World Heritage Sites in India

Quest for UPSC CSE Panels

World Heritage Sites in India-Image

22-09-2023

GS-I

Sub-Categories:

GS-I: Art & Culture

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Prelims: Current events of National and international importance.

Mains: Indian culture will cover the salient aspects of Art Forms, literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times.

India has been blessed with a rich history and natural diversity, which is exemplified by its 42 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These include 34 Cultural sites, 7 Natural sites and 2 mixed sites recognised for their outstanding universal value to humanity. Spanning the length and breadth of the country, these sites represent India’s grand and varied cultural traditions as well as its incredible biodiversity and landscapes.

From ancient monuments to pristine forests, India’s World Heritage Sites encapsulate the essence of incredible India. Sites like the Taj Mahal, Ajanta Caves, Western Ghats and Sundarbans National Park are inscribed for their universal value. Understanding and preserving these treasures is crucial for safeguarding India’s heritage for future generations.

About UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A World Heritage site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). 

  • World Heritage sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other forms of significance.
  • The sites are judged to contain “cultural and natural heritage around the world considered being of outstanding value to humanity.

History and Background of World Heritage Sites

The concept of World Heritage emerged after WWII amid concerns over the widespread destruction of cultural sites and nature. Efforts to remedy this led to the drafting of the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, commonly known as the World Heritage Convention. It established the framework to preserve the world's outstanding heritage.

  • The Convention defines the kind of natural or cultural sites that can be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List by meeting specified criteria.
  • By signing the Convention, member countries commit to protecting not just national heritage but mankind's shared heritage, irrespective of where sites are located.
  • 191 State Parties have ratified this World Heritage Convention, including India. India formally signed the Convention on November 14, 1977.
  • There are currently 1,172 World Heritage Sites across 166 countries, of which 913 are cultural, 220 are natural, and 39 are mixed properties that have outstanding universal value as the heritage of humanity.

The World Heritage Convention

The key aspects of the World Heritage Convention are:

  • Defines cultural and natural heritage of Outstanding Universal Value that merits conservation globally, not just nationally.
  • This makes it incumbent on signatory member states to protect their World Heritage Sites.
  • Establishes the World Heritage Committee and List. Sites nominated by states are evaluated by designated advisory bodies before being inscribed on the list.
  • Links the idea of heritage conservation to sustainable development goals.
  • Set up the World Heritage Fund, supported by member contributions, to provide assistance for preserving sites.
  • The Convention thus created a framework of international cooperation and legal obligations to preserve humanity's shared heritage.

Selection Criteria for UNESCO World Heritage Site

For a site to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site, it must go through a rigorous nomination and evaluation process.

  • UNESCO's advisory bodies - the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) - assess each nominated site.
  • A site must demonstrate Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) by meeting one or more criteria defined in the Convention to make it worthy of special protection for all humanity.

Criteria for determining Outstanding Universal Value (OUV)

To assess OUV, sites must meet at least one of ten criteria. For Cultural Sites, six criteria examine their significance vis-a-vis:

  • Representing a masterpiece of human creative genius.
  • Exhibiting important cultural interchange or a civilization.
  • Bearing unique testimony to a tradition or civilization.
  • Being an outstanding example of a type of architecture, technology or landscape.
  • It is an outstanding example of traditional settlement, land use or sea use.
  • Being directly or tangibly associated with events or ideas of universal significance.

For Natural Sites, four criteria examine their natural significance vis-a-vis:

  • Containing superlative natural phenomena, formations or features.
  • It is an outstanding example of the major stages of Earth's evolutionary history.
  • It is an outstanding example of significant ecological and biological processes.
  • Containing the most important and significant habitats of biological diversity.

Apart from meeting at least one of these criteria, the site must also demonstrate adequate preservation and management to protect its OUV.

Legal Status of Designated World Heritage Sites

Once inscribed, each World Heritage Site remains the property of the state it belongs to, but the protection and preservation of its OUV becomes a shared responsibility of all humanity. The legal implications are:

  • Member states have an obligation to ensure the identification, protection, conservation, revalorization and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage on their territory.
  • States are expected to integrate heritage protection into regional planning programmes, report periodically to the World Heritage Committee on-site conditions, and not take any deliberate measures that could damage the heritage.
  • States are encouraged to strengthen appreciation and respect for heritage through educational and information programmes.
  • The Committee can deploy experts to provide assistance to overcome threats to World Heritage. In extreme cases, delisting or sanctions are also possible for severely endangered sites.

