Orchha- A Multilayered Heritage Legacy along a Sacred River – Academic Tours with Navina Jafa – www.navinajafa.com Follow @navinajafa

Keshav Das - Rai Praveen

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This article about a splendid heritage town Orchha brings out the multilayered culture associated with its entity as a historical living vibrant town. The essay  describes architectural uniqueness, some distinct ideas in the wall paintings such as the idea of ‘hasti kunj’, uncovers links with the heritage of poetry, the important element of a sacred heritage landscape where among other features is the coexistence of folk and high deities defined in an animated ecosystem of pilgrimage cultures, and intangible heritage. The article concludes by pointing out the necessity of adopting a balanced, sensitive heritage zoning policy in order to prevent degradation of a small gem of incredible India in Madhya Pradesh.  The Academic tours with Navina Jafa pursue to bring to the audience the complexity of the Indian civilization in the most entertaining and simple matter with a  narrative that aims to highlight in a parallel manner realistic issues of cultural skill mapping, sustainable development, and conservation of local intangible heritage.


 Bundelas of Bundelkhand

The Bundela (Boondela) Rajputs (16-17thc) of Orchha in Bundelkhand fought valiantly, they played political games with Mughals, and later with the British. They built, painted, loved and explored spirituality. Their mytho- historicity says that a clan of Rajputs who were banished from Varanasi sought refuge in the Vidhyachal Hills.[1] There their leader offered prayers to the Vidhyachal Devi or the Hill goddess, and when his prayers remained unheard, the Rajput went on to cut his head.  As soon as one drop (Boond) of blood fell on the sacrificial stone, the Goddess appeared and granted the exiled Rajput supreme power to rule over a territory. He and his clan came to be called Boondela (Bundela) and reigned over Boondelkhand (Bundelkhad) which is today not only a geographical setting but is defined by Bundeli a linguistic culture.

vindhyachal devi
Vindhanchal Devi
vindhyachal hills
Vindhachal Hills

The Bundelkhand region is made of an old landmass comprising of rugged rocks that date back to the pre-Cambrian period, it is defined by an undulating terrain, rocky outcrops, narrow valleys and plains watered by several tributaries of the Yamuna. This geographical environment where security and water were ensured thus emerged as the chosen territory to establish a safe haven of power.

Rocks on Betwa 2



One of the Bundela clans ruled over a high raised land (Udcha) a word which is believed to have been distorted to Orchha.  Getting off at the chaotic Jhansi station in Uttar Pradesh (this is the nearest railway station to Orchha on the broad gauge), one travels along a meandering border section into the state of  Madhya Pradesh where the entry into the quiet Orchha town is marked by forest area, small streams that can be seen in the Monsoons, a grand Gate that welcomes the visitor to a kingdom of brave Spirited Kings,  and into a town marked by an imposing iron bridge, huge palaces, temples and other structures picturesquely located against the central Natural heritage of the largest tributary of the Yamuna – the Betwa River.



rocks on betwa


Despite, the blessings of the Goddess Vidhyachal, the Orchha rulers drew their legitimacy of kingship from the male Vaishnav incarnation of Ram and Krishna.[2]  which is evident both in paintings and architecture in Orchha. For example, one experiences the idea of Vishnu boldly captured in the aerial view of the architectural planning of the Caturbhuj Temple (Four-armed Vishnu Temple).  The temple appears as if it itself is the form of the powerful robust Vishnu in metaphoric stone designed as if he Vishnu is striding the sky.


Chaturbhuj Temple



Whatever is seen as built heritage, hides within the walls fascinating political intrigues of power games.  Orchha kings at one point of time sided with the rebellious Mughal crown prince Salim (Jahangir) against his father (Akbar) such that Abul Fazl, the writer of the famous Akbarnama, chronicler of Akbar’s reign and Akbar’s close friend was murdered by the Bir Singh Deo of Orchha and for this Deo was awarded by Emperor Jahangir the crown of Orchha.


Akbar and the Jahangir Mahal

Phool Bagh





The association of the King of Orchha and Emperor Jahangir assumed a tangible form in Orchha. A palace called Jahanagir Mahal, along with an elaborate garden (phool bagh) to welcome him were constructed. This garden with amazing hydraulics also has a large sculpted receptacle which is believed to have served the dual purpose of a wine cup for Jahangir and on other occasions was used during the festivities of Holi to fill colored water.

Themes political




Temples, palaces, gardens and other structures incorporate Non-Islamic architectural features of Chajjas (eaves), canopied balconies (jharokhas) and Torans (decorative elaborate doorways) along with motifs of peacocks and elephants.

view   Gate


These blend with the Islamic features reflected in the octagonal ribbed domes decorated with blue tiles, aligned corridors, perforated screens, balconies that provide unique views or darshan to Gods, Kings, and Nature in conjunction with hydraulic features and unique Persian cool wind circulation contraptions called dastgir.

alignment 1


alignment   dancing the monument



Dastgir – Persian – For Cool water circulation



The bold setting of architecture does not fail to communicate the militarized character of the buildings which is balanced by the grace and beauty presented in a quaint style of bright colored and single colored wall paintings in the palaces and temples. The paintings capture the folk styles and the themes are from Vaishnav mythologies, regular activities of entertainment such as dance, wrestling, processions and local mythical folk figures.


Some themes and iconographical placement are interesting, for example in the private chambers of King and Queen in Raja Mahal palace there are paintings that assert the Kings association with Vishnu in which is presented their concept of the king as a  protector. This also reiterates the belief of the King as the supreme male principal who is empowered by Shakti the feminine principal. To elaborate this, for examples there is the painting of Gajendra Moksh a myth that recounts Vishnu as a protector is seen saving a repenting prince reborn as an elephant from the jaws of a crocodile. This is juxtaposed with another panel in a niche in the same space where the metaphor of the elephant is presented as a power symbol. The elephant painting technically called Hasti kunj is one where the body of the animal is made of multiple women in action (dancing, playing instruments decorating themselves), conveying that the power of the elephant is resourced from Shakti represented in the women; and yet, ironically the idea of power itself is in the hand of the male, and this is shown with a man riding the elephant.





