The appetite for tourism has grown significantly, especially in India, where monuments and various historical sites are in abundance. Travelers are now seeking out new and exciting destinations to explore. In this quest for unique experiences, the allure of UNESCO World Heritage Sites has become increasingly appealing.
The UNESCO label carries a certain prestige, making it a natural choice for tourists looking for exceptional places to visit. Yet, there is a pressing question that demands our attention: However, does the designation of a “World Heritage Site” truly benefit these revered locations, or does it, in fact, bring about more harm than good?
To be honest, the title of a “World Heritage Site” is not a source of pride, especially in the context of ancient temples and historic landmarks. This label can turn out to be more of a curse than a blessing in certain cases.
So, join us onboard as we embark on an analytical journey to explore the intricate relationship between the coveted status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the preservation of ancient temples. We aim to shed light on whether this prestigious title serves as a guardian of our cultural heritage or unwittingly contributes to its decline.
Why is the “World Heritage State” tag a BANE?
The “World Heritage Site” status, while esteemed in many aspects, can sometimes prove to be a curse, particularly for historical and religious places. For those unfamiliar with the term, a UNESCO Heritage Site designation signifies that a monument or city is recognized and protected for its exceptional historical, cultural, or architectural significance, meeting one of ten specific criteria.
However, the real challenge lies in the unintended consequences of this recognition, specifically the risks associated with uncontrolled tourism and haphazard tourist development around these revered sites. Take, for instance, the construction of large hotels and the unchecked exploitation of groundwater near ancient temples. These actions not only jeopardize the water table beneath the temples but also pose a threat to their structural stability.
Preserving these temples is already a formidable task, but the more significant issue lies in the lack of comprehensive planning in the vicinity of these sites, leaving them at the mercy of market forces. There needs to be a balance in modernity and spirituality, but sadly, such is not the case.
Let’s consider the Brihadeshwara Temple as a case in point. The temple derives its name from “Brihat” (meaning big or vast) and “Ishvara” (referring to Bhagwan Shiva), emphasizing its status as one of the most significant Shiva temples. An icon of Bharat’s vivid culture, for nearly ten centuries, the temple operated in accordance with its sacred purpose. However, in 1987, the temple was granted the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site status, and that’s when things turned for the worse?
Following UNESCO designation, these temples often transform into bustling tourist hubs, compromising their spiritual sanctity. The area surrounding these temples becomes challenging to regulate, making it difficult to enforce restrictions on meat, alcohol, or other activities that may disrupt the spiritual atmosphere. Restaurants selling non-vegetarian cuisine, which would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, now sprout up within a kilometer of iconic temples like Brihadeshwara.
Moreover, when temples are reduced to mere picnic spots, norms become blurred, and visitors may arrive wearing attire that was previously considered disrespectful. Need we tell you what happened to the sanctity of Kedarnath Dham of late?
Spiritualism cannot be compromised for Tourism
Why do we visit temples? Undoubtedly, it’s to worship. But in the context of Sanatani temples, there’s more than meets the eye.
In days of yore, temples served as versatile hubs where culture, trade, and spirituality coexisted harmoniously. Even today, our temples are conduits for the exchange of energy. When we step inside, there’s an undeniable aura of positivity that envelops us.
Yet, when that feeling fades, the signs are crystal clear: the sanctity of the place has been stripped away. This is precisely what the “World Heritage Sites” tag can do to historical places of profound spiritual significance.
Let’s take a glimpse at the Konark Sun Temple, for instance. Worship of natural elements and forces like the Sun, Moon, Earth, and water is woven into the fabric of Indian culture. In eastern India, especially states like Bihar and Odisha, the veneration of the Sun God is deeply ingrained.
In Odisha, the 13th-century Konark Sun Temple, which some believe to be even older, stands as a testament to the people’s unwavering devotion to the Sun God. The people of Odisha, with their seafaring prowess, played a pivotal role in spreading Hinduism to Southeast Asia, resulting in the proliferation of Sun Temples in the region.
However, a peculiar paradox unfolds at the Konark Sun Temple—it no longer reveres the Sun God. Instead, it has transformed into a tourist destination rather than a place of Hindu worship. The question begs: What purpose does a Sun Temple serve if you can’t offer worship?
Konark possesses a rich history, but its survival hinges on the restoration of puja, the act of worship, within its walls. Consider Kashi (Varanasi), which has thrived for millennia due to the integral role of puja in its lifestyle—not something reserved solely for tourists.
Have you ever wondered why the Somnath Mandir in Gujarat continues to be revered despite renovations? Firstly, its spiritual sanctity remained intact through the efforts of Sardar Patel and “Acharya” KM Munshi. Secondly, it doesn’t bear the burden of a “World Heritage Site” tag, which shields it from the onslaught of unbridled tourism.
Resuscitating abandoned temples isn’t just a matter of cultural pride; it’s a necessity for a brighter future. While challenges undoubtedly exist, preserving our cultural heritage while embracing modernity is a tightrope worth walking.
Call it what you want, but the Uttar Pradesh (UP) model of preserving heritage sites, led by Yogi Adityanath, demonstrates how to strike that balance effectively. Take a glance at Ayodhya in 2010 compared to today, and you’ll understand the transformation.
However, it’s not just about well-known places like Ayodhya. Lesser-known treasures like the Martand Surya Temple, currently in ruins, deserve our attention too.
To genuinely and enduringly preserve our cultural heritage, we must replicate these successes across the country. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia; it’s an investment in our identity and a commitment to a richer future.
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