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February 2004

Auroville: A Future World Heritage site?

- in conversation with Carel

Could Auroville become a World Heritage site? Luigi, of Auroville's Future, shares his views about this inspiring concept

Luigi“A passing remark by the Director of ICOMOS – the international non-governmental organization dedicated to the conservation of the world's historic monuments and sites which advises UNESCO on World Heritage – triggered the idea,” explains Luigi. “We were discussing the possibilities of the city of Pondicherry applying for World Heritage status. Then he wondered aloud why Auroville shouldn't apply, and even thought that we might stand a better chance. I thought that the idea was crazy, yet, there was something compellingly attractive in it. Would there truly be a way in which Auroville could be recognized as a World Heritage site?”

The concept of World Heritage was established in November 1972, when the general Conference of UNESCO passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Under this convention a World Heritage Committee was set up and charged with compiling a World Heritage List of cultural and natural properties considered to be of outstanding universal value, submitted by the states that are parties to the convention. At present, the list contains 754 properties (582 cultural, 149 natural and 23 mixed) located in 129 states. India has 24 of its properties listed as World Heritage sites, including a few national parks and some of its eminent monuments, such as the Taj Mahal and the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur. But apart from the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri, no city has been listed.

Yet, a number of cities and city centres elsewhere in the world have gained the status of World Heritage site. Some are towns which are typical of a specific period or culture, almost wholly preserved and unaffected by subsequent developments, such as the city of Bath in England. Others are historic town centres that are now enclosed within modern cities, such as the old and new towns of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. In rare cases the status has been conferred on new towns. Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, built in 1956, gained the status of World Heritage site because it is considered a landmark in the history of townBig Galaxy planning. “Every element – from the layout of the residential and administrative districts (often compared to the shape of a bird in flight) to the symmetry of the buildings themselves – is in harmony with the city's overall design. The official buildings, in particular, are innovative and imaginative,” states the brief site description of the World Heritage Committee. But the Committee is wary of according this status. In its regulations, it has made it clear that ‘The examination of the files on these towns should be deferred, save under exceptional circumstances' and ‘History alone will tell which of them will best serve as examples of contemporary town planning.'

“The idea that the city of Pondicherry could apply for World Heritage status came as an after-effect of the Asia Urbs project,” says Luigi. “In fact, it is strange that so far no Indian cities have been conferred World Heritage status. Cities like Jailsalmer and Jaipur in Rajasthan, for example, have such a specific historic vernacular and urban fabric that they would definitely stand a good chance. Pondicherry also has a good potential with its original Dutch town lay-out, and the blend of French and Indian architecture which you don't find anywhere else in India. It has Hindu, Muslim and Christian elements. Pondicherry is now starting to fulfill the World Heritage Committee's requirement of regulating its heritage, which includes the listing of all its historic monuments and the drawing up of an appropriate master plan. If it got the status of World Heritage, the advantages would be great. It gives instant recognition and prestige and there might be a multiplier effect for tourism. UNESCO's funds are limited, but the status could unblock a lot of energies for technical co-operation and Pondicherry could become a reference point in South India.”

But Auroville wouldn't fit in the same category. “The starting point for Auroville is the fact that the concept of contemporary World Heritage sites is increasingly being accepted,” says Luigi. He refers to the proceedings of the Conference on Identification and Preservation of Modern Urban Heritage that was hosted in September 2002 by UNESCO. A significant issue was the determination of the criteria for assessment of modern properties proposed as World Heritage. The conference focused on the question to what extent urban ensembles from the modern era represent major changes in economic, social, cultural, artistic and/or aesthetic concepts and values. It concluded that appropriate methodologies for the assessment and selection of this type of heritage need to be developed and that strategies must be devised to advise states and the general public on the importance of the protection and conservation of modern heritage.

“It is on this basis that we are thinking of an entirely new concept, one not yet recognised by the World Heritage Committee, the concept of the World Heritage Site of the Future,” says Luigi. “Auroville obviously couldn't apply for recognition as a contemporary World Heritage Site as there is hardly anything to show, apart from the Matrimandir. But Auroville does fulfil the requirements of wanting to effect major changes in economic, social, cultural, artistic and aesthetic concepts and values. Auroville is active in all those fields; it is a place where mankind experiments with sociological innovation as well as with individual evolution. It is a place that aims at human unity, universality, transformation of society and individual growth. It targets innovation and research. And, last but not least, there is the spiritual philosophy behind it.”

The concept, to Luigi's amazement, was not rejected out of hand but was welcomed as a very interesting idea. “During my last visit to UNESCO I discussed it with the Indian and the French Ambassadors to UNESCO, both of whom were positive. I later spoke to representatives of DOCOMOMO in Delft, The Netherlands, an organisation that advises the World Heritage Committee on the granting of contemporary World Heritage status. The organisation is dedicated to the study of significant works of Modern Movement architecture, landscape design and urban planning around the world. They too responded positively. But they warned that as no regulation exists that deals with this concept, the idea will have to be cultivated.”

The long slow work of building up a pool of consensus for the concept of World Heritage site of the Future has started. The present move is to explore if a number of countries would support such a request. Luigi, the irrepressible optimist, believes it might work. “We have a background which is favourable: the four resolutions of UNESCO, the Auroville Foundation Act, a number of declarations of support, and the Auroville Master Plan. And, to allay fears that Auroville is a sectarian movement, there is the judgement of the Supreme Court of India that Auroville does not constitute a religious denomination and that the teachings of Sri Aurobindo only represent his philosophy and not a religion. And we can present all the innovative work that has been done in Auroville to date.”

Luigi concludes, “First we need to be certain that the request stands a chance and will be supported by other countries. Only then will we make an official application to the Government of India. If the Indian Government agrees, it would recommend to the World Heritage Committee to recognize Auroville as a World Heritage site of the Future, and then it would go through those channels. It is a very long process, nearly a mission impossible, but yet I sense a momentum. It is a beautiful and inspiring idea.”


The World Heritage List, India

1. 1983 Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra

2. 1983 Ellora Caves, Maharashtra

3. 1983 Agra Fort, Agra

4. 1983 Taj Mahal, Agra

5. 1984 Sun Temple, Konarak

6. 1984 Group of Monuments, Mahabalipuram

7. 1985 Kaziranga National Park, Assam

8. 1985 Manas Wildlife Sanctuary , Assam

9. 1985 Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur

10. 1986 Churches and Convents of Goa

11. 1986 Khajuraho Group of Monuments

12. 1986 Group of Monuments, Hampi

13. 1986 Fatehpur Sikri

14. 1987 Group of Monuments at Pattadakal, Karnataka

15. 1987 Elephanta Caves, Mumbai

16. 1987 Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

17. 1987 Sundarbans National Park, West Bengal

18. 1988 Nanda Devi National Park

19. 1989 Buddhist Monuments, Sanchi

20. 1993 Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

21. 1993 Qutb Minar and its Monuments, Delhi

•  1999 Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

•  2002 Mahabodhi Temple Complex, Bodh Gaya

2003 Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh

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