Significance of Cultural Routes: In Conversation with Ridhima Bajaj

Significance of Cultural Routes: In Conversation with Ridhima Bajaj

in Interview
Published on: 29 August 2018

Parshati Dutta

Parshati Dutta is an architect and a cultural heritage conservation consultant who perceives architecture as an expression of culture in a dynamic and interactive global landscape of permeable boundaries governed by global socio-political climates. She is particularly interested in understanding culture through routes and linkages, cultural reactions in times of modern conflict, and culture as a tool for reconciliation. She has worked in Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, West Bengal, and Odisha with organizations such as CRCI, INTACH, ASAUDP, and 10 Decimal Design Studios on a plethora of government and non-government projects. Beyond professional work, her articles, photo-series and films have been published on platforms like Scroll, News Laundry, Wire, and Deccan Herald. As a strong believer of theory and practice being simultaneous and integral components of any discourse, she strives to sustain a balance between the worlds of praxis and academia. She has been involved as instructor, panellist, and participant member in several workshops, lectures, forums, fellowships, and allied activities with organizations such as ICOMOS India (National Scientific Committees on Cultural Routes, and Shared Built Heritage), UNESCO, Sahapedia, INTACH, CEPT University, I.P University, Mehrangarh Museum Trust and Helen Hamlyn Trust. She currently an assistant professor at the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Ansal University, Gurgaon.

Conservationist and Coordinator of NSC Cultural Routes (ICOMOS India), Ridhima Bajaj discards the notion of seeing historic sites in isolation, in favour of understanding cultural heritage as a larger, dynamic landscape. Noida, 27.12.2017.

Parshati Dutta: As a long term member and current coordinator of the NSC (National Scientific Committee) on Cultural Routes (CIIC) for ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) India, tell us about the significance of Cultural Routes.


Ridhima Bajaj: The histories and cities that developed in our past are a process, a phenomenon of exchange happening (of trade, knowledge, power etc)... And where was this exchange happening? It was happening through a cultural route along which these cities were located.  And the whole histories of exchange is one of the most important things that we need to understand about the cultural routes, to understand the past, to understand how the communities were giving and trading in knowledge as well as their traditions and cultures.


In the second part, which I think is one of the most important in the current scenario because of the kind of conflict which we are facing with heritage being (understood as) of one, the idea of cultural routes can dilute that whole perception because the heritage which we understand as ‘our heritage’ or ‘my heritage’ as an individual’s heritage has developed due to some kind of exchange happening between two communities, learning from two communities, people coming in from different regions. So in that idea of unifying and understanding the diversity cultural routes played an important part in the understanding of our past as something which is beyond borders and fluid. So this whole idea of making heritage again for everyone... I'm not saying that a cultural route is the most important thing... but if we study that and we can do something about reconciliation and unifying people then it is one of the units of that puzzle to be resolved. That is how I take culture routes as. It can lead us to that.


P.D.: Tell us about how the perception of cultural routes changes from an international to a regional level?


R.B.: At the international level, if I considered the ICOMOS charter (The ICOMOS Charter on Cultural Routes), they talk about the content, the context, the cultural significance (especially the cross-cultural exchange significance), the dynamic character, and settings, as the five elements which they have picked up to define the cultural routes. It is quite a holistic understanding of cultural routes. Though when in the past two years, we have been trying to frame up this methodological framework for the Indian subcontinent and the whole NSC (National Scientific Committee) has been involved and we have had quite interactive sessions where, I would like to name Vrinda (Vrinda Jariwala, Conservation Architect), came up with the idea of smaller routes which we have at intra-city level like the Panch Kosi Yatra, the pilgrim route around Vrindavan etc.


So these smaller routes, where are they being placed? Because the international charter generally talks about two geographical regions and their connectivity! It talks about between land to land, land to water, some kind of trade happening, exchange happening. But if you talk about the settings there is the existence of tangible elements in the smaller routes, there is existence of intangible elements, but the whole idea of the context is missing or the extent of the geographical region.  Interestingly in the General Assembly (of ICOMOS) which happened in 2017 in New Delhi, we had a CIIC (Cultural Routes) Meeting, and what was most interesting to find was that even at international levels they are trying to figure these question and we had similar questions to figure out! So yes, probably on the next stage we need to revisit the Charter and integrate these routes also. I am not saying they also stand at World Heritage standard; everything is not there.  But these routes need to be listed, identified, and acknowledged as being cultural routes somewhere within the ambit of the Charter, or a different framework at subcontinent level. And we are working towards this.


P.D.: Looking at the bigger picture, how can the conservation and management of cultural routes be integrated with other sustainable developmental efforts?


R.B.: Interestingly, in the recent times, I will repeat myself, we have this heritage structure and that is what we identified heritage as – as a monument — ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) protects these little buildings.  And then we identified, no this is not enough! We have to understand the context. So we went up to the precinct, understanding the communities living around it, the connectivity of that space, and going to a larger level from it just being a monument. Group of monuments is another thing; precinct is another; and now settlements.  With schemes like HRIDAY, PRASAD, and the Smart Cities (which also has heritage assets as one of the important elements to it) definitely we have reached a level of understanding that heritage is much more.


But were these cities and these settlements again located in isolation? Obviously not! There was some kind of exchange happening through these routes and there was connectivity also between two settlements. That is probably the next level we have to reach.


