Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A master khaddar craftsman at work in Punjab Province (Photo by Lok Virsa)

ICH Inventory-Making Efforts in Pakistan

Pakistani culture is a living tradition practiced by most of its people. It includes both tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Pakistan, with its rich and varied heritage, has a tradition of more than 9,000 years, dating back to the Mehergarh civilization in Balochistan Province, which reveals the earliest evidence of pottery production. The Indus Valley civilization in the Sindh Province in 5,000 B.C. indicates impressions of woven cloth production from cotton and wool. The dominant historical influence still to be seen in the form, design and color of Pakistani handicrafts is essentially Islamic, a fusion of Turkish, Arab, Persian and the indigenous Mughal tradition.

The indigenous skills of Pakistan have evolved over centuries through communal practice and therefore constitute the most authentic representation of Pakistan’s traditional art. The folklore of Pakistan is the product of centuries of communal living and wisdom.

Like folklore all over the world, it is a communal expression and not an individual expression. Folklore as such is not the invention of one man, neither it is hand-made nor created by a group of individuals. It is rather evolved, commonly shared and practiced over centuries by an entire community.

Pakistan is a land of mystics. The unity of Pakistan’s diverse folklore is the contribution of the great mystics and Sufis of Pakistan having a tremendous impact on the rural life of Pakistan. There are hundreds and thousands of shrines as also living mystics who continue the tradition of their masters.

In Pakistan, Lok Virsa (National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage), an autonomous specialized cultural organization working under the administrative control of the Federal Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, is the prime institution that has taken concrete practical steps to document and inventory various forms of intangible cultural heritage. Its on-going efforts in this regard include:

Perpetuation of Traditional Skills

Lok Virsa for the last twenty five years has been holding an Artisans-at-Work Festival, popularly known as Lok Mela, with a view to document and revive endangered traditional arts. This year, the festival was organised from 3 to 12 June 2011 at Islamabad and actively participated by over one thousand master craftspeople, folk artists, musicians, and cultural experts and afforded an opportunity to demonstrate their skills for ten consecutive days in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. All these skills are properly documented in the form of video, which later becomes a part of Lok Virsa’s audiovisual archives of.

In addition to the annual festival of Artisansat-work, from time to time Lok Virsa also organizes training workshops and courses in various specialized craft fields to inventory and document traditional arts.

Children’s Folklore Society

Under Lok Virsa’s popular slogan ‘Harnessing Culture for Education’, a new and vibrant project for establishing Children Folklore Society in various parts of the country, including the most remote regions, has been initiated in order to inculcate consciousness among school children about the importance, preservation and documentation of their indigenous culture and folk heritage.

Sufi Traditions

To document the valuable contributions made by the Sufis and mystics, Lok Virsa launched a series some years ago to publish services and teachings of the great Sufis in book form. In this on-going effort on the part of Lok Virsa, thirty books have already been published.

Several festivals, called Urs, marking the celebrations of various mystics and Sufis, are held annually at their shrines featuring a display of local traditions, folk games, folk music, musical theatre, and folk cuisine. Lok Virsa documents all these major festivals for its archives.

Regional Network

Lok Virsa involves all talented Pakistanis in the implementation of its programs and policies Lok Virsa has nominated regional coordinators in all four provinces and regions to effectively train them in the field of inventory-making of the living and dying traditions relating to their respective regions. It has also established an extensive network of community-based organizations, NGOs, cultural bodies, cultural experts, and individuals all over Pakistan that contribute regularly to its activities aiming to document the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan.

Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage

In Lok Virsa’s on-going efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, a National Conference on Safeguarding has been organized and the establishment of a National Committee of Experts is being proposed.

  • Lok Virsa organized this two-day conference in Islamabad with the objective to safeguard those areas and aspects of Pakistan’s folk and traditional heritage which are most endangered and facing the threat of disappearance because of various challenges (e.g. globalization, urbanization, and revolutionized mass communication, etc.).

It will eventually provide a strong base for establishing the National Intangible Heritage Archives at Lok Virsa, Islamabad.

  • To accord priority to the subject on intangible culture and to introduce proper mechanisms in this respect, Lok Virsa has proposed to the Pakistan government to constitute a national commission for inscription of intangible cultural heritage and nominate Lok Virsa as a focal institution for the purpose of keeping in view its long professional standing and expertise in the field. The committee is likely to be constituted in due course.

National Database of Cultural Assets

A National Database of Cultural Assets has been established at Lok Virsa, Islamabad in collaboration with UNESCO. The idea was to undertake a pilot project and then hand it over to a national governmental body for its expansion, replication, and networking with other national and regional cultural bodies for pooling up the database of cultural assets from all over Pakistan. In this regard, UNESCO used specific software called GIS for the projection of data of cultural assets collected from selected areas within Pakistan.

In the preliminary stage, areas like Chitral, Mardan, Mansehra, and Multan have been the main focus. For this on-going process, the next phase would cover other areas and regions in the country.

Safeguarding Elements of Intangible Culture Under financial assistance from the Norwegian Government, Lok Virsa is also working on a three-year project to safeguard various important elements of the intangible cultural heritage of Pakistan for inscription on the Representative and Urgent Safeguarding Lists of UNESCO.

Lok Virsa is also planning to organize a workshop in the future to provide basic information and guidelines to relevant stakeholders about the inventory-making process with special emphasis on intangible cultural heritage. We are trying to invite international experts to this workshop so that widespread experience in inventory-making has the potential to be adopted.