscape approach (HUL) combined with the Knowledge Systems approach to build knowledge for the regeneration of heritage sites based on “people-time-place” 15 examination for a comprehensive understanding of our historic sites/ cities which is a fascinating area of research being developed, which can ensure effective protection and management for the future generations. 16
The post-independence mainstream official perception, which has gathered great strength over two centuries, is based on Colonial understanding of India and her resources. This imposes a western approach on policies in education and administration on the Indian subcontinent, introducing an alien way of life and creating a perception of traditional India, its culture, heritage, and ethos. As a result, society today remains polarised between two extremes - those
Sixty years post Independence, education and professional training, hence the decision-making and policies of governance, hinges greatly on the Colonial perception of India. This limits the understanding, quality (relevance) and actions of our official systems for effective identification and safeguarding of our cultural resources, associations and values. There is a lack of the integrated perspective that is required to understand, appreciate and manage the ICL. The official perspective is still unilateral, compartmentalised and self-limiting. Though it has scope of expanding and co-ordinating and in spirit is decentralised, there is much more effort required to establish a dialogue between different agencies for context and resource specific understanding and effective management of Indian heritage.
For example, the case of Majuli demonstrates the problems in responsible agencies, both in the region and at the centre to bring about new changes and rectification of the existing for effective site management as a landscape and not a monument or site.
Majuli is a mid-river delta system, in the Bramhaputra Valley, in Assam and is a unique spiritual Indian cultural landscape. Historically, the entire Brahmaputra valley with its tributaries defined the boundaries of kingdoms of diverse ethnic groups, who were at constant conflict, living within its plain, hills and river-side. In the 15th-16th Century AD, during an era of Islamic dominance, the introduction of Vaishnavism and the monastic institution of Sattras by Saint Shri Shri Sankaradeva, redefined the Assamese socio-cultural dimension. Bound by faith, the Sattras unified the diverse ethnic groups into a democratic casteless society in their unique ecological context. Sattras, which had an area of influence, were headed by a Sattradhikar, assisted by other monks. Till the 19th century, the Sattras functioned based on the words of the Sattradhikars and there were no written rule-book.
Each Sattra, set up its own tradition and practices, exercised a spiritual control over the members through social orders and evolved a context- specific management system that bridged socio-religious practices within its natural setting. Diverse ethnic groups performed distinct activities (traditional occupation) that enabled management of natural resources and withstood natural calamities. Traditionally, respective Sattras developed a series of synchronized systems of resource management that closely followed the natural geo- hydrological dynamics of the island and specifically responded to the area of their influence. Each community thereon, were entrusted unique and significant duties within the overall framework that formed an integral part of the spiritual and cultural fabric of the Assamese society, continuing till date 17.
Effective protection and management of living landscapes required an elaborate, coordinated and multilevel system to address the complexity. It was unfortunate, but not surprising, that the Majuli Island was nominated 18 as a World Heritage cultural landscape but did not succeed. The failure remained in the existing official system to meet challenges of managing change and maintaining OUVs through coordinated actions and interfaces between various sectors. Efforts made like the Majuli Cultural Landscape Act 2006 and the Majuli Cultural Landscape Consortium still required interfaces for effective functioning, with dialogue and understanding among the jurisdictions and the agencies.
It must be noted that the paper aims not to encourage the return to an older time. It is rather towards the development of a more comprehensive understanding of our traditional systems of management that lends itself to development of a management framework.
Indian Cultural Landscapes are Intellectual landscapes, a unique resource and a playground of learning for professional and scholars a like 19. A product of holistic paradigm to civilization studies, it has the capacity to build knowledge, hence enhance the limited understanding of the mainstream that affects the manner in which India is perceived by Indians.
A long-term active engagement, experimental studies and analysis of complex ICLs like Majuli, Braj, Hampi and Khajuraho has illustrated the great scope to improve the modern/official system of management by incorporating important lessons from the traditional one to equip it to better understand and be more effective in action. The Knowledge Systems approach builds a local database and reconnects the historic site/city landscape to its people.
Protection and management of the Indian Heritage is a great challenge that needs to be effectively addressed by the mainstream through long-term collective commitment of the official and the popular world, its various agencies and institutions, involved in Sites. There is an immediate need to develop context and resource specific tools that are not based on any preconceived notion but are developed through consistent involvement/engagement with the site. Today, more than ever, this is a national responsibility beyond obligation to comply with international directives, so as to ensure protection of our ‘identity through culture’.
The Hampi Integrated Management Plan (IMP) 20 demonstrates the potential of the “Indian National Framework”, to develop effective tools and mechanisms that safeguard a complex living sacred, royal and secular cultural landscape like Hampi World Heritage
Site, primarily an archaeological site covering the 16th century metropolitan capital of the Vijayanagara Dynasty. The aim is to ensure safeguarding of the overall significance and values – OUVs, regional, local – which encompass archaeological, historical, architectural, religious, socio-cultural, economic and usage aspects]. Bridging between international directives and local realities lies the “National Framework” and the Integrated Management Plan (IMP) an instrument that connects to the real ground of the World Heritage Site for the protection, maintenance and management of entire range of heritage resources of the site in a participatory manner by involving the mandated agencies within the national, regional, local and traditional levels. This is to be achieved through a working group method and participatory decision-making process, where a lateral co-ordination is forged between all concerned agencies. Mechanisms for monitoring and new units for information management provided to build local
capacity. In short enables decentralisation as envisaged by73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments.
The Plan document has 3 sections – Core (Heritage), Integrative (Planning and Human development) and General management (Infrastructure-related development), where priority lies in that order. Allowing sustainable growth that at no point of time undermines the cultural resources and its values, the 3 sections of the IMP provides innovative systems, interfaces and mechanisms that resolve conflicts and contradictions from other sectors such as Planning, Development and Tourism which otherwise adversely effects cultural resources.
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