What is a WHS?

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UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNESCO for more information). The UNESCO WHS program designates places around the world (such as a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex, or city) as having some special cultural, physical, or religious significance. These sites are named as having outstanding importance to the common heritage of humanity. While each WHS remains part of the legal territory of the country wherein the site is located, UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve each site.

Becoming a WHS is a democratic process. Any country is eligible to send in a list of nominees for protection to the World Heritage Committee that oversees the WHS program. The candidates are then independently evaluated by the World Conservation Union and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. They in turn make a recommendation to the World Heritage Committee. That body votes on which sites will be accepted.

Currently there are 961 World Heritage Sites around the world: 745 cultural, 187 natural, and 29 mixed properties, in 157 countries. India currently has 29 of these sites (see later section for more details). For more details on the WHS program, seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNESCO_World_Heritage.

Approximately 20% of the properties inscribed on the WHS List have some sort of religious or spiritual connection. These properties (scattered in most countries around the world) constitute the largest single category on the WHS List. The term “Sacred site” embraces areas of special spiritual significance to peoples and communities; and the term of “Sacred natural site” corresponds to the areas of land or water having special spiritual significance to peoples and communities,” as proposed by the UNESCO/IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Guidelines for the Conservation and Management of Sacred Natural Sites, 2008 (see http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/PAG-016.pdf)

There has been recent upsurge in interest in the World Heritage Convention on preservation of religious sites. An international seminar on the role of religious communities in the management of World Heritage properties was held in Kiev (Ukraine) from 2 to 5 November 2010, under the patronage of the President of Ukraine and UNESCO. At the closing of the Seminar, on 5 November 2010, the participants unanimously adopted the Kiev Statement on the Protection of Religious Properties within the framework of the World Heritage Convention (http://whc.unesco.org/en/religious-sacred-heritage/). It was developed in close collaboration with national authorities, international experts, site managers and representatives of religious communities. It was the first and most unique document to give general recommendations on this specific issue.

The International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) publishes guidelines for conservation of living religious heritage sites (http://www.iccrom.org/pdf/ICCROM_ICS03_ReligiousHeritage_en.pdf).

The most relevant and best document for this initiative is the Sacred Natural Sites – Guidelines for Protected Area Managers document athttp://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/PAG-016.pdf. We propose that this document be used as the foundation for design of conservation efforts. It contains a very helpful detailed list of steps and strategies that can be used to conserve any sacred natural site such as Arunachala. It is used by UNESCO and was created in collaboration with UNESCO and many other conservation groups.