Heritage walk across Pune

Cultural heritage is both easy to grasp and difficult to define: it is immediate, you know it when you see it.

The definition by Unesco recites that heritage is the “legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations.” Heritage may encompass buildings and historic places, monuments and artifacts which are considered valuable of protection for the future. During our heritage exploration on August 24, I have seen, smelled, listened and experienced Pune’s heritage; at the very end of the walk, heritage has acquired a new multi-sensorial meaning—distant from Unesco definition. Here is why.

Shaniwar Wada, the historical fortification that, built in 1732, after the rise of the Maratha Empire became the landmark of Indian politics of 18th century, was the starting point of our exploration. Guided by a member of INTACH HCC—a local NGO which preserves and safeguards India’s cultural, architectural and natural heritage—we visited a Muslim community nested in the heart of the city. The peculiarity of the community lied in the architectural style of the buildings, in itself, clearly Hindu-Muslim: made of plasters or stones, the surfaces of the houses were modestly carved with incisions, either left plain or colored, mosaic-tessellated designs and arabesques—namely, decorations based on rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils or stucco. On the one hand, the community looked like a locus per se, far from the urban chaos and then again in the city; on the other hand, the soul of the city was enshrined in the community, displayed in its typically Hindu-Muslim architecture. Not far from it, the river: dried out, polluted and dirty.

A maze of cobblestoned streets brings us to the threshold of one of the oldest brass and copper artisans’ community of Pune. Here the crafters forge, tap and wash crockeries, pots and dinnerwares; manufacture is an orchestra of drums, guitars and violins. Outside, the melody of Ganesha temples’ bells accompany us to the the heart of Deccan.

We walk to Dagadusheth Halwai temple, surrounded by Ganpati altars, and then to the streets of spices; we cross roads where tuktuks, fruit sellers, buyers and animals mingle unnoticed and we observe the urban jungle; at the end we enter the old vegetable and fruit market. Situated in the old Shukrawar Peth area of Pune, this market is the oldest—and largest—market of the city; its colonial structure was built by the British in 1886 and today it comprises of eight wings extending from the central structure and it has eight lateral gates. This beautiful 128 years old structure has witnessed the history and progress of Pune, and it is a historical heritage landmark of the city today. From there, crossing the lively Laxmi Market, we finish our tour admiring a small Ganesha temple. In front of it, local artists are painting a wall with the traditional decorative layout.

Art making. Pune, India, 2018.

Cultural heritage is both easy to grasp and difficult to define: it is immediate, you know it when you see it. It is observing such a process of art-making that I realise that heritage is not only the “legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society”, heritage buildings, monuments, streets, art and crafts; it is also the process of constructing buildings, the rituals of crafting, it it the sounds of traffic and smell of the market; it is inhabiting the streets and living the city. Heritage is what renders a place a space; it is traditions, languages, and music, ethos; it is smells, colors and spontaneous art-making. It is past and present, for the future.

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