Durga Puja — celebrated predominantly by Bengali communities in India and abroad — is regarded as a classic blend of culture and religion. One of the most important festivals in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, it showcases the dynamism of art, music, culinary and much more during the 10-day celebration.
On 15 December, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Set up for the protection and promotion of cultural heritage, the Committee reviews submissions from countries across the globe. Durga Puja was this year’s submission for the list from India.
Among many others who hailed UNESCO’s decision was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shared the news and congratulated one and all on Twitter.
A matter of great pride and joy for every Indian!
Durga Puja highlights the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata’s Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have. https://t.co/DdRBcTGGs9
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 15, 2021
Read on for some of the other notable cultural heritages of India that are part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list
One of the oldest living theatrical traditions in the southern state of Kerala, Kutiyattam was inscribed in the list by UNESCO in 2008. Traditionally performed in sacred theatres called Kuttampalams located in temples, it is a blend of Sanskrit classical items and local elements of the state.
This highly codified theatre form is based on netra abhinaya, or eye movements, and hasta abhinaya, or hand gestures. An actor must undergo 10-14 years of training to master this art form. It is performed by elaborating an episode and presenting the minutest details of an act. One complete Kutiyattam performance may take as many as 40 days.
Inscribed in 2008, the traditional theatrical performance of the epic Ramayana is called Ramlila. Widely performed in North India during Dussehra, the plays are based on the life of Hindu god Rama who was exiled.
With brightly coloured costumes, the performances include the epic battles between Rama and god-demon Ravana, Rama’s return from exile, a series of dialogues between the gods, saints and other characters.
Ramlila brings the entire community together with no barriers of caste, gender and creed. Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani are some of the most prominent places where Ramlila is performed.
The villages of Saloor and Dungra in Uttarakhand light up to the occasion of Ramman where villagers gather to worship the local governing god Bhumiyal Devta. The festival was inscribed on the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2009.
With complex ritual practices, villagers dance, play music, recite prayers, make offerings and much more during the festival that represents many environmental, spiritual and cultural aspects of the community.
Adhering to their respective roles, people from various walks of life and occupational groups unite to celebrate the festival. For example, the Brahmins lead the prayers, Bhandaris wear the sacred mask of the Narasimha — half-man, half-lion Hindu deity — while the youth and elders perform songs and dances during Ramman. Additionally, the family hosting the Bhumiyal Devta follows a strict daily routine.
The folk dance from eastern India, which was included in UNESCO’s list in 2010, is mainly based on three distinct styles that emerged from the villages of Seraikella, Purulia and Mayurbhanj.
Typically taught to male members of traditional artist families, the Chhau dance is performed in open spaces at night. Performers from Seraikella and Purulia wear masks, depicting the characters from the scenes of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
Uniting nature with music played on reed pipes called mohuri and shehnai, the dance is mainly associated with the spring festival of Chaitra Parv. It has religious connotations and bold movements, including mock combat techniques using props, movements of women doing daily chores, and gaits of birds and animals. An integral part of the community, the dance form brings together people from various sections of society.
Kalbelia songs and dance
Included in the list of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 is Kalbelia folk songs and dance. The Kalbelia community of Rajasthan takes pride in their traditional dance and songs, which are performed wearing dazzling outfits and black tattoo designs.
Once professional snake charmers, the men use a unique woodwind instrument called poongi used to capture snakes and a percussion instrument called khanjari, while the women dance to the beats. The community is also well known for improvising lyrics and poems during performances, and they are part of the oral tradition passed down through generations.
Another cultural heritage that made it to the list in 2010 was Kerala’s ritualistic theatre, Mudiyettu. Enacting the mythological story of the tussle between Goddess Kali and demon Darika, this theatrical performance is held at temples called ‘Bhagavati Kavus’ across villages along the rivers Chalakkudy Puzha, Periyar and Moovattupuzha.
Divine figures like Sage Narada, Lord Shiva and the spirit of Goddess Kali, or Kalam, are invoked at the site while Mudiyettu performers go through a rigorous purification process. The entire community comes together for this annual spectacle, and it makes for a sight to behold.
The holy Buddhist chanting from the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh was inscribed on the UNESCO’s list in 2012. In every monastery and village in the region, Buddhist priests or lamas recite the teachings and philosophy of Lord Buddha in the form of hymns.
The monks wear sacred masks and use special hand gestures, or mudras, that symbolise Lord Buddha. They use instruments such as drums, cymbals and trumpets to add a musical rhythm to the chanting.
This traditional art form from Manipur was inscribed on UNESCO’s list in 2013. It is performed mainly to portray tales and episodes from Lord Krishna’s life by the Vaishnava community of the region. Sankirtana involves dance and music replete with nature and mythical motifs.
A typical Sankirtana performance takes place within an enclosed courtyard or temple with two drummers and around ten dancers and singers. The aesthetic and fluid movements make the dance a divine performance as if it is a manifestation of the deity.
Sankirtana performances bring the community together and usher in harmony and unity among the Vaishnava community in Manipur.
Traditional brass and copper craft of making utensils
Inscribed in 2014, this intangible cultural heritage is extremely unique. Pioneers of this craft are the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru of Punjab. They use copper, brass and other alloys, which are believed to have health benefits.
Artisans use solid metal plates, which are hammered to get the desired utensil. Hot plates are moulded under careful temperature control, using underground wood fire stoves to render the texture. The utensils are then polished using natural elements like sand and tamarind juice.
This tradition of metalwork is orally passed down the generations.
Yoga needs no introduction. Inscribed on the list in 2016, this age-old Indian practice unifies the mind, body and soul. The free-hand exercises are aimed at achieving a calming effect and a sense of being at one with nature.
Yoga comprises several postures called asanas, which are directed to benefit the body and the mind. It also includes controlled breathing patterns, chanting and meditation.
Earlier, it was transmitted directly from the guru (teacher) to the shishya (student), but options of yoga ashrams and wellness centres offering training to anyone who wishes to practise it are available these days.
21 June is observed as International Yoga Day around the world annually.
Inscribed in 2017, Kumbh Mela, or the festival of the sacred Pitcher is the world’s largest peaceful congregation of people. A rich and culturally diverse festival, the Kumbh Mela is held every four years in north Indian cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.
Millions of people, including saints, sadhus, kalpavasis and visitors, from across the globe come to these cities to witness the mammoth gathering. It is one of the holiest events, and people take a dip in the Ganges to cleanse themselves of all sins and free them from the cycle of rebirth.
Kumbh Mela also incorporates values of astronomy, astrology, spirituality and other scientific avenues, making it a melting pot of knowledge.
Hero and feature image: Courtesy Tarikul Raana/ @tarikulxraana/ Unsplash