India – Disadvantage Democracy & International Heritage Diplomacy – Dr. Navina Jafa


navina jafa Twitter & Instagram Follow :  @navinajafa


Central Vista – Delhi

It is an unwise decision by the Government to Re-design the already reclaimed Colonial Architectural Heritage of the Central Vista. Space defines the power capital of India – Delhi and asserts democracy. The re-design will not only impact tourism, but also the advantage of creating International Mutual Heritage Diplomatic programs.  Keeping the advantage in mind, it is better to re-locate rather than re-design even the debated Government of Myanmar re-located and not re-designed their power capital.

Parliament house
Iconic Indian Parliament Building



The controversy about re-designing the Central Vista, reflects the ruling party’s idea of Cultural Nationalism. This step ruptures the ‘Global advantage’ India enjoys related to international heritage diplomacy, the tourism industry and most of all, the collective memory of the creation of a republic and a democracy. The deal won by HCP Design, Planning and Management Pvt. Ltd. The firm based out of Ahmedabad ‘Gujarat’ will Re-Develop the iconic Heritage buildings and complexes – the grand circular Parliament Building, Secretariat and Central Vista by 2022. What does this really implicate especially in terms of the Global perspective and overall discourse on the Collective Heritage of a democratic Nation?


Hyderabad house
Hyderabad House around the India Gate Circle

The Government construction agency in charge the Central Public Works Department has not specified which buildings on the 3km stretch will be retrofitted or one which would be pulled down. A.G.K. Menon Convener of the Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) responded to the statement by Harpeed Singh Puri, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister the need to do away with the “colonial ethos of the country.” This widens the scope of using architecture to create deeper fissions. Not only does history have a methodology, but is also accepted and perceived with responsibility. The precedence set in demolishing colonial heritage could lead to demarcating in the name of ‘foreign’ any other kind of architecture.

mayawati park
Mayawati Park


Power and Architectural Symbolism

The politics of architectural symbolism is continuously echoed in historical processes. Politicized architecture presents a lens for perceived national or community identity by a political regime as was seen in the Mayawati parks. (refer :

Capital cities specifically are intersections between power and architecture feeding the vision of a political agenda of ‘a’ nationhood. However, the Central Government’s hurry to on ‘replace’ the identity of Delhi the Capital City of India, takes spatial politics to another level. After all, Delhi has its history of power territories represented in historic cities. The 1985 Delhi NCR Act states that NO additional government buildings should be constructed within Delhi. The proposal being pushed by the government cites for lack of office space and modern facilities.  The upgrading of heritage spaces can be done following rules and by bringing people into the debate of preserving not replacing heritagescapes. The strategy must aim to conserve the cultural, historical and humanistic values that are part of the collective narrative of Delhi’s urban spaces and that of the people of India.


The Visual Canvas for the Republic of India

Central Vista
Democratic India – King’s Way – Rajpath & Queen’s Way – Janpath


The entire heritage zone of the Central Vista represents the space where India presents itself as a Republic, and as a democracy. It is the location for the National festival celebrations of the Republic Day parade ending with Beating of Retreat. It is the space where the democratic republic reclaimed King’s way as Rajpath (rulers’ road) intersecting with Queens’ way as Janpath (people’s road). The people of India have the right to assert preservation of the visual quality of the heritage zone that marks their political identity of the World’s largest Democracy and Republic.

Relocate Not Replace

Nay-Pyi-Taw-the New capital-city-of-Myanmar


It will be appropriate if the present regime chose to ‘relocate’ instead of replacing heritage architecture. There are several other examples all over the world for relocating and incorporating their specific design of power centers, but even Myanmar’s military rulers in 2005 while choosing to move the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw did not pull down the colonial heritage. Security and national identity were reasons cited for moving their capital. Nigeria, yet another post-colonial country shifted its capital in 1991 from Lagos to Abuja citing security, modernized requirements, accommodating additional government machinery, neutrality and establishing their version of national identity. Russia quoted maritime security reasons in 1918 for relocating its capital city from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Similar reasons explain Shahjahan shifting the capital from Agra to Delhi, and the British moving from Calcutta to Delhi.

