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A tale of two cities: The fate of Delhi as UNESCO World Heritage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2021

Lynn Meskell*
Department of Anthropology, School of Arts and Sciences, and Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, Weitzman School of Design, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States


This article examines the trajectory and fate of Delhi’s Imperial Capital Cities nomination, submitted to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2015 for inscription on the World Heritage List. I employ the dossier and events surrounding its withdrawal to reveal the political imbrications of urban conservation, international institutions, neoliberal governance, and colonial histories. First, I underscore the prominence of India as a member of the World Heritage Committee and its efforts to secure an increasing number of UNESCO properties. Second, I situate the dossier within the ambit of neoliberal governance that recalibrates and promotes urban heritage preservation, while similarly encouraging development and economic growth. Building upon this point, I consider how sustained government efforts to reframe Delhi as a “global city,” coupled with the identification of Delhi’s imperial capitals with Mughal and British rule, resulted in the dossier’s withdrawal. Third, the episode reveals tensions in this specific political moment over contemporary perceptions of imperial occupation and “foreign” empires, which plagued the dossier from the outset and continue to reverberate today. Finally, there are lessons to be learned for urban heritage in India and Asian heritage in general, outside the narrow purview of European cities, so many of which are already listed as World Heritage.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Cultural Property Society

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