Safeguarding Intangible Heritage

 Prem Khatry


A nation is known to the others either by nature, that is its location, its major features and landmarks. It is also known by its culture – both tangible and intangible.  Nepal is best known by both. Despite considerable damage by the earthquake in April 2015, the historical sites are still major pull factors for tourists. The other, intangible sector, is equally powerful to attract visitors. But more than that, it is the backbone of Nepali culture. This article is a follow-up of several others appeared in this section earlier.

The term Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) became more popular in recent times. In 2003, UNESCO organised a special Convention and issued a Declaration to be signed by UN member states. This Declaration, which focused on the significant role of ICH, highlighted on the need to safeguard Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and opened a new horizon in the field of heritage preservation.

Nepal became a State Party to this Convention by ratifying it in the year 2010. UNESCO established the General Assembly consisting of all the signatories to the Convention. Further, there is also an 18-member Inter-governmental Committee selected from the Assembly for a given term to execute the programmes and report to the Assembly.

The General Provision of the 2003 Convention says each State Party shall: a) take necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of ICH present in its territories, and, b) identify and define various elements of ICH present with the participation of communities, groups and relevant NGOs. The government is primarily responsible for the nation's cultural well-being. Cultural decay in any form and function is not in the interest of the nation and its people; such a state in fact is the pre-information on the gradual collapse of existence as a Nation.




Nepal's diverse and rich cultural heritage is an asset for the nation, for now and for all the time to come. The challenges to save them and hand them over to the new generation, however, are multifaceted, immense yet possible.

The government of Nepal has taken active role in initiating several activities to safeguard and promote ICH. Many districts were covered by the surveys and research carried out by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA). They have enough information on the skills of the marginalised people like Chepang, Dom and other Tarai groups. Such information can be of use in documenting skills of several other marginalised groups and cultures for more purposes.

West Nepal has provided very useful information in this regard. The Gauraparva and Deuda dance have become popular in Kathmandu these days. People of the region have been continuing these cultural elements and this festival has survived through time. Temporary or cross-border migration and lack of interest in learning and keeping the traditions in the new generation have posed threat to the continuity of traditional knowledge, skill and its impact on life.  These challenges can be met with specially focused programmes

UNESCO considers each nation as a state party and wants states to not only preserve their cultural heritage, but do so in collaboration with UNESCO in the spirit of partnership. At a time when indigenous groups and communities are strengthening their voices and asserting their rights in line with ILO 169, national governments have greater responsibilities to address the demand for rights 

The documentation of ICH property across cultures had started before the 2003 Convention through the auspices of MoCTCA. The ministry and institutions such as the Nepal Academy had launched documentation programmes. After 2010, the Ministry and UNESCO have organised several seminars and workshops as capacity building plans in Nepal aiming at awareness raising, inventorying and safeguarding including the participants from different ethnic groups and stakeholders. Four such workshops have been successfully convened so far in this direction. The Government of Nepal, in collaboration with UNESCO, has organised four workshops so far in collaboration with UNESCO-Kathmandu under UNESCO'S Global Capacity Building Initiative for the implementation of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH.

The UNESCO Convention of 2003 also allows important space for non-government sectors in various stages of action. Article 11(b) Role of States Parties mentions that nations will '…identify and define the various elements of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory, with the participation of communities, groups and relevant nongovernmental organizations.'

Future plans

In order to motivate the new generation (academic as well as the general public) in understanding the country's history, including tangible as well as intangible culture, there is a need to facilitate their study and involvement in the practice, preservation and promotion of culture. Once the country formally moves towards federal structure according to the provisions made in the new Constitution of Nepal, there will be several organs of the government in each province with the task. This task can be undertaken by a growing elite group such as students and youths.

The government and UNESCO plan activities to target students and youths affiliated to different political parties. The objective is to motivate them and encourage them to commit for the preservation of culture of their region, ethnic groups and communities.  They are the future experts and need to enhance culture studies, engage in ICH-related activities, undertake research projects through different organisations, and internalise the value of ICH for national development, unity and integrity. To begin this initiative, these programmes can be organised in the students' Union Offices of universities and colleges.

The basic and fundamental premise of inventorying Nepal's cultural heritage is the nature of Nepalese society with language, dialect, social structure, ethnic structure, faith and practices.  In a multi-ethnic but assimilated social and cultural system the level as nature of the function of assimilation and harmony experienced by society also becomes an important factor to consider in the plan and process of assimilation.

Finally, in the near future, the Cultural Policy of Nepal, 2011, will be revised to make it more effective tool to cope with the changes in the field of culture. Once in place as a revised and modified apparatus, the policy will address issues related to ICH in Nepal. The engagement of students and youths and through them the political parties in the future safeguarding activities will also pave the way for future activities including the enactment of relevant legal tools in this field.


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