Monday, February 23, 2004

Best Kept Secret

Each morning, I wake up to the familiar tolling of the bells of the 11th century cathedral. It towers over our township and has an angel perched on the roof gazing down benevolently at us. Over the centuries, bits and pieces have been added to it including an Episcopal palace and a beautiful garden. The palace is now a museum with not an un-impressive art collection and the beautifully tended garden is a popular place for walking, lazing around and of course for the all-important post-wedding photos!

A little down the road is the Mairie (Mayor’s office), a handsome old building. It is infact an old chateau built along the Marne which courses through the town. There are 5 bridges spanning it on regular intervals, including the old bridge or ‘vieux pont’ which had been destroyed in both the world wars is now repaired and fully functional.

The water-front is beautifully tended and is in summers, a place to walk one’s dogs, or feed the greedy swans, fish or just peer into the numerous boats that are moored at the jetty.

The other end of the town is the forĂȘt! A closer inspection reveals that it is cared for as well. There is a track carefully tended to give it a rustic air, with a broad swathe of green in front of it! It is popular with cyclists, children and walkers and joggers.

Our town is mentioned in a famous guide book as a ‘market town’. Our cathedral gets a polite mention. Honestly, the cathedral is nothing great. There are similar Cathedrals scattered throughout France, ours is perhaps a bit larger than others.

So, we have a pretty as a picture town, bound at one end by a forest and the other by the River Marne, with a big cathedral, a museum, some smaller chapels. And yet, one wouldn’t think so if one where here. There are prominent signs pointing the way to the cathedral, the ramparts of the Roman walls from around 2BC. We even have an ‘office de tourisme’ which has numerous printed brochures in many languages, detailed, guided tours to highlight the interesting sights of our town and of our region.

But then ours is a big town. Even those with a handful of residents take care of their town and places of interest, which might simply be an old house some one famous once stayed in or an old church or an ancient road!

I often visit the office de tourisme to pick up a brochure or two of places in interest in our region Seine et Marne. The beautiful brochures and the amount of information available is amazing. It makes it seem that there is so much to be seen. Every village and town, big or small is represented, every chapel, cathedral, roman ruin, chateau is marked. Roads maps, bus, trains schedule, hotels, inns to suit every budget is provided so that one has to go take a look.

Once in a while, we get newsletters about the ‘jours de patrimoine’ with details of tours, events centred around their monuments, history or speciality. Our mairie regularly publishes, interesting itiniaries, guided tours of places of interests in the region. Often it’s a town having just one place of interest. But it is accounted for, maintained, and not kept hidden.

No doubt, these places are historic and very well maintained, but they pale in comparison when compared to India. India I believe has not even tapped a quarter of its potential. Our town, offers guided tours of what it calls the ‘episcopal city’ which is in effect the cathedral, the museum and the garden!

I once met a Japanese globe trotter in Paris, who told me that India has possibly the greatest ‘patrimoine’ in terms of history or sheer quantity and yet we have not learnt to ‘sell’ it. Sell not in the sense of exporting ancient priceless art (we have plenty of that), rather the development our tourism industry.

The amount of signs pointing to our towns places of interest are to be seen to be believed. In contrast, in Calcutta (the city I am most familiar with), we do our best to keep our treasures hidden, undeveloped and neglected!

There has to be a reason behind this lack of interest. One obvious answer is who can think of heritage on an empty stomach. Well then what about those who don’t have to think about empty stomachs? People who litter these places, draw graffiti, or simply don’t care.

Its not the government alone who is making the effort to keep its patrimoine intact. The French people also take part in it and do their bit. There are numerous groups called friends of this monument or that church or this garden or that activity who do their bit to promote and maintain their heritage. This national sense of pride in their ‘patrimoine’ is incredible.

Just think of Kolkata alone. We could have numerous museums dedicated to the authors of the Bengal Renaissance, themes to show Imperial Calcutta, Colonial Calcutta, origin of the city, Independence struggle, our own vibrant art forms, Bengal school of cinema, list is endless. Instead some of us are fighting over the installation of a statue of Jyoti Basu at the Calcutta Book Fair. Some are indifferent to it, and yet others like me, who write a blog about it.

Sure, there are enterprising individuals in India who strike out on their own but it is an uphill task what with an elephantine bureaucracy, disinterested citizens, unscrupulous people out to make a quick buck.

And yet, despite the laughable touristic facilities, India is still a big draw. I often find India specials advertised at the agence de voyage here in our town. But mostly they are for Delhi-Agra-Rajasthan.

Imagine if we did the same for each and every part of India. Every one of our cities, towns, villages have so much to offer. If we repaired, built, maintained them, even some of them, instead of keeping them as unaccessible and best kept guarded secret?!

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