Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India’s Civilizational and Cultural Heritage

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Bhaswati Mukherjee
    Venue: Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi
    Date: August 27, 2014


It is no coincidence that the topic of today’s lecture here in Varanasi is India’s civilisational and cultural heritage through the ages and its contribution to global heritage. Varanasi (Kashi) is the world’s oldest urban living city and represents some of our greatest cultural and civilisational values. When we live in a great city, whether Varanasi, where all of you come from, or Delhi where I come from, we tend to take this heritage for granted. But outside India, as I realised in my 38 year career in the Foreign Service, Varanasi inspires awe and respect, as symbolised by Mark Twain’s lines:

"Varanasi is older than history,

older than tradition,

older even than legend,

and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

Varanasi is the home of Lord Shiva and Parvati while the Ganges, on whose banks this city is situated, is said to have in its origin the tresses (hair) of Lord Shiva. It is also the centre of education, knowledge and learning as symbolised by this beautiful University, the largest University in Asia, founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. It is also a pilgrimage place for Jains since it is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the 23rd Tirthankar while Vaishnavism and Shaivism have always coexisted harmoniously in this great city. It also has several Mosques. Varanasi therefore has a secular spirit, which is a tradition of Hinduism and the Hindu faith because of our tolerance and ability to absorb and assimilate the best values of other cultures and civilisations. I will come to that in a minute.

2. A pen sketch on this subject cannot be complete without recalling as an introduction E.H. Carr’s chapter 1 on ‘What is History’ entitled ‘the Historian and his Facts’. Carr pointed out that facts do not speak for themselves. They speak only when the historian calls on them to speak. It is the historian who decides which fact to give and therefore the historian is necessarily selective. Thus Carr concludes that "history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and past, a dynamic, dialectical process, which cannot be limited by mere empiricism or love of facts alone”.

3. The above demonstrates the complexity of the task of interpreting this heritage historically in an objective manner. You are all aware of the efforts to date our civilisation, beginning with the Harappan culture in 2500 BC, the migration of Aryans to India in 1500 BC, the rise of Budhisim and Jainism around 486 and 468 BC, the invasion of Alexander the Great in 326 BC and the rise of the Great empires in North and South India thereafter, such as the Mauryas, the Guptas, as well as the Pallavas and the Chalukyas. Of particular significance were the visits by foreign chroniclers including Fa-Hsein in 405 AD and Hsuan Tsang in 630 AD. Their chronicles are important inputs in calculating eras, as they provide means of cross evidence in dating our ancient history. They were not the only visitors. After the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni in 997 AD, we were visited by Alberuni in 1030 AD and later the visit of Ibn Batutah around 1325 AD and others. This part of our history is referred to commonly as the Ancient and Medieval Indian period of our history.

4. Efforts were made to belittle or downgrade our heritage in the next historical period, referred to as Modern India after the arrival of the Dutch, Portuguese, French and British to India, the rise of the foreign settlements, the complete domination of India under colonial rule and the rise of our national movement. During this period too, as chronicled by Edward W. Said in his seminal work entitled ‘Culture and Imperialism’, interpretation of our heritage was dominated by the notion that the West needed to bring civilisation to primitive people or to destroy it where it existed, an approach which later led to the great movement of decolonisation in Asia, Africa and the Arab world. Said noted that the notion of inferior races helped fuel the imperial acquisition of territory during this period. The culture of imperialism therefore entailed venerating one’s own culture to the exclusion of other cultures, a notion completely antithetical to the Indian approach. Mark Twain called it the ‘white man’s burden’. This attitude is best symbolised in Macaulay’s Minute in 1835 when he said "We must at present do our best to create a class, who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” He continued "I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. It is I believe no exaggeration to say that all the historical information that has been collected from all the books which have been written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

5. One of the most authoritative works of A.L. Basham entitled ‘The Wonder that was India’, rejects the earlier prevalent interpretation of the West that Indian civilisation is un-political, spiritual and unchanging i.e., that Indian civilisation itself is static and non-dynamic. Basham demonstrates that India has a dynamic civilisational and cultural heritage and that Indian civilisation is much more than a history of its religions. This is further developed in Dr. Vatsyayan’s authoritative book on ‘Tradition of Indian Folk Dance’ which demonstrates the complex dynamics of Indian societal structures and how they are connected with the dialogue of nature and art to contribute to that creative endeavour that we call Indian music, dance or literature. In this development, India’s oral traditions had an important contribution, and as a result, the Indian through the ages was fully conscious of the antiquity of his own culture. In fact, India and China have the oldest continuous cultural traditions in the world.