One of the lasting contributions of the court of Orchha was the poetry of the court poet Keshavdas. While Keshav Das has in his poetry amply celebrated the Betwa river, and Orchha, it his famed poetics Rasikpriya inspired by the court dancer Rai Praveen (perceived as Keshavdas’ Radha) and her lover Prince Indrajit (as Krishna) that has emerged as a classical work. The presentation of Orchha is enhanced by referring to the poetry on Rai Praveen that describes her beauty, wit and love for the Prince. The theme of poetry and art is most appropriate in the Anand Mahal commonly known as the palace of Rai Praveen. It is a restored structure with underground marble rooms, fountains and charming gardens that evokes romance in the audience.

Leaflet from a painted version of Rasikpriya; Rai Praveen 


The palace and garden of Rai Praveen


Ram Raja Temple


The focus of Orchha for the people at the grassroots is its identity as a pilgrimage town.  In the pilgrimage tourism map the Ram Raja Temple takes a central place. The temple houses an image of Lord Ram brought by a queen from his birth place – Ayodhya. The sacred calendar follows all festivities associated with the epic story of Ram that manifest as rituals and multiple rural pilgrim melas fairs.  The sacred space of Orchha also includes the Chaturbhuj Temple, the temple of the folk deity  of Hardol in the Ram Bagh and the sacred Betwa River.

mela ram raja temple bridge



The story of Hardol the spiritual prince of Orchha’s royal family is about political intrigue and political murder. However, Hardol is transformed as a folk deity representing an auspicious force related to marriage ceremonies and fertility rituals. His baithak  or temple is a small grilled enclosure that is placed amidst a beautifully laid out Mughal Garden where thousands of pilgrims tie marriage invitation cards, newly married couples seek blessings as they start their life together, and couples send their prayers to godling Hardol to grant children. Colorful scenes of women adorned to present their marital status, dynamic bazaars selling religious and fertility objects, CDs of songs in a genre called Bundeli Geet Natika in honor of  Hardol, along with pilgrims lazing around make this part a palpable hotspot of frenzy energy.  



The Sacred River Betwa is marked by ghats (Flight of steps to the rivers) that functions for cremation/funerary rites, and sacred ritual baths. One special ghat is the Kanchan Ghat (the ghat of Gold) of which the oral history goes that the religious King of Orchha Madhukar Shah performed raas (Circular metaphysical dance of Krishna with Radha) in the full moon night with yellow flowers strewed around making them look like gold under the moonbeams. More than 600000 pilgrims in a year from nearby places visit Orchha and are part of the spiritual fervor and festivities that defines the vibrancy of the religious economy of the town.

Kanchan ghat




The connectivity of trains and improved roads has made Orchha accessible to two popular tourist circuit – Gwalior-Agra and Khajuraho. Hence, besides the ongoing energetic pilgrimage tourism based on the rural social event calendar, there is now a surge in popular tourism. It is not surprising that quite a few eclectic hotels have come up along with associated service providers. However, what needs to be kept in mind and to be done is the participation of local and state governing bodies to address and regulate matters related to sensitive heritage zoning, building regulations, and strict heritage policing associated with water, natural environment, and plastics management so that a responsible sustainable tourism is established. One has to take care that  the essence of the exalted outlines of the chattris (Cenotaphs) against the sublime Betwa River representing  the metaphor of the Samadhi  or dissolution, where the  super consciousness are experienced in the rising towering of the almost Gothic like Lakshmi  temple and the bold Chaturbhuj  temple does not recede in oblivion due to callous  Heritage Management to sustain and conserve a slice of Incredible India.



[1] The Vindhya Range is geologically a broken, discontinuous chain of mountain ridges along a hilly track that runs through small hills, highlands and plateau in West-Central India.  This geological space is interpreted as a  sacred geography associated with the Vindhyachal Devi whose central Shrines is situated not in this area but in Mirzapir near Varanasi. The Shrine of the Mountain Goddess forms a part of the 108 Shaktipeets or the 108 locations where body parts of the Great Mother Goddess in the form of Sati fell. It is believed that the back of the Goddess fell at this location. The transformation of the Goddess into the Sacred Mapping of Tantra finds that the goddess is located in the Yantra/Mandala or Sacred geometrical map in honor of the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi, where she is in the form of a Mountain considered to be the source of eternal power.


[2] The Hindu trilogy of the principals of creation, protection and destruction (to engender re-creation) is encapsulated in the anthromorphic ideas of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu the protection principal is depicted two streams as Vishnu the savior the idea of Vishnu itself through several stories like Gajendra Moksha and the other are parallel stories of his ten incarnations that appear at different points of mythological periods in various forms to replace the disorder with order, the evil with goodness. Of these 10 incarnation as the forms of Vishnu as Ram, and Krishna.


