Montakarn Suvanatap Kittipaisalsilp
UNESCO Bangkok

Edited by Duong Bich Hanh & Jeremy Clay Walden Schertz

The 2018 inscriptions of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) on the UNESCO lists has raised again global attention to variations of Hindi-influenced masked dance in Southeast Asia, which retell the story of Rama, the god-reincarnated king who defeats the demon king Ravana.

In November last year, UNESCO announced the concurrent inscriptions of Thailand’s and Cambodia’s masked dance known as Khon and Lkhon Khol, which unfortunately drew ire from some people in both countries who are immersed in historical hostility.

Questions have come from many directions, in particular, on why these lists can inscribe similar traditions and which ones deserve better recognition. Indeed, such inquiries have been made within other contexts of heritage protection, which have no relevance to intangible cultural heritage.

Most people are familiar with the concept of World Heritage, which concerns built heritage, from archaeological sites, palaces, settlements, ancient cities to cultural and natural landscapes. The Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage properties can be defined by one of ten criteria, such as being unique evidence of human ingenuity, the manifestation of important historical events, the last reserve of distinctive biodiversity, etc. The realization of these characteristics comes from technical experts and scientific and historical backing. Such an analytical process requires comparison between different properties, to demonstrate each site’s importance in its national and international contexts.

However, these criteria of physical comparison cannot be used to judge the value of intangible heritage, which includes oral traditions, performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, local wisdom about nature and the universe, different aspects of social practices, festivals, rituals, food cultures, sports, etc. Being immaterial in appearance and living in nature, the value of intangible heritage is defined by communities, groups, or individuals who have practiced it as part of their tradition and constantly transmit and recreate its forms and meanings in the ever-changing environment.

The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) governs the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices, with element inscriptions decided by an intergovernmental committee. What is often overlooked is that the Convention goes beyond the Lists and Register. It highlights the role of communities, groups, and individuals concerned as key players in identifying and transmitting intangible heritage that is vital to their way of life. It requests each State Party to the Convention to take necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage present in its territory, whether or not they are on the lists, and to respect the widest participation of communities, groups, and relevant individuals, especially in identifying, inventorying, and safeguarding their ICH.

That said, what is the most interesting in the value of masked dance about Ramayana, as a group of intangible heritage, is not how beautiful they are as art forms, or how they are made prize possessions of countries in the process of nomination. Instead, they are most interesting as local traditions that are still viable to many different communities across the region, so all of them practice and pass on the skills and passion to the next generation. These masked dance variations have survived until today, thanks to the stewardship of local communities. The safeguarding success is something that state ownership of the culture cannot achieve.

In 2018, there were two variations of masked dance for Ramayana inscribed to the lists. The first one is Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet, practiced at a community near Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The aim of the dance is to appease guardian spirits for the community’s protection and prosperity. Transmitted orally within the community for generations, Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet has only recently been documented by monks and local youth. Considering surrounding threats to this meaningful tradition, from war to poverty and migration, the community has worked with the government to propose Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet for inscription in the List of ICH in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The Urgent Safeguarding List will enable international assistance for the Wat Svay Andet community to encourage them in their initiative to safeguard their Lkhon Khol.

At the same intergovernmental committee meeting, the nomination file for Khon, masked dance drama in Thailand, was considered by the intergovernmental committee and inscribed to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This Representative List contains the majority of ICH being nominated globally, aiming to increase the awareness of the tradition’s importance and need for having a safeguarding plan to ensure that it stays viable in communities concerned. For Thailand, this is the first successful nomination since its ratification of the Convention in 2016. At a country level, this recognition will enable wider public support to Khon practitioners and more sustainable transmission of knowledge and skills.

Some might be surprised that Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet is not the first masked dance nomination from Cambodia. In 2008, following the transfer of Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity to the UNESCO Lists and Register as seen today, Cambodia nominated its Royal Ballet, or Khmer Classical Dance, to the Representative List. The dance, featuring masked performers, portrays the story of Rama through characters that exist also in episodes of Lkhon Khol Wat Svay Andet and Khon in Thailand. After the war, the royal ballet regained its splendor with difficulty because of the lack of funding and performing spaces as well as being overtly adjusted for tourism. The nomination at that time aimed to help create awareness about practitioners’ livelihoods under threat from commercialization.

Recollecting that masked dance and many more throughout the history of UNESCO ICH listing, we can see that the emphasis of these lists is not to show which one is the best or deserves higher recognition. The lists welcome nominations of similar traditions and encourage the country to prepare joint nomination proves their function as cultural maps rather than ranking lists. In this case, they map how masked dance for Ramayana, as a collective art form by diverse groups of people sharing beliefs and appreciation, can extensively represent the great diversity of the intangible heritage of humanity.

On top of that, this year is not the first time that two Ramayana masked dances were nominated at the same time. The year 2008 also saw Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana in India, being nominated to the Representative List alongside Cambodian Royal Ballet. Ramlila recounts episodes of Ramayana in a storytelling form that is popular in northern India. The series of performances lasts from ten days to one month and is organized chronologically to the storyline by hundreds of towns and villages during the Dussehra season to celebrate the legend of Rama’s return from exile.

To look at this epic in much larger context, there are many other artistic and ritualistic expressions rooted to different degrees in the Ramayana epic in South and Southeast Asia. India, as the birthplace of Ramayana, also in 2010 nominated Chhau dance, a masked dance from eastern India that blends the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics with local folklore and abstract dance. Cambodia also showed that Ramayana does not have to be portrayed only through masked dance when it nominated Sbek Thom, Khmer shadow theatre, in 2008.

In fact, there are many more expressions of Ramayana not yet inscribed to the 2003 Convention’s lists. Nonetheless, they have proven to bear immense value to the practicing communities. Phra Lak Phra Ram in Lao PDR and Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia and Southern Thailand, for instance, are the oral traditions of Ramayana that have influenced numerous festivals and dances that fuse local cultures and beliefs to the Hindi origin of the story.