6. The civilisation that developed in the Valleys of the two great river systems, the Indus and the Ganges, although in a sharply demarcated geographical region due to the Himalayas, was never an isolated civilisation. Settlers and traders came to India from the land and sea routes and thus India’s isolation was never complete from the most ancient times. This resulted in the development of a complex pattern of civilisation, demonstrated so clearly in the art and cultural traditions from Ancient to Modern India, whether in the dancing Buddhas of the Gandharva school of art which was strongly influenced by the Greeks, to the great temples of North and South India to Mughal architecture and miniature painting which was an amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim tradition.

7. Nearly all the artistic remains of ancient India are of a religious nature, or were at least made for religious purpose. Secular art certainly existed, although most of the existing sculpture and paintings demonstrating this secular art have since vanished. In fact, very few paintings have survived from ancient times. Literary references prove beyond question that painting was a very developed art in ancient India. This is amply demonstrated in the existing murals of our cave temples. For want of other evidence, an analysis and interpretation of the legacy of this period is based on information from our ancient texts as well as surviving architectural and sculptural remains.

8. From a historical perspective, the Indus Valley Civilisation or the Harappan Culture as it is more recently called, was the most extensive of our ancient civilisation. Political continuity between the Harappan culture and the later Aryan culture was prevented by the timeframe between the decline of the former and rise of the latter civilisation. The Aryan period saw the development of Vedic literature as well as the stories of the Puranas. These are not entirely mythical events since it contents references to historical events. The earliest literary source was the Rig Veda and the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Their narration of events was challenged by Europeans positivism of the 19th century. The Positivists argued that every narrative must be supported by historical evidence. The relationship between myth, legend and fact in interpretation of our history has always been difficult to explain to sceptical Western audiences. Perhaps it may never be possible to sift fact from fiction though certain historical events such as the battle of Kurukshetra, can be supported by historical evidence. Culturally, however, the period of the later Vedic literature saw Indian philosophy and thought evolving in the direction which it has followed ever since. It marked the beginning of the great period of India’s culture where the pattern of her society, religion, literature and art gradually assumed something of its present shape.

9. Ancient temple architecture was quite distinct from the European Gothic style. As indicated by A.L. Basham, the temple towers, though tall, are solidly based on earth. With the exception of the dancing Shiva, the sacred icon is usually seated on the ground. As you all know, Indian temple sculptures, whether Hindu or Buddhist or Jain, made full use of the female form as a decorative motif, in accordance with Indian standards of beauty. Basham also points out that ancient Indian religious art is strikingly different from her religious literature. The art work came from secular craftsmen who brought to it an intensity that can be seen in our ancient temples, behind the religious forms in which they express themselves. This is also evident from the ancient cave temples in many parts of India of which the most famous are Ajanta and later the cave temple of Ellora.

10. Before I move to the next section, let me underline that ancient Indian architecture and sculpture was dynamic, not static. Due to this cross fertilisation of culture, India’s ancient culture did not perish with the coming of Muslim invaders, unlike the fate of ancient Persian culture and civilisation Temple architecture from the 6th century show some Greek influence while later the construction of the roof of the temple which had moved from wood to stone showed some Muslim influence. This is clear from a study of the temple architecture in the North which had the Indo-Aryan style with a rounded top and curved outline and the Dravidian style which was in the shape of a rectangular pyramid. However, some rigidity did come in to protect this culture.