Thus, while states retain sovereignty, they also accept the responsibility of preserving heritage for humanity, even if it means curtailing certain activities.

UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites

Here is a table outlining key facts about India's 34 UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites:

Site (Included in UNESCO’s list)LocationSignificance
Agra Fort (1983)

Uttar Pradesh

Agra Fort

 

- Mughal palace fort with crucial history
Ajanta Caves (1983)

Maharashtra

Ajanta Caves

- Finest surviving examples of ancient Buddhist cave paintings and rock-cut architecture
Ellora Caves (1983)

Maharashtra

Ellora Caves

 

 

- Outstanding crystallization of ancient Indian rock-cut architecture representing Buddhist, Hindu and Jain faiths
Taj Mahal (1983)

Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal.png

 

- Architectural masterpiece of the Mughal era
Sun Temple, Konârak (1984)

Odisha

Sun Temple

 

- 13th-century temple extolling the Sun God Surya in unique architectural style and elaborate stone carvings
Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram (1984)

Tamil NaduGroup Of monuments Mahabalipuram

 

- 7th-8th century architectural and sculptural evolution in the port city of the Pallava dynasty
Churches and Convents of Goa (1986)

Goa

Churches and Convents of Goa

 

- Remnants of Portuguese colonial architecture and Christianity's expansion in Asia
Fatehpur Sikri (1986)

Uttar Pradesh

 

Fatehpur Sikri

- Imperial capital city built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in 16th century, blending Indo-Islamic architecture styles
Group of Monuments at Hampi (1986)

Karnataka

Group of Monuments Hampi

 

- Capital city of Vijayanagara empire in 14th-16th century with brilliant temple architecture
Khajuraho Group of Monuments (1986)

Madhya Pradesh

Khajuraho group of monuments

 

- Clusters of Hindu and Jain temples built in 10th-11th century CE renowned for erotic sculptures of dancers and couples
Elephanta Caves (1987)

MaharashtraElephanta Caves

 

 

- Rock-cut cave shrines of Shiva sect from 6th century CE with monumental sculpture
Great Living Chola Temples (1987, 2004)

Tamil NaduChola temples

 

- 11th and 12th century Chola dynasty temple complexes demonstrating evolution of form and architecture
Group of Monuments at Pattadakal (1987)

Karnataka

Group of monuments Pattadakal

 

- 8th century CE Chalukya dynasty temple exemplifying blend of Northern and Southern styles
Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi (1989)

Madhya Pradesh

Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi

 

- Oldest stone structures extant from 3rd century BCE preserving core of Buddhist art and architecture

Humayun's Tomb

(1993)

Delhi

 

Humayun's Tomb

- Mughal tomb which is earliest Garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent, precursor to Taj Mahal
Qutub Minar and its Monuments (1993)

Delhi

Qutub Minar

 

- 13th-century minaret and monuments complex built by Qutubuddin Aibak heralding Indo-Islamic architecture
Mountain Railways of Darjeeling, Kalka Shimla & Nilgiri (1999)

Delhi   

   Mountain Railways of Darjeeling        

- This site comprises three mountain railways that were built in the late 19th and early 20th century to provide access to towns in highlands. 

- They represent a technology transfer in a colonial setting, the construction involved building bridges and tunnels in order to cross difficult terrains. 

 

 
Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka (2003)

Madhya Pradesh

Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka

- Site demonstrating early human life through traces of prehistoric rock paintings dating 30,000 years ago.
Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park (2004)

Gujarat

Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park

- Pre-Mughal Islamic city and fort from the 8th to 14th centuries CE.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (2004)

Maharashtra

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

- It was designed by Frederick William Stevens in the Victorian Gothic style, drawing influences from Italian Gothic architecture and combining them with influences from Indian traditional buildings built in the late 19th century.

- It symbolised the wealth of Mumbai as a major commercial port within the British Commonwealth.

Red Fort Complex

(2007)

Delhi

Red Fort Complex

- Monumental 17th-century Mughal palace fort built when the empire was at its artistic zenith
The Jantar Mantar, Jaipur (2010)

Rajasthan

 

Jantar Mantar Jaipur

- 18th-century astronomical observation site demonstrating empire's scientific advancement

Hill Forts of Rajasthan

(2014)

Rajasthan

Hill Forts of Rajasthan

- Massive hill forts in Rajasthan demonstrating the power of Rajput kingdoms
Rani Ki Vav (Queen's Stepwell), Patan (2014)

Gujarat

Queen's Stepwell

- Elaborately sculpted 11th century AD stepwell demonstrating mastery of engineering
Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (2016)

Bihar

Nalanda Mahavihara

- Archeological remnants of the ancient seat of Mahayana Buddhism and monastic learning in India
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, (2016) 

Chandigarh

Architectural Work of Le Corbusier

- An Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement is a World Heritage Site consisting of a selection of 17 building projects in several countries by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

- These sites demonstrate how Modern Movement architecture was applied to respond to the needs of society and show the global range of a style and an architect.

