Posted by J Foster on Jun 13, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology
, In the Media
A few days ago I had the wonderful honor of being interviewed for the “Secular Stories” podcast. We had a great conversation, ranging from feminism and social media, the anthropology of religion, my fieldwork, and my upcoming article publication about the use of sacred theater plays in the Hindu traditions of South Asia.
Tune in to this podcast and, of course, check out the rest of their podcasts at the link below.
Secular Stories — Interview with Holly Walters
Posted by J Foster on May 17, 2016 in Fieldwork in Nepal
“Remember what Bilbo used to say: ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”” — J.R.R. Tolkien
In just a few short weeks I return to Nepal, although this time I will be doing so as a Fulbright scholar. The notification of my dissertation fellowship award came rather late in the term, and has therefore necessitated a bit of unexpected scrambling. Suffice to say, I have gone from planning just a few months in the field to planning for an entire year abroad, representing myself and my work through the support of the 2016-2017 Fulbright IIE Dissertation Fellowship. The logistics are boggling: from finding an apartment in Kathmandu to arranging for travel back and forth to Mustang over the course of months at a time, from finding a market and a laundromat to packing for the spring and summer season in the high Himalayas. There are now visas to obtain and medical clearances to secure, reams of paperwork to sign, people to contact, and long-term absences to prepare for. And, of course, just three weeks to do it.
Aside from going over my packing list again and again, I often find myself distracted with anxious little details. What can I get when I am there and what can’t I (toothpaste yes, contact solution no)? How much should I bring? How little do I really need? Remember, you’ll have to shoulder every bit of this with you into the mountains! There are no roller bags allowed where you’re going. There is also much to anticipate. Writing a book about Shaligram stones is no easy task. The stones (not to mention their human associates) are highly mobile, the mountain terrain as treacherous as it is beautiful, the sacred landscape awe-inspiring and unforgiving, the Kali-Gandaki river (from which each Shaligram is born) swift and wide. I will walk with the pilgrims who brave it and break bread with the people who live it and in the end, something will come of it. Hopefully a dissertation, but I suspect it will be much more than that.
I can’t escape the reality that this is what I have been preparing for now for the better part of the last five years. This will be the culmination of those hundreds of hours of coursework and language training, page after page of grant proposals and exploratory papers, of soul-searching and intellectual reflection; asking yourself over and over and over again if this is really what you want to be doing with yourself.
The answer, of course, is yes. The gate has been opened and now the road lays ahead. Time to be swept off.
Posted by J Foster on Apr 28, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology
, Fieldwork in Nepal
The grant process is finally over and the results are in. While I have not received a major grant (any one of the top 4 or 5 favored in the social sciences), I have successfully cobbled together enough smaller grant funding to carry out the remainder of my dissertation fieldwork in the high Himalayas of Nepal. In addition to this, I have also received the prestigious designation of alternate for the 2015-2016 Fulbright Dissertation Research grant. While this is little help to me in the practical sense (as it does not carry any monetary value) I am pleased that my research among Shaligram pilgrims warrants attention on that scale. It will likely come in handy later.
For those whose impetus is to offer consolation, I assure you there is no need. The nature of my fieldwork requires a high degree of mobility, flexibility, and the willingness to change one’s course at a moment’s notice. By leveraging multiple smaller sources of funding (rather than needing to adhere to the activity requirements of a major granting institution), my adaptability is preserved and I view my ability to maintain control over my movements as the ultimate silver-lining. By the looks of things, not only will my final monograph focus its analytical trajectory on the sovereignty of mobility but I as the ethnographer will embody it as well.
This also means that my final dissertation research plans are remain equally under my purview and I will be able to focus my attention on Shaligram pilgrimage over the course of two more full travel seasons; the first beginning this June when I return to Mustang District and the second beginning in April of 2017, to conclude sometime the following fall. Planning long-term fieldwork in this way has also been helpful in that it is far easier to disrupt one’s everyday life for four to five months at a time rather than twelve or more in a stretch. In the interim, my time will then be best used reviewing and collating fieldnotes, preparing for the last round of fieldwork with revised questions, beginning the introductory portion of the dissertation itself, grant writing, and transcribing.