11. Thus, ancient Indian culture continued intact despite the invasions from 10th century onwards, which did have some influence on the evolution of this culture. With the end of Turkish rule and rise of the Mughals who came from Samarkand, there evolved a distinct Indo-Islamic style of art and culture, of which the Taj Mahal remains the most splendid example. These trends became clear in the pre-Mughal phase and can be seen in the Mosques constructed in the 12th century in Delhi. Mosques were constructed in accordance with the local Hindu architectural traditions which involved erecting the edifice on pillars with the help of supporting brackets and spanning the roof with horizontal beams. The Islamic character to these Mosques came later. In fact, the Qutab Minar, though Islamic in conception, was executed by talented Hindu artisans and workers. Even the Quoranic verses had been decorated with arabesques and floral designs used in traditional Indian jewellery. These were the early pre-Mughal trends of a later Indo-Islamic form of art and architecture.

12. If one analyses this cross fertilisation of cultures in the Mughal monuments, the Fatehpur Sikri built by Akbar, which was richly decorated, has paintings and carvings which clearly show Hindu influence. For example, at Maryam’s palace, named after Akbar’s mother, the carvings on the north side bracket show Ram being worshipped by Hanuman. Later, these influences more clear in the Taj Mahal cited above. Its glory springs from a perfection of geometrical balance and exact proportion. The elegant pietra dura was influenced by European and Italian designs of the time but the geometrical patterns and floral designs show the same Hindu influence which was evident in the Qutab Minar.

13. Similarly, Mughal miniature paintings, although based on the Iranian style, derived their distinctive character from the indigenous painters whom Akbar employed. One of the leading painters at Akbar’s court was the son of a Hindu potter named Daswanth. One would find Daswanth’s illustration of the Persian translation of the Mahabharat in the Museum of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Another painter, Basawan, excelled, according to Abul Fazel’s authoritative book, in "drawing of features, distribution of colours and portrait paintings”. Later, the works of painters during the reign of Jehangir, such as Abul Hasan or Manohar or Bishun Das, show the crystallization of European, Indian and Iranian artistic trends specially in portrait paintings. Most of Jehangir’s well known artists remained at Shah Jahan’s court. They include colour techniques and subtle shades and used realistic scenes from everyday life. The decline started with the reign of Aurangzeb.

14. Clearly the most fascinating aspect of medieval and Muslim history in India is the development of the Indo-Islamic style in art and architecture, characterised by the adaptation of Indian resources, expertise, designs and motifs to the needs of the Islam. The unique stalactite bracketing under the balconies of the tapering Qutab Minar was executed by Hindu workers while Iranian architectural trends were juxtaposed with traditional Hindu ornamentation in Mosques which still exist in Ahmedabad and Champaner. What developed in Mughal times was an eclectic pattern where, as demonstrated in the palaces of Fatehpur Sikri, Hindu imagination was superimposed on Iranian simplicity. The terraced structure of Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, near Agra, reminds one of a Buddhist monument. The Taj Mahal of course, in the imagination and sensitivities of its designers, made it the unparallelled flower of Indo-Islamic civilisation.


15. Before moving to present trends, it is essential to recall the role of mystic during this period exemplified by the development of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, since they are an intrinsic part of Indian culture and civilisation. The Bhakti movement did not recognise any class or caste distinction and in the evolution of this philosophy, one cannot underestimate the earliest influence of Shankaracharya who strengthened classical Vedanta by developing a consistent system of philosophy which is the standard philosophy of intellectual Hinduism to this date. Later, the mystics of the Bhakti movement through their hymns and songs written from the 12th century onwards, also showed the influence of Sufi terminology. For example, in the 13th century, Namdev wrote

"Come, God, the Qalandar

Wearing the dress of an Abdali,

Nama’s Lord is the searcher of all hearts,

And wanderth in every land’.

16. The influence of Sufism through the use of such Sufi terminology, such as Qalandar, demonstrates the above influence which evolved in different parts of India from the Bengali movement inspired by Vaishnavism and Krishna Bhakti to Chaitanaya and the Baul movements. Later came Kabir who declared

"I am not Hindu or Muslim

Allah and Ram is the breadth of my body.”

Kabir equated Ram with Rahim and Hari with Hazrat and Krishna with Karim. After his death, his Hindu and Muslim disciples could not even agree whether to bury or cremate him. There are two Samadhis of Kabir at Maghar, one is venerated by Hindus and the other by Muslims. In my view, modern scholars tend to overemphasis the Hindu aspect of Kabir and Nanak. It is important to underline that both sages like the two movements, whether Sufism or the Bhakti movement, mirror a spiritual development, which fought against ritualism, fanaticism and sectarianism. This is elegantly demonstrated by a famous Sufi poet from Punjab, Bulleh Shah, who said:

"Who am I?

