Kapila Vatsyayan : A cultural anthropologist by training, Kapila is a prolific writer who has written extensively on issues of culture and civilisation. A former Academic Director of IGNCA and President, India International Centre, she is presently the Chairperson of IIC-Asia Project and Member, UNESCO Executive Board. A great scholar, she has 15 books to her credit, and has received several national and international recognitions and honours.

Pilgrimage of Minds in South Asia


…We place ourselves in the sematics of economics where divisions are made between the developing world and the developed world. Historically, this semantics was put into the binary of the coloniser and the colonised. Presently, a new sematics is taking place which is situated in the economic dialogue but which is carrying the seeds of a political dialogue. We have to take this historical situation into cognisance when we are looking either at the world or at ourselves.

The political conflicts based on ideological orientations moved into the economic sphere and the economic sphere interpenetrated into the societal sphere. We divided the world into regions of certain types, regions with certain characteristics. Thus you have Latin American region, the North American region and so on. Now, were these geographical entities? Africa, then francophone Africa, anglophone Africa, etc. From the idea of Asia, the geographical span, the civilisational span of Asia, ranging from Afghanistan to Korea, we became rangings from Afghanistan to Korea, we became regions of Central Asia, West Asia, South Asia, South East Asia, etc. As cultural people, we have to ask the question : Is this a political semantic, a cultural reality or a cultural dynamics?

In the international dialogue, culture has come up only in the last decade. Why? Why does the UNESCO report come at the end of all the sectors in the Stockholm Conference? Because you have situated yourself in this position. And those of us who certainly believe in the creative process…you will have to be politically vigilant and economically careful.

We also have the paradox of languages. The moment you accept English as the language of discourse, you have already alienated yourself from the roots of your culture. This is an international paradox. In Africa, in Latin America, we are going through the same dilemma. How do we speak three languages at the same time? Language of thought, language of experiment, language of critical analysis, language of international discourse. We talk of our linguistic diversity. One of the greatest things about South Asia (call it SAARC if you will) is its cultural diversity as expressed in its linguistic plurality. But this linguistic diversity is at stake.

By UNESCO record, we have 362 standard languages. Out of these, 250 languages are listed under cultural species category. FOSWAL and other cultural organisations must think what they can do both in their own countries and elsewhere to save these language, these oral traditions. As writers, we must think in terms of saving these traditions. At a more sophisticated level, we must also think of the problems that this tradition raises and how to cope with them. We should celebrate our capacity for multi-lingual skills. But we should also be vigilant that our self does not get lost in negotiating this multiplicity. Multi-lingualism is a phenomenon that we find almost everywhere in India. The poorest of the poor, in any part of the country, can speak at least three languages. Go to Terai or Tamilnadu, you will find it happening.

Each one of us is a combination of all this—West Punjab, Delhi, West Bengal, Nepal, Sri Lanka. These roots are the roots of communication and nothing can divide us. The pilgrimage of minds has been spanning spaces larger than the spaces of pilgrimage that the devout undertake from one country to the other.

Ritual is bad. Religion divides. Violence takes place. Agreed. But why do the temples in Nepal have priests from Kerala? Why do the Sufi shrines in India invite all Pakistanis? Why do Sri Lankans visit Gaya? When we say that there was a cultural cohesiveness, the strategies of those cultures were the countless pilgrimage routes that they had made through the very strategy of religion—Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. Why did Hindus go to the Peers? Why did Kashmiris give chaddars before they went to Hari Parbat? Why are all Kathak dancers going to Bareili? Why does Bismillah Khan have the right to play before the Vishwanath? This is South Asia at its cultural best. Can we bring that out?