Manipur’s King Chingthungkhomba (1559-1760 and again 1764-1798), more popularly known as King Bheigyachandra, must be smiling in his royal resting place in his heavenly abode. Another art form the 18th Century king once patronised, Sankirtana, has now been recognized as world heritage by the UNESCO Cultural Intangible Heritage programme.
This obviously is an occasion for the state to celebrate. This devotional performance of the Vaishnav HindusMeiteis, rightly defined by the UNESCO as devotional dancing, drumming and singing, is unique in its aesthetics and creativity. It is also something nobody in the state, especially the Meiteis, will not be unfamiliar with, for it is in every sense of the word, a part of their life, knitted and woven intricately into everyday living. The Sankirtana, in its various forms, mark very traditional wedding, every funeral ritual, every ear piercing ceremony, every Hindu religious festival, and there is no way anybody in Manipur could not have seen one, for it is practically everywhere.
In many ways, few other artistic traditions, in the state and indeed the entire world, can deserve to be called a living art than Manipur’s Sankirtan. Unlike many, it is not an art form which has thrived because of state patronage, or preserved at the expense of special energy or resource. Neither has it been kept alive purely for occasional stage shows and entertainments. It is on the other hand a living tradition of everyday life, both of the rich as much as the poor. Despite its reach and spread, the art form is however not plebeian. Anybody who has sat through a performance will marvel as the artistic sophistication as well as disciplined physical dexterity the performance is characterised by, and how in a performing space sometimes as small as a 20 by 20 square feet courtyard, the Pung drummers, conch shell players, and singers with tiny high-pitched cymbals work up a symphony of movements, sounds and dances.
The songs and chants are deeply devotional too. Depending on the occasion being celebrated or observed, be it a wedding or a funeral, the lyrics are chosen to suit the occasion. They sing of the beauty, loneliness, joy, pride, humility, vanity, hubris, sorrow, temporal and divine love, grief, mystery, worries, anxieties, insecurities… the magnanimity of the mother’s love for her infant, the poignancy of the soul biddingfarewell to the body at the time of death, and practically all other emotions and sentiments that are inevitably a part of life’s forlorn journey, and how all these are ultimately a sublime substance of the supreme being’s will and would in the end reconcile at his feet. Once the lyrics of these songs were in Sanskrit and Bengali but now they increasingly sung in Manipuri, depending on the desire of the hosts of these ceremonies.
It should also be kept in mind that the Meitei revivalist movement espousing the pre-Hindu Sanamahi religion too observes Sankirtan though the songs sung tell of a different religious universe. However, UNESCO recognition is not for the Sankirtana’s philosophy, but for its importance as a cultural tradition and social function in keeping a community’s integrity secure and cohesive.
UNESCO is also saying this tradition deserves to be recognized as part of world heritage, and not by any means saying it defines the Meitei character as such, as some who are seemingly uneasy about the development have indicated in their posts on the internet. Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal it not the heritage of Nepal alone but the whole world, just as the tree under which Buddha is supposed to have received his enlightenment in Bodhgaya too should be seen as world heritage and not Bodhgaya’s alone. Let the Sankirtana recognition not be given a parochial interpretation too by the cultural bigots amongst us. Besides Sankirtana there are so many other beautiful traditions in the land, and not any less beautiful or important. But if the world identifies with any one of them, and want to make it theirs too, why should there be any grudge. The move does not degrade any other tradition or heritage in any way. Maybe someday, Manipur’s widespread and extremely alive tradition of handloom weaving, which spreads across many different communities in the state, can also come to deserve recognition of the UNESCO. For this, UNESCO would have to be alerted of the tradition so some proactive initiatives are essential. Sankirtana of course was already very visible on the cultural arena in India, therefore received the honour without any concerted campaign.
If the Sankirtana has been kept alive for centuries because it is so vitally knitted into the Meitei’s way of life, the Sankirtana has in turn also given life to many other forms of performing arts, beautiful and famous in their own ways independently. Pung Chollom is just one example. The sophistication of the Pung Chollom and extreme physical discipline and training it demands will not be doubted by anybody. If not for the Sankirtana’s tradition as an indispensable part of the Meitei life, it is doubtful if the Pung Chollom, to master which would need extremely focused dedication, would have survived, not to talk about the great degree of performing finesse it has evolved and achieved. With the UNESCO’s recognition, the Sankirtana and its subsidiary art forms should be able to prosper even more and work towards greater perfection. We should all be proud of this.
Manipur has made it into the world’s intangible heritage map, but there is at least one other area which should be able to find its way into the world’s tangible heritage map too – the Kangla. Other than the Kangla’s antiquity as the seat of power of an ancient and isolated South East Asian kingdom, it was also the home of one of most iconic generals of the World War II, Field Marshal Sir William Slim, author of ‘Defeat Into Victory”. In the not too distant context of the Imphal-Kohima WWII battle being adjudged as the most important victory the British Empire has ever fought in its entire history, the UNESCO could be, and indeed should be, alerted of the place’s importance and significance. It could also be a joint campaign for recognition by both Nagaland and Manipur for not just the Kangla but for the entire battle front. It would be a precious opportunity for the two rather estranged neighbours to work together and look for fresh bondages.
