Ancient Indian temples are designated ‘iconic’, which worries conservatives

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KHAJURAHO, India (RNS) – The ornately carved ancient Hindu and Jain temples outside this central Indian city have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986 and are on India’s list of National Treasures. Archaeological Survey of India.

Now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is set to designate the cluster of Hindu and Jain temples in Khajuraho as an “iconic tourist destination”, sending many in the area desperate for their future.

VD Sharma, a local MP who belongs to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, recently proclaimed that Khajuraho is on its way to becoming “a world-class tourist destination” with “better connectivity, more jobs and more tourists” – prospects that sound more like threats to some residents and conservationists.

Built over more than a century from around 850 AD by the warrior kings of the Chandela dynasty, these monuments stand out as the pinnacle of temple architecture in northern India.


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Sitting on ornate terraced platforms, the 25 surviving buildings rise abruptly from their surroundings in imitation, some say, of Mount Kailash – the peak of the Himalayas known as the abode of the gods. The structures are carved with many scenes from the mythological repertoires of their religions – both sacred and secular, contributing to India’s reputation as the land of the Kama Sutra.

According to the news, the Modi government has greenlighted over $6 million for projects in and around Khajuraho. A $4.5 million convention center was launched last year.

“The ‘iconic city’ label is a misguided concept,” said Chinmay Mishra, an Indore-based cultural activist. “Visionless profiteers turn spiritual centers into amusement parks.”

Brijendra Singh, a 77-year-old tour guide, has been showing visitors around the famous cluster of Hindu and Jain temples in Khajuraho for 52 years.

Singh weaves stories around the profusely sculpted sculptures depicting acts of worship, human emotions, domestic scenes, couples in love. He fears that insensitive development could threaten the material remains of the Khajuraho culture, while admitting that “maintaining the Outstanding Universal Value of the heritage is essential”.

Locals also fear that a four-lane highway currently under construction to bring tourists much closer to Khajuraho could destroy the traditional fabric of indigenous communities.

“Many houses and temples have been demolished and thousands of trees have been uprooted to widen this highway,” said Devendra Chaturvedi, a local journalist.

Another problem is the potentially destructive effect of increased air traffic. Khajuraho Airport, located a few kilometers from the main cluster of temples, has been renovated with a new terminal and infrastructure to accommodate more flights. Two flight academies are being set up on site to train aspiring pilots.

Khajuraho airport manager Pradeepta Bej said no heritage impact assessment has been ordered as far as he knows. In the late 1990s, a report from the National Physical Laboratory in New Delhi noted occasional higher levels of acoustic excitation around the various temples of Khajuraho.

A former chief scientist at the Delhi-based lab, Mahavir Singh, said: “Vibrations above five millimeters per second for a single event could cause cracks in monuments and heritage properties, so the situation needs to be monitored. at the airport and in the surrounding area. ”

Tourists visit one of the Khajuraho Monuments in Khajuraho, India in 2017. Photo by Abinthomas0007/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Others fear that with the tourists there will be more and more encroachments outside the temple.

“Tourism is not the only economy,” said Nagvendra Singh, a lawyer who plans to set up a grassroots organization aimed at saving the temple city. “What is the government doing about urban encroachment, vehicle pollution, dust and maintenance of monuments? »

Environmentalists say government restoration is a threat in itself. They worry about shoring up the temples with rough stones, and using abrasive cleaning techniques could also hasten their deterioration.

A monument attendant said the temples were cleaned by unskilled laborers who were mostly unsupervised. Furthermore, he noted that there were no scientific or chemical restoration plans for their upkeep, which risked turning them into piles of flat stones.

Mrudula Mane, a conservation architect based in Ahmedabad, said the monuments cannot be frozen in time, but appropriate mitigation measures would halt their rate of decline. “Chemical processing should be done under close supervision,” Mane said. “Abrasive cleaning techniques could exfoliate sandstone monuments too much and cause erosion.”

According to Mishra, similar government reconstruction efforts elsewhere have damaged their aesthetic value. He pointed to a major renovation of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges; Jallianwala Bagh; and Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Gujarat.

Locals say Hindu nationalists are also pushing for more temple rituals that would distort the Hindu thought and practice that the temples represented. “We cannot change people’s approach to religion,” said Anurag Shukla, a local historian, “but opening up these sites to more rituals or pujas can have serious repercussions. on heritage”.

According to Shukla, the government’s main objective is not preservation but Hindu pride.

In 2018, India’s Parliament passed the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment) Bill, allowing the New Delhi government to fund and carry out “urgent” public works within 100 meters of monuments. protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The original law prohibited any construction around the 100 meter radius.

Shivakant Bajpai, chief archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India’s Jabalpur circle, which Khajuraho reports to, said the current development program would not interfere with conservation, but deferred questions to an impact assessment at the airport.

“The airport is far from the protected area,” he said. “We are the custodians of cultural heritage, so airport authorities should be contacted for development fallout.”


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Nearby residents said the government kept them in the dark about the meaning of the “iconic” designation or its implications.

“We are treated like strangers in our own land,” said Om Dubey, who works for a civil rights group in Khajuraho.

Conservationists said protecting sacred sites must involve both government agencies and people. Shared responsibility, they say, would spark better dialogues about site development versus heritage preservation.

“Preserving the sacred roots of Khajuraho is essential,” said Brijendra Singh. “If development takes precedence over our religious traditions and monuments, what will remain iconic here?”

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