Nothing Official About It! : Inheriting the unsung


The United Nations heritage tag given to monuments and cultural sites worldover are too selective to merit being considered as a definitive list. India, for instance, has hundreds of sites which are precious and irreplaceable when one considers their antiquity and local relevance. These sites must be placed on the same gilded pedestal as the ‘heritage tagged’ ones, as preserving the local in all its glory, finally benefits the global community.

Text and photos: Text: Akul Tripathi

It was November 1894. In Kolkata (then Calcutta), physicist J.C. Bose publicly demonstrated the use of radio waves. He was amongst the first to understand that radio waves could be used as communication. However, he was not interested in patenting his work. Three years later, Marconi patented the radio in Britain and British patent no.12,039 invisibly ushered in the communication era. Communication soon became the most important founding block of a world that awoke to discover itself, and from Empire to League of Nations, each step blurred the lines of distance. Global became the new buzz word – because suddenly it was possible. A global society was not just science fiction, and a philosophical idling of ideals. It was virtually a reality.

Ganesha that seems to bathe in the waterfall when it rains; at Unakoti

Ganesha that seems to bathe in the waterfall when it rains; at Unakoti

Like the gold rush that accompanies the discovery of a new mine, the helter-skelter race to stake a large claim in this new amoeba-patterned global structure led to creation of entities that supported this phenomenon. Global outreach and integration became a necessary focal point at every local level. The United Nations (UN) was birthed and on it was thrust the role of the saviour that was the hope of the ‘free’ world. A rallying point for humanity to move towards seeing the bigger picture, the greater good. To spread these ideals and to provide a sense of belonging to every nation in the larger family, spates of policies and global outreach programmes were churned out. ‘Global’ and ‘World’ as prefixes became almost mandatory for any organisation to be taken seriously.

Amongst all of them, perhaps the most successful – and the most dangerous – is the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Site (WHS) phenomenon that creates almost outrageous hysteria amongst tourists and locals alike, raising a piece of geography to a modern and hence acceptable equivalent of revered sanctity. For the uninitiated, the WHS is a landmark that has been ‘officially’ recognised by the Holy UN and specifically by Saint UNESCO as a site having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance that UNESCO regards as being important to the collective interests of humanity.

The exterior of a haveli at Ramgarh, Shekhawati

The exterior of a haveli at Ramgarh, Shekhawati

At first sight it all seems perfectly simple and almost ideal. Why should anyone have a problem with any of these? The move to a globalised system based on international standards seems a step forward in this race that human kind has suddenly deemed necessary to run, since an Indian physicist nonchalantly demonstrated that something in the air could carry messages wirelessly and then forgot all about it, immersing himself into more important things. In such a world, it seems appropriate that landmarks be subject to international constraints.

For a moment, exercise your right to suspension of popular belief, and ask yourself whether it is possible that this international system, based on the expertise of an equally international elite may perhaps be over-emphasising global aspects to the detriment of local and national interests? While this thought finds footing in your conscience, take the leap and also ask whether – forget ‘greater good’ – is it even good to impose importance and make it mandatory by official decree to treat specially one piece of land owing to certain perceived significations with more reverence than any other on the planet? Is the ‘making-significant’ of one over another really a global gaze, or merely posturing? Is it possible that this WHS tag is at best a prejudiced one with noble intentions, or at worst a discriminative one fuelled by deliberate malice?

So with this healthy dose of skepticism inspired by an irreverent call for introspection by the first month of a hopefully more emancipating year, let’s celebrate heritage that does not blip on any global radar, but is that vital breath which fuels every faceless local without which there cannot even be the idea of a global.