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Balochistan 1

हाल में हिंद महासागर से जुड़ी भू राजनीति के विषय में ग्वादर और चाबहार बंदरगाह काफी चर्चित रहें हैं। इस सख़्त कूटनीति के शतरंज के खेल में भूल जाते हैं कि आविष्कार नरम कूटनीति एक आकर्षक क्षमता रखती है। अगर आधुनिक दृष्टि से देखा जाए, यह दोनों बंदरगाह हालांकि पाकिस्तान व ईरान में स्थित हैं, मगर उनकी अंदरूनी प्राकृतिक पहचान बलूचिस्तान कि बलूचिता है जिसमें हमें ज्यादातर लगता है कि वहाँ के लोग केवल पहाड़ी और मुसलमान हैं मगर एक आम धारणा है कि वह लोग घुमंतू व खेती-बाड़ी के जीवन में लिपटे हैं।

Balochistan 2

हम नज़रअंदाज़ कर देते हैं कि उनकी आंतरिक सामूहिक स्मृति में पश्चिम, मध्य तथा दक्षिण एशिया और यूनानी संबंधों की छवि दिखाई देती है। उनकी धारणाओं में हिंदु, ज़ोराष्ट्रियता और सूफी के रंग शामिल हैं जो कि उनकी अनेक भाषाओं में, हाथ कलाओं में, नाच-गाने,रस्मोरिवाज़, जीवन-मरण की प्रथा तथा परंपराओं में प्रदर्शित होतीं हैं। यह सारी छवियां हमें याद करने पर मजबूर कर देती हैं कि मनुष्य का इतिहास अलग-अलग समय पर ज़मीन व समुद्र पर सदियों से चला आ रहा है और यह विचारधाराओं और परंपराओं के अदले-बदले के रूपरेखा के सिलसिले का प्रमाण है।

Balochistan 3

यह ही सांस्कृतिक धागे भारत को इस बलूचिस्तान के इलाके से एक अटूट बंधन में जोड़ देता है। कितनी ही आधुनिक राजनीतिक दीवारें खड़ी हो जाएँ यह बंधन कायम रहता है। एक ऐसा पहलू भारत को बालुचिस्तान तथा एशियाई देशों से जोड़ता है और वह है देवी के पंथ की परंपरा चाहे वह ईरान में इश्तार के नाम से जानी जाती है चाहे अफ़गानिस्तान में नाना के नाम से और चाहे हिंगलाज देवी की प्रथा। हिंगलाज देवी बलूच में काफी मान्यता रखतीं हैं। पौराणिक कहानी के अनुसार यह सती की कहानी से जुड़ी है। हिंगलाज देवी शाक्तों में 52 पीठ में से एक पीठ मानी जातीं हैं।

balochistan 4

balochistan 6


इस जोड़ की कहानी सती की कहानी से जुड़ी है माना जाता है कि  देवी का सिर इसी स्थान पर गिरा था और यह अमूल्य कड़ी देवी की प्रथा से जुड़ जाती है। हिंगलाज देवी की पीठ पाकिस्तान में, हिंगोल राष्ट्र पार्क, लास बेला प्रान्त मकरन्त तट में बीहड़ पहाड़ों के बीचों-बीच में स्थित है, जिसकी तीर्थ-यात्रा बहुत कठिन व जटिल है और आज के आतंकवाद और राजनीतिक गड़बड़ी के कारण और भी खतरनाक बन गयी है।

balochistan 5

हिंदुस्तान में भी हिंगलाज देवी काफी सारे सांस्कृतिक सामूहिक से जुड़ीं  हैं। यह ज़रूर है कि हिंगलाज देवी शाक्तों के लिए खास है मगर यह भी आगे आता है कि हिंगलाज देवी की गुफा के अंदर एक शिला है जिसकी मान्यता गोरखनाथ कानफाटों के लिए दीक्षा समारोह के समय बहुत महत्त्वपूर्णता रखती है और सांस्कृतिक सामाजिक समूह जैसे कि अनेक व्यापारी कृषि समूह खत्री, चारण और आबाणियों के लिए भी यह ईष्ट देवी का स्थान रखतीं हैं और तो और हिंगलाज देवी के धार्मिक परिदृश्य के आसपास कई कुंड हैं, एक तिल का कुंड है जहां माना जाता है कि काले तिल धोने पर वह सफेद हो जाते हैं।

balochistan 7

सेंटर फॉर न्यू पर्सपेक्टिव एक दिल्ली में स्थित गैर सरकारी संगठन प्रबंध मंडल ने स्किल कॉरिडोर-कौशल गलियारी का विचार आगे रखा है और इस संकल्पना पर सेंटर फ़ॉर न्यू पर्सपेक्टिव के पास ट्रेडमार्क, व कॉपीराइट भी है। सेंटर फॉर न्यू पर्सपेक्टिव पारम्परिक कौशलताओं  में काम कर रहा है, इस छोटे से गैर सरकारी संगठन ने भारत और एशिया के अनेक हिस्सों पर स्किल मैपिंग का काम किया है। उसके विचार में यह बलूचिस्तान से भारत को जोड़ने में एक अनोखा मौका है जिसमें साझा सांस्कृतिक भूगोल एक अनोखी कूटनीति का अवसर बन सकता है, जिसमें हम एक पारंपरिक सांस्कृतिक कौशलता गलियारी (स्किल कॉरिडोर) का निर्माण कर सकते हैं। इस योजना की सहायता में भारत अनेक एशियाई देशों के साथ पारंपरिक कौशलताओं के सतत विकास प्रोग्राम के साथ-साथ लोगों का आदान-प्रदान बढ़ा सकता है और भावी एशिया की अनोखी पहचान बनाने में वह अपनी प्रमुख भूमिका अदा कर सकता है।




From Compassion to Militancy- Reversing A Sacred Metaphor www.navinajafa.com

Published as: Of Rats, Rituals and Rajputs in THE HINDU Friday Review : 15th December, 2017 http://www.thehindu.com/society/faith/of-rats-rituals-and-rajputs/article21665281.ece



Recently, The Rajput Karni Seva, a self-styled outfit drew attention to itself by expressing its aggressive resentment against the depiction of certain Kshatriya values in the Bollywood film Padmavati. Significant of those Rajput beliefs are drawn from the cult of Karni Mata.


