Making it fun!

To begin, I apologise for the hiatus in my writing here, just in case anyone’s been impatiently awaiting their heritage fix;) By way of explanation – over the last couple of months, with the general holiday atmosphere and (rare!) pleasant weather in Mumbai, the inheritage walks have kept me both occupied and tired (see Participate). At the same time, researching new routes to offer has meant several busy days visiting the many, varied heritage sites and areas in the city. Places we’ve all heard of, but most of us never been. These visits have proved fascinating, but also quite frustrating.

Take the Kanheri caves, hidden inside the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Ask around, your parents and grandparents are likely to remember this as a popular picnic spot. You might have visited as well, most likely on a school trip? What, if anything, do you remember about that visit? Not much? Aggressive monkeys from the park perhaps? Anything about the actual caves? Were you perhaps left wondering what the big deal was? I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I blame you.

Standing at the caves, looking out over the park
Another view of the national park

Totalling 109 in number and named Kanheri after the Sanskrit Krishnagiri or ‘black mountain’, the caves were carved by hand from a basalt rock-face and date from the 1st century BCE to 10th century CE – yes thats correct, some of these caves are over 2000 years old! To stress this point – that’s as old as the Roman Empire! And they still survive today, relatively intact, in the heart of Mumbai city.

Very briefly, the caves were created for use by Budhhist monks as viharas (places of study, meditation and simple living) and chaitya halls (places for congregational worship). Kanheri was evidently well-known, at one point even becoming a renowned university. Wealthy merchants, citizens and members of the ruling class donated generously to the monks, earning distinction through their association with the site. Because of Kanheri’s long life, the caves tell the critical story of change and development in the Buddhist religion. One such piece of evidence is the presence for worship of rock cut figures of the Buddha; for, in the early years of Buddhism, the Buddha who never claimed to be a god, was not depicted in human form. This would come later, with change in Buddhist thought, belief and practices of worship. In addition to telling the story and development of Buddhism in Western India, Kanheri also represents amazing human effort – for, carving into basalt in this manner was no small technical feat! Finally, surviving cisterns and canals also indicate a sophisticated system of harvesting and using rain water.

Cave 1 - believed to contain the Buddha's relics, stupas have always been the focus of Buddhist worship
Cave 1 - note the Buddha represented on the wall around the stupa
Monumental Buddha image
Chaitya Hall - note the carved stone capitals
Steep climb up the hill, the cement banisters are a later addition
We were told by a security guard that this was the 'university'. The stone cells at the back were presumably where the monks lived
The university from the outside
Further up the hill
More caves
Water tank and channel
Water filled even today!

I am far from an expert on Kanheri. This information is basic, and easily available. You wouldn’t learn any of this though, were you to actually visit the site. Interpretation of the site’s history, story and significance, is shockingly non-existent. Lip service is paid to this by two information panels that lay by the way side as you climb up the hill to the caves. These panels are in a rather poor condition which only serves to enhance their ill-thought-out and inaccessible design.

Panel 1 - written in capitals and located too far behind the barrier to read comfortably
Panel 2 - reading a panel placed parallel to the ground is harder than you'd think!
No maps on site

So, on Sunday morning, when the surrounding park is filled with families on safari, people walking, jogging, cycling and playing, the caves remain comparatively deserted. We overheard the only other visitors we saw remark that the experience of such an important public heritage site, in any other country, would be so different! Agreed. The difference lies in interpretation, an effort completely absent at Kanheri.

Interpretation may be understood as the communication processes or means by which a site’s significance, value and meanings are revealed to its audiences. Interpretation is NOT merely information about the site, although it is based on this information. Effective interpretation means creating a visitor experience that caters to, stimulates and satisfies various potential audience groups – here park-goers, families, youth, school groups, adult visitors, tourists, Buddhists –  and builds public appreciation, understanding and eventually support for the site.

The practice of interpretation begins with drafting an interpretation plan, premised on an interpretive theme and objectives. What in a nutshell is special about a site? What should visitors to the site learn, feel, how should they behave on site and what should they take away? Who are the site’s potential audiences? Once these questions have been answered, interpretation is realised through a number of varied interpretive media, such as text panels, audio-guides, guided tours of sites, exhibitions and so on. Selecting appropriate interpretative media makes the heritage resource accessible and engaging. Also, popular. Successful. Alive.

I venture a few suggestions based on my training in heritage interpretation and, more importantly, my experience as a visitor to Kanheri. I repeat that I am not a Kanheri expert – neither are the majority of potential visitors to the site. And that is essentially what interpretation is about  – creating a stimulating experience for the many different types of people who might visit, not just the experts who probably know it all anyway!

Interpretive Theme: the fundamental message or idea communicated to visitors, based on the site’s USP. Of the ones I thought up, the following is my favourite.

