INDIA HAS A RICH TREASURE OF UNESCO HERITAGE SITES. WE PROFILE SOME OF THE BEST. BY RHUCHA KULKARNI
The declaration from the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) sums it up best: “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to the future generations.” India has been long since regarded as the epitome of cultural and natural wealth, for its diverse history has fuelled many distinct ways of life.
Be it architectural marvels, or natural havens, religious relics, or political landmarks, these heritage sites continue to awe and inspire us even today. Very recently Ahmedabad was declared as the first UNESCO World Heritage City of India, an impeccable feat owing to the medley of experiences that the Gujarat capital offers.
In fact there are 36 (28 cultural, 7 natural and one mixed) World Heritage Sites in India that are recognized by UNESCO as of August 2017. These are the treasure troves of the country, carefully preserved and propagated as traveller destinations. Indians and foreigners alike are choosing to experience their glory by taking in large numbers to these destinations during their holidays.
Here is a closer look at some of these enchanters that are sure to ignite the wanderlust in you.
ELLORA CAVES, AURANGABAD
Some 30 km from Aurangabad lies an ancient architectural marvel in the form of manmade rock-cut temples of Jain, Buddhist and Hindu origin. Dating reveals that these 34 caves, called the Ellora caves, were created over a period from the 6th to 11th centuries A.D. Of these, 12 caves are Mahayana Buddhist caves that date back to 550-750 A.D., 17 are Hindu caves of the 600-875 A.D. era and five caves are Jain caves belonging to 800-1000 A.D. This was the time when Buddhism was declining in India and Hinduism was resurging. Much of the work at Ellora was overseen by the Chalukya and Rashtrakuta kings who
were great proponents of the Brahmanical movement. The most recent works took place somewhere near the 10th century, when these rulers started embracing the Digambara sect of Jainism. Shrouded in secrecy since ages, it was only in 1819 that these caves were discovered by a British Army Officer, John Smith.
Its awe-inspiring aura is accredited to the fact that these rock-cut structures were created by artisans with their hands, using just chisel and hammer. A must-visit is the Kailasa Temple (cave 16) dating back to the 700s and illustrating Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. It is the largest monolith rock excavation in the world. Other highlights are the 15-foot long preaching statue of Buddha, the sitting Buddha in the 10th cave, the Naga Queen (outside cave 10), the Shiva Lingam along with his Nandi bull (Nandi Mandap), the Jain Indra Sabha (cave 32), and the seven incarnations of Buddha (cave 12).
RED FORT COMPLEX, DELHI
The vibrant Red Fort looms over Delhi, its bulky bastions and red sandstone walls reminiscent of the majestic Mughal era. Built in 1638 by Shah Jahan, the “Lal Qila” or Red Fort has been an iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007. Its detailed architecture is inspired from Persian, Timurid and Hindu traditions, as seen in its majestic Lahore Gate. One can imagine the royal celebrations in the “Naubat-Khana” (Drum house), once an important courtyard of ceremonial music. The “Diwan-i-Am” (‘Hall of Public Audience’) welcomes one and all with its nine-arched facade and marble tapestry. There is a taste of real Mughal opulence at the “Diwan-i-Khas” (‘Hall of Private Audience’), believed to have once housed the beautiful Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan before it was usurped. Other mustsees are the “Tasbih-Khana” (prayer chambers), “Rang Mahal” (painted palace), and “Nahr-i-Bihisht” (‘Stream of Paradise’), “Mumtaz Mahal” which now harbours a museum and the “Hammam” (‘Bath’). Each of these comes to life with intricate motifs in marble and jeweled stones. All these architectural specimens are woven together through the Mughal style lovely gardens, the Hayat-Bakhsh-Bagh (‘Life-giving garden’) being a nature-lover’s delight.
Today the Red Fort is synonymous with strategic and political milestones; after all it was from this vaulted structure that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had given the booming Independence speech of India. Every Independence Day sees the Indian tricolour fluttering tall and proud on this iconic landmark.
CHHATRAPATI SHIVAJI MAHARAJ RAILWAY TERMINUS, MUMBAI
This busy railway station of India’s financial capital was first declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Its Victorian-Gothic architecture welcomes and bids goodbye to one and all, and has been doing so since its establishment in 1888, during the British era. The British architect F.W. Stevens, rebuilt and renamed the erstwhile “Bori Bunder” railway station as Victoria Terminus, after Queen Victoria. It was only in 1996, that it was rechristened to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, in honour of the great Maratha warrior, Chhatrapati Shivaji. More recently, it was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus . The humongous structure of sandstone and limestone is a stark yet pleasant antithesis to the bustling surroundings of the Mumbai Central Business District. Its Italian-styled architecture is interspersed with Mughal-era detailing, with some of the best materials imported from Europe, for example the Italian marble interiors. The central high dome is an iconic landmark of the maximum city. Its entrance gates are adorned with the statues of a lion and a tiger, representing Great Britain and India, respectively. Much of its work is attributed to the late 19th century, but enthrals everyone who visits the maximum city.
