23.04.2012 - UNESCO Office in Kathmandu

Safeguarding Nepal’s intangible heritage

©UNESCO/Music Museum of Nepal -Barta Gandharva

Barta Gandharva, a young Dalit woman from Bhojpur district, has been a sarangi player since she was a little girl. “I used to follow my mother around, roaming and singing in villages. I still play the same sarangi. It has helped me establish myself.”

For Barta, her sarangi and the musical tradition that she keeps alive are important.   We all have traditions and objects that we cherish and that we would like to preserve for future generations. They may be of great economic value. But many of them create emotions and make us feel that we belong to something – a country, a tradition, a way of life. They may be objects or buildings that we can touch and explore, but they can also be songs to be sung or stories to be told.

It is the heritage that we want to pass on to the future generations. But the less tangible it is, the more difficult it is to safeguard.

We know how to protect temples and palaces - but how do we ensure that our languages, oral traditions and expressions are preserved? How do we safeguard performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events? How can we make sure that the elder generations’ practices and knowledge about nature and universe are being transferred to the next generations, and how can we maintain and transmit the skills to produce traditional crafts?

Safeguarding our intangible cultural heritage requires, first, a clear definition of culture, in all its dimensions.

UNESCO has led the way in expanding the definition of cultural heritage, which was long considered as being limited to monuments and works of art. Today culture is seen as a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group. In addition to art and literature, it encompasses lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. Therefore cultural heritage is not only historic vestiges, but also the intangible cultural heritage.

Second, it requires defining a framework for its protection. UNESCO has, in this regard, produced binding international legal instruments. Each new UNESCO convention has been a milestone in raising awareness about the value of cultural heritage, as the conventions against trafficking in cultural property (1970); for the protection of the world heritage (1972), for which this year marks the 40th anniversary; the underwater cultural heritage (2001); the intangible cultural heritage (2003) and the diversity of cultural expressions (2005). Each Convention has taken into account a new facet of culture.

 In 2010, the Government of Nepal took a very important step to safeguard the intangible heritage of its people by ratifying the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Now it requires to build capacities of the communities and the national authorities to protect it.

Nepal has just embarked in a Japanese funded capacity building initiative for the implementation of the 2003 Convention.  It is among eight countries in Asia and the Pacific to participate in this ambitious UNESCO programme. Starting from this week with a first workshop and throughout  the coming months, UNESCO and the Government of Nepal will work closely together to build capacities in three areas: to implement the Convention at the national level, to start community-based inventorying of intangible cultural heritage and to elaborate nominations to the Intangible Heritage Lists.

The Flamenco of Spain, Japan’s Kabuki Theater, the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico, the songs of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, and barkcloth-making in Uganda – these are but five of the 232 items included so far in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Nepal’s intangible heritage certainly deserves to be represented on the List as it includes such varied traditions as the craftsmanship of Newari woodcarvers, the painting traditions of Maithili women, the dances of the Tharu communities, the Himalayan mountain cults of the Tamangs and the songs of the Dalits which artists such as Varta keep alive.

In becoming a State Party to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, Nepal has recognized that protecting this heritage has many benefits. Most importantly, it fosters the collective responsibility for a common good and it recognizes that the cultural identities of the many hitherto excluded communities are indeed the very fabric of Nepal’s society.


- By Axel Plathe, Head of the UNESCO Office in Nepal and UNESCO Representative to Nepal


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This article has previously been published on the Kathmandu Post on 17 April 2012.

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