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Preparing to Leave the Field

Posted by J Foster on Jul 30, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

My summer pilot project here in Nepal is soon coming to a close. As monsoon earnestly sets in, I now find myself turning to the inevitable task that awaits every anthropologist conducting long-term fieldwork: organizing my notes and figuring out what comes next.

My small pocket notebook is already filled to the brim with jottings, sketches, impromptu maps, informant contact information, and questions for further inquiry. My Shaligram Stone sketchbook is starting to resemble a cross between the works of John James Audubon and Jackson Pollock, and my project book (where I try to keep my summaries brief and my details minimal) an exercise in what might be bibliographic flowcharts. I am often surprised that publishable articles and books ever manage to emerge from the tangle of highlights and marginalia that so often comprise writing in the field. Inevitably, something must be left out.

My personal system tends to rely on color-coded Post-It Notes to flag certain parts of my field book by certain pre-determined categories (such as, Pilgrimage Economy, Ritual Practice, or Deity Care). I rely on my diary for more contextual or anecdotal narratives, such as “at this point, I was to find myself sailing through the streets of Kathmandu at 30 miles an hour, clutching the back of a motor scooter with both hands, as my informant attempted to patiently explain the differences in Shaligram colors over the sound of honking horns, screeching tires, and high monsoon winds.” And, of course, I tend to rely on my sketchbook and my photos for the more visual representations of the things I set out to describe. Taken together, something of a theme begins to emerge. At least, that’s what we hope happens.

In the end, it has been a productive and fantastic beginning to what, I think, will ultimately prove to be a meaningful contribution to the anthropology of South Asia and to our understandings of Hindu and Buddhist religious practice. Already, many of my informants and friends here in Nepal are eager to see a Shaligram book, since virtually no such work currently exists that draws Shaligram practice together in its entirety (from texts new and old, to current practices, to pilgrimage, to global distribution and sacred economy). However, if it were possible to manage this *without* setting foot again on another tiny, tumultuous, mountain airplane…I would be all the more grateful for it. Though something tells me, I’m just not that lucky.

The plane, arriving in Jomsom

The plane, arriving in Jomsom

25 minutes of pure, white-knuckled, "joy"

25 minutes of pure, white-knuckled, “joy”

The view....

The view….

 
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On My Decision Not to Wear Traditional Clothing

Posted by J Foster on Jul 21, 2015 in Ask An Anthropologist, Fieldwork in Nepal

Clothing is an important part of fieldwork. And by this, I don’t just mean planning for inclement weather or deciding which pants are more likely to hold up through months in the jungle. For many anthropologists, clothing choices in the field must also often reflect the cultural norms and mores of the people with which we could be spending up to a year or more living and working with. For this reason, many anthropologists in the field tend to adopt local dress codes, both as a method of participating closely with and respecting cultural attitudes (especially certain attitudes regarding religion or gender) and as a way of indicating our insider/outsider researcher status (as opposed mainly to ‘tourist’) among groups of people who may otherwise find our long-term presence strange.

During my first fieldwork project in West Bengal in northern India, my decision to wear the Indian sari fell along these lines. In response to local concerns regarding Western clothing in an especially holy pilgrimage site for Hindus and concerns about certain styles of Western clothing popular among urban women, I wore a full sari each day without question. I also found it to be an important learning experience. The rapport I quickly built with the elderly women who taught me to properly tie the garment paid off in other ways as well, particularly in invitations to attend religious rituals or in invitations to household meals and other events. Additionally, my willingness to wear saris was also taken as an indication of my openness to other kinds of cultural participation, such as learning religious mantras or taking instruction on how to care for a material deities placed in people’s homes.

