Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
Khajuraho: a metaphor for the millennium
Khajuraho is one of India's most prestigious world heritage sites. The UNESCO declaration of 25 sites in India and over 400 world heritage sites around the globe, is a means of acknowledging the unique contribution that cultures have made to our common human heritage. The concept of a common human heritage is a powerful one. It reaffirms that human beings, despite their differences, belong to a single species. While cultures may vary, and languages differ enormously, our songs express a shared human sentiment. Such an idea invites us to visit the great temple complex of Khajuraho, or Granada in Spain or the Great Wall of China and say this belongs to us, and it is our common heritage, there for us to preserve and respect.
The classic central Indian style of temples of Khajuraho, according to historical inscriptions were built exactly 1000 years ago by the Chandella dynasty. Unfortunately, human history, this past millennium, has been one of bloodshed and greed, of terrible wars to establish unstable, petty, provincial identities.
Surely this millennium will have to be dedicated to caring for our common human heritage and our common human future. What is this heritage and future that all human beings share? A beautiful little jewel-like planet, with its waters, air, exquisitely diverse landscapes and all the species that inhabit and share it with us. The varied cultures of the world, the architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, theatre and crafts are examples of the enormous creativity that distinguish the human race from all other species.
In a world shattered by human destruction the arts of the world are enduring symbols of human creativity. We need to preserve our collective heritage as a reminder that human beings can be creative, caring and productive. The temples of Khajuraho, like all world heritage sites across the globe, remind us of the heights of imagination, skill and aesthetic beauty that human beings have achieved during the last few millennia.
A perception of what our heritage has to do with our future is, therefore, critical. Any investment in education about our common concerns, about the conservation of our little planet, will ensure the wellbeing of our species and also that of others. Education in the arts and creative activities are now crucial for every child. We need to nurture creativity to enable the young to find ways of making this a more beautiful world to live in. If we don't, we will break and destroy it.
Khajuraho is a well-known historical site, famous for its architecture and infamous for its erotic sculptures. Khajuraho was re-discovered by a British officer in 1838. He had said that this site had been abandoned and neglected for centuries. It was Captain Burt who also began the debate on the meaning and purpose of the erotic sculptures on religious architecture. This debate continues after 160 years.
Is it not pertinent to ask why the Government of India, indeed, why the citizens of India have not sponsored a thorough debate on the meaning and purpose of their culture. Why has there been so little discussion on how our culture should be interpreted, how it should be presented to the world? The Archaeological Survey of India, under whose protection these monuments of national importance are placed, remains closed to any debate. The ASI is the custodian of our monumental heritage not its owners - we are and we have the right to determine how our culture is being cared for.
Thanks to our Nehruvian past and the slogan that the government will solve all problems related to our common good - culture has fallen into the hands of bureaucrats who by training are not creative, artistic, or academic. Khajuraho continues to be misinterpreted and misunderstood, one thousand years after it was built. The names of the temples are wrong, the unnatural greed of the tourist industry continues to sell Khajuraho's "erotic sculptures" as titillating pornography. The ASI continues to cultivate inappropriate, incongruous English gardens around historical sites, to undertake patchwork, often unscientific repair work causing irreversible damage to our artistic heritage.
Like a woman wearing gaudy lipstick to cover her mouth full of decaying teeth. The metaphor is cruel, but true. India is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, its cultural assets both in terms of the past and of skilled living artists, far exceeds several nations. But this country chooses to neglect and ignore its true value and that is the tragic story of India. The need of the next millennium is to re-interpret our past, to let a new generation of scholars and students understand India for what she really is. We need to free our common heritage from small-minded bureaucrats, self-serving politicians, and employ science as the handmaiden of the arts so that we can celebrate the diversity of human cultures, and rejoice at the multiplicity of life around us.
Working in Khajuraho this last decade we have found that our limited understanding of India's culture has also been due to our limited vision. The complexity of cultural evolution requires a multi-disciplinary approach, a holistic perspective to free it from the sectarian, one-sided academic jargon to pave the way for a more secular, meaningful interpretation and deeper understanding.
