Santiniketan finds its place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

Santiniketan unesco

Context: The town of Santiniketan, founded by the renowned Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, has now earned a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Located in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, Santiniketan, which translates to “abode of peace,” began its journey in 1901 and stands as the very place where Tagore laid the foundations of Visva-Bharati University. 

More About the news:

  • The Culture Ministry, in its proposal to UNESCO for Santiniketan’s inclusion on the World Heritage List, emphasized that this place represents a significant exchange of human values. 
  • It has played a pivotal role in the development of architecture, technology, monumental arts, town planning, and landscape design within a cultural area of global importance.
  • Efforts to secure Santiniketan’s place on the UNESCO World Heritage List have been ongoing since 2010. 
  • The latest proposal for its nomination began in the financial year 2020-21.
  • ASI has been diligently working on the restoration of various structures in the vicinity of Santiniketan in recent years.
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Exploring the Legacy of Santiniketan:

An Abode of Peace and Knowledge

  • Santiniketan was originally called Bhubandanga, after the name of the village where it was located.
  • The town of Santiniketan was founded by Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath Tagore, who was a Bengali philosopher, polymath, and the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • Maharshi Devendranath Tagore was a follower of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that emphasized the worship of one supreme God and the importance of education and social reform.
  • In 1863, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore purchased a large piece of land in Bhubandanga, which he renamed Santiniketan, meaning “abode of peace.” He established an ashram, or spiritual retreat, on the land and started to teach his students about the principles of the Brahmo Samaj, as well as the importance of nature and simplicity.
  • Debendranath built a 60-foot by 30-foot glass structure for Brahmo prayers, inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, under a chhatim tree where he used to meditate.
  • In 1888, Debendranath dedicated the property to establish a Brahmavidyalaya through a trust deed.
  • In 1901, Rabindranath started a Brahmacharyaashrama, which became known as Patha Bhavana in 1925.
  • In 1921, Rabindranath Tagore founded Visva Bharati. Visva-Bharati University was later expanded to include a wide range of disciplines, including arts, sciences, and humanities. It became a Central University and an Institution of National Importance in 1951, and is now one of the most prestigious universities in India.
  • Rabindranath Tagore also established several other cultural institutions in Santiniketan, including the Kala Bhavan, a school of fine arts, and the Sangit Bhavan, a music school.
  • Santiniketan became a hub of cultural and intellectual activity, attracting scholars and artists from around the world. It was also a centre of resistance during India’s struggle for independence, with many of its students and faculty participating in the freedom movement.

Why did Rabindranath Tagore establish Shantiniketan? 

  • Vision: Creating an educational institution that would be in harmony with nature, allowing students to better understand the topics they were learning and to create a place of learning that transcended religious and regional barriers.
  • Principles: Ancient Indian Gurukul system, where education was provided in a natural setting, fostering a strong connection between students and their environment.
  • Santiniketan, derived from the Sanskrit words, “shanti” (meaning peace or tranquility) and “niketan” (meaning abode or residence), translates to “abode of peace.”

Phases of development: 

  • Late 19th Century: 1895 Onwards: 
    • The earliest phase of development at Santiniketan saw the construction of significant structures such as the Ashram, Santiniketan Griha, Upasana Mandir, and the Prayer Hall, which hold great historical value.
    • The site of Chhatimtala, where Maharishi Debendranath Tagore meditated under the chhatim trees, remains critical to the integrity and authenticity of this phase.
    • The structures have retained their originality and authenticity and have been restored recently by the Archaeological Survey of India.
  • Rabindranath Tagore: 1901-1941:
    • In 1901, Rabindranath Tagore established Santiniketan with a vision of promoting unity among people of different cultures worldwide.
    • Visva Bharti: Its multifaceted approach included providing education to children, nurturing a love for nature, using music and arts to foster emotional development, engaging in social work to help neighbouring villages, promoting rural development through Sriniketan, and conducting research on philosophy and cultures. The centre was established with the objective of eradicating not only poverty of the mind but also material poverty in India.
    • Tagore believed that learning could not be achieved by simply locking oneself up in a classroom. As an artist, he believed that freeing one’s mind was crucial to the learning process. Consequently, the concept of open-air classrooms emerged. 
    • Tagore believed in the convergence of two distinct chains of thought, the traditional beliefs of the East and the progressive ideologies of the West. As a result, the university has welcomed many international faculty members who have contributed to fulfilling his vision.
  • Rathindranath Tagore: 1941-1952:
    • After the death of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, his son Rathindranath took over the mantle of his father at Santiniketan. 
    • This period ends with the formulation of Visva Bharati as a national level university under an Act of Parliament.
    • Under Rathindranath, Santiniketan continued the four-fold vision of Rabindranath Tagore: 
    • Rabindranath Tagore had envisaged a fourfold plan for the development of Santiniketan- Santiniketan School (1901); Integration of fine art and music to academics (Kala Bhavan and Sangeet Bhavan 1919-1920); Rural reconstruction experiment (1922 Sriniketan); Establish cultural relation between Hindvi cultures with other eastern cultures and relations between eastern and western cultures.
    • This fourfold plan has been adopted and implemented to date even after Santiniketan acquired the status of the University in 1951.