For the record, besides Manipur’s Sankirtana, the following are the other 13 intangible heritages which were brought under the UNESCO umbrella this year in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The announcement on the UNESCO website also has the following disclaimer that the list does not attribute or recognize any standard of excellence or exclusivity:
1. Annual pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Sidi ‘Abd el-Qader Ben Mohammed (Sidi Cheikh), Algeria. Every year at the end of June, Sufi communities undertake a three-day pilgrimage to the mausoleum of Sidi ‘Abd el-Qader Ben Mohammed (Sidi Cheikh) in El Abiodh Sidi Cheikh. The pilgrimage renews peaceful ties among the Sufi brotherhood and contributes to the growth of Sufism. It also promotes community values such as hospitality and collective practices such as praises, Koran recitations, secular chants and dances. Festivities – including fencing, equestrian competitions and dances – complement the prayers and rituals at the heart of the pilgrimage.
2. Imzad music, a characteristic feature of Tuareg populations of Algeria, Mali and Niger, is performed by women on a single-stringed bowed instrument known as the Imzad. The musician sits with the instrument on her knees and plays it with a bow. The Imzad provides melodic accompaniment to poetic or popular songs, frequently sung by men on ceremonial occasions in Tuareg camps. It is often performed to drive away evil spirits and alleviate the pain of the sick. The musical knowledge is transmitted orally according to traditional methods of observation and assimilation.
3. Jamdani, a time-consuming and labour-intensive form of handloom weaving traditionally practised by craftspeople around Dhaka, Bangladesh. The sheer cotton textiles are renowned for the richness of their motifs, which are woven directly on the loom. Bengali women wear Jamdani saris as a symbol of identity, dignity and self-recognition, both for everyday wear and at celebrations. The traditional motifs and weaving techniques are transmitted by master weavers to disciples and are handed down within families in the weaver community.
4. Shrimp fishing on horseback in Oostduinkerke, Belgium. In Oostduinkerke, shrimpers mounted on horseback drag a net through the surf to catch shrimp. A good knowledge of the sea and the sand strip and a close relationship with one’s horse are essential. The tradition gives the community a strong sense of collective identity and plays a central role in social and cultural events, especially the two-day Shrimp Festival. Twelve households, each with its own speciality, are active in shrimp fishing. Knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, with experienced shrimpers demonstrating their fishing techniques to beginners.
5. Círio de Nazaré (The Taper of Our Lady of Nazareth) in the city of Belém, Pará– Brazil.
The Círio de Nazaré festival is in Belém honours Our Lady of Nazareth. On the second Sunday of October, a wooden image of Our Lady proceeds from Sé Cathedral to Sanctuary Square in what is one of the world’s largest religious processions. Vast numbers travel from across Brazil to attend a festival that blends sacred and profane elements, reflecting the rich multicultural character of Brazilian society. While local devotees build altars and welcome visitors, children accompany parents to the festivities, thus ensuring transmission of this heritage.
6. The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food of Cyprus, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity and plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes.
7. Chinese Zhusuan, a time-honoured traditional method of performing mathematical calculations with an abacus. By moving beads along rods, practitioners can perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponential multiplication, root and more complicated equations. Zhusuan has been handed down through the generations, using traditional models of oral teaching and self-learning. Beginners can make quick calculations after some fairly basic training, while proficient practitioners develop an agile mind. Zhusuan is widely used in Chinese life and is an important symbol of traditional Chinese culture and identity.
8. The festival of Maskel celebrated across Ethiopia on 26 September to commemorate the unearthing of the True Holy Cross of Christ. Celebrations centre around the burning of the Damera bonfire in Maskel Square in Addis Ababa. Hundreds of thousands of people from diverse communities flock to the square as colourfully dressed priests chant hymns and prayers and perform their unique rhythmic dance. Maskel brings families and communities together from across the nation and promotes spiritual life through reconciliation, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.
9. The Kyrgyz epic trilogy of Manas, Semetey and Seytek of Kyrgyzstan, which expresses the historical memory of the Kyrgyz people. It owes its survival to a community of storytellers who perform the epic, using special forms of narration, rhythm, tone and gestures, at village events and nationwide celebrations and on national holidays. The trilogy helps young people to understand their own history and culture, the natural environment and the peoples of the world; it also provides them with a sense of identity and promotes ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism.
10. Limousin septennial ostensions of France are grand ceremonies and processions organized every seventh year for the exhibition and worship of relics of Christian saints. The festivities are attended by large crowds who gather to see the reliquaries as they process through the towns. Preparation of the ostensions is a communal, year-long undertaking that helps to strengthen social bonds. The festivities also play an important role in helping recently arrived or former inhabitants to integrate and in reuniting families when relatives return to join in the celebrations.
11. Qvevri wine-making of Georgia which takes its name from the distinctive egg-shaped earthenware vessel – the Qvevri – in which wine is fermented and stored in villages and towns throughout Georgia. The tradition plays a vital role in everyday life and celebrations, and forms an inseparable part of the cultural identity of Georgian communities, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs. Knowledge of this heritage is passed down by families, neighbours and friends, all of whom join in the communal harvesting and wine-making activities.
12. Washoku of Japan, a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge and traditions relating to the preparation and consumption of food, and respect for natural resources. Typically seen during Japanese New Year celebrations, it takes the form of special meals and beautifully decorated dishes using fresh ingredients, each of which has a symbolic meaning. These are shared by family members or collectively among communities. The basic knowledge and skills related to Washoku are passed down in the home at shared mealtimes.
13. Catholic processions featuring large shoulder-borne processional structures which take place throughout Italy, especially in Nola, Palmi, Sassari and Viterbo. These communal celebrations require the involvement of musicians and singers, as well as skilled artisans who manufacture the processional structures and create the ceremonial clothes and artefacts. The coordinated, equitable sharing of tasks in a common project is a fundamental part of the celebrations. The structures are recreated annually through informal transmission of the techniques and knowledge concerned.