In a historic moment for India’s cultural heritage, Shantiniketan, a town in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, was officially inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site on September 17, 2023.
Set up by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Shantiniketan became India’s 41st entry into the prestigious list.
The Centre initially pursued World Heritage recognition for Shantiniketan in 2010. The endeavour was renewed in 2021, creating a new dossier in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India and Visva Bharati authorities, which was subsequently submitted to UNESCO.
The dossier states that the “place exhibits an important interchange in human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town planning or landscape design”.
The town was recommended for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List by France-based international advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) a few months ago.
Expressing her joy over the state’s newest achievement, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said: “[Shantiniketan was] nurtured by the poet and has been supported by people of Bengal over the generations”.
“It is indeed a great achievement and the place truly deserved it… It’s my second home. We call it ‘Amader Shantineketan’ (Our Shantiniketan). It is amazing news for the Ashramiks there,” said Shatabdi Ghosh, an economics graduate of Visva-Bharati. “Being an alum, I feel immensely proud,” she added.
Other sites, including Ancient Jericho in Palestine; the Zarafshan-Karakum Corridor of Silk Roads in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; the Gedeo Cultural Landscape in Ethiopia; and the Cultural Landscape of Old Tea Forests of the Jingmai Mountain in China’s Pu’er, also joined the esteemed list on Sunday.
A Triumph of Cultural Heritage
Shantiniketan’s inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list marks a monumental achievement for India and an honour of global significance.
The inscription is a fitting tribute to Rabindranath Tagore, the visionary poet, writer, and philosopher who founded it in 1901.
The name “Shantiniketan” translates to “abode of peace”, reflecting the ethos that Tagore sought to establish—a residential school rooted in ancient Indian traditions, guided by an emphasis on the unity of humanity, transcending religious and cultural distinctions.
Shantiniketan, previously named Bhubadanga, originally belonged to the Tagore family.
In 1862, Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, inspired by the red soil or “ranga mati” landscape and lush paddy fields, decided to establish an “Ashram” or hermitage here and constructed a house known as “Shantiniketan” which stands to this day.
Nearly five decades later, in 1901, Rabindranath Tagore initiated a school following the ancient Indian Gurukul model, the “Brahmachari Ashram”.
This institution was later conceptualised as a ‘world university’ in 1921 and was aptly renamed “Visva Bharati” by the poet himself. Tagore eloquently described it as a place “where the world makes a home in the nest,” signifying its role as a global centre of learning and cultural exchange.
At Shantiniketan, students engaged in open-air classrooms, where the curriculum was designed to foster creativity, critical thinking, and an appreciation for nature. The institution was not limited to traditional subjects; it encouraged a holistic approach to education, combining music, dance, arts, and the sciences.
Understanding UNESCO World Heritage Designation
The designation of structures and landscapes as world heritage sites commenced in 1959, when Egypt requested aid from UNESCO to safeguard and preserve at-risk monuments and locations. Subsequently, nations globally have contributed to expanding the catalogue of recognized world heritage sites.
In order to secure a place on the World Heritage List, sites are required to possess “outstanding universal value” and fulfil at least one of the ten selection criteria, which are elaborated in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
As per the Operational Guidelines, “Outstanding Universal Value” signifies that a site holds cultural and/or natural significance of such extraordinary nature that it transcends national boundaries and holds importance for both current and future generations across the globe. Shantiniketan’s unique blend of education, art, and culture, as envisioned by Tagore, embodies this value.
The benefits of being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site are threefold. Firstly, it attracts tourism due to increased recognition and status, benefiting the local economy. Secondly, the site gains access to funding for its preservation and can tap into global project management resources when necessary. Lastly, such sites receive protection against wartime destruction under the Geneva Convention.
As the world acknowledges Shantiniketan’s significance, it is anticipated to witness an influx of scholars, artists, and cultural enthusiasts eager to explore its artistic legacy. The honour bestowed upon this town will ensure that the ideals of ‘Gurudev’ Rabindranath Tagore continue to resonate across borders and generations, fostering creativity, cultural exchange, and the pursuit of knowledge.
“Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali.
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