Public Diplomacy

International recognition of India’s world heritage - New, exciting projects on anvil

July 10, 2014

Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee

images/art_1.jpg International recognition of India’s cultural and civilisational heritage received a new impetus with the recognition of the 11th century stepwell, Rani-ki-Vav at the 38th Session of the World Heritage Committee Meeting in Doha, Qatar, this month. India was represented by important delegation led by Secretary [Culture] that included our Ambassador/Permanent Representative to UNESCO, Ruchira Khamboj. The Committee acknowledged that it was "an exceptional example of technological development” in utilising ground water resources and an unique water management system which illustrates "the exceptional capacity to break large spaces into smaller volumes following ideal aesthetic proportions”. Situated in Gujarat, the property had been buried under layers of silt for almost seven centuries after the disappearance of the Saraswati river. Its excavation demonstrated an exceptional state of conservation with seven floors of ornamental panels representing the height of the Maru-Gurjara style.

images/art_5.jpg Ancient systems of water conservation have been singled out by the World Heritage Committee as excellent examples of water harvesting in dry and arid areas which can be effectively utilised with community management and public participation in a world facing severe water shortages. Rani-ki-Vav is the 31st World Heritage Site in India and represent an unique kind of Indian subterranean architectural structure, marking the zenith in the evolution of such stepwells in India.

Potential new Indian World Heritage Sites : Project Mausam

images/art_2.jpg As an active member of the prestigious World Heritage Committee which oversees the conservation and protection of world heritage sites globally, India has been working in close cooperation with UNESCO and the international Advisory Bodies including ICOMOS [International Council on Monument and Sites], IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources] and ICCROM [International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties]. There is however an imbalance between recognition of our cultural site and natural sites, since of the 31 World Heritage Properties in India, 25 are Cultural Properties and 6 are Natural Properties.

The World Heritage Convention is gradually shifting its focus from Cultural Monuments to Cultural Landscapes, Cultural Routes and Creative Industries. Perhaps for this reason but also because of the enormous scope of India’s natural heritage and cultural landscapes, India launched to an international and enthusiastic audience at the recent Session of the World Heritage Committee at Doha Project Mausam. If accepted, this would be a maritime cultural landscape across the Indian Ocean as a trans-national property on the World Heritage list of UNESCO. Project Mausam, would endeavour to position itself at two levels : at the macro level where it would reconnect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean, leading to an enhanced understanding of cultural values and concerns; while at the micro level, the focus would be to understand national cultures in their regional maritime milieu,. Thus, Project Mausam would link cultural route and maritime landscape across the Indian Ocean and also connect the coastal centres to their hinterland. It would thus contribute to the dissemination of culture and civilisation across the Indian Ocean.

"Mausam” which is the Arabic for "Mawsin” refers to the season in ancient times when ships could sail safely. This distinctive wind system of the Indian Ocean region follows a regular pattern : South West from May to September and North East from November to March. This regular pattern which later became monsoon winds, facilitated the movement of people, goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean enabling multi-cultural and multi-ethnic interaction and exchange. Of particular interest is that the knowledge and manipulation of the monsoon wind impacted ancient and historical trades, local economies, politics and cultural identities. Present day national identities and perceptions of our past are deeply interwoven with these age old ties.

Thus Project Mausam Is an exciting, multi disciplinary trans-national project that tries to rekindle long lost ties across the Indian Ocean Littoral and forges new avenues of cooperation and exchange between India and states of the Indian Ocean. Launched by India in partnership with Member States, Mausam will enable a significant step in recording and commemorating this important phase of world history from the African, Arab and Asian world perceptive.

Spice Route Project

images/art_3.jpg From ancient times, as early as the 3rd milleneum BC, fishermen, sailors and merchants travelled the waters of the Indian Ocean linking the world’s earliest civilisation from Africa to East Asia in a complex web of relationship. The commodities exchanged included gems, metals, medicines and most importantly spices. In fact spices have often been cited as raison d’etre for the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the English to sail to the Coromondal coast of Southern India in search of these valued condiments, essential for preservation and flavouring of food and also used in ritual practices. For this reason, this coast line became known as the Spice Coast.

An important initiative of the State Government of Kerala, supported by the Government of India is the ongoing effort to revive the two millennia Spice Route. Besides re-establishing Kerala’s maritime trade relations with 31 countries associated with the ancient spice route, the project seeks to rekindle interest among modern travellers to this ancient maritime route which was responsible for bringing travellers across the world in ancient times to India. It would result in the revival of cultural, historical and archeogocial exchanges and would also boost tourism across Southern India but particularly in Kerala. Already, this project has attracted the attention of International Advisory Bodies cited earlier, as well as of those Governments which had historic ties with the Spice Route such as Netherland, France and United Kingdom.

Thus, taken in the context of the Project Mausam, India is attempting to redefine world heritage to highlight an Asian perspective in UNESCO. Mausam will encourage State Parties associated with the Indian Ocean to interconnect new interpretations of cultural landscapes and world heritage. It will provide an important platform for the promotion of UNESCO’s activities and underline the importance of trans-national nominations in our quest for global recognition of the need to nurture world heritage globally.

Concluding Reflections

Among the themes to be explored under this project would be, inter-alia, the transformation of Coastal Architecture as a Cultural Landscape from the 3rd millennium BC to the colonial period; Underwater Cultural Heritage; Maritime Museums with their linkages with Museum Network; the world of the sailing ship and ancient ship building yards; and the spice route project and cultural products linked to it, quite apart from the intangible cultural heritage and oral traditions that this project would preserve. The Oral Tradition and Literary Writings conceptualing the Indian Ocean would also be added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. UNESCO is looking forward to the early development of this exciting and unique trans-national project brought by India to the World Heritage Committee this year. Our Permanent Delegation to UNESCO is coordinating these efforts. Other important trans-national nominations would include the International Indentured Route Project, the Silk Route and Inscription of Chandigarh as the jewel of Curbussier’s architecture.

images/art_6.jpg[The author, a former diplomat was Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO (2004-2010). This article has been written exclusively for ‘In Focus” section of Ministry of External Affairs website,]


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