Being a heritage tourist in India

Researching for a PhD in heritage tourism has forever altered my perspective on travelling. I’ve written about this before in relation to my annual family holiday to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. This month, I had the chance to be a heritage tourist in a more distant location: India.

I travelled to India for a friend’s wedding in early January, and if I’m honest, it was a trip I had deeply ambivalent feelings about before I set off. In the two weeks before Christmas I had PhD deadlines, presented at a conference in Copenhagen, and co-organised a themed writing retreat which included producing a detailed report for our funders. In other words, beyond deciding on the cities I would visit, I spent almost no time researching & planning my trip. This was somewhat stressful because India is notoriously difficult to navigate for first-timers (not to mention solo female travellers!).

taj mahal.jpg

Aside from planning to see famous sites such as the Taj Mahal, I didn’t have much time to plan my trip!

My concerns over the practicalities of travelling alone in India were matched by my excitement at the opportunity to participate in a traditional Hindi wedding. My PhD focuses on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Scotland, and explores the ways in which the Scottish diaspora and local residents engage with Scottish heritage together and separately, in the context of tourism. Intangible heritage includes the many elements of the past which aren’t captured in tangible buildings or objects: ICH includes things like stories, songs, language, and traditional practices (such as weddings!). I was intrigued by what I might discover about the intangible heritage of India during my travels, and how the experience of being a tourist there might offer me a new perspective on my project.

Scottish connections & local hospitality

I was extraordinarily fortunate to meet two Indians who previously studied in Edinburgh, and who showed me the best of local hospitality during my travels. This experience reminded me of a group which are often forgotten about in discussions of the Scottish diaspora: the ‘affinity diaspora’. Traditionally, the term ‘diaspora’ denotes genealogical or blood relationships with a country. However, the term ‘affinity diaspora’ denotes the growing number of people around the world who feel ‘Scottish’ or connected to Scotland despite having no ancestral connections to the country. One topical example would be fans of the TV show ‘Outlander’, many of whom have no prior connections to Scotland but who develop a deep interest in the heritage and culture of the country because of their interest in the TV show. Affection for Scotland and the people who live there can be found in the most unlikely places.

Scottish connections

Unexpected Scottish connections in New Delhi airport!

In addition to showing off the best places to eat and visit, my friends also explained much of the history and background to the heritage sites and cultural practices we observed. Yet they admitted that much of this knowledge about their own heritage was acquired only after they left India to study in Scotland. Leaving India and meeting foreigners who valued and were interested in the history of their homeland prompted them to learn more about their own heritage which they had previously taken for granted. Speaking to Indians who have lived or still live outside the country gave me an opportunity to consider the common experiences across different diasporas. Much of the academic literature on diasporas emphasises the deeply complex relationships between members of diasporas and their homelands. Issues of identity, belonging and sense of place are at the forefront of these relationships, and heritage is a key element of each of these.

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A family evening out at Chokhi Dhani heritage village, Jaipur

 

This is a phenomenon I’ve observed in a different form in Scotland. Prompted by the interest of ancestral visitors in the history of the area, residents who participated in my study have told me they became more interested themselves in finding out about local heritage and their own family history. This is deeply significant, as engaging local residents with the heritage of the place they live in can deepen a sense of community, bring economic benefits and facilitate mutually beneficial relationships between tourists and residents of tourism destinations.

the wedding.jpg

Traditional dress at the wedding

My short visit to India has left me with many questions, challenged some of my assumptions and allowed me to experience heritage tourism in a completely different context and culture. But one thing hasn’t changed for me at all. I am now more convinced than ever that genuine local hospitality is the most mutually enriching, sustainable and fundamentally enjoyable component of heritage tourism for both tourists and residents. The big question for tourism destinations is how to develop respectful relationships between residents and tourists to facilitate such hospitality and ensure that heritage tourism remains a mutually beneficial practice.

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