Breach in Heritage Diplomacy

Secretariat building
Secretariat Building – North Block – New Delhi

Heritage Diplomacy provides a common ground for conserving the best of cultural expressions by humanity. These are nodal spaces for nationalism and internationalism. Heritage Diplomatic programs unfold histories of international engagement. The Central Vista Heritage Zone in Delhi is one such space. Herbert Baker the architect who designed the Secretariat blocks in Delhi made them in his distinct style similar to the design of the Union Buildings in South Africa.

secretariat building Pretoria

The design of the Mall from the Raisina Hill to the India Gate and the eternal flame for the ‘Unknown Soldier’ is similar to the plan in Washington DC in the United States from the Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument.


The Coincidental Similarity between Washington DC Mall & the Indian Central Vista

The Central Vista, Parliament and Secretariat complex are significant components for Delhi to apply for the tag of World Heritage City. This status locates a city within the frame of the International Heritage Diplomatic discourse. The Central Vista heritage zone along with a contrasting experience of the Mughal boulevard in – Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) tops the must-see list of most travelers.  The spatial display of multiple power-public architectures provides a fascinating insight into the existent living heritage of coexistence and the idea of diverse India in a democratic frame.

The idea by the Dutch Concept of ‘Mutual Heritage’ launched in the 1990s, is yet another dimension of Heritage diplomacy. It opens lines for cross-cultural people to people dialogue and shared history for future engagements. Mutual Heritage programs serve to build a contested past for a constructive present and future. Another example of heritage diplomacy is the American Embassy’s Ambassador’s Fund. By replacing the Central Heritage Zone in the capital of India e that represents the Indian Republic and Democracy, the argument of Cultural Nationalism trivializes history and the latitudinal space to assert global leadership in Heritage Diplomacy.


About the Author: About Dr. Navina Jafa: A Short Account:

A short film: : Dr. Navina Jafa, is a well-known academic, curator, writer, interpreter, and presenter of and on Indian Cultural Heritage and an acclaimed Indian Classical Dancer, Writer and Cultural History and Dance Scholar.  She specializes in inventive ways of documentation and exhibition that looks at the wider frame to address Traditional Skills of India and Asia through research and livelihood program.  She has extensively worked on Cultural Skill Diplomacy in the Context of the Indian Ocean and Asia.Recent Awards:  Women Economic Forum: Exceptional Leaders of Excellence – April 2019; Woman of Pure Wonder – Vodafone Foundation – 2017;











Unlocking Economic Potential of Aligarh By Navina Jafa #CelebrateComplexDiversityofIndia ;   #BharatCitizensForDevelopment

Lock- 3

Aligarh or Kol in  Western Uttar Pradesh is a wonderful Location of Traditional Knowledge Skills. It provides the potential for Economic Growth,  for Skill Development and Employment. With a majoritarian mandate for the BJP, the excitement and aspiration of the people of the largest Democracy are just lying to be tapped especially regarding real-time economic growth. The sector of Traditional Knowledge Skills is one of the largest self-organized skill sectors. A nudge, small investment, and innovations and zoom a difference can be made. Development which is environmentally friendly and provides equity for all.


Aligarh: Located in Western Uttar Pradesh, it lies in one of the most fertile alluvial plain of the world The Doab- Land between the Ganga and Yamuna.  It can be an ideal location for innovative programs on Food Security and organic farming, Heritage Tourism one which will create jobs and growth


This short blog offers inventive thoughts on the potential for economic development by highlighting Small Heritage windows:


The Heritage of Metals: A Bonanza for High Lifestyle and Tourism

  1. Heritage of Unbelievable Locks: Walking down the busy bazaar, one comes across a fascinating array of locks – with Lions, Fish designs, handcuff (Hathkadri) and even ones with false holes. A small innovative input can push this dying small scale industry to expand and revive. It is an industry that can add to the tourism sector, construction sector and to the High Fashion Lifestyle. The indigenous traditional method of casting locks can be factored as unique residency programs on creative city tourism.Lock - 1


  1. Brass: The stunning array of Brass offers a huge variety of ritual objects such as Gods and Goddesses of India and other functional and decorative objects.

Natraj Brass


Of Fashion, Language, and Cuisine

Aliogarh Pyjama

It is said that a person from Aligarh can speak on any topic under the sun with the same energy as the one next to him who started the topic of conversation. Poetry laced conversation and it can match the old culture of Rampur and Lucknow.  A diverse, and spicy culture representing the idiom of colorful India; how can one miss out the elegant and style statement in the Aligarhi Pajama?  Yes, the fashion industry is welcome to invest in a city of Heritage Skills.


