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A cry for historical awareness and shared experiences


Image of construction on an older building. Image sourced from Flickr. 

As an international student visiting the United States for the first time this spring, I noticed, as the Office of Historic Preservation says, the City of Boston promotes the benefits of preservation, “the adaptive reuse of historic buildings and materials,” and “[fostering] economic development and cultural diversity by protecting and advocating for Boston’s unique sense of place” [1]. Though the same is true for many cities in the West, the converse applies to cities and historical monuments in Asia.

For a region with such a rich and diverse history and culture, Asia—especially South Asia—does very little to preserve the remnants of its past. It follows a top-down approach, where a ministry of culture, which receives well under one percent of the country’s annual budget, is usually responsible for preservation [2]. This lack of both funds and initiative has resulted in most [3] monuments and historical sites being neglected for years.

In my home city of Bengaluru, as the Times of India puts it, “one century-old Krumbiegel Hall in Lalbagh was reduced to rubble by the Horticulture Department, without prior consultation with either conservationists or the public, whose culture scape it belonged to” [4]. In the city of Boston, there are two primary ways to protect historic resources such as buildings, bridges, monuments or parks from being demolished or significantly altered. According to the Boston Preservation Alliance, “the resource can either be individually designated as a Local Landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission, or the area where it exists can be designated by the Commission as a Local Landmark District” [5]. There is a sense of community ownership here, and historical monuments are seemingly a part of collective memory in the West.

Although there are various reasons for the neglect of historical preservation in the East, I would argue that the major reason is a lack of perceived ownership among the public. History is relegated to the pages of school textbooks and is viewed simply as a collection of events from the past. This reduces the general public to mere onlookers rather than participants in maintaining historical knowledge.

In my opinion, there are two reasons for this. One is that there is no clear difference between history and mythology from an Asian perspective. Historical events are usually fused with grandiose aspects that are strengthened through re-telling. It reaches a point where facts become obscure, and people connect to the event through the main character of that story rather than through themselves or their ancestors. The epic Ramayana from India is a perfect example of this. It is celebrated as “Ramakien” in Thailand, “Reamker” in Cambodia or “Ramaenna/Ramaensho” in Japan. Though historians consider it as a myth, it is actually referred to as “ithihasa”—the closest word to the term “history”—by the masses and in ancient Indian literature [6].

The other is a colonial hangover that views education as a way to train young men for administrative jobs rather than critical thinking [7]. This means a student learns only what happened, and not why it happened. When educated this way, we often fail to realize that history is not only the past; it is very much alive at this moment, the present. History is a collection of shared experiences and collective learning.

The preceding three years have shaped our world in various ways. The Covid-19 pandemic, the death of George Floyd and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are clear reminders that we are very much a  part of history as we live. The real Covid-19 death tolls in major developing and underdeveloped countries such as India, China and others can never be known. The unjust killing of Tyre Nichols and many such events highlight bureaucratic apathy, brutality and incomprehensible human destructiveness.

The world today, in many ways, is just like it was many centuries before this—shaped by power struggles. People in power resist change and are immune to punishment. What differentiates us today from the past is our access to information. The power of knowledge can help us bring in reforms and change. For this to happen, major events we encounter should be a part of shared memory. Daily, we are bombarded with heartbreaking news that highlights tragic events. Instead of being mere onlookers, everyone has a role in stopping hate and creating safe, inclusive communities.

Historical monuments and memorials are great places to spark a conversation. For instance, the Krumbiegel Hall I mentioned earlier was a place where celebrated botanist and garden designer Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel held numerous discussions on botany and garden designing. The hall would spark curiosity and conversation among the public—especially kids—about its history, in-situ conservation principles, the importance of urban green spaces on physical and mental well-being and the immense contribution many Europeans had in shaping the city’s landscape.

With the amount of information available today, each of us can identify the importance of places and monuments around us. We must be aware of such importance on an individual and community level. The culture and architecture of any place are reflective of the times when a specific group of people interacted. Indo-Saracenic style of architecture developed when British architects mixed Indian architecture with the gothic revival style [8]. When we fail to notice the importance of such buildings and monuments, the collective experience of the people from those times will be lost forever.

We should actively be looking to create new avenues for preserving our shared experiences and protecting the earlier ones. According to UMass Boston’s Office of Communications, “The Embrace” memorial was recently unveiled at the Boston commons which “to honor the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, celebrate their history in Boston and spark a public conversation on advancing racial and social justice in Boston today.” [9]

What COVID-19 taught us is that we must work together at a community level. “Our collective inability to consider the impact of our actions on others makes it difficult to vanquish the virus,” [10] as one article Time puts it. In the same way, without an understanding that we are all in this together, we cannot protect the monuments we so often need and do not realize the importance of. A sense of ownership of our history, among communities and different groups, is the way forward.

[1] https://www.boston.gov/departments/historic-preservation

[2] The region South Asia consists of the countries of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan , Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal.

 India: Even with higher allocation in 2023-24, India’s allocation for ministry if Culture is Rs.3009.05 crore against overall budget of Rs.39,44,909 crore. https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1794379

In Pakistan, Ministry of Federal Education, Professional Training, National Heritage & Culture in 2022-23 received PKR 141,787,664 against a budget of PKR 33,422,487,785.


In Bhutan, Religion and Cultural services has been allocated Nu.132.983 million of the total allocation of Nu.81,827.311 million for FY 2022-23.


In Bangladesh the allocation was just 0.0939 per cent for FY 2022-23.


In SriLanka, Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs was allocated Rs.6,355 million against a budget of Rs.4,634,263 million.


[3] Just 3,650 cultural monuments enjoy the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). That leaves at least 35,000 and as many as 700,000 other items of built heritage vulnerable to bureaucratic apathy, decay, vandalism – and property developers.


The sources said that the heritage department had received just Rs15 million funds for preservation of protected buildings, which were in highly dilapidated condition.







[7] https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/western-education-system-to-get-clerks-from-india-116021200566_1.html

[8] https://acadpubl.eu/hub/2018-118-22/articles/22c/32.pdf

[9] https://www.umb.edu/news/detail/umass_boston_alumni_help_bring_the_embrace_to_boston_common

[10] https://time.com/6138465/covid-19-immunity-community/

About the Contributor
Charan Reddy, Opinions Writer