The 15thc sacred shrine of the Karni Mata also known as the Rat Temple of India is located in village Desnok 30 kilometers from Bikaner in the Marwar region of the Thar Desert.As one nears the temple, it is inevitable that the internet images of the more than 20,000 rats makes one skeptical on enduring the presence of the rodents and simultaneously reconciling to the blessing if a rat crawls over one’s feet.

Karni Mata-2

Intricately carved rows of sculpted rats on the borders of the door panel with a tree of life in the center forms on the marble gates presents the theme of co-existence where predators and prey namely, rats, serpents, and squirrels and lizards are woven within the branches of the tree.

Karni Mata- 11



On crossing the threshold rats are evident everywhere in the courtyard and beyond and yet they fail to frighten. A sublime energy of calm fills the visitor who is transformed into a pilgrim. His audience with the image in the sanctum is intensified by the phonetic poetic devise sonorous flow dingal sung by the dholis, describing the story and miracles of Karni Mata.

Dholis singing dingal

The goddess as dharini represents the female principal in Nature, upholding human, animal and natural creation, she symbolizes compassion, coexistence, and nonviolence.

The ritual priests of the temple known as the Charan Brahmins draw on the one hand their ritual sacred identity as children of Karni Mata and on the other hand their antiquity from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and even the Jain Prabandha where they are mentioned as bards and minstrels.  And while on the one hand, the Charans sing elegies and genealogies of monarchs that connect the Rajputs to mythological pasts and timeless dharma and which function to legitimize the power of the rulers; for example, a bardic rendition mentions that it was Karni Mata who defined the political territories for the Rajput rulers of Bikaner, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. On the other hand, Karni Mata is perceived in other narratives as a protector of the pastoral and marginalized communities. The metaphor of the Goddess serves to invoke coexistence of disparate human classes and emphasis nonviolence.

The local spiritual creed of Karni Mata is linked to a larger canvas with that of the cult of the Great Mother Goddess – the idea of Shakti. Her story is connected to that of Devi Hinglaj whose temple is located within the Hingol National Park in the Lasbela District of Baluchistan on the Makran coast in Pakistan.  It is one of the 52 Shakti peeth, which are major shrines associated with the cult of the Mother Goddess. Hinglaj Devi was reborn as Karni Mata to a Charnan Brahmin couple who had only daughters. From an early age, the child exhibited miracles and was bestowed the name Karni, ‘the doer’ by her paternal aunt when the latter was cured of her paralyzes. Later, to relieve her parents, young Karni married Kipoji Charan of Sathika village, but before the marriage was consummated she revealed herself as a Devi to her husband and commanded him to marry her younger sister by whom there were among several children four boys. When one male child died, it is believed that Karni went to ask for his life from Yama, the God of death who refused to say that to bring the boy alive will be an intervention in the natural cycle of life and death meant for all living organisms.  Karni admitted that she was in the wrong, but her compassionate nature made her tell Yama that from now on, the responsibility of all the children from her family will be hers. They will be born in two forms – as rats or Kaaba and as men they are known as Charans.  Secondly, they will remain in her in her service in the temple, and her space will remain for them until eternity their earth, heaven, and hell. As Kaaba they carry a special spiritual energy and an occasional white rat is a goddess herself. The sacred food blessed by the Kaabas is known to have cured ailments and diseases including plague. What is more amazing is that there has never been any plague or disease usually associated with rodents, neither is there any smell of dead Kaabas or attacks on the Kaabas by cats or desert snake, and even though they are fed with ample food, the Kaabas are all of one size.

Karni Mata

The spiritual importance of the symbol of the Karni Mata as that of nonviolence, protector, peaceful coexistence and provider of the power legitimacy to the Rajputs who are supposed to function to uphold these values is ironically subverted by the Rajput Karni Sena in their assertion of a new kind of political power.








India-Balochistan Ports & Potential of Cultural skill Diplomacy www.navinajafa.com

Published in an Editorial – titled –  “A Shared Cultural Map

Much more than politics and security links Balochistan and India” –  Much more than politics and security links Balochistan and India on 13th December, 2017 as an editorial piece in the Indian Express :




While at this point in time the geopolitics surrounding the Indian Ocean has placed the ports of Gwadar and Chabahar in the center stage of an engaging chess game of power, the cultural ecology of these ports on land provides an alluring potential of the creation of crafting inventive soft diplomatic links in the cultural territory of the ports which are defined by the idea of the Baluch.

baloch - 1


The Balochi a semi-nomadic, pastoral community carry with them the cultural heritage as the collective memory of the West, Central and South Asia along with Greek connections. And while they are Muslims, the strains of other beliefs such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Sufism colour various aspects of their traditional cultural heritage. Their language, bardic traditions, and other traditional knowledge skills covering linguistics, crafts, performing arts, rituals, and warring, pastoral and agricultural traditions recall an underlined cultural map of different parts of Asia and an ethos of human ideas exchanged on land and sea through centuries.

baloch - 2

One such aspect is the mytho-historical thread addressing a variety of cults of the Mother Goddess which are represented to name a few as Ishtar, Nana and Hinglaj.  In this, the cult of the Hinglaj has a special place in Baloch. The Hinglaj Temple is located within the Hingol National Park in the Lasbela District of Baluchistan on the Makran coast in Pakistan.


It is one of the 51 Shakti peeth, which are major shrines associated with the cult of the Mother Goddess. The locations of these shrines correspond to places where dismembered body parts of the goddess fell and in Hinglaj it was the head of the Goddess.  The temple like that of Vaishnav Devi is in a cave which is situated among rugged mountains. The pilgrims include not only Hindus but also the Zikri Baloch who call the pilgrimage Nani ki Haj. Even, despite the political challenges in the area, it is the Balouch Muslims who continue to protect the shrine and ensure the success of the annual fair associated with shrine as a metaphor of a vibrant living heritage of the Balouch territory.

