Shraddha Bhatawadekar, a Fulbright-Nehru Academic and Professional Excellence fellow, began her presentation on India with a joke — that the first thing people often want to know is how she survives the Michigan winter.
However, the ultimate goal of Bhatawadekar’s discussion Tuesday night at the University was not talking about Michigan’s climate, but rather presenting the challenges of maintaining and preserving India’s cultural heritage in archaeological sites.
The event was sponsored by the Museum Studies Program and the Center for South Asian Studies.
Bhatawadekar, who earned her bachelor’s degree in history at Mumbai University, has worked in archaeology, research and museum development throughout her career. She is currently in residence at the University and working on a research project about communicating the significance of India’s archeological heritage.
Bhatawadekar told attendees that preserving heritage is crucial, despite the many challenges that arise while doing so.
Her sentiment was echoed by Anthropology Prof. Carla Sinopoli, director of the Museum Studies Program, who said the program wanted to explore issues of preserving heritage from an international perspective as part of an ongoing series of talks.
“(We’re) looking at the range of both threats to heritages and museums and the responses to them in the Middle East, South Asia, Greece, and . . . in our own backyard,” Sinopoli said.
Speaking specifically to Mumbai, Bhatawadekar emphasized the importance of heritage preservation because of its cultural impact.
“Imagine India without the Taj Mahal or the world without one of its wonders,” she said.
Bhatawadekar described her native city, Mumbai, as a heritage city, which is defined as a city that is has particular cultural importance to a country.
Important heritage sites in Mumbai include Sopara Stupa, an ancient port city for international trade, the Kanheri Caves, a center for Buddhist learning, the Ambreshwar Shiva Temple and most well known, the Taj Mahal. Many of these landmarks are considered World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and are significant drivers of India’s tourism industry.
However, Bhatawadekar said Mumbai is also characterized by another phenomenon — industrial growth. Today the most populous city in India, the population of Greater Mumbai has grown to approximately 12.4 million people as of 2011, averaging a density of about 54,000 people per square mile.
In cities like Mumbai, the pressures of urbanization constantly influence the distinction between the old and the new and threaten the balance between conservation and development, Bhatawadekar said.
“This dichotomy is an interesting dynamic of the city,” she said. “And of course, it is inevitable.”
In particular, she said development is uprooting areas with historical religious significance, bazaars and other heritage sites in the market area in Mumbai. She also gave the example of the Central Railways, Mumbai’s train system, which has required updates and alterations to the rail station due to high use and potentially compromised historic elements of the building in the process.
“The skyline is changing every day,” Bhatawadekar said. “The heritage is getting more and more blurred.”
Bhatawadekar also cited increasing property values in agricultural areas traditionally used for growing textiles as another place where development is impeding.
Beside development, she cited a general lack of awareness and extremist violence, such as bombings of the train system and destruction of other property, as other drivers that impact historic landmarks.
However, she also noted that Mumbai is also unique among world heritage centers in having longstanding efforts toward conservation through regulations and other policies.
“Fortunately, in the case of Mumbai, there are a number of instruments in place … that prevent heritage from being totally erased from the urban landscape,” she said. “Mumbai (worked) in terms of establishing urban heritage regulations way back in 1995.”
Several other presentations on conserving heritage in various areas of the world, such as Greece, are slated to occur throughout the rest of the semester.