Whether passing through the railhead, or just peeping in for a historic immersion, this is one landmark that is not to be missed.
JANTAR MANTAR, JAIPUR
Jantar Mantar bestows an opportunity to travel into space, in thought and mind. An ancient astronomical observatory par excellence, Jantar Mantar literally translates to “instruments for measuring the harmony of the heavens”, and rightly it does. Built by the extremely skilled Rajput ruler, Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh in 1738, the observatory was restored in 1901. The ruler built a total of five observatories across India, of which the Jaipur one is considered the largest and was included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. A walk amidst the bizarre yet beautiful structures is enough to put one in awe of India’s rich ancestral knowledge and expertise. The grounds consist of huge astronomical instruments of stone and masonry meant to accurately capture and predict celestial movements. A case in point is the Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sun dial, which can measure time intervals as small as two seconds based merely on the motions of its shadows. Other mind-blowing devices include the “Hindu Chhattri” and the “Jaiprakash Yantra”. What makes the site interesting, is that it converges expertise from the areas of art, science and religion to measure, time-track and report constellation movement. Even today Jantar Mantar attracts tourists from all over the world, thanks to its unique architecture and purpose.
TAJ MAHAL, AGRA
The rippling reflections of white marble and motifs stir the soul, as the sun’s first rays stir the waters of the Yamuna River to life. Think India and what comes first to mind is Shah Jahan’s tribute to his lady love Mumtaz — the Taj Mahal of Agra. Regarded in high honour as the zenith of Mughal art and architecture in India, this majestic mausoleum was built between 1631 and 1648. Ustad-Ahmad Lahori was the key architect, but the Mughal emperor commissioned artists such as masons, dome-builders, painters, carvers, etc. from as far as Iran. There was literally no stone left unturned to make this stone structure the undisputed ruler of relics. In line with typical Mughal architecture, it was housed in a beautiful Mughal garden with a quadripartite layout and a central waterway, which till today presents the typical Taj Mahal photo opportunity with a grand reflection. But its true splendour lies in its Indo-Islamic architecture with high geometrical accuracy. The large central domed chamber is octagonal shaped and its lower-level crypt contains the cenotaphs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. These are surrounded by the portal halls and four corner rooms from which the archetypical four minarets rise up into the air. A closer look reveals the unparalleled craftsmanship that went into making this epitome of architectural beauty. The marble lattice screen that encircles the cenotaphs has exquisite jewelled flowers and leaves that appear highly realistic. Superb balance of composition and exceptional symmetry accrued this jewel of India the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1983.
RANI KI VAV (THE QUEEN’S STEPWELL), PATAN, GUJARAT
The origins of this beautiful stepwell lay in the Solanki dynasty, when Rani Udayamati commissioned this “vav” or stepwell, in 1063, in memory of her husband King Bhimdev I. Residing on the banks of the then Saraswati River, it was silted in a great flooding. The Archaeological Survey of India then excavated it in the 1980s, unleashing one of the most famous landmarks of the city of Patan. It was a site for water collection, but also held spiritual significance as a protector of the sanctity of water and medicinal uses in helping cure diseases.
Depicting the neat proportions and symmetrical construction of the “Maru- Gurjara” architectural style, “Rani ki Vav” is replete with carvings and sculptures that depict the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu, the “Dasavataras”. The pillared pavilions lead one from groundlevel through seven storeys some 30 metres down to the water level, where stands a statue of Sheshashayi-Vishnu, the reclining pose of the Protector on the thousand-hooded serpent Sheshanaga. Mythological lore comes to life in this heritage site, with more than 800 sculptures in its seven galleries. A visit to this unusual architectural monument is a tryst with timelessness. Rani Ki Vav was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
HISTORIC CITY OF AHMEDABAD
Recently, on July 8, 2017, Ahmedabad was declared the first Indian city under the UNESCO World Heritage City tag. As the thriving Gujarati city on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmedabad upholds the architectural style of the Sultanate period, for it was founded by Sultan Ahmad Shah in the 15th century. An eclectic old charm oozes from the boundary walls of this walled city, consisting of traditional housing areas called “pols” in gated traditional streets called “puras”. Being home to more than 2,600 heritage sites and more than 20 protected monuments made it an ideal choice to become the first UNESCO World Heritage City of India. Some of these sites like the Bhadra citadel, Hathee Singh Jain temple, Dada Bhagwan temple, Akshardham temple, and the Sabarmati Ashram are worth visiting.
