ASI reopens heritage sites


India’s heritage is the richest and the most diverse in the world. While most sites are documented, there are many that continue to languish in obscurity and unless documented and revived, risk sliding into oblivion, cautions Vanshika Jain.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak and ensuing guidelines disrupted the tourist season, affecting footfalls drastically across all heritage sites in India. On 6 July 2020, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) reopened more than 2,000 centrally protected monuments and heritage sites.

Yet, several popular sites, especially those lying in the COVID hotspots, continue to remain shut. The ones yet to open include the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Akbar’s Tomb, Itmad-ud-Daula Tomb in Agra; all ASI-protected monuments and sites in Maharashtra such as Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Raigad Fort and Elephanta Caves. Charminar and Golconda Fort in Hyderabad were opened briefly for visitors only to be shut the same day after opposition from the Telangana government.

About a third of the highest revenue-generating monuments are located within the five-worst affected states during the pandemic i.e. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh. Even in places where the monuments have reopened, few footfalls were registered. These include sites such as Qutub Minar in Delhi, Chittorgarh Fort and Kumbhalgarh Fort in Rajasthan, Bhopal’s Gwalior Fort, Bellary Fort in Hampi and the Mattancherry Palace Museum in Thrissur.

Proof of India`s diversity

India is one of the most diverse nations in the world and the country’s rich heritage bears testimony to that. One of the world’s oldest civilisations, India is a confluence of cultures, traditions, religions and customs visible in the multitude forms of dance, music, cuisine, handicrafts, architecture, etc. Several states in India are rich in heritage being home to UNESCO world heritage sites: Rajasthan, Karnataka, Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and more.

Currently, Maharashtra has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites among all states and Union Territories in India. These include Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, Elephanta Caves and the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings of South Mumbai.

The most popular tourist circuit in India is the Golden Triangle comprising Agra, Delhi and Jaipur. The three cities have continued to enamour international tourists for decades who visit these cities to cherish the rich cultural and architectural heritage left behind by the Mughal and the Rajput rulers of the region. The three cities offer a unique opportunity to visitors to experience the royal extravaganza and vibrancy.

Taj Mahal, the most visited monument

“The first name that came to my mind when my husband told me we were going to India was the Taj Mahal at Agra!” says 50-year-old British teacher Amanda Moss. Husband Brian, a history lecturer teaching at a school in Birmingham, “had wanted to see the Taj Mahal since he started studying world history in high school and had been talking about it since we got married.” Like Brian, most tourists who plan a visit to India, have Taj Mahal, one of the seven wonders of the world, on the top of their list.

In 2018-19, nearly 5.7 million domestic tourists (6.9 million total visitors) visited the Taj Mahal, a steady increase over the previous years. According to the Ministry of Tourism, Taj Mahal continues to be the most-visited monument in the country. The second position is now held by Red Fort in Delhi that overtook Qutub Minar as the second-most visited monument in India and drew three million domestic visitors (3.6 million domestic and foreign visitors). The third and fourth positions were held by Qutub Minar and Agra Fort with 2.6 million (2.9 million total) and 2 million (2.5 million total visitors) domestic tourists respectively. Domestic visitors also flocked to the Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha and the twin monuments Charminar and Golconda Fort in Hyderabad that lay at fifth and sixth positions respectively.

Tourists visit Agra to capture the architectural marvels and heritage of the Mughal Empire. Under the Mughal influence, several monuments, mausoleums, gardens and other structures were built that still remain the most visited in the country.

Jaipur, became a UNESCO World Heritage City recently. The capital city of Rajasthan was founded by Rajput king Maharaj Jai Singh II in 1727. Jaipur is a coveted destination for both domestic and international tourists who visit the ‘Pink City’ to experience the royal magnificence at its best. The heritage sites, forts, palaces and age-old bazaars draw a large number of tourists. Some of the most visited sites include Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal, Nahargarh Fort, Jal Mahal, City Palace, Jantar Mantar, etc. Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan are also popular tourist destinations.

“I have been fascinated with the Rajasthani culture since I watched movies depicting Rajput kings and princesses,” says Mumbai-based media student Janhavi Desai. “So, when most of my friends chose to visit Goa after we finished college, I took off to Rajasthan, alone! And, it was the best decision I ever made. The vibrant colours, rustic forts, palatial havelis and royal palaces are simply breathtaking,” says a nostalgic Janhavi.

Unmatched skill of Indian sculptors on display

India is one of the few countries where every inch of land is rich in history and heritage. In Madhya Pradesh, Khajuraho is a unique heritage site, home to magnificent temples with marvellous sculptures depicting human emotions and passion. The sensuous stone carvings of human form stand testament to the skill of Indian sculptors of the time. Ahmedabad or Amdavad, popularly known as Karnavati, is India’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a city steeped in history, culture and tradition. In the 11th century, Karna of Chaulukya dynasty ruling from Anhilwad Patan, (1072–1094) made the town his capital, adorned it with two temples, and named it Karnavati (Karna’s town).

The rich heritage of Ahmedabad is testimony to the seamless blending of cultures, dynasties and consequential art and architecture over centuries, especially from the sultanate period such as the walls, gates of the Fort city and numerous mosques and tombs. In the later years, several Hindu and Jain temples were built. Some of the most visited sites include Adalaj ni Vav stepwell, Jhulta Minar, Sidi Saiyyed mosque, etc. The densely-packed, traditional and gated settlements (pols) with characteristic features such as bird feeders, public wells and religious institutions are also frequented by domestic and international tourists.

Maharashtra’s Ajanta Caves, located about 107 km from Aurangabad are a cluster of 32 rock-cut Buddhist caves dating back to the 2nd century BC. The caves are either chaityas (shrine), chapels or prayer halls, or viharas (monasteries) or residential cells and are described as among the finest existing examples of ancient Indian art. Ellora Caves are a cluster of 34 monasteries and temples extending over two kilometres dating from 600-1,000 AD. This is one of the largest rock-cut monastery temple cave complexes in the world featuring Hindu, Buddhist and Jain artwork and monuments.

In Bihar, the archaeological site of Nalanda Mahavihara at Nalanda holds the ruins of a Buddhist monastic and educational centre where the main stupa was built by Emperor Ashoka in 3rd century BC. The site is also home to 11 viharas used for studying and housing.

Hampi, an ancient village in Karnataka, was the last capital of the Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar. Hampi’s ruins are spread over 4,187 hectares and it has been described by UNESCO as an “austere, grandiose site” of more than “1,600 surviving remains of the last great Hindu kingdom in South India that includes forts, riverside features, royal and sacred complexes, temples, shrines, pillared halls, mandapas, memorial structures, water structures and others.”

India’s heritage is the richest and the most diverse in the world. While most sites have been documented, there are many more that continue to lie in obscurity and, unless documented and revived, risk sliding into oblivion.

Vanshika Jain

Vanshika Jain is a researcher with The History and Heritage Project – A DraftCraft International Initiative to document details, analyse facts and plug lacunae generated by oversight or to further national or foreign agenda in History and Heritage Across India and Beyond Borders.