Sacred Mountain Landscape and Heritage Routes
Archeological Survey of India
Pithoragarh District, Uttarakhand
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The Sacred Mountain Landscape and Heritage Routes are located in the Pithoragarh district in the north-eastern part of Uttarakhand State of India. Covering an area of 6836 sq. km. within India, the area is flanked in the east by Nepal and bordered by China to the north. The Indian site is part of the larger landscape of 31000 sq. km. referred to as the ‘Kailash Sacred Landscape’ constituting the Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in the remote south-western portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and adjacent districts in the far-western region of Nepal. Renowned for its immense cultural, ecological and historical importance, this area represents a diverse, multi-cultural and fragile landscape.
The Indian portion of the landscape in the State of Uttarakhand comprises four major watersheds, viz. the Panar-Saryu, the Saryu-Ramganga, the Gori-Kali and the Dhauli-Kali. A distinct bioclimatic zonation is evident across an elevational relief that ranges from 350 metres amsl to almost 7,000 metres amsl. Approximately 50% of the area is forest land, 22% is agricultural land, and there are also significant portions of uncultivated area (10%). The total population of this area is more than 460,000 persons. The main languages include Kumaoni (high variability), Beyanse, Bhotia, Hunia (a Tibetan mixed dialect), Hindi, and Nepali. Indigenous ethnic groups in this area include Van Rawats and Rung communities.
The property within the Indian territory comprises key sacred cultural sites, with ancient pilgrimage and trade routes, which leads to the spiritually and historically significant Kailash Mansoravar region. Several ancient pilgrimage cum trade routes to Kailash Mansarovar pass through the Indian landscape. Currently, the Mahakali route in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, India, exiting at Lipu Lekh Pass is open for the annual Kailash Mansoravar pilgrimage as well as for a small volume of transboundary trade with China and Nepal. In addition to the main pilgrimage routes and associated cultural heritage sites, there are many sites regarded as sacred, religious, or otherwise culturally significant, including lakes and mountains. Mountains such as the ‘Adi Kailash’ which is a natural replica of the original Mount Kailash and ‘Om Parvat’ which resembles the Hindu religious symbol of ‘Om’ represent significant features of geological formations that have sacred attributes. Moreover, there are many festivals and fairs, with historic and cultural significance, held in this area throughout the year.
This unique area is significant not only as a religious-spiritual site, but is also host to high-altitude, transhimalayan ecosystems, habitats and biodiversity. The area is dominated by west Himalayan forest types, with a rich diversity of rare and endangered flora (Pinus wallichiana, Tsuga dumosa, Berberis lambertii, Asplenium khullarii, Lecanora spp, Cladonia spp.) and fauna (snow leopard, Himalayan musk deer, Himalayan tahr, Asiatic black bear, red fox,etc) along a varied altitudinal range. The area includes natural protected areas like the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary and the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve critical for in situ conservation of terrestrial biodiversity. A range of sacred values within the landscape have contributed to the conservation of biodiversity in the area.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Criterion (iii): The area of the Indian landscape in Uttarakhand State has been settled from ancient times, and settlements are largely associated with historical events in the area; this has produced an interesting mosaic of cultural associations. The Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand falls within the historic Kumaon region encompassing the Darma, Byans and Chaudas Valleys and Munsiyari area. Some of the culturally important locations include Dharchula, Gangolihat, Garbyang, Himkhola, Jajurali, Pithoragarh town among others. The region has a specific Kumaoni style of architecture. The building construction technique and material like stone, mud, slate have a combination of local wisdom with locally available material that has been used historically. The artistic attributes of the region have also evolved over time. The creation of the artwork is based on local visuals or depicts traditional stories of various interests of local population. A particular art form is ‘Aipan’/ ‘Alpana’. In this art, the artist creates figures/ motifs of natural elements or god/ esses. This art form develops on various materials and surfaces like cloths, wall, and paper as well. Other specific art forms include clay idol and mask making corresponding with various festivals.
