Definition of cultural heritage has been extended to include traditions and living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to generations. These include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature, universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
Intangible cultural heritage is considered by Member States of UNESCO in relation to the tangible World Heritage focusing on intangible aspects of culture. In 2001, UNESCO made a survey among States and NGOs to try to agree on a definition, and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was drafted in 2003 for its protection and promotion.
Features of intangible cultural heritage is :
Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time : Intangible cultural heritage includes not only inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practices in which diverse cultural groups take part.
Inclusive : We may share these heritages with people from neighbouring villages, cities, even countries as with migration people may have settled in different places of the world. These have been passed on from one generation to the next. And though they have evolved with time and environment but they continue to provide us with a link from past to present and also to the future. Intangible cultural heritage does not give rise to questions of whether or not certain practices are part of certain communities. It contributes to social cohesion and makes us feel a sense of identity and also helps us feel part of one or many communities or part of society at large.
Representative : It is not merely valued as a cultural good on a comparative basis for its exclusivity or exceptional value. It thrives on its basis in communities.
Community based : The individual, group or community must decide that a part of heritage is to be maintained and transmitted. Without their recognition - no outsider can decide this.
There are two lists of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO :
Representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity : Consists of cultural practices and expressions that help demonstrate the diversity of heritage and raise awareness about its expression
List of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent protection : Consists of cultural heritage elements that countries and communities consider minerable and require urgent efforts to keep them alive.
Kumbh Mela :
Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred Pitcher) is the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, during which participants bathe or take a dip in a sacred river.
Devotees believe that by bathing in the Ganges one is freed from sins liberating her/him from the cycle of birth and death. Millions of people reach the place without any invitation. The congregation includes ascetics, saints, sadhus, aspirants - kalpavasis and visitors
The festival is held at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik every four years by rotation and is attended by millions of people irrespective of caste, creed or gender. Its primary bearers, however, belong to akhadas and ashrams, religious organizations, or are individuals living on alms.
Kumbh Mela plays a central spiritual role in the country, exerting a mesmeric influence on ordinary Indians. The event encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge.
As it is held in four different cities in India, it involves different social and cultural activities, making this a culturally diverse festival. Knowledge and skills related to the tradition are transmitted through ancient religious manuscripts, oral traditions, historical travelogues and texts produced by eminent historians.
However, the teacher-student relationship of the sadhus in the ashrams and akhadas remains the most important method of imparting and safeguarding knowledge and skills relating to Kumbh Mela.
New Year is often a time when people wish for prosperity and new beginnings. March 21 marks the start of the year in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
It is referred to as Nauryz, Navruz, Nawrouz, Nevruz, Nooruz, Novruz, Nowrouz or Nowruz meaning ‘new day’ when a variety of rituals, ceremonies and other cultural events take place for a period of about two weeks. An important tradition practised during this time is the gathering around ‘the Table’, decorated with objects that symbolize purity, brightness, livelihood and wealth, to enjoy a special meal with loved ones.
New clothes are worn and visits made to relatives, particularly the elderly and neighbours. Gifts are exchanged, especially for children, featuring objects made by artisans.
There are also street performances of music and dance, public rituals involving water and fire, traditional sports and the making of handicrafts. These practices support cultural diversity and tolerance and contribute to building community solidarity and peace. They are transmitted from older to younger generations through observation and participation.
The philosophy behind the ancient Indian practice of yoga has influenced various aspects of how society in India functions, whether it be in relation to areas such as health and medicine or education and the arts. Based on unifying the mind with the body and soul to allow for greater mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing, the values of yoga form a major part of the community’s ethos.
Yoga consists of a series of poses, meditation, controlled breathing, word chanting and other techniques designed to help individuals build self-realization, ease any suffering they may be experiencing and allow for a state of liberation. It is practised by the young and old without discriminating against gender, class or religion and has also become popular in other parts of the world.
Traditionally, yoga was transmitted using the Guru-Shishya model (master-pupil) with yoga gurus as the main custodians of associated knowledge and skills. Nowadays, yoga ashrams or hermitages provide enthusiasts with additional opportunities to learn about the traditional practice, as well as schools, universities, community centres and social media.
Ancient manuscripts and scriptures are also used in the teaching and practice of yoga, and a vast range of modern literature on the subject available.
Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab, India :
The craft of the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru constitutes the traditional technique of manufacturing brass and copper utensils in Punjab. The metals used – copper, brass and certain alloys – are believed to be beneficial for health.
The process begins with procuring cooled cakes of metal that are flattened into thin plates and then hammered into curved shapes, creating the required small bowls, rimmed plates, to larger pots for water and milk, huge cooking vessels and other artefacts.
Heating the plates while hammering and curving them into different shapes requires careful temperature control, which is achieved by using tiny wood-fired stoves (aided by hand-held bellows) buried in the earth. Utensils are manually finished by polishing with traditional materials such as sand and tamarind juice.
