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Intangible cultural heritage

Intangible Heritage domains in 2003 Convention

The Convention states that the intangible cultural heritage is manifested, among others, in the following domains:

Few elements of intangible cultural heritage are limited to a single domain. Consider a shamanic rite, for example—a complex manifestation of music and dance, prayers and songs, clothing and sacred objects, ritual and ceremony, demonstrating knowledge of the human body, of nature, and of the universe. Festivals, by their very nature, typically involve various types of expressions: song, dance, theatre, feasting, oral traditions, artisanship, sports, and entertainments. And the boundaries between domains cannot be imposed externally, but are determined by each community in its own way. One community’s chanted verse may be heard by others as song; one community may define as “theatre” a form that others might define as “dance”; one community may make minute distinctions among forms while another community considers diverse expressions as a single form.

Most States that have begun identifying the ICH present in their territory distinguish domains that differ in some degree from the set elaborated in the Convention: in certain cases the repartition of the domains is different, while in other cases the domains are more or less the same as here, but named differently.

Since the list of domains provided in the Convention is not intended to be complete or exclusionary, the Intergovernmental Committee may one day wish to enlarge the number of domains, or to explicitly mention subdomains for the domains already established. This might concern such (sub)domains as, for instance, “traditional play and games”, “culinary traditions”, “animal husbandry”, “pilgrimage” or “places of memory”—all of which have already been employed in one or more of the inventories of States Parties to the Convention.



Scope and Content

Social practices, rituals and festive events are habitual activities that structure the lives of communities and groups and that are shared by and relevant for large parts of them. They take their meaning from the fact that they reaffirm the identity of practitioners as a group or community. Performed in public or private, these social, ritual and festive practices may be linked to the life cycle of individuals and groups, the agricultural calendar, the succession of seasons or other temporal systems. They are conditioned by views of the world and by perceived histories and memories. They vary from simple gatherings to large-scale celebratory and commemorative occasions. While each of these subdomains is vast in and of itself, there is also a great deal of overlap between them.
Rituals and festive events, which usually take place at special times and places, often call a community’s attention to worldviews and features of past experience. Access may be limited in the case of certain rituals; many communities know initiation rites or burial ceremonies of this sort. Festive events often take place in public space without limitations on access—carnivals are a well-known example, and festivities marking New Year, the beginning of Spring or the end of harvest are common in all regions of the world.
Social practices shape everyday life and are known, if not shared, by all members of a community. In the framework of the Convention, attention may be paid to social practices that have a special relevance for a community and that are distinctive for them, providing them with a sense of identity and continuity. For instance, in many communities greeting ceremonies are casual, but they are quite elaborate in others, serving as a marker of identity. Similarly, practices of giving and receiving gifts may vary from casual events to important markers of authority, dependence or allegiance.
Social practices, rituals and festive events involve a dazzling variety of forms: worship rites; rites of passage; birth, wedding and funeral rituals; oaths of allegiance; traditional legal systems; traditional games and sports; kinship and ritual kinship ceremonies; settlement patterns; culinary traditions; designation of status and prestige ceremonies; seasonal ceremonies; gender-specific social practices; hunting, fishing and gathering practices; among others. They also encompass a wide variety of expressions and material elements: special gestures and words, recitations, songs or dances, special clothing, processions, animal sacrifice, special foods.

Some Examples


These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.
  • Practised at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul ( Republic of Korea ), the Royal Ancestral Ritual encompasses song, dance and music, all parts of a century-old ceremony worshipping the ancestors and expressing filial piety. 
  • Twice a year, at the time of seasonal migration in the pastoral lands of the inner Niger Delta, the river crossing of the cattle marks the beginning of the Yaaral and Degal festivities celebrated by the Peul of Mali, which include competitions for the most beautifully decorated herd, songs and recitations of pastoral poems.
  • Tracing their ancestry to West and Central African regions with diverse languages and cultural practices, the Moore Town Maroons of Jamaica elaborated new collective religious ceremonies that today incorporate various spiritual traditions, representing the very foundations of Maroon heritage.
  • The Carnival of Binche in , the Oruro Carnival in or the Makishi Masquerade in involve colourful pageantry, singing and dancing, and various types of costumes or masks. In some cases these festive events are a means of temporarily overcoming social differences by assuming different identities and of commenting on social or political conditions through mockery or amusement.

Challenges to Viability

Because they depend on the broad participation of practitioners and their communities, social practices, rituals and festive events are strongly affected by the inevitable transformation or incorporation of communities in modern societies, especially by such processes as ongoing migration, individualisation, the general introduction of formal education, the growing influence of large scriptural religious systems and other effects of globalisation.

Migration, especially of young people, may draw practitioners away from their communities, thus putting a specific practice and its transmission at stake. But at the same time, social practices, rituals and festive events may serve as special occasions on which people return home to celebrate with their family and community, reaffirming identity and keeping up their affiliation with their traditions.

Rituals often have a close connection with systems of belief, and in many cases express reverence for a natural or spiritual deity, often through such acts as various kinds of sacrifice. The spread of world religions may discourage the maintenance of theses rituals, which are often labeled as “primitive” or “sinful”. Government regulations—often couched in terms of concern for health, sanitation or nutrition—may also interfere with the practice of many rituals and ceremonies that are the considered as “harmful” or “wasteful”.

