What exactly is cultural heritage?

Rajput Paintings of Rajput Princesses

What do we mean by the term ‘cultural heritage’?

For my British Kashmiri readers, I have compiled a series of short posts to educate them about their cultural heritage, as a means of showing them that modern identities have never been around since time immemorial. Identities are the product of complex processes and can become contested; they may work for some people, but they may not work for others – thus the contestation.

I begin this series by explaining ideas behind the term cultural heritage.

Dictionary definitions for the terms culture and heritage are varied. Fundamentally, both terms are positive in that they capture something of the human spirit to develop, excel and be at home in its cultural ecology with a deep desire for continuity and order (inheritance). It is with this in mind that we should approach the topic of cultural heritage. Cultures wherever they are, are generally cherished and celebrated. For this reason many speak of the need to preserve them, and in some democratic countries funds are deployed to make this expectation a reality.

Oppression of a marginalised ethnic group usually includes the erasure of its cultural norms leading to displacements, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The term culture refers to ‘the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society‘.

Heritage refers to the ‘inheritance of something’, which in the case of culture would imply the collective inheritance of ideas, customs and social behaviour by a particular group.

So what does cultural heritage look like in the flesh and in material terms? We are speaking of man-made things, (artefacts) produced by those embodying the cultural heritage. Artefacts can be dubbed cultural property and include buildings, monuments, paintings and art. In terms of the individuals that produced these wonderful things they embody collective norms that include folklore, traditions, language, dress, food, music and knowledge. These norms can be dubbed cultural norms. Both cultural property and cultural norms are passed down from one generation to the next becoming the bedrock of the associated cultural heritage within the context of a shared cultural ecology, natural, spoilt or otherwise.

To summarise this in one simple sentence, cultural heritage is the legacy of any number of people defined as a ‘cultural people’ that is passed down throughout the ages.

It isn’t that simple or straightforward to define ‘people’ as a ‘cultural group’. Different avenues are open to us which would muddy the description already given, and this is not to even mention the heated debates, mutually-felt animosities and controversies that surround such attempts.

There are a number of analytical frameworks we can use to determine which people constitute a cultural group, and these could include nationalistic and ethnic frameworks. Both these terms refer to two very different realities although they can overlap especially where a ‘state’ broadly corresponds with a ‘nation’ giving form to the related phenomenon of ‘nation states’.

But, what do we mean when we speak of nationalism and ethnicity? Both these concepts are recent in origin and we should be mindful our forbears, whether they thought of themselves as an in-group, and claimed their physical space for the group, did not view their habitat through such modern concepts.

Nationalism & Ethnicity

Nationalism is an idea based on sentiments that bind certain people or population(s) together usually as a policy of separatism. This aspiration is usually linked with movements for independence, which begin their lives because of oppression.

Ethnicity is based on the idea that human beings can be classified into distinguishable groups. Such characteristics, real, perceived or imagined, are usually linked with racial traits, religious beliefs and practises, and languages spoken, mutually or non-mutually intelligible. By racial traits, what is not implied is the idea that people have physical traits in accordance with their ‘race’ – this concept has been shown to be biologically flawed. There is no such thing as a ‘race’, although we do think of people on the basis of stereotypes about their physical appearances, positively and negatively, and seldom neutrally; racism is one such example.

Nationalistic and ethnic representations of cultural heritage can only make sense by way of an ascribed group ‘identity’. That identity, in terms of the two analytical frameworks discussed here, is usually presented through ‘nation states’ or ‘ethnic groups’; the one can be subsumed in the other and vice versa.

In the case of nation states, literally sovereign geo-political territories with clearly defined borders (how these territories came into existence is a separate discussion altogether), we are basically saying that peoples ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ that live in the ‘nation state’ are one people by virtue of living together and thus having a shared sense of their present and future. They thus self-ascribe (‘freely identify themselves’) on the basis of their nation state’s ‘nationalistic’ labels, and can be very patriotic about their group identity. Unlike the positive values associated with culture and its celebration, nationalism can sometimes assume a dark underbelly where the patriotism in question morphs into fanaticism and exaggerated praise of one’s nation.

In the case of ethnic groups, we are saying that people ‘x’ as opposed to peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’ has its own shared heritage by virtue of a culture that distinguishes it from peoples ‘y’ and ‘z’. This is usually epitomised by obvious differences in language but there are of course other factors that may not necessarily involve mutually-intelligible languages. Ethnic people may live together with other ethnic people within a geo-political ‘polity’ (an organised society) but it doesn’t follow that they see themselves as belonging to their ‘country’ (nation-state) by virtue of its territorial composition.

To elaborate, you can have different ethnic groups living together in the same nation state harmoniously, indifferently or in conflict. Alternatively you can have the same ethnic group living in two seperate nation states (usually neighbouring ones) peacefully, indifferently or in conflict either with their own nation state or the nation state of their neighbour. Obviously, why a nation would be in conflict with another nation (note, an ethnic group is a nation in its own right) internally, and externally (through the apparatus of the state) is the story of our modern world. Conflicts and disputes in nation states, some more violent than others, are usually about the inequitable distribution of resources and political and social alienation, and in most cases are the result of a lingering colonial legacy.

Whenever we speak of nation states and their emergence as a form of social organisation we are in fact speaking about the history of European colonialism post-1800 CE. This history influenced how we understand ‘nation states’ and associated nations today, as if thinking of such phenomena has always existed in time and space since forever, which they didn’t.

And so were we define a people on nationalistic or ethnic terms, and howsoever we try to represent them as ‘oppressed‘, ‘oppressive‘ or ‘indifferent‘, we must understand our impulses have been affected by the age and societies we live in, vogues of understandings, attitudes and even prejudices. Furthermore, these realities are influenced by all sorts of push and pull factors, some more complex to understand than others, but in a nutshell we mustn’t ignore the political landscape that a cultural people are forced to traverse often beyond their control, which is what is happening in lots of arenas of conflict around the world.

As an area of study, we are speaking about identity-politics.

A good read on the instrumentalisation of ethnicity, falsely and cynically, for the purposes of political occupation, would be ‘How Mirpuris (Azad Kashmiris) were invented by ethnonationalists opposed to Kashmir’s independence’ by Reiss Haidar.

How Mirpuris were invented by ethnonationalists opposed to Kashmir’s Independence

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Associate Editor and researcher at the Portmir Foundation. Born and raised in England. Parents from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir from the Mirpur area which is not part of Kashmir Province or the Valley but Jammu Province - these are themselves separate places. Mirpur is part of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir "STATE". Love literature, poetry, film, art, music, sufism, Islam, travel, free thought, liberalism, and lots of other things. Have a particularly strong desire to learn about Indian Civilisation, the place my forbears are from. I have no qualms identifying with India and Kashmir State, but not Pakistan. Partition made us Pakistanis - not necessarily those of us from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, an Occupied and Stateless People. I think partition was a bad idea. I'm not averse to the real Pakistan of the ordinary man, woman and child. I feel sorry for Pakistanis, good people lumbered with a state created to rip them off. Okay, the official bit... My opinions are not necessarily those of the Portmir Foundation; the Foundation does not do censorship and neither does it endorse my opinions; if you disagree with any us, and you're from our background, write your own opinion piece and we'll publish it.