Santiniketan and Sriniketan both form a part of the Visva Bharti campus under the jurisdiction of the University which alone forms it governing body which still keeps intact its originally intended use and function. This authoritative body is responsible for maintenance and management of the site as well as heritage conservation and its related issues.


About Rabindranath Tagore: 

  • Rabindranath Tagore’s diverse talents encompassed poetry, prose, music composition, and painting.
  • Within literary circles, he was celebrated under the titles “Bhanu Singha Thakur,” while his admirers affectionately referred to him as ‘Gurudev,’ ‘Kabiguru,’ and ‘Vishwakavi.’

Contributions to Literature and Art

  • Tagore’s indelible mark on Bengali literature, music, and Indian art is undeniable. His artistic innovations reshaped these creative domains, breathing new life into them.
  • In a historic achievement, Tagore became the inaugural non-European laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, an accolade bestowed upon him for his literary masterpiece-Gitanjali. 
  • Moreover, his literary prowess extended to composing the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh.

Educational Vision

  • Rejecting the conventional rote pedagogy of his time, Tagore harboured a visionary educational philosophy.
  • His ideals bore fruit in the form of Visva-Bharati University, an institution that stood as a testament to his innovative thinking. Building upon the foundation laid by his father at the Santiniketan Ashram, Tagore expanded this educational complex.
  • What set it apart was its distinct curriculum, designed to keep students well-informed about the evolving political, social, and environmental landscape of the nation.

Social Reform

  • Tagore harnessed the power of literature to galvanize people towards political and social reform.
  • His literary works served as potent instruments of protest against the prevailing Brahmanical social order, the caste system, narrow sectarianism, untouchability, and animal sacrifice.

Economic Endeavours

  • In 1921, Tagore joined forces with agricultural economist Leonard Elmhirst to establish the “Institute for Rural Reconstruction,” later renamed. 
  • He advocated vigorously for the expansion of small-scale cottage industries in rural areas, aiming to infuse vitality into the rural economy by leveraging local resources.

Influence on the Freedom Struggle and Partition of Bengal

  • His composition, “Banglar Mati Banglar Jol” (Soil of Bengal, Water of Bengal), served as a unifying anthem for the Bengali population.
  • Moreover, he initiated the Rakhi Utsav, a festival where individuals from Hindu and Muslim communities exchanged colourful threads as a symbol of unity and self-reliance against oppression.

A Powerful Protest: Jallianwala Bagh Massacre

  • In 1915 he was awarded knighthood by the British King George V. In 1919, following the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, he renounced his Knighthood.

Vision on Nationalism: 

