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The World Heritage Sites of India and the creation of a diverse cultural identity

An exploration of how India protects its world heritage sites and how heritage tourism forms cultural identity

11 Nov 2020 | Atreya Mathur

  • “Indian Art broadened my seeing, and loosened the formal tightness I had learned in school. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my understanding. I had been schooled to see outsides only, and not struggle to pierce.”[1]

    Emily Carr

  • Culture has the power to connect the past with the present; it can connect tradition with modernity and it opens the door to new thoughts, new discoveries. Ultimately, culture bestows identity. India’s identity, for example, is influenced by an amalgamation of distinct cultures across different communities and religions in the subcontinent. The beauty of its diversity is apparent in tangible heritage (monuments and structures of historical value) and in intangible heritage (dance, music, and language). These masterpieces of traditions, expressions and cultural heritage sites need institutional support to protect the tales of the past.


  • Exploring the Kolaramma and Someshwara temples in Karnataka, India; Photos taken by Shilpa Sai.

  • Whether it is the romantic story engraved in the white marble of Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal at the banks of the Yamuna river or the intricate and beautifully carved temples of the Khajuraho Group of Monuments south of Jhansi, every site has an exciting past and a story to tell- be it of power or love. These stories makes one think of what once was, who one is, and what could be. 

     India now has 38 world heritage sites that include 30 Cultural properties, 7 Natural properties, and one mixed site, each            diverse and abundant with historical and architectural beauty.[2]  The government must protect the world heritage sites of        India. The preservation of such historic sites and their restoration not only preserves the past, but also encourages tourism      that paves the way for several economic benefits and creates a diverse cultural identity for the country. These sites build            emotional bonds and a strong sense of solidarity and continuity, because cultural heritage defines who we were and how          we came into being. It gives us our identity in the form of collective memory.

    A glimpse into how India protects the places of the past

    The constitution of India, various national laws, and state laws govern world heritage sites and protect the art and cultural heritage of India.

    A brief history of the heritage laws of  India

    India’s heritage laws can be dated back to the Bengal Regulation XIX of 1810 and the Madras Regulation VII of 1817.  Further, Act XX was passed in 1863, empowering the government to conserve structures of historical or architectural value.[3] In 1904, the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act was passed allowing government authority over privately owned heritage structures. In 1951, the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Declaration of National Importance) Act replaced the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904, which was further replaced by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958. The Act is comprehensive and provides for the preservation of ancient and historical monuments, archaeological sties, and any sites or remains of national importance. It also provides for the regulation of archaeological excavations, and the protection of sculptures, carvings and other artefacts.[4] An amendment made to the Act in 2010 provided for the constitution of the National Monument Authority. This authority had the responsibility of grading and classifying protected monuments and areas.[5]

    India’s tangible heritage is protected by Article 49 of the Constitution which states that “It shall be the obligation of the state       to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, (declared by or under law made by Parliament)       to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may                be.”[6] Further, Article 51 A (f) states “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of         our composite culture; and (g) to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild-life,         and to have compassion for living creatures.”[7] This gives equal footing to the state, as well as the people to play their part         to protect the country’s cultural heritage.

     At the central level, nationally-protected monuments come under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India                (ASI). The ASI operates under the Ministry of Culture and carries on activities related to conservation and protection of                monuments which are categorized as “national heritage” and conducts archaeological research.[8]


      At the state level, the Directorate of State Archaeology and Museums is responsible for state-protected monuments. In              addition, the directorates in each state conduct excavations and explorations. Within the state, cities also play a role in                protection heritage by declaring a City List of heritage items that are of local significance.[9]


     While the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 operates at a national level, respective state        legislatures have enacted several state heritage laws for the protection of world heritage sites and other sites of                          importance across the country.  For example, the Heritage Commission Act, 2001 in West Bengal provides “for the                        establishment of a Heritage Commission in the state of West Bengal to identify heritage buildings, monuments, precincts          and sites and for measures for their restoration and preservation.”[10] The Ancient and Historical Monuments and                      Archaeological Sites and Remains Preservation Act, 1956 of Uttar Pradesh also provides for the “preservation of ancient              and historical monuments, archaeological sites and remains to be of national importance.”[11]


    Schemes for protection of heritage

     Various schemes such as the  “Scheme for Safeguarding the Intangible Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India”              have been implemented in India with the objective of reinvigorating and revitalizing various institutions for protecting                and promoting the rich intangible cultural heritage of India.[12]

      In 2017, the Ministry of Tourism, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture, ASI, and a private party called Monument                Mitra, introduced the “Adopt a Heritage” Scheme.[13] Under the Scheme, the government invites entities, including public          sector companies, private sector firms as well as individuals, to develop selected monuments and heritage and tourist                sites across India.[14] This programme also addresses issues related to heritage that are internationally defined as                      tourism and visitor management.