Cuisine: Almost all towns of our Uttar Pradesh are famous for some or other food delicacy.  Aligarh is lesser known. Have you heard of Gulatthi, similar to the rice-based Kheer? Rich, creamy, with Khoya (dried milk) and dry fruits, it takes one back to the days of the exotica of the Royal Nawabs. Along with is the famous Sibbooji ki Kachori, whose aroma of spices and Ghee fill the air as the crisp kachori goes into your mouth, all its spices are ground by the 5th generation of the family of this unique dish.

Not for Profit Organizations and citizens like Udaan are addressing issues such as Water, Jobs, Old age care. We look forward to our new government to create Aligarh one of the model locations for jobs, traditional skill development, and Food Security.


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India Urgently Requires a System of Cultural Management @navinajafa



A version of this article was published as an editorial in the Indian Express

In my article in the Wire ( on the recently launched scheme called Adopt a Heritage by the Government of India as a form of initiating public private partnership there was a mention of the lack of Cultural Management study programs in India.

This article is a short critique on the subject along with solutions.

Earlier last year 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 major anomaly is that neither does India have a cultural policy nor does it have any cultural management academic structures.

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? The other point to note is that initiatives by organizations such as  United State India Education Foundation does offer Fulbright Scholarships on this subject, but the push has to come from within.  If the cultural sphere is not addressed in a systematic, detached and professional manner, we risk losing huge capital. Culture is too precious to be left Ram bharose!

Navina Jafa

 Vice President of Centre for New Perspective works  on Traditional Skills and Sustainable Development, is an academic on Heritage Studies, Tourism and A Kathak Dancer and Dance Scholar. 

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LADAKH the stark naked mountains in the North West Rain shadow Himalayan Region marks an important geopolitical region (two side there is the border of Pakistan and on one side China).

Figure 1 The Aryan communities of Ladakh


A mini Tibet, the geography, and essence of Buddhism provide its own hypnotic exotic pull.

Ever since tourism opened in the mid-1990s along with the depiction of a famous lake in a box office film 3 Idiots, the region has seen a vast flow of foreign and indigenous tourists.

The demand has led to a huge rise in the quantitative volume of cheaply affordable tick the box travel packages which also include adventure/sports activities like trekking, rafting, polo among others.

The Indian Cultural Heritage Research has been presenting Academic tours ever since 2000 and has been one of the earliest organization initiating experiential travel over the site travel. The presentation of the program is based on personal connections which allow for exclusive interactions and inroads to people and places. The travel programs are logistically well organized and well researched.

While the normal sites are covered the program in Ladakh is defined by special visits and interpretations based on the following themes:



Repositioning the Taj Heritagescape

Published in the QUINT:



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






Source: Tapping the Unseen- Going beyond packaged Tourism

Kochi – Muziris – Calicut With Dr Navina Jafa

01-04 March 2018


Dr Navina Jafa


Heritage walk - kabutar


(We Take only 10-15 travellers first come first serve)

It is a challenge to curate a holistic touristic experience which connects a viewer to be a part of responsible tourism though comprehending traditional skill development, address conserving ecosystems of cultural and natural environments. The challenge is going beyond packaged tourism. The forthcoming tour on Kerala is an example of such a program.


Kerala has been the flagship destination of the campaign on Incredible India, however, the packaged experiences on Kerala leave out several aspects of cultural, economic, historical layers which contribute to the appellation of Incredible India. Dr Navina Jafa has curated a travel experience that will bring to participants the ethos of Kerala in a holistic manner. For example, the experiences of the backwaters incorporate the visit to villages bringing in to view and understand history, legends, rituals and festivals associated with traditional skills such as the tradition of Snake backwater boats, folk dances, cuisine and much more.

Snake Boats

Dr Navina Jafa, one of the most erudite, dramatic heritage presenters of & on Indian Cultural Heritage personally tailors, curates, researchers, presents & coordinates the tour as study leader. 