But as I began to travel outside the pilgrimage temple village into the surrounding rural areas, I started to run into an interesting and unexpected problem. To many villagers not directly involved in pilgrimage activites, a young white woman in a sari had another meaning: as a statement of religious affiliation. In this case, my country of origin combined with my choice to dress in the traditional sari meant, to them, that I was a devotee of ISKCON (International Society of Krishna Consciousness or, as they are known in the United States, the Hare Krishnas). And as a presumed devotee of ISKCON, many were uninterested in speaking with me. However, this was not a statement on their parts that indicated that they particularly disliked ISKCON but more that they assumed I had a conversion agenda and that I didn’t actually know anything about Vaishnava practice more prevalent in village contexts (I won’t go into the details here but suffice it to say that Bengali folk Vaishnavism and ISKCON Vaishnavism have a number of significant differences). They also assumed I didn’t know the local language, since international devotees on pilgrimage rarely do.

Shortly after my initial experiences then, I decided to modify my daily clothing to appear somewhat more Western (though not overly so). I started dressing in kameez shirts and loose, linen, pants, and if I wore a dupatta (a kind of long scarf) I stopped using it to cover my head. I still kept my hair up, however, and still wore hand-dyed Bengali patterns and fabrics whenever possible. The results were immediate. In the surrounding villages, I was met with an equal amount of hospitality as before, but this time with greater interest in what my work was about and did I want to talk more, where was I coming from, and how had I learned to speak so much Hindi in such a short time?

Now, currently working in Nepal (though on similar topics of religion, pilgrimage, and sacred objects), I’ve maintained this sartorial strategy. I have neither adopted the Indians saris of Hindu pilgrims to the region (as that would actually mark me to the local peoples as “Hindu”) nor do I dress in the styles typical of Nepali women (as styles here are highly varied and often have connotations of ethnic identity). However, I do incorporate both Indian and Nepali styles mixed in with the sturdy trekking boots and canvas pants vital for mobility in the high Himalayas. This way, I remain clearly a cultural outsider (neither Hindu nor Buddhist, not Indian, not Tibetan, and not Nepali), but to the interest of many, I am also clearly not just another Western tourist here on holiday. My use of both Hindi and Nepali in social situations and my habit of taking my meals with the local families (rather than in the dining halls with other trekkers and tourists) also helps. For example, in one particularly amusing exchange, I once had to explain to a guesthouse owner that the other “white people” in the dining hall he kept encouraging me to socialize with were from Belgium and that I spoke neither French nor Dutch. I did, however, speak Hindi and therefore I actually could socialize with the Indian and Nepali pilgrims and families separated out in the sitting room.

In the end, the decision to wear or not to wear the typical or traditional clothing of the peoples of one’s study region is based on a large number of factors both internal to the anthropologist and external to the world they are participating in. But regardless of what they choose (or at what point they choose it), we end up learning a great deal about the people we work with sometimes just by the way they talk about our clothes. And fair warning, this doesn’t end when we come home either…

 
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The Phenomenology of Shaligram Hunting

Posted by J Foster on Jul 18, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

While the veneration and ritual life of Shaligram Stones outside of Mustang District is its own complicated matter of course, the actual experience of searching for and finding Shaligrams in the Kali-Gandaki River certainly cannot be omitted from any account of their meaning and use.

As I set out this morning, clad in my canvas field pants and a pair of Vibram KSOs (extremely well-suited to walking around in fast-moving, shin-deep, river water), I found myself a little sad that this would be my last day Shaligram hunting on the outskirts of Kagbeni. The Kali-Gandaki river bed is nearly a mile wide in most places around the village, and as the river slowly meanders back and forth across the valley from bank to bank, it reveals a new landscape of stones and silt each morning. The trick to finding Shaligrams, as I have found, is to find one of many small, shallow, side-streams (particularly ones that are clearly in the process of moving off course or have recently petered out in favor of rejoining the main river current) and walk along them slowly up-river with a sharp eye towards any recently exposed areas.

In this way, as one picks their way along through sun-warmed, crystal-clear waters, Shaligrams are slowly revealed to the discerning eye. In Hindu practice, the most important aspect of ritual veneration when it comes to both Shaligram Stones and to other murti (sacred images and statues of Hindu deities used in worship) is the darshan, a Sanskrit word meaning “to see.” But this aspect of “seeing” doesn’t just mean to see the deity physically, as one would when entering a temple (mandir) or shrine, it means to behold the deity as he or she truly is beyond the material obvious to the eye and in return, to be beheld by the deity yourself as well. This practice of seeing and being seen by the deity is thus one of the most common, and most important, parts of ritual practice among observant Hindus and is, also, one of the major driving forces behind pilgrimage throughout South Asia.

