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UNESCO intangible cultural heritage from India

A total of 13 Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) elements from India have been inscribed till date on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The Ministry of Culture has appointed the Sangeet Natak Akademi, an autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Culture, as nodal office for matters relating to the intangible cultural heritage including for preparation of the nomination dossiers for the Representative List of UNESCO.

The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.

UNESCO India Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

  • 2008:  Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, Tradition of Vedic chanting, Ramlila, The traditional performance of the Ramayana.
  • 2009:  Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas, India.
  • 2010:  Chhau dance, Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan, Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala.
  • 2012:  Buddhist chanting of Ladakh: recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the trans-Himalayan Ladakh region, Jammu and Kashmir, India
  • 2013:  Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming and dancing of Manipur.
  • 2014:  Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru, Punjab, India
  • 2016:  Nawrouz and Yoga.
  • 2017:  Kumbh Mela.

Note: Important for Prelims

Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre

[Performing arts]
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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. 

Tradition of Vedic chanting

[Oral traditions and expressions; including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage] All across India
  • 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;
  • The Atharna Veda includes incantations and spells.
  •  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.
  • 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.

Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana

[Performing arts]
  • 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.
  • This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas.
  • 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.
  • The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani.

Ramman: Religious Festival and Ritual Theatre of the Garhwal Himalayas

[Social practices, rituals and festive events]
  • Ramman is a form of traditional ritual theatre celebrated every year in the courtyard of the temple of Bhumiyal Devta situated in Saloor Dungra Village in Painkhanda valley of Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India.
  • The village deity of Saloor Dungra is Bhumichetrapal where he is better known as Bhumiyal Devta.
  • On the auspicious day of sankranti (Baisakhi) in the month of Baisakh, Bhumiyal Devta comes out in a procession from his place of residence (which is one house in the village) to the central temple of the village accompanied by beating of drums and mask dances.
  • After the festivity come to a close for the year, Bhumiyal Devta goes to live in one of the houses for the entire year till the next Baisakhi festival.

Mudiyettu: Ritual Theatre and Dance Drama

[Performing arts]
  • Mudiyettu is a ritual theatre form of Kerala based on the mythological tale of the battle between Goddess Kali and Darika, an evil king.
  • It is a community ritual in which the entire village participates.
  • The traditional performers of Mudiyettu having purified themselves by observing the ritual of fasting and offering prayers to the goddess proceed to draw a huge tantric design of Goddess Kali made of powdered rice, on the temple floor.
  • Over a period of time the tradition of chanting the praises of Kali has evolved into a vibrant musical form that accompanies the ‘panchavarna kalam‘ (A five colour design on the floor depicting the Goddess).
  • The performance takes a dramatic turn when Darika, from the top of the eastern mountains, challenges Kali to a battle. Kali, born of Lord Shiva‘s (A Hindu god) third eye, retaliates.
  • Kooli, the clown and Koimpada Nair, the chieftain of the ‘pancha boothas’ (five elements), become her allies in this battle against evil.
  • The temple courtyard turns into a battle field and the villagers the participants in this ritual-theatre event.
  • In the end, after a fierce battle, Kali defeats her adversaries and performs the victory dance.

Kalbelia: Folk Songs and Dances

[Performing arts]
  • Kalbelia Dance is an expression of the Kalbelia community’s way of life as snake charmers.
  • The women in flowing skirts dance to the beat of the ‘khanjari,’ a percussion instrument, and the ‘poongi,’ a wind instrument.
  • On the occasion of Holi (the festival of colours), the Kalbelias perform a special dance with another percussion instrument called the ‘chang.’ While men play the instruments, the women sing and dance.
  • The Kalbelia‘s traditional music and dance has evolved into a creative and contemporary version that enthralls audiences worldwide.
  • The music of the ‘poongi’ has a sinuous quality, which makes a dancer swirl and dance like a serpent.
  • The Kalbelias are reputed to compose lyrics spontaneously and improvise songs impromptu during a performance.
  • Kalbelias are now found predominantly in the districts of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jalore and Barmer in western Rajasthan and in the cities of Jaipur and Pushkar in eastern Rajasthan.
  • Kalbelia community of snake charmers living in Thar Desert

Chhau Dance

[Performing arts]
  • Chhau is a major dance tradition of eastern India. It has three distinct styles Seraikella, Mayurbhanj and Purulia named Masks are an integral part of the dances of Seraikella and Purulia.
  • Chhau dance has a significant role in the celebration of the spring festival Chaitra Parva, being innately connected to its rituals.
  • It is a people’s art as it involves the entire community. Performed by male dancers from families of traditional artists, or those trained under Gurus or Ustads (masters).
  • It traces its origin to indigenous forms of dance and martial practices.
  • Khel (mock combat techniques), chalis and topkas (stylized gaits of birds and animals) and uflis (movements modeled on the daily chores of a village housewife) constitute the fundamental vocabulary of Chhau dance.
  • The knowledge of dance, music and mask-making is transmitted orally.
  • It is performed in an open space called akhada or asar and lasts through the night.
  • The dancers perform a repertoire that explores a variety of subjects: local legends, folklore and episodes from the epics Ramayana/ Mahabharata and abstract themes.
  • The vibrant music is characterized by the rhythm of indigenous drums like the dhol, dhumsa and kharka and the melody of the mohuri and shehnai.
  • Prevalent in the tribal belt of the bordering areas of the provinces of Orissa, Jharkhand and West- Bengal in eastern India.
  • There are three district forms of Chhau: (i) Seraikella Chhau of Jharkhand (ii) Mayurbhanj Chhau of Orissa (iii) Purulia Chhau of West Bengal

Buddhist Chanting of Ladakh: Recitation of Sacred Buddhist Texts in the TransHimalayan Ladakh Region

[Oral traditions and expressions; including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage]
  • The recitation of ancient sacred Buddhist texts are chanted every day by the monks living in various monasteries and following different sects of Buddhism in the trans-Himalayan region of Ladakh in India.
  • Besides, special chanting is conducted on important days of the Buddhist calendar, during life cycle rituals, and important days in the agrarian calendar.
  • It is done for spiritual and moral well being of the people, by appeasing the wrath of the evil spirits and invoking the blessing of various Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities and Rinpoches (high ‘Lama’ reincarnate) for spiritual and moral wellbeing of the people.
  • While chanting, the monks wear special costumes and make hand gestures representing the divine being of the Buddha.
  • Musical instruments such as the bells, drums, cymbals and trumpets are used to bring in rhythm.
  • The chanting helps in the meditation process, in attaining enlightenment and getting liberation from the sufferings of the world.


