Managing cultural significance


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THE Asian region has the densest heritage, the most diverse cultures and, with the impact of modernity, an incredible fusion of the past and present. In an environment marked by fierce competition for resources, rapid development and globalization, it is imperative today to recognize that cultural significance though profoundly rooted in ancient traditions, is dynamic and continuously evolving. It represents a contemporary addressing of one’s cultural environment, where the Petronas Towers are as contextually valid as the Taj Mahal.

The challenge is to evolve a system that ensures development where conservation is integrative and built on a genuine system of inclusion. Traditional social systems are threatened, unable to address the complexities of societies in transition and the conflict of reconciling outward manifestations of modernity in a deeply traditional culture. This is a core concern today. It impacts issues of conservation as much as high density of population, shifting economic base and reckless consumption of resources do.

It is the present – contemporary culture and aspirations often vying for space in a deeply traditional society – which presents a challenge in managing cultural heritage, often redefining the significance. The manner in which this is addressed will require careful moderation as we try to secure the past in a world where the pace of change is outstripping the capacity to assimilate. The effort must be to link the past and the kinetic present to emerge with a synergy that is truly reflective of the multiple facets of Indian culture.

Equally we must acknowledge that conservation worldwide works within a larger socio-political framework where political expediency is often a protagonist of singular cultures and risks undermining the plurality or the diversity of the nation’s heritage. This is a most fearful trend for it could ultimately lead to dispossession and have powerful consequences. It would disenfranchise, distort and at worst destroy the fabric of society. Such political alienation would alter irreversibly the cultural significance of an area.

In India there is enormous political influence over culture. Any cultural heritage programme therefore must recognize, though not necessarily subscribe to, these emerging trends. Even though governments do not determine a people’s culture – in fact they are often determined by it – they certainly influence the trajectory of change. Equally, political compulsions today are often at variance with a holistic perception of culture or more often, use it to serve cynical ends.



Conservation as practiced and promoted today in India has evolved from our colonial administrative framework where tangible heritage had a higher value than the cultural tradition or wisdom that made it possible. It was, and still is, based on a principle of exclusivity where knowledge and indeed custodianship vests entirely with government and excludes all others. Such assumptions are far easier to perpetuate because they do not accept the need to evolve, keep pace with or dialogue. Our historic cities and sites today are in the turmoil of change and policies of little relevance.

Although we have access to the most profound and learned understanding of our heritage, there is crying need to evaluate the processes by which we influence, protect and present our cultural heritage. This must stem from an understanding that conservation of heritage is based on profoundly human needs, the need to live in surroundings that remain familiar while allowing for desirable and inevitable changes for the improvement and enhancement of the historic habitat. Conservation, therefore, must expand from the realm of building preservation and management of the urban fabric, an exercise that is largely an exclusive venture of governments and professionals, to community driven policies and actions.

Even though we recognize that culture and heritage is indivisible, the manner in which this is addressed in India is more or less completely disconnected. The recent controversy prevailing at the protected Bhojshala Temple in Madhya Pradesh has not generated enough debate on the fundamental question as to whether restoring a temple to worship will in fact validate its future. Sacred space belongs to the devout as much as it does to the custodians of the heritage, and the time has come to review the premise of conservation and ‘worship’ as mutually exclusive objectives. Government orders issued in 2003 are structured much as they were a hundred years ago: ‘Hindus may worship on Tuesdays and may leave offerings of a few flowers or grains of rice’ while ‘Namazi’s may offer prayers at noon at the mosque on Friday’, only underscores what has become in the world’s largest democracy, a total chasm between the government and the governed.



Had the Archaeological Survey of India opened itself to discussion and debate, and had the conservation profession been more enfranchised, many issues of deep contention in cultural heritage could be addressed in a public forum and perhaps not reduced our sacred heritage to political crisis and conflict. We need to consider the innovative steps Sri Lanka has takes in its archaeological site of Polonnaruva, where the priests have been encouraged to restore worship at the site while being trained to be its custodians and conservators. It needed enormous vision, political will and cultural sensitivity to make this a reality.

We may have lost in India the opportunity to open the dialogue to the public to discuss, debate and analyze opportunities for sharing decision-making or even custodianship, thus empowering communities with responsibility for their cultural heritage. In a country as vast and with as diverse a heritage, the policies of our government have not been proactive and certainly not progressive. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution mandate a role for the public in the decision-making process, while the 42nd Constitutional Amendment states that, ‘It is the fundamental duty and responsibility of every citizen of India... to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.’ The mandates of the Constitution have become mutually exclusive such that instead of using these amendments to mobilize participatory processes, they are used marginally. Genuine partnership can only be invoked in an atmosphere of transparency and trust.



