World Heritage Sites in India

S Balakrishnan
India’s rich inheritance is proof that UNESCO has so far inscribed 40 of our properties as World Heritage Centres (WHC). They include natural and man-made, movable and immovable properties. Hold your breath! There are another 46 properties waiting in the tentative list for Unesco’s approval. I will need another lifetime to see them all, because I have seen just 17 of the present 40 WHCs in our country.  It was no surprise that Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world, was in the first list of Unesco in 1983. The nearby Agra Fort was also inscribed the same year along with Ajanta & Ellora Caves. The Black Beauty, that is the Konark Sun Temple, got listed the next year, which is unjustified. Though in ruins, the Black Pagoda is a marvellous structure and should have been inscribed along with Taj Mahal. Twice did I visit Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, the nearby abandoned capital city of Akbar, also a WHC since 1986, but fate forbid me from visiting Agra Fort, so close to Taj. The latest to be inscribed on the WHC list from India in 2021 is the Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple in Telangana.
My first visit to a WHC was long, long before such a concept was even conceived. I still remember my visit to Mahabalipuram (inscribed in 1984), near Chennai, as a little boy of 5-6 years old in 1966. The big monolithic statue of an elephant and the massive ‘butter ball’ rock sitting delicately on a mound since centuries were the star attractions for me. Though I have visited the monument complex several times since then, it WOWs me every time. It must be the same with almost all of these WHCs. It is a credit to the Pink City that the whole city of Jaipur has been declared as a WHC in 2019! The Jantar Mantar within Jaipur is a separate WHC (2010), besides the Amber Fort (2013). What a shame if the national capital of Delhi is not declared as another Heritage City! Well, Delhi (once called Indra Prasth) is in the tentative list since 2012. Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, and Red Fort Complex have already been declared as WHCs.
Among the 40 inscribed sites there are Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian sites. But I am yet to visit any Buddhist and Christian WHC.  The Christian convents and churches of Goa are the only inscribed Christian WHC, while Bodh Gaya, Sanchi, and Nalanda monuments fall under Buddhist WHCs. Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka (Madhya Pradesh) and Dholavira, the Harappan City (Gujarat), are two pre-historic sites inscribed as WHCS. Unfortunately there is no Jain site in the list, though the Dilwara Temples (Rajasthan) surely qualify and also the Udhayagiri & Khandagiri Cave Monuments near Bhubaneswar that belong to the B.C. era.
Among the three Mountain Railways inscribed as WHCs in India, I had luckily travelled in two - the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, but not yet in the Kalka Shimla Railway. Two more are waiting in the Tentative List for inclusion under this category. Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus) is another railway property inscribed as a World Heritage Centre for its architectural style. For the same reason, Victorian Gothic & Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai have also been included in the WHC list. Mumbai has one more WHC – the Elephanta Caves.
Hailing from Tamil Nadu I had darshaned at all the three Temples listed as the Great Living Chola Temples of 11th- and 12th-century: the Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram, and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram, all in Tamil Nadu. Though these are more than/around 1000 years old, they have continually been under worship, hence classified as the “Great LIVING Chola Temples”.
The seven sites under ‘Natural’ WHCs in India are – the Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area, Kaziranga National Park, Keoladeo National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks , Sundarbans National Park and Western Ghats.  Of these I could visit only two – the vast Kaziranga National Park and some spots of the cool & green Western Ghats.
Under the ‘Mixed’ category of WHC comes the one & only Khangchendzonga National Park in Sikkim that combines ‘Natural’ and ‘Cultural’ factors. Having lived in Gangtok (Sikkim) for 5 ½ years virtually on the lap of Mt. Khangchendzonga, I can rightfully claim to have enjoyed the Natural & Cultural aspects entwined around the world’s third highest peak!
Now, coming to the Indian sites on the Tentative List, there are 46 waiting in the queue, right from Ladakh in the North to Andaman & Nicobar Islands in South, and from Kutch, Gujarat, in the West to Arunachal Pradesh in the East. As if to remove the inequality, the Sikh holy shrine of Sri Harmandir Sahib Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, and the Baha’i Lotus Temple in Delhi are in the list. The Tentative List of India is quite varied, unique and interesting  - River Island of Majuli in midstream of Brahmaputra River in Assam, Saranath Buddhist site, Wild Ass Sanctuary, Little Rann of Kutch, the hot Thar Desert National Park, the Cold Desert Cultural Landscape of Ladakh, Namdapha National Park and Thembang Fortified Village of the Monpa Tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, Santiniketan, Mughal Gardens in Kashmir, Cellular Jail & the dormant volcanic Island of Narcondam in Andamans, Sites of Satyagrah during India’s non-violent freedom movement, Iconic Saree Weaving Clusters of India, Silk Road Sites in India, Chilika Lake in Odisha,  Palace sites, Keibul Lamjao Conservation Area, Manipur, The Temple City of Bhubaneswar, the Temples of Kanchipuram, Varanasi City, etc., etc. Just mind boggling! More proof that India, a country of various religions and varied culture & tradition, has so much to offer to humanity by preserving and showcasing its rich heritage – both Natural & Cultural! What we can do at the least is stop littering when we visit these WHCs and stop inscribing on the walls the date of our historic visit.
Should I feel proud that I have seen almost 20 of the 40 inscribed sites and a dozen in the tentative list, or lament that I am yet to see more than half? Is the glass half full or half empty?
The writer can be reached at [email protected]/Whatsapp 9840917608