Searching for Shaligrams is its own kind of darshan. As I walked with particular care not to disturb too much sediment in the water, I noticed two especially important things about the experience I was undertaking. Firstly, the dark, almost inky, black color of a Shaligram Stone was the first thing that tended to catch the seeker’s eye (since it easily stood out against a plethora of grey and brown), the second was the subtle appearance of ripples or spirals (the tell-tale ridges of the fossil ammonite shell) along its surface that indicated that the stone in question might, in fact, truly be Shaligram. But not every stone that might initially appear this way was really Shaligram. In many cases, the refraction of light through the flowing water often gave the impression of such patterns on otherwise smooth stones and the accumulation of silt underneath the current was also often responsible for the appearance of similar looking patterns in the sand that covered the river bed. More often than not, a burst of excitement and a quick scoop of water to retrieve a sacred stone appearing in the river might end up with nothing more than a handful of sand and a plain rock.

For this reason, actually finding a Shaligram Stone often left me with the sense of something truly born from the river, something only appearing at the very moment that I happened to see it. Carried down through millennia of time (or more like 175 million years if we’re going by the discourse of science) by an ancient and sacred tirtha to be revealed just at that moment and just for me. Something that I was “seeing,” perhaps, that hadn’t been there a moment before. (Tirtha is a Sanskrit term meaning “bridge,” often referring to places where the divine world and the physical world are closer together. In this case, I’m referring to the Kali-Gandaki. Most sacred rivers in South Asia are considered tirtha)

Experiencing the discovery of a Shaligram Stone leaves one with significant food for thought. Not only are Shaligram Stones considered direct manifestations of God-Himself (unmade by the hands of men) but I would argue that it isn’t just their aniconic (non-human) shape or their natural formation that grants them such a reverent status beyond the ubiquitous murti of temples and roadside shrines; it’s the experience of seeking and finding them in the first place that bestows a sense that these objects come from some other place beyond the industry and understanding of human-kind. It is no wonder that so many travel so far just for the chance of being granted the smallest glimpse of something truly beyond. Whether fossil or deity, the Shaligram comes to us from a place none could ever truly fathom.

The play of light and water that makes a smooth, river, stone look like Shaligram.

The play of light and water that makes a smooth, river, stone look like Shaligram.

Here you can see the play of light and water that often deceives Shaligram seekers.

Here you can see the ripples that often deceive Shaligram seekers.

A Shaligram is Revealed!

A Shaligram is Revealed! You can see the round, black, Shaligram near the center of the photo.

A Shaligram Appears in the River!

And finally, a Sudarshan Shaligram, with clear chakra markings, appears in the river!

 
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Never a Straight Line

Posted by J Foster on Jul 15, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

I am always surprised at how quickly time flies during fieldwork, and paradoxically, how slowly it passes from day to day. With only a few weeks left for this summer’s current project here in the high Himalayas of Nepal, it’s time to take stock of my fieldnotes to date and make a plan for the days remaining. My guide and I will be leaving Kagbeni on Monday for Jomsom (and by that token, Marpha, an important village in this region which we will also have the chance to visit), leaving me only a few days left here at the main geographical source of the sacred Shaligram Stones.

I will miss Kagbeni. For as fascinating and ethnographically productive as Muktinath is, I find I feel almost more at home here on the wind-swept banks of the Kali-Gandaki River. Perhaps there is just something deeply appealing to me about slogging my way merrily through mud and silt in search of ancient fossils with a group of excited Hindu pilgrims and sadhus, or perhaps it is just reminiscent enough of my rural childhood to keep me perpetually coming back  for more.

