To Italy, and back

Tourist Maps

The first search in preparation for my impending visit to Italy led me to caution travel tips on how kind is the city to women traveling alone. It reminded me of a poem I read about the necessity of women’s body to constantly negotiate shared space in the public realm. It was only then I realized the unconscious habit of being in control and knowledge of space that I existed in at any given time. This I believe is true for all of us. Bodies, eyes, eyes, bodies – a methodical existence that makes carelessness a luxury. We act and react in accordance to the eyes that watch us, giving precedence to the one viewing, judging, intending over our individual self. What do we exchange in order to have a moment of carelessness? What is the price to be paid for a desire to be a careless unknown face in the crowd?

Safety is a paramount concern for us and a constant need of its assurance denies carelessness. However, can we ever be too careful? I believe strongly that there is a difference in the memory of place experienced with and without an element of fear. We have a memory of experiencing fear more than our memory of experiencing a place. Fear activates our senses of defense and control for the immediate environment. A mind filled with fear doesn’t sufficiently be at leisure in such instances. Our experiences and subsequent understanding are subject to individual sensibilities. It is possible to say this in retrospection and safe to say I’ve been as careless as I could have.

Italy is like the inside of a history textbook, and just as deep, complex and overwhelming. Like in the fantasy movies where you open a magical book, dive into it and exit in a parallel reality. There is so much to see that two eyes seem insufficient to capture the natural and manmade beauty of the place. The history associated with it abound in urban spaces, architecture, arts, culture, lifestyle, is simply awe inspiring. I loitered about most of the time in and around the urban historic core watching the place, people, and activities happening around. There are thousands of pictures at our disposal on the internet, and it is a good idea perhaps to leave one behind. I say this because I feel we have become over-dependent on an external device to capture our memories and experiences. I think we should rely more on our mind as a tool to associate with the sight and sounds of a place for an intimate experience.

When I returned I managed to map (click to view) the route along which I walked using Google Maps down to the detail of the winding paths, and spots I took rest at. There is a simple logic to the organization of places, the seams are almost absent between the older cores and the newer developments. And although the new buildings conform to the old style, they retain their new character and hardly ever seem out of place. The resemblance between the buildings, and the streets is high, however, guided by a distant landmark the way-finding is not difficult. A sense of direction is built into the layout. Besides Italy is a heaven of maps, literally all roads lead you to where you want to go. When in doubt, follow the crowd!

Of the things invariably connected to walking in large cities is the availability of public transport. It is often said that the success of a place relies on the choice between the available options for public transport. These systems are often interdependent – where one terminates the other takes over, but not necessarily hierarchical. There is a well-organized and well-maintained system of public transport in Italy. There are not just metro rails, trams and buses, taxis, tourist rickshaws to cover distances large and small but dedicated bicycle tracks and racks for parking at designated places. The attention to basic pedestrian infrastructure like road crossings, refuge islands, speed limit, signage, accessibility controls; for comfortable movement buffers between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, seats, shaded areas, kiosks; and utilitarian support like dust bins, toilets, water spouts etc. is laudable. The availability of a choice of public transport also reduces car ownership, and when there is an efficient system is in place it is possible to have areas that can be car-free zones. All the historic urban cores I visited were pedestrianized conveniently connected by public transport.

From among the many different experiences of cities, one remarkable is the sense of discovery. Walking amongst the dense old buildings in narrow winding streets to find it lead up to an open space is such a memorable experience. The urban squares, large and small, are interesting places of activity to observe the transformation over a period of time. In the morning, there are tourists like I, all around followed by the younger crowd in the afternoon, and as evening approaches a mix of families, groups of friends, young children and old couples seem to occupy it making it the center of activity. There are little kids laughing, eating ice creams, playing, and cycling which is such a delight to see!

At the heart of large urban plazas are usually the cathedrals, awe-inspiring examples of magnificent architecture inside out. The cathedrals are so marvelous; it’s a spiritually aesthetic experience to be in them. Every inch of space not only of religious significance but has such attention to detail that one is left spellbound. It is difficult to decide what to look at! Many of the cathedrals have their own exhibits, interpretation centers dedicated to its religious and historical significance within them where the original sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, etc. are preserved. The roofs are open to visitors, and the view of the cities from atop is simply spectacular! Of the places I visited, I was completely awestruck by the Gothic architecture of the Duomo of Milan; I spent two full days just wandering around being a part of the crowd! On one of the days the plaza outside Duomo, a huge canvas was laid out on the floor for people to paint as a part of public art initiative.

