India’s Tourism: A World of Marvels and Missed Opportunities



Today marks World Tourism Day and there is little to celebrate in a year which continues to be devastating for the sector across the world. According to the World Economic Forum, the Covid-19 pandemic has set back global tourism by 20 years in 2020. Over 120 million jobs have been lost and damages have amounted to $1 trillion. What’s worse, no one knows when the crisis will ease.

In India, the Covid-19 pandemic only worsened a crisis that had already hit the tourism industry. In 2019, India recorded one of its worst years as a tourist destination. Arrivals of overseas tourists and the country’s foreign exchange earnings from them grew at the slowest pace in 10 years. In 2019, just 10.9 million foreign tourists visited India. In the same year, Vietnam, a country just slightly larger than Maharashtra in size, had 18 million foreign tourists visiting.

While various reasons – from rising pollution to street protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 – were cited for this fall in numbers (many countries had, in fact, issued travel advisories for India) in 2019, one can’t ignore the larger tourism crisis that India faces.

The real reasons for the country’s shockingly low tourist numbers are apathy, terrible heritage management and the inability to provide even basic tourist infrastructure at heritage sites.

Despite our great history, monuments and arts, and the pride we take in our heritage, the central and state governments have done precious little to promote our heritage, even to Indians. Only a handful of states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa and Kerala have been able to make a dent and compete in an increasingly fragmented tourism landscape.

In the last 3 years, Live History India’s teams have travelled the length and breadth of India, at least twice over, to research and document the country’s rich and varied heritage, and what an eye-opener it has been. Our visits have underlined what we already know – that problems on-ground are fundamental, such as crumbling monuments and the absence of even basic tourist amenities – but they have also underscored the untapped wealth we are sitting on.

As India and the world mark ‘World Tourism Day’, here’s a look at just four of the thousands of sites that are crying for attention and which also highlight a missed opportunity for India’s tourism industry.

Raverkhed – Time For A New Beginning

On 15th September 2020, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath decided to rename the Mughal Museum in Agra as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum, after the 17th century Maratha Emperor. His logic was, ‘How can our heroes be Mughals?’ This logic was flawed on many counts. First, it was chauvinistic, considering that three of the Emperors who lorded over the Mughal Empire from Agra – Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan – had Rajput wives and mothers. Second, Shivaji had little to do with Agra. Third, there is very little – probably nothing – of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the Agra Museum, for it to carry his name.

Ironically, even as politicians like Adityanath hanker after such headline-grabbing announcements, sites that really deserve pride of place are ignored.

The entrance to the samadhi at Raverkhed
The entrance to the samadhi at Raverkhed

In Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, there is a small village called Raverkhed or Raverkhedi. At first glance, it looks just like countless other villages in India. Small thatched houses, grazing cattle and fields waving with cotton.  But few realise that this tiny hamlet, with a population of less than a hundred, is home to the neglected mausoleum of one of the greatest generals in India, the Maratha warrior and ruler Peshwa Baji Rao I (r. 1720-40 CE).

Credited with scripting the story of Maratha domination across the subcontinent, under the aegis of Maratha Chhatrapati Shahu (r. 1708-49) in the 18th century, Baji Rao I is a larger-than-life figure in the period’s history. Although he died young, at the age of 40, it is said that he never lost a war. A military genius, it is thanks to him that the Maratha flag flew from Cuttack in Odisha to Attock near Peshawar in what is now Pakistan.

It is hard to believe but the only marker of the man today, his samadhi or tomb, was left to crumble and fall, till a group of history enthusiasts got together to ‘save it’ in the mid-2000s.

The Nimad region, in which Raverkhed is located, comprises the Narmada valley just south of the Malwa plateau. Known for its thick forests, Peshwa Baji Rao I captured these areas in 1734 CE and divided them among his Generals, the Scindias, Holkars and Pawars. These Generals went on to establish their own kingdoms, of Gwalior, Indore and Dhar, which existed till 1947.

Peshwa Baji Rao I Samadhi at Raverkhed
Peshwa Baji Rao I Samadhi at Raverkhed

It is at Raverkhed that the Maratha army crossed the Narmada during their numerous campaigns in the North. It was during once such crossing, on 28th April 1740, when the army was camped here that Peshwa Baji Rao I developed a high fever, probably pneumonia, and died. In his memory, his General Mahadji Scindia established a samadhi here, which was maintained by the Gwalior state till 1947. It is now under the Archaeological Survey of India. Two small temples were also built near the tomb. There also existed a large wada (residential complex) of the Peshwas, which has sadly completely collapsed due to apathy.