What do I know?

Neither am I Arabian nor Lahorite,

Neither am I Indian of the city of Nagaur,

Neither am I a Hindu,

Nor a Peshawar Turk.

Neither do I live in Nadaur.

Who am I?

What do I know?”


17. Let me now move to India’s contribution to world heritage. This is best summarized by our Tourism Department which refers to ‘Incredible India’ and what it represents to tourists, scholars and travellers across the world from ancient times. International recognition of our heritage is coordinated by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee which oversees the conservation and protection of World Heritage Sites globally, and of which we are an important Member. As a member of the UN World Heritage Committee, India is currently seeking international recognition of several projects including the Cultural Landscape of Majuli Island (on the Brahmaputra river and larger in size than Belgium), the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Chandigarh as the Jewel in the Crown of Le Courbusier Project, and the Spice Route. India is also supporting and working with the Government of Mauritius for recognition of the International Indentured Labour Route Project. Some examples are enumerated below:

(a) International Spice Route Project

A new and important Indian initiative is the ongoing effort to revive the two millennia Spice Route. Traversed by sailors and traders of bygone times, it is one of history’s most significant and enigmatic trade routes. At the centre of this legendary route was Kerala but other States, notably Gujarat were also part of this Spice Route. The scent of these spices enticed the world, including Vasco de Gama who passed away in Kerala. His first burial was in Kerala. His journey to the Malabar coast, renamed the Spice Coast, was a defining moment in history since it established connectivity between India and Europe, brought the Colonizers to India and laid the foundation for the foreign settlements of the Portuguese and Dutch, who were then pushed out by the British when they established their definitive presence in India.

The Spice Route resulted in a confluence of major religions, culture and civilisation in these parts of India. After the Egyptians, the Ethiopians and the Greeks, came the Romans and the Chinese searching for these exotic spices. Along or before them came the Jews, in 587 BC and 70 AD, the Christians with the landing of Apostle Thomas in AD 52 and Islam in the 7th century AD with the Arab traders, making this region a true melting pot of culture and civilisation. For this reason, the Spice Route initially seeks to establish Museums along the Route, to connect the tourists and the travellers to the heritage of the past along with the flavours of the present.

Thus, the Spice Route re-establishes our maritime trade relations with 31 countries associated with this ancient route, and seeks to rekindle interest among modern travellers to this ancient maritime route which was responsible for bringing travellers across the world in ancient and medieval times to India. This project has attracted the attention of UN and International Advisory Bodies, as well as of those Governments which had historic ties with the Spice Route such as Netherlands, France and United Kingdom.

The project is aimed at sharing these heritage among the 31 countries along the ancient route. The initiative is expected to bring in a substantial number of foreign tourists to India to trace this historic journey. The centre-piece of the project is the Kochi-Kodungallur belt in central Kerala, where the ancient spice port Muziris was located and where merchants from West Asia and Mediterranean region came by sea and land. The evidence points to the spice trade between Muziris — a port that flourished two millennia ago — and the West, before it mysteriously disappeared. Excavations which have commenced in search of Muziris will conclusively demonstrate that this ancient Port which could, according to the first century annals of Pliny the Elder could be reached in 14 days from the Red Sea ports of Egypt, was the main hub of the Spice Route.

(b) International Indentured Route Project

In July 06, Aapravasi Ghat was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List with India’s support. It represented the most significant surviving manifestation of the indentured labour system that existed in colonial times in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Established after the formal abolition of slavery in 1834, Aapravasi Ghat marks the point where the indentured labour, drawn mainly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh Provinces but also from Southern Provinces of colonial India, would pass through these gates either to stay on in Mauritius to work as indentured labour in the sugar plantations or to sail on to further destinations, such as Guyana, Suriname and Reunion Island, to name a few.

Thus, during this period from 1834 i.e. after the abolition of slavery to the early 20th century, more than two million indentured labour travelled on this route, also known as ‘Coolie Route’, to Mauritius and other destinations. This route represents therefore not just the development of a new system of a contractual labour but also the conservation of the civilisational heritage, traditions and values that these people carried with them to far off destinations, including Mauritius. This resulted, a century later, in the evolution of multicultural societies in these new countries from where most often these indentured labour never returned to their homeland.

