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Olmsted Scholar Feature: The Cultural Landscapes of Okhamanadal, Gujarat, India

By Heena Gajjar, 2015 University Olmsted Scholar

Okhamandal in Gujarat, considered as one of the four holy sites across the Indian subcontinent, is facing drastic pressures of climate change leading to rising sea levels, salt ingress, desertification, unproductive land, and scarcity of water for drinking and farming. Its heritage sites also face a severe threat from modern day development.

My graduate thesis project, Journeys in the Cultural Landscapes of Okhamandal, explores various site-specific design interventions to deal with the above issues. I propose an ecological framework model for heritage conservation with the aim of raising awareness about how harmony between nature and culture can be promoted through planning and design. Specifically, the study is useful to:

  1. Understand the overlap between mythology and history in the making of cultural heritage in the Indian subcontinent
  2. Learn how ecological planning can contribute to heritage conservation
  3. Apply reclamation strategies for coastal erosion and salt ingress

Okhamandal was formerly an island and is now a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, which lies between the desert and the sea. The name ‘Okhamandal’ derives from ‘Okha’ - the only and ‘Mandal’ - an island. The Hindu god Krishna established his kingdom in antiquity on this island. Upon his death, the sacred city of Dwarka was swallowed by the sea, a legend corroborated by underwater archaeological findings dating back to the 15th century BCE on the coastal edge of Okhamandal (Rao, 1999; Gaur, 2004).

Myth and history overlap in this landscape of immense cultural significance, and I see this as an opportunity to understand Krishna beyond a deity as an active, living divine consciousness that permeates the environment. I believe Krishna consciousness can help in re-establishing the link with the cosmic order that ensures the balance between nature and culture. Though considered complex in its linkage, if perceived in a sympathetic and holistic manner, the relationship can be interpreted as: nature, the primary force or the cosmic order governing our existence, and culture as a collective set of norms that shape the landscape. Together, nature and culture define the landscape and are responsible for our evolution and sustenance.

In projecting a future for reclamation and heritage conservation of Okhamandal, I studied landscape processes and documented sacred and archaeological sites. The biggest issue of the region is salt ingress increasing at a rate of 30 hectares per year. Salt intrusion has a direct relationship with groundwater that is depleting at a significantly high rate. My design proposals would help to replenish groundwater and hold rainwater in reclaimed ponds and wetlands. I propose floating green islands to reduce the impact of sea waves and prevent coastal erosion and mangrove edge as a permeable layer to mitigate the rising sea level. The main intention is to educate, encourage and empower the local communities and pilgrims visiting the place.

The full project report can be accessed at:

Heena Gajjar is in her final year of study toward a Master of Landscape Architecture degree at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. This is her graduate thesis project. In summer 2015, Heena participated in the SWA Summer Student Program and worked in the Dallas and San Francisco offices.

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