UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Currently 36 cultural and natural sites in India have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the first of a four-article series, Srinidhi Raghavendra overviews some of the sites

A nations cultural and natural heritage embodied in buildings, monuments and natural wonders is proof of a nation or civilisations history. Moreover, great buildings and monuments of ancient times trace the progress of humankind irrespective of where they are located. Therefore with jet travel having made the worlds greatest civilisational and natural wonders within reach of a progressively larger number of students, scholars and lay people around the world, theres growing awareness of the need to preserve and maintain heritage sites and monuments as evidence of the growth and development of humankind.

In 1965, the United States of America called for creation of a World Heritage Trust that would stimulate international cooperation to protect the worlds superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry”. The idea was taken up by nature preservation organisations and in 1968, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed similar proposals which were presented to the 1972 United Nations conference on Human Environment in Stockholm. The UN General Assembly referred the idea to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and that very year, Unesco drafted an international treaty under the name and style of the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The prime objective of the treaty was to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage sites around the world believed to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Since then, Unesco has been inspecting and identifying cultural and natural heritage sites worldwide and designating them Unesco World Heritage Sites (WHS). These heritage sites can be a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex or city. A list of such sites has been created and is updated and maintained by the international World Heritage Programme administered by the Unesco World Heritage Committee comprising representatives of 21 member countries of the Unesco Convention. India was member of the Unesco World Heritage Committee from 2001-07. The committee is responsible for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and allocation of grants from a World Heritage Fund for restoration, protection and preservation of world heritage sites. During its term in office, the committee makes final decisions on the inclusion or deletion of properties on the World Heritage List.

Currently there are 1,073 sites (832 cultural, 206 natural, and 35 mixed properties) spread across 167 countries worldwide on the World Heritage list, with Italy leading with the largest number of world heritage sites (47).

One of the most important benefits of getting listed among world heritage sites is access to annual financial grants from the World Heritage Fund, which has a budget of $4 million (Rs.25 crore) per year for identification, preservation and promotion. Another intangible benefit of being inscribed on the world heritage list is development of a global awareness of the site and its outstanding values.

Indias World Heritage Sites

Widely acknowledged as one of the oldest civilizations in the world, India has a rich cultural and natural heritage. But unfortunately due to centuries of neglect and deprivation, many of these sites have fallen into ruin and require considerable restoration work before they can be included in the World Heritage List. Currently only 36 (28 cultural, seven natural and one mixed) sites in India have qualified for the standards of the UN World Heritage Convention to be included in the list.

This essay, the first of a four-article series, provides a brief overview of four World Heritage sites located in north India, which include Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh and Humayuns Tomb, Qutub Minar complex and the Red Fort in Delhi.

Humayuns Tomb, Delhi

This strikingly beautiful monument, built in memory of Mughal emperor Humayun was accorded World Heritage Site status in the cultural category in 1993. This monument is of particular cultural significance as it was the first garden-tomb of the Indian subcontinent and inspired several major architectural innovations, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Sited in the heart of Delhi, Humayuns tomb is an imposing red sandstone structure surrounded by sprawling manicured lawns and tree lined walkways. The heritage complex features the octagonal tomb of the Mughal emperor in the centre surrounded by vast gardens dotted by tombs of Mughal dynasty women and sons including Humayuns wife Hamida Banu Begum, Dara Shikoh (Emperor Shah Jahans son), Jalandar Shah, Farrukhsiyar, Rafi ud-Darjat, Rafi-ud-Daulah and Alamgir II.

Built on the orders of Humayuns widow Hamida Banu Begum, construction of this massive burial complex started in 1562 and was completed in eight years. Surrounded by a high fort-like wall, the tomb features a large main dome and four smaller ones in each corner. While the walls are built of red sandstone, the domes are of white marble inlaid with red sandstone to give it a decorative touch.

After the decline of Mughal rule in Delhi, the tomb lay neglected until early 21st century when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture came forward to restore the complex. The restoration work which was completed in March 2003 has reinstated water flow through the watercourses and revitalised the gardens to enable the monument regain its original grandeur.

Qutub Complex, Delhi

The Qutub complex sited in the now fashionable Mehrauli area of South Delhi was accorded World Heritage Site status in 1993. The complex comprises an array of monuments and buildings including the Qutub Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world. The construction of this massive complex was begun in 1199 AD during the reign of Qutub-ud-din Aibak, the first ruler of the Slave Dynasty and completed by his successor Iltutmish in 1236 AD. New structures were built on the site by several subsequent rulers, including Alauddin Khilji as well as the British.

The Qutub Minar, the most famous edifice in the complex, is a 239-ft-tall, five-storey tower built of red sandstone. The diameter of the base is 48.6 metres while the top floor is 9.18 ft in diameter. Each storey is marked by a projecting balcony and is accessible by a 367-step winding staircase up to the third storey balcony. But the tower has been closed to visitors following a stampede in 1981, which led to the tragic deaths of several visiting school children.

Other important constructions in the complex are the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the Ala-I-Darwaza, the Alai Minar and the iron pillar. Twenty-seven historical Hindu and Jain temples were destroyed and their materials reused to construct the minar and other monuments of the complex.