The International Indentured Labour Route Project is being developed for approval by the World Heritage Committee. This project, when adopted, would represent a significant contribution to the Memory of the World Register, similar to the Slave Route. It would also highlight India’s contribution to the cultural diversity of its diaspora spread world wide, including our oral traditions, such as the Bhojpuri language and songs which are still sung in Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname and all over the Caribbean. They recall the memories of their great Motherland, India and keep alive the cultural traditions brought 150 years ago to these countries.

18. Let me elaborate on the recognition process. As an active member of the prestigious World Heritage Committee of UNESCO which oversees the conservation and protection of world heritage sites globally, India has been working in close cooperation with UNESCO and the international Advisory Bodies including ICOMOS [International Council on Monument and Sites], IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources] and ICCROM [International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties]. It is hoped that some of these projects cited above will win approval through this process. Recently, the 11th century Stepwell, Rani-ki-Vav was recognised by the World Heritage Committee. The Committee acknowledged that it was "an exceptional example of technological development” in utilising ground water resources and an unique water management system which illustrates "the exceptional capacity to break large spaces into smaller volumes following ideal aesthetic proportions”. Situated in Gujarat, the property had been buried under layers of silt for almost seven centuries after the disappearance of the Saraswati river. Its excavation demonstrated an exceptional state of conservation with seven floors of ornamental panels representing the height of the Maru-Gurjara style. Ancient systems of water conservation have been singled out by the World Heritage Committee as excellent examples of water harvesting in dry and arid areas which can be effectively utilised with community management and public participation in a world facing severe water shortages. Rani-ki-Vav is the 31st World Heritage Site in India and represent an unique kind of Indian subterranean architectural structure, marking the zenith in the evolution of such stepwells in India.


19. Having traced this legacy from ancient times, one can only marvel at how events shape history and historical interpretations, as I had noted earlier by quoting E.H. Carr. The global contribution of our cultural and civilisational heritage is increasingly recognised and respected internationally. We as a nation have come a long way from the India that Swami Vivekananda described so many years ago in "The Essence of India”

"The longest night seems to be passing away, the sorest trouble

seems to be coming to an end and at last, the seeming corpse appears

to be awaking and a voice is coming to us – away back where history

and even tradition fails to peep into the gloom f the past, coming down

from there, reflected as, it were from peak to peak of the infinite

Himalaya of knowledge, and of love and of work, India, this motherlandof ours – a voice is coming unto us, gentle, firm, and yet

unmistakable in its utterances, and is gaining volume as days pass by,

and behold, the sleeper is awakening! Like a breeze from Himalayas, it

is bringing life into the almost dead bones and muscles, the lethargy is

passing away, and only the blind cannot see, or the perverted will not

see, that she is awakening, this motherland of ours, from her deep long

sleep. None can resist her any more; never is she going to sleep any

more; no outward powers can hold her back any more. India that is

to be, the future India, must be much greater than ancient India.”

20. What a contrast to the situation today where the international attention and interest in our heritage and our response demonstrates the continuing wisdom of the old Sanskrit saying :

"Na ratnanan vishyati mrigyatehi tat” meaning

"the diamond does not seek: it is sought after”

We have a responsibility to understand, nurture, strengthen and conserve this heritage for our future generations. This is the least that we owe to India.

Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee

21.08. 2014

Recommended Reading and Bibliography :

Edward W. Said : Culture and Imperialism
A.L. Basham : The Wonder that was India – Vol. I
S.A.A. Rizvi : The Wonder that was India – Vol.II
Percival Spear : Delhi, its Monuments and History
Sadia Dehlvi : The Sufi Courtyard : Dargahs of Delhi
Sri Aurobindo : The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture
R.H. Sharma : Indian Society : Historical Probings
Romila Thapar : History of India – Vol. I
Percival Spear : History of India – Vil. II
E.H. Carr : What is History
A.L. Rowse : The use of History
Kapila Vatsyayan : Traditions of Indian Folk Dance