But the real endeavor now is to solidify my themes and focus on my most important questions. I can already see four particularly salient categories popping up over and over again: what I am calling The Social Life of Stones, The Semiotics of Stones, Mobility as Power (or, Sacred Landscapes in Conflict with Political Landscapes), and “Modernity” versus “Tradition.” For those of you at all familiar with anthropological work in South Asia, some of this will seem reasonably familiar, especially the last theme. If nothing else, using these headings helps me to organize everything from multiple mythical origin stories, references from competing Vedic texts on the identification of Shaligram Stones, sketches and descriptions of the stones themselves, stories and experiences of pilgrims, and my own observations of ritual practices and uses of sacred space. But what is more, what I see is this project truly shaping up around issues of mobility and movement, which I mentioned earlier, and I think that this approach could potentially produce something truly exceptional in the genre of ethnographic writing (eventually anyway). But of course, as with any fieldwork, something could yet come up that completely changes everything. Such things happen more often than you might think.

In any case, I will be traveling to Tiri village a few kilometers north of here as of yet, revisiting the Shiva mandir in Kagbeni that currently houses several rather enormous sacred stones, and undertaking a few more Shaligram pilgrimages before I go. For just as the stones must travel, so must I.

Kagbeni

Kagbeni

 
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A River Runs Through It

Posted by J Foster on Jul 12, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Finding Shaligrams is reasonably tricky. In many ways, you need at least a little bit of an idea of what you are looking for before you set out on the silty, rocky, river bed to try your luck. The characteristic inky black color might be hidden under coatings of viscous mud and the patterns of ammonite shell spirals are often worn smooth by millennia of rushing water and aren’t always obvious even from up close. But if searching for a particular kind of stone in a great mountain of stones can be seen as any kind of analogy, I would apply the same idea to walking the narrow streets of Kagbeni village. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what it is you are looking at, even up close.

Spending time in the village is always a rewarding endeavor. Not only does it give you a sense and feel for how village life is actually carried out, but you also get to play a little Morelli’s Detective while you scour every stupa, mani wall, cross-roads, and threshold for clues as to how people are using and moving through physical and sacred spaces. For example, I note each presence of a Shaligram Stone tucked away inside of Buddhist prayer wheel or set along a wall dividing one part of the village from another. I especially note each time a Shaligram has been placed on the ledge of stupa, often times as an offering to the Dakini of the Himalayas (“Sky Dancers” — powerful female spirits said to inhabit this region). I also carefully log each time I see a goat skull, decorated with spirals and geometric designs, hung over a doorway or a trishula (a marker of Shiva) set in a threshold, or a mani stone, covered in Tibetan mantras, attached to a wall that every traveler must pass. In this region, marking the “spiritual nature” of a space by placing objects and symbols over doorways that represent specific deities, nationalities, and religious traditions is a reasonably common practice, and certainly a helpful one for someone like me.

In this way, each story tells a story, and as confusing as that might sound initially, it comes to make more and more sense as you realize that stories exist in the context of where both you and they are. In other words, stories tell you something about the world in which they come from. Stories are shaped by the landscape, and in turn, shape it; in much the same way as the high winds that perpetually tear through this valley are steered by the mountains and in turn slowly tear the mountains to the ground. So if I may hang on to my analogy a bit longer, then might I say that if each Shaligram Stone that is ever so carefully pulled from all the other river rocks and sand is a story collected from the people of Mustang, then it would do us all a great service to remember that the river was the source of them all.

Kali-Gandaki River Valley, Kagbeni, Mustang, Nepal

Kali-Gandaki River Valley, Kagbeni, Mustang, Nepal

 
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A Stone’s Throw

Posted by J Foster on Jul 8, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

We arrived in Kagbeni suitably rattled from a little over two hours in a cramped jeep that had been careening skillfully through narrow mountain roads and down steep, rocky, slopes ever since leaving Ranipauwa only about 15 miles behind us. On reflection, the entire trip between Muktinath and Kagbeni reminded me of some of the more terrifying amusement park rides I have experienced (sans the reassurance of safety harnesses, however), but I was grateful to finally get the chance to explore the famed Kali-Gandaki River valley.

