Culture is the distinctive lifestyle, value systems and world views of a group of people that include traditions, beliefs and practices of a community. Culture is the fundamental marker of identity which binds the community together as a group. Heritage or Virsa is the legacy of the past generations in the form of values, norms and life styles, which include both tangible and intangible aspects. Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. Cultural heritage is categorized as Tangible Cultural Heritage (TCH) and Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).
TCH includes buildings, historic places, monuments, artifacts, etc., which are considered worthy of preservation for the future. Their preservation demonstrates recognition of the necessity of the past and of the things that tell its story. TCH is exposed to many risks and perils caused by time, climate, and human and natural environment. The places, artifacts and monuments are exposed to dangers like: plundering by the antique collectors, at the hands of tourists, mishandling of such antiques by the untrained staff, and by the light required for displaying them. As the objects and monuments of the antiquities are vulnerable to many risks, it is the duty of people to take care of their cultural heritage because it conveys diverse messages and values (historical, artistic, aesthetic, political, religious, social, spiritual, scientific, natural, etc.) that contribute to giving a meaning to people’s life. Knowing cultures and heritage of each other improves understanding and tolerance among communities for each other and helps remove misconception and unfounded fears. Hence the study and knowledge about each other help to live in peace with ones neighbors and develop mutual trust among people and communities.
In today’s world, TCH is a source of economic development. It has always been among the main attractions for travelers since antiquity. Heritage tourism has increased immensely and has become an important economic resource for many countries. If it is well managed, it provides jobs, attracts foreign currency, improves local infrastructures and promotes mutual understanding diversity and social cohesion. On the other hand, unplanned mass tourism can be risky for the heritage and may have a detrimental impact on local population by destroying its original form and context. The deterioration or the disappearance of a cultural property and the messages it conveys, is a loss for the humanity as a whole.
ICH is essentially the non-material part of culture that we inherit from our ancestors. It is transient or fleeting and can be easily lost since it lives in the hearts and minds of people. One can easily say that ICH is an integral part of all communities, and encompasses many elements many aspects of our life, which includes the entire range of patterns and folklore, systems, traditional knowledge and wisdom including medicinal practices, musical systems, ways of conflict resolution and harmonious living, customs and many such others that communities possess and value. It epitomizes the traditional knowledge and folk wisdom demonstrated over the centuries by communities.
Mechanism and systems for transmittal and institutions which support or strengthen this transfer of cultural knowledge is present in all cultures. However, we know that sometimes with the weakening of such systems, important knowledge is under threat of disappearing. One such example is the knowledge of construction of houses using locally available construction materials, which was a sustainable way of interacting with the environment; it was being transmitted from the vernacular architecture or local architecture until about a few decades ago; it would require very little amount of electricity or gas for heating or even sheltering from the immense effects of extreme weather, thus having very minimal impact on the environment. The institutions which played a fundamental role in the transmittal of cultural practices and knowledge are Chopal, Hujra, Chaunk, shrines, saints, storytellers and sages, or the custodians of local knowledge. These institutions have considerably weakened to the extent that these are rapidly disappearing in some areas especially the urban settings. We are thus confronted with the problem that with traditional systems weakening, we must find ways to strengthen and safeguard them if they are still of importance to the communities. At the same time it is important to use other avenues for transmittal of cultural knowledge such as the school system, media and documentation or the community centers.
Given the significance of ICH for mankind, preservation of ICH is quite critical to maintain and preserve the identity and uniqueness of any people, area and culture. Community as the creator as well as custodian of the culture and heritage plays a vital role in its conservation and continuity through different forms or expressions. As being unique as well as vulnerable to many risks of extinctions, ICH, to be kept alive must be relevant to the community, continuously re-created and transmitted from one generation to another. There is a risk that certain elements of ICH could die out or disappear without help, but safeguarding does not mean protection or conservation in the usual sense, as this may cause ICH to become fixed or frozen. ‘Safeguarding’ means ensuring the viability of ICH, i.e., ensuring its continuous re-creation and transmission that is about transferring of knowledge, skills and meanings.
The communities which bear and practice ICH are the people best placed to identify and safeguard it. Outsiders can only assist with safeguarding; for instance, they can support communities in collecting and recording information of elements of their ICH, or transmit knowledge through more formal channels such as education in schools, colleges and universities, or sharing good practices from other communities. Promoting information about ICH through media is also a way to support its safeguard.
The social value of ICH may, or may not, be translated into a commercial value. However, the economic value of the ICH for a specific community is two-fold: the knowledge and skills that are transmitted within that community, as well as the product resulting from that knowledge and skills. Although, ICH does not have much direct economic value or relevance, yet, resulting from the consumption of its products by the community itself or by others, it carries economic benefits for both the producers and the consumers. By playing a major role in giving the community its sense of identity and continuity, it supports social cohesion, without which development is impossible. This indirect value of ICH results from the knowledge transmitted, often through informal channels, the impact it has in other economic sectors and from its capacity to prevent and resolve conflict, which has been a principal burden for development during the recent years. For example, the holding of an annual fair or Urs in some specific area has a great economic value for the community. As annual trading and commerce bring a lot of economic benefit for the custodians or the neighboring communities, the discontinuation of this would mean a loss of annual income. Therefore, communities have to take ownership of such traditions and expressions, know about their social and economic benefits for their communities, and know how to carry forward such traditions and orient their communities.HH
The writer is a historian working with Center for Culture and Development, Islamabad also affiliated with National Committee of ICOM Pakistan.