Heritage walk: What it takes to feature on the UNESCO World Heritage List

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September 05, 2021 4:00 AM

Dholavira in Gujarat and Ramappa Temple in Telangana are the latest Indian sites to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, taking the country’s count to 40. But what does it really mean to get the prestigious tag?

World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical or scientific significanceWorld Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical or scientific significance

Last month, Spain set a new provisional heat record of 47.2 degrees Celsius for this year. Despite the heat, locals in Algar, a city of about 1,400 people in southern Spain, come out of their homes every evening to sit, relax and chat with neighbours. And this is the reason Algar is seeking the UNESCO World Heritage tag. The idea is to preserve the custom of outdoor evening get-togethers (especially with the onslaught of social media), as well as the city’s heritage.

A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). India, too, has many World Heritage Sites, including the Ajanta Caves, Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, etc. The latest sites to get the coveted tag are Dholavira, a Harappan city in Gujarat, and Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple in Telangana.

The UNESCO rating is one of the world’s most prestigious heritage tags that helps preserve centuries-old remains of a site, custom, monument or city, bringing value to the history and culture of a place. But what exactly does it mean to get the tag?

Pride & honour
World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance. The sites are judged to contain “cultural and natural heritage… considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. The idea is to not let this heritage sink into oblivion. Instead, the tag helps add value, putting the site on the global map.

“Once a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List, the resulting prestige often helps raise awareness among citizens and governments for heritage preservation. Greater awareness leads to a general rise in the level of the protection and conservation given to heritage properties. A country may also receive financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support activities for the preservation of its sites,” reads a UNESCO statement.

According to AG Krishna Menon, a Delhi-based architect, urban planner and conservation consultant who has been practising for over 40 years, the tag denotes pride. “Heritage is something you are proud of. A heritage tag attracts more footfall and people want to visit such an important site… in the process, it becomes a tourist attraction. Besides holding historic value, it helps the economy boom,” says Menon. This year, 34 new sites were added to the list, including India’s Dholavira on the arid island of Khadir in Gujarat and Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple located in the village of Palampet, approximately 200 km northeast of Hyderabad.

The selection criteria, however, is extremely tough. The UN cultural agency states on its website that a site must be of “outstanding universal value” and meet at least one of the 10 criteria to be included in the list. The criteria include representing a “master of human creative genius” and bearing a “unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared”, among others.

In total, the UNESCO World Heritage List includes 1,154 monuments in 167 countries. With the addition of Ramappa Temple and Dholavira, India’s count has gone up to 40. Italy tops the list with the most number of World Heritage Sites. It has 58 sites, including the historic city centres of Rome and Florence, and the Amalfi Coast. China has 56 properties, including the Song-Yuan era Emporium of the World in Quanzhou. With 51 sites, Germany ranks third and is ahead of Spain (49) and France (48). India ranks sixth on the list.

There are 194 ‘State Parties’, or countries, that have ratified the World Heritage Convention as of October 23, 2020 (India endorsed the convention on November 14, 1977). Only those countries, which have signed the World Heritage Convention-pledging to protect their natural and cultural heritage-can submit nomination proposals for properties on their territory.

Status symbol
The World Heritage ranking helps a country gain a ‘status’, even while improving tourism and culture. Every site is judged on the basis of its cultural and natural heritage, and value to humanity. The tag also serves as an identity for the city and its people. “Beyond taking pride in the heritage, it makes sure that people living around it become responsible for maintaining it and are motivated. The tag helps as it changes opinion about certain places,” says Delhi-based author and historian Swapna Liddle, who was the former convener of the Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Each site has a civilisational founding that has been catalysed by culture. The 13th-century Ramappa Temple, for instance, is of outstanding universal value because of the creative, artistic and engineering talents of the Kakatiya period (1123-1323).

Dholavira, too, is one of the largest Harappan cities known for sophisticated water conservation techniques. “It is an outstanding example of Harappan urban planning, with pre-conceived city planning, multilayered fortifications, drainage system and the extensive use of stone as a building material. It had tanks to store rainwater or fresh water harvested from other sources. All these characteristics reflect the unique position Dholavira held in the Harappan civilisation,” says KK Muhammed, former regional director, north, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). After the partition in 1947, there was no Harappan site in India on the UNESCO list, says Muhammed. “It is a planned Harappan town with a water tank system… inscriptions like signage (were) discovered from the site,” he says.

The inter-regional trade links associated with Dholavira have also been acknowledged as contributing to the shared heritage of humanity. “The art associated with the city—artefacts of various kinds such as copper, shell, stone, jewellery made of semi-precious stones, terracotta, gold, ivory have been found at the site,” UNESCO said in a statement.

A glimpse into the past helps us make sense of the present. Thus, preserving and conserving such sites is key, but it will only be possible with state support, say experts. “Non-state actors such as thinktanks, cultural organisations and other cultural ambassadors must play a concerted role to showcase such sites. Countries and heads should make efforts to take visiting delegations— as part of bilateral or multilateral visits— to these sites, so that the focus is more engrained and the visibility is better. Only then can tourism be enabled strongly at these sites,” says Chennai-based Sudarshan Ramabadran, writer, researcher, columnist, and a speaker at Public Diplomacy in Asia, a recent virtual conference by the Singapore International Foundation.

Heritage sites can best be put under three categories: local, national and international. “Not all places, monuments are recognised as World Heritage. The Taj Mahal is a unique example that stands important at all levels,” says Menon.

In 2017, Ahmedabad was declared as the first World Heritage City of the country, with 2,600 heritage sites and over two dozen ASI-protected monuments, joining the privileged club of heritage cities like Paris, Cairo and Edinburgh. Bhaktapur in Nepal and Galle in Sri Lanka were the other two cities from the subcontinent on the list. Two years later, in 2019, the walled city of Jaipur, known for its iconic architectural legacy and vibrant culture, became the second city in the country to get the recognition.

Delhi, with its colonial-era Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone and the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad, pitched for a nomination as well, but the Centre withdrew it in May 2015 without citing any reason. Seven years on, the city and the sites submitted in the previous dossier— the National War Memorial and Chandni Chowk— have seen development. Each city has its own character and sometimes that changes, explains Menon. “If bungalows are vanishing from Delhi, you may not be able to call it a ‘bungalow city’ any more. But if you preserve it like a Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone, it becomes a heritage zone. Areas that are recognised as World Heritage might be good for civilisation, but sometimes it is of interest to other countries. Once changed, it doesn’t become World Heritage,” says Menon.

However, the abuse of these sites and monuments has been a concern. The group of monuments at Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was inscribed on the World Heritage in Danger List in 1999 due to the partial construction of a cable-suspended bridge within the protected archaeological area, which threatened the property’s integrity and authenticity.

But sometimes excavations at a notified site can add value. Muhammad explains the fascinating story of exploring, excavating and discovering the nearby areas of Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh through which pre-historic paintings were found. “It demands restoration of the caves, conservation of the paintings and promotion of the whole area as a tourist spot,” he says, adding how Mughal emperor Akbar built a Christian chapel in Fatehpur Sikri in 1580-81 after repairing and converting a structure known as a perfume house. “This is a value addition, but the mining lobby can completely devastate, so there’s a check and balance to be maintained,” he says.

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