Many communities find that tourists are increasingly participating in festive events organised by those communities. While on the one hand tourism can contribute to reviving a traditional event, thus giving a “market value” to intangible cultural heritage, it may on the other hand have a distorting effect, as the performances are often reduced to show adapted highlights in order to meet tourist demands. The viability of social practices, rituals and especially festive events may also depend quite heavily on general socio-economic conditions, as the preparations, the production of costumes and masks and the provisions for participants often require substantial expenditure that may not be supportable at times of economic privation.

Some Safeguarding Approaches


Ensuring the continuity of social practices, rituals or festive events often requires the mobilization of large numbers of individuals and the social institutions and mechanisms of a society. While respecting customary practices that might limit participation to certain groups, practitioners and institutions at the same time may wish to open up the way to the broadest public participation. In some cases, legal and formal measures need to be taken to ensure access to the sacred places, crucial objects, or natural resources necessary for the performance of social practices, rituals and festive events.

The Vimbuza healing ritual, widely practiced in the rural parts of Northern Malawi , developed in the mid-nineteenth century as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences but fell into disfavour in recent decades. Safeguarding efforts create incentives for young people to learn about the Vimbuza healing dance and to foster dialogue between Vimbuza healers and government and non-government bodies dealing with medical issues through broadcast panel discussions, training workshops and festivals.

The rich variety of social practices performed at the Jemaa el-Fna Square in Marrakesh (Morocco) were threatened with gradual disappearance due to urban growth and development projects that produced heavy traffic and air pollution. In an attempt to reconcile urban planning and economic development with cultural and environmental concerns, authorities created pedestrian streets converging on the Square and reorganized motor traffic so as to decrease the number of cars and tourist coaches, safeguarding the social practices.

To enhance transmission and to protect the originality of the Carnival de Barranquilla, a local foundation has created and supports a new event, the Children’s Carnival, which has become a vital element of the carnival performed in . Practitioners received financial support for the production of handcrafted objects including floats, extravagant costumes, head ornaments, music instruments, animal masks and other artefacts. A micro-credit program gave several artisans and practitioners the possibility to earn additional income, improving their life quality and stressing the importance of their involment in the carnival.


Scope and Content

 “Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe” include knowledge, know-how, skills, practices and representations developed and perpetuated by communities in interaction with their natural environment. These cognitive systems are expressed through language, oral traditions, attachment to a place, memories, spirituality, and worldview, and they are displayed in a broad complex of values and beliefs, ceremonies, healing practices, social practices or institutions, and social organisation. Such expressions and practices are as diverse and variegated as the sociocultural and ecological contexts from which they originate, and they often underlie other domains of ICH as described by the Convention.

This domain encompasses numerous areas such as traditional ecological wisdom, indigenous knowledge, ethnobiology, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, traditional healing systems and pharmacopeia, rituals, foodways, beliefs, esoteric sciences, initiatory rites, divinations, cosmologies, cosmogonies, shamanism, possession rites, social organisations, festivals, languages, as well as visual arts.

Some Examples
These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.
Challenges to Viability

Although they constitute the very foundation of the identity of the cultural communities concerned, these knowledges and practices are particularly vulnerable in a globalising world where little place is left for traditional knowledge and the protection of the environment and of belief systems, even if the ecological knowledge of traditional healers may sometimes attract the interest of scientists or of a global pharmaceutical industry.
Rapid urbanisation and extension of agricultural lands may directly affect the natural environment of particular value to a given community, such as a sacred forest necessary for an initiation ritual, or a forest reserve that provides primary resources such as wood for woodcrafting. Desertification and extensive deforestation contribute to the decline of biodiversity and to the gradual disappearance of certain species, thus diminishing the traditional pharmacopeia or threatening traditional crafts, as for example making ritual costumes from plant fibres.

Some Safeguarding Approaches

Safeguarding a world view or a system of beliefs faces even more complex challenges than protecting a natural environment. Beyond the external challenges to the social and natural environment, many poor or marginalized communities are themselves inclined to adopt a way of life or a paradigm of development that is in fact detrimental to their traditions and customs. Protecting the natural environment and safeguarding a community's cosmology and other elements of its intangible cultural heritage are often closely connected. For instance, an essential component of the activities designed for safeguarding the Kankurang, Manding Initiatory Rite ( and ) is protecting the natural environment in which the ritual is practiced. This will be ensured through classification of sacred forests, organizing training in protected areas management and replanting plant species indispensable to the ritual.
The action plan for safeguarding the
Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry () includes legal protections through the deposit of patents at WIPO and national patent systems. This will help protect significant motifs that are part of the complex graphic art linked to the very identity of the Zafimaniry community. A preliminary and thorough identification of those elements to be patented, carried out by the community concerned, is prerequisite to this protection. Replanting scarce tree species vital to the craft is also part of the action plan.

The practice of Sand Drawing () will be revitalized in tradition-bearing communities through organizing community gatherings and festivals to strengthen on-going transmission of expert artistic skills. Other measures include establishing regulations concerning the commercial use of sand drawings and providing legal protection, including sand drawing in standard school curricula and establishing a trust fund to encourage income generating activities linked to this art form. Altogether these should help reconcile national cultural policies with the interests of those for whom sand drawings are above all a living and thriving social reality.

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