Alai Minar. Conceived by Alauddin Khilji as a monument which would be twice as high as the Qutub Minar, the construction of Alai-Minar was abandoned, after the completion of the 24.5-meter-high first storey because of Alauddins death.

Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. Conceived and built by Qutub-ud-din Aibak, founder of the Slave dynasty during the 1190s, this was the first mosque built in Delhi and the best surviving example of Slave Dynasty architecture. To the west of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque is the tomb of Iltutmish which was built in 1235.

Iron pillar of Delhi. One of the worlds greatest metallurgical wonders, the pillar which rises to a height of 7 metres and weighs over six tonnes, was erected by Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (375–414 AD) in Udayagiri in central India and shifted to Delhi by Iltutmish.

Red Fort Complex

The Red Fort Complex popularly known as Lal Qila, Delhi Fort etc is one of the latest monuments in India to be accorded Unesco World Heritage Site status (2007). Sited in old Delhi, the Red Fort complex has several firsts to its credit. It is the most popular tourist destination of Indias capital city attracting thousands of tourists daily. It is the largest monument in Old Delhi and is the venue from where the prime minister of India addresses the nation every year on Independence Day (August 15).

Sited on the bank of the Yamuna river, the fort is surrounded by a 2.5-km-long wall which varies in height from 60 ft on the riverside to 110 ft towards the city. It displays a fine fusion of Persian, European and Indian art, later designated as Shahjahani style. Construction of the fort began in 1638 AD under the close supervision of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and was completed in 1648. Some historians are of the opinion that the original fort is much older and was the capital city of Prithviraj Chauhan which was captured by Shah Jahan and modified. The planning and aesthetics of the Red Fort represent the height of Mughal architecture splendour.

In its heyday, the fort walls enclosed an entire city. Today several of its grand monuments are well-preserved and continue to attract thousands of tourists. Among them: Naqqar Khana or drum house sited on the eastern side of the open space near Lahore Gate is famous for its musicians gallery. The Diwan-i-Aam, or hall of public audience is an ornate throne-balcony. The lavishly decorated Diwan-i-Khas or hall of private audience, was used for ministerial and court gatherings and boasts exquisite floral ornamentations on its columns, with precious stones and gilding. Moti Masjid or pearl mosque was built in 1659 as a private mosque for Aurangzeb, Shah Jahans son. The Hayat Bakhsh Bagh, or life bestowing garden is a large floral garden criss-crossed by two bisecting water channels.

Agra Fort (1983)

The Agra Fort also known as Lal Qila, Fort Rouge and Red Fort of Agra was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1983. Sited 2.5 km northwest of Agras most famous landmark the Taj Mahal, the fort often described as a palatial walled city, was the capital of the Mughal dynasty for a long period of time. In the days of its glory, the fort contained the countrys largest treasury and mint.

The Agra Fort was originally a brick fort constructed by Rajputs which was captured by a Ghaznavide force in 1080 AD. Sikandar Lodi (1487-1517) was the first Sultan of Delhi who shifted his court to Agra and lived in the fort. He governed the country from here and soon Agra assumed the importance of the countrys capital. After his death in 1517, his son Ibrahim Lodi ruled the empire from Agra until 1526 when Babur defeated him in the first battle of Panipat.

Yet it was the third and perhaps great Mughal, Emperor Akbar who rebuilt the fort with its red sandstone exterior and brick interior. It took 1.4 million labour, working non-stop for eight years to complete construction of the fort in 1573. But it was only during the reign of Akbars grandson Shah Jahan, that work on this massive edifice was completed.

The fort with 70-ft-high walls and double ramparts protected by massive circular bastions was built according to a semi-circular plan with its cord lying parallel to the river Yamuna with four gates to provide access. Two of the four gates, Delhi Gate and the Lahore Gate are the grandest and most beautiful. While the former was built as the kings formal gate, the latter was called so because it faces the direction of Lahore in latter day Pakistan.

Currently, only 30 of the forts original 500 buildings remain standing. While some were demolished to make way for marble palaces, others were broken down by the British between 1803 and 1862 to raise barracks for soldiers.

The most famous room within this legendary fortress is the fabled mirrored bathroom supposedly built for Mumtaz Mahal to bathe in. Other important sites and structures include the Diwan-i-Aam (hall of public audience) used to address people and listen to petitions; Diwan-i-Khas (hall of private audience) used to conduct private meetings and receive visiting dignitaries. Here one can see Emperor Shah Jahans magnificent black marble throne. Built from an entire slab of touchstone and sited in an enormous courtyard, the throne gives a special allure to the Diwan-i-Khas. Another interesting building inside the fort is the Jehangiri Mahal, a grand palace built by Akbar for his son Jehangir; the Khas Mahal a palace of milk white marble; the Moti Masjid (pearl mosque) — the private mosque of Shah Jahan; the Naubat Khana (Drum House) where the kings musicians performed; Rang Mahal where the kings wives and concubines lived, and Shahi Burj, Emperor Shah Jahans private work area.

The article was published in the print version ofParentsWorldNovember 2017 issue.

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