Interestingly, I was going through all these CDPs (City Development Plans) which were made in HRIDAY scheme for the article which I wrote for HRIDAY Reflections for the NSC with Moushumi (Moushumi Chatterji, Museologist and Interpretation Expert). In that article we have gone through the CDPs and understood that every CDP like in Varanasi - Panch Kosi Yatra, and in Puri - Rath Yatra, they have identified some kind of cultural route, some kind of pilgrim sacred route which has all the elements of context, content, cross-cultural significance, tangible and intangible elements which the Charter identifies as integral parts of the cultural routes. But do we recognise these routes as cultural routes still? Probably not, we are not doing it. We are identifying those two tangible elements, the Panch Kosi Yatra, Rath Yatra these sacred routes as one of the elements in it. They (CDPs) have identified it as Heritage Zones but at the end what each CDP is trying to do is to develop these little routes and to retain these routes for the community so that this exchange of culture and tradition keeps happening. So that the whole process of these sacred Yatras, they continue to happen. So probably in the next level of understanding the whole city, we need to identify, list, and map these cultural routes;  build a framework where we know that there is something more than doing the road development, putting street lights, putting furniture, and make these routes a more thriving route.


If we are considering cultural routes as one of the important elements tying these buildings together, it again helps us to bring up the idea of cultural tourism as well, because it is an inclusive idea. It is more immersive. It helps people to understand the buildings not in isolation, to move around the building not in isolation, but beyond the route like it used to happen in the past because people were travelling along the route. So cultural routes enforces the idea of culture tourism also.


P.D.: You have prepared the Management Plan for the Punjab section of the Mughal Imperial Highway during your tenure with CRCI (Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative India Pvt. Ltd).  What has been your key learning, both in terms of potentials and challenges, from this work?


R.B.: Yes, that is where my association with cultural routes began. I started working with CRCI and worked for five years on this project of Mughal Imperial Highway for which we prepared the Management Plan for Punjab section and the Nomination Dossier as well. It is on (the UNESCO World Heritage) tentative list now.


In terms of learning what I would say is we enforced ourselves, we tried to engage, that we have to understand heritage in a larger context. In this whole exercise of cultural Route as one of the main elements in the project and these buildings located on it, the whole idea of me now if I do any building (building level study), I know that why the larger context is important, what is it that connects these buildings and how we cannot isolate it from the other elements which were located along a route. The building which I would study in the future, I would understand it in a larger context. So that is one of the important learning when you say how cultural routes are helping, or what take away I am taking from the project.


When you talk about challenges and the potentials... probably I would not take it separately as challenges and potentials, because there are several challenges and we still have several gaps in the whole understanding, in research, in delineation, definitions, and identification of what are the extent and the boundaries, but if you are able to deal with these challenges through some kind of framework, charters management system, those become a potential for the future!


Again in terms of potentials, like previously I said that I see cultural routes as one of the most important components towards building peace and reconciliation, and telling about the unifying aspect of histories...  that it is diverse, it belongs to everyone and it doesn't belong to an individual. So I take cultural routes as a potential towards that step ahead, specially the Mughal Imperial Highway being a trans-boundary nomination. We have limited ourselves to identifying the structures, and delineating the route within the Indian section. In fact that is one of the challenges, because we have identified the monuments along the route. Again we have not identified the routes. So that is a gap in the definition and delineation as well.  But we have to stop somewhere within the Indian section. But isn't that compromising with the integrity of the route? If we talk about the authenticity and integrity aspect of heritage probably we have to look more into researching and going into the trans-boundary aspect.


P.D.: Finally, the sites around Uttarapath, Badshahi Sadak, Sadak-e-Azam, and Grand Trunk Road are now tentatively listed for UNESCO World Heritage nomination. As part of the larger sub-continental system, do you think that the Mughal Road in Kashmir possesses the same values and can be considered as a serial nomination?


R.B.: Definitely. You are working on Mughal Road of Kashmir Section so you can tell more about it. We have missed out this section, the Mughal Road that is going through Kashmir section, but there are remains of serais as you told me. They are tangible remains. So yes, definitely this should be part of the tentative nomination. It can be an individual nomination in itself, or it can be part of this already identified cultural route on the Tentative List. It depends on the technicalities of filling the criteria, OUV (Outstanding Universal Value). But I think you are the right person to talk about it because you have been working on this for so many months now! What are the tangible elements, how are we mapping it?


P.D.: I think it is pretty much the same as what we see in Punjab for instance. Except for kosminars, the rest of the elements like the caravanserais, mosques, shrines, some gurudwaras also (because Guru Hargobind Singh Ji was visiting Kashmir during the time of Jahangir), the tangible remains are all there. Of course there are very many interesting oral histories also. But somehow, one thing which I feel can be problematic is the fact that they are not as well conserved as the sarais in Punjab.


R.B.: In the Tentative List, the Badhshai Sadak, the Sadak-e-Azam, is identified under the criteria ii, iv and vi[1].  All the criteria are being fulfilled. If the criteria are being fulfilled then it can be part of the same nomination. Because the significance and the Outstanding Value is similar.  State of conservation is something that has to be addressed in the management plan. So we have to have a management plan in place, identify these structures, put a conservation plan for these structures. It’s a challenge that can turn into a potential again! So Mughal Road becomes an important intersection of the Mughal entering India, and Babur coming through that has to be there!


[1] To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of Outstanding Universal Value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria. Of these criteria ii, iv and vi are as follows:

ii: to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design

iv: to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history

vi: to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance