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Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

Indian Cultural Landscapes

Religious pluralism

tolerance and ground reality

Thakur, Nalini. "Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality ." Journal of
SPA : New Dimensions in Research of Environments for Living

"The Sacred", no. 3, Monsoon (2011).

Keywords: Management framework, Knowledge System Approach , Intellectual landscape and Indian
Cultural landscapes

India is often referred to as the land of cultural plurality and diversity where two contrasting
worldviews - that of the traditional and continuous and the formal and official (inherited from the
British) thrive. These two views today coexist uncomfortably, often at cross purposes, clashing with
the contemporary official and is impacting our cultural resources adversely.
In the context of the above, international principles of sacred values and categories are examined
on real ground situations through field experience to explore the more recent new category of
cultural landscape within the context of Indias multiple faiths /beliefs, plural communities and
cultural diversities. This paper tries to articulate the questions and issues raised with focus on
sacred significance and values through the Cultural landscape.
Indian Cultural Resources

The Indian traditional perception of culture and its resources is based on continuity rather than
preservation. It is governed by the cyclic passage of time. Heritage in India is integral part of the
living fabric of society, and, like all living entities, these changes and transforms through time.
History is understood as renewing and regenerating according to the cyclic concept of time and
elements are never viewed in isolation, but only as a part of the larger context

Indian Cultural Landscape (ICL) can be called intellectual landscape, a collection of religious,
cultural and physical meanings ascribed to geographical components through collective memory,
planted on the ground (shaped in real world and real time - the landscape) in active engagement of
communities over generations, empowering nature and land from physical to the metaphysical.
The ICL is a repository of the collective perception of geography, where memory, information and
imagination converge to shape the landscape. The physical form of the landscape that still survive
have a capacity to regenerate itself when associations, ideologies and continuity are re-established
to engage the contemporary minds of the nation. Therefore, in content and appreciation, the ICL
are distinct and have great potential to expand the UNESCO`S definition of Cultural Landscape

to include a regional definition called Indian Cultural Landscape as distinct; referred to ICL in this



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

The traditional understanding of the historical ICL is characterized by the domination of cultural
geography over history. They have evolved through processes of cultural synthesis and specific
practices within our complex and diverse culture. It can be said that in the Indian worldview the
sense of geography is better than history judging from the highly evolved spatial cultural resource
entities of the myriad

In the Indian ethos, geography has always been more than just a setting of hills, rivers and forests.
It can be better perceived through its cultural understanding shared by communities. The
geography formed the canvas against which the Indian traditional perspectives and knowledge are
conceptualized, practised and celebrated. It also forms the context where man interacts with his
surrounds based on a holistic knowledge of nature with both sacred and secular underpinnings.

The ICL has been described in myths, legends, lyrics, oral traditions and religious texts. These were
planted/imprinted on the ground from memory in the medieval times (at the backdrop of rise
Islam to reinforce faith) and given a physical form by ascribing values and association to different
forms of nature. The unique pattern of natural features and forms networked with the sacred
geography of faith and its secular supports integrated man, place and faith to shape a cohesive

. The unity achieved at the physical and metaphysical levels gives rise to a continuity

and consistency that reinforces the holistic perception of the landscape. The bond between the
physical and metaphysical parts of the landscape was further with time through mans engagement
with their geography in various forms.
The Sacredness of the ICL exists right from the memory to geography which gives greater meaning
/ values through collective memory and association of indigenous communities.

- The Braj


Braj is a mythical and religious landscape with a very sacred geography, and is represented as the
Mandala with Vrindavana at its core (represented by a lotus)or the Braj-Kshetra. The word Braj in
vernacular parlance means where the cows roam and is associated with events and places of Lord
Krishnas childhood and youth. It is a circular area of 20 Yojana (measuring unit for distance) with
the river Yamuna flowing at its centre, north to south with Mathura city at the centre.

. Today

Vrajbhoomi survives with sacred natural features, planted groves, settlement patterns grounded on
Krishna scriptures, water structures and temples and is bound by a continuity of shared religious
and cultural values, limited within the Parikrama or circumambulation path. The core and
periphery of this sacred Indian cultural landscape can change as per the beliefs of the sub-sects of a
decentralized religious system within the Vaishnava mainstream accommodating multiplicity and

Establishment of Braj region dates back to Mahabharata when Satraps Vajranabha, the grandson of
Krishna associated this place with Krishna. Archaeological evidence has established that in the 6th



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

century B. C., this territory was known as Surasena with its capital at the prosperous fortified city
of Mathura, located on the river Yamuna at a strategic location where the two main route of
ancient India from the south and east to the north-west converged. During the Mauryan, Shunga
and Kushana periods, till the 9th century, numerous Buddhist and Jain monuments were
constructed and the archaeological explorations have determined that most of the existing
settlements are located on or in the vicinity of sites of ancient settlements or monuments of these
periods. During the reign of Sikandar Lodhi, in the 16th century, Nimbaraka, Vallabha and
Chaitanya, religious preachers revealed this as the region, which identified itself with the mythical
region of Krishnas childhood. During the Mughal period also, Braj was a vast region and over
historic time has been shrinking to now cover parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan
Many places within this region are associated with the life of Krishna. It is an associative landscape
a stage for early and boyhood years of Krishna`s life. From memory and sacred texts, the
landscape is sculpted by the Vaishnavites anchored on ground where a distinct place is designated
for a event in the life of Krishna like Gokul his place of birth, Vrindavan a pastoral landscape where
he played with the gopis etc. The Chaurasi Kos yatra, visits all the places thus appropriating the act
through its pilgrimage.

