UNESCO’s Ten Best Intangible Cultural Heritage Sites

Cultural Travel, Featured — By on October 25, 2010 at 6:00 am

by Meg Pier
Special to Lost Girls World

Most people are familiar with UNESCO’s “World Heritage Site” designation, but may not know that the organization also has identified cultural “intangibles”— traditions or living expressions that are deemed equally important to safeguard, such as traditional performing arts, social practices, festive events or traditional craftsmanship.

You can visit UNESCO’s site for a complete list and to understand why the traditions are being inventoried, but you can get a more in-depth view by seeking out these 10 dynamic cultural practices as you travel.

The Tango

The Argentinian and Uruguayan tradition of the Tango was developed by the urban lower classes in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. From this mix of European immigrants, descendents of African slaves and the natives of the region known as criollos, a wide range of customs, beliefs and rituals were transformed into a distinctive cultural identity. The poetry in motion known as the Tango can be enjoyed in the traditional dance halls of the two cities where it was born.

Lefkara Lace

The tradition of lace-making in the village of Lefkara in southeastern Cyprus dates back to at least the fourteenth century. Influenced by indigenous craft, and the embroidery of Venetian courtiers who ruled the country beginning in 1489, as well as ancient Greek and Byzantine geometric patterns, Lefkara lace is a combined art and social practice. Creating distinctive tablecloths, napkins and show pieces while sitting together and talking in the narrow streets is still the primary occupation of women in the village.

Language, Dance and Music of the Garifuna

The Garifuna are people of mixed Caribbean and African heritage who settled along the Atlantic coast of Central America after being forced to flee from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in the eighteenth century. Today, Garifuna communities mainly live in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Belize.  Their language is rich in tales (úraga) originally recited during wakes or large gatherings that bring alive Garifuna traditions such as fishing, canoe-building and the construction of baked mud houses. The songs are accompanied by drums and dances, which the spectators may join in.

Sanskrit Theatre

Kutiyattam is Sanskrit theatre practiced in the province of Kerala.  It is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions, originating more than 2,000 years ago, and emphasizes neta abhinaya, or eye expressions, and hasta abhinaya, or gestures.  Actors train for ten to fifteen years to become performers.  Kutiyattam is performed in theatres called Kuttampalams, which are located in Hindu temples. Performances were originally restricted due to their sacred nature, but the plays have progressively opened up to larger audiences. The actor’s role retains a sacred dimension, with an oil lamp placed on the stage during the performance to symbolize a divine presence.

Sicilian Puppet Theatre

The puppet theatre known as the Opera dei Pupi emerged in Sicily at the beginning of the nineteenth century and told stories about the lives of saints and tales of notorious bandits. The two main Sicilian puppet schools in Palermo and Catania were distinguished principally by the size and shape of the puppets, the operating techniques and the variety of colorful stage backdrops. These theatres were often family-run businesses; the carving, painting and construction of the puppets, renowned for their intense expressions, were carried out by craftspeople employing traditional methods.

Ijele Masquerade

In many communities in southeastern Nigeria, the performance of the Ijele masquerade is held during the dry season for a bountiful harvest feature. The mask is more than 12 feet tall – so large that it takes a hundred men six months of work to prepare. The Ijele is made of colorful fabric attached to bamboo sticks and decorated with figurines. Ijele mask carriers live on a special diet for three months to acquire the strength necessary to wear the mask. The masquerade plays a number of important roles in the community: spiritually, it marks both festive and solemn occasions; politically, it provides an opportunity to reaffirm loyalty to a chief or king; and culturally it provides young boys and girls an occasion to sing and dance.

Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores

The ritual ceremony of the Voladores (‘flying men’) is a fertility dance performed by the Totonac people in Veracruz. During the ceremony, four young men climb a wooden pole 60 – 120 feet high. A fifth man, the Caporal, stands on a platform atop the pole, and plays songs with a flute and drums, dedicated to the sun and four winds. The others then fling themselves off the platform ‘into the void’. Tied to the platform with long ropes, they hang and twirl to mimic the motions of flight, gradually lowering themselves to the ground. The dance evokes the birth of the universe, so that the ritual ceremony of the Voladores expresses the worldview and values of the community, facilitates communication with the gods and invites prosperity.

Moussem of Tan Tan

The Moussem of Tan-Tan in southwest Morocco is an annual gathering of nomadic peoples of the Sahara that brings together more than thirty tribes from southern Morocco and other parts of northwest Africa. At these gatherings people buy, sell and exchange foodstuffs and other products, organize camel and horse-breeding competitions, celebrate weddings and consult herbalists. The Moussem also includes musical performances, games, and poetry contests.

The Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao

The Hudhud are chants performed by the Ifugao community of the northern island of the Philippine archipelago.  The practice occurs during the rice sowing season, at harvest time and at funeral wakes and rituals. Believed to date to before the seventh century, the Hudhud comprises more than 200 chants. A complete recitation may last several days. Since the Ifugao’s culture is matrilineal, the wife generally takes the main part in the chants. The chant tells about ancestral heroes, religious beliefs and traditional practices, and reflects the importance of rice cultivation. The Hudhud is chanted alternately by a narrator and a choir, employing a single melody for all the verses.

Sekishu-Banshi Paper-Making

The strongest paper in Japan is made by the techniques of Sekishu-Banshi papermaking in the Iwami region of Shimane Prefecture in the country’s west. It is used today primarily for shoji (paper doors), calligraphy and conservation and restoration work. The extraordinarily durable paper is handmade from the kozo tree (paper mulberry), harvested in winter.  The outer bark is steamed off, the fiber boiled, beaten by hand, and then filtered to form sheets; the resulting paper is dried on boards. The art today is the work of specialist papermakers and one of the most important parts of the Sekishu-Banshi cultural heritage.


  • Sue Reddel says:

    Thanks for sharing these “intangibles” I had no idea that UNESCO had created this list. I’m going to their site right now to read more about it.

  • Hi, Neat post. There’s a problem along with your web site in internet explorer, may test this? IE still is the marketplace leader and a large section of folks will miss your excellent writing due to this problem.