Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray on the much-needed preservation of coastal monuments
Heritage structures lined up along the expansive coastline of India are forgotten on two counts: preservation and academia. With withering structures and dwindling academic interest, the rich history of coastal monuments of India is at the risk of being consigned to oblivion. “Much of this history of the sea has been neglected as historians have tended to focus on political dynasties such as the Mauryas, Satavahanas and Cholas among others,” informs Professor Himanshu Prabha Ray, who will deliver the annual Vasant J Sheth Memorial Foundation lecture this year.
Ray is a recipient of the Anneliese Maier Research Award of the Humboldt Foundation and a member of the Board of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Oxford. She is former Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Former Chairperson, National Monuments Authority, Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Her books include Beyond Trade: Cultural Roots of India’s Ocean and The Return of the Buddha: Ancient Symbols for a New Nation.
For the talk, Ray will focus on the Kanara coast, stretching from Goa to Mangalore, as her case study – with the broad canvas of Indian coastal monuments as a backdrop. She plans to break it down into the past, present and future. “The present involves an account of the nature of monuments that exist today,” she says. These primarily date to the post-17th century period, i.e. after European intervention in the Indian Ocean, and include churches, harbour constructions and cemeteries. There are also a few temples and mosques that survive, but these have been rebuilt over the years. “A third category of maritime heritage that may be seen are boat building yards that continue to be used by fishing communities and cargo carriers [today],” she adds.
To understand the present, an investigation into the past is imperative. “If we study the past, a history of the coasts starts as early as the prehistoric period and consists of a vibrant sailing and maritime traditions over time involving movement of scholars, pilgrims, musicians and of course maritime trade,” informs Ray. But is it possible to preserve the rapidly degrading coastal heritage for the future? “I would respond that we need to draw on rigorous research and blend history, archaeology and heritage, especially world heritage,” she says.
Ray explains that the study of coastal history would have to be interdisciplinary. “It cannot simply be a history of India alone, but would also have to take into account histories of the Indian Ocean littorals, whether western across the Arabian Sea or eastern, i.e. across the Bay of Bengal,” she says, adding that these specialisations have yet to receive the attention that they deserve in our university system. The way forward, then for Ray, is wide dissemination of information about monuments. This will make communities who live around them feel engaged and concerned with the preservation of monuments. “The government alone cannot save our heritage — all of us have to be involved and take charge,” concludes Ray.
The 21st Vasant J Sheth Memorial Lecture will take place tomorrow, January 16, at the Auditorium, Visitors Centre, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya at 7 p.m.
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