Till as recently as the 1990s and 2000s, very few outside Maharashtra knew of Peshwa Baji Rao I. In fact, till 2017, there wasn’t even a proper pukka road to reach his samadhi. It was only with the release of the popular Bollywood movie Bajirao Mastani in 2015 that there was some awareness of the life of Peshwa Baji Rao I. It was then that the youths of surrounding villages launched a sustained campaign in the local press and with the government to get a pukka road built for visitors who sometimes trickled in. As a tribute to the man, locals have also named their village school ‘Peshwa Bajirao’, just to keep his memory alive.

Getting a pucca road built wasn’t the only success of these local heritage enthusiasts. They were also able to ensure that the samadhi wouldn’t be damaged by a proposed dam for a hydroelectric project – the Mandleshwar Dam. Most of the surrounding villages, including Raverkhed, had been notified as areas that would be submerged in the backwaters of the dam. In fact, the backwaters were to rise up till the walls of the samadhi, which stands on a hillock next to the river. After a series of court cases and a sustained agitation by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Madhya Pradesh government finally terminated the project on 18th April 2020.

Today, heritage activists like Gorav Mandloi Mogava, who are at the forefront of the battle to save Raverkhed, are hoping that Baji Rao’s samadhi gets a new lease of life.

It is sad that an important site like this has been forgotten for so long. Imagine the tourism impact if a site like this had been nurtured and transformed into an ode to a man who dominated a whole century of Indian history.

Razia Sultan’s Tomb

It’s not just in faraway Raverkhed that an old mausoleum is waiting to be saved.

Walking the streets of Old Delhi never fails to take you back in time. There still remains the hint of grandeur that this Mughal capital once witnessed. From the massive Red Fort to the vibrant Kali Masjid, many monuments have thrived and survived. But many are also in ruins.

ASI plaque outside Razia Sultan’s Tomb, Delhi
ASI plaque outside Razia Sultan’s Tomb, Delhi|LHI

In a narrow, congested lane in the Turkman Gate area lies an unpretentious stone tomb that in any other country would have been a major tourist attraction, but not in India. Here rests the first and the only woman to sit on the throne of Delhi, Razia Sultan. While her name is permanently etched on the pages of our history, her tomb is deteriorating, bit by bit, every day.

Imagine 13th century North India, the early years of the Delhi Sultanate. The battles for power and the fierce warriors who had come from the far reaches of present-day Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, and then imagine a woman ruling over them. Razia Sultan was born to Iltutmish, who was the Delhi Sultan from 1211 to 1236 CE.

The story goes that once when he was away on a campaign, Razia managed the administration of Delhi so well that he decided to make her his successor, choosing her over her many brothers. Not surprisingly, this caused a furore among the nobles, not only in Delhi but far beyond too, in the provinces of Multan, Lahore and Hansi.

Things got ugly within days of Iltutmish’s death in 1236 CE. The Turkish nobles and council disregarded his wishes and installed one of his sons, Ruknuddin Firuz Shah, on the throne. Razia led a mass protest, in the process winning over the public, the army and the governors. Razia crushed the opposition, deposed her brother and seized the throne on 19th November 1236 CE, and assumed the title of Raziyat-ud-din. She came to be known for her administrative strategy and bold appearances.

But within four years of her taking charge, there was a coup against her and she was imprisoned at Bathinda Fort. Her other brother, Bahram Shah, was installed on the throne of Delhi.

Razia Sultan’s Tomb, Delhi
Razia Sultan’s Tomb, Delhi|LHI

Razia was a woman who fought and ruled in a man’s world. She was a trailblazer. But after her death, she was buried in a jungle, away from royal resting places, to ensure that she was forgotten. And it seems to have worked. Today, you can barely find her tomb. It’s a matter of time before it gets swallowed up by an ever crowding city.

Lal Baradari In Badshah Bagh

Deep within the campus of Lucknow University is a people-led campaign to save Lal Baradari, one of the city’s many heritage buildings that are being forgotten.

Nestled in Badshah Bagh built by Awadh’s Nawab Ghaziuddin Haider, this complex in the 1920s was turned into the prestigious Lucknow University.

According to Prof P K Ghosh, former Dean of History at Lucknow University, the foundation of the Lal Baradari building was laid by Nawab Ghaziuddin Haider Shah in 1819 CE, named after his wife Badshah Begum, and it was later completed by his son Naseeruddin Haider Shah, the second King of Awadh. It was conceived by Nawab Naseeruddin Haider as a picnic spot for his Queens, who lived in Chattar Manzil Palace on the other side of the Gomti River. The picnic party crossed the Gomti by boat, and stayed in Badshah Bagh.

Lal Baradari, 1860
Lal Baradari, 1860|Wikimedia Commons

There were also two gateways to the high-walled garden. A wide canal flowed in front of the Baradari (garden pavilion), which was filled with rose-scented water, and small, coloured fish would glide or leap through its clear, sparkling waters. Water in the canal came from the Gomti, and a small but pretty bridge was built across the canal. The beautifully laid flower beds boasted a variety of plants and bushes, and the paths were lit in the evening by silver lanterns. There was even a mini-zoo with caged animals, and cock fighting competitions were regularly held for visitors, contemporary accounts tell us.

