As someone who has jumped ship from chemistry to history in the middle of pursuing “higher studies,” I have been questioned relentlessly as to “what is the point of studying history?” It does not have visible returns like stumbling upon a life-saving medication or creating a Jurassic Park. However, it does help in understanding why things are the way they are – why the city looks like it does, why stories being pandered to the political audience can be challenged by counter-narratives and how we often imagine ourselves to be part of some community or as products of certain spaces like epaar and opaar. I have been an ardent audience of Heritage Walk Calcutta’s blog posts and walks, but always wanted to help out in some more significant way. Having led walks on a similar model in the landscape of Rajgir, a historically consequential site in South Bihar, I hoped to bring some of my enthusiasm, if not “expertise,” to this brave venture. Engaging people to think about the nuances of the built heritage that surrounds them has been a common aim for both projects, even though the contexts could probably not be more different.
It seems that even today, most of the awareness programmes and conservation work that attempt to involve communities are based on a “nostalgia”-driven agenda, in which the romanticizing of narratives becomes a primary tool for the specialist to engage with his/her not-so-academic audience. This can be effective in driving advertising campaigns, but one will always have to take into account the evolving uses and symbolisms of such spaces. These structures of continuing historical significance need not become static monuments of the long-forgotten past: like the way the arcades in front of Kolkata’s Grand Hotel host a lively bazaar, conservation does not necessarily imply the fossilization of the memories of these spaces into reminiscences of one fixed temporality.
For example, the Sone Bhandar group of caves in Rajgir, once inhabited in the early centuries CE by Jain ascetics, has been the site of changing narratives. This is true even today: the “fact-driven” tales told by our group of archaeologists have been adopted to a certain extent by local tangawallahs and the “babaji” who literally lives in the space that was once the home of Jain ascetics (as evinced from inscriptions on the highly polished interiors of the cave). These caves feature in the stories of hidden treasures that continue to circulate in the public memory of the people of the locality—supposedly even leading an erstwhile zamindar to attempt to blow up one of the walls of this structure carved from the natural scarp of a hill, in the hope of finding gold! The shell inscriptions found on the walls of the cave, which are undeciphered but assumed to be in some ornate form of Brahmi, have become “riddles,” whose answers will lead the solver to the treasure. However, research shows that the name Son might not be related to gold, or swarn in Sanskrit, at all. Instead, Son was probably a reference to the caves being part of a natural cave system, connected by tunnels; Son is a diminutive form of surang, or cave in Hindi.
It is, however, foolish to assume the factuality of such deductions, since no studies or excavations support or refute either of these theories regarding the purpose or nature of these cave structures. This brings up an important question: is it imperative for us to corroborate stories and lore with the archaeological evidence? How then can we, as archaeologists and as community-oriented tour leaders, communicate the totality of a situation where nothing is either true or false, and where these binaries need to be thrown out of the window in favour of a more layered story? Our walking tour initiative was not just geared to entrancing the foreign tourists who would visit Rajgir while following the Buddha’s footsteps. Instead, we encouraged the people already living in the urbanised part of the area to take on some responsibility for the archaeological heritage around them, to know the reasons for the nomenclature and the myths surrounding these places. What is important is that the community, the local people of Rajgir, gets to connect with their heritage—not just as sources of tourism, but as identity markers in their landscape.
Calcutta, on the other hand, poses unique and varied problems of its own. Archaeological sites like those in Rajgir are often in much better shape and condition because of successive reconstructions by the ASI and smaller organizations under the state governments. However, the built heritage of Calcutta is often not considered as important as the pre-modern vestiges of a glorious Indian past and is sadly neglected until it collapses upon itself. That there is a bias in the temporal framing of “Indian” history is evident in the acquisition methods of conservation organizations themselves – something that probably requires a dedicated discussion of its own. It is imperative, then, that one understand where the “past” begins, how it shapes a community’s identities, and what happens once these symbols are irrevocably lost without even being documented. The vision behind Heritage Walk Calcutta’s walks might be ambitious, but can begin with the walks as a method of documenting the stories and the tangible remains that are still visible in the city—by the audience, not necessarily (or just) the scholar. Reflection is necessary if one takes up in arms for the cause of heritage conservation.
Not only are our identities dictated by the places we inhabit, but also by the places we don’t—the places that we are only allowed to visit, but not touch. Having viewable history in the form of monuments is a unique opportunity accorded to Calcuttans. The validation of being part of the city’s history need not come from how directors of contemporary films pan across the cityscape – it can begin with the urge to step out and visit some of these places, and realizing the need to investigate and conserve those symbols of memories. Visiting and revisiting the old places on the track in Rajgir made me realize that these endeavours might ultimately go to waste if the guide-cum-researcher herself becomes stuck in the rut of repeating the same stories and histories over and over again, and does not adapt to the needs of the audience she is addressing. The history itself does not need changing, of course: but to be relevant it needs the active engagement of the audience. At the end of the day or the tour, it is necessary for the researcher-guide to demonstrate the value of “heritage” for the community or the stakeholders.
Heritage as a concern of the community needs to be “promoted” for conservation efforts to be sustainable and organic. Neither the built remains, nor the stories remain unchanged – and the contemporary world is not as removed from its ancient or colonial past as we are wont to believe. Agents of change, be they political drama, the need to free up more “urban” space, or the neglect of the bearers of heritage, continue to affect the facades and fates of these spaces.
About the Author: Pritha Mukherjee has completed her M.A. in History from the School of Historical Studies at Nalanda University recently. She has had experience working with archaeological surveys, museum documentations, and heritage walk initiatives in Bihar. Pritha has recently joined Heritage Walk Calcutta‘s Research and Development team.