Zikr Balochi

In India, Hinglaj Devi forms an important part of the cultural geography of large numbers of traders, pastoral and agricultural communities like Khatris, Charans and Rabaris.  And, while the shrine is important for the Shaktas, it acquires special significance for the Kan Phata Gorak Nath Yogi (torn ear ascetics) cult as well. For them, the sacred stone that lies in the temple shrine has importance in the initiation ceremony.  Yet another part of the spiritual landscape is the water bodies of kunds like the Til Kund or black sesame pond where it is believed that the black seeds when washed with the pond water become white.

And while the evident geopolitical importance of Baluchistan plays a role in areas of economics, security and other areas of hard diplomacy, the shared traditional cultural heritage skills and knowledge can create the potential for an inventive trajectory of soft power. There can be the idea of not only road and ocean routes but also creation of Skill corridor a term for which the Centre for New Perspectives, a think tank that works on Traditional knowledge skills has a copyright of. The creation of a skill corridor characterized by a fascinating cultural ecology can actually develop sustainable skill programs, augment the realistic people to people contact on the grassroots level which are energized by recalling the past and building the future of unique Asian Identity.

The author is an academic on Heritage, traditional knowledge skill sector and classical dancer





Politicization of the Humayun’s Tomb Ten Silver Arrows That Miss Their Mark www.navinajafa.com



Author with Condolezza Rice, former Secretary of State, (USA) at the Humayun’s Tomb. She has presented the other aspects of Delhi’s Heritage to large number of World Leaders . Each Delhi Heritage walk is specially curated for the participants


Attempts to politicize heritage sites — first the Taj Mahal and now Humayun’s tomb — for narrow ends continually undermine the huge cultural economic value of heritage for the country… This article was published in the  Hindu Business Line B Link – http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/know/politicising-heritage-sites/article9971654.ece

Barely has the world-beloved Taj Mahal shrugged off the controversial and communally divisive remarks made about it by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party than another Mughal-era site finds itself mired in politics. It all began with the Shia Central Waqf Board chairman Waseem Rizvi writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a proposal to demolish Humayun’s tomb to create additional burial space for Muslims in the space-starved National Capital Region.

Built by Humayun’s queen and her son, the great Mughal emperor Akbar, the tomb today bears a dual identity as a national monument and a world heritage site. This glocalised (global-local) status locates the monument in a neutral space, devoid of any religious identity and as a universal symbol of human creativity, knowledge, and skills.

Additionally, the tomb is a seminal part of a larger ecosystem — one in which it has always existed, and which is also constantly changing. The dynamics of the changing external environment and its own dual status together determine the site’s realistic and holistic identity.


The History Keepers

Khawaja Hasan Nizami and Navina
author with Late Khawaja Hasan Nizami Sani

As a heritage presenter and researcher, my engagement with Humayun’s tomb and its landscape developed with my interaction with the late Khwaja Hasan Nizami Sani, the head caretaker of the Sufi shrine Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah. He gave me access to diaries and oral narratives on the area. Here, for instance, is his account of the area presently known as Nizamuddin, where “…the dargah of Khwaja Hazrat Nizamuddin has always dominated the surroundings of the (Humayun’s) tomb… today you see a filthy environment, but there was a time when there were swaying agricultural fields, waterways along with the river Yamuna close by. I recall a bridge that had to be crossed to enter the Sufi complex… there were orchards such as Anarkali ka bagh, which is where Ghalib is buried. Along with the ongoing Urs and festivities associated with Sufis, the basti (local neighbourhood) celebrated Dussehra for 10 days. Each day had distinct celebrations and events such as the Tesu Ka Mela (fair) and a mushaira (poetry meet) in which each participant was required to create and present extempore poetry on themes having social, political or historical relevance. A large number of these poetic renditions became popular and were passed down orally, including in the form of folk songs.”


Hasan Sani was kind enough to share an interesting poem on the events of 1857, along with small satirical poetry pieces that were commentaries on public figures and community events. Some of these cultural expressions are described in the diaries and other writings in the possession of the caretakers. These together with the oral historical narratives on Humayun’s tomb and its surroundings are an important part of the history and heritage of Delhi.

On one occasion, walking me through Humayun’s tomb, Hasan Sani carried with him a small book on the history of Delhi. He described the Arab ki Sarai (caravanserai) in the complex: “…until about the 1930s the Sarai had functioning shops and also a post office. I recall the visit of a British officer by the name of Young, who came home to meet my father. He informed him that all the people living and functioning in the Sarai were going to be relocated to a new area. Yes, that new area was named Youngpura, after the officer, and is today known as Jungpura.”

On Sufi terrain

Humayun’s tomb was, and remains an integral part of the Sufi landscape — a heritagescape comprising tombs, shops, eateries, festivities and living cultural traditions such as Sufi singers, free kitchens (langars) and water carriers (bishtis), all of which revolve around the Sufi tombs known as dargahs — with which the Mughals were known to have a close link. The khadims (caretakers) of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah were also in charge of the tomb’s management until the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took over in the early 20th century. The tomb was built close to the chilla khana (meditation rooms) of Hazrat Nizamuddin.