The easiest way to accomplish all this, as my previous trips have taught me, will be to once again work through a Himalayan trekking agency, whose access to in-country travel resources and capacity to negotiate permits cannot be understated. Already I am looking forward to at least three government permissions, multiple domestic plane tickets, jeep and horse-back travel, and a fair degree of map-assisted walking. Though, this time, I do not plan on hiring a guide to take me around. My earlier experiences in doing so, though they were no doubt the smartest thing to do in an area I was completely unfamiliar with, have convinced me to break with the packaged tour in the strictest sense. Much of Mustang is reliant on trekking and pilgrimage for its economic livelihood and as such, most of the people involved in the travel and service industries take great pains to ensure that their guests’ “experiences” are up to par. I have a hard time convincing them that the “experience” is precisely what I am not after.
Moving from guesthouse to guesthouse in the high Himalayas is reasonably easy once you get a sense of things and I fear that my poor guide, stuck with me for several months on end, would find my repetitive returns to the same temple and pilgrimage sites rather boring as I sit in some out-of-the-way corner to observe ritual practices, chat with pilgrims, interview nuns or sadhus, or draw detailed sketches of sacred stones. Sadly for the pilgrimage economy, outside of food and lodging, the anthropologist makes for a meager consumer.
So now, as I begin to finalize my plans for returning to Nepal in just a few short weeks, I bid the relative stability of my academic life so far adieu. As I prepare to set-off back into the Himalayas to wander the ever-changing paths of the sacred river Kali-Gandaki, I know that I will be taking advantaging of the roads well-trod before me (by pilgrims, tourists, and trekkers alike), but I will always remember that no matter how many times this route has been taken and no matter how carefully others may attempt to manage how I might experience it, there is no telling what I will find. And that is the deepest mystery the spiral can hold.
Posted by J Foster on Apr 13, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology
, Fieldwork in Nepal
“While each pilgrimage is an individual affair, even such individual journeys and behavior occur and and are framed within social and group contexts. The Iwaki-kai pilgrims operated within a social framework and set of dynamics that allowed them to be individual and yet operate as an entity that gave them the scope for a highly personalized journey and experience within the comforting setting of an organized tour, in which each participant brought something special and individual to the group. The group was thus a combination of individuals with different views and aims and ideas existing in a temporary community that gave them a sense of identity and purpose and added to their pilgrimages, whose meanings were made within the framework of the social and group contexts in which they were carried out.” — Ian Reader, “Making Pilgrimages” pg.248
In the academic literature, pilgrimage is generally considered a transient phenomenon. For a relatively brief moment in time, disparate individuals from various backgrounds and walks-of-life come together with the aim of carrying out a singular shared goal: to complete the pilgrimage. The group then dissolves and each individual returns to their former place and previous situations. While I tend to agree with the concept of transient communities in spirit, I often find myself at odds with the definition of pilgrimage as a purely ephemeral state-of-being. This is because the fleeting nature of pilgrimage is often located in the identities of pilgrims themselves. In other words, because any one individual is only an actual pilgrim for a short time (while they are actively in motion) the phenomena of pilgrimage itself must be therefore equally fleeting.
The more and more I encounter Shaligram stones, either in the context of research in South Asia or enshrined in residence in temples and homes here in the U.S., the more it becomes clear that these stones are not just the ultimate end goal of pilgrimage to Muktinath temple or the Kali-Gandaki river, but themselves a kind of symbolic perpetual pilgrimage frozen in material form. To understand this, one must understand the link between a Shaligram stone and the life-cycle as it is understood in Hindu and Buddhist practice. Just as the stone is “born” from the womb of the mountain and “birthed” in the flow of the river, so too is a human being born and birthed from their mother’s womb. Just as the stone is picked up in pilgrimage and brought to a devotee’s home for daily care and puja (ritual worship and interaction), so too is a new human being incorporated into the every day life of the family. A Shaligram must be bathed and fed, cared for and often dressed, just as much as any other member of the family. Additionally, Shaligrams are often exchanged during weddings (as one might a bride or groom) and are also given to the dead prior to cremation such that they can then accompany the ashes back into the river in a symbolic death of their own. They will then, one day, presumably reappear within the river they began in and the karmic cycle continues.
If you were to encounter a Shaligram at any one point in this cycle one could certainly take note of its ritual and symbolic importance in the moment. You might also even be able to discuss at length its spiritual properties, social roles, and religious meanings, but without further perspective you will have missed the larger and grander significance of what was taking place. Only by following the entire course of a Shaligram’s “life history” do the multitudes of transient events that comprise its movement in space and time come together in a cohesive narrative; its role in pilgrimage included.
