After the deluge
As the Indian Ocean countries cope with the tsunami's human costs, they will also have to confront the extensive damage done to the region's cultural heritage by the killer waves. There are pressing social and economic reasons, argues RANJIT HOSKOTE, for addressing this heritage emergency.
Grapping with the magnitude of the damages -- in Galle, Sri Lanka.
I VISITED Mahabalipuram for the first time last March, wondering what this once busy international port, founded in the Seventh Century by the Pallava dynasty, would look like. Its monumental relief sculpture showing the "Descent of Ganga", its monolithic chariot-temples, its exquisitely carved cave-shrines dedicated to Varaha and Mahishasura-mardini, and the magnificent Shore Temple are tantalising bequests. Looking out over the hypnotically still Bay of Bengal, I tried to imagine how Mahabalipuram must have looked and smelled 1,400 years ago, when shiploads of silver, spices, Italian and Persian wines, coral, fragrant wood, turquoise and ivory circulated through it; when merchants, storytellers, scholars and artisans passed through it, ferrying their goods and skills between South-east Asia and the Roman Empire.
But the indolence of the waves discouraged any thought of such hectic activity. And certainly, I could never have foreseen the fast-moving wall of water that rode in from the ocean on December 26, to break with terrifying force over the Shore Temple.
The December tsunami acted with murderous impartiality, wrecking fishing villages and beach resorts, killing tourists and subsistence-level coastal farmers, flooding the palaces of postcolonial elites and washing away the relics of ancient dynasties. Having extracted a toll of thousands of lives, while leaving behind millions of homeless, emotionally devastated survivors, the tsunami has reminded the people of the Indian Ocean rimland of the capricious natural forces against which all their hopes of development are phrased.
The relief agencies working in the wake of the catastrophe are correctly preoccupied with the large number of deaths, the damage to settlements, and the need to reorient and rehabilitate those who were spared, to rebuild a sense of security and community. But even as the littoral states as well as the countries whose citizens lost their lives in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have come to terms with the tsunami's human costs, they have begun to realise that there are also other kinds of loss, other forms of damage to be assessed.
The tsunami has wreaked havoc on the cultural heritage of the Indian Ocean's coasts, damaging monuments already endangered by unregulated tourism, priceless archival collections, and precariously maintained archaeological landscapes. This could have potentially disastrous consequences for the preservation of culture in a region where cultural heritage initiatives tend to be hobbled, at the best of times, by official apathy, a paucity of funding, and a conflict among ideological positions on the political value of the past.
Damage in South East Asia
As specialists are able to navigate through the zones of destruction, monitoring groups set up by such international organisations as UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organisation), ICOMOS (International Commission on Monuments and Sites), ICOM (International Council of Museums), IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), ICA (International Council on Archives) and ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) will be able to piece together a comprehensive picture of the cultural damage inflicted on December 26.
Preliminary reports already indicate that some prominent cultural treasures inscribed by UNESCO on its list of World Heritage Sites, as well as other distinctive monuments and precincts, have suffered at the hands of the tsunami. The museum in the town of Banda Aceh in Indonesia's politically fraught Aceh province, on the island of Sumatra, was shaken by the seaquake that triggered off the tsunami; the museum's ceramics collection has been damaged. In Thailand, cultural landscapes in some parts of the Phang-gha and Krabi provinces have been seriously damaged. The sea-caves in the Krabi and Phang-Nga provinces, renowned for their 2,000-year-old murals, seem to have escaped; but experts have yet to scrutinise them with a view to securing their future. The site of the sprawling Ninth-Century port-city of Koh Kor Khao has been partially damaged. The tsunami has also destroyed neighbourhoods demonstrating the vernacular architecture of the Mogen, or "Sea People", of the Surin Islands.
In Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the tsunami claimed 52 libraries and 43 Buddhist temples in the southern districts of Hambantota, Matara, Galle and Kalutara. The Fort in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Galle, founded by Portuguese colonialists in the 16th Century, was protected by its massive walls. The only flood damage inside the Fort, a premier example of the fusion of Iberian and South Asian architectural styles, was to the National Maritime Museum. But the damage to Galle outside the Fort has been considerable: the Maritime Archaeology Research Station, designed as the nodal point for conducting UNESCO regional training programmes on maritime heritage, has been washed away. Many 17th-Century buildings, including listed examples of vernacular architecture, have been badly damaged on the famous Galle Road and in the town of Matara.
The extent of the cultural damage in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged eastern provinces is more difficult to gauge, because the worst affected areas are under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Perhaps the coordinated operations for material relief, between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government, will pave the way for an assessment of the cultural damage in this part of the island-nation.
Closer home, the main structure of the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram has survived the tsunami. It was buffered by a rock wall erected by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1978 to secure the monument against erosion, but a lawn and some outlying structures were buried in silt. The 14th-Century Masilamaninathar temple in Tamil Nadu was not as fortunate: already weakened by erosion, it has been shattered, as have four ancient temples in Kollam, Kerala. A more modern monument, the Cellular Jail on the Andaman Islands, has also suffered some damage from the giant waves.