This morning, my guide and I joined up with a few Hindu pilgrims and a number of sadhus (ascetic holy men) already making their way down to the river banks to begin the search for sacred Shaligrams. At this point in the season, it is only possible to remain outside in the valley during the morning hours, before the severe winds set in just after noon. We chatted amiably as our eyes scoured every inch of muddy silt and blackened waters. We talked about which stones we hoped to find and here and there about the proper methods of caring for Shaligrams once we found them, but more than anything what we talked about was mobility. This might sound like an odd topic of conversation, but I was surprised to discover that for many pilgrims, the idea that one can simply up and leave one’s house and family¬† (or any number of reasons) was intensely important. What I would come to realize later, was that in many of the discussions I have had with pilgrims, with sadhus, and just with fellow travelers out for a new experience, it was mobility that was the true key to power.

In South Asia, mobility is sovereignty. For example, one Hindu pilgrim I held in conversation for some length told me that he had originally planned his current pilgrimage to start with looking for Shaligram stones in Kagbeni and then to spend 10 days traveling to the Damodar Kund (a lake that lies at 8000 meters in Upper Mustang that is the source of the Kali-Gandaki river and therefore the source of the Shaligram Stones). But he was angry now to learn that because he held a foreign passport, he would not be able to cross the restricted border to Upper Mustang. “The government should never interfere with pilgrimage.” he explained. “I’m thinking I might burn my passport, dump my belongings, dress as a sadhu, and just walk there myself anyway. I know many people who have done that, and the government can’t do anything.” When I responded with a measure of surprise, he clarified, “Oh, they might catch me on the way back, but that’s Ok. I’ll have already made it to Damodar, I will have my Shaligram, and what can they do? Deport me? Fine, free ride home.”

I know now how I will link the problem of national unity with mobility, power, and the Shaligram Stones. I now think that my first hypothesis was close, but ultimately incorrect. The Shaligram Stones are not just a marker of a landscape that is simultaneously a sacred landscape and a physical/every-day landscape, they are the markers of a conflict between the sacred landscape and the political one. And what is at stake isn’t just identity (national or religious), it’s the very possibility of sovereignty itself.

The Kali-Gandaki River at Kagbeni

The Kali-Gandaki River at Kagbeni

My first Shaligram from the river.

My first Shaligram from the river.

Between my guide and I, these are the day's Shaligrams.

Between my guide and I, these are the day’s Shaligrams.

 
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Dancing the Spiral

Posted by J Foster on Jun 25, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

I am tremendously cold right now. It’s partially the cloudy, drizzly, weather, which is always something of a treat in the Himalayas, and partially the long hike this morning. My guide and I left early to make our way all the way up to the Vishnu Chulo (Vishnu’s Kitchen), a small shrine/temple a few hundred meters further above Muktinath Temple on the far side of a ridge closer to the Thorong La Pass. Needless to say, it is quite windy and rather cold up there at this point. It was an interesting place though, entirely “natural” in its appearance in that the short, squat, cleaved-stone building housed a shrine that was made up of a large boulder altar with kum kum and tumeric smeared standing stones resting on top of it. Small incense wheels, flowers, and candles were placed variously around the standing stones and hundreds of white prayer cloths were hung from the wooden rafters only a few inches above my head. The overall effect was one of shrouded mystery, carefully picking my way through a dense thicket of Sanskrit cloths to get to the shrine tucked away against the far wall facing the high mountain winds. My guide mentioned to me that this mandir was made in such a fashion, as a “kitchen,” because Vishnu was very hungry; a reference, I think, to a common method of interacting with divine beings and Vedic deities. By that I mean food. Exchanging food with divinities (referred to as Prasadam in Hinduism), along with bathing (called Abisheka Puja), is generally considered one of the most basic responsibilities of any devotee and attributing hunger to divine entities is a reasonably standard method of organizing worship in South Asia.

