The World Heritage Sites in Bangladesh -Mosleh Uddin
A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area which has been officially recognized by the United Nations, specifically by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The sites are selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, and scientific or some other form of significance. These sites are legally protected by international treaties since UNESCO regards these sites as being important to the collective interests of humanity.
The World Heritage Sites are classified landmarks and they are unique in some respect as a geographically and historically identifiable piece is of special cultural or physical significance. For example, the sites may be significant due to hosting ancient ruins or some historical structures, building, city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument, or mountain. They may symbolize a remarkable footprint of extreme human endeavor often coupled with some act of indisputable accomplishment of humanity which then serves as a surviving evidence of its intellectual existence on the planet.
With the intent of its practical conservation for posterity, sites are listed and demarcated by UNESCO to have been identified or recognized as a protected zone. This is done because the sites, otherwise, could be subject to risk from human or animal trespassing, owing to unmonitored/uncontrolled/unrestricted access or threat owing to local administrative negligence etc. The list is maintained by the international World Heritage Program administered by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The committee is composed of 21 UNESCO member states which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
The formation of the World Heritage Program is preceded by an important event in the 50s at Egypt. In 1954, the government of Egypt decided to build the new Aswan High Dam, whose resulting future reservoir would eventually inundate a large stretch of the Nile valley containing cultural treasures of ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia.
In 1959, the governments of Egypt and Sudan requested UNESCO to assist their countries to protect and rescue the endangered monuments and sites. As a result, in 1960, the Director-General of UNESCO launched an appeal to the Member States for an International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia. This appeal resulted in the excavation and recording of hundreds of sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, as well as the salvage and relocation to higher ground of a number of important temples, the most famous of which are the temple complexes of Abu Simbel and Philae.
The campaign, which ended in 1980, was considered a success. The project’s success led to other safeguarding campaigns: saving Venice and its lagoon in Italy, the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan, and the Borobodur Temple Compounds in Indonesia. UNESCO then initiated, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a draft convention to protect the common cultural heritage of humanity.
However, the idea of cultural conservation with nature conservation was initiated by the United States. The White House conference in 1965 called for a “World Heritage Trust” to preserve “the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry”. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed similar proposals in 1968, and they were presented in 1972 to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. A single text was agreed on by all parties, and the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16 November 1972. Since then, 193 state parties have ratified the convention, making it one of the most adhered to international instruments and the normative cultural instrument with the highest number of ratifications.
As of July 2017, 1073 sites are listed: 832 cultural, 206 natural, and 35 mixed properties, in 167 states. According to the sites ranked by country, Italy is the home to the greatest number of World Heritage Sites with 53 sites, followed by China (52), Spain (46), France (43), Germany (42), India (36), Mexico (34) and United Kingdom and British Overseas Territories (31). In Bangladesh, only three sites are listed as World Heritage Sites.
Nominating and selection process
In order to be selected as a World Heritage Site, a country must first list its significant cultural and natural sites. The list is called the Tentative List. Without including a place in the Tentative List, a country may not nominate a site for consideration. Next, it can place sites selected from that list into a Nomination File.
The Nomination File is evaluated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the World Conservation Union. These bodies then make their recommendations to the World Heritage Committee. The Committee meets once per year to determine whether or not to inscribe each nominated property on the World Heritage List and sometimes defers or refers the decision to request more information from the country which nominated the site. There are ten selection criteria and a site must meet at least one of them to be included on the list. Up to 2004, there were six criteria for cultural heritage and four criteria for natural heritage. In 2005, this was modified so that there is now only one set of ten criteria.
World Heritage Sites in Bangladesh
Bangladesh, a nation in the Indian sub-continent, with a population of 166 million people, has two significant religious sites as well as a bio-diverse area that has been listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. Two tourist destinations, the Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur and the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat have been listed as cultural World Heritage Sites in Bangladesh. The Sundarbans is designated as a natural World Heritage Site in the country.
Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat
The Mosque City in Bargehat is located at the meeting-point of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. The city was founded by a Turkish-born Ulugh Khan Jahan, popularly known as Khan Jahan Ali in Bangladesh, in the 15th century.
The city, formerly known as Khalifatabad, was built using bricks and it’s infrastructure reveals considerable technical skill and an exceptional number of mosques and early Islamic monuments can be seen there. The magnificent city, which extended for 50 km2, contains some of the most significant buildings of the initial period of the development of Muslim architecture of Bengal. They include 360 mosques, public buildings, mausoleums, bridges, roads, water tanks and other public buildings constructed from baked brick.
This old city, created within a few years and covered up by the jungle after the death of its founder in 1459, is striking because of certain uncommon features. The density of Islamic religious monuments is explained by the piety of Khan Jahan, which is evidenced by the engraved inscription on his tomb. The lack of fortifications is attributable to the possibilities of retreat into the impenetrable mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans. The quality of the infrastructures – the supply and evacuation of water, the cisterns and reservoirs, the roads and bridges – all reveal a perfect mastery of the techniques of planning and a will towards spatial organization.
