Selling Our Heritage

Feb 5, 20145 min read

Art into Heritage

daya dissanayake

Today Heritage is a potentially profitable, audience attracting business. Unfortunately, by trying to make heritage an economic asset, and trying to conserve and maintain the heritage site as a self-supporting venture, it could cause more harm. Commodification demeans the heritage, and in the end would mean its destruction. Commodification also affects the environment, the ecological balance and causes the displacement of people and animals from around the heritage sites. Where heritage and culture are intertwined, promoting heritage tourism affects the culture very badly.

There is overlapping of heritage and culture tourism, because it is often the same visitors who are targeted. But Heritage Tourism is fixed to specific spaces in a land, and they are mostly of historical value and their physical form has to be preserved. People have to visit such places personally, climb a mountain, or walk several miles and follow certain restrictions. Culture is movable, it is displayed by people, who can move, who can shift their stage sets and their equipment and instruments, they can go to the people, or gather them in one place. Culture is not a static object or system, it keeps on evolving and changing and it is impossible to preserve it as it had been even a few years ago. This means even if the cultural and heritage tourisms overlap, the issues, the problems, the effects, are very different.

A heritage site could be a sacred space for one community, and there would be a strict code about visiting such sites. But for many visitors it would be just a tourist attraction, a historical building or a work of art. They would not understand, or realize any religious significance. This leads to conflict when tourists do not understand the local culture and religious practices, and they are not informed by the tour guides or the administrators of the sites.

Heritage is of immense value to the people of the region. It is our legacy from the past, what has been left for us by our ancestors, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

One of the most flouted heritage spaces in our country is Sigiriya. For our own people it is just one hard climb, puffing and panting, for some of them it is a torture. They do not have the time and they are not in a mood to appreciate what is around them, even the frescoes. Those who are strong enough to reach the summit, at least have a view of the surrounding country side. The foreign tourists are taken straight up to see the frescoes, and then to the summit. Many of them hardly glance at the mirror-like wall. Even if they do, it is just another wall. If the guides could explain, perhaps the tourists would realize that it is the oldest social media site on earth, 1500 years before facebook was built. For the tourists the western precinct is only a path leading to the rock, with a few half broken walls and foundations. They do not pause at the miniature water garden, to try to imagine what it would have been to be seated here, listening to the water flowing slowly over the pebbles, watching the frescos on the rock face, and the garden leading up to the rock. Would they stop to imagine what it would have been like, as they walked along the water garden, or the boulder garden? How many would see the Cobra Hood Cave?

The same at the Galle fort, how many of our local tourists even would be aware that the Galle Fort is probably the largest Dutch Fort in South Asia (even though it is nothing for us to boast of), and that inside the fort is preserved four different cultures, the Portuguese, the Dutch, The British and later the Muslim. Perhaps this is the only such preserved historical space in the world.

This is not unique to Sri Lanka. At Ajanta and Ellora, foreign tourists and Indian diaspora, native tourists from all over India, rush through them like it is a task they have to get over with. Most of them cover all 29 caves, pausing only to take photographs of the paintings and the sculptures, and more of themselves. It is the same at Ellora, with its 34 rock-cut temples stretching over 2 km. People spend more time traveling to these sites from Aurangabad, than they spent at the caves. At Khajuraho, most people are simply attracted by the carvings, which they see as simply erotic art, without any consideration of the religious significance.

The heritage explosion today with television programs, interactive heritage museums and light and sound shows are all misleading. No one today can rightly imagine how an ancient building and the surroundings would have looked, how the people were dressed. By trying to thrust our imagination on the curious visitor we are insulting the visitor and our ancient people too. An example is the diorama created in the American Museum of Natural History, New York, based on the 3.6 million year old footprints found in Tanzania.

The future of heritage tourism, using digital and audio visual technology, could be a solution, providing an opportunity to see all heritage spaces around the world, at virtually no cost, while also preserving the spaces and the environment. They could be Virtual Destinations. Digital simulation and non-corporeal travel. Virtual destinations would be like reading an e-book. Virtual travel also is a solution to avoid any cultural or religious misunderstandings or conflicts, specially when a cultural or sacred space is claimed by different communities.

Let us plan for armchair tourism when it comes to our heritage. It may not bring us revenue, but it would preserve our heritage and it will also provide an opportunity for everyone around the world to see and appreciate them.

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