Unique Experiences -Elaborate Themes:  

Ø  Gods, Homes, Markets in a Net, Kochi

Ancient port city on Indian Ocean

Ø  Dining Opera: Dining and narratives on traditions along the backwaters


Ø  Cape of Trade Cultures on the Indian Ocean: Muziris

Ø  Kingdom of the Zamorins of Calicut! Story of the Traders from the Middle East and Europe: Heritage Walk incorporating heritage of Jews, Syrian Christians, Apostles of Jesus, Esoteric Hindu Rituals


Ø  When Religion has Meshed with the Body: Martial Art of Kalari Payattu: Visit an ancient workshop from where basics of Martial Arts went to China, Japan, Korea among other East Asian cultures


CONTACT: WWW.NAVINAJAFA.COM  follow @navinajafa navina La Martiniere Lucknow


India’s Need – Smart Rural Towns -The Case of Maheshwar in Central India By Dr. Navina Jafa




Situated on the banks of River Narmada, Maheshwar is a sleepy heritage town in Central India. In recent time it has surfaced as an attractive stop in the travel circuit. One can critically offer, that its identity and attraction can be constructed along three modalities. First, its location on a sacred river has for a long time made it a popular religious tourism destination in the circuit covering neighboring places namely Omkareshwar and Ujjain.  Two, historically, it was the ruling seat of a renaissance 18thc woman – Ahilya who left behind two legacies – namely the built heritage in form of landing steps along the river, a fort, beautiful temples and cenotaphs all of which are heightened by the environmental heritage of the river;  She also left behind weaving tradition. This article traces, knits and critically analyses these multiple facets of the heritage town and advocates that India’s need is not Smart Cities but smart Rural Townships.

In India, like other old civilizations, rivers have always remained ideal locations for settlements, trade and communication. They, thus inevitably acquired a sacred status which got constructed through metaphors, symbols, myths and legends. The sacredness then manifested itself through rituals and beliefs by communities. In India, the symbolism of rivers gains an additional sacred perspective which is directly or indirectly associated with the concept of karma and mukti.  Mukti  is the idea of release through good karma or action, which is done  to escape human suffering and in turn results to transcend the cycle of life. The rivers are therefore a medium for this release, thus to attain mukti one can bathe in the river Ganges once, or bathe thrice in the now hidden river Saraswati, or seven times in river Yamuna, but most importantly in relation to this article, the mere sight of river Narmada is enough for eternal bliss.

Symbolism and metaphors on Narmada’s sacredness get extended with network of myths, the most common being that Lord Shiva[1] meditated with such intent that his flowing sweat drops gradually transformed into the river Narmada. Both Shiva and Ganges in their anthropomorphic form are believed to have had a bath in Ma (mother) Narmada and reached their release.



The sacredness of River Narmada is embodied in religious texts, festivals, rituals and pilgrimages. For example, on one hand, an important Sanskrit hymn in her honor called the Narmada Shatakam (or 100 verses on Narmada) says… Narmadashtakam: Sa-Bindu Sindhu Suskhalat Taranga Bhanga Ranjitam  … “I salute Devi (goddess Narmada) whose body is illumined with sacred drops of water and whose water ripples playfully in shape of bending waves…O Devi your sacred water has the divine power to transform hatred into love and  your power extinguishes the evil power of our  sins… You instill fearlessness in those who take refuge in you with your waters that form an armor … O Devi, mother Narmada, I bow down to your Lotus Feet… O mother give me Refuge….” On the other hand, thousands of pilgrims perform a parikrama or barefoot circumambulation of the river round the year calling her ‘Ma Narmada’ or mother Narmada and singing hymns in her honor. Many pilgrims immersed in faith walk a distance of over nine hundred kilometers along the route of this mighty river. The process of such a rigorous pilgrimage makes her a symbol of Vairagya or detachment for the pilgrim who performs the pilgrimage.

It is believed to reach mukti or release from cycle of rebirth one can bathe in the river Ganges once, or bathe thrice in the now hidden river Saraswati, or seven times in river Yamuna, but the mere sight of river Narmada is enough for eternal bliss. The local folks in Maheshwar have connected the powerful energy and symbolism of the river to the living spirit of their queen Ahilya who lived in the 18th c queen and both are perceived as ‘Mothers’, the nurturers and the protectors.



From a more realistic historical perspective, Narmada gains importance because of her geographical character. Not only does she originate and flows from and through the oldest part of the subcontinent – The Deccan plateau, but she is the fifth longest river in the Indian subcontinent and the longest west flowing river dividing North and South of India.  It was inevitable that her geographical importance led human communities to evolve her sacred identity.