The indigenous ethnic groups include the Rung/Shauka, Van Rajji/Van Rawat and related populations. Much of the population has traditionally practised transhumance; they are also involved in trade, livestock rearing and agriculture. The greatest proportion of settlements (66%) is located in the 1,000– 2,000 metres amsl altitudinal zone. Nomadic herders have both permanent and temporary settlements in the higher elevation zones. For centuries, a nomadic lifestyle, transhumance, and migration have been the defining characteristic features of the socioeconomic life of the local people in the sacred mountain landscape. This lifestyle has resulted in a regional interdependence and trans-border connectivity among the inhabitants. The region falls across the historic salt-grain trade routes that have survived for centuries engendering a local trading economy and flourishing culture. These high mountain passes were used by traders who would carry food grains, jaggery, clothes, and various other commodities from the lower parts of this region in India and bring rock salt, borax, and wool from Tibet. However, economic and political changes in the region have affected the trade and linkages between the communities. These ‘heritage routes’ and remnants of this once-flourishing trade add to the beauty and rich cultural history and diversity of the region.
Criterion (vi): Historically, the sacred mountain landscape in India served as a major staging point for trade and pilgrimage routes to Nepal and Tibet. Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in Tibet Autonomous Region of China are one of the most significant religious heritage sites which are sacred to followers of at least five religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikh, and Bön – who believe that circumambulating the sacred mountain is auspicious. The pilgrimage to Kailash-Manasarovar is the best known of the historically and culturally important heritage routes. The adherents and believers take unimaginable hardships during the yatra or journey to reach the Kailash-Mansarovar complex with an objective to gain better meaning of life and attain salvation or liberation. In India, the traditional Kailash pilgrimage starts from Baramdeo (Tanakpur) in the foothills, and passes through Senapani, Champawat, Rameshwar, Gangolihat, and Pithoragarh to Lipulekh. There are several other ancient routes which have now fallen into disuse.
The landscape is interspersed with sacred natural formations and man-made properties that are connected by paths and routes. The sacred features include sacred rivers and their confluences, high altitude wetlands, and geological rock formations/mountains. Among the important mountain peaks is the Adi Kailash, which bears a striking resemblance to the original Mount Kailash situated in Tibet Autonomous Region of China.Another geological fetaure is the ‘Om Parvat’, which is located in the west of the pilgrimage route to Kailash Mansarovar nearer to the India-Tibet-Nepal trijunction. Situated in highly fossiliferous Triassic-Jurassic rock of Tethys Himalayan terrain folded in such a manner that the depression in the arms of overturned folds is filled with ice and snow throughout the year giving rise to a figure similar to the Hindu spiritual word pronounced as ‘Om’. The culturally significant lakes include the Parvati Tal, Anchheri Tal and Chhipla Kund. Confluences of the rivers in the landscape are considered sacred, with many rituals and worship performed on the locations. Tapovan (Darchula), Taleshwar (Jhulaghat), Jauleshwar (Jauljibi), Rameshwar (Ghat), Pancheshwar, and Thal are some of the important river confluences. Pancheshwar, the confluence of the Kali and Saryu rivers, is perceived with utmost veneration both by people in India and Nepal. Moreover, living tradition to worship nature and its resources, local festivals and dance forms connote tangible associations of the communities with local geo-ecological features. Jauljibi, Thal, Gangolihat, Nanda Devi and Punyagiri fairs along with festivals of Harela, Khatarau, Kandali and Chippla Jaat showcases cultural diversity, religious belief, socio-economic lifestyle a, shared heritage and natural linkages in customs and traditions of the landscape. Such heritage forms and memories related to the ancient and living traditions of indigenous communities are conserved and institutionalised through Tribal Heritage Museum in Munisiyari and other religious institutions that are well interspersed along the pilgrimage routes in the landscape.
Criterion (x): The physiographic diversity and biogeographic location of the target landscape manifests in habitat variations and high species richness found in the region. Five major ecoregions are represented in this area namely, Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forest, Himalayan subtropical pine forest, Western Himalayan temperate/broadleaf forest, Western Himalayan subalpine conifer forest and Western Himalayan alpine shrub and meadow. A case study in the Askot Wildlife Sanctuary revealed an estimated 1,200 plant species representing over 700 genera and 173 families. The area is dominated by west Himalayan forest types (such as the chir pine and oaks), and this is the western most limit of the Tsuga and Macaranga communities. There is a high rate of species richness, particularly of epiphytic orchids (120 species of Orchidaceae). There are 234 near endemic and 24 endemic species (together constituting 21% of flora). Ten species are listed in the Red Data Book, and 11 species have small populations, a narrow geographic range, or are under high pressure use.The area is very rich in terms of the diversity of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs).
