Everything that one sees around them constitutes a cultural landscape in one form or another, for almost all landscapes on this planet have been influenced by human activity or perception in some way or another. So how does one start perceiving cultural landscapes, then? Maybe the answer lies in the idea that the term ‘cultural landscape’ does not refer to any particular sort of landscape; rather, it refers to a method of interpreting landscapes and associated qualities that highlight the interrelationship of people and environment across time while preserving existence, transformation, and transferability.
Cultural Ecology: Human-Environment Interaction in Shaping Landscapes
Landscapes such as mountains, plains, deserts, and many more have been formed on the Earth over millions of years by forces of nature; while humans have inhabited most of these landscapes, it is evident that humans have not only altered the landscapes to suit their needs but also have had to adapt their lifestyle according to the landscapes. Human-environment interaction links humans, culture, and the physical environment. This interaction is mutual as culture adapts to a particular environment, and humans modify that environment. One might consider this phenomenon of landscapes being formed by this interaction as ‘cultural ecology.’
And this forms a basis for the cultural landscapes, particularly in the Indian context, as the physical environment is shaped via the convergence of people’s memory, imagination, and knowledge. Due to this, Nalini Thakur has termed the Indian cultural landscape an ‘intellectual landscape,’ where nature and land have been elevated from the physical to the metaphysical due to active community engagement across generations.
An example of this dates back to the medieval era; the revival of the Hindu faith brought forth a fresh interpretation of the cultural landscape, exemplified by Vrajbhoomi. The Vaishnavites conceived Vrajbhoomi in the 16th century as a representation of the birthplace and upbringing of Lord Krishna. Through the collective efforts of the devotees, the landscape flourished, and consequently, religious rituals became vibrant community festivals, incorporating dance, music, and various intangible forms of worship. The Holi festival, celebrated over a month in different locations with Vrindavan, and Vrajbhoomi, served as a unifying thread, reconnecting the entire cultural landscape and enriching the lives of devotees each year.
Sacred Landscapes: Interweaving Myth, Faith, and Place
The Indian cultural landscapes have been depicted and illustrated in myths, stories, poems, oral traditions, and religious writings, as well as have been physically materialised via the construction of diverse types of built landscapes, including temples, shrines, funerary structures, and pavilions among others. The distinct pattern of natural characteristics and forms interconnected with the sacred geography of faith and its secular standards aids in developing a unified cultural landscape by integrating humans, place, and faith. The physical and metaphysical oneness establishes continuity, consistency, complexity, and comprehensiveness, reinforcing the cultural landscape’s holistic cognition.
The riverside architecture of ghats and the emergence of maths (social/monastic institutions) and dharamshalas (pilgrimage accommodations) are examples of such cultural landscapes. With Varanasi and Puri exemplifying a sacred settlement typology, these locations experienced a metamorphosis from ancient holy sites into culturally significant landscapes. These cultural landscapes have been enriched by living traditions, intangible heritage, and a continuous process of celebration, consolidation, and expansion, defining the distinct characteristics of the Indian cultural landscape.
Power Dynamics Shaping Cultural Landscapes
Another critical factor that influences cultural landscapes is power dynamics. Dominant figures shape the culture just as in the case of history. The landscape is a process of integrating practices and relationships with added beliefs. Change slowly produces new cultural landscapes by adding new layers to existing layer composition, which may provide new meanings to a physically altered or unchanging situation. Cultural landscapes represent how human values and beliefs influence how people build altered landscapes or unique landscapes.
One might consider the case of the influence of European colonialism on the landscape and gardens of the Indian subcontinent. The Europeans brought a romantic view of nature as a refuge from the congested city and a source of moral goodness and spiritual solace. This contrasted with the Mughal garden’s geometric order and symmetry. The colonial picturesque emerged as an attempt to imitate English scenic parks derived from the natural landscapes of the Lake District, Wales, and Scotland, within the colonies.
Significant changes occurred in the 19th century, driven by political and economic developments, which profoundly impacted the cultural landscape of the subcontinent. The urban landscape of cities like Lucknow transformed in the mid-19th century. Public parks were established from the expanding European population in civil lines and military cantonments. The English picturesque influenced the conversion of Mughal-style gardens into irregular landscapes with spreading lawns and winding paths, serving as recreational spaces and housing zoological and botanical collections, transforming privately owned spaces into institutional and public realms.
In the present day, there is a coexistence of the traditional world alongside the increasingly powerful official world, creating a paradox as the latter threatens the former. The conventional Indian perspective on protecting and managing cultural resources is based on continuity rather than preservation. However, this perception has yet to be fully recognised, comprehended and embraced within the educational and technical training that shapes the expertise and decisions of professionals in this field. Consequently, the destiny of one’s cultural resources hangs in the balance.
Sinha, A. (2020). Cultural Landscapes of India: Imagined, Enacted, and Reclaimed: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Taylor, K. and Lennon, J. (eds.) (2012) Managing cultural landscapes. London: Routledge.
Thakur, N. (2021) Indian cultural landscapes: Religious pluralism, tolerance and ground reality, Aζ South Asia. Available at: https://architexturez.net/doc/az-cf-21175 (Accessed: 17 June 2023).
Singh, R.P.B. (2019) Cultural Landscapes of India, repository of national identity. keynote address in the ACLA – IFLA: CLC Ws ‘cultural landscapes vis-à-vis sacred places’: 18~19 Feb. 2019. SNU – Seoul National University, Academia. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/40017543/_531a_19_Singh_Rana_P_B_2019_Cultural_Landscapes_of_India_repository_of_National_Identity_Keynote_address_in_the_ACLA_IFLA_CLC_WS_Cultural_Landscapes_vis_%C3%A0_vis_Sacred_Places_18_19_Feb_2019_SNU_Seoul_National_University_1_Gwanak_ro_Gwanak_gu_Seoul_151_921_Rep_of_KOREA_1_29pp (Accessed: 17 June 2023).
PTI (2018) Vrindavan Widows dance while playing Holi with colours at ancient Gopinath Temple in Vrindavan on Tuesday, newindianexpress. Available at: https://images.newindianexpress.com/uploads/user/imagelibrary/2018/2/28/original/holi64.jpg?w=640&dpr=1.3 (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
Varanasi Cultural Walking Tour (no date) klook. Available at: https://res.klook.com/images/fl_lossy.progressive,q_65/c_fill,w_1200,h_630,f_auto/w_80,x_15,y_15,g_south_west,l_klook_water/activities/h2pnutn7ecckblvg3xbq/Cultural%20Walking%20Tour%20Of%20Varanasi.jpg (Accessed: 19 June 2023).
saiko3p / Shutterstock (no date) The Lucknow Residency, historyhit. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/app/uploads/2020/11/The-Lucknow-Residency.jpg (Accessed: 19 June 2023).