The cities are huge, but there hardly seem enough people. Many places are unpopulated, roads empty, stations empty, buildings empty, left me wondering if there are people at all. It was only when I walked into the central square I realized where the people are. Given its scale, it seemed as if the entire population of the city could be fitted into the central square (not literally). A keen sense of private and public spaces in built into the form. Without previous knowledge and access, it is not possible even accidentally run into an inconspicuous private space. Scale plays an important role in the transition between private-semi-public-public without relying too much on surveillance devices. Places designed to human scale create a sense of enclosure within which control and surveillance through the presence of other people in movement or resident are achieved. The sound of the city is virtually absent everywhere, every place is calm and quiet, sometimes unnervingly so. By the standard of surrounding noise of machines, movement of vehicles etc. we are exposed to every day even the noise of the center of activity was relatively negligible. I personally have an intense dislike to noise especially with one that alters at irregular frequencies and intensity.

There is so much more I have taken notes of that I wish to write but I conclude here with some of my thoughts, rather questions. It so often happens that we visit western countries and especially European we get so besotted by the places. And naturally our response is to emulate the kind of urbanism in our cities. As is the belief that economic development, in this case with respect to the built environment, precedes social or cultural change. The benefits will slowly trickle down to the last of the people in the economic ladder, and change will overcome in all other aspects – be it social or cultural. When we are duplicating western urbanism we are designing our cities on principles that do not really align with our sensibilities. In which case, do we really wish to thrust upon the cities mere ideas we find inspiring? There is little doubt as to as a society we always hope and aspire for better future – may we also lose at the same time much of our own knowledge?

Is it that if we imbibed a civic sense and local municipal bodies provided basic services and utilities in all areas of rich and poor people alike, would our response to cities expansions be still to impose those inward-looking developments that exist as self-sufficient complexes? Has the western suburbia manifested itself in gated communities being very much a part of city extents, well connected yet its back turned against the city? The super SEZs, IT SEZ’s thriving on the infrastructure and services of the city does not contribute to the quality of places to its built environment. It’s public and semi-public spaces, neither inclusive nor democratic, are fenced, protected, under constant surveillance. We are constantly harping about the benefits of mixed use development which I think is funny because that’s the kind of urbanism that is authentic to us. From studio exercises to architects offices mixed use development is the most trending subject. The question is when or why we lapsed to understand that our urbanism is characterized by it so far that we reiterate it as a new finding.  We speak about women safety, very well, in parallel with the built environment, besides the need for infrastructure requirements unanimously agree on the importance of building mixed use.

More often than not we have had to unlearn and question some of our beliefs about old cities. Either we are totally romanticizing them as places of amalgamation of architecture, heritage, arts, culture, and lifestyle selling for the purpose of tourism or as heritage walks, photo walks, culinary walks etc. Or we see them as deteriorating, run down places, stereotyping the people who live in them. The proposals, it at all, are exercises in beautification, façade improvements, investing in tourism infrastructure in otherwise sacrosanct historical areas. In the latter case, elaborate proposals are made that do not ever come close to the implementation or dismissed as they are such complex entities that apathetic authorities rather shrug and ignore they places exist. But yet  we compare our old historic centers with that of the west, and in an ambitious appeal by aesthete override the ground realities. This is not to make a sweeping generalization that there are no architects, designers, and planners who are not sensitive to the urban processes. But it is to say there are very few and that we really need to change our approach to old cities’ development. In the rhetoric about increasing urban population, we often forget older cities are often the hosts of migrants acting as transitional spaces. Our focus should be as much on old cities as much for the new not only in terms of historical importance but also  as unexplored areas of development.

River Island of Majuli Cultural Landscape in midstream of Brahmaputra River in Assam (India)

This work was done during the year 2011-2012 in association with GSVSN Murthy, Conservation Architect, Kshetra Architects, Amberpet, Hyderabad. 