There are many players who affect the conservation and development of a historic area: conservative conservators who believe that only they can manage the sites, tourism mandarins romanticizing the heritage, commodification of cultural practices, and of course an upwardly mobile society with its attendant aspirations. There are also the conflicting perspectives of those who wish to restore because that is the ‘norm’, and those who wish to renew because it is their cultural practice. Custodians, governments, administrators, and indeed all of us who seek to protect what to many is an atrophied past, require to evolve a far more inclusive approach to determining cultural significance.

Effective sustainable conservation can only be achieved when there is an authentic and contemporary assessment of cultural significance as well as a clear understanding of the management of change. One needs to shift from the framework of academia and scholarship to the people whose futures are directly impacted. Today where public consultation is a norm and socializing the project is the trend, we need to position the centrality of the community in decision-making. The degree to which a community actually uses or identifies with their heritage often legitimizes conservation.

It is equally important to understand that no single formula or paradigm can be applied to the issues which affect sites as diverse as the cultural heritage of the country.



One of the better known conservation controversy is the landmark Supreme Court judgment on the protection of the Taj Mahal which has resulted in the community and their heritage being completely polarized. Ad hoc, uncontrolled development and industrialization causing high levels of pollution endangered the pristine marble of the Taj Mahal. Court orders banning polluting industries have been implemented at high cost to the citizen, even as other aspects of the court’s orders to upgrade water supply, provide electricity and sewerage have remained unattended. The severest indictment has been the inability of the government to work with the citizens to develop a city renewal plan which could cushion the impact of the judgment and devise opportunities for the future.

It is a sad reflection of our own perceptions of conservation and management that concern about the quality of the monument’s environment super-cedes that of the citizen. There is today a very real risk that in another generation Agra will be a city of monuments and hotels, devoid of life and culture, or worse, the people to whom this heritage is home. The cultural significance of the Taj Mahal would thus alter radically, perhaps even diminish its importance as the cultural icon of India, for icons can only be sustained where there is a healthy environment, where the living cultural heritage is vibrant and there is synergy.

It is this synergy that distinguishes much of India’s heritage. The monumental remains of the Vijayanagar Empire are alive in fields of sugarcane, village settlements and the worshipped Virupaksha Temple. Recently at the centre of international controversy because a bridge was being constructed near its most important remains, thus endangering the site, the Karnataka High Court ruled that the wishes of the people must prevail on the future of the bridge. Today the multiple arms of government are forced into responding to the wishes of the people and to protect the World Heritage Site as mandated by Unesco.



Similarly the significance of Jaisalmer Fort, a continuous living fort since the 11th century, is not just as a fortification of the erstwhile king, but also as a settlement of local people who sought protection of their ruler, unique in its own context. In recent years the fort has undergone phenomenal change. Hereditary households have given way to the ‘tourist trade’ as hotels, restaurants and shops have burgeoned. Water, a scarce commodity in the desert, is generously pumped into the fort and has weakned its foundations, percolating into the fabric of the buildings and destroying many homes. The cultural heritage is at risk here because of a management failure, a failure to address the imperatives of change while securing the cultural resource and building upon it. These are issues for which we as a generation are accountable.

There is an enormous effort today to restore the Red Fort in Delhi but, for the first time in its history, its Meena Bazaar is to be shut down. The inability to manage change in the fort, to address the changing aspirations of the shop owners and to monitor their development, is leading to an irreversible change in the cultural significance of the Red Fort. While it is being restored, conserved and preserved, in the life of the Red Fort the ‘bazaar’ for the first time will be an absent presence. The conservation work must be welcomed for it is long overdue, but the more subtle alteration of its authenticity needs to be addressed. Here again it is the living cultural heritage that is most fragile.



Similarly Lutyen’s Delhi, of cultural significance as the centre of government of independent India and not merely for its unique architectural idiom and urban planning, is also undergoing continuous evolution. The canopy in the central vista which earlier housed the statue of the then King Emperor of India today lies empty, as for several decades scholars, conservators and governments debated who or what should be installed there, thus being responsible for defining the cultural and even political significance. Clearly, any decision taken will be a defining moment for the government concerned.

The importance of this aspect of cultural significance is that it is not merely retreating into past glory and fossilizing it for the future. The effort is to contextualize the historic site, its role in its community, its linkages past and present. It is as important, perhaps even more so, to recognize the present significance of the heritage as it is to root it in its history. It is the dynamic change that every site experiences which effectively constitutes its rich significance.

A recent change that has impacted the significance of a living culture is the ‘rediscovery’ of the River Indus as part of a socio-political agenda. Seduced by enormous, previously unimaginable, quantum of investment by the government in the highly advertised and profiled ‘Sindhu Darshan’ and ‘Cultural Centres’ in Ladakh, the marginalisation of its traditional and very localized culture of the region is under real threat.

Ladakh’s culture, apart from its ancient and continuous Buddhist heritage, is distinguished by the profound interdependence of man and his environment. In the last few decades, with the presence of a large army and the advent of tourists, its culture has faced transformation and although society has evolved, it is still deeply rooted in its traditional ways and lifestyles. In times of intense and extreme change, securing cultural traditions secures society and provides that crucial sense of cherished local pride. Cultural interventions here distort perceptions and risk alienating community pride.



Another management challenge has been the traditional habitat. It was not until the last twenty years that the local environment, the village settlement or the historic urban form, has been accepted to be of historic value and cultural significance. These were never valued as part of India’s cultural heritage and even today an ongoing battle for survival of familiar, shared and even sacred spaces, gains little ground. The conservation profession has fought its toughest battles with realtors, developers and critically with the contemporary aspirations of a modernizing city.

The management of historic sites and evolution of its cultural significance are amongst the most complex aspects of conservation, since it demands balancing the multiple pressures of people, their aspirations, political ambitions and development priorities. The provision of piped water to Jaisalmer Fort cannot be denied, nor indeed the location of a seven million tonne crude oil refinery as an economic hub in the small town of Mathura. The tragedy is the absence of vision, proper planning, and for the people whose cultural heritage has been compromised, the manner in which their lives have been irreversibly altered. It has rendered the people and their heritage vulnerable and now the management issues are so stupendous they are almost impossible to address.



The perceptional change needed now is to disengage from the western notion of preservation of cultural heritage, which is based on a premise that once the heritage is catalogued, archived and legislated, its future is secure. This has little relevance in the Asian region which has a continuous living culture and change is an inevitable part of progress. The Nara Document on Authenticity and the New Zealand Charter for Conservation in the early nineties, sought to present a more culturally relevant perspective on conservation. While the Nara Document focuses on renewal of the heritage as a cultural tradition, in New Zealand the Treaty of Waitiangi acknowledges the historical basis for indigenous guardianship. In India the renewal of religious buildings clearly stipulated in sacred texts is provided for in the Bombay Heritage Regulations of 1994, arguably the first acknowledgement of cultural references for managing cultural heritage.

Our historic cities are not mere edifices of the past seeking survival in the dynamic present, but rather more as layers of civilization each of which has had a profound impact on the culture of the city, and more importantly the citizen. Certainly there must be an informed way that the community, which is in effect the custodian of culture, can play a more direct role in determining the future of their heritage. Public-private partnership is not the mere grant or receipt of funds, it is the sharing of knowledge, of custodianship. Most crucially it expands the base for decision-making and enlarges the stakeholder’s role. The management of the cultural heritage is more than ever before, a transdisciplinary undertaking. It must become one of the key building blocks for the future.



The need therefore is to shift from an academic approach where concern for the preservation of heritage is already external, and restore it to the actual custodians of the heritage. This is clearly a proposition with political dimensions, which requires to be carefully moderated so that we can ensure that the value ascribed to the cultural heritage is not misrepresented by vested interests, thus derailing the entire process. It seeks new avenues of communication, which do not necessarily find a voice in the current socio-political context. The most difficult aspect will be of reconciling contradictions, as material and monetary values take precedence as do divergent views and conflicting values. The task ahead is to ensure that in the process of developing these strategies no intrinsic part of the composite cultural heritage is compromised. This will require enormous vision, sensitivity and pragmatism.

On cultural significance there will be many views but little variance if we can secure a multi-layer composite culture, recognizing that for every region, every place and every culture there is a unique idiom which can safeguard intergenerational equity. It is a sobering thought that in the 21st century with cultural boundaries being defined and redefined as never before, managing the cultural significance has deep and profound implications that are crucial to the future of civilization.