In the press
Restoring Punjab's cultural heritage, UNVs foster a sense of community
by Dr. Savyssachi and Gurmeet S. Rai
07 September 2000
BONN: In the northern Indian State of Punjab, the historical landscape bears testimony to the fact that people from different communities have interacted from ancient to modern times.
In the recent past, however, violence and terrorism have fragmented the State's social and cultural fabric. Cultural Heritage and the Promotion of Understanding in Punjab, a joint project supported by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Volunteers (UNV), seeks to restore cultural heritage and develop a sense of community amongst people from different religious and social traditions. The overall objective is to foster a culture of peace. To that end, restoration efforts have been interlinked with community development activities. Seven national UN Volunteers -- social scientists, art restorers and conservation architects -- are part of the project. It is implemented by the Cultural Resources Conservation Initiative (CRCI), a voluntary group of conservation architects.
On what ground can the people be engaged as members of a community? How can it be ensured that the physical restoration of building structures is simultaneously a restoration of the sense of community? What are the necessary social conditions for extending the life of these buildings?
With these considerations in mind, three old religious shrines, Kishan Mandir (Krishna's Temple) in Kishankot Village, Guru Ki Masjid (the Mosque of the Master) in Sri Hargobindpur Village and Massania Dargah of Baba Shah Badar Diwan in Massania Village, were selected for restoration. Of these, Kishan Mandir was chosen as the first project for the UN Volunteers.
In Kishankot, 50 per cent of the population are Sikhs, 25 per cent are Hindus and 25 per cent Christian. The walls of the temple are decorated with paintings depicting Hindu and Sikh themes. It was obvious that the UNV social scientists and conservation specialists had to work hand in hand.
The temple restoration could only be successful and lasting if the community was flourishing. This however, was not the case. "The village had no facilities", recalls Zamrooda Khanday, one of the UNV social scientists. "The school was ill-equipped, there was no qualified doctor and a large majority engaged in gambling and was consumed by alcohol." In addition, a large number of men migrate seasonally to different parts of India in search of work -- mostly agricultural -- as there is no opportunity for productive work at home.
UNV specialists identified health, education and horticulture activities to be linked to the restoration process. They successfully worked together with women, children and the elderly members of the community. "Initially, people of the village seemed laid back," recalls Asif Iqbal, another UNV social scientist. "However, in the course of our work it emerged that they were willing to do many things, and given an opportunity would not let it go by."
Children and youth are now engaged in gardening, the local library, a recreation and sports club and in non-formal education (NFE). The UNVs took part in supportive classes for education, detoxification and counselling work with families as the building blocks of community. At present, efforts are being made to facilitate public participation and generate awareness regarding political rights in order to facilitate the functioning of the panchayat, or the local governing council.
Every household was given an opportunity to contribute to the restoration of the Mandir, either in cash or in kind. The link between temple restoration and sustainable community development began to emerge. For instance, the art conservators organized workshops with children on clay modelling and drawing. The workshops were to be organized before the completion of the restoration to strengthen the link between the community and the temple. "I am encouraging most of the younger guys to learn on-site how to take care of the temple," says UNV art restorer Prashant Gadpaile, who works on preserving the temple's precious, yet deteriorating paintings. Part of his work is raising awareness within the community: "I have to guide people regarding the code of conduct. For instance, they should not write on the temple walls, they should not smoke in the temple area and they should not touch the paintings."
Mohalla, or street corner meetings, were organized together in cooperation with the UNV social scientists to explain about the restoration work. "People responded in a very positive manner and showed greater interest in the process after the meetings," recalls Munish Pandit, a UNV conservation architect. Furthermore, the mohalla meetings serve as a forum where apart from temple restoration other social issues can be discussed.
"In one of the mohalla meetings, an old lady complained about her bad eyesight. Many others attending stated that this was a general problem for all ladies in the village. On further discussion it emerged that smoke from the chulha (a cooking stove) damages their eyes. We then suggested the smokeless chulha," says Munish Pandit.
Through the community's participation facilitated by the UN Volunteers, a sense of belonging to the Kishan Mandir has evolved. While this is crucial to ensure the temple's maintenance once the restoration work is completed, the UNVs also see to it that the necessary technical skills are passed on. Conservation architect Munish Pandit, for instance, trains two local masons in restoration work. He is confident about the temple's future.
"They have shown great interest and aptitude to learn more about the traditional techniques, materials and methods of construction," says the national UN Volunteer. "They will be able to maintain the temple in an appropriate manner without the need of a specialist."
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