Preserving cultural heritage: India must take a leaf from France’s book

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Updated: April 18, 2019 6:51:24 AM

The Notre Dame 2024 may not be Notre Dame at all—a ship of Theseus paradox, since parts of it dated back to the 12th century—but there is a lesson the rest of the world, particularly, India must draw from the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire.

The Notre Dame may be just one of the many symbols of France, but the French take their cultural heritage very seriously. (Reuters photo)

Visuals of the Notre Dame on fire, the spire crashing as flames ate away at its oak girders, inspired an unparalleled outpouring of grief. And, a pledge from the French to restore its glory as soon as possible. The Notre Dame may be just one of the many symbols of France, but the French take their cultural heritage very seriously. So, you had French president Emmanuel Macron promising to rebuild the fire devastated cathedral within the next five years. The Notre Dame 2024 may not be Notre Dame at all—a ship of Theseus paradox, since parts of it dated back to the 12th century—but there is a lesson the rest of the world, particularly, India must draw from the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire. French billionaires, corporates, local authorities and even the average French man/woman on the street have committed donations totalling 750 million euros, including 500 million from the three billionaire families that own Kering, Louis Vuitton and L’Oreal. How important the rebuilding of the cathedral is, is evident from the fact that it draws 13 million tourists a year and it is of deep cultural relevance otherwise, too, given its imprint on literature and art.

In India, where the edifices from different periods of the nation’s history are routinely defaced by vandals scrawling on their walls, fall into disrepair, thanks to state and private apathy, or worse, simply disappear, it is hard to imagine such common cause being made around the physical facets of our cultural heritage. Temples crumble, paintings fade away, squatters render medieval tombs unrecognisable, but not many seem bothered. Some monuments the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) may protect with limited efficiency but, about most, the authorities make token noises and let sleeping dogs lie. The private sector, until the preservation and running of, and revenue generation from, a few monuments was auctioned, didn’t show much proactive interest. There is a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s control over temples, some of them being of immense historical and cultural significance. But, in the absence of any articulation of private/corporate interest, how are these monuments to be preserved for posterity?

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