The dome of Poddar Chhatri, with its beautiful mural

The dome of Poddar Chhatri, with its beautiful mural

This is my list of India’s heritage – not a definitive list nor listed in any order of importance or even alphabetically, and limited solely due to my lack of knowledge and dearth of experience. Neither spectacular in scope or scale, nor any peerless breakthrough, whether scientific or cultural. Unheralded beyond its pin code. Unregarded beyond its area code. Neither complete nor with any desire at achieving an absolute compendium – just places from my travels that choose to come alive at this moment, in this context. And pruned purely on the lines of me having clicked photos of them. Some not even that…

Mountains of petrified gods
Kailashahar, situated 180 kms from Agartala is a small town in the Unakoti district of Tripura, located along the barbed wire fenced border between India and Bangladesh. The district derives its name from a hill. In Bengali, Unakoti means one less than a crore and as per lore, in the hills of this part of Tripura are present stone reliefs which are the petrified forms of the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

Legend informs that once Lord Shiva was traveling back to his hometown Kashi with all the other Gods. They decided to rest for the night at the place now called Unakoti. Shiva wanted to get home at the earliest and decreed that at first light everyone should be ready to continue the journey. However, at dawn, none of the Gods had even woken up. Miffed at the Gods’ impertinence, Shiva cursed them all to forever rest as they were – but in stone. With his entourage petrified, literally, the Mahadev left for Kashi.

Inside one of the beautiful havelis of Ramgarh

Inside one of the beautiful havelis of Ramgarh

Another legend explains that at that place Shiva and his consort Parvati came across a sculptor who was an ardent devotee of Parvati. Some believe his name was Kallu and Kallu put forward his request to accompany Parvati to serve her. One rendition of the tale suggests that Shiva’s ego was hurt that the sculptor was more devoted to his wife than himself, and when Parvati petitioned for him, he set a condition that if Kallu would carve out a crore portraits of Shiva within one night, he would be allowed to come. Unfortunately, Kallu missed the task by one and the deities left without him. Admirers of Kallu maintain that he was almost successful and fearing that Kallu might actually meet the terms of the agreement and would come along as Parvati’s attendant, Shiva coerced the Sun God to rise a little early, ensuring that Kallu would fail in his task.

Historians reckon that the place was perhaps built by the Pala rulers in the 8-9th century and may also have been a Buddhist pilgrimage centre. While concrete evidence as the science of History demands are yet to surface to provide an answer to those logically centred, the place remains an important pilgrimage centre for those in the know. Besides, the central area accessible by stairs all around, locals say that there are figures and reliefs spread across hills and in the ravines for those adventurous enough to dare and walk around.

Ajanta of the Himalayas
Overlooking a large oasis on the right bank of the Indus, across the river from the famous monastic complex of Alchi in the Leh district of the high altitude desert that is Ladakh, is a set of little known ancient caves above the village of Saspol. Thought to be formed by tides of a lake that once existed here, they are now home to some spectacular medieval Tibetan Buddhist art. These caves are officially called the Gon-Nila-Phuk Cave Temples, but are popularly known as the Saspol caves and regarded by some as the Ajanta of the Himalayas. Atop the hill is also a fort believed to be from the 9th century.

It is believed that for a while, the Buddhists in the area were persecuted and then Buddhism was reintroduced from Kashmir, where the tradition still held strong. The 10th century scholar and translator Rinchen Zangpo is credited with building a large number of temples and monasteries across Western Tibet. The caves at Saspol are also attributed to him.

The paintings are an invaluable source of understanding the history and evolution of Buddhism and Buddhist thought in the region. The original paintings are believed to be from the 10th century, but many have been retouched and some believe redone in the succeeding centuries. Some iconography suggests images made in the 15-16th century. The caves must have once been inhabited by a number of monks and must have been abandoned when the caves started to collapse. The caves in these areas are not made of rock, but of an unstable moraine that melts in the rain.

The floating phumdi of Loktak Lake in Manipur

The floating phumdi of Loktak Lake in Manipur

Folklore maintains that these caves, which are today in various stages of deterioration, housed disciples of Zangpo who used them as a canvas to practice and perfect the imagery that would go on to decorate the walls during Zangpo’s temple building spree.

