Kolkata's Durga Puja gets UNESCO's 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' tag

Durga Puja, an ancient festival celebrated in the country for many centuries, becomes the 14th event from India inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List.

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Jitesh Surjiani | 16 Dec '21

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) on Wednesday inscribed Kolkata’s Durga Puja on its Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. With the addition, Durga Puja becomes the 14th Indian cultural event amongst a total of 492 elements on UNESCO’s prized list.

Durga Puja is a five-day festival that begins on the fifth night of the nine-day Navratri festival and ends on the tenth day, which is Dashami. During this time, people collectively worship and invoke Goddess Durga, who is regarded as the feminine energy of the cosmos, also known as ‘Shakti’. Many regard it as an emotion more than a festival. Though originating in West Bengal, which has the largest Bengali community in the country, Durga Puja is celebrated in many other parts of India and the world.

A British Council report commissioned by the tourism department of the Bengal government a few months ago pegged the total economic worth of the creative industries around Durga Puja before the pandemic at approx. ₹32,377 crore annually, equating to 2.6% of Bengal’s economy (GSDP).

Eric Falt, director UNESCO New Delhi, said in a press statement: “I would like to offer warm congratulations to India, its people and especially all those who worked on the nomination dossier. I am confident that this inscription will offer encouragement to the local communities that celebrate Durga Puja, including all the traditional craftspeople, designers, artists, and organizers of large-scale cultural events, as well as tourists and visitors who partake in the inclusive festivity that is Durga Puja.” On its website, UNESCO said the "festival has come to signify home-coming or a seasonal return to one's roots".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee led the charge in lauding the move by UNESCO. "Durga Puja highlights the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata's Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have," tweeted the Prime Minister. Mamata Banerjee underlined that Durga Puja was not just a festival, but an emotion that unites everyone. The Ministry of Culture, too, took to the microblogging platform to extend its wishes to the residents of the city on this achievement.

Suvaprasanna, the chairman of West Bengal Heritage Commission, said the annual Red Road carnival, which showcases the artwork, culture, and traditions associated with the festival and displays the craftsmanship that goes into the making of Durga Puja pandals, has made more people across the world aware of the grandeur that is synonymous with the festival. “Durga Puja was being celebrated for decades, but the festival got a new dimension with the carnival," he stated and credited Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for starting the Red Road carnival.

Ms. Tapati Guha-Thakurta, an art historian and field expert in drafting the Ministry of Culture’s nomination dossier for UNESCO, said that the creative and commercial economy of Kolkata will get a boost with the well-deserved recognition. The dossier, submitted in March 2019, containing the list of signatories who wanted the centuries-old festival to be included in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list was a complex one to prepare, she stated. It had to explain that Durga Puja is not endangered but is thriving and is changing. She further added that the only large-scale festival that has been included in the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list is the Kumbh Mela, and others are specialized rituals that are endangered.

Reference Reading

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage

According to the UNESCO website, “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”.

Intangible cultural heritage, according to UNESCO, is “traditional, contemporary and living at the same time”, “inclusive”, “representative”, and “community-based”. It is “an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization” — and “an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life”.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has 492 elements currently which includes 14 entries from India.

  1. Durga Puja in Kolkata
  2. Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre in Kerala
  3. The tradition of Vedic chanting
  4. Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana
  5. Ramman, religious festival and ritual theatre of the Garhwal in the Himalayas
  6. Chhau dance
  7. Kalbelia folk songs and dances of Rajasthan
  8. Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala
  9. Recitation of sacred Buddhist texts in the trans-Himalayan Ladakh region
  10. Sankirtana, ritual singing, drumming, and dancing of Manipur
  11. Traditional brass and copper craft of utensil making among the Thatheras of Jandiala Guru in Punjab
  12. Yoga
  13. Kumbh Mela
  14. Nowruz (New Year's Day celebrations in 12 nations on March 21, including India)


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Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani

Jitesh Surjiani is passionate about progressive change for India and its citizens. He writes about issues that are roadblocks in improving quality of life and interpersonal interactions as well as areas of public governance that fall short in intent and action.

Kolkata Kolkata's Durga Puja gets UNESCO's 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' tag
Kolkata's Durga Puja gets UNESCO's 'Intangible Cultural Heritage' tag
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