The Many Facets of Heritage

A heritage issue indeed! But how far are we updated to the current discourses of heritage?

In general, heritage is something that is inherited; a legacy, tradition, achievements, beliefs, a part of our past and what we will pass on to the future. It is a term not easy to define! Heritage can be categorized as natural and cultural. Natural heritage encompasses the elements of biodiversity, including flora and fauna and ecosystem types, and associated geological structures and formations. Cultural heritage is the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions, and values. Cultural heritage is often expressed as either intangible or tangible cultural heritage. 

After World War I, there was general international consciousness to protect the heritages of many countries affected by the war. An international movement for their protection led to the adaptation of a convention for the protection of cultural and natural heritages in 1972, which led the way to listing of world heritage sites (WHS). Which, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), are “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration…our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity”. UNESCO describes such sites to have outstanding universal value for mankind, and they belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. 

The concept of cultural heritage is usually associated with historic monuments and buildings, archaeological sites, paintings, drawings, or sculpture, that which are the products of human creativity and artistic expression. The latest discourses of cultural heritage are not limited to tangible aspects only, but also include intangible aspects, such as traditions, music, dance, rituals, knowledge, and skills passed down from generation to generation. Both these aspects represent values, beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles that are irreplaceable and embrace past and present societies. 

As of July 2016, a total of 1,052 WHS exist in 165 countries, of which 814 are cultural, =203 are natural, and 35 are mixed properties.  Among these, Nepal proudly hosts two cultural WHS; Kathmandu Valley with seven monument zones, inscribed in 1979 (Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur Durbar Squares, Swayambhunath, Boudhanath, Changunarayan, and Pashupatinath); Lumbini, inscribed in 1997; and two natural WHS, Sagarmatha National Park, inscribed in 1979, and Chitwan National Park, inscribed in 1984. In fact, Nepal is the first South Asian to be enlisted! This also corrects the general perception of people that Nepal has eight-ten world heritage sites. At the same time, Italy holds the largest number of WHS, at fifty-three

WHS are marked by an emblem usually inscribed on stone steles. This emblem came to realization in 1978, designed by Belgian artist Michel Olyff. The inside square represents human skills, inspirations, and produces, the circle represents the natural element of the world, a symbolic representation of interdependence of the world’s natural and cultural diversity. Indeed an apt icon for such a representation.

Heritages are often inferred as a nation’s treasures and pride, and oftentimes, the identity, as well. However, in some cases, they can be a problematic issue, too. Take for example the gigantic sixth century statues of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. These extraordinary images are almost fifty-five meters tall. Most of the people inhabiting this region at that time were merchants and missionaries, and the common people were practitioners of the Buddhist faith, due largely to the spread of Buddhism by Emperor Ashoka to regions beyond central India. These magnificent images have been objects of grandeur for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists for centuries, and awe inspiring for mankind.

Located between the Indian subcontinent and central China, Bamiyan Valley was an important linking point in the ancient silk route that connected the East to the West. The existence of such marvelous images cut into niches in the cliff with more than thousands of rock-cut caves definitely implies the importance of Buddhism in the region. In the early eleventh century, Central Asia was invaded by Genghis Khan, and the popular trade routes were closed, wiping out the Buddhist population. Since that time, it has never regained its former glory.

In March 2001, Mullah Omar ordered Taliban forces to destroy these colossal images. The New York Times of March, 26, 2001, in its report ‘Art in Jeopardy’, quoted the Taliban Foreign Ministry as stating, ‘The decision is not against anyone. It was a totally domestic matter for Afghanistan.’ Further justifying the cause, they complained that, much global interest and funding had gone to protect the images, while there was an urgent and growing need for humanitarian aid during that time. In such cases, where the population does not identify with the local heritage, it is critical to understand how they contextualize the historical monuments and cultural practices of the past. In an age of globalization, a question arises ‘about the degree to which other people’s heritage is also part of one’s heritage’ (Gillman 2011). Despite the ownership of the heritage, the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is a huge loss for mankind and our understanding of human history. 

Coming back to Nepal and our very own heritages, the current discourse, is in fact something different. Something that has been wrangled about for more than a year now is the process of rebuilding the monuments destroyed by the earthquake of 2015. Looking critically, it has been more than two years, and the reconstruction is moving at snail speed. Who should be looked up to during such times? The government, the Department of Archaeology, or the local communities, who constantly stall the reconstruction process, demanding the use of traditional construction practices, transparency, and community involvement in such matters? Current international discourses in heritage management also ask for a change from the top-down to a bottom-up approach. Therefore, what is happening here is not wrong! The government authorities and the local community need urgently to come to an understanding about their roles in the reconstruction management. This is critical, because the elongating of this process will further destroy what is remaining, and lengthen the reconstruction process. The cultural heritage of the Valley is our identity, and also, a major tourism product, and we need them to be majestically standing once again.

To end on a happy note; just recently at the WHS convention in Poland, Kathmandu Valley, which was since the earthquake of 2015 in the list of heritage sites in danger, has been removed from the list.