Image Courtesy: Indian Culture Portal
India has long been known as a land of mesmerising culture, captivating many from far-off lands. A lifetime might not be enough to witness India’s vast heritage, as there is always more to know and see. The geographical expanse and the diversity of India often limit our ability to visit each place physically. The advent of digital options opens up the possibility to overcome this limitation and provide people access to this treasure of culture, virtually. It also places the country on a path to a digital future with an organised collection of cultural artefacts that can be preserved and experienced online. Taking a step ahead towards creating a digital experience, the Ministry of Culture (MoC), Government of India has initiated the National Virtual Library of India (NVLI) project. The Indian Culture Portal, developed as a part of the NVLI project, is a one-stop destination and a treasure trove of information.
Through the NVLI project, MoC has taken up the herculean task of curating, digitising and consolidating various facets of heritage and culture in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay). The team has sourced this collection of immense historical and cultural importance from institutions across India. It spans several categories of collections and has been made available for free through the Indian Culture Portal. The portal is a vast resource of Indian culture for all, and especially for students and researchers working in various history and social sciences domains. They get access to some rare information, which is otherwise available only through a few physical channels at museums or institutes. Prof. Pradeep Varma, advisor to the NVLI project, says, “Democratisation of knowledge and access are the core governing principles of the portal- cultural resources and conversations around culture must be accessible to all”.
The Indian Culture Portal was digitally launched in December 2019 and is also available as simple and secure apps on both Android and iOS. It is a source freely available anytime, anywhere and does not require the user to log in for access to information. Features like advanced search, digital flip-books, social media sharing and QR code sharing are present. The information is in the form of text, images, audio and video.
On the portal, one can browse or read rare books & manuscripts, historical archives, information from museums and information about art forms, music, textiles, and cuisines from various parts of India. The site has write-ups about historical monuments, forts, and cities. There is also a category dedicated to intangible cultural heritage with information about some oral traditions and traditional craftsmanship. The team updates information and categories regularly.
When asked about the need to encourage the exploration of Indian culture, Prof. Kannan Moudgalya, who leads the project says, “India has always been a land of culture. There are interesting things like monuments, temples and amazing stories in almost every town and village of India. Here is an opportunity to let this heritage shine.” He adds, “There are several ancient temples that are engineering wonders, so there is a lot of historical science and engineering to be brought out to the world too.”
The website has digitised reference material such as research papers, manuscripts and photographs of artefacts sourced directly from contributing organisations. The team has also created content like photo essays, virtual walkthroughs of famous places, stories and snippets using the rare books and archival documents. The stories created are based on records from the National Archives of India, with interlinks to evidence from the Archives that the readers can also access. For example, a story on the 'Koh-i-Noor' diamond includes pointers to the historical evidence and links to the related manuscripts. Snippets are short-form pieces on aspects of Indian culture and history.
The rare books section includes some books that date as far back as the 14th century. These books are on a range of topics- from history to literature, cuisine, botany and architecture. Users can download rare books in this section.
To coincide with the occasion of the 75th year of the Independence Day of India, the portal also launched the 'Freedom Archives' section. This section has a collection of images, rare books, old newspaper clippings and information on heroes and places that have made an impact on India’s freedom struggle. There is also a section on Unsung Heroes of the Freedom Movement. The portal also features interesting facts about famous personalities and history under the 'Did you Know?' section, which is updated daily.
The IIT Bombay team consists of around 50 people, including subject matter experts and the website development and management team. The creators gathered the information from various repositories in organisations from all over India, like museums and institutes working under the MoC. One of the significant challenges is procuring digitised records from multiple organisations since many records are available only in a physical form. Digitised records need correct associated metadata that describes the details and significance of the digital data. This metadata mostly comes from the source institutes. Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) also played a role initially by handling the metadata curation of the content.
The process of consolidation of digital records and detailed metadata into a common repository for the portal can take time. The entire content is thus curated, organised and annotated based on metadata. Before the content is uploaded and made available to the public, the portal’s team of subject matter experts on history, culture and Indian heritage verify it.
The Indian Culture portal is hosted on servers in IIT Bombay. The servers have the capacity to hold 3 petabytes (one million gigabytes) of data. Around 0.8 petabytes of space is consumed as of now.
“We set up a large cloud to hold the data. It is sufficient for some more time to accommodate the expanding database,” informs Prof. Moudgalya.
So far, more than 2 million visitors from 224 countries have visited the website, though the majority are from India.
Moving forward, the team intends to include more curated content under the various categories, enhance the user experience, and enable advanced navigation and interlinking within the multiple categories. Adding interactive interfaces and newer sections is also on the cards. Currently, the portal is available in English and Hindi. As the team expands to include the required expertise, they wish to enable the platform in multiple Indian languages to have more users experience it. A text-to-voice reader for the site is also under development.
Prof Moudgalya agrees that they need to popularise this portal. He adds that youngsters need to be made aware and inspired to take up studies in Indian culture and history. The team aims to have wider outreach programs and is actively looking for more social media and outreach professionals who can spread the word and make a difference.
This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.