Designs are made by skilfully hammering a series of tiny dents into the heated metal. Utensils may be manufactured for ritual or utilitarian purposes, both for individual and community use on special occasions such as weddings or at temples. The process of manufacturing is transmitted orally from father to son. Metalwork is not simply a form of livelihood for Thatheras, but it defines their family and kinship structure, work ethic and status within the social hierarchy of the town.
Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur :
Sankirtana encompasses an array of arts performed to mark religious occasions and various stages in the life of the Vaishnava people of the Manipur plains. Sankirtana practices centre on the temple, where performers narrate the lives and deeds of Krishna through song and dance. In a typical performance, two drummers and about ten singer-dancers perform in a hall or domestic courtyard encircled by seated devotees.
The dignity and flow of aesthetic and religious energy is unparalleled, moving audience members to tears and frequently to prostrate themselves before the performers. Sankirtana has two main social functions: it brings people together on festive occasions throughout the year, acting as a cohesive force within Manipur’s Vaishnava community; and it establishes and reinforces relationships between the individual and the community through life-cycle ceremonies
It is thus regarded as the visible manifestation of God. The Sankirtana of Manipur is a vibrant practice promoting an organic relationship with people: the whole society is involved in its safeguarding, with the specific knowledge and skills traditionally transmitted from mentor to disciple.
Sankirtana works in harmony with the natural world, whose presence is acknowledged through its many rituals.
Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the trans-Himalayan Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir, India :
In the monasteries and villages of the Ladakh region, Buddhist lamas (priests) chant sacred texts representing the spirit, philosophy and teachings of the Buddha. Two forms of Buddhism are practised in Ladakh – Mahayana and Vajrayana – and there are four major sects, namely Nyngma, Kagyud, Shakya and Geluk.
Each sect has several forms of chanting, practised during life-cycle rituals and on important days in the Buddhist and agrarian calendars. Chanting is undertaken for the spiritual and moral well-being of the people, for purification and peace of mind, to appease the wrath of evil spirits or to invoke the blessing of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities and rinpoches. The chanting is performed in groups, either sitting indoors or accompanied by dance in monastery courtyards or private houses.
The monks wear special costumes and make hand gestures (mudras) representing the divine Buddha, and instruments such as bells, drums, cymbals and trumpets lend musicality and rhythm to the chanting.
Acolytes are trained under the rigorous supervision of senior monks, reciting texts frequently until they are memorized. Chants are practised everyday in the monastic assembly hall as a prayer to the deities for world peace, and for the personal growth of the practitioners.
Chhau dance :
Chhau dance is a tradition from eastern India that enacts episodes from epics including the Mahabharata and Ramayana, local folklore and abstract themes. Its three distinct styles hail from the regions of Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj, the first two using masks.
Chhau dance is intimately connected to regional festivals, notably the spring festival Chaitra Parva. Its origin is traceable to indigenous forms of dance and martial practices. Its vocabulary of movement includes mock combat techniques, stylized gaits of birds and animals and movements modelled on the chores of village housewives. Chhau is taught to male dancers from families of traditional artists or from local communities.
The dance is performed at night in an open space to traditional and folk melodies, played on the reed pipes ''mohuri'' and ''shehnai.'' The reverberating drumbeats of a variety of drums dominate the accompanying music ensemble.
Chhau is an integral part of the culture of these communities. It binds together people from different social strata and ethnic background with diverse social practices, beliefs, professions and languages. However, increasing industrialization, economic pressures and new media are leading to a decrease in collective participation with communities becoming disconnected from their roots.
Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan :
Songs and dances are an expression of the Kalbelia community’s traditional way of life. Once professional snake handlers, Kalbelia today evoke their former occupation in music and dance that is evolving in new and creative ways.
Today, women in flowing black skirts dance and swirl, replicating the movements of a serpent, while men accompany them on the ''khanjari'' percussion instrument and the ''poongi,'' a woodwind instrument traditionally played to capture snakes. The dancers wear traditional tattoo designs, jewellery and garments richly embroidered with small mirrors and silver thread. Kalbelia songs disseminate mythological knowledge through stories, while special traditional dances are performed during Holi, the festival of colours.
The songs also demonstrate the poetic acumen of the Kalbelia, who are reputed to compose lyrics spontaneously and improvise songs during performances. Transmitted from generation to generation, the songs and dances form part of an oral tradition for which no texts or training manuals exist. Song and dance are a matter of pride for the Kalbelia community, and a marker of their identity at a time when their traditional travelling lifestyle and role in rural society are diminishing.
They demonstrate their community’s attempt to revitalize its cultural heritage and adapt it to changing socioeconomic conditions.
Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala :
Mudiyettu is a ritual dance drama from Kerala based on the mythological tale of a battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. It is a community ritual in which the entire village participates.
After the summer crops have been harvested, the villagers reach the temple in the early morning on an appointed day. Mudiyettu performers purify themselves through fasting and prayer, then draw a huge image of goddess Kali, called as ''kalam'', on the temple floor with coloured powders, wherein the spirit of the goddess is invoked. This prepares the ground for the lively enactment to follow, in which the divine sage Narada importunes Shiva to contain the demon Darika, who is immune to defeat by mortals.