Nomination for World Heritage Site: River Island of Majuli Cultural Landscape in midstream of Brahmaputra River in Assam (India)

State Party                              :           India

State, Province or Region   :           State of Assam, Jorhat (Zilla) District, Majuli (Mahkuma)                                                                 Sub-Division

The geographical region of Majuli lies in the northeast of India comprising of seven states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura; which are a part of the greater Sub-Himalayan region. India’s northeast is a region of mystic splendor and rich cultural heritage spread over a vast area. It is characterized by varied habitat, heavy rainfall, extremely rich biodiversity, mountains and hills, high seismic activity and  a  drainage pattern  marked  by  lateral  valleys in  the  north  and  transverse valleys  in  the  south, dissected by major rivers.

The  island  of  Majuli  is  situated  in  the  state of Assam mid-stream of the great male river Brahmaputra which is one of the largest rivers in  the  world.  It  is  a  part  of  the  vast  dynamic river system of Brahmaputra basin with a total length  of  2,706  km  and  a  catchment  area  of 580,000 sq km. The fluvial landform (a riverine delta) of Majuli Island is a unique geographical occurrence because of the dynamics of the vast river system. The island extends for a length of about 80 km, 10-15 km north-south direction with a total area of about 875 sq km and at an elevation of 85-90m above the mean sea level. It is formed in a stretch of the river where the largest number of tributaries drains out to form their delta on the northern and the southern banks.

Majuli   is   a   region   of   fluvial   geomorphology, which rose from the Brahmaputra basin and in course of time turned into a flat alluvial plain. The island is bound by the river Subanisri and her tributaries – Ranganadi, Dikrong, Dubla, Chici and Tuni etc. on the northwest, the Kherkatia Suti (a spill channel of the river Brahmaputra) on the northeast and the Brahmaputra River on the south and southwest. These tributaries cause flash floods with heavy load of fine silt and clayey sediments. They have very steep slopes, shallow braided shifting channels and a course of sandy beds. Another significant feature of this system is the formation of the islets locally called the Chaporis, around the Majuli Island, formed because of the braiding river.

The north and south banks of the river Brahmaputra have wetlands – a characteristic feature of the hydrology of the system, locally known as Beels and are the breeding grounds of rich flora and fauna unique to this region. All of the above – the river, its tributaries, the wetlands and the chaporis along with the island of Majuli make it the largest mid river delta system in the world.

The island today is separated from the mainland Assam by 2.5 km, and can be approached from Nimati Ghat in Jorhat district to the south of the island by a ferry,   reaching   Kamalabari   in   Majuli.   The other mainland towns in proximity to the island on the north bank are north Lakhimpur and Dhakuwakhana. The island of Majuli today has 243 small and large villages; of these 210 are cadastral villages (revenues generated by the administration and supported with revenue maps) and 33 are non-cadastral villages (villages without revenue maps are mostly resettled or rehabilitated/ shifted due to flood and erosion in Majuli).

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Draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value

  1. Brief Synthesis

The Majuli Island consists of water and landmass under Majuli Civil Sub-division (core area) and adjunct landmass around its side (buffer area). The river island is an exceptional example of an interchange between geo-hydrological, bio-economical, socio-religious, socio-cultural, spatial and ecological values. The peaceful co-existence of multi-ethnic communities maintaining a symbiotic relation with the natural landscape and ecosystem of Majuli has a direct consequence on the equilibrium established over a span of centuries. The cultural landscape,  ethos and values, of Majuli is a part of the dissemination of Pan-Indian Vaishnavite movement, distinct in the form of worship, establishment of Sattra institutions and their role in the society, vernacular settlements, Sattriya culture and arts. While similar movements blossomed in different parts of India, by virtue of its location and diverse society, Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavism, particularly in Majuli has succeeded largely in keeping with the vision of its founding Saint and imparting to the Assamese society its distinctive hue.

The epitome of the Vaishnava resurgence was the monastic institution called the Sattra derived from the Bhagawata Purana; conceptualized on democratic norms and solidarity of the preceptor (Guru) with his disciples (Bhakats). The Sattra envisaged as a perpetuator of the traditions of fine art and classical learning ritualistically handed down to generations through systematic training. These institutions became pervasive in their influence on religious, social, cultural and economic life of the people. The various forms of performing arts – dance, music, drama, literature, etc., ushered by the Neo-Vaishnavism went far beyond religious movement and gained momentum as a socio-cultural revitalization. The heritage of Majuli – tangible and intangible, with a traditional knowledge system evolved through the man and nature relationship over the centuries, is an outstanding example of a unique living tradition that has sustained despite the vagaries of nature viz. flood and erosion.