AHILYA BAI – Queen of Maheshwar:  Ahilya, belonged to the ruling Holkar family who formed a part of the Maratha Confederacy. “The Maratha power began with the Maratha Peshwa, the agent of who became an effective leader…”[2] The Holkars had established their dominance in Central India. There are several stories that are associated with Ahilya including those crediting her with introducing the tradition of weaving Maheshwari sarees. One common version says that Malhar Rao Holkar, the Maratha’s military governor of the Malwa plateau region once happened to stop at a village called Chondi in the modern state of Maharashtra.[3]  There he came across a young girl who conducted herself impeccably while performing complex temple rituals. Impressed, he asked her parents as a bride for his son Khande Rao.  Unfortunately, very early in the marriage the young man died, and Ahilya became a window. As was the custom those days, a widow was expected to sit on the burning cremation pyre holding the body of her husband and immolate herself thereby proceeding to gain sainthood where she was called Sati.  However, Ahilya’s case, her father in law Malhar Rao Holkar, not only prevented her from committing Sati   but acted to subvert the custom. He personally trained her in military and administrator affairs and appointed her ruler. She ruled from Maheshwar from 1765-1795.[4]


However, the death of the father-in-law saw a group of chieftain resenting the rule by a woman even though she was an effective ruler. Ahilya, acted to protect herself by commissioning weavers from the Surat (in present day in the Western Indian state of Gujarat) to weave beautiful turbans, and sent them as gifts from a ‘sister’ to the group of loyal chieftains requesting them to protect her from opposing ones. Additionally, she managed to get the Brahmins or the religious clergy to back her by bestowing them with generous gifts and alms. The combined support of religious and feudal elite made her invincible, and installed her as a supreme ruler.

The oral history about gifting woven turbans to loyal chieftains takes on another angle, where it is believed that the wives of the ‘brother’ chieftains demanded that they too be given a gift, so, for each wife (sister-in-law)  Ahilya commissioned a traditional nine yard woven saree. These nine yard sarees came to be known as the ‘Ahilya Sarees’, and the weave as Maheshwari.[5]

For the local community both the river Narmada and Queen Ahilya represent Ma, or mother, they both perceived to be nurturing and protecting energies. The stature of Ahilya as a renaissance woman are aptly captured by the Scottish poetess Joanna Baillie:

“For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and bright her fame,
And Ahlya was her honored name.”[6]

After even the passing of more than 200 years she remains a living spirit and can be seen in the manner folks remember her, or visit and honor her small courtyard house where there is a her throne, a remake of her humble court in her residential area. Her energies resides in the impressive riverine landings (ghats) and soaring temples she built along with cenotaphs. The blessings of the river and the queen live in the woman selling a snack of sprouted black chick peas along the river …. “there is nothing to worry… Ma Ahilya and Ma Narmada are watching over us, over you…” and their energies resound  in the rhythmic clacking sound of looms run by weavers all over the town.




The Revival of Weaving:

Modern India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, championed hand-spun cloth and weaving. But India’s handloom weavers have been hit hard by the industrialization and the inability to compete internationally. They are facing stiff competition from a flood of machine-made cheap clothing and challenge of power looms replacing the handloom. The fast pace of developing India poses challenges to the traditional knowledge and skill sector and yet the revival of weaving in Maheshwar  illustrates a success story of a  movement which has produced a wave of aspiration for the future sustainable existence of handloom in India, a compelling professional engagement, empowerment for women in rural India but most of all the validity the India needs smart rural towns and not too many smart cities.

Traditionally, in most parts of India, barring North East, the skill of weaving remains largely in the hands of men. One main reason for the success of handloom weaving in Maheshwar has been shifting weaving from men to women, and re-positioning the men in other ways the still link them to weaving.



In 1978 the royal couple of Maheshwar, Sally and Richard Holkar set up the Rehwa society a non- for –profit to revive the hand weaving industry in Maheshwar with the objective to empower women and to create a holistic development program by providing housing, healthcare and education to the families of weavers. The environment and the state of weaving in Maheshwar at that time was dismal. Most traditional weavers were leaving the occupation and taking to other means of livelihood. When Rewha started, there were less than two hundred people involved in the Handloom weaving industry in Maheshwar, “our local survey of 2013 saw this number increase to about three thousand people, while fifty percent were actual weavers, the other 50 % involved in the industry were engaged in ancillary work associated with cloth weaving namely, binding, dyeing preparing the loom and the yarn. There is an involvement of about 5-6 people in creating a weaving group.”[7]

Prior to the coming of Rehwa Society, it was the men who were the weavers, while the women played subsidiary role by performing ancillary work such as spinning, assisting in dyeing.  Rewha as a localized movement began by training 12 young women from nontraditional families. The training was by senior traditional male weavers.

