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  • InduQin

Come of Heritage, Connect to Our Past

On the eve of World Heritage Day a.k.a. International Day of Monuments and Sites on April 18, I found myself in soulful Sanchi, about an hour’s drive from Bhopal. Savouring the beauty of its art in an idyllic natural setting, the mind began to relive long-learnt lessons about the Buddha and his legacy.

As Prince Siddhartha of Kapilavastu, he had forsaken his rightful royal inheritance to live the life of a mendicant. Meditating upon the meaning of life under a peepul tree in Bodhgaya, he became the awakened one: the Buddha. That was in the middle of the first millennium BCE.

Buddhist texts such as the Nidanakatha, Buddhacarita and Mahavastu narrate moving accounts of the Buddha’s return to Kapilavastu and his meeting with wife Yasodhara and son Rahula. When young Rahula asked his father for his inheritance, the Buddha offered him his spiritual heritage in the form of a begging bowl. Rahula was ordained as a monk, privileging his spiritual inheritance over the transience of his royal heritage.

The episode finds resonance in the Buddhist art of Gandhara, Amaravati and Ajanta. At Ajanta, from the third quarter of the 5th century CE, we have a painted version in Cave 17, and another carved in stone in Cave 19 (photos).

Buddha in a mendicant’s attire stands tall before a diminutive Yasodhara and Rahula. His towering yet gracious presence, a metaphor of his spiritual attainment, is conveyed by his drooping shoulders and bent head. Yasodhara bears her loss with restraint as she watches Rahula receiving the bowl from the Buddha in the sculpture. She too joins the sangha later. In the painted version, the child tugs at his father’s robe.

Such intertwined legacies that traverse boundaries of tangible and intangible heritage abound in India in resplendent diversity. Heritage offers us ways of experiencing life patterns, brings us in communion with the thought-worlds of our ancestors, anchors us with a sense of community and belonging, and connects our pasts with the present.

But even as we rejoice in the glory of our inherited past, it is impossible to overlook the challenges facing heritage. The Himalayan ecological crisis looms large, with climate change, tectonic shifts and rising temperatures increasing the threat of floods, avalanches and earthquakes. These and other urgent concerns require redressal in ways that approach natural and cultural heritage as symbiotic systems.

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