[Social practices, rituals and festive events]
  • Sankirtana is the artistic manifestation of Manipuri worship.
  • To the Manipuris Sankirtana is the visible form of God.
  • Woven within the framework of sacrosanct rituals and ceremonies the art consists of narrative singing and dancing.
  • Always performed in a Mandala (circular area) inside a Mandapa (hall) attached to a temple or erected in a courtyard.
  • It employs musical instruments like drums and cymbals. The artistes play these instruments and dance at the same time.

Thatheras of Jandiala Guru: Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making

[Traditional Craftsmanship]
  • The craft of the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru represents the traditional technique of manufacturing brass and copper utensils in Punjab.
  • The technique itself, along with the mud-brick kiln, traditional implements, specific type of wood chips, and the specialized process of hammering the metal sheets, constitutes the traditional skills and knowledge systems of the community.
  • The Thatheras are a specific caste group within Punjab, and as a community, have a common identity based on a shared history, geographic location and ethnic beliefs.
  • The Thatheras use traditional materials for processing and polishing, such as sand and tamarind juice.
  • The revitalization of this traditional craft should be done in a holistic manner, taking into account that it is not simply a technical process, but an entire knowledge system, linked with the identity and way of life of the community.


[Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe]
  • Yoga essentially is a traditional and time honoured Indian holistic system of personal, physical, mental and spiritual wellness focusing on all-round unification of body, mind and soul.
  • Like other Indian traditions, this system is also handed down from master (Guru) to disciple (Shishya).
  • The presence of Yoga is well documented in Indian textual tradition right from the Rigveda to Satapatha Brahmana to philosophical treatises like the Upanishads etc. and the Bhagvadgit), before sage Patanjali systematized it in his Yogasutras.
  •  As per Yogic scriptures the practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness and thus indicates a perfect harmony between these elements.
  • The aim of Yoga is to realize the inner self, to mitigate or overcome all kinds of sufferings and to pave the way for attaining the state of liberation.
  • The widely practiced Yoga Practices are Yama (five abstentions), Niyama (five observances), Asana (Postures), Pranayama (Suspending Breath), Pratyahara (Abstraction), Dharana (Concentration), Dhyana (Meditation), Samadhi (Fully integrated Consciousness), Bandhas (Lock) & Mudras (Gestures), Shat-karmas (Cleansing practices), Yukta-ahara, (Holistic food), Yukta karma (Right Action) and Mantra japa (Chanting of the Sacred Words) etc.


[Social practices, rituals and festive events]
  • Novruz, Nowrouz, Nooruz, Navruz, Nauroz, Nevruz is celebrated on 21st of March, which is considered as New Year holiday and the beginning of Spring.
  • There are various ceremonies, rituals, and cultural events held within every family and community.
  • It enjoys traditional games, special cuisines, respect for nature, performances in music and dances, oral expressions and literature, handicrafts and painting masterpieces (in particular miniature arts).
  • Values of peace and solidarity, reconciliation and neighbourhood, cultural diversity and tolerance, healthy lifestyle and renewal of living environment are transmitted from generation to generation.
  • The element embraces a variety of different features of an intangible cultural heritage as of its antiquity, a very vast geographical scope and many periods, as well as a time of its holding.
  • It consists of a variety of cultural forms and expressions based on myths just like Jamshid, the mythological king of Iran, for which Nowrouz has also been called Nowrouz-e Jamshidi.
  • A similar myth exists in the Indian mythology, as well as the Turkish famous “Bozkurt” myth in Turkey; for legends, the legend of “Amoo Nowrouz” in Iran, Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries in which “Naneh Nowrouz” waits for Amoo Nowrouz to come but at the very moment of the beginning of the New Year, she falls asleep.
  • Amoo Nowrou comes and goes while she is asleep. This legend repeats every year.

Kumbh Mela

[Social practices, rituals and festive events]
  • Kumbh Mela or Kumbha Mela is a mass congregation of generally Hindu pilgrims in which people gather to take a bath/dip in a sacred river.
  • It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world. A ritual bath at a predetermined time and place is the major event of the festival, called the Shahi Snan .
  • It is celebrated four times every 12 years, the site of the observation rotating between four pilgrimage places on the four sacred rivers at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik.
  • Ardha (“Half”)Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Haridwar and at Allahabad, every sixth year. And a Maha Kumbh is held after every 144 years.
  • In Ujjain, the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years when the zodiac position of Jupiter is in Leo (Simha in Hindu astrology). Thus, it is also known as Simhastha Kumbh. During Simhastha Kumbh, pilgrims rejoice by taking a holy dip on the banks of river Shipra.
  • Different types of language, tradition-culture, dresses, food, way of living, can be seen at the festival and the most important specialty is that millions of people reach the place without any invitation.
  • Kumbha is a Sanskrit word for Pitcher, referred to as Kalasha, it is also a zodiac sign in Indian astrology, the sign under which the festival is celebrated.

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