The project "Conservation and Sustainable Strategy for the Khajuraho World Heritage Region" undertaken by the voluntary organisation INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) was sponsored by the Madhya Pradesh Government, headed by Digvijay Singh. It is a creditable example of a State Government's extraordinary vision and exemplar foresight to support the preparation of a planning document that was scientific, holistic and pragmatic.
Through this study we have come to appreciate that architecture cannot be viewed in isolation. The natural landscape is the context, the sacred space in which religious buildings are constructed. The temples of Khajuraho derive their meaning from the surrounding hills, rivers, lakes, rock formation and even the path of the sun and moon. Any disturbance of the natural environment would rob us of the fullest meaning and entail an irreplaceable cultural loss.
All development plans around the temple complex of Khajuraho need to address the health of the natural environment as an essential ingredient of the site. According to a local legend there were once 84 temples that formed the 10th century temple complex. The local people understood the lay of the land and created a wonderful township of 84 temples, 84 lakes and 84 wells. Only 25 out of 84 of the Chandella 10th century temples remain. Most of the lakes are dry and the wells are dysfunctional or filled with garbage. Khajuraho has an airport, five star hotels with hot and cold running water and artificially blue swimming pools but the village tanks are dry and the children have no clean drinking water.
But this is not just the case in Khajuraho. Consider Agra, the filthiest of cities of northern India studded with jewels like the Taj Mahal and several other world heritage sites. We need to re-address our development projects and care for our environment and artistic heritage in an integrated manner, learn to manage our natural resources with scientific care and humanitarian grace.
Satellite pictures of Khajuraho used in this project have revealed that 45 per cent of the land around this world heritage site have degraded into wasteland. Here is a metaphor for our entire country where the future means filth, and development means destruction. Does development need to come at the cost of the earth that supports us all? Can we not find alternative means of providing for our people, preserving our past without ruining our land? One of the first projects we need to undertake is the greening of our land and the restoration of traditional water systems in our cities and villages, this would transform our country and restore its health, almost immediately.
The third and final conclusion of this project concerns the role of human beings in heritage sites. Field studies and surveys have shown that this extraordinary village with world famous temples suffers from terrible afflictions such as malnutrition, poor maternity care, and low standards of education, inaccessibility to hospitals, schools and employment. A village with its own airport has no roads for its own people. A case of upside down development where visiting foreigners have more facilities than our own people, is an example of our mixed priorities.
The conservation and development strategy for Khajuraho suggests schemes and projects to improve the wellbeing of the people. The major focus being to encourage local governance so that people can determine their own priorities and learn to care for their future. We have learnt after years in the field of conservation - that people matter most. It is people, their faith and action that will ultimately save heritage and cherish a future generation of creative children.
Each year thousands of people, who live around Khajuraho, come to the temples to celebrate Mahashivratri. For them Khajuraho is not a tourist destination, a place to see erotic sculptures. They come to Khajuraho not as aggressive tourists, but with the gentle spirit of pilgrimage. For at Maha-shivratri in Khajuraho, they celebrate the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. On the night of Shivratri they re-enact the wedding of Shiva, the destroyer of Kamadev (desire that causes all suffering) and father of Ganesh (Lord of Wisdom). The erotic sculptures are a metaphor of the union of Shiva and Parvati, the marriage of two cosmic forces, of light and darkness, sky and earth, spirit and matter. Therefore, it is the people who infuse meaning and soul into a historical site, without that pilgrim spirit, buildings are just a heap of stone and human greed is insatiable.
The last century, we made enormous mistakes, killed millions of innocent people, animals and rare plants and decimated this beautiful planet to satisfy human greed. The last five decades we have talked enough, discussed at meetings, seminars and conferences - it is now time to act, for governments to take bold initiatives, and for us to assume our human responsibility.
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