Historic City of Ahmedabad (2017)

Gujarat

Historic city of Ahmedabad

 

- World Heritage City founded in 15th-century exhibiting unique architectural styles
Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai (2018)

Maharashtra

Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai

 

- 19th and 20th-century Gothic revival and Art Deco architectural creations in the growing port city

Jaipur City, Rajasthan

(2019)

Rajasthan

Jaipur City, Rajasthan

 

- 18th century planned city founded as the capital of Amber kingdom exemplifying city planning and architecture
Dholavira: A Harappan City (2020)

Gujarat

Dholavira A Harappan City

 

 

- One of the largest and most prominent cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilisation dating 4000-1500 BCE
Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple (2021)

Telangana

Kakatiya Rudreshwara (Ramappa) Temple

 

- 13th-century engineering masterpiece of Kakatiya dynasty with splendid ornate architecture and sculptural workmanship
Santiniketan (2023)

West Bengal

Santiniketan

 

- It is the cultural and educational centre established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala (2023)

Karnataka

The Sacred Ensembles of the Hoysala

- The famed Hoysala temples of Belur, Halebid and Somananthpura in Karnataka were constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries.

- Hoysala temples maintain a fundamental Dravidian morphology

  • they exhibit substantial influences from the Bhumija style prevalent in Central India,
  •  the Nagara traditions of northern and western India, and 
  • the Karnataka Dravida modes favoured by the Kalyani Chalukyas

UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites

Here is a table of India's 7 UNESCO World Heritage natural sites:

SiteLocationSignificance
Kaziranga National Park (1985)

Assam

Kaziranga National Park

 

- Home of the world's largest population of one-horned rhinoceros
Keoladeo National Park (1985)

Rajasthan

Keoladeo National Park

- Important man-made wetland providing refuge to migratory waterbirds
Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (1985)

Assam

Manas Wildlife Sanctuary

- Critical tiger habitat representing biodiversity of Eastern Himalayas
Sundarbans National Park (1987)

West Bengal

Sundarbans National Park

- Largest estuarine mangrove forest globally endangered by rising sea levels
Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks (1988, 2005)

Uttarakhand

Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks

- Contrasting alpine wildflower meadow and rugged glacial wilderness protecting diverse flora and fauna
Western Ghats (2012)

Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra

Western Ghats

- Mountain range running parallel to western coast recognized for high endemism and biodiversity
Great Himalayan National Park (2014)

Himachal Pradesh

Great Himalayan National Park

- Diverse ecosystems and biodiversity of the Great Himalayas including glaciers, alpine meadows and forest wildlife

UNESCO Mixed World Heritage Sites

There are 2 UNESCO World Heritage mixed sites in India which have both cultural and natural significance:

SiteLocationCultural SignificanceNatural Significance
Khangchendzonga National Park- (2016)

Sikkim

Khangchendzonga National Park

- Associated with indigenous Sikkimese culture and sacred meaning of the mountain peak- Protects a huge range of eastern Himalayan biodiversity across different vegetation zones from subtropical to alpine meadows
Rani-ki-Vav (Queen’s Stepwell) at Patan (2014)

Gujarat

Queen's Stepwell

 

- Unique 11th-century stepwell demonstrating mastery of engineering and architecture- Conserves knowledge of Traditional Water Management Systems forming the cultural landscape around the Stepwell

FAQs on World Heritage Sites in India

Which was the first World Heritage Site in India?

The first sites inscribed from India in 1983 were the Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves and Agra Fort.

Which Indian state has the most World Heritage Sites?

Rajasthan has 6 inscribed World Heritage Sites - the most for any state in India.

What is the selection and evaluation process for World Heritage Sites?

Sites nominated by member states are assessed by UNESCO advisory bodies against criteria of Outstanding Universal Value before being inscribed on the World Heritage List if they meet the benchmarks.

What benefits does being a World Heritage Site confer?

It promotes conservation, protection and restoration of the heritage site while also facilitating tourism and boosting prestige. UNESCO provides expert advice and access to funding for listed sites.