      Apart from the aforementioned, the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, the Jawaharlal Nehru National          Urban Renewal Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation are a few other schemes aimed at            heritage conservation, and restoration of historic old places, sites and cities.[15]

The Khajuraho Group of Monuments in Madhya Pradesh, India; Photos taken by Arvind Mathur.

  Initiatives in focus

  • The ASI submitted a host of measures as part of a “Site Management Plan” to the Supreme Court of India, in pursuance of its order earlier this year, for conserving the Taj Mahal and suggested measures for tackling pollution, discoloration and for managing footfall; initiative for other such protected monuments have also been taken up by the ASI.
  • Under the aegis of the National Mission on Libraries, the National Virtual Library of India (NVLI) is a platform which brings together all information generated in India and about India and makes such information accessible through user-friendly search interfaces.[16]
  • A Portal for Conservation works has been launched by ASI which aims to capture details of all conservation and development works being undertaken by its various circles. The portal has been developed to increase transparency, and now it is accessible to the public as a part of an e-governance initiative.
  • ASI entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with National Remote Sensing Centre, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) for preparation of satellite-based maps indicating prohibited and regulated areas clearly for the information of public and also to facilitate the procedure for granting permission for construction activity.[17]

    The creation of a diverse cultural identity

“Heritage is not something that is excavated. It is something that is communicated to the public by art historians, poets, writers because it inspires artists and designers to reform the contemporary.”

Naman Ahuja

   There have been many attempts by lawmakers to revalorize places through cultural identity in the wake of                                     globalization. [18]  Several of these attempts link cultural heritage with touristic use. An authentic representation of a                 country’s past would add value to touristic intention through local identity based on experiences built around such                     sites.[19] Heritage tourism allows one to experience living culture and the authentic atmosphere of society, and of a                    country which can be achieved through the preservation of such monumental and historic sites. 

   Cultural heritage tourism is now a primary global industry that has a high economic impact on a country. However, it                  serves a far greater purpose than the income it brings. It supports a country’s identity and provides a base for preserving           the cultural heritage and historic sites of a nation. Heritage tourism serves as an alternative to mass tourism as a                        sustainable model that promotes local development. It significantly contributes to the development of cultural heritage in          a country, neutralizing the adverse effects of traditional mass tourism, and increases the growth of employment and the             local economy.[20]

   Heritage tourism can serve as a tool to establish the identities and differences of cultures while localizing and globalizing           the cultural and tourist experience.[21] This works well in India, which is characterized by contact and mixing of cultures,           communities and religion.  Through heritage tourism, cultural identity is created for the country. In India, it is a culmination       of the different traditions, religions, communities and traditions that make up this cultural identity. Heritage tourism allows       the world to explore India’s assimilation of cultures and its historical evolution.

   The history and learning of a country’s past is enhanced by heritage tourism at these sites. For example, India Gate in Delhi       has the names of over 70,000 Indian soldiers inscribed on the walls of the monument in whose memory it is built,    commemorating the soldiers of the British Indian Army who lost their lives in the First World War and the Third Afghan War.       It tells one the story of the soldiers and the history of the wars.

   Heritage tourism also creates a collective identity for people who feel that a particular site is representative of who they are.     In India, for example, a Public Interest Litigation had been filed by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (         (INTACH) against the demolition of the heritage Janatha Bazaar in Bengalore in 2018. The public gathered to protect the             collective identity associated with the place. There is an inherent sense of civic identity and patriotism that is evoked by old       and historic places and sites that is brought about by heritage tourism.[22]

   The architecture in North India is different from what one experiences in the South of India. Mughal architecture is distinct        from Dravidian architecture; Sikh architecture is a style that is not comparable to temple architecture. Heritage tourism             allows one to experience each of these styles and not only understand the identity of each place or the country, but to                better understand their identity with a historical site. Heritage tourism in India creates a diverse identity for the country           through the eyes of a tourist and allows one to create their own identity for themselves. Heritage tourism forms a cultural         identity for the country and the people creating a sense of belonging and inculcates the need to preserve the monuments         of a nation.

