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SEPTEMBER 2001 Contents
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South Asia's World Cultural Heritage
Robin Coningham is Senior Lecturer (Archaeology) at Bradford, UK
According to projections, within 25 years one-third of the world'spopulation will be concentrated in Asia. The prospect worries not only health officials and economists, but also those concerned with the preservation of south Asia's cultural heritage. This immensely rich heritage ranges from one of the world's earliest urban forms at Moenjodaro to the Moghul splendours of the Taj Mahal. The population explosion translates into increasingly heavy demand for development land, inevitably threatening important cultural properties.
The systematic investigation of south Asia's heritage, a massive task, iswell into its second century. Indeed, in the 1930s the Archaeological Survey of India was the world's largest organisation with a mission to investigate and preserve cultural heritage. While such policies are enforced by individual countries today, UNESCO's 1972 World Heritage Convention represents the region's most important means of protecting a limited number of sites illustrating its unique cultural heritage.
Currently south Asia contains 31 of the 399 cultural sites on the WorldHeritage List -- or only 7.8 percent of the sites, representing about one-fifth of the world's population. Not only is distribution uneven relative to the rest of the world, but also within south Asia, as the following figures demonstrate: Afghanistan has no sites, Bangladesh two, Bhutan none, India 16, the Maldives none, Nepal two, Pakistan five and Sri Lanka six. Furthermore, most of these sites are from the period of about 50-1500 AD, and all but a handful were built of stone, or excavated from stone outcrops, while a tiny minority were built of brick, with an almost complete absence of timber structures.
An understanding of the cultural context of these monuments will helpguide the World Heritage selection process for new nominations to ensure the survival of south Asia's unique cultural heritage. South Asia consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and parts of adjacent states when necessary to stress cultural connections. The temporal framework is more difficult to construct, hampered by archaeologists' traditional characterisation of the region's prehistory into the European-derived three-age system of stone, bronze and iron. Also, history has typically been recorded as either a pageant of dynasties or the passage from the Buddhist to the Hindu to the Islamic ages. The three-age system fails to account for the presence of Neolithic farming groups and stone tool-using hunter-gathers within the Bronze Age Harappan civilisation. Attempts to divide south Asia's cultural heritage along religious lines founder on similar contradictions. For example, many members of the Hindu Satavahana dynasty were active patrons of Buddhism and Jainism. Moreover, diffusionistic paradigms tended to attribute change to external impetuses. The recognition that change is the culmination of long stages with evolving methods of socio-economic integration has led a number of scholars to see change in terms of alternating periods of fusion and fission, or eras of regionalisation, localisation and integration. These transformations can be termed cultural convergence and cultural divergence.
Some 2.5 million years of human occupation in south Asia went unrecorded,the earliest evidence being a two million-year-old tool from the Potwar Plateau. The earliest monument on the World Heritage List -- Moenjodaro -- dates to the middle of the third millennium BC. While this under-representation is largely due to the absence of suitable sites, the absence of later sites is less easy to understand. Evidence for prehistoric occupation is sporadic because of the preponderance of more visible monuments. While the discoveries of the Potwar tool and the middle Pleistocene Narmada hominid are important, they do not fulfil the criteria for inscription on the World Heritage List. However, following the example of China's Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian, perhaps with more complete evidence the Potwar site could be nominated. Stone Age sites elsewhere in the world have been inscribed, including European Upper Paleolithic cave art. But art from south Asia's Stone Age, for example in the Madhya Pradesh caves, is absent from the list.
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