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Trail mix: Will these six Indian sites get on Unesco’s World Heritage list?

By Cherylann Mollan,

Marble cliffs, ancient burial sites, a temple complex, and iconic ghats are vying for the prestigious tag.

These 100-ft-tall marble cliffs stretch along the Narmada for 8 km, ending in the Dhuandhar Falls in Madhya Pradesh.

There’s good news and bad news.

First, the good: six Indian sites are on the latest shortlist for the Unesco world heritage tag. These include stunning Maratha forts, soaring marble cliffs, an ancient burial complex, a lush reserve home to almost a sixth of India’s tigers, and centuries-old temples.

Now for the bad: The tag, if it comes through (it typically takes two to five years to vet each nomination), will likely help protect the sites, but can only do so much. The onus of promoting them, preserving them amid rising tourist traffic, educating new generations about their importance remains.

India already has 38 Unesco World Heritage Sites, and most Indians would be hard-pressed to name more than three. The Ajanta and Ellora Caves and the Western Ghats are familiar; so are the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and the Sun Temple at Konark. But how many are familiar with the ancient rock art at Bhimbetka (some of it goes back 10,000 years), the ruins of Champaner-Pavagadh (a pre-Mughal Islamic city still standing in Gujarat), or even the ruins at Nalanda in Bihar?

“It’s very telling that India is ranked 40th among 136 countries on tourism competitiveness, but when it comes to tourism and heritage assets, we’re ranked 4th,” says Divay Gupta, principal director of architectural heritage at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). “That just goes to show that we’re not doing enough to unlock the potential of our monuments for tourism.”

In Egypt, firmly in the global south, a determined tourist route weaves through pyramids, monuments and ancient temples separated by hundreds of miles, ensuring that most visitors see at least a little more than they’d bargained for. Even in Peru, not known for its connectivity, direct train routes take fliers straight from the nearest airport to Machu Picchu. Here, one might head to the Taj Mahal and Khajuraho, then struggle to get to Ellora, and become overwhelmed trying to figure out how to navigate the rest.

In states known for certain sites of importance, such as Tamil Nadu with its ancient temples, other forms of heritage, like the historic forts, remain unseen. People head to Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh for the stupas, but there are no signs there to tell them that they’re just two hours from Bhimbetka.

And millions come to India from continents away and leave without going on a single wildlife safari, something that would be unthinkable in any part of East Africa. Though there are scores of species in India that cannot be seen in the wild anywhere else on earth, the country’s natural heritage remains both endangered and undersold to tourists. Though there are treasures in this country that rival what some of the most visited nations of the world, put together, possess, there is no combined strategy to showcase them.

“We should be focussing on developing lesser-known sites and monuments in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities,” says Narayan Vyas, retired archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

One thing a Unesco tag does do is help protect a space, and that is a crucial function in a country where, until recently, shopkeepers were using the ancient central marketplace in Hampi, and where planning remains loose and laws, loosely enforced even at major sites.

“When you visit the Sun Temple in Konark, your view of the temple is blocked by the shops in front of it. It took over 10 years to clean up shops and shanties near Tirupati and the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. But this needs to be done all over,” says Sivasankar Babu, spokesperson of the NGO Tamil Heritage Trust.

Once you get to a site, it’s often hard to tell what one is looking at. Nirman Chowdhury, 28, an independent filmmaker from Mumbai, has visited 14 of India’s 38 Unesco World Heritage Sites. At many, he says, there was little information available.

Where countries with far less to display offer audio guides, interactive exhibits, games, virtual reality kiosks, videos and group activities, in India, the quality of the information varies wildly. Some structures have engaging audio guides that leave you educated and satisfied. Others offer a dusty pamphlet with a couple of lines on artefacts that go back thousands of years.

We are lacking when it comes to content production, says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum. He puts it down to a scarcity of researchers and trained staff. “There isn’t a single international or national-level institute at par with the IITs or IIMs for heritage management. We need to start investing a lot more in culture. Other South Asian nations like Bangkok, Thailand and China are already doing this,” he says.

