Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ancient Nālandā University: Now a World Heritage Site

Excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā Mahāvihāra (University) has joined the elite group of World Heritage Sites (WHS) that currently includes over 1000 natural and cultural treasures in over 150 countries in the world. Nālandā University was discovered in the year 1862 on the basis of travel accounts of 7th CE Chinese monk scholar, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang). More than 150 years after its discovery, WHS is not only well deserved but was also long overdue. 

Aerial view of ancient Nālandā University 
The excavated remains of the ancient Nālandā University  are a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International Non-Government agency that offers advice to UNESCO on WHS has pointed out several weaknesses in the submitted nomination dossier (by ASI) and it even suggested deferring the nomination.  
The report claims Nalanda Mahavihara might have the potential to meet requirement for Outstanding Universal Value; however this has not yet been demonstrated (WHC/16/40.COM/INF.8B1, page 91).

The inscribed property by the ASI is limited to the Excavated Remains of the ancient Nālandā University, which is a small fraction of the archaeological remains of the ancient Nālandā University. ICOMOS in its report has suggested India (ASI) to take necessary actions pertaining to the integrity of the property, including the identification of the area and extent of Nālandā Mahāvihāra before its destruction and final abandonment, which should inform the boundaries of the whole property (WHC/16/40.COM/INF.8B1,page 91).

ICOMOS had recommended that the state party ‘deepen its study of the site’ and explicitly establish its importance and authenticity. It had also recommended the nomination to be changed to ‘Archaeological Site of Nālandā Mahāvihāra’ instead of the ‘Excavated Remains of Nālandā Mahāvihāra.’

However, in spite of observations made by ICOMOS, last minute negotiations and lobbying with the UNESCO Member countries, India could secure WHS for the Nālandā University. All the 21 Member countries of UNESCO voted in favour of Nālandā University in the 40th session of UNESCO WHS Committee held on 15th July, 2016. 

Now that WHS status has been achieved, the status may be used as a catalyst for developing sustainable livelihood and other heritage sites and as a gateway for channeling visitors to other heritage sites and activities in the region.

Remains of ancient Nālandā University are spread over a large area. Only a small fraction (roughly 10%) of ancient Nālandā University has been excavated and many villages are settled over the rest of the ancient Nālandā UniversityThe community has been living with this heritage for centuries. It is imperative to sensitize the community towards the heritage and facilitate sustainable livelihood initiatives. The challenge lies in creating an interpretation integrating the community living in the villages that are settled over the unexcavated remains. 

Nālandā is also a confluence of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism and there are many ancient sites related with them in the vicinity of Nālandā University. Interpretation, signage, access etc should not be just limited to the inscribed property but should also include smaller places that are part of the story of Nālandā.

Schematic map showing Excavated remains and Unexcavated remains of ancient Nālandā University 

Villages settled over the ancient Nālandā University 
There are two prominent ancient remains in the proximity of the inscribed property that bear resemblance with Xuanzang’s description and were integral part of the University. Pritam Tilāha on the south side of the excavated remains should be the remains of the Buddha’s hair and nail relic stūpa as mentioned by Xuanzang. With efforts of Dr. R. Panth, former Director, Nava Nalanda Mahavihara (Deemed University, NNM), the State Archaeology Department has brought this very sacred place now under protection. Similarly, another prominent mound Devi Maa ka Tilāha that may be the remains of a temple of Tārā mentioned by Xuanzang should also be brought under protection.

Devi Maa ka Tilāha in village Bargaon

Aerial view of Pritam Tilāha