Those whose names we know not…
Westward of the southern tip of the Great Andaman archipelago is the North Sentinel Island. On Google maps it would seem as just another piece of gorgeous sandy beaches with a dense forest in the exotic island-scape of the region. On ground at Port Blair you would realise that you cannot get a boat to go to the island or even in the general direction. Not just that, you would be punishable by law if you did venture there.

The North Sentinel Island, though legally administered by the Indian Union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is the home and domain of one of the last uncontacted tribes of the world – the Sentineles. We know nothing for certain about the Sentinelese. The earliest information about them comes from an 1880 British expedition, and since then there have been limited interaction with them. The tribe is a fierce one and approachers by boat and helicopter have known to be greeted with a curtain of arrows. A National Geographic film director on expedition has had the rare privilege of being stuck in the thigh with a Sentineles arrow.

In 1996, the Indian government ended the ‘Contact Expeditions’. We don’t know who exactly they are, what their history is, how they got there – not even what they call themselves. On a few sq. kms of land in the middle of the ocean remain approximately 250 individuals from pre-history, and amongst the last of the humans not contacted and not wanting to be contacted by modern society.

An open-air art gallery
Popular as the largest open-air art gallery of the word, Ramgarh in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan has an intriguing history. Ramgarh is said to be founded by the Poddar merchant family who left the nearby town of Churu – a small township in Bikaner – due to a dispute related to taxation. They came and settled in the almost unknown village of Ramgarh and vowed to make it grander and richer than the Churu they had left.

The rock-cut Viharas at Kanheri, Mumbai

The rock-cut Viharas at Kanheri, Mumbai

In the course of the next 100 years, they kept their promise and Ramgarh developed into one of the most beautiful towns in the entire Shekhawati region, and one of the richest towns in India. Along with wealth, the Poddars are complimented as being patrons of learning and the facilities for learning made available here has had the town being labeled as ‘Doosra Kashi’ or second Kashi.

Today it is a treasure trove of painted temples, havelis and cenotaphs constructed between the 18th century to the 20th century by the wealthy businessmen. These are exceptional for their frescos and murals depicting mythological themes from the epics as well as images of huge animals. Though with the coming of the British, western influences began to make their appearance and foreigners in hats, suits and gowns, cars, steam, locomotives and train, airplanes, and telephones found their place on the walls along with scenes from Lord Krishna’s life.

The main attraction in Ramgarh besides the havelis is the cenotaph (chhatri) of Ram Gopal Poddar. Built in 1872, it houses more than 500 marvellous murals. The one in the dome can be singled out for being exceptional.

Deers that dance on a forest that floats…
A two-hour bus drive, or approximately 50 kms south of Imphal in Manipur is the largest freshwater lake in the north-east region. It is basically a swamp with floating vegetation called ‘phumdi’. Phumdi is an accrual of organic biomass that is light enough to float but is at places strong enough to support considerable weight, sometimes even that of humans. Loktak Lake is a unique bio-diversity hotspot occupying an area of about 40 sq. km. Its name literally means ‘Lok’ – stream and ‘Tak’ – the end; referring to the many streams that feed the lake.

The Loktak Lake is the core around which is formed the Keibul Lamjao National Park – home to the dancing deer of Manipur. Locally known as the Sangai, it is more commonly referred to as the brow-antlered deer and is one of three unique sub-species of the deer. The other two are found in Thailand, Myanmar and surrounding countries, but the Sangai is endemic to Manipur and naturally occupies a prominent place in local culture and folklore. Once thought to be extinct, it was rediscovered in 1975 and their numbers have increased due to conservation efforts and the establishment of the Keibul Lamjao National Park. The deer have adapted to the floating biomass and have mastered the trick of distributing their weight such as to almost glide over the phumdi, making it look like they are dancing. Unfortunately, the Sangai are shy animals and not the easiest to spot, especially just after the wet season when the grass is tall and difficult to see through. However, one can experience the thrill of travelling by a local canoe carved out of a single tree trunk and travel the many channels between the phumdis.