Rewha principally aimed to promote the Maheshwar weave which is traditionally done using cotton and silk. Earlier, Maheshwari sarees had traditional patterns which were known by poetic names such as Chandrakala (moon like motifs) Beli (creepers), such motifs formed the vocabulary of local songs and thus the saree with its motifs was a living entity that added to the essence of both the women who wore them, the weaver who wove them and the community for whom they became an identity. Unfortunately, much of it the knowledge on traditional motifs which was part of the oral heritage is now lost.[8]  Floral motifs were rare in Maheshwari weaves, instead patterns like bricks, mats and diamonds inspired from the built architecture the fort and the temples remain popular. Maheshwari sarees are found in a wide range of colors which include blue, mauve, dark pink, greens with gold-thread zari borders.[9]


The cotton was acquired from Coimbatore and Silk from Bangalore. Maheshwar, therefore, had only the skill of weaving. Hence, a part of the revival of the handloom movement in Maheshwar incorporated the use of local raw material like locally grown cotton, “… we started a new woven product which was different from the traditional weave. Gradually, the Rehwa movement took on a life of its own and spread to others in the town. Entrepreneurial weavers started business in Maheshwari textiles. The revival of the textiles included addressing issues related to wages, consciousness of grasping the interest of consumer’s taste, idea of design, nuances of marketing, and comprehension of communal identity as weavers… the Maheshwar handlooms slowly and unmistakably emerged in the larger context of the handloom industrial sector in India with a representation of a positive index growth from within an otherwise negative scenario…”[10] 


Sally Holkar in 2002 expanded the movement initiated by the REWHA society into a larger and more ambitious independent, organizational network called the Women’s Weave, and now an even more ambitious program of a handloom school. The charitable organization has organized principal women weavers in a collective business entrepreneurial networks.  The model saw not only a gender role reversal where men chose to be engaged in activities connected with the outside world such as marketing, acquiring raw material and other ancillary work, but this movement has impacted other sociological dynamics. For instance, in 1980 several of the first batch of women weavers at Rehwa were in domestic abusive situations and that reality extended itself into the working spaces. For example, the women were paid weekly wages,  on the pay day, husbands would stand outside and grab their money. “We solved the problem with the women themselves. Those days the process of opening bank accounts was cumbersome, but between us we mutually decided that a part of their earnings will be deposited with us (Rehwa) as savings.”[11]  Other changes in social behavior have been related to education and professional choices.


In 2009 Hemendra Sharma, the Chief operating officer of Women’s Weave started interacting with six children (age 7-20 years) from traditional weaving families. At that point of time, all of them claimed that with their education they were not interested in weaving. Like in many parts of India, these young people perceived their upward mobility in terms of getting government (sarkari) jobs. Hemendra, started meeting them regularly in the evenings and engaging them in informal discussions related to opportunities of learning English, or deliberating about markets, economics and politics. Getting advice on learning to speak English was a great motivating factor which led them to interact with Hemendra. One interaction led to another, and gradually these very young men from traditional weaving families who were in rejection of their heritage gradually started getting drawn back to the handloom sector. With time, several have established their own businesses. Presently many are working with big players engaged in textiles such as ‘Fab India’ and ‘Jaypore’ and earning around 20, 00,000 rupees a year.”12]


           Hence, an important part of the success story of Maheshwar remains, that the work initiated by both REHWA and Women’s weave has trickled down to permeate the entire town. Interviews with several grassroots actors in Maheshwar revealed, that if holistic systematic knowledge on handloom is combined with entire context of dynamics of socio- economic environment as part of capacity building of not only weavers, but all those who form units of handloom it results in a form of bottom up development.