It holds great significance in India’s freedom struggle too, being the hot spot of non-violence, thanks to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Religious equanimity too is strongly associatedwith the walled city, which has seen the peaceful co-existence of Hindus, Muslims and Jains over several generations. In fact, a number of architecturally brilliant mausoleums and tombs stand alongside Hindu and Jain temples, creating a kaleidoscope of architectural distinction.
The UNESCO World Heritage list does not restrict itself to architectural and cultural sites, but also acknowledges the important role of natural history elements in the overall milieu of a nation. Rightfully, the abode of the one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga National Park came under the UNESCO radar. This national park and tiger reserve in Assam extends over an area of about 430 square kilometres and is home to more than 2,000 of these unique species. It also takes pride in having a sizable population of the national animal of India, the Royal Bengal Tiger. A Gypsy ride through the wonderful wilderness can afford one glimpses of the Asiatic elephant, wild water buffalo, swamp deer, leopard, and a number of colourful birds. Its rich biodiversity stems from the fact that it lies in the biodiversity hot spot of the North Eastern Himalayas, with a variety of flora— semi-evergreen forests, swamps, elephant-grass meadows and deciduous woodlands. But the true value of the park lies in it being a successful conservation epicentre, since a long time. From a dismal population of about 75 in 1905, today more than 2000 one-horned rhinoceros roam free in its nurturing habitat. This makes it one of the most sought after wildlife holiday destinations in India. One can observe and enjoy wild animals in their natural homes by going on a morning or evening safari in its four zones. Kaziranga was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985.
MAHABODHI TEMPLE COMPLEX AT BODH GAYA, BIHAR
Known primarily as the site of Lord Buddha’s enlightenment, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is one of the four religious sites associated with Buddhism. It boasts of an ancient elegance that goes back in time to the 3rd century B.C., when Emperor Asoka built the first temple. Since its construction the temple has been subjected to the test of time; it has seen various rulers and dynasties come and go, and yet stands tall and strong as a symbol of unwavering faith in the Buddha. The present-day temple is believed to date back to the 6th century B.C. after much renovation. Every year believers and nonbelievers flock to this revered site to get a glimpse of the famed Bodhi tree and the 160-foot tall Mahabodhi temple. A peep inside the temple reveals a gold painted statue of Buddha, made of black stone and seated in the Bhumisparsa Mudra, touching the Earth. This statue was originally built by the Pala kings of Bengal.
The temple’s distinct design is a delight to watch, with its pyramidal design and the “pancharatha sikhara” on top which is seven storeys tall. Intricate carvings of the bhumi-amalakas adorn this top part. To the west of the temple stands the holy Bodhi tree, a pipal tree which is believed to be a direct descendant of the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha sought enlightenment. It was natural that this religious and spiritual landmark was declared as a World Heritage Site way back in 2002.
BASILICA OF BOM JESUS, GOA
Amongst the most revered churches and cathedrals of Portuguese rule in India, the Basilica of Bom Jesus has an unassuming air about it, at first glance. However this Roman Catholic Church is a must-see when in Goa, primarily because it contains the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.
The church itself was constructed over a period of 11 years, from 1594 to 1605, inspired by the late Renaissance period. The Church introduces one to various art forms and styles, the Manueline, Mannerist and Baroque art can be seen in the intricate carvings and paintings that adorn the Church walls altar and columns. A walk along the aisle brings one to the central quadrangular pediment, embellished with the Jesuit emblem ‘IHS’ or “Iesus Hominum Salvator”— Latin for “Jesus, Saviour of Men”. The church exteriors are made of laterite stone lending it a rustic feel; it isthe only church in Goa without plastering. In fact much of its external face combines five styles i.e. the Roman, Ionic, Doric, Corinthian and Composite.The main highlight is the preserved body of St Francis Xavier himself. It was moved here in 1622, and renowned artists from the world over were commissioned to create the three-tiered structure and the casket that contain it. Scenes from the life of the saint himself embellish the mausoleum and precious stones line the casket itself. A great time to visit is during the devotional “Feast of St Francis Xavier”, held every December. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
It is clear that these UNESCO World Heritage sites have much to offer — art, architecture, nature immersion, historic hiatus, religious absorption, spiritual seeping and so much more. Many of these are just a flight away or a couple of hours of drive away. So the next time you plan a vacation or even a city staycation, consider decrypting the conundrums of our rich lineage by visiting these sites.