Times of India, Mar 27, 2017, 01.03 PM IST
One reads in the newspapers that the Archaeological Survey of India plans to include Bojjannakonda Buddhist complex in the list seeking World Heritage status. There cannot be better news for the heritage lovers of the city. Such a move is long overdue for a state which has been actively promoting tourism. The cliche that comes to mind is, better late than never. However it is not enough to have grandiose plans, intentions of the government must be matched by its actions. It takes years of effort, preparation and sincerity of purpose to get on to UNESCO’s tentative list of world heritage sites. Protection, management and authenticity of the site are major criteria for qualifying for the world heritage tag. On those conditions alone Bojjannakonda will fail to make it to the list, unless the state addresses them immediately.
Bojjannakonda site faces many man-made dangers. One very major threat is the relentless blasting that goes on in the nearby hills. Many letters and remonstrations later, the state government finally woke up to the irreparable damage caused to the ancient site and instituted enquiry. Experts from Andhra University gave a report that only detonators of a certain intensity should be allowed in the immediate neighborhood of the site. An insider informs me confidentially that the recommendations of the report are routinely defied and high intensity blasting goes on unchecked. The result is that the fragile carvings both on Bojjannakonda and Lingala mettta have developed cracks and are fast deteriorating.
As if such serious damage is not bad enough, the jatara that is held at the site year after year on Kanuma day has become another serious threat. The Jatara of Bojjannakonda presents a strange contrast of interests. It is intriguing to note that a thousand years after Buddhism disappeared from the Indian soil, the ancient tradition of the laity visiting the monastery after the harvest festival persists. It is a historical fact that the predominant religion all over coastal Andhra fifteen hundred years ago was Buddhism. In those days, the lay Buddhists were in the habit of carrying gifts of grain, oil, medicinal plants and robes to the monks, who lived in seminaries like those at Bojjannakonda or Thotlakonnda. In return they received spiritual succor and solace from the monks. In a strange paradox, even though Buddhism itself disappeared from India, and the monasteries have since been deserted, the tradition of the villagers visiting the hills where the monks once lived continues.
Be that as it may, what has also got to be recognised is that the heavy footfall at the fragile monuments on such days is extremely injurious to the site. In their mood of revelry, the villagers indiscriminately climb up the delicate monolithic stupas, clamber up the brick work and even desecrate the structures. There is a strange belief among them, attributable to a time when Buddhism was on the decline and Hinduism on ascendance, that a devil resides in the caves of the hills, where the Buddhist monks once meditated! So the villagers pry loose whatever brickbats that they can lay their hands on and throw them at the cave to drive the devil away!
Recognising the damage being caused to the ancient Buddhist complex, we at INTACH sought the intervention of the district administration and the police department, year after year, to prevent the villagers from climbing the ancient structures. We enlisted the support of both the local people and the newspapers to bring in awareness regarding the heritage value of the ancient structures. We organised rangoli competitions for the women who visited Bojjannakonda, with the idea that while groups of men and women stood around to watch the competition, they would be exhorted to respect the structures. Sri PV Prasad, the then co convenor, INTACH, camped at the site, giving up his festival to supervise the whole exercise, for years. All this, done quietly without any fanfare.
Juxtaposed to the declaration by the ASI is the proposal of the state government to revive the Kakinada Visakhapatnam Petro Chemical Corridor (PCPIR). The moment I read the news my joy evaporated, for the two are mutually exclusive. If PCPIR does become a reality, it is going to adversely affect Bojjannakonda, as the ancient site lies within the buffer zone of PCPIR. It is needless to say that, in our country, or anywhere else in the world, ancillary industrial activity comes up at close proximity to the main industry. Such industrial activity at a short distance from a World Heritage site will go against the best interests of such a site. Even if precautions are assured, no guarantee is good enough to contain the resultant pollution, as in the case of Visakhapatnam Port. UNESCO, which follows stringent regulations for its notified sites will not stand for it. There is the classic case of UNESCO threatening to withdraw the World Heritage recognition to Hampi Vijayanagar ruins, when Karnataka government proposed to construct a bridge and a highway through the heart of the historic city.
There is another heritage facet to PCPIR conundrum. In the ancient times trade was the reason Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia. The triangular trade that linked Tramralipti at the mouth of the river Ganges to Sri Lanka and from Sri Lanka to Suvannabhumi, which comprised of southern Burma, Malaysia and Thailand, resulted in the many Buddhist sites that appeared along the coast of the southern peninsula. The ‘pattanas’ that dot the east coast of India are rich with ancient remains. Between Visakhaptnam and Kakinda there are at least half a dozen prominent sites which are identified and earmarked for excavation by the department of archaeology. The PCPIR is coming up exactly where the ancient sites stand. When letters under Right to Information Act were addressed to the PCPIR authority, they admitted that they were not aware of the existence of the earmarked ancient sites. The department of archaeology too admitted that they were not consulted by the PCPIR authority. This is a strange attitude of the state government, which wants world heritage status for its historic sites and is anxious to promote tourism but destroys those very sites that are the main attractions for such tourism.
It is laughable that the ASI proposes to get World Heritage status to the country’s heritage without getting the support of its state counterpart. It is even more upsetting that both the Centre and the state are bent upon diluting the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 2010, on one hand while seeking international recognition for the country’s heritage sites on the other. It indicates that there is neither proper planning nor any thought given to the principles of either heritage conservation or tourism promotion. If anything the AMASAR Act should be made more stringent and, amended to incorporate a mandatory provision for “Archaeological Impact Assessment” as a precondition to projects like PCPIR, just as Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process is mandated as a precondition to projects clearance under the Environment (Protection) Act, for developmental projects. Most developed countries in the world, with far less history and therefore far fewer archaeological remains than India have enacted laws to explore the land earmarked for ‘development’ for ancient remains. Today, most countries are required by their own laws to survey the land before development, under the concept of “Cultural Resource Management.” Countries which have enacted laws in this area are North and South America, United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, West Asia, Korea and Japan. All these countries take up survey work before heavy machinery moves in to clear the area. Private developers, municipalities and local self governments are employing professional archaeologists to survey the land before the developmental activity begins and, what is more, they are mandated to pay for the cost of such exploration.
Will India, allegedly progressive and modern, ever take up such steps? Will our heritage ever get its due? Otherwise, the Bojjannakondas will fast vanish, never mind a world heritage status.
(The writer is a heritage and environmental activist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)