Will Varanasi and Sarnath join the World Heritage list?

It’s World Heritage Week from November 19-25 and countries around the globe are celebrating the priceless treasures that UNESCO, which runs the list, is helping to preserve.

But one country, India, is wondering why two of its most famous places aren’t on the list. India has no shortage of World Heritage Sites, like the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, but the 3500 year-old holy city of Varanasi (Benares) isn’t on the list and the Buddhist shrines at Sarnath are only on the tentative list.

This seems like an odd oversight. Varanasi is a beautiful, chaotic, ancient city on the banks of the Ganges. Nobody knows just how many temples there are here, from massive golden structures with elegant statues to little flagstones carved with a lotus flower and daubed with a bit of paint or an offering of a flower. It seems that when you are close to the river you cannot look anywhere without seeing a temple or shrine. In fact, it’s hard not to see several of them! The riverbank is famous for its burning ghats, platforms where Hindus are cremated before their remains are tossed into the holy Ganges River. But like in Hinduism itself, death and life are two parts of the same process. While people are mourning along one section of the riverside, not far off the dhobis are washing clothes, spreading out colorful saris like terrestrial rainbows, while old men play chess and kids frolic in the water. The ghats are strange mixture of morbid reminders of mortality and the throbbing life that makes India so exciting.

Nearby Sarnath is where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon, and there are numerous temples in the representing all the Buddhist countries in the world. It’s interesting to see Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and other temples all together, attended by monks of all different nationalities.The peaceful, semi-rural surroundings make a stark contrast to noisy Varanasi.

So why aren’t these two places, so popular with visitors and so important to world heritage, not on the list? Nobody seems to have a good answer, but the Indian press does have some complaints about how they are treated, not by UNESCO, but by the Indians themselves. An article in the Times of India complains that the temples of Varanasi aren’t properly preserved. The stone temple of Kashi Vishwanath, shown here and built in 1777, was recently painted using enamel paint, which can seriously damage the stone. Now curators are facing a hefty preservation bill if they want to save one of the most important temples to Shiva. A recent study found about 2,000 temples in Varanasi that need help, but nobody is sure of the true extent of the problem.

Sarnath was submitted for consideration in 1998. Now it appears poised to get on the list. While the older temples and monuments have crumbled with time, the newer temples are in good condition and give the visitor or pilgrim a world tour of Buddhist practice. Here’s hoping Sarnath makes it onto the list soon, and that India will increase its efforts to preserve Varanasi and get it on the World Heritage List too.