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THE PRESERVATION OF WORLD HERITAGE SITES IN SOUTH ASIA

by

ROBIN CONINGHAM
ARMIN SCHMIDT

Text courtesy UNESCO

According to recent United Nations' projections, Asia will contain more than a third of the world's population within twenty-five years. Whilst such projections worry politicians, planners, health officials and economists, they are also worrying to those preserving South Asia's cultural heritage; a heritage which ranges from one of the world's earliest urban forms at Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan to the Mughal splendours of the Taj Mahal in India and Galle, a Dutch colonial town in Sri Lanka.

Massive population expansion is putting pressure on land for agricultural, industrial and residential development, leading to the encroachment and eventual destruction of many important cultural sites - sites which need to be evaluated and protected. To meet this challenge of evaluation and protection, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Division for Physical Heritage, in close association with the Directors-General of Archaeology in Bangladesh and Nepal, invited Robin Coningham and Armin Schmidt to undertake training missions aimed at introducing archaeological geophysics to South Asia. Whilst archaeological geophysics is now an integral part of non-destructive site assessment in the UK, such techniques are seldom used in South Asia. As an investigative technique it is ideally suited to the challenge of protecting South Asia's heritage as it can be used both to assess newly discovered sites and to assist in the management of protected sites. A further advantage is that, as it can record shallow sub-surface features quickly and requires only a small team, it is both time and cost-effective.

As a result we undertook two pilot training missions in 1997 for UNESCO, one in February to Bangladesh and another in September to Nepal. The first site we surveyed in Bangladesh was the fifteenth century AD Islamic city of Bagerhat, situated on the edge of the Sunderbans, some 175 km south-west of Dhaka. An enormous archaeological site covering twelve square kilometres, its monuments are at risk from urban development and mechanised agriculture. Concentrating on the Saithgumbad mosque and the mausoleum of the city founder, Khan-i Jahan, our surveys resulted in a fuller understanding of the monuments, allowing future developments and restorations to be planned, avoiding areas with substantial sub-surface archaeology. Our second site, Paharpur, was founded in the eighth century AD and represents the largest single Buddhist monastery in the subcontinent. Situated 200 km north-west of Dhaka, it consists of a 22m high cruciform, terraced shrine standing at the centre of a massive rectangular courtyard measuring about 280m square. The survey concentrated on the western courtyard where we identified a series of sub-surface features, which may be interpreted as ancillary votive structures, and recovered data of rebuilding episodes which suggest that the final phase, which saw the placing of the central shrine slightly south of the courtyard's centre, was not necessarily that of its original foundation.

Our second mission, to Nepal, investigated the sites of Tilaurakot and Ramagrama, prior to their nomination as World Heritage sites associated with the life of the Buddha. Tilaurakot, identified by a number of scholars as Kapilavastu - the Buddha's childhood home, is situated 28 km west of Lumbini - the birth-place of the Buddha in 623 BC. It is a fortified city covering 20 hectares with a sequence from the beginning of the first millennium BC to the first half of the first millennium AD. Our work consisted of topographical and geophysical surveys in order to identify the site's extent. One of the geophysical surveys identified a major street running through the city from the eastern gateway. As only the fortified core is protected, we were keen to ensure that surrounding extra-mural monuments were also protected to form a monument zone, and that the agrarian environment of the site was preserved by creating a zone which was restricted to agricultural use.

Our second site was located 40 km north-east of Lumbini, and has been identified by Nepali scholars as the stupa of Ramagrama - the only stupa to contain one of the eight original shares of the Buddha's ashes. As the site has never been excavated, we were asked to survey the site in order to ascertain its extent. The site consists of a 10m high mound surrounded by fields. We surveyed its south-west corner and recorded two square structures within enclosure walls of approximately 10m square. It is possible to interpret these as votive Kushan monuments. We are recommending that the farmland surrounding the monument is now purchased in order to protect these monuments. The results of both missions, building on the Department's strengths in South Asian archaeology and archaeological geophysics, were very promising, and it is hoped that non-destructive site assessments will practised more widely in Asia, allowing us to further understand its monuments and in so doing to help ensure their successful management into the next millennium.

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