  1. Justification of Criteria

Criteria (ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts or town planning and landscape design

The island of Majuli has been a region of confluence of rivers, tributaries, and peoples of various tribes, culture, origin and ethnicity. The diverse people co-inhabited the island and carried their cultural influence and practices.  The Majuli Island manifested the effects of the Vaishnava movement by bringing the whole society together through development of Sattra monasteries that diffused wide where. They were the apex institution to organize and regulate the religious and cultural life demonstrating an exceptional interchange of human values among various inhabitants of the island. During the course of their existence in Majuli, the Sattras have maintained their influence in cultural development. The land grants, in the gradual course of time, have become the property of the Sattras and their disciples.  The inhabitants of Majuli have built their economic, social and cultural traditions around the natural settings subjected to annual inundation. The people on the island are distinguished as tribal and non-tribal, with apparent differences in their physical appearance, the way of life, etc., complemented by a sense of togetherness exhibited in their observance of festivals, religious and cultural practices while maintaining their individual traditional customs and activities.

Criteria (iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization, which is living or has disappeared

The cultural landscape of Majuli gained prominence by virtue of its geographical location. The people of Majuli Island have managed to retain the authentic cultural tradition because of its geographic isolation and negligible connectivity with the rest of the state. Neo-Vaishnavism started by Sankaradeva went far beyond religious movement and gained momentum as a socio-cultural revitalization. It brought about a new comprehensive outlook on life with an all-pervasive organizational setup. The Sattras of Majuli have been the perpetuators of Sattriya culture of dance, music, drama, poetry/songs of praise, manuscript writing, and mask making, woodcarving, etc. The cultural traditions are unique in their every respect and singular in the way they were originally contrived. The art forms evolved out of the necessity to bring people under a common forum of religious equality, which was effective in supplementing the faith of Bhakti. These art forms are inherently interconnected, evolved from one and giving origin to another. For example, the musical songs of praise complemented the dance; the dance and music complemented the mythological recreations in theatrical plays performed. This kind of inter-connectedness in the art forms arising in a singular culture is an exceptional testimony of the living traditions of the people of Majuli.

Criteria (v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment specially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change

The river island of Majuli is a region of fluvial geomorphology, raised from the Brahmaputra basin and turned into a flat alluvial plain in the course of its formation. The management of the natural system on the island, the spatial planning of villages & fields and traditional occupational practices, shaped by religious practices and traditional knowledge systems. Sankaradeva advocated the ecologically balanced doctrine of sustainable development and use of natural resources. The Sattriya architecture of Majuli Island and its maintenance has evolved in response to the natural conditions of the region. The various ethnic groups inhabiting the island applied their traditional building knowledge to the annual flooding of the area. The village architecture reflects the local vernacular architecture manifested in the Sattra following the philosophy of Sankaradeva. The features of Sattra complex are in common with that of an ordinary village household of the island. The location of Sattras and the Sattra region villages are carefully selected, as they are the apex to the identity of the island. Sattras are usually located in prominent geographical areas such as high lands, near the riverbanks, or in the hinterland of the island. Adapting to the local environment for centuries has become the approach of its inhabitants. This situation is quite different from the other parts of Assam, where such kind of constant yearly natural changes are not observed or are restricted.

Criteria (vi) be directly and tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

The culture of Majuli is a reflection of a new school of religious thoughts and emergent genres in art and literature of the Bhakti movement in India. The place being an island helped in both – conserving the culture and providing an ideal base for propagation. The great poet and composer, painter, playwright and dramatist Sankaradeva was also a great social philosopher who initiated a distinct order of religion and theology, a social discipline with wider social, political, economic, moral and cultural ramifications. He incorporated a large corpus of music-literary compositions and plays, a theatre forum integrated with music and dance, sculpture and architecture for supplementing the faith. These art forms were instruments in achieving the goal of propagation of Bhakti; and to develop a social change almost unprecedented in the history of Assam. Sankaradeva’s Vaishnava movement aimed at teaching the common people simple ways of living, equality of all men in religion, and practicing non-violence and eliminating the belief in sacrifice of birds and animals largely prevalent in society by the name of religion. Thus, the inspiring force was the harbinger of a new age of the creative resources, to which the apostles and followers contributed with their manifold compositions and other skills.

