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Kolkata's Durga Puja enters the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List

The first festival in Asia to receive the accolade, a moment of glory for India

Paris & Kolkata, December 16, 2021


The UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) has accorded heritage status to one of the biggest mass carnivals of the world, Kolkata's Durga Puja festival. The 10-day celebration that marks the homecoming of the Hindu Goddess Durga and her children has now been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, granting it the most elite status in the list of cultural traditions from around the world. It is also the 'first festival in Asia' to get such recognition.

While announcing the inclusion, UNESCO said in a tweet, "Durga Puja in Kolkata has just been inscribed on the intangible heritage list. Congratulations India," attaching a photo of the Goddess along with the hashtag #livingheritage.

Every year, UNESCO adds to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) cultural traditions and arts from around the world, either as ‘In Need of Urgent Safeguarding' or in its ‘Representative List of ICH of Humanity'. India's nominees are proposed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA), which was appointed as the nodal agency for ICH by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India in 2011.

The UNESCO has stated that Durga Puja was nominated for the Representative List in 2020. In its recommendation to UNESCO, the SNA had said, "Durga Puja is the most important festival of West Bengal and is observed in many states of India, in Bangladesh, and in major cities of the world by the Bengali diaspora. Over the years, however, Kolkata has emerged as the geographical and cultural heart of the national and worldwide celebrations of the festival. It is where we can trace the longest history of Durga Puja, from its grand celebrations within the mansions of the traditional families to its growing life as a community event. In recent times, the festival has taken on its grandest scale in Kolkata, encompassing all city spaces, its largest commercial dimensions, and its spectacular artistic profile. Today, approximately 5,000 Durga Pujas are organised in the city, involving elaborate organisational infrastructure of the communities and the government. While Durga Puja has become the city’s biggest cultural event, the city’s identity has grown increasingly synonymous with this festival. Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. The festival is characterised by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the Goddess. It witnesses a celebration of craftsmanship, cross-cultural transactions and cross-community revelry. The manner in which the festival is enmeshed in a web of competition and consumption, accelerated by the winning of accolades, secures its secular identity, embedding it in the contemporary global cultures of touring, spectacle, and entertainment. The exemplary character of Durga Puja lies in its ability to not temporally bound itself to the ritual occasion. Its dynamism lies in it being a constantly mutating event – in its fusion of tradition with changing tastes and popular cultures, and in the adaptation of the iconographies of Durga and the styles of her temporary abodes to cater to new regimes of art production."

Durga Puja is an annual festival celebrated in September or October, amongst the entire Bengali diaspora of the world. It marks the ten-day worship of the Hindu mother-goddess Durga. In the months preceding the festival, small artisanal workshops sculpt images of Durga and her family using unfired clay pulled from the River Ganges. The worship of the Goddess then begins on the inaugural day of Mahalaya, when eyes are painted onto the clay images to bring the Goddess to life. It ends on the tenth day, when the images are immersed in the river from where the clay came. Thus, the festival has also come to signify ‘home-coming’ or a seasonal return to one’s roots.

The budget of most of the community Durga Puja organisers in Kolkata and the districts run into several million. The money is raised through subscriptions from members of the public and corporate sponsorships. A recent study by the British Council of India conducted last year had estimated that the economic value of the artistic creations and cultural activities during Durga Puja in West Bengal is more than USD 4.25 billion.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hailed the UNESCO's decision as a "matter of great pride and joy for every Indian". "Durga Puja highlights the best of our traditions and ethos. And, Kolkata's Durga Puja is an experience everyone must have," said the Prime Minister.

Kolkata is the capital of the East Indian state of West Bengal bordering another Bengali nation, Bangladesh. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has underlined that Durga Puja is not just a festival, but an emotion. "Proud moment for Bengal! To every Bengali across the world, Durga Puja is much more than a festival; it is an emotion that unites everyone. And now, Durga Puja has been added to the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, we are all beaming with joy!" she tweeted.

"Overjoyed that Durga Puja in Kolkata joins the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity...It is a confluence of the rich heritage and culture of the county's art, crafts, rituals and practices. It is a red-letter day for us. In a real sense, Bengal is now Biswa Bangla. Our congratulations to all the people of Bengal, the country and the world! We convey our thanks and gratitude to UNESCO for the recognition bestowed on this great festival as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity," the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India wrote in its statement.

The annual Red Road Carnival, which brings all the big Durga Pujas of Kolkata under one umbrella for an elaborate open rally with a huge audience before the procession leads its way to the immersion of the idols in the Ganges River, has been drawing international attention in recent years. However, the mobile Carnival rally ahead of the immersion ceremony was last held in 2019. The event was cancelled in 2021 as well as in 2020 owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and its related restrictions on public gatherings.

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