This heritagescape is not limited to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin but also encompasses, for instance, other dargahs like the Matka Pir and Bibi Fatima Sam in the vicinity of the Purana Qila (the fort built by Sher Shah Suri); these too were managed by the khadims of the Nizamuddin dargah. While Matka Pir’s tomb is 800 years old and belongs to the Qalandar Sufi sect, pre-dating Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah, the Bibi Fatima Sam dargah is a Chisti Sufi shrine and belongs to the guru-behen (sister through transmission lineage). It follows then that both Hazrat Nizamuddin and Bibi Fatima Sam were the disciples of Baba Farid of Pakpattan (now in Pakistan).

matka pir
Matka Pir


Emperor Akbar was known to have conducted annual pilgrimages to the Sufi shrine in Ajmer and supposedly visited Matka Pir before coming to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin. In fact, Maham Anga, Akbar’s wet nurse who was a learned person, had commissioned the Khairul Manzil, an important madrasa (educational institution) located close to Matka Pir.

Today, owing to the unplanned construction of roads and other buildings, the Sufi landscape around the Purana Qila stands delinked from the original cultural-geographical setting of Humayun’s tomb. The tomb and its surroundings serve, within the 16th-century context, as an emblem of the Mughal-Sufi relationship and as a record of the strategies the Mughals adopted for their empire-building, wherein they engaged with not just the Chistis but also the Central Asian Naqshbandi Sufi sect for political benefits.

Enclosed within walls today, Humayun’s tomb is a space containing, apart from the graves, well-kept gardens, a stepwell and a mosque. However, thanks to its location amid modern-day constructions, including a railway station, its heritagescape is characterized as much by the chaos of sounds and movements, as by the spaces of silence, stillness, and peace. The area presents a potpourri of contrasting neighbourhoods — chic communities in close proximity with slums and illegal constructions, long-time residents and floating populations, visible human suffering and a frenzy of faith in mystical spirituality.

Ruins of politics

A restoration programme initiated in the 1990s by the Agha Khan Foundation, in partnership with the ASI and other stakeholders, proved to be timely. Marked by a holistic heritage conservation approach, it helped bring out the best in the visual, functional and inherent character of the heritagescape. The foundation, while conserving the monument, had the courage to address the many contested claims to rights on land and built area in the heritage landscape, and did all this with active community participation. Today, Humayun’s tomb and the Nizamuddin basti exemplify an engagement of heritage conservation as sustainable development, where the value of the past has meshed with the needs of the present, and where there is a deliberate strategy to construct a greater value for the local people, as well as visitors.

Coming back to the Shia Waqf board, its recent stance smacks of irony. On one hand it recently announced a gift of 10 silver arrows for the quiver of the proposed 100-m statue of Lord Ram in Ayodhya — the site of the demolition of a historic mosque — and on the other it seeks to demolish Humayun’s tomb in a move that conveniently ignores the historically harmonious equation between the Sunni Mughals and Shias. While it is true that Humayun’s tomb is indeed perceived as a Sunni monument, it is also as much a fact that the two most well-known Mughal queens, Noor Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal Prime Minister Safdarjung and several other influential and prominent courtly personalities were Shias.

Such attempts to politicise historic sites for narrow ends continually undermine the huge cultural economic value of heritage for the country, weaken the idea of incredible India, and erode the country’s image as a participant in the ongoing creation of glocalised heritage.

Navina Jafa is vice-president of the Centre for New Perspectives, a think-tank on traditional knowledge, an academic and curator on heritage and of heritage walks and tours. She is a well known Kathak classical dancer



God of Justice in Uttranchal – Golu Devta www.navinajafa.com


Driving about eight kilometres from Almora in the hill state of Uttranchal there stands the fascinating Chitai temple with acervate of thousand bells hanging around the temple complex.

bells in chitai

The bells vary in sizes and are caparisoned with fluttering red ribbons and threads that hold strips of paper that include battered letter envelopes, government bond- stamp papers. The Chitai along with others in Champawat and Gorakhal are the temples in honour of the most revered Godlings of Kumaon called Golu Devta (also called Goril and Gwalanath.) Golu represents social justice.



Even as there are rivers, valleys, pinewoods, an environment rich in medicinal plants, snow-capped mountains, life in general in the hills is rather tough. Access to courts and justice both in terms of money and actual means to reach the courts is not easy.



Mr. Gyan Joshi a priest at the Chitai temple states the fact that to actually go to courts that are quite far from villages needs both time and money. They need justice by means that is convenient and accessible. Then there are people who are helpless and are against someone who they cannot confront for fear of the power and influence of the accused. It is Golu Dev who comes to their aid and it is with his help that they get justice. Joshi went on to narrate how the Godling has assisted several people to get justice.  He recounted how a young woman whose husband would go to the city to seek seasonal work was intermittently raped by her father in law. “She had no place to go or anyone in whom she could confide her suffering and dilemma. It is believed that she filed a petition in the Chitai temple within a short period her father in law contracted leprosy. There have been incidents when a man has been cheated of his rights on a piece of land by his brother, after petitioning to Golu Dev he found that self-realization dawned on his brother who then resorted to giving him his rights over the contentious land. Golu either punishes the accused, or he assists in making the accused change his mind to follow dharma.

“Prayers to Golu Devta are the only answer to face epidemics, natural calamities and enemies who resort to black magic to harm others. He is the Ishta devta (personal deity) for a large number of people and families in Kumaon,” says Himani Pande archivist with the Indira Gandhi Center for the Arts.      The ritualistic procedure associated with the court of Golu comprises of the complainant writing a petition and posting it or placing it in the temple. “Thick smothered moth-eaten stacks and bundles of ancient appeals for justice, written on watermarked stamped papers are crammed into the lofts of the temple. On getting justice goats are sacrificed as an offering of thanksgiving; or those who abhor animal sacrifice offer huge brass bells, sweets, fruits and cash instead,” says Himani.

Bhimtal 2015

There are about twenty-five Godlings in Kumaon in whom the God-fearing bestow their faith and devotion. The origin of most Godlings is rather obscure although each is said to be linked with the Gods of the Greater Tradition especially the trinity –Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh; some of them have come into prominence in the past five hundred years.

