Durham World Heritage Site Lecture: ‘Ships of Gold’: UNESCO, Pilgrimage and Preservation in South Asia
The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception in the Cafe, Palace Green. The lecture and reception are free and open to all, however, booking is essential.
Robin Coningham holds the UNESCO Chair in Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage at Durham University. He studied Archaeology and Anthropology at King's College, Cambridge before joining the Department of Archaeological Sciences at Bradford in 1994. He moved to Durham in 2005 and served as a Pro-Vice Chancellor until 2015 when he was awarded his UNESCO Chair. Professor Coningham has worked across South Asia refining chronologies and investigating the region's Iron Age, urbanization, the genesis of Indian Ocean trade and the archaeology of early Buddhism. He is committed to the protection of Asian cultural heritage and has joined over 20 UNESCO missions. He was joint Director of the UNESCO archaeological project at Lumbini; the Birthplace of Lord Buddha, between 2011 and 2013 and now jointly directs the follow up UNESCO archaeological project at Tilaurakot-Kapilavastu, the childhood home of the Buddha. Professor Coningham has published over 80 academic papers and chapters and 10 books, including ‘The Archaeology of South Asia’ in the Cambridge World Archaeology series in 2015.
Abstract: Whilst interviewing stakeholders in the Nepal Terai in 2015 about their expectations of change resulting from the development of a nearby Buddhist pilgrimage site, one elderly participant encapsulated her aspirations by referring to it as a ‘ship of gold’. On further discussion, she suggested that the development, in combination with rising number of visitors, would bring her and her village wealth, employment, roads, electricity and security. Pilgrimage is one of the fastest growing motivations for individual travel with an estimated 600 million ‘religious and spiritual voyages’ undertaken each year. Whilst much focus in Europe has been placed on the revival of earlier sites, such as ‘St Cuthbert’s Way’ or the ‘Camino de Santiago’, pilgrimage in South Asia is agreed by most to have played a critical role for thousands of years. Recent figures generated by the Asia Development Bank, however, have predicted exponential growth in pilgrim numbers from outside South Asia, with a peak of 22 million in the year 2020. With reference to Durham University’s research in South Asia, including the UNESCO-sponsored excavations at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha (Nepal), this presentation will comment on some of the very real challenges to the survival of tangible heritage from increasing numbers of pilgrims and visitors to heritage pilgrimage sites. These challenges range from damaging contemporary ritual practices to the very real need to offer humanitarian infrastructure such as pathways, electrical power lines and sewerage and water pipes. Reflecting on Durham University’s experience with UNESCO in responding to a major financial investment of millions of dollars in pilgrim and tourist infrastructure across South Asia by the Asia Development Bank, this presentation will describe some of the technical and methodological archaeological approaches employed to support sustainable pilgrimage at key sites. It will also offer comment on the very real social and economic impacts of pilgrimage on some of South Asia’s poorest communities and on some of the very real challenges that we still face in delivering such programs.
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