Revitalizing the ICH of a Million Village Goddesses in India

Local folk theater revitalized © Amareswar Galla

Visually imposing sites often catch the imagination of the public. But there is often more than the monumental that informs local’s and visitor’s experiences. Few realize the importance of local civic spaces that demonstrate community benefits from safeguarding heritage in all its manifestations. Engagement with the local primary stakeholders and their spaces reveals deep knowledge for pilgrimage, tourism, education, and recreation. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) requires benefit analysis and integrated local area planning through a bottom up praxis for sustainability.

A promising development in Amaravathi Heritage Town, Andhra Pradesh, birthplace of Mahayana Buddhism, is a major program for safeguarding its tangible and intangible heritage. Known to the outside world for its famous Amaravathi School of Buddhist Art, recent systematic cultural mapping revealed 2,900-year layers of history and a rich inventory of intangible heritage. Significant is the first Government Order for safeguarding the Balusulamma Thalli Gudi or temple. Its archaeological and historical importance is amplified through the collective memories and living heritage of Balusulamma as the village patron goddess of the ancient Dharanikota.

Two hundred years ago, local king Raja Vasi Reddy Venkatadri Naidu used to dismount his elephant on returning home from other villages and make offerings to Balusulamma. Last month, his direct descendants on an annual pilgrimage visited the place during the harvest festival and conducted vermillion or Kumkuma Puja for Balusulamma. They are now sponsoring an onsite educational room built strictly according to traditional architecture and in partnership with the Amaravathi Heritage Centre and Museum.

The priest or pujari, potter Sambayya, is reviving famous Dharanikota pottery traditions. Scaled drawings of the cultural space were prepared by the School of Planning and Architecture, Vijayawada. Local farmers are assisting with documentation and the use of the cultural space for revitalizing the diversity of intangible heritage. The landscape has been carefully fenced. Five solar lamps, a water tank, and boring pump have been installed. A gateway has been constructed and landscaping is preventing soil erosion.

The rachhabanda or traditional meeting place under the large 200-year-old Banyan tree has been renovated with smooth granite. It is being used by the local village administration, school groups, and families. Everyone loves the ambience of the place, irrespective of caste, faith, age, and other cultural affiliation. The access road to the temple, along with drainage, has been completed. Festivities that have revived the intangible heritage of the place are once again bringing back people from the surrounding twenty-three villages. The Village Vathavaranam or village ambience is revitalized. It is a concept that is rarely addressed in critical heritage discourse.

Balusulamma Thalli Gudi is an illustration of locating culture in development in safeguarding intangible heritage through integrated local area planning. There are about 14,000 villages in the state and an estimated 100,000 shrines to a high number of village goddesses across its thirteen districts—perhaps a million of heritage-rich sites in India. They are the bedrock of Andhra and Telugu culture and Indian heritage. They provide the essence of what it is to experience village atmosphere in the face of rapid urbanization and globalization.

Balusulamma signifies culture as an essential component of human development as it is a source of identity, innovation, and creativity for the village life in India. UNESCO emphasizes that many people, especially the poor, depend directly on ecosystems for their livelihood, and, in effect, their economic, social, and physical well-being, including nonetheless their cultural heritage. Balusulamma Gudi is also a good representative example of the UNESCO 2011 Recommendation on Historic Cultural Landscapes and the 2003 Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Heritage. The value and role of community cultural reclamation and responsible tourism through safeguarding and promotion of heritage landscapes is better understood in Amaravathi Heritage Town.