Instance of multiple understanding of sacred

The larger Indian society is pluralistic giving rise to cultural diversity and a symbiotic relationship
among communities, reflected in ICL. Communities developed their sacred geography based on
their faith and the belief in structures specific to their individual cults by marking on the ground
their meanings for places and natural features. Although they differed in ideology, faith and actions,
their fundamental understanding of the extent and properties of geography and the ascribed
associations to its features remained characteristically similar. Therefore within the framework of a
pluralistic society, the different communities co-existed symbiotically, lending to the diversity
extant in the sub-continent, which had been achieved over centuries. Example the popular belief of
Char Dham, the four corners of the idea of India is equally understood by the majority, irrespective
of their value-system within the Hindu sects
Layers in settlement

There are numerous ICLs presenting a range of urban, rural and regional sub categories that are
distinct and unique to the sub-continent. For example capitals of princely states, historic cities with
its own typological variations as planned, designed or walled; sacred settlements, other royal and
imperial capitals, colonial towns, hill stations, 19th and 20th century modern habitats, to name a
few that transcend historic times on land to inform and communicate the true story of the nation
not found in books. The evidence of their history remains preserved as historical layers
interwoven with the tangible and intangible resources and this embedded knowledge requires to be



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

deciphered and dissected.

However, the recent incident and verdict of Ayodhya stands as a example of the fracture in the
construction of co-habiting plural narratives that had once ensured an underlying symbiosis within
the larger populace. It must be mentioned here, that the Ramtek Hill, located in Ayodhya (at the
summit of a an elevated land form ) remains immortalised in the Epic Ramayana as the birth place
of Lord Rama. This location associated with the Lord Rama has been explained by Dr PS Rana as
the mesocosm on land that is the intersection of the macrocosm and the microcosm.


During the 16th century, under the rule of Babur, a mosque was constructed in the same spot, a
common practice during the rise of Islam. Evidences also show the reuse of parts of an older
structure in the Mosque. Since the 19th century, there were instances of conflict that ensued over
the location of Babri Mazjid. This culminated in December 1992, resulting in the demolition of the


. Close to two-decades later, to regain status-quo, the issue was addressed by equal

division of land among three conflicting groups, and the complexities of overlayed multiple and
plural values that require complex interpretations, was overlooked


In 1992, the Archaeological Survey of India, its Ancient Monuments Sites and Remains Act58 13
and INTACH a National Non- Governmental Organisation set up for the safeguard of unprotected
heritage were not able to save this structure. On the one hand the ASI under its Act could have
brought the Babri Masjid under official protection because it had the ability to protect structures
over 100 years old and INTACH could have taken initiative because the mosque was unprotected
structure. Babri Masjid is a rare surviving structure belonging to Early Mughal period, hence
imperative to protect. This unfortunate event brought to the forefront uncomfortable but pertinent
questions and exposed the gulfs/ divided within the country and society. The diversity of world
views and their perceptions of values.


The resolution of the differences between the two mutually conflicting world views requires an indepth understanding of our cultural resources and an informed stand by decision-makers. It also
may need adopting new tools perhaps the Historic Urban Landscape approach (HUL) combined
with the Knowledge Systems approach to build knowledge for the regeneration of heritage sites
based on people-time-place


examination for a comprehensive understanding of our historic

sites/ cities which is a fascinating area of research being developed, which can ensure effective
protection and management for the future generations.


Official World View

The post-independence mainstream official perception, which has gathered great strength over two
centuries, is based on Colonial understanding of India and her resources. This imposes a western
approach on policies in education and administration on the Indian subcontinent, introducing an
alien way of life and creating a perception of traditional India, its culture, heritage, and ethos. As a