The Maheshwar handloom’s successful revival also exposes and attempts to on one hand break a post-colonial mindset and on the other hand, validate the importance of Gandhian economics of bottom up empowerment which in turn reveals the faults that are arising in the stress that is put by present day idea of development that focuses on urbanization and smart cities, The following is an important argument –  “Every child in rural area thinks of becoming a blue collared professional which is limited to becoming a doctor, engineer, or getting a government job. However, the reality is that they do not have the qualification and they will never be hired for those professions. A large number of children get educated only as far as grade eight or ten. So where are the opportunities for upward mobility? Children from traditional weaving families in rural areas give up their family skills where they usually earn per day rupees 150 to 200. Many of them then move into the construction work where they get minimum daily wages of rupees four hundred and fifty. However little do they realize that this is temporary work, and secondly, it disrupts family? No one is happy!”[13]

Handloom as a cottage industry is well synergized with agrarian lifestyle. The handloom provides employment “for at least 280 days, where the aggregate income ranges from 175 -300 rupees a day. This blends with agriculture which provides 60-90 days of employment in two seasons, and where the aggregate income is about Rs.75 a day.” The combination of the two occupation are complimentary, prevents urban migration, and allows multiple income generation for rural households.


The story of Maheshwar is indeed a unique one, a location where leisure and religious tourism are synergized with a cottage industry in an agrarian framework, a splendid display of not smart city but smart rural township.  Follow : @navinajafa



[1] Lord Shiva – the God in the Indian mythological trinity symbolizing multiple ideas of which release from cycle of birth-rebirth being one)

[2] :Chaurasia, R.S: History of Marathas, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi, 2004. Pg : Xii


[3] Malwa – a natural region in west-central India occupying a plateau of volcanic origin

[4] Rajaswi,M.I : Ahilyabai Holkar, Manoj Publications, New Delhi, 2004, Hindi , Pg – 45-47,

[5]  Chopra, Gopika (Designed) – The Heart of Incredible India: Discovering Madhya Pradesh: Published by Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation. Published as a Destination guide. Pg. 220-229; 2008

[6]Baille Joanna : Ahalya Baee: a Poem : For Private Circulation , Spottiswoodes & Shaw. London. 1849; Google books –



[7] Sharma Hemendra , Chief Operating Officer at Women Weave Charitable Trust,  Skype Interview with author. November,2014


[8] Interview with Sally Holkar, 2014.

[9] Zari is the woven thread traditionally made of fine gold or silver used in woven cloth especially as  brocade in sarees

[10]Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014


[11] Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014


[12] Author in Converation with Holkar, Sally, President  & Hemendra Sharma Chief Operating Officer Women Weave Charitable Trust, and on Skype, November, 2014

[13] Holkar, Sally, President Women Weave Charitable Trust. Interview on Skype with author, November, 2014


KERALA ~ UNRAVELLED WATERSCAPES Kochi – Muziris – Calicut With Dr Navina Jafa 01-04 March 2018


Tapping the Unseen- Going beyond packaged Tourism


Dr. Navina Jafa



It is a challenge to curate a holistic touristic experience which connects a viewer to be a part of responsible tourism though comprehending traditional skill development, address conserving ecosystems of cultural and natural environments. The challenge is going beyond packaged tourism. The forthcoming tour on Kerala is an example of such a program.

 Ancient port city on Indian Ocean

Kerala has been the flagship destination of the campaign on Incredible India, however, the packaged experiences on Kerala leave out several aspects of cultural, economic, historical layers which contribute to the appellation of Incredible India. Dr Navina Jafa has curated a travel experience that will bring to participants the ethos of Kerala in a holistic manner. For example, the experiences of the backwaters incorporate visit to villages bringing in to view and understand history, legends, rituals and festivals associated with traditional skills such as the tradition of Snake backwater boats, folk dances, cuisine and much more.

Snake Boats


Dr. Navina Jafa, one of the most erudite, dramatic heritage presenters of & on Indian Cultural Heritage personally tailors, curates, researchers, presents & coordinates the tour as study leader. 

Unique Experiences -Elaborate Themes:  

Ø  Gods, Homes, Markets in a Net, Kochi

Ø  Dining Opera: Dining and narratives on traditions along the backwaters

Ø  Cape of Trade Cultures on the Indian Ocean: Muziris

Ø  Kingdom of the Zamorins of Calicut! Story of the Traders from the Middle East and Europe: Heritage Walk

Ø  When Religion has Meshed with the Body: Martial Art of Kalari Payattu

Spice plantationAthirathram 2

Ø  Culture of Indigenous Communities of Kerala


 Journey into the Self – Story 1-  THE IDEA OF SHIVA World Heritage Site – Ellora Caves- Presenting Dance Beyond the Stage


Navina Jafa 

The Idea of Shiva

If the female sound of ‘ ee’  is removed… it becomes –shav

A Dead Body

But Shiva is the Ying and the Yang

It is a process…

In the form of Shiva as a householder, a demon killer

He becomes form in transition – Form-formless

He is the meditative Yogacharya 

As Energy evolves Shiva becomes Formless

Which is the Central Axiom – Shivalinga 

 It was a matter of great pride and humbleness that Dr. M.N. Deshpande, the former Director General of Archaeological Survey of India and one of my gurus guided me in comprehending Indian Cultural Heritage and the highlight of his guidance was when he asked me to accompany him to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. 

