Art into Heritage appeared in this column on January 22nd, 2014. The SAARC Cultural Center in association with the University of Peradeniya held a conference on April 28th and 29th, 2014, at the Peradeniya University. The theme was 'Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Sustainable Development'. Delegates from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka presented their papers.
It was a gold mine of information, about the culture and heritage in South Asia, not only from the presentations and discussions, but also from the interaction with the academics from different parts of the region. Abstracts of the papers presented are available now we can all look forward to the publication of full papers at the SAARC Cultural Center website. (www.saarcculture.org). Research proposal have been invited on these themes.
Pramod Jain, Joint-secretary of the Indian Ministry of Culture, presented the way how a heritage space could be successfully managed, utilizing available resources, and the income received from the pilgrims and the visitors, pumping it back to develop the space and infrastructure and also for the social welfare of the community, since the Jammu & Kashmir government took over the management. The religious/heritage space thus developed is the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu, with over five million visitors every year and increasing. Mr. Jain's presentation is food for thought for all of us, to persuade such management of most other religious spaces with a huge daily footfall count, and with such vast income.
The need of proper heritage management was further emphasized by the heritage architect Dr. Nikhil Joshi who presented, the situation of one of the holiest religious spaces for the Buddhists, which is also a sacred space for Hindus and Muslims too. The unauthorized buildings, unsanitary conditions of the surroundings, insufficient infrastructure facilities to cater for the spiritual needs of the pilgrims, are what we find in most religious and heritage spaces in South Asia. Funds are available, if properly managed and priorities are identified. Dr. Joshi's topic, 'From Sacred Landscape to Fractured Touristscape', supported my argument that we should never, never commodify our heritage treasures.
The research study launched by Prof. Ravi S. Singh and Dr. Anuththaradevi Widyalankara on the heritage shared by the followers of the Buddha and Hindu Dhamma at Varanasi would be of immense interest not only to the academics but also the religious devotees. About the same heritage space Prof. Anand Singh presented his paper on the interface between tourism and sustainability at Saranath, which is a great challenge in such an over crowded city like Varanasi.
Bangladesh for most of us is a Muslim land, but Prof. Mokkamal H. Bhuiyan introduced to us a major Buddhist heritage space, not known to even some of the tour operators in the country. About fifty heritage sites have been identified around Mainamati within a radius of 10 km. dating from 8th to 12th centuries. It represents a major religious and political center without parallel in the sub-continent, and probably was the religious center from which Buddha Dhamma was spread to South East Asia.
The very rich tangible and intangible culture and heritage of Rajasthan was presented to us by Dr. Neekee Chaturvedi, while Dr. Bina Gandhi Deori introduced the richness of North-East India, ranging from Arunachal, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
Intangible Heritage, the Dynamic Art of Storytelling, which is truly sustainable and should be sustained, was what Dr Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai presented. South Asian folklore is finding a revival in all SAARC countries, which should be actively pursued and promoted by translating into other languages. This could be another project for the SAARC Cultural center.
Our children today have not heard of Saradiel and they do not have much of an idea about the period he lived in, even though these children would have heard of Robin Hood. Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, reminded us of Saradiel with a presentation of the Saradiel village built by Dr Ariyadasa U. Gamage, which depicts the life and times of Saradiel during the British occupation of this country.
The post conference field visit for the SAARC delegates was Sigiriya, which further supported my argument of the impracticality of heritage tourism to a space like this. The visitors realized they could not see or really appreciate the magnificence of the Sigiriya complex in about two to three hours. They also realized the importance of the visit to the Sigiriya Museum, which unfortunately is ignored by most of the visitors to Sigiriya, including the school children. On the way back, the SAARC delegates could stop at the Ibankatuwa capstone burial ground, just 0.5 km from the Dambulla highway. The most conveniently accessible cemetery of the period which we should call the history before history.
Tourism, like all other industries, leads to over consumption of natural resources and over production of waste. Tourism also demeans the local population, making them servile as drivers, waiters, cooks, cleaners, etc, and as prostitutes. We also torture innocent elephants by getting the tourists to ride them.
Since this conference also covered tourism, representatives of the tourist industry could have attended and presented their views. But they were conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps they know all about culture and heritage and did not wish to waste their time. But they could have explained to us how, in their brochures and websites Avukana means "Sun eating" and Anuradhapura is identified as Ravana's capital.
Let us plan for armchair tourism when it comes to our heritage. Let us travel through cyberspace, to all heritage sites around the world, at virtually no cost, while also preserving the spaces and the environment. Virtual travel also is a solution to avoid any cultural or religious misunderstandings or conflicts, specially when a cultural or sacred space is claimed by different communities.
It may not bring us revenue, but it would preserve our heritage and it will also provide an opportunity for everyone around the world to see and appreciate them.