Golu is considered to be an ‘avatar’ (reincarnation) of Bhairava considered to be a fierce deity, a manifestation of Shiva symbolizing dissolution, and in Buddhism, he is perceived as a protective deity. Golu was the son of Raja Jhalroa (circa 14thcentury). As a child, he was pushed into a pitcher packed with salt by his stepmothers who then went on to throw the pitcher into the Gori Ganga.  Apparently, the salt turned into sugar and the child was magically nursed back to life by local villagers. Since the child was found in Gori Ganga he was called Goril, which over time was distorted to Golu.

One day, Goril rode his wooden pony to the river and tried to make it drink water. On the same location, his stepmothers were bathing. Seeing Goril’s efforts to make his wooden pony drink water they ridiculed him. Golu calmly responded, “Can a woman give birth to a gourd?” Evidently, the stepmothers on Goril’s birth had remarked that his mother had given birth to a gourd. Soon his father came to know the cruel, unlawful behaviour of the queens and ordered them to be killed. He also asked Goril to come back and claim his heritage of a ruling prince, but Goril renounced the world and became a maverick saint.


Golu is considered to be benevolent deity symbolizing love, justice, and dharma. He is easily appeased and does not call for pompous rituals. Dharma is an eminent concept that engenders harmony in society. Dharma incorporates both neeti (to lead a life that is compatible with social and family norms) and nyaya or social justice.

Golu, as he is now popularly known today, was depicted by a simple, grotesque dark rock. The tradition of Golu worship has changed considerably over time. Today the temples of Golu have a dark figure riding a pony. The offerings in yesteryears were simple, but in present times petitions are made with elaborate offerings and pujas. One of the interesting developments has been the offering of kichadi or small packets with rice and black gram. This offering has been associated with tantric practices to ward off evil. In addition, there are now small prayer books of Golu Chalisa available.

For local people, the Golu represents fast-track justice. He exemplifies solutions to everyday problems hence even the mention of his name works wonders. For instance, a principal of a school only when he threatened to petition Golu was he able to stop the villagers from letting their cows from entering and damaging the school fields. Next time you are climbing the hills of Uttranchal make sure you do not miss the backside of trucks that have– Horn Please, and Jai Golu Dev written. Golu watches over the operators and drivers, countering the risks of technology and travel. In whispers, the Kumaonis say, “Wrongdoers fall ill and die, this form of Bhairav has dark powers…..”







Repositioning the Taj Heritagescape https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I41BSPPHRKk

Published in the QUINT: https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/yogi-adityanath-visits-taj-mahal-to-develop-tourism



UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit to the Taj Mahal amidst controversial statements by members of the BJP against iconic monument saw him symbolically ‘clean’ a spot left dirty for the photo opportunity as part of promoting swachh Bharat.  The unfortunate attempt to communalize the biggest Cultural Heritage Economic ticket undercuts PM Modi’s vision of the surging rocket ‘India’ as Incredible, Smart, and much more. Uncapacious, attention seeking and provocative remarks from these commanders are as distracting as tweets of another leader elsewhere.


Hypothetically speaking, if one does get swayed by currents of flowing divisive politics and the Wonder of the World is pulled down then what is central disjunction we see apart from drawing parallels with the fallen Bamiyan Buddha?

It reflects the lack of neglecting cultural economics and imbalance in sustainable development related not to a monument but to an entire heritagescape ecosystem of which the Taj Mahal is a part.  The identity of a heritage building is dynamic and changes within the context of the ecosystem in which it lives.

To begin with, the structure was established as a rauza or a shrine-tomb, and when the Mughals transferred their capital to Delhi, local communities of and in the city interacted with the Taj.  The structure was a seminal part of an ecosystem comprising of the river heritage of the Yamuna on one side and the bazaar of Tajganj on the other. Due to the constant human movement because of the river, and the township, there was an integral participation of the dwellers of the medieval town with the heritagescape surrounding the site.

As in other prominent Mughal buildings, the building of Taj is an example of intangible living heritage skills all of which are relevant by themselves and are the source of livelihood for several traditionally skilled communities and contribute to the commerce of the city.

The tangible heritagescape constituting the main structure, surrounding gardens and buildings went together with the intangible living heritage embodied in a canvas of traditional skills (crafts, performative arts, wrestling, cuisine), along with festivals such as tairaki ka mela (swimming festival) and colorful markets in Tajganj and till date even the fascinating heritage of art and photography associated with the Taj Mahal.  The trajectory of the changing identity of the Taj Mahal, along with the commerce of tourism has created a disjunction between the Taj and the City.

The upward mobility of the Taj in the hierarchy of heritage sites went parallel to its isolation from the city.  Beginning with its status first as a National Monument, then as a world heritage site and finally a wonder of the world, the Taj has become bigger than and has been cut off from the ecosystem that it was a part of. The Taj is not only a part of a great historic city and a cultural region it is also seen as a symbol of refinement and perfection.  This is exemplified by the use of its name in commercial products such as Tea, hotel chains and much more.

The isolation of the site heritagescape was visually and experientially enhanced by the manner in which the government created and developed tourism. Either visitors can come and go for a day without really having to stay in Agra, or if they do, they can do so without being in the city.

Much of the heritage of Agra covering its commerce and vibrant ‘Mandis ‘, it’s cosmopolitanism as seen in the mohallas, havelis and vast catholic settlement dating from Akbar‘s time, it’s literary and musical heritage has been marginalised. In fact, even the imposing Sikandra, the tomb of the Great Abkar is omitted from the tourist’s list after the coming of the Yamuna Expressway.




