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India’s Newest World Heritage Site Santiniketan: An Ode To Tagore’s Legacy

Santiniketan is now officially India’s 41st World Heritage Site

Santiniketan is now officially India’s 41st World Heritage Site, the third in West Bengal after the Sundarbans National Park and the Darjeeling Mountain Railways, the one for its biological diversity and natural heritage, and the other for its classic colonial era material heritage, both unique in their own individual ways.

By Salam Rajesh

In the midst of the ethno-sociopolitical crisis in Manipur and the political clashes in West Bengal, and the push and pulls between the ruling and the opposition parties at the Centre, the country shared a common happiness over the news that Santiniketan – the Abode of Peace – was accorded the World Heritage Site tag at the extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting held at Riyadh in Saudi Arabia earlier this month (10 to 15 September).

Santiniketan is now officially India’s 41st World Heritage Site, the third in West Bengal after the Sundarbans National Park and the Darjeeling Mountain Railways, the one for its biological diversity and natural heritage, and the other for its classic colonial era material heritage, both unique in their own individual ways.

With this recognition achieved at the global level, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore can at least rest assured that his legacy will now be in safe hands for all times to come. The root of Santiniketan – in other terms the “Vishwa Bharati” (World University) – was laid in 1901 when Tagore established a school based on the model of the Brahmachary Ashram. The genesis, however, commenced when Tagore’s father Debendranath Tagore established the ‘abode of peace’ in 1862 on a plot of land at Bholpur in West Bengal, quiet and idyllic for meditation.

Santiniketan was proposed by the Ministry of Culture for the World Heritage Site tag since the year 2010, based on its importance in human values, architecture, arts, music, and landscape designing, and as an internationally renowned institution of higher learning based on Tagore’s inert philosophy of humanism, spirituality, and the connection between nature and humanity. The France-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) lobbied for its formal recognition at the World Heritage Committee meeting.

This writer had the privilege to visit Tagore’s serene setting in 1978, witnessing a campus engrossed in the arts, music and literature. Santiniketan was actually a place out of this materialistic world of consumerism and technology. An institution of higher learning that Tagore envisioned way back in 1901 imparting the value of human life and the art of living, just at the beginning of the twentieth century anno domino. Manipur then was under monarchy and the British colonial rule, barely a decade into the Anglo-Manipur War of 1891 that saw the eclipse of the erstwhile Manipur Kingdom in the hands of the British Crown.

What is so discerning about the news on Santiniketan is that aside of the happy tidings for West Bengal, Manipur’s attempt at lobbying for three World Heritage Sites have remained a distant dream so far, perhaps for the lack of the political will to lobby with the international body.

Years back, the State Forest Department initiated a move to lobby for the World Heritage Site tag for one of Manipur’s best known natural heritage site – the Keibul Lamjao National Park, so much as the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal and the Manas National Park in Assam successfully lobbied for the global tag. Then there was this State’s idea of lobbying for the (Imphal) Kangla based on its archaeological, historical and religious temperament. Quite recently, the State proposed to lobby for the global tag on Loktak Lake based on its natural and cultural heritage.

The problem with the Manipur lobby idea is that all of the three proposed sites have considerable amount of issues within them that could possibly be the hurdles in the lobby for the global tag. Keibul Lamjao National Park and Loktak Lake are steeped in ecological disasters and too full of anthropogenic interventions which can be the negative points in the lobby. For Kangla, there has been too much of human touch defacing and devaluing the pristine nature of the archaeological and historical site although the ICOMOS did its best to restore some of the aging monuments.

To lobby for the World Heritage Site tag, the proposed sites need to maintain their near natural status as far as is possible. When Professor Nalini Thakur from the Delhi School of Architecture and Planning was working on the restoration plan for the Imphal Kangla, she emphasized on the retaining of the near natural status of the site with minimum human interventions. Unfortunately for the site, developers introduced extensive exotic plants and trees, constructed new structures that were totally out of the picture and ‘alien’ to the historical site.

Loktak Lake has seen too much of human touch, engineering interventions that had added to the degradation of the lake rather than solving issues on siltation and proliferation of invasive plant species. The boundary is distorted and too many humans had infiltrated into the peripheral shoreline altering its ecological profile. The original flora and fauna diversity had declined, and its ecosystem had changed considerably largely due to stagnation of the water body induced by the man-made structure Ithai barrage.

That is almost the same story with Keibul Lamjao National Park. Its ecosystem is largely degraded and the Manipur Brow-antlered Deer is struggling to exist in its habitat, balancing delicately upon the floating biomass that has since become unstable due to the changes in the hydrological regime. In fact, the State is seriously considering the option to shift out some population of the deer in other similar topography assuming that its habitat is fairly threatened by a failing ecosystem.

During the early 1990s a group of environment conscious individuals under the banner of the Manipur Cultural Integration Conference led by Maharaj Kumar Priyabarta (first Manipuri Chief Minister of Manipur) campaigned for the global natural heritage site tag for the popular Dzukou Valley in northern Manipur, sandwiched between Manipur and Nagaland. But, that again, unfortunately has remained a pipe dream, with certain land-based conflict of interest emerging between the two States.

Manipur has its place in the global scenario being a part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, meaning a region where diverse biological life forms still exist in their near natural state. The State can certainly capitalize on this forum, although quite unfortunately the individual interests of the people here had eclipsed the values of the State’s natural and material heritage. Santiniketan had achieved what it sought to achieve, a tribute to the memory of Rabindranath Tagore. For Manipur, the issues on ‘separate administration’ and ‘greater autonomy’ had over-ridden all other values of life.

(The writer is an independent journalist. He can be reached at [email protected])


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