A hidden city of caves
It is wondrous to know that over 2400 years ago, Buddhist monks began carving caves for prayer and meditation on the island we today call Mumbai, and over the course of centuries chiseled out a cave complex of 109 caves from the hard basalt rock. It is from this hard black rock that the caves got their name of Krishnagiri – or black mountain, which over time was shortened to Kanheri. Kanheri is perhaps Mumbai’s best kept secret.
Buddhism is thought to have first arrived in Aparantha (western India) at Sopora (near present day Nala Sopara) which was a port town and routes to Elephanta and other parts of Mumbai would traverse through here. It had become an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast by the 3rd century CE. Once the caves and settlements assumed the form of permanent monasteries, intricate reliefs of Buddha and Bodhisattvas were also carved in the rock.

Temple wall studded with carvings at Hoysaleshwar

Temple wall studded with carvings at Hoysaleshwar

Kanheri is credited with the distinction of having the largest number of cave excavations on a single hill. The cave complex consists mainly of viharas – caves meant for studying, meditating and living. Larger Chaityas – the halls of congregational worship were also carved and these have superbly sculpted pillars, reliefs and sculptures. The large number of viharas demonstrates the well organised establishment of Buddhist monks.
An elaborate and ingenious rain water harvesting and underground water storage facilities were also carved out of stone. Further up the hills are canals and cisterns – remnants of an ancient system that channeled rainwater into huge tanks. It is believed that Kanheri was also a centre of imparting Buddhist education, and the great Buddhist teacher Atisha is believed to have studied here.

Fabulous capital of a forgotten kingdom
At the height of the Hoysala rule in the 12th century, this city was called ‘Dwarsamudra’, meaning ‘door to the ocean’, and enjoyed an exalted status in South India. Today it is called Halebidu, which literally means ‘old city’ or even ‘ruined city’, as it was ransacked by Malik Kafur twice during his invasions of South India.

Dwarsamudra was the capital then of the Hoysala Empire, and though the area is landlocked, it is the large man-made tank that was referred to as an ocean. Situated at a distance of 150 kms from the city of Mysore, it was built facing a large 11th century water tank that received water from the channels of an ancient dam built over the Yagachi river.

The Hoysaleshwar temple is amongst the last remnants of that glorious period. It is one of the largest temples in South India that is dedicated to Lord Shiva, with inscriptions and carvings from the Hindu Upanishads and mythology. It enshrines Hoysaleswara and Shantaleswara, named after the temple builder Vishnuvardhana Hoysala and his wife, Queen Shantala. It is also known to have the largest Nandi idols in the country. The walls of the temples are completely covered with carvings. Every square inch of the wall is adorned with some figure or scene from mythology and holy texts. The Hoysala crest stands proud on the entrance doorways.

Art historian James Fergusson writes of Halebidu thus:
“The Hoysaleswara temple may be probably considered as one of the most marvellous exhibitions of human labour to be found…The mode in which the eastern face is broken up by the larger masses, so as to give height and play of light and shade, is a better way of accomplishing what the Gothic artists attempted by their projections. This however is surpassed by the western front, where the variety of outline and arrangement and subordination of the various facets in which it is disposed, must be considered as a masterpiece of design in its class. If the friezes were to be spread along a plain surface, it would lose more than half its effect, while the vertical angles, without interfering with the continuity of the frieze give height and strength to the whole composition. The disposition of the horizontal lines of the lower friezes is equally effective. Here again, the artistic combination of horizontal and vertical lines and the play of outline and of light and shade far surpass anything in gothic art”.
It is said that the two shrines, elaborate carvings, and two Nandi bull pavilions that form this enchanting temple complex were completed after a gruelling 190 years, and needed seven generations of workers!

