Saving Intangible Heritage (I)

Prem Khatry



Last week a very concerted, committed and appreciable effort was visible in Kathmandu through the joint effort of the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) of Nepal, the UNESCO/Kathmandu Office and the International Training Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region under the auspices of UNESCO (CRIHAP). This event was made to preserve Nepal’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH). For a culturally rich but economically and managerially less capable country like Nepal it was an occasion to look into ourselves and draw workable culture safeguarding plans acceptable to the concerned groups and communities to save their cultural heritage in such a way that the posterity could take pride in what the ancestors do today in the field of ICH.      

                                                What is ICH?

In Article-2 of the historic 2003 convention of UNESCO, ICH was defined as ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge-skills as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces  associated therewith -  that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognised as part of their cultural heritage.’ ICH is one glaring example of human genius and capacity to create, recreate and transmit to younger generation so that it continues over time the way it has been transmitted to the present generation as part of human history.

Culture as an important social asset, is transmitted to the younger generation through the standard traditional socialisation process. Therefore, as long as human beings remain in this world, culture will never die a natural death. In other words, culture is continued and recreated over time. Since man creates culture while interacting with his natural environment and environment conditions vary from one setting to the next, cultural diversity occurs. A very good case of cultural diversity is Nepal itself where the Himalayan region, the hilly region, the valleys and the plain region have different types of natural environment and cultures creating, sustaining and promoting a wide variety of an ethno-cultural mosaic. At least 125 language speakers and their creators have contributed significantly to let these cultures flourish in a very conducive and cordial social and natural environment. Nepal is often called as the ‘open museum of human as well as cultural diversity.’


ICH Convention

The UNESCO Convention for the protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972 was a landmark event for the preservation of heritage. A more specific convention came much later but it opened a wide range of interest among member nations of the UN in the field of cultural heritage and urgent need to safeguard it for the sake of individuals, groups or communities and for the humanity as a whole.

     The event was the General Conference of UNESCO on ICH. The Convention took place in Paris from 29 September to 17 October, 2003, as the 32nd session of UNESCO. Similarly UN had also adopted the ILO Convention thereby focusing on the cultural rights, intellectual property and rights, among other sensitive cultural issues pertaining to ethnic minorities, marginalised and deprived groups and cultures. The purposes of the 2003 convention were listed as safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage, ensuring respect for the ICH of communities, groups and individuals, raising awareness at local, community, national and international levels, and providing international cooperation and assistance.

One major contribution of the convention was to categorise the major features of ICH under the title of its ‘domains.’ That is, ICH may be defined in many different ways. But a definition has to be scientific and operational at the same time so one can study, research and disseminate the result to the public. Also, the definition and domains or aspects of ICH must be applicable worldwide. The UNESCO Convention, 2003 has five broad domains or dimensions of ICH– oral tradition and expressions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, knowledge and practices concerning nature and universe, and traditional craftsmanship.

The Convention attended by the UN member nations sat for more than two weeks to dwell on all the major issues related and relevant to the intangible cultural heritage worldwide. The proceeding and the provisions including the Operational Directives (ODs) are published in the form of a text entitled ‘Basic Texts of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.’  The text with its latest edition is made public through the auspices of UNESCO and CRIHAP (2016 edition).


Kathmandu Workshop                                                             

The Kathmandu Workshop (Nov 21-25, 2016) was the fourth (2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016) in the series. Earlier workshop-cum-training programmes were organised jointly by MoCTCA and UNESCO/Kathmandu on the theme of Community Based Inventorying and Nomination.  This time the theme was ‘Safeguarding’. In fact, this particular training-workshop took place at a time when a large number of tangible heritages have been grounded as a result of the mega earthquake of April, 2015. Since a large part of ICH draws its meaning and significance from its tangible counterpart, there has been a significant loss in the ICH sector as well. The recently held workshop thus came as a bandage in the wound experienced by the people of Nepal in general and Kathmandu in particular.



UNESCO/Kathmandu Office had managed to bring two well experienced trainer-facilitators – Dr. Shubha Chaudhary (India) and Dr. Suzanne Ogge (Australia) through the auspices of CRIHAP in order to conduct the workshop. They had also conducted the above mentioned three workshops in the past. Similarly, more than half of the participants coming from the government and several ethnic minorities and other sectors had completed the past workshops. The other half was included to represent the marginalised communities, NGOs, local community and media. After the training, a field visit of an old Newar settlement of Tokha, the home of Chaku (sweet molasses) was planned. This trip gave an opportunity for the participants to draw a mock but well-designed safeguarding plan to preserve local cultural elements.

Finally, the noted centenarian, Satya Mohan Joshi, MoCTCA Secretary Shanker Adhikari, UNESCO/Kathmandu Office Chief Christian Manhart and other dignitaries graced both the opening and the closing ceremonies and highlighted on the significance of Nepal’s ICH and the need to link this with  the life of the people.  The participants also enjoyed a short but memorable visit to Patan where the famous Dapha Mahotsav is going on as part of Newar ICH of Nepal.


(To be continued)




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