But what fascinated me even more, actually, was the recurrence of carved or drawn spirals decorating stones and bridges all along our path. Now, the spiral has numerous important symbolic meanings in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Overall, it is a cosmological symbol that refers to the belief in Buddhism and some traditions of Hinduism that the universe moves in a clockwise direction (counter-clockwise if one is a Bon practitioner). This is one reason why pilgrims, nuns, and monks typically circumambulate temples and shrines in a clockwise direction. It may also represent a womb or the movement of a person from birth to death to rebirth (the karmic cycle, which is also represented by the swastika). But, it occurs to me that when you take a moment to look closer, and consider movement itself as a kind of sacred marker…..remind you of anything else?

One of the many spirals we encountered on our way to the Vishnu Chulo

One of the many spirals we encountered on our way to the Vishnu Chulo

Sudarshan Shaligram

Sudarshan Shaligram

 
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In Which the Anthropologist Goes Fossil Hunting

Posted by J Foster on Jun 21, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

If anyone had ever told my 12-year-old self that one day I would be fossil hunting in the high Himalayas while simultaneously conducting anthropological fieldwork in Nepal, I would probably have laughed myself sick. However, as it turns out, that is exactly what I have spent the last two days doing. More along the participant side of participant-observation, I have found that wandering the mountain sides and river banks looking for Shaligram stones is the perfect morning activity for meeting both Shaligram sellers and Hindu pilgrims, respectively. While I had never expected my childhood fascination with dinosaurs (I think I still have some small fossil collection buried in the basement somewhere) to come to fruition in this way, or at all really, such is the fluidity of anthropology. Also, the next time someone asks me if anthropology is where you dig up dinosaurs, I guess I will need to come up with a better answer than my usual reference to Indiana Jones.

In any case, ultimately, it is the links between these stones and those who scour the country-side in search of them that will form the basis for my research going forward. I say this because it is the mobility of both people and objects in both physical and sacred landscapes that are at the heart of the complex system of identities, boundaries, and meanings that make up Mustang District’s everyday lived world. In short, my fascination with religious co-participation has led me down a path where religious boundaries have become fluid and national and ethnic identities have begun to blend together because of shared sacred spaces all subsumed under the icon of an ancient ammonite fossil found no where else in the world. Time I got myself a pickaxe.

Broken ammonites are not considered Shaligram. A broken stone such as this one is unfortunately, "a blind eye."

Broken ammonites are not considered Shaligram. A broken stone such as this one is unfortunately, “a blind eye.”

This particular bed of ammonites was revealed in a landslide after the April Gorkha Earthquake.

This particular bed of ammonites was revealed in a landslide after the April Gorkha Earthquake.

The fossil bed manages to produce only a single unbroken stone for the day.

The fossil bed manages to produce only a single unbroken stone for the day.

 
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Getting the Lay of the Sacred Landscape

Posted by J Foster on Jun 15, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Space and Movement. I can already see that these two concepts may well become the foundational framework for this project going forward. Space because religious co-participation in this region is highly contingent of the sharing of sacred places. Movement because it is through various types of motion (circumambulation, pilgrimage, travel of the sacred stones through the river, ritual movement through temple spaces, and returning home with sacred objects) that religious and national identities and boundaries are continuously negotiated. In short, this means that, at its heart, the blending of Hindu, Buddhist, and shamanic traditions in Mustang are largely brought about through the blending of various peoples in shared spaces that hold meanings at multiple levels. For example, the same object (say, a Shaligram Stone) means one thing to one person and another thing to another person, but what they agree on is the meaningful importance of the object, or the place, so in question. In additional to layers of economic exchange and the sharing of ethnic and national identities, this results in a kind of religious synthesis that produces traditions of worship that are both continuously exchanging characteristics and remaining linguistically and ontologically distinct from one another.