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

result, society today remains polarised between two extremes - those

Sixty years post Independence, education and professional training, hence the decision-making
and policies of governance, hinges greatly on the Colonial perception of India. This limits the
understanding, quality (relevance) and actions of our official systems for effective identification
and safeguarding of our cultural resources, associations and values. There is a lack of the integrated
perspective that is required to understand, appreciate and manage the ICL. The official perspective
is still unilateral, compartmentalised and self-limiting. Though it has scope of expanding and coordinating and in spirit is decentralised, there is much more effort required to establish a dialogue
between different agencies for context and resource specific understanding and effective
management of Indian heritage.
For example, the case of Majuli demonstrates the problems in responsible agencies, both in the
region and at the centre to bring about new changes and rectification of the existing for effective
site management as a landscape and not a monument or site.
Majuli is a mid-river delta system, in the Bramhaputra Valley, in Assam and is a unique spiritual
Indian cultural landscape. Historically, the entire Brahmaputra valley with its tributaries defined
the boundaries of kingdoms of diverse ethnic groups, who were at constant conflict, living within
its plain, hills and river-side. In the 15th-16th Century AD, during an era of Islamic dominance, the
introduction of Vaishnavism and the monastic institution of Sattras by Saint Shri Shri Sankaradeva,
redefined the Assamese socio-cultural dimension. Bound by faith, the Sattras unified the diverse
ethnic groups into a democratic casteless society in their unique ecological context. Sattras, which
had an area of influence, were headed by a Sattradhikar, assisted by other monks. Till the 19th
century, the Sattras functioned based on the words of the Sattradhikars and there were no written
Each Sattra, set up its own tradition and practices, exercised a spiritual control over the members
through social orders and evolved a context- specific management system that bridged socioreligious practices within its natural setting. Diverse ethnic groups performed distinct activities
(traditional occupation) that enabled management of natural resources and withstood natural
calamities. Traditionally, respective Sattras developed a series of synchronized systems of resource
management that closely followed the natural geo- hydrological dynamics of the island and
specifically responded to the area of their influence. Each community thereon, were entrusted
unique and significant duties within the overall framework that formed an integral part of the
spiritual and cultural fabric of the Assamese society, continuing till date


Effective protection and management of living landscapes required an elaborate, coordinated and
multilevel system to address the complexity. It was unfortunate, but not surprising, that the Majuli
Island was nominated


as a World Heritage cultural landscape but did not succeed. The failure

remained in the existing official system to meet challenges of managing change and maintaining



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

OUVs through coordinated actions and interfaces between various sectors. Efforts made like the
Majuli Cultural Landscape Act 2006 and the Majuli Cultural Landscape Consortium still required
interfaces for effective functioning, with dialogue and understanding among the jurisdictions and
the agencies.

It must be noted that the paper aims not to encourage the return to an older time. It is rather
towards the development of a more comprehensive understanding of our traditional systems of
management that lends itself to development of a management framework.
Indian Cultural Landscapes are Intellectual landscapes, a unique resource and a playground of
learning for professional and scholars a like


. A product of holistic paradigm to civilization

studies, it has the capacity to build knowledge, hence enhance the limited understanding of the
mainstream that affects the manner in which India is perceived by Indians.
A long-term active engagement, experimental studies and analysis of complex ICLs like Majuli,
Braj, Hampi and Khajuraho has illustrated the great scope to improve the modern/official system of
management by incorporating important lessons from the traditional one to equip it to better
understand and be more effective in action. The Knowledge Systems approach builds a local
database and reconnects the historic site/city landscape to its people.
Protection and management of the Indian Heritage is a great challenge that needs to be effectively
addressed by the mainstream through long-term collective commitment of the official and the
popular world, its various agencies and institutions, involved in Sites. There is an immediate need
to develop context and resource specific tools that are not based on any preconceived notion but
are developed through consistent involvement/engagement with the site. Today, more than ever,
this is a national responsibility beyond obligation to comply with international directives, so as to
ensure protection of our identity through culture.
The Hampi Integrated Management Plan (IMP)


demonstrates the potential of the Indian

National Framework, to develop effective tools and mechanisms that safeguard a complex living
sacred, royal and secular cultural landscape like Hampi World Heritage
Site, primarily an archaeological site covering the 16th century metropolitan capital of the
Vijayanagara Dynasty. The aim is to ensure safeguarding of the overall significance and values
OUVs, regional, local which encompass archaeological, historical, architectural, religious, sociocultural, economic and usage aspects]. Bridging between international directives and local realities
lies the National Framework and the Integrated Management Plan (IMP) an instrument that
connects to the real ground of the World Heritage Site for the protection, maintenance and
management of entire range of heritage resources of the site in a participatory manner by involving



Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

the mandated agencies within the national, regional, local and traditional levels. This is to be
achieved through a working group method and participatory decision-making process, where a
lateral co-ordination is forged between all concerned agencies. Mechanisms for monitoring and
new units for information management provided to build local
capacity. In short enables decentralisation as envisaged by73rd and 74th Constitutional
The Plan document has 3 sections Core (Heritage), Integrative (Planning and Human
development) and General management (Infrastructure-related development), where priority lies
in that order. Allowing sustainable growth that at no point of time undermines the cultural
resources and its values, the 3 sections of the IMP provides innovative systems, interfaces and
mechanisms that resolve conflicts and contradictions from other sectors such as Planning,
Development and Tourism which otherwise adversely effects cultural resources.

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Indian Cultural Landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality | Architexturez South Asia

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