  1. Statement of Integrity –

The island of Majuli situated in the midstream of Brahmaputra River is one of the largest inhabited river islands of the world. The inaccessibility to mainland worked in favor and prevented modern development, because of which Majuli retained its pristine ecosystem.  The annual cycle of activities on the island is a unique system that embodies traditional knowledge to determine the interaction of the inhabitants with the nature in all aspects. The marshy land and wide spread network of water bodies thrive a diverse flora and fauna acts as home protecting the bio-diversity of the area.  Diverse communities residing on the island maintained their identities through the design of their habitat, occupations and the rituals they follow. Sattras of Majuli Island are inseparable to its identity and hence, it is known as the ‘Land of Sattra’.  They are apex institutions and propagators of rich cultural and social tradition of living with natural heritage in environment sustainably. Another important attribute which is integral to the Majuli cultural landscape is the layer of religious system superimposed by Sankaradeva in the 16th century and which has remained unchanged ever since. The economy of Majuli Island was a continuum of the medieval system of self- sufficiency until a few decades ago, and has continued to a certain extent.

  1. Statement of Authenticity –

The Majuli Island is the centre of the Vaishnava school of worship and the spiritual and cultural capital of Assam. A democratic outlook permeated the entire teachings and practices of the Neo-Vaisnavite faith in Assam. The Sattriya culture emphasized the binding of various ethnic groups that led to the emergence of a unique socio-cultural pattern in Assam, and to a vast region of the northeast India. The impact of which is observed in the living habits, dressing style, food habits, occupation pattern, religious practices, immense value given to natural resources and their adaptability to nature. The Sattras are centers for cultivation of various performing arts – music, dance, songs, poetry and drama that attracted a large audience and promoted the propagation of bhakti to masses. In today’s context, the Sattras constitute the central force in the protection and sustenance of a cultural tradition that originated centuries ago. As an institution, the Sattra is the driving force behind the cultural traditions practices on the island and holds an equally important significance for the people today as it did when first established by Sankaradeva. Majuli presently houses 31 Sattras spread along the gentle alluvial flood plains and water bodies. The Majuli Island represents a remarkable example of man’s adaptability to natural environment and utilization of natural resources sustainably.

  1. Requirements for protection and management –

To integrate development and heritage for protection of heritage resources of Majuli Cultural Landscape Region through education, awareness, understanding of cultural significance and ensuring a sustainable and positive development trend, an act was ordained by the Governor of Assam, Legislative Department in the year 2006. The preamble of the act recognizes the expedient conditions to provide for.  It is enacted in the Fifty-seventh Year of the Republic of India, and called as the ‘Majuli Cultural Landscape Region Act, 2006’. The Act provides a legal framework for protection of the cultural resources of the Majuli Cultural Landscape Region including the Sattras, which are vital contributors to the uniqueness of the Island. The Authority constituted under the Act will particularly deal with the management of the cultural resources through the Management Plan. There are various other legal regulatory and protective designations for the island of Majuli. Under The Majuli Cultural Landscape Region (MCLR) Act, 2006 authority called the Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority (MCLMA) and an Executive Group was set up for the implementation of the Conservation and Management measures.

The Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority is set up to “…protect the cultural resources, implement the Management Plan, coordinate and monitor the development activities, prepare and modify necessary guidelines for socio-economic and cultural activities, disaster mitigation and risk preparedness for the entire Majuli Cultural Landscape Region.” Through a new legislation/charter for Majuli Island Cultural Landscape Region, the Management Plan is envisaged to resolve the conflicts between cultural resources needs and development pressure. It will establish a symbiotic and sustainable development of the region. The plan sets out clear policies within the context of long term objectives. The management plan is a guide to action and intended to promote the conservation of the cultural landscape and the sustainable socioeconomic development of the local communities. It does so by setting policies for striking the correct balance between conservation, access and tourism and the economic and other needs of the local community and for maintaining the balance once it has achieved, which does not undermine fundamental cultural values.