So there’s good news and bad. The good shouldn’t be underestimated. India as a country has more to work with than most. And it’s not too late to dust off the showpieces and draw the world in.

Take a closer look at the six sites

Bhedaghat-Lametaghat, Madhya Pradesh
Bhedaghat, a small town near Jabalpur, is famous for its 100-ft-tall marble cliffs that stretch along the Narmada for a majestic 8 km. The ethereal passageway glints with silver and, when the sun hits the rocks, sometimes a shower of colour.

The interplay of light and shadow on the rocks tricks the mind into seeing patterns, animal and human figures in the white stone. As the river rushes on past the gorge, it cascades down a wide rock cliff, forming the thundering Dhuandhar Falls, enveloped in a cloud of its own mist.

India’s submission to Unesco states that “No such example exists where a river flows freely, splitting an enormous mountain of marble… Somewhere (the Narmada’s) flow is turbulent and in other places… calm.”

Maratha Military Architecture, Maharashtra
It is rather astonishing that it has taken this long for Maharashtra’s many, massive, centuries-old forts to make it to a Unesco list. Built from solid stone, seemingly impervious to time (many stand just as they did when they were built, despite centuries of neglect), these forts can be found across the region and in the most impossible places — atop mountains in the foothills of the Sahyadris, on an island in the Arabian Sea.

Many date back to the era of the warrior-king Shivaji (1630 - 1680). “The guerrilla tactics of the Marathas and their political ideology of Swarajya (self-rule) led to the creation of unique defence architecture in the region,” says Tejas Garge, head of the state’s directorate of archaeology and museums. “The hilly Western Ghats provided the perfect terrain for his (Shivaji’s) guerrilla war tactics.”

Fourteen forts are part of the Unesco nomination, all associated with Shivaji. They include the forts at Raigad and Rajgad, both of which served as Maratha capitals; Shivaji’s birthplace at Shivneri; the hilltop Torna Fort in Pune district, famously captured by Shivaji at 16; and one of the world’s finest examples of sea-fort architecture, the Kolaba fort at Alibaug.

If the Unesco tag comes through, “I’m expecting to see better upkeep and maintenance of these forts, better publicity and better tourist facilities, like drinking water and clean toilets,” Garge says.

Varanasi Ghats, Uttar Pradesh
For centuries, Varanasi has attracted mystics and philosophers, poets and spiritual leaders, traders, wanderers and adventurers. It is one of India’s oldest towns, with uninterrupted habitation going back about 3,000 years. This was after all a city that sat near the crossroads of the Uttarapath and Dakshinapath, the ancient trade routes of the north and south.

Over the centuries, it became a centre for learning and pilgrimage across faiths, but particularly for Hindus, who believe that it is here that Shiva lived and released the Ganga from his matted locks and onto the earth. “The ghats as we see them now are about 200 years old,” says Aruna Sinha, professor emeritus, History, at Banaras Hindu University. “But people have been visiting the Ganga and praying along her banks for thousands of years. Over time, the important places of worship and pilgrim centres along the river bank became ghats.”

There are 84 ghats in all, named for temples, myths, and important people associated with the area’s history. The number 84 is significant in Hindu mythology. “These ghats are like living documents that tell us about the significance of the city in the past and the present,” says Sinha. “And that’s what makes them so special and so relevant to us and the world.”

They form a vital bridge between the city and the revered river Ganga, inextricably liking the two. The whole 6.5-km riverfront has been nominated.

The megalithic burial complex at Hire Benkal, Karnataka
This massive 2,500-year-old site now an hour’s drive from Hampi isn’t nearly as well-known as the temple complex.

From a distance, the Hire Benkal site looks like a deserted village of stone houses. It's actually a burial complex. The “houses” are megalithic funerary monuments, stone structures built to commemorate the dead in this part of Karnataka.

Each of the 1,000 structures was meant to help the person interred enjoy a comfortable afterlife. “These monuments make you curious about the way our ancestors perceived death,” says Bengaluru-based heritage researcher Meera Iyer, state convenor for INTACH. “It also helps us understand where our ritualistic practices might have come from.”

