The Century of Culture


By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I think it was the French thinker Andre Malraux who said that the 21st century will be the century of culture. In 1993, the late Samuel Huntington published one of the most cited articles in international relations literature: ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22–48), followed three years later by a book on the same issue. It argued about the impossibility of different sets of values, norms and beliefs – different cultures – living side-by-side in an increasingly globalized world, leading them to inevitably clash. This has been followed by heated and ongoing debates to which fire was literally added by the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York. The massive influxes of migrants towards the Europe have poured more fuel.

In this cauldron, several terms have gained enhanced currency – multiculturalism, melting pot, inclusivism, exclusivism, assimilation, integration, minorityism, majoritarianism, etc. — in an attempt to settle the question of how different peoples can live together in peace and harmony. Underlying all these, however, is the idea that every country or group of countries (Europe) have a primary culture that defines their ‘civilisational’ ethos. Thus, increasingly, and especially at the time of elections, the erosion of this ethos – framed by such expressions as British culture, European culture (which the Brexit vote has sharpened), American culture, Australian culture (which is now attempting to bring the Aboriginal culture into the mainstream) – is being lamented, and appeals are made for a return to the primary cultural heritage, or at least give primacy to the civilisational ethos.

But the culture aspect also finds resonance on mundane issues. This is exemplified by the remarks made (as reported by CNN and mailed to me by a friend in the US) by Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, who was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration – ‘Time magazine has selected tech billionaire Elon Musk as its Person of the Year. The choice says so much about our priorities as a culture and the way we fixate on the wealthy — even when their actions are selfish and irresponsible.’

Reclaiming cultural heritage has gained global traction, promoted by UNESCO and highlighted in numerous articles in newspapers and magazines with wide international reach, such as the magazine of the Goethe Institute, the British newspaper Economist and so on.

India is one country where for nearly a thousand years repeated attempts were made to annihilate its primary culture by destruction of the iconic temples, unique architectural marvels, which defined it when alien invaders came to pillage and loot. They were the Turkics and Timurites – the latter designation pointed out by Amish Tripathi (author of the Shiva Trilogy and Director of the Nehru centre in London), who said in a TV interview that it is Indians who called them moguls, which is wrong because they called themselves Timurites, descendants of Taimur or Tamerlane. He lauded the thrust being given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring alive the country’s civilisational ethos by restoring temple complexes that have survived despite the assaults, but many of which are in a bad state with their surroundings crowded by buildings that have come up haphazardly and that prevent or render access by devotees difficult.

He was speaking in the context of the inauguration of the first phase of the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor on Monday 13 December, a project which Modiji had at heart since 2014, and which has finally materialized. In ancient times in India or, more accurately Bharatvarsha, kings and rulers patronized the arts and culture. Since there are no more kings, it is only fitting that this mission should be assumed by the rulers who are sensitive to the issue, and in line with the global push to reclaim andpromote cultural heritage, PM Modi is leading from the front to do so and consolidate his country’s civilisational Indic ethos of Sanatan Dharma.

However, as Amish Tripathi pointed out, this is being done by the Chief Ministers at the state level also, in Telengana, Gujarat, and Odisha. In Gujarat in particular, it is the Somnath Temple which is concerned, a temple which has been the target of so many attacks by the invaders – but restored every time. The resilience of that civilisational ethos is remarkable. After all, we are here speaking not of hundreds but of thousands of years. Amish Tripathi was speaking from Sri Lanka, and mentioned that he had visited an ancient temple there that was also being restored.

As far as the Kashi Vishwanath temple is concerned, those who were privileged to be there for the inauguration were really lucky. Fortunately, technology allowed others to watch the ceremony, and the sheer grandeur of both the ceremony and the temple complex kept me glued to the television until the end. I was transported in time to 1969 when I spent three weeks in Varanasi with my cousin who was studying there, at the Benares Hindu University which has trained numerous Mauritians, including doctors.

Here are a few extracts from an article in the Indian Express by Divya A.

‘The corridor has been built over an area of 5,000 hectares, and seeks to not only decongest but to also transform the temple complex, in line with Modi’s vision to create better conditions for pilgrims and devotees, who had to endure the infamously congested streets and surroundings of the temple.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple lacked direct access to the Ganga, and a 20-foot-wide corridor was envisaged to connect Lalita Ghat on the holy river to Mandir Chowk on the temple premises.

In phase 1 of the project a total 23 buildings will be inaugurated, including a Tourist Facilitation Centre, Mumukshu Bhavan, Bhogshala, City Museum, Viewing Gallery and Food Court.

The tourism push: The improvement of the infrastructure in Varanasi is expected to give a boost to tourism in the holy city as well as in the region, including the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Sarnath.

The Rudraksh Convention Centre, designed like a Shiva lingam, can seat 1,200 people, and has divisible meeting rooms, an art gallery, and multipurpose pre-function areas.

Ganga cruises are planned for tourists, road infrastructure has been upgraded, and the Banaras railway station has been revamped with the addition of an air-conditioned waiting lounge.

Elsewhere in the city, LED screens will display information for tourists, including on the history, architecture, and art of Kashi. The famous Ganga Aarti and the aarti at the Kashi Vishwanath temple will be shown on the screens throughout the city.

The Deen Dayal Hastkala Sankul, a trade facilitation centre for weavers, craftsmen, and artisans of Varanasi that was opened in 2017, acts as both a public place and a marketing platform for local artisans.

Heritage restoration: Officials say the PM insisted that while removing properties that were clogging the proposed corridor, existing heritage structures were preserved.

During demolition of the buildings, more than 40 ‘lost’ temples like the Gangeshwar Mahadev temple, the Manokameshwar Mahadev temple, the Jauvinayak temple, and the Shri Kumbha Mahadev temple were discovered. Each of these temples has a history going back a few centuries. A gallery has been devoted to showcase some of the excavated remains at the National Museum in New Delhi, and to run a narrative on their histories on screens alongside.

In Varanasi, “smart signages” have been erected to provide information on the cultural importance of heritage sites and the city’s 84 ghats, which are known for their antiquity and architectural significance.

The push to revamp and redevelop the Kashi Vishwanath complex is in line with the Prime Minister’s ambitious projects for temples around the country.

He has laid the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, and pushed beautification and redevelopment projects at the Somnath complex and the Kedarnath Dham which saw widespread destruction in the 2013 floods.

He has repeatedly described these as nation-building projects, the successful fruition of an ancient land’s efforts to find and celebrate its ancient glory.’

It is apt to conclude with another quote of Andre Malraux: ‘La culture…ce qui a fait de l’homme autre chose qu’un accident de l’univers’ (‘Culture… that which makes of man something other than an accident in the universe.’)

Bharat was waiting for Modi to happen.

* Published in print edition on 17 December 2021

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