The Martand Temple complex

The Martand Temple complex

A celebration of light
Perhaps the grandest ruin of Kashmir is the temple to the Sun deity Martand. Martand is the eighth and last of the early Vedic solar deities called Adityas. Situated in Anantnag, it is one of the few surviving sun temples in the country. Deliberately built on a plateau above the level of the flood plains of the valley, it is an imposing structure towering against the bright blue sky lending its soaring frame to merge harmoniously with the lofty Himalayas in the background.

As per a legend, the temple was built by the Pandavas after they defeated the Kauravas and Bhima is said to have lifted the mighty stone slabs into place. Among historians, there is a controversy about who laid the foundation of the temple. It is largely acknowledged to be a Ranaditya feat between 370 to 500 CE though some attribute it to Ranaditya’s predecessor Aryaraj. The current structure was built by ancient Kashmir’s most celebrated king – Lalitaditya Mukhtapid of the Karkota dynasty in the eighth century. The ruins are the remains of the demolition by the Muslim ruler Sikander Butshikan in the 15th century.

It marks the apogee of the typical Kashmiri style of architecture which has blended the Gandharan, Gupta, Chinese, Roman, Syrian-Byzantine and Greek forms of architecture. The temple is made of large slabs of stones arranged in horizontal courses with fine joints. Iron dowels and cramping was used in binding the stones with the entire structure built on a single basement or platform. The temple faces west such that the rays of the setting sun would illumine the idol of the sun God that once graced the sanctum sanctorum. A poet has called Martand, “A dream in stones designed by Titans and finished by jewellers”.

An ode to death
To the north east of the city of Bidar, roughly three kms away lie perhaps the most surprising monuments of Karnataka – a set of mausolea, the royal necropolis of Ashtur, which has tombs of the erstwhile Bahamani sultans, and their spiritual advisers – the Nimatullahs.
Chaukhandi, a four-storied building, marks the last resting place for the descendants of Shah Nimatullah and the beginning of the necropolis. From here, the eternal blessings of the saints flow outwards to bless the deceased kings who dwell in their tombs 500 metres away.

In a 200-metre stretch, are a handful of imposing tombs placed in the middle of rolling fields as if dropped in from the air like pieces in Lego land. Some broken – dramatically at that – and others complete with tantalising remains of the grandeur they must once have exhibited, the tombs of Ashtur are a mirror to the fortunes of Bidar. Grand, oversized and then steadily diminishing in size from that of Ahmad Shah I.

The dome of Ahmad Shah Tomb, Ashtur

The dome of Ahmad Shah Tomb, Ashtur

Outwardly, the most striking of the tombs is the tomb of Humayun the cruel, which seems as menacing as the Sultan is described to be. Struck open by lightning and a broken cross section grinning malevolently even in his afterlife. Folklore says the lightning is heaven sent as a punishment for his evil ways. It is, however, the inside of Ahmad Shah I’s tomb that one encounters the glory the tombs were built to be.

As soon as the eye adjusts to the darkness of the tombs spacious innards, one realises one is standing inside a veritable jewel box. In what seems like Technicolor when compared to the monochrome exteriors, the tomb comes ablaze with shades of gold, vermillion, cobalt, azure bring to life floral motifs, geometric designs and Quranic verses. Still venerated as a pious, saintly king, the tomb is frequented by believers on his Urs and also colloquially known as the Ashtur dargah.

Full stop
That’s it. This list must end here. Not just because this list could truly be never ending and there is a word count to adhere to, but because we have reached the magical number of nine sites. Nine, I deem to be magical not because of any numerological or subtle significations, but because mathematically, it is a number of absolute purity. The digits of its multiples will always add up to equal nine again. And of course, because ten is the cliche that would begin the ‘top ten’ nonsense…


Akul Tripathi

Akul Tripathi is a media professional and freelance writer.