Partial excavations near the site have revealed bones, ash, grave goods such as pottery and grain, even iron implements such as fishhooks and arrows.

Though this isn’t the only megalithic burial site in South India, it is one of the largest and most architecturally diverse. In this sea of dolmens with portholes (large vertical stones with circular holes cut into them and a horizontal stone placed at the top), some are large and some are small. Scattered across the area are cists (coffin-like boxes made of stone); cairns (piles of rocks under which cists might lie); stone circles; and menhirs (large, upright stones).

The Hire Benkal site also contains 11 prehistoric rock shelters, with paintings that date back to 700 BCE to 500 BCE. The paintings depict animals, birds, insects and human figures (some are holding hands, others riding horses or hunting).

Satpura Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh
This ancient forest spread over more than 2,100 sq km is home to 14 endangered species, including the giant squirrel, the Indian skimmer and the leaf-nosed bat, supports rare plants, and holds nearly one in six tigers in India (about 17%).

It is a part of many wildlife corridors that connect it with other tiger reserves, making it a crucial link in India’s increasingly threatened network of bio-reserves.

“A lot of work has also been done to increase the natural prey-base in the area,” says L Krishnamoorthy, field director of the Satpura reserve. “Apart from creating grasslands to increase the number of sambar and gaur, we have translocated about 1,100 chital from the state’s Pench National Park.”

Also nestled within the Satpura reserve are 50 rock shelters containing art that dates to between 1,500 and 10,000 years ago. The eerie stick-figure drawings offer clues to how the region’s earliest settlers lived.

“Our hope is to get the Unesco World Heritage tag to help put this reserve on the international map and boost tourism” says Krishnamoorthy. “The tag will also aid conservation projects that are already underway at the reserve.” The site currently gets about 3.5 lakh tourists a year.

11 temples of Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
Kanchipuram is one the oldest cities in southern India, and one of the country’s most-visited pilgrimage sites. The temple town finds mention in Sangam literature (300 BCE – 350 CE), the earliest writings in Tamil.

Buddhist scholars visited and built monasteries here. Jainism flourished through the teachings of Jain acharyas and through royal patronage. The powerful Bhakti movement caused the revival and rise of Saivism and Vaishnavism in Kanchi.

The many temples built with royal patronage (there were said to be over 1,000 once) also became sites of learning. Ghatikas or learning centres for Vedic scripture were built alongside temples and shrines.

Eleven of Kanchipuram’s temples have made it to Unesco’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites, for being representative of the Dravidian architectural style developed by Pallava sculptors in the 8th and 9th centuries CE. These distinctive features include the vimana, a pyramidal tower over the inner sanctum; pillared corridors; mandapas or halls connected to the inner sanctum; and the gopuram, which is a pyramidal structure above the temple’s entrance gate.

Among the temples on the list is the Kailasanatha, a magnificent sandstone structure built around 700 CE; the Vaikuntaperumal, commissioned a few decades later and notable for its series of stone panels that narrate the history of the Pallava dynasty; and the Pandava Dootha Perumal temple (pictured above), one of the oldest in Kanchipuram (references to it have been found in ancient Tamil texts).


A World Heritage Site tag boosts tourismalmost instantly, putting a monument or space on itineraries and must-do lists where they might not otherwise have featured.

The monument also stands to receive fundsand international assistance from Unesco for its protection and promotion. Most vitally, a Unesco tag makes it harder to alter a world heritage site, and incentivises its conservation.

The tag must go hand-in-hand with improved infrastructure, however. A large part of the reason sites of global importance, especially in the global south, aren’t already much-visited is that there is little to no tourist infrastructure at them.

Without the infrastructure, a tag could end up doing more harm than good, as a sensitive site gets overrun by larger numbers than it has been set up to monitor and handle.

This risk is considered so significant that some, like Ullas Karanth, conservation scientist with the Centre for Wildlife Studies in Bengaluru, believe the Unesco tag should be avoided for areas of natural wilderness, where protection is already available under existing laws and “nothing is gained by adding it”.

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