Shiva instead commands that Darika will die at the hand of the goddess Kali. Mudiyettu is performed annually in ‘Bhagavati Kavus’, the temples of the goddess, in different villages along the rivers Chalakkudy Puzha, Periyar and Moovattupuzha. Mutual cooperation and collective participation of each caste in the ritual instils and strengthens common identity and mutual bonding in the community.
Responsibility for its transmission lies with the elders and senior performers, who engage the younger generation as apprentices during the course of the performance. Mudiyettu serves as an important cultural site for transmission of traditional values, ethics, moral codes and aesthetic norms of the community to the next generation, thereby ensuring its continuity and relevance in present times.
Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas, India :
Every year in late April, the twin villages of Saloor-Dungra in the state of Uttarakhand (northern India) are marked by Ramman, a religious festival in honour of the tutelary god, Bhumiyal Devta, a local divinity whose temple houses most of the festivities. This event is made up of highly complex rituals: the recitation of a version of the epic of Rama and various legends, and the performance of songs and masked dances.
The festival is organized by villagers, and each caste and occupational group has a distinct role. For example, youth and the elders perform, the Brahmans lead the prayers and perform the rituals, and the Bhandaris – representing locals of the Kshatriya caste – are alone entitled to wear one of the most sacred masks, that of the half-man, half-lion Hindu deity, Narasimha.
The family that hosts Bhumiyal Devta during the year must adhere to a strict daily routine. Combining theatre, music, historical reconstructions, and traditional oral and written tales, the Ramman is a multiform cultural event that reflects the environmental, spiritual and cultural concept of the community, recounting its founding myths and strengthening its sense of self-worth.
In order to ensure that it remains viable, the community’s priorities are to promote its transmission and to obtain its recognition beyond the geographical area in which it is practised.
Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre :
Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, which is practised in the province of Kerala, is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. Originating more than 2,000 years ago, Kutiyattam represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala. In its stylized and codified theatrical language, neta abhinaya (eye expression) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) are prominent. They focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character.
Actors undergo ten to fifteen years of rigorous training to become fully-fledged performers with sophisticated breathing control and subtle muscle shifts of the face and body. The actor’s art lies in elaborating a situation or episode in all its detail.
Therefore, a single act may take days to perform and a complete performance may last up to 40 days. Kutiyattam is traditionally performed in theatres called Kuttampalams, which are located in Hindu temples. Access to performances was originally restricted owing to their sacred nature, but the plays have progressively opened up to larger audiences
Yet the actor’s role retains a sacred dimension, as attested by purification rituals and the placing of an oil lamp on stage during the performance symbolizing a divine presence. The male actors hand down to their trainees detailed performance manuals, which, until recent times, remained the exclusive and secret property of selected families. With the collapse of patronage along with the feudal order in the nineteenth century, the families who held the secrets to the acting techniques experienced serious difficulties. After a revival in the early twentieth century, Kutiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession. In the face of this situation, the different bodies responsible for handing down the tradition have come together to join efforts in order to ensure the continuity of this Sanskrit theatre.
Tradition of Vedic chanting :
The Vedas comprise a vast corpus of Sanskrit poetry, philosophical dialogue, myth, and ritual incantations developed and composed by Aryans over 3,500 years ago. Regarded by Hindus as the primary source of knowledge and the sacred foundation of their religion, the Vedas embody one of the world’s oldest surviving cultural traditions. The Vedic heritage embraces a multitude of texts and interpretations collected in four Vedas, commonly referred to as “books of knowledge” even though they have been transmitted orally.
The Rig Veda is an anthology of sacred hymns; the Sama Veda features musical arrangements of hymns from the Rig Veda and other sources; the Yajur Veda abounds in prayers and sacrificial formulae used by priests; and the Atharna Veda includes incantations and spells. The Vedas also offer insight into the history of Hinduism and the early development of several artistic, scientific and philosophical concepts, such as the concept of zero.
Expressed in the Vedic language, which is derived from classical Sanskrit, the verses of the Vedas were traditionally chanted during sacred rituals and recited daily in Vedic communities. The value of this tradition lies not only in the rich content of its oral literature but also in the ingenious techniques employed by the Brahmin priests in preserving the texts intact over thousands of years.
To ensure that the sound of each word remains unaltered, practitioners are taught from childhood complex recitation techniques that are based on tonal accents, a unique manner of pronouncing each letter and specific speech combinations. Although the Vedas continue to play an important role in contemporary Indian life, only thirteen of the over one thousand Vedic recitation branches have survived. Moreover, four noted schools – in Maharashtra (central India), Kerala and Karnataka (southern India) and Orissa (eastern India) – are considered under imminent threat
Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana :
Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of then Ramayana epic in a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across northern India during the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar in autumn.
The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani. This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular storytelling forms in the north of the country. This sacred text devoted to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a form of Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all.
The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last an entire month. Festivals are organized in hundreds of settlements, towns and villages during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile.
Ramlila recalls the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is invited to sing and take part in the narration. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities, such as mask- and costume making, and preparing make-up, effigies and lights. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.