As one who is moving through these spaces herself, I had the opportunity yesterday, based on a local tip, to visit on the few mountain Shaligram beds. These black shale beds are used, primarily, by Buddhist stone sellers to mine sacred stones directly from the mountain-side rather than wait for stones to be found by stone hunter/wholesalers further down on the Kali-Gandaki river banks. The downfall here, while the shale beds produce many stones, is that Hindu pilgrims largely do not prefer these stones. Their sharp edges and broken chakras (shells) too often render them as “the blind eye” and are harder to sell because the deity represented within the stone cannot be accessed. This was even more strongly demonstrated when I was given access to the Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath by an elderly Shiva sadhu (holy man) tending the temple grounds. Each stone installed as a deity in this way is whole and without chip or blemish. This is typical of Shaligram Stones used in home worship and these are the stones Hindus come here to find.

Sadly, post-earthquake, there are few pilgrims visiting Muktinath this summer season, so I have not had as many opportunities as I would like to conduct interviews with Hindu pilgrims. My exchanges with local residents and with the sadhus and nuns minding the many temples and gompas scattered everywhere in this area have, however, been incredibly enlightening. For now, perhaps it is best that I get the lay of the land as those who live here know it, because tomorrow who knows how it may change.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The black shale Shaligram bed.

The black shale Shaligram bed.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

This was the day's "haul" from the Shaligram bed.

This was the day’s “haul” from the Shaligram bed.

 
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Settling in at 4000 Meters

Posted by J Foster on Jun 11, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

At 4000 meters, the view is not the only thing that’s breath-taking.

It’s a pun I’ve heard a few times now, but it is more truth than humor. The village of Ranipauwa, where I’m slowly settling in for the next few weeks of fieldwork, is truly a fascinating place. Focused largely on the Hindu pilgrims that frequent Muktinath-Chumig Gyatsa temple (only a few hundred meters outside of the village), the main road of the village tends to include mostly guesthouses or dharamsalas (for poorer pilgrims), a few shops selling water and snacks, and some strategically placed permit checkposts lest you attempt to wander the area surreptitiously. As in Pokhara, there are also a few Shaligram sellers and also just as in Pokhara, they are all Buddhist. I suspect my interest in the kinds of religious syncretism and co-participation common to this region will soon be taking an economic turn. The number of stones sold is surprising, and many stone sellers explain that they have a specific supplier. By the sounds of it, as I suspected in Jomsom when I met a few stone hunters on the banks of the Kali-Gandaki, there are professional Shaligram hunters who scour the river beds for stones that they then sell to Buddhist shops all along the pilgrimage circuit. This is particularly interesting because the Skanda Purana specifically forbids the buying and selling of these stones and yet, I can’t help but conclude that the sheer volume of stones being sold must indicate the Hindu pilgrims are buying them. To Western trekkers, they would be little more than a cheap novelty, if they knew what they were at all.

My insistent questions have also revealed a few other interesting points of order. Firstly, that some Buddhist sellers are no longer content to wait for the relatively rare stones of the river beds to materialize and are now actively mining them from the mountain side. Secondly, these mined stones (which are clearly not rounded and many aren’t even black) are being met with some degree of resistance. Those who buy stones are obviously less interested in “mountain stones” than they are “river stones.” However, many sellers have commented that “the mountain has so many stones” and waiting for river stones is sometimes difficult. Lastly, the earthquake has been both a concern and a boon in this region in terms of stones. While very few tourists have made their way to Muktinath this season, the earthquake does not seem to have deterred many pilgrims, which is providing at least something of a windfall for the economy here. And while the earthquake did not cause significant damage to Ranipauwa, there are several areas where landslides and fault breaks have revealed new stone beds in the mountain side. Many people have already begun digging in these areas in search of new stones.

My hope now going forward is to try and get more time with the incoming pilgrims. Meeting the stone sellers is one thing, but I now need to know more about who they are selling to.

These raw "Golden Egg" type Shaligrams have been exposed by a recent landslide related to the earthquake.

These raw “Golden Egg” type Shaligrams have been exposed by a recent landslide related to the earthquake.

Finally, a decent picture of the famous Thorong La Pass to Tibet.

Finally, a decent picture of the famous Thorong La Pass to Tibet.

The view taken from just outside Ranipauwa.

The view taken from just outside Ranipauwa.

On our way up to Muktinath Temple.

On our way up to Muktinath Temple.

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