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As is evident from the world-wide response to the tsunami, emergencies can and do bring out the best in human nature: compassion, decisiveness and heroism on behalf of others. But they can also oblige us to renounce crucial long-term objectives in the name of short-term priorities. One of the more unfortunate aspects of any post-catastrophe scenario, for instance, is that it commits us to a calculus of utility: the provision of food, medicine and shelter, the prevention of epidemics in the refugee camps, and the administering of post-trauma therapy takes absolute precedence over the less quantifiable, and therefore seemingly immaterial, issues. Is this the moment to shed tears over a shattered temple or a drenched cabinet of manuscripts, a submerged rain-forest or a missing sculpture, some readers may well ask.
The answer to this eminently justified objection is simply this: The loss of cultural heritage is not extraneous to the severe psychological damage that the survivors of the tsunami have suffered. Rather, it is an intrinsic dimension of their loss of a sense of belonging, the full extent of which will be gauged only in the years to come. It is axiomatic that our selfhood is intimately bound up with our awareness of our lifeworld, with the sensuous familiarities of habitat as well as the awareness of the symbols and structures by means of which we map our experience. And if these critical elements of our lifeworld, by which we construct our conception of who we are, were to be washed away, drowned beyond hope of recollection, what would remain of our selfhood?
There are also pressing material reasons why the restoration of cultural heritage must proceed apace with relief and rehabilitation activity. Many of the tsunami-affected countries are heavily dependent on tourism: their cultural heritage is not only a matter of national pride or collective identity, but also a major source of revenue. Thus, the appeal to re-establish tsunami-wrecked monuments, repositories and precincts stems as much from an economic imperative as from a cultural obligation.
The act of recreating a destroyed monument involves certain notions about the original. If the mandate to be faithful to the past is crucial, it is equally crucial to ensure that the restoration of monuments is not dictated by a sectarian vision of the past. In reflecting on the tsunami's cultural fallout, we must also consider the ideological issues at stake in many of the societies under review. Aceh has been struggling for many years to establish its autonomy from Indonesia; the Tamil-majority areas of Sri Lanka have long battled for a separate Statehood. The scripts of political mobilisation and identity politics do not cease even in the face of a common suffering. Thus, it is of paramount importance that the evidence of history which tells of confluence rather than difference should not be allowed to sink out of sight in public cultures where the re-writing of history forms a major basis for popular mobilisation and the invention of nationhood.
This brings us to the most practical, and perhaps most intractable, difficulty that besets the project of conserving the fragile cultural heritage of the tsunami-affected regions: their tropical climate. Any effort towards the conservation of artefacts, manuscripts and records must address the dangers of moisture, mould, rust and termite infestation; these can complete, with appalling swiftness, the destruction inaugurated by the tsunami. Given the scarcity of resources, the lack of personnel, and the scale of the task on hand, the problems seem almost insurmountable.
Moreover, the global conservation agenda suffers from its own problems, arising from the institutional parameters within which its key players operate. The preservation-worthiness of a form of cultural production depends greatly, for instance, on the visibility it enjoys on UNESCO's radar. The UNESCO guidelines for the conservation and restoration of cultural forms emphasise monumental built form and consecrated teaching lineages; sometimes, even, a living form can be fossilised by the touch of a well-meaning conservationist. Thus, it is major sites, included or awaiting inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites roster, which will attract the attention of sponsors. But what of the gamut of demotic crafts, informal expressive practices, domestic and wayside shrines to offer only a few examples of the minor but invaluable genres of the imagination that are dismissed as the ephemera of popular culture or everyday life? Can we even begin to assess the damage that the tsunami has done to such informal or ephemeral forms, many of which arise from the ritual and play of cultural producers belonging to subaltern communities?
While it is too early to speak with certainty of such forms in the context of the tsunami, it is instructive to recall the fate of many itinerant musicians, hereditary village-theatre performers, and creators of temporary festival tableaux after the 1999 Orissa supercyclone. Already treated with suspicion by a developmentalist State, such cultural producers are set adrift when their societies, in which their roles carry ritual or occupational significance, are wiped out. Their social contribution has no meaning in the chaos and desperation of a post-catastrophe scenario; they can be rapidly marginalised or forced to migrate to the cities, where they join the armies of cheap, unskilled labour.
Despite these grounds for pessimism, I would choose to conclude on an optimistic note. If the tsunami has visited havoc across the Indian Ocean, it has also reminded us of the long-obscured connections of travel, trade and cultural exchange that made this water-body a global network, centuries before the wizards of the digital age brought that term into popular usage. As states, the Indian Ocean countries have already come together to support each other in the face of shared distress.
As cultures, perhaps they could embody the spirit of the old Indian Ocean in new and productive moments of encounter?
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