In contrast, one sees the example of Angkor Vat, and how the Cambodians have created a successful economic value of and from the entire heritage ecosystem surrounding the world heritage site. This strategic tourism journey was constructed as part of rebuilding the country after a traumatic experience of genocide. Presently, not only are tourists compelled to stay at least one night in Angkor, but most hotels have a tie-up with the immensely successful Phare Circus which began as part of the reconstruction post the genocide to reclaim cultural skills and narratives related to the Khmer culture. The circus provides scintillating shows over dinner in most hotels for tourists ranging from bag packers to high-end travellers. This has enabled the Phare circus to provide employment for its artists on all 365 days of the year, to run a school, create a 1.9 million dollar creative industry and reclaim to conserve the heritage of the Khmer culture.

Reverting to the Taj, the first important fact remains that as an entity it is a money-spinning wheel. The visit by the chief minister who is expected to launch a tourist pathway connecting the two world heritage sites Taj and Agra Fort, along with the proposed 370 Cr development plan for the city and an international airport will hopefully not only counter the  recent attempts to communalize the entity of the Taj Mahal  but move to address the opportunity and economic value that can evolve by the assertion of a neutral space for the cultural and traditional landscape, and secondly work to create a holistic development approach towards not just the Taj, but the entire cultural heritage ecosystem so that there is a tangible illustration of income generation possibilities and sustainable responsible tourism.

Please write to @navinajafa or http://www.navinajafa.com





Incredible India & Delhi Heritage Walks best Presented

Little did I realize that my book Performing Heritage: Art of Exhibit Walks  the first of it’s kind which speaks of the technique of doing such a Heritage Presentation genre, will inspire large number of people to curate and come into the business of Heritage walks in Delhi and other parts of the country. It’s only recently that a young boy hearing my name came and thanked me that I understood that the technique, vocabulary on Heritage Walks in the book that I introduced had become common. I even have a chapter in the book on the business of Heritage walks. Do have a look at this short video https//www.youtube.com/channel/UCnMPd6HtMxcMzDST4hMN3nA

Fossilized Existence and De-linked Directions The article was published as an editorial in the Indian Express http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/culture-needs-a-plan/ Follow on Twitter @navinajafa Website www.navinajafa.com

Navina Jafa with Kapila Vatsyayan
Dr. Vatsyayan has been one of the foremost personalities as a professional in seats of Cultural Management

The Indian Express reported that State Funded Cultural institutions have been asked to generate revenue amounting to 25-30 per cent of their budget initially and “eventually” achieve “self-sufficiency”. The idea will remain Utopian unless professional cultural managers are inducted to lead these institutions.

The government needs to create a cadre of professional cultural managers which calls for professionals with a host of skills and training. Among which is the requirement to be sensitive and knowledgeable about the wide, diverse and complex cultures and traditions of the Subcontinent. Such persons alone will be able to create business plans for these decadent institutions, provide a vision to connect them to audiences and “markets”, evolve practical strategies to conserve traditional knowledge skills and creative expressions. In the process, only then will these organizations be able to create both self-sustainability and renewed relevance for society, today they are white elephants.

Presently, most of these institutions are led either by artists (performing or visual) who have no idea of or training in administration, policy or management. Or, they are run or controlled by non-specialist bureaucrats. The few professional cultural mangers in the country are not motivated to join or head these institutions since they are unable to provide appropriate remuneration and perks and, most importantly, ensure functional autonomy. The dearth of professional cultural managers is unlikely to be addressed soon since not one eminent management institute in the country offers a programme on cultural management.

Most state-run cultural institutions across India have been unable to chart a meaningful functional role for either creative communities or for the preservation of their cultural traditions. Outreach programs that can make their creativity relevant have also not been created.

Cultural ecosystems are rocked when a cultural skill or knowledge system dies similar to when an animal species is reduced, hence large number of knowledge eco systems related to performing arts, linguistics, and crafts are endangered along with  Massive Deskilling And marginalization of large number of  Creative Communities.

There Is No Cultural Policy That Offers a Holistic and realistic approach to this complex and contested terrain. Committees to formulate policies are mostly formed with artists and cultural academicians; rarely are cultural management professionals or cultural economists invited to join them. Not surprisingly, these committees are unable evolve strategies that will ensure sustainability and conservation of creative communities, and other manifestations of the repositories of our rich cultural heritage.

In the absence of professional cultural managers, bureaucrats in charge of these institutions take up the task of making India’s great cultural heritage visible on the international cultural map. For example, the Festival of India model has not evolved since its inception in the 1980s. The exhibition model frozen and a major reason remains that many of the traditions presented have not been upgraded, and new thoughts of presentation not addressed. Similarly, Those in power are pressured to cope with international terms and frameworks and find themselves groping to address international cultural administrative jargon and fail to address these conceptual frameworks keeping in mind and ensuring the Indian  context and interest.

For instance, there is recently great attention given to ideas of cultural mapping and conservation of intangible heritage both by government and non-government institutions. However, there is a dearth of people who actually understand these complex issues or have any idea on the methodology to collect such a data which will involve large sum of public money, nor are they equipped to develop strategies to use the collected data, such that this exercise ensures sustainability of traditions and tradition bearers and creates welfare impact, poverty aversion and social transformation. Just passing directions to create themselves as sustainable organization will not generate the results, nor will choice of leasing land and infrastructure of these institutes to corporate provide a new functionality to the Cultural institutions.

There are, of course, people committed to the field of cultural management and economics. The question is if the government will induct them as professionals, as they do with scientists, health professionals and economists? If the cultural sphere is not addressed in a systematic, detached and professional manner, we risk to lose huge capital. Culture is too precious to be left Ram bharose!

Navina Jafa

 Vice President of Centre for New Perspective, on Traditional Skills and Sustainable Developm