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Snehal Khatavkar
Design researcher. Design strategist

Reflecting on the experience of surveying heritage monuments in India under the Accessible India Campaign. The project was multilocational and time bound, and focused on assessment of Built Environment Accessibility ,Information and Communication Eco-System Accessibility. The journey of observing heritage sites from under the lens of universal accessibility unraveled a series of questions about access, the meaning of heritage and the idea of universality in a diverse country like India.

Accessible India Campaign 

Role: Intern, Access auditor

Project type : survey

Year: 2016 - 2018

Being an architect travelling is a creative stimulant for me. For it opens one's eyes to different cultural contexts, intricacies of the built form and a dialogue with its inhabitants. Observing people use a space gives insights into the comforts and discomforts that the space has been providing them and the aspects that need to be altered to achieve a better lifestyle, thus attempting to make architecture human-centric.  The Accessible India campaign was an exercise in finding factors to make the building environment human centered.

Assessing these sites seemed like a technical job but the more the journey went ahead the more questions we were faced about access and heritage. I remember sitting In cave 12 at the Ajanta caves complex. We had just finished visiting all of the 28 caves and these rock-cut marvels had overwhelmed me. I could not fathom the fact that there are 2.21%  people who could not witness these caves, not touch the relief works, and never set their eyes on the painting of the famous  Hamsa jataka. It was also here where I first heard the term 'degree of accessibility'. The site is on terrain and can only be accessed with a series of steps. Being rock cut monasteries and caves the surface is undulating and the interiors dimly lit. The discussions here were about how do we ensure physical access for people with severe mobility impairment, without damaging the essence of the heritage? How does a person with low vision and impairment see the dry fresco paintings in these dimly lit caves without damaging the color of these artworks?

Will the PwD’s gain full knowledge and satisfaction of visiting these cultural sites with limited access? If yes, which part amongst the cluster of 28 caves was the most important that would give them a complete understanding of the place?

These discussions paved way towards understanding the fundamental question

Why is access to cultural heritage so important ?

Growing up my interpretation of cultural heritage was restricted to the temples, mosques, palaces, clothes, and food. Observing the various interactions between people and monuments, the way people behave in palaces, forts, what they seek to know and draw meanings off. It is through these experiences that I reckon – Heritage is formed by the people. We human beings. Our cultural narratives, landscapes, temples, palaces, objects, crafts, and arts all gain value because of certain meanings we associate with them. Strip them off of these meanings and we lose a large part of the stories that tell us who we are and what gives us a sense of belonging to a place. These values and associations though are as different and varied as people can get and how we perceive them. To some Ajanta caves are architectural marvels, a picturesque view, to others a canvas with stories of peace and civilizations, to some a representation of faith and belief, and to some a human quest finding meaning and the utmost pure expression of love for the god. Different people; different meanings.

These meanings and associations differ from person to person depending on cultural diversity, socio-economic backgrounds, and past experiences.

Aren't we all then ambassadors of our heritage? The more the people, the more the perceptions. People with varying abilities and ways of perceiving and understanding surroundings will then present different meanings and associations, ways that have been less explored interpretations that we would never know, exist. From these intricacies and close interactions between people and heritage,

I believe to truly understand and ensure accessibility in heritage one must understand the relation between – human abilities  and the essence of the site.

In the year 2016 I was interning under Dr. Kavita Murugkar, a champion of Universal Design and Accessibility. Being closely associated with her work sensitized me to how ill-designed cities worked towards excluding People with Disabilities (PwD’s). This time as an empaneled access consultant they were entrusted by the central government with evaluating the heritage monuments of India listed under the Archeological survey of India - ASI. As any architecture student would be, I was excited to be on this journey

 

A group of accessibility enthusiasts embarked on a road journey starting from Pune, and would eventually complete the circuit by traveling along India's coast visiting close to 100 monuments which was later fondly  called 'the heritage yatra'. The task on the project  was to evaluate whether the heritage sites were fit to be accessed by people with disabilities. So there we were with our measuring tapes, checklists, and cameras.

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