Heritage – now disappearing near you

For the last eight years INTACH and the Delhi government have lobbied hard to find the city a mention on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. The most they have managed is a shaky place on the "tentative" list. And this for a city whose recorded history dates back to the reign of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (273-236 BC) and which boasts three World Heritage Sites within its precincts — Qutub Minar, Humayun's Tomb and Red Fort.

These sites, Delhiites with bite will remind you, are mere totems. Real heritage does not need an "international" tag, they scoff, adding in the same breath that heritage is ingrained in the way past coexists fluidly with the present. Listen, for instance, to the sound of splashing in Gandhak ki Baoli, a medieval stepwell in Delhi's Mehrauli precinct. It echoes back to the 13th century when Iltutmish, scion of the Mamluk Sultanate of Delhi, ordered its construction. Heritage, you may argue, is older than you think.

So, where does heritage begin, and where do we draw the line? Is its definition restricted to history and tradition alone, or do fragments of the present continuous beg to be treasured to perfect the future we envision?

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, with representatives from 21 of the States Parties (the national governments of signatory countries) to the Convention elected by the UN General Assembly, meets once a year. Since the first World Heritage Convention in 1972, it has defined 936 World Heritage Sites across the world, of which 28 are in India. The designation carries with it a reasonably generous purse intended for its upkeep and maintenance (and that might justify in part the heavy lobbying for a tag).

World heritage (minus the capitals) isn't the preserve of the United Nations. The Convention on Wetlands, ratified in Ramsar, Iran in 1971, aims to promote the conservation of wetlands and their "wise use", defined as "the maintenance of their ecological character, achieved through the implementation of ecosystem approaches, within the context of sustainable development". For the signatories of the Ramsar Convention, natural heritage took precedence over other kinds. And if heritage equals monuments alone, there is the World Monuments Fund.

Leave that be for a moment. A more pressing question would be: Whose right is it to appropriate heritage? UNESCO, or INTACH, or the Archaeological Survey of India? The Ministry of Culture? Your local municipality? The Home Minister? Your mother-in-law?

Such questions troubled us when we framed the theme for our special showcase My World, My Heritage. We debated, pleasantly most of the time, but our passion spoke of internal discord that prevented us from reaching harmonious agreement on all issues. Just as well. For it struck us then that heritage is as much about difference as it is about commonality. It is intimate and deeply personal. What we experience and cherish, we wish to pass on to those who might rightfully inherit it. Simply put, it's an edifying version of the family jewels, and the will and testament thereof.

We then threw the question wide open to people working in their chosen ways to identify, define and commemorate heritage. The responses we received were moving, exhilarating, even startling, but always illumining. We identified two broad categories of responses — Heritage Minus, which lamented the loss of heritage in nostalgic terms; and Heritage Plus, which celebrated the renewal and restoration of heritage at risk. Of course, it's not all black and white; some stories straddle categories.

Ratish Nanda, Project Director for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India, writes of how he led the Nizamuddin Renewal Initiative, India's first privately funded and implemented conservation project. Among the most telling signs of its sustainable future are the guides — local kids who would otherwise have been left to deface these very monuments with graffiti.

The walled city of BikanerThe walled city of Bikaner
Empowerment to preserve heritage need not come with privileged office alone. Young Gopal Singh's effervescent passion for his hometown led him to document and restore, with photographer Madhu Reddy, the heritage that thrives in Bikaner amid mindless desecration, an effort that led to the inclusion of the Walled City among the World Monuments Watch List in 2011.

The magic realism of PunjabThe magic realism of Punjab
Orijit Sen and his 13 collaborators at the Virasat-e-Khalsa multimedia museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab took three years to put together a mesmeric and deeply involved exhibit that moves, motivates and cherishes all at once the magic realism of Punjab. What it must have taken for a Bengali to slip under the skin of Punjabiyat! These uplifting frames are contrasted by Tisha Srivastav's pithy portrayal of a Punjab impatient to efface and sanitize its inherited past.

Mumbai's street art goes wildMumbai's street art goes wild
But why confine art to galleries? In Mumbai, where most people (save the South Bombay elite and those who schmooze with them) can't spare the time to visit one, a bunch of artists including Shazeb Shaikh and Niyati Upadhya took art to the streets. While not exactly mimicking Sabavala or Souza in style, the Great Wall of Mumbai adds vibrant colour to the city's grey façade and the art is evidently closer to Mumbaikars' hearts.

Sulaiman Jamal's vintage cars treasure history on wheelsSulaiman Jamal's vintage cars treasure history on wheels
As cities go, Bangalore has had it easier. Although Bangaloreans may grumble that much has changed for the worse, we discovered many ways of seeing. Artist Paul Fernandes draws a laugh out of every incident or memory that might otherwise hurt. Vijay Thiruvady, not a Bangalorean by birth or upbringing, turns his relatively recent love for the city into a passion that celebrates its heritage trees, and reminds us that Bangalore wasn't a Garden City until the gardeners dug in. If nostalgia had wheels, they would roll Sulaiman Jamal's way; his vintage cars tell stories of entire generations gone by. Photographer Radha Rangarajan celebrates the Garden City's year-round springtime with a paean to its flowering trees.

The flowering trees of BangaloreThe flowering trees of Bangalore
Travelers discover beauty in nature's isolation. Ladakh's glorious landscapes have been celebrated in panoramic frames but little is spoken of the Ladakh that flash floods and mudslides have devastated, and which gluttonous tourism is eroding by the day. Independent filmmaker Nitin Das offers us a timely reminder of Ladakh's stark beauty juxtaposed with scenes that scream for help. Traveling to remote Sannathi in northern Karnataka, Lakshmi Sharath gazed with adoration at a portrait of Emperor Ashoka, probably the first we know of, musing all the while how this discovery would reorder the pages of Buddhist history.

Who knew or cared that Goa, which draws tourists by chartered planeloads to its bohemian beaches, sheltered tigers in its mine-ravaged forests? Conservationist Nirmal Kulkarni introduces us to the bewitching beauty of Mhadei sanctuary. On a similar note, photographer Amoghavarsha leads us on a rich visual tour of the biodiversity of the Western Ghats.

If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, heritage is perhaps what the eye misses in a blink. Such is photographer Kannagi Khanna's teasing yet tender exposé of a slum in Gujarat named Hollywood. Its unexpectedly glamorous women might have been stars in another life.

And that's not all.

One day in a year is scarcely enough to celebrate or mourn heritage. So we made this a yearlong project. It's up to you now to pick up the gauntlet, go out on a limb and record the restoration and neglect of heritage in your hometown. Identify the path-breakers, the winners, losers and victims. Email us with your photographs and stories. We'll publish the best in our I (Heart) My Hometown series.

Enough said. Enjoy My World, My Heritage!

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