To say that pilgrimage is transient is to imply that other structures of life experience are not. While I take to heart that there are certainly differences between the regular continuities of daily life and the singular event of pilgrimage, what I am getting at here is that Shaligram pilgrimage both contextualizes the actions of pilgrims along the Kali-Gandaki and is contextualized by them in the broader cultural field of symbols and meanings that govern life, death, and rebirth. Pilgrimage, in essence, then goes beyond the actual moment of leaving and returning to form a momentary microcosm representative of the entire journey of life. In short, one is always on pilgrimage.
And this journey is not limited to humans alone. As direct manifestations of divinity (usually the god Vishnu), each Shaligram stone also takes along with it the deity manifested in its form. Additionally, the spiral markings of the ancient ammonite shell mirror religious understandings of the rotation of the cosmos; clockwise in Buddhism, counter-clockwise in Bonpo, and the continuous cycling of the ages in Hinduism. In this way, Shaligram stones concretize the divine movement of the cosmos and give it material form, they reify the proper hierarchical orders of material worlds and spiritual worlds, and cement the belief that movement within and among these things is a constant part of the karmic balance.
For these reasons, now as I prepare to return to the field again in just a few short weeks, I must consider the broader implications of the pilgrimage (in both a physical and research sense) that I am about to undertake for the second time. It will not be enough to distill the moment of pilgrimage down to the events of walking the proper routes, visiting the pre-determined temple sites, or wading into the river en masse in search of Shaligrams. The stage is set, I think, for a new kind of drama; one where the entire course of one’s lifespan can be symbolically reduced to the distances between mountains. Where what is narrated in mythological time becomes remade in geological space. And here it can be worked on, reforged and reimagined, and then carried away back into the “real” world in the form of a strange and mysterious stone always spiraling inward and further and further away.
Posted by J Foster on Jan 25, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology
When I was a kid, I used to read the encyclopedia. Rather than attempting to identify myself with the characters of more typical teenage narratives (or, at least, let’s be honest, narratives by adults about teenagers. Which is what “young adult fiction” ultimately is), I habitually spent my quiet reading hours with the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica (an early 1980’s set in black pleather) and a rather brightly colored set of Funk and Wagnall’s Wildlife Encyclopedias. To this day, I credit the latter with my ability to identify, by sight, a hoopoe, an okapi, at least seven types of foxes, and nearly all members of the family Paradisaeidae (order Passeriformes). More than a decade before the internet, and even longer before the advent of Wikipedia, I was happily wiling away the hours with entries detailing everything from the early modern scientific revolution, to Medieval calligraphy, to dry commentaries on Isaac Newton’s 1687 Principia. Now, I don’t mention this to imply, in any sense, that reading an encyclopedia as a ten-year-old makes you smarter or more academically inclined (though I am sure it helped along the way somewhere), I mention it here because this is the earliest memories I have of being excited by a world full of Great Big Things.
Bug collecting and fossil collecting are part of seeing the world in this way; constructing one’s own Cabinet of Curiosities in order to categorize and make sense of a world that is complex, fascinating, and wholly beyond one’s limited experiences. But here it is that anthropology challenges us further, amid the desperate urge to classify and harmonize everything into orderly taxonomies; to see our categories, not as a kind of access to direct truths but as a kind of mythology in its own right. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that scientific classification is mere fable or fantasy, or that it isn’t useful in helping us to explain and predict natural processes, but that the choice to associate certain qualities over others or to group certain characteristics and strata for one reason over another comes with its own kind of partiality.
My thinking along these lines echoes the commentaries of British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who once remarked that “like pebbles on the beach of Hinlopenstretet, history, too, is a succession of endless details, and there is an infinite choice whether to pick this one or that (Life, 1997: 24).” Or more specifically, in this case, that “the history of life is filtered by the very processes that preserve it (18).” It is not accidentally that I choose to quote Fortey here, who, as a paleontologist fascinated by the earliest fossils of Precambrian and Cambrian life, also goes on at length to question how things are classified, how one type of creature becomes associated with another, and how such early taxonomies of space and time form their own kinds of “mythological units.” As an anthropologist who works primarily with Shaligram Stones, it is this issue of classification that weighs most heavily on my work at present.
In the discourse of science, Shaligram Stones are black shale fossil ammonites from the Early Oxfordian to the Late Tithonian age near the end of the Jurassic period