  • Celebrating Buddhism through the life, belief and experiences of a Buddhist Monk

Interpretive Objectives:  the measurable outcomes of the interpretation provided, aimed at realising the interpretive theme and the site’s eventual purpose. The defined objectives inform the selection and design of interpretive media and techniques.

– Visitors should begin to understand

  1. the life and practices of a buddhist monk (then and now)
  2. the teachings of the Buddha
  3. the innovative technology used to create and sustain the site
  4. the importance of Kanheri as physical evidence of a world long past

– Visitors should begin to feel

  1. a sense of wonder at the technology used to create and sustain life at the site
  2. a sense of wonder at the (hard and rigorous) life of a monk, and the depth of belief that made this possible
  3. an affiliation with the monk, if only through difference – could he/she have lived like that?
 – Having achieved the above, visitors would be moved to refrain from dirtying the site or decorating it with carvings and inscriptions of their own. Finally, visitors would want to come back to the site!
Potential Interpretive media:  From the range of interpretive media and techniques available, the most appropriate for a particular site are chosen based on mission, target audiences, interpretive theme, objectives and, critically, available resources. I thought of two solutions that might work at Kanheri.
  • Interpretation panels are clearly not ideal at Kanheri because of the outdoor nature of the cave site – let’s face it there’s very little that’s more annoying than a panel that’s disfigured and illegible. An easy alternative could be creative and accessible hand-held pamphlets that visitors can pick up at the ticket office and carry with them. Include a map marking the position of each of the 109 caves so visitors can find their way around rather than guessing which way to go. And highlight the significance of each cave, interpret its particular features and history, so visitors know what to look for once they’re there. It really isn’t rocket science.

For instance, in one of the caves further away (I forget which number) is an image of the Buddha painted on the ceiling. There’s no indication of this at the site though, so you could just as easily decide to skip that cave, and so miss something pretty cool. These pamphlets could double as souvenir takeaways. A note of caution is perhaps necessary: rubbish bins would be a necessary addition were this suggestion to be taken up.

The Buddha painted on the ceiling. You could miss it if you were'nt looking.
The painting, close up

But sure, not everyone reads interpretation panels or pamphlets. Indeed very few do. So let’s get a little more imaginative now.

  • Instead of merely having guides show you around (I’m told there are a few although again there were no obvious signs for this), why not try to ‘people’ the caves? Get amateur actors involved, or anyone that’s interested in volunteering, and have them dress up and use the site as the monks that built and used the caves back when. Live interpretation in this way is both engaging and accessible: visitors can actually see and experience the site as it might have once been, get first or third person accounts, individual attention and even have questions answered.
  • To engage visitors further, particularly children in school groups, why not have them dress up as Buddhist monks and experience life and practice in the caves, rather than just imagining it? You could also provide the opportunity to experience more specialised roles – that of those who actually built the caves, carved the figures and created the water system. Learning by doing. Not to mention, having fun. I’d bet this would keep people intrigued and more likely to understand and retain the information they receive. To make it feasible, this could be organised only on holidays and weekends perhaps.

There are enough books and scholars on Kanheri’s history and epigraphy to provide the basic subject information that is necessary to feed such interpretive practices and media. Where specific records do not exist, perhaps what is known of similar Buddhist cave sites, like Ajanta, could be used to draw parallels instead? I’d like to see the ASI, that manages the site, begin to think along these lines. Its simple really – make heritage visits fun and more people are likely to visit and participate. In the long run, with public participation, understanding and appreciation, perhaps some of these sites will be preserved for posterity.

What do you think?


5 thoughts on “Making it fun!

  1. Thank you for such an eye opener. Proud that we have such a heritage site within our city limits. We need more people like you to make the public aware of this and their responsibility toward their heritage. Alisha we need a walk there !

  2. In my experience of heritage/historical sites one key element is the availability of knowledgeable interpreters throughout the site. A manual is ok, and a good thing to take away and read afterwards (what was it that we just saw?), but people who can answer questions and point out features casual visitors might miss can be invaluable, especially if they are enthusiastic. The Kanheri caves seem amazing, and the fact that the paintings are still visible is a wonderful plus. Who would have guessed??

  3. I agree with Carollyn, but then i like the ‘tour guide’ approach to interpretation. Unfortunately a severe lack of/very poor interpretation is a problem we face at many places. Look at the CSMVS – the sculpture gallery is currently under renovation I think, but I remember taking a British friend there a few years ago. The sculptures only had labels naming which deity it was and where the sculpture was found, as well as a date. With Hindu deities having thousands of different names, I couldn’t even explain the significance to this friend (who got bored of the audio guide) unless I found some feature on a sculpture that I recognized.

    There’s something to be said for not interpreting art, but sometimes, it is needed.

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