 Kailash – Abode of Shiva – Cave – No 026 – Ellora

Kailash - Cave 16

The dark hills although green presented the ‘niraakar’ or the formless of the eternal divine which on entering opens to the world of the idea of Shiva – creator, preserver, destroyer, revealer, and concealer an entry to human creativity where the energies are like a secret prayer.



It was Monsoon, the entire valley of Sahyadri Hills lush green had waterfalls punctuating the landscape that was manifested with Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain caves. However, it is the cave 26 that evolves as a masterpiece of human ingenuity. The name Kailash offers the symbolism of the mythical abode of Shiva, a multilayered symbol that resolves contradictions. Dr. Despande lived, breathed walked and slept the amazing caves carved in the Deccan from volcanic rocks and in his last days he taught me their inner secrets, which I perform as untold stories while leading a tour as a heritage presenter.

Both Ajanta and Ellora are a part of trade routes and like other archaeological sites, these sites are statements of the power of the ruling Kings. Since the site of the living Shiva Temple – Grishneshwar  is a few kilometers away from the archeological site one often witnesses the visit of the religious roaming ascetics belonging to the Inchegeri Sampradaya Nathpanthies who by performing in front of Kailash makes Shiva come alive. 

The Naths are Yogis prevalent in different parts of India, the ones in Maharashtra are Lingayats or -Shiva worshippers. The Nath movement was a social reform movement between 12-18thc which allowed people from all castes to find themselves through the otherwise high Hindu God Shiva. This inclusive caste democratization in Western India was influenced by the  Mystical Islamic Sufis who allowed the entry of all people irrespective of gender, caste or creed to participate in spiritual journeys.

The group of white-clad Nathpanthi with cymbals and drums stood before the weathered Sculpture of Shiva just on the opening on the left of the Cave. It was weathered but Shiva was spectacular – Striding across the granite rock he carried on his right shoulder, his own formless self – the linga, and the Nathpathanies with tears rolling down sang – dekhiliyo, dekiliyo, saara jag deekhi leeyo  – Seeing, seeing this Shiva in Kailash I have seen the entire cosmos.




From the mountain, the artisans carved a form from top to bottom where the idea of Shiva is a continuum of evolving idea in all the iconographical representation as UnManifest- Unmanifest(Manifest) and then Manifest which then disintegrated into the void – of the Shiva Linga.

The idea of Shiva as Yogacharya, to one who is a householder, and the concept of Shiva as a supreme principle in the cosmic forces of creation, protection, and recreation through destruction comes alive in the sculptural tableaus of the amazing Kailash Temple.

The Dancer

While on the one hand there are the philosophical tenets  that underline the path of energies that one encounters while circumambulating the Cave, on the other hand all kinds of characters such as the three rivers – Ganga- symbol of purity, Yamuna- of Devotion and Saraswati – Knowledge, Kama and his wife Rati – symbol of Desire  and the Goddesses Gaj Lakshmi and Durga presents to the audience an amazing psychedelic odyssey into ideas of metaphysics that engineer human thought and aligns it to the perception of existence.

There are expression of the idea of power, war, opposing concepts of full- emptiness, of world-otherworldly, of movement-stillness, of the outside–inside—- but— Shiva as a symbol of multilayers integrates in the sanctum- the garbh graha (womb) in the cave and presents himself as the axis-mundi – the Shivalinga where the energies merge in an inner cell, fully vitalized to create a form of life outside.


I bow to the never-ending yet unfolding idea of SHIVA- Merging Visual Arts with Performing Arts through Indian Philosophy


Dr. Navina Jafa is commissioned to lead Academic tours to the World Heritage Sites of Ajanta, Ellora and brings together the Ecosystem of the world of the caves including the botanical, textile, and ritualistic heritage of the area. –   write to for further details; Follow on Twitter – @navinajafa