A privilege to be a guest of the recent 2019 Heritage Festival in the ancient and historic city of Sangrur (emphasis on the –rur, in case you were wondering) established by this visionary individual, Karanvir Singh Sibia and his equally dedicated group of friends. This was both an arts and heritage festival – with poetry, dance and music as well as tours of jaw-dropping heritage sites – and a call to arms for the heritage conservation of Punjab. Perhaps, like me, you had never heard of Sangrur until my visit was arranged. Perhaps, if so, you should read on.
Maybe you have never been to India because of the prejudiced preconceptions listed in an earlier blog. Or maybe you think you have already ‘done’ India. Millions of Western visitors are duped into this belief annually, after a comfort-zone package tour around the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. They take photographs of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort etc and then leave, probably complaining about queues and crowds and pushy guides. Have they experienced the real India? Not really. They have eaten a cake which consists only of icing. And too much sugar rots the teeth.
There is a clear desire, especially among the young, for more meaningful forms of visiting and engagement which can be summed up as a desire to give something back. They pay to help in orphanages, muck out elephants and teach in schools. Some of these activities are not exploitative, but many are, and often they can be overpriced and underwhelming.
Not so here in Punjab, where there is a vast amount to appeal to British tourists in particular, given our country’s disastrous propensity for meddling here (all the more reason to ‘give something back’ by visiting). Its astonishing Royal Heritage remains largely undiscovered by western tourists. I have been in Punjab for six days now and have encountered no other westerners at all. I have also only paid one admission charge for any of the heritage sites visited. The rest have all been free. Travel and food are very inexpensive indeed too. It is a fantastic, friendly and safe place to visit.
In Sangrur I could see the potential for something quite different from a ‘normal’ tour based holiday approach, one which could be developed both on a much larger/more organised but also on a more personal scale. Why not offer a menu of visitor activity within heritage conservation for those with interest or skills to share? People today are increasingly interested in holiday experiences which are authentic, meaningful, immersive, sustainable and personal. Slow tourism where you visit one state in depth instead of attempting to see many has huge appeal among intelligent western visitors today.
Those who volunteered to work here could be accommodated within people’s homes and welcomed for longer periods than the normal holiday, perhaps a month at a time. It would suit the student, the teacher and the vigorous retired. Staff at individual organisations such as Historic Environment Scotland or the National Trust could also be approached with a view to annual placements here as part of continuing professional development. Crucially this could be a two way skills exchange, with wesyerners receiving training in traditional conservation techniques during their stay.
The aim here would not to be offering a one-off tour based holiday but for Sangrur to become embedded in people’s lives longer term. Connections could be sustained through individual friendships using communication technologies which shrink the world. Those who came would share their skills but also, and crucially, learn new skills of their own within risk-assessed training programmes.
A long-lasting connection with a UK or American university would be a good thing to target; and it would be important to discuss the logistics of travel and insurance with an ethical travel company too.
In my view, Sangrur should set its sights on achieving World Heritage Site status, based jointly on its fine built architecture but also on its food/craft/music/cultural heritage too. Listening to ragas echoing around the gardens of the maharajahs is far more interpretive of any amount of dull guide books or interpretive panels. For more on Sangrur’s potential as a centre for Punjabi craft conservation and development please see my next blog.
Karanvir Singh Sibia knows that sometimes one will have a battle on one’s hands to achieve a great vision. He strikes me as someone who relishes this kind of fight. In a project of this kind there always comes a tipping point when the local sceptics realise they are missing out on something extraordinary and jump aboard. The sooner this moment comes, the better for Sangrur.
Vee (Verity) Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her award-winning consultancy Interpretaction was founded in 1999 and has a client list which includes most British and many European heritage agencies. www.interpretaction.com
She is touring Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her novel Major Tom’s War, which is out in Kindle on December 13 (launching on 13 December at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival) and in paperback in February 2020. She is also speaking at the USI in Delhi at 11am on 9th December. Major Tom’s War commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War. www.majortomswar.com