Forbes categorizes the city as one out of the fifteen lost cities of the world. The city was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1985. The Government of Bangladesh has worked on the implementation of recommendations set out in the Master plan prepared by UNESCO 1973/74-1977/78 for the conservation and presentation of the Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat. Though the financial efforts have been made to address the conservation problem derived from salinity, this has not been comprehensively solved and deterioration has continued.
Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur
Geographically located to the north-west of Bangladesh in the district of Naogaon, the heart-land of ancient “Varendra”, close to the village of Paharpur the extensive ruins of the Buddhist monastic complex are the most spectacular and important pre-Islamic monument in Bangladesh.
The first builder of the monastery was Dharmapala Vikramshila (770-810AD), the king of Varendri-Magadha, as inscribed on a clay seal discovered in the monastery compound. The plan of the monastery can be described as a large square quadrangle measuring approximately 920 feet, with the main entrance, an elaborate structure, on the northern side. The outer walls of the monastery are formed by rows of cells that face inwards toward the main shrine in the centre of the courtyard. In the last building phases of the Monastery these cells, which formed the outer wall, totalled 177. The main central shrine has a cruciform ground plan and a terraced superstructure that rises in three terraces above ground level to a height of about 70 feet. The upper level is a massive rectangular central block which forms the central brick shaft. The intermediate terrace is a wide circumambulatory path which passes four main chapels or mandapas architectural plan, it is in fact a simple cruciform that has been elaborated with a series of projections at the re-entrants, a form that is copied at all levels on the main shrine. At the intermediate level there were originally two bands of terracotta plaques running around the full perimeter of the shrine, out of which half are still preserved in situ.
Epigraphic records testify that the cultural and religious life of this great Vihara, were closely linked with the contemporary Buddhist centres of fame and history at Bohdgaya and Nalanda, many Buddhist treatises were completed at Paharpur, a centre where the Vajrayana trend of Mahayana Buddhism was practiced.
Today, Paharpur is the most spectacular and magnificent monument in Bangladesh and the second largest single Buddhist monastery on south of the Himalayas.
This World Heritage Sites, inscribed in 1985 by UNESCO, is under the government protection and managed by the local office. The department of archaeology deals with the management and conservation aspects.
The Abode Of The Royal Bengal Tigers
The Sundarbans is the world’s largest mangrove forest, which is approximately 140,000 hectares on the delta of Ganges and Meghna rivers in Bengal Bay. It was inscribed in 1997 as a natural world heritage site by UNESCO. It has unique features such as mudflats and tidal waterways. The Sundarban is located to the southwest of Bangladesh and has been recognized internationally for having mangrove flora and fauna on both land and water. The mangrove habitat supports the single largest population of tigers in the world which have adapted to an almost amphibious life, being capable of swimming for long distances and feeding on fish, crab and water monitor lizards. They are also renowned for being “man-eaters”, most probably due to their relatively high frequency of encounters with local people.
The islands are also of great economic importance as a storm barrier, shore stabilizer, nutrient and sediment trap, a source of timber and natural resources, and support a wide variety of aquatic, benthic and terrestrial organisms. They are an excellent example of the ecological processes of monsoon rain flooding, delta formation, tidal influence and plant colonization. Covering 133,010 ha, the area is estimated to comprise about 55% forest land and 45% wetlands in the form of tidal rivers, creeks, canals and vast estuarine mouths of the river. About 66% of the entire mangrove forest area is estimated to occur in Bangladesh, with the remaining 34% in India.
The Sundarbans support a wealth of animal species including the single largest population of tiger and a number of other threatened aquatic mammals such as the Irrawaddy and Ganges River dolphins. The site also contains an exceptional number of threatened reptiles including the king cobra and significant populations of the endemic river terrapin which was once believed to be extinct. The property provides nesting grounds for marine turtles including the olive riley, green and hawksbill. Two of the four species of highly primitive horseshoe crab (Tachypleus gigas and Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) are found here. The Sajnakhali area, listed as an Important Bird Area, contains a wealth of waterfowl and is of high importance for migratory birds.
However, the Sundarbans is facing major threats from increased shipping and industrial activities. The government of Bangladesh has taken an initiative to establish a coal-based thermal powerplant at Rampal which is located just 14 kilometres upstream of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. The Bangladeshi government has justified the location of the project on the grounds that it is at a ‘safe’ distance from the mangrove forest. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has criticized the Bangladeshi government for failing to evaluate the impacts of the proposed Rampal coal plant on the Sundarbans World Heritage Site several times and suggested to shift the power plant at a safer distance. Very recently, the committee warned the government of Bangladesh for the last time before putting this world heritage site in the danger list. Now, it’s our turn to take necessary steps to preserve the world heritage sites in Bangladesh. n