Badshah Bagh also witnessed the tragic suicide of the young Queen Qudasia Mahal, who took her own life after her first husband tried to malign her character. Thereafter, Badshah Bagh lost its allure and Nawab Naseeruddin Haider abandoned it in the late 1830s.

Lal Baradari today
Lal Baradari today|Aditi Chakravarti / Citizens of Lucknow

Today, Lal Baradari, a beautiful pleasure garden of the 19th century, is in a shambles and completely neglected by the state authorities. Citizens of Lucknow have time and again raised concerns over the dilapidated state of the building but nothing concrete has been achieved in terms of restoration of the historic structure, which is no more than a neglected corner of Lucknow University. The only red stone monument of the Nawabi era is unfortunately on the verge of collapse.

Imagine how wonderful it would be if this building and the complex around it could be restored and revived, to help students, locals and tourists understand the great historic legacy of the city.

Udaipur’s Hidden Treasure

Udaipur is one of the most oft-visited cities on India’s tourism map. Its lakes, palaces and museums are a must-visit. But even Udaipur has many undiscovered gems to offer.

Not many know that about 40 km south of Udaipur lies a geological treasure that is around 2,500 years old. This is the area of Zawar, which is home to mining sites which, according to experts, have a history dating back to circa 450 BCE. In fact, many of these mines are still working. It is also believed to be the first zinc-smelting site in the world!

A sketch of old workings at Zawar Mines
A sketch of old workings at Zawar Mines|PT Craddock, 2017

The site of Zawar, an important centre of zinc production for contemporary India, is located in the rugged terrain of the Aravalli Hill Range that extends from Delhi in the north-east to Ambajee in Gujarat, in the south-west. In the 1950s, the Zawar hills were described as possessing India’s richest deposits of lead, zinc and silver! In fact, the word ‘Zawar’ is believed to have come from the word ‘zevar’, which means ‘jewellery’ in Arabic, as the town once produced and traded silver jewellery globally through Arab traders via Gujarat’s ports.

Present-day Zawar mines
Present-day Zawar mines|Unpublished Report, INTACH, 2016

The site of Zawar gained global attention in 1983, when the British Museum, London, in collaboration with Indian academicians and industry scientists recognized Zawar as the world's first zinc smelting site, with thriving social and cultural manifestations. Their C14 dating of ancient mining and smelting samples of coal and timber yielded the earliest age of 430 ± 100 BCE, which puts the history of the site in perspective. The site was also recognised by the American Society of Metals (ASM International), in 1988, for its important geological history and heritage.

The vandalized Jain Temples of Zawar
The vandalized Jain Temples of Zawar |Unpublished Report, INTACH, 2016

For many years now, there have been efforts by local organisations and individuals to get Zawar recognised as a Geoheritage site. Prof Pushpendra Ranawat, a geology expert and retired professor of Geology at MLS University, Udaipur, among others, has been working on the research and development for the proposal of a geological park at Zawar. He believes a geopark with all the findings and remains from Zawar will prove to be instrumental in not only preserving this unique geoheritage site, but will also promote tourism, especially geotourism, here.

Organisations such as the Geological Survey of India (GSI), Rajasthan State Department of Mines and Geology (DMG), MLS University Department of Earth Sciences, Udaipur, and Natural Heritage Division (NHD)-INTACH are also engaged in sustained efforts to promote this site.

While mainstream tourism recognises other sites as cultural heritage spots, an important site like Zawar gets scarcely any attention. For a site that is of great antiquity and significance, and has garnered international recognition, it is a pity that it lies largely unknown and unexplored in India.

These are just four of the thousands of sites we have come across on our travels, across India. We have been lucky to get a chance to visit these sites, document them and be awestruck by their significance in the history of the Indian Subcontinent. We are also dejected, frustrated and disappointed at how these sites are just not on anyone’s radar.

The theme of this year's World Tourism Day is ‘Tourism for Rural Development’ - an attempt to celebrate the role played by tourism to provide opportunities outside the big cities.

For India, this holds a special message and promise, if embraced wholeheartedly. Imagine what we can create if we decide to really restore, revive and develop a hundred new historic sites each year. Imagine if each of us decides to support this in our own way and travel to at least four such sites each year, when things open up.

What better way could there be to preserve our heritage, help the economy, create local jobs and ensure that every Indian is truly proud of their vibrant, varied and rich heritage.

It is time to cut the talk, mute out the inane debates and actually drive the change!

Cover Image: Peshwa Baji Rao I Samadhi at Raverkhed

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