By Eric Falt
Unlike terrestrial heritage, the richness of the world’s underwater cultural heritage is often unknown. For the most part, oceans and rivers still retain their secrets, and ancient shipwrecks, caves and sunken cities continue to hold unrecognized treasures. Researching their stories can help us understand our past, our identity, and of course our cultural diversity.
UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2001. Currently ratified by 61 countries, but not yet by India, this international treaty encourages state parties to better research, identify and conserve underwater cultural heritage through appropriate legal and scientific measures. The cooperation and exchange of knowledge among countries is critical in this endeavour and strongly emphasised by the Convention.
Countries like Australia, Spain, Italy, China, or Egypt have made their underwater cultural heritage accessible to the public in a variety of ways attracting millions of visitors. These have been done sensitively to ensure that no damage is caused to the heritage material. The related off-site museum exhibitions, videos, documentaries, educational materials attract huge interest from the wider public.
In India, the built heritage (particularly the World Heritage Sites) and the vibrant living traditions of the country are popularly known. However, its rich maritime heritage including its underwater cultural heritage is much less talked about, despite the fact that the maritime economy of the Indian Ocean had led to extraordinary cultural exchanges involving languages, cuisines, arts, crafts, architecture, etc. There is a huge potential to enrich our understanding of history and the world through the hitherto unknown underwater cultural heritage of the’ region.
Several challenges however exist for the recognition of maritime heritage, such as the lack of legislations, looting, commercial exploitation, natural disasters and climate change impact. Since 2001, the UNESCO Convention on underwater cultural heritage has provided an important policy tool and standard setting mechanism for the protection of this heritage.
In-situ protection is considered the first option for cultural heritage lying under water, in order to limit damage as much as possible and to retain its context. Sensitively designed in-situ museums, trails and tours in glass boats and courses for divers offer opportunities for marine adventurers to access and enjoy such heritage in a responsible and non-intrusive manner.
The ambitious Project Mausam, which was launched by India in 2014, is an important initiative for maritime heritage. Conceptualised as a potential nomination for the World Heritage List for transnational mixed route including both cultural and natural heritage, the project will help build wider awareness about the importance of maritime cultural heritage.
On the occasion of the World Maritime Day by the United Nations celebrated on 24th September, UNESCO New Delhi hopes to attract attention on this issue and alert decision-makers on the importance of underwater cultural heritage.
Like in every other field, India has so much to offer and showcase to the world. It has a huge coastline of thousands of kilometres spanning many States and Union Territories, as well as the islands of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. Being an important centre of maritime trade and shipbuilding craft, India holds incredible underwater riches waiting to be discovered and recognised.
(Eric Falt is the Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.)
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