The landscape exhibits a diversity of faunal species - more than 38 mammal, 191 bird, 26 herpetofauna and 90 fish species are known to occur in the landscape. The IUCN list of species reported as threatened for this area include 3 that are critically endangered, 7 endangered, 7 vulnerable, and 18 that are near-threatened. Mammalian fauna is represented by populations of species such as snow leopard, Himalayan musk deer, Himalayan tahr, Asiatic black bear, red fox among others. Avifauna is a particularly rich faunal group and the Indian landscape falls within the boundary of the Western Himalaya’s Endemic Bird Area (EBA-128),which has a priority rating of ‘critical’, and which supports a total of 11 restricted range species of different threat categories. The target landscape includes one legally defined protected area (Askot Wildlife Sanctuary) and a globally recognised mountain Biosphere Reserve (the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve – NDBR) located adjacent to its upper north-western boundary. The western part of NDBR beyond the target landscape constitutes the Nanda Devi National Park, which is a designated World Heritage Site of India renowned for the natural splendour and rugged mountain wilderness of Nanda Devi complementing the meadows of endemic alpine flowers in the gentle landscape of the Valley of Flowers. The contiguity of the landscape with the NDBR and World Heritage Site provides the additional benefit of forming a contiguous landform with exceptionally high conservation and socioeconomic value which has both national and international designations and protected status.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The Sacred Mountain Landscape and Heritage Routes of Uttarakhand, India comprising cultural and natural properties is maintained and protectedby both local communities and government agencies. The tangible cultural properties such as hindu shrines, temples and Buddhists monasteries are regulated by religious scriptures and management bodies. These scriptures describe the disciplinary conduct and activities in and around properties. These properties as well as the religious and cultural practice have maintained the traditional characteristics and values over a long history of time. The heritage route for pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar is primarily administered by Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and supported by provincial government bodies. The rituals and worship of sacred features along the route have continued in similar fashion since centuries. Thus, the site meets the conditions of authenticity.
In the landscape, Askot Wildlife Sanctuary and Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve are protected under national and international designations. These protected areas are designated and protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 with approved management plans and governing regime. In addition to national recognition, the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve holds dual designations of UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Besides these protected areas, the landscape has numerous sacred groves and community forests such as Bugyals, Tapovan and Haath Kali which are governed and managed by sustainable traditional practices of the local communities. These ecosystems serve as a gene pool and are host to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna which are conserved under exisitng legislations, thereby, ensuring integrity of the site.
Comparison with other similar properties
The Sacred Mountain Landscape and Heritage Routes of Uttarakhand, India is a unique site which demonstrates historic cultural and religious values along with high ecological significance in habitats and biodiversity. Historically, the sacred mountain landscape in India served as a major staging point for trade and pilgrimage routes to Nepal and Tibet. The landscape is interspersed with sacred natural formations and man-made properties that are connected by paths and routes. It also incorporates natural protected area, biosphere reserve and geological attributes. Hence, its Outstanding Universal value is justified by criteria (iii), (vi), and (x) as a mixed (natural and cultural) heritage site.
World Heritage Sites with similar properties include Khangchendzonga National Park, India and Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Japan. While Khangchendzonga is also a mixed site with similar cultural criteria, its sacred values are limited in religious diversity to primarily Buddhist practice and without a traditional pilgrimage route as such. The Sacred Landscape in India incorporates multiple faiths such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikh and Bon and has historically-recognised pilgrimage routes leading to Kailash-Mansarovar. The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Japan are set in the dense forests of the Kii Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, three sacred sites – Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan – linked by pilgrimage routes to the ancient capital cities of Nara and Kyoto, reflect the fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japanese culture. However, these are purely cultural sites reflecting a long tradition of sacred mountains. The Sacred Landscape in India exemplify not only cultural-sacred values but also sites and species of natural significance critical for conservation. Hence, the Sacred Mountain Landscape and Heritage Routes of Uttarakhand, India classifies as an outstanding example of a potential mixed (natural and cultural) World Heritage Site.