  • He held a sceptical view, asserting that the term “nationalism” was inherently tied to the concept of the nation-state, which, in his eyes, was essentially an embodiment of Western ideals rooted in capitalism and mechanization.
  • According to Tagore, these ideals clashed fundamentally with the rich tapestry of Indian tradition, characterized by values such as self-autonomy, pluralism, and religious tolerance. 
  • Central to his belief system was the notion that true nationalism should not transcend the broader scope of humanity itself.
  • Some historical myths have suggested that he composed the Indian national anthem, “Jan Gan Man,” as a tribute to British Prince George V during the 1911 Delhi Durbar, hosted by Lord Hardinge II. These misconceptions have sometimes led to questions about his patriotism and commitment to Indian nationalism.
  • In reality, Tagore was an ardent patriot who cherished India’s ancestral culture and philosophy. Although he pursued higher education in Britain, he returned home without completing his studies.
  • In national anthem, he aimed to emphasize that ultimate sovereignty rested with the people of India, as symbolized by “Jan Gana Man.” 
  • Tagore, while occasionally critical of Mahatma Gandhi, was the one who referred to him as “Mahatma.” He demonstrated his love for Indian soil, particularly Bengal, while also holding a deep affection for its people.
  • He regarded nationalism as a psychological concept wherein all individuals bound by common principles constituted the elements of a nation. Consequently, nationalism had to coexist in harmony with humanism.
  • Like other utilitarian scholars of his time, Tagore denounced international warfare. He openly criticized forms of patriotism and nationalism that compromised human values, especially after the devastating First World War. 
  • In the 20th century, when British policy sought to divide and rule by partitioning Bengal to quell emerging nationalism, Tagore vehemently opposed this move. He recognized that the primary objective of Bengal’s partition was to instigate communal violence.
  • During the 1905 unrest, he actively worked to foster Hindu-Muslim unity through patriotic songs like “Banglar Maati Banglar Jol” (Earth of Bengal, Water of Bengal).
  • In a letter to his friend A. M. Bose, Tagore made it clear that patriotism should never be the ultimate goal or spiritual refuge.
  • He vowed not to compromise the priceless value of humanity for the sake of patriotism. Gandhi, who crossed paths with Tagore in 1921 in Calcutta, was cautioned by Tagore about the fine line separating nationalism from xenophobia.
  • Gandhi, in response to Tagore’s criticism, acknowledged that the poet inhabited a world of his own creation, a world of ideas.

About UNESCO World Heritage Sites: 

World Heritage Sites are exceptional cultural and/or natural locations recognized for their outstanding universal value, as designated by the World Heritage Committee. They stand as exemplars of the world’s most significant cultural and natural heritage.

World Heritage Convention: 

  • Recognizing the importance of certain places, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972. This convention harmoniously combines the preservation of both natural and cultural sites.
  • Nations adhering to this convention form an international community committed to safeguarding these unique sites.
  • In 1994, the World Heritage Committee adopted a Global Strategy to promote a balanced and representative World Heritage List, ensuring underrepresented regions and categories are included.

How Sites are Chosen:

  • Countries that sign the World Heritage Convention pledge to protect their cultural and natural treasures and become state parties.
  • State parties create a list of potential sites from which they nominate candidates for inclusion on the World Heritage List.
  • Nominations, accompanied by comprehensive conservation plans, are submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
  • Outstanding Universal Value (OUV): OUV is a fundamental criterion for World Heritage Site status. Exceptional, unparalleled sites with global significance are deemed outstanding properties.

The Roles of UNESCO and Advisory Bodies UNESCO World Heritage Centre

  • The UNESCO World Heritage Centre offers support for the nomination process, including documentation and formatting.
  • After reviewing the submitted documents, it forwards them to advisory bodies.

Advisory Bodies: Technical Expertise: 

Three advisory bodies provide technical input on nominations:

  • International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)
  • World Conservation Union (IUCN)
  • International Centre for Study of The Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)

The Decision-Making Body: World Heritage Committee:

  • Comprising 21 members elected for six-year terms, the World Heritage Committee is chosen by the General Assembly.
  • The committee annually determines which sites will be inscribed on the World Heritage List. 

Criteria for Outstanding Universal Value (OUV)

  • OUV must reflect a masterpiece of human creativity.
  • It should depict the exchange of cultural values across generations.
  • Testimony to unique traditions, cultures, or civilizations is crucial.
  • Architectural ensembles, landscapes, and other built elements may contribute.
  • Sites can illustrate the interaction between humans and the environment.
  • Areas of extraordinary natural beauty are eligible.
  • Sites can also testify to Earth’s geological history.

The World Heritage Fund:

This fund offers financial support to state parties, drawing contributions from both private donors and state parties. It aids in:

  • Preparatory assistance for property nominations and management plans.
  • Training assistance for personnel.
  • Technical cooperation, providing expertise and material support.
  • Emergency assistance for damage caused by natural disasters or human activities.
  • Promotional and educational assistance to raise awareness.

Prelims Previous Year Question (2022)

Q1. With reference to Madanapalle of Andhra Pradesh, which one of the following statements is correct?

(a) Pingali Venkayya designed the tricolour Indian National Flag here.

(b) Pattabhi Sitaramaiah led the Quit India Movement of Andhra region from here.

(c) Rabindranath Tagore translated the National Anthem from Bengali to English here.

(d) Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott set up headquarters of Theosophical Society first here.

Answer: (c)

Mains Previous Year Question (2023)

Q. What was the difference between Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in their approach towards education and nationalism? (Answer in 150 words)

Source: The Hindu

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