Last fortnight saw the Advisory Committee, World Heritage Matters, constituted under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, visiting Chennai. The Departments of Tourism of the southern States, the Archaeological Survey of India and several NGOs, including INTACH, were invited to present their views on sites/buildings/precincts in South India that they considered worthy of World Heritage status. This by itself is a first, for the South has never been considered in such lists. The consultations are, however, only a preliminary step and do not by themselves amount to any kind of recognition or even a promise of future recognition. But they did give the South an opportunity to present its views.
World Heritage status is usually granted by UNESCO to sites of special physical or cultural significance. Of the 911 sites listed across the world, India has 29, of which merely five are in the South. A further 33 have been submitted by India for consideration and none from the South was in the list. This was, therefore, sent back for revision and that resulted in the present discussion. Moreover, it was felt that the lists from India tended to lean towards majority of monuments, most of them from the Mughal era. UNESCO, on the other hand, prefers inclusion of natural habitats, representations from pastoral and nomadic communities, unique forms of agriculture, which are on the wane, and living examples of heritage such as historic cities that are still in use.
In Tamil Nadu, Mamallapuram, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and three of the major Chola temples – Brihadeeswarar, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram – are the only sites which enjoy World Heritage status. The State, along with Kerala and Karnataka, also has the Western Ghats that has recently made it to the list.
The presentations were done by all the southern States and Union Territories. Tamil Nadu had seven recommendations (see table below). Each of the presentations was to be of five minutes’ duration, with discussions after that. Very few of the presenting teams adhered to this norm, with the usual tendency to be verbose being a prominent feature.
The State Government did its best to do an overkill on its own nomination by pushing it up in the order of presentation, trying to get some more time, etc. It is, however, a moot point as to how much of the presentations the Advisory Committee was able to absorb, given that it listened to almost thirty of them during the course of the day. But to be fair to its team, the short-listed sites will be given a year and sufficient funding to prepare a dossier for further consideration.
This, of course, is not the last word. The short-listed sites will then be forwarded to UNESCO along with the dossiers. There they will compete with sites nominated from across the world to, hopefully, make it to a final list. Once listed, UNESCO expects the site to adopt stringent norms of conservation and even the smallest deviation could result in delisting. Hampi almost suffered this ignominy a few years ago when a bridge was constructed in contravention of UNESCO norms. That has since been set right. It will be a tall order for any site in India to strictly adhere to UN regulations.
That said, it was an opportunity for Tamil Nadu and its neighbours to air their heritage. This brought to light several forgotten and unknown treasures. Leaving aside the possibility of these heritage sites making it to UNESCO list, such exercises will help keep heritage in focus. That by itself is a step in the right direction.
Sites proposed in Tamil Nadu
Srirangam Government of Tamil Nadu
Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchi Archaeological Survey of India,
Fort St George INTACH, Chennai Chapter
Adam’s Bridge School of Planning & Architecture
Chettinad Houses Revive Chettinad Development
Pulicat Lake AARDE Foundation
Kazhugumalai Temple, TirunelveliDHAN Foundation