    India has taken a few steps to increase heritage tourism in the country:

  • An e-ticketing facility was launched with the aim of providing an online booking system for national and foreign visitors to increase tourism at reduced costs.
  • The ASI created a Portal for the “Must-See Monuments and Archaeological Sites of India”, under its protection. The purpose of the portal is to highlight outstanding monuments and sites in India, comprising world heritage properties, sites under UNESCO’s Tentative List, ASI’s ticketed and other non-ticketed prominent monuments.
  • Project ‘Mausam’ is an initiative of the Ministry of Culture implemented by the ASI exploring the multi-faceted Indian Ocean ‘world’ – collating archaeological and historical research in order to document the diversity of cultural, commercial and religious interactions in the Indian Ocean – extending from East Africa to the Southeast Asian archipelago.[23]

   In conclusion, India is a land of rich culture, heritage, tradition and beauty. Whether it is the historic temples, the mysterious     forts or unbelievable rock formations, their unique artistic and romantic qualities should be protected and well preserved by     the government and the people. Cultural heritage is one of the most critical assets that depict the character and memory of      a community; it helps us understand the past and shape the future. The use of heritage for tourism can further help in the       preservation of the past and hand down traditions to future generations. It can increase awareness and education across         the globe and enhance people’s capacity to identify themselves in heritage situations. It also leads to an increased                       understanding of life in different societies and a greater appreciation of a country’s identity.

[1] Emily Carr, Doris Shadbolt “The Emily Carr Omnibus”, University of Washington Press (1993).

[2] A list of these sites can be found at http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/IN.

[3] Ramanath Jha, “Protecting India’s Built Heritage Against Natural Disasters”, ORF Issue Brief No. 293, May 2019, Observer Research Foundation.

[4] Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 available at https://www.indiaculture.nic.in/sites/default/files/acts_rules/TheAncientMonumentsandArchaeologicalSitesandRemainsAct1958_12.03.2018.pdf

[5] Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010.

[6] Art. 49 The Constitution of India, 1950

[7] Art. 51 A (f) The Constitution of India, 1950

[8] Archaeological Survey of India under the Ministry of Culture, details available at http://asiegov.gov.in/

[9] Ramanath Jha, “Protecting India’s Built Heritage Against Natural Disasters”, ORF Issue Brief No. 293, May 2019, Observer Research Foundation.

[10] The Heritage Commission Act, 2001

[11] The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Preservation Act, 1956

[12] More information available at https://www.indiaculture.nic.in/scheme-safeguarding-intangible-cultural-heritage-and-diverse-cultural-traditions-india

[13] The Scheme is to be rebranded and revived by the Government of India; http://tourism.gov.in/adopt-heritage-scheme; https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/govt-to-revive-adopt-a-heritage-scheme/articleshow/73791971.cms?from=mdr; and https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-is-adopt-a-heritage-scheme/article23866697.ece

[14] The development of these tourist sites includes providing and maintaining basic amenities, public conveniences along with technical amenities such as tourism facilitation centres and surveillance systems.

[15] Aditi Chatterji, Preserve India’s Heritage, Hindustan Times  (2019) available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/preserve-india-s-heritage-it-gives-us-an-identity/story-D8VHoExKoa6fvrR3l8QswN.html

[16] Ancient Temples and Mosques under Archaeological Survey of India, available at https://defence.pk/pdf/threads/ancient-temples-and-mosques-under-archeological-survey-of-india.372725/\

[17] “India: Satellite Mapping of ASI Monuments.” MENA Report, Albawaba (London) Ltd., Mar. 2016, p. n/a.

[18] Laura Di Pietro, Roberta Guglielmetti Mugion & Maria Francesca Renzi,  Heritage and identity: technology, values and visitor experiences, Journal of Heritage Tourism (2018).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Laura Di Pietro, Roberta Guglielmetti Mugion & Maria Francesca Renzi,  Heritage and identity: technology, values and visitor experiences, Journal of Heritage Tourism (2018).

[22]Aditi Chatterji, Preserve India’s Heritage, Hindustan Times  (2019) available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/analysis/preserve-india-s-heritage-it-gives-us-an-identity/story-D8VHoExKoa6fvrR3l8QswN.html

[23] Read more at https://www.business-standard.com/article/government-press-release/project-mausam-of-m-o-culture-aims-to-explore-multi-faceted-116030900517_1.html

The Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP) is a not-for-profit organization that fosters the stewardship of the objects, places, and traditions that define us as societies, nations, civilizations, and even human beings. We are lawyers, legal scholars, and law enforcement agents--but also anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, art historians, students, and others --- who champion preservation through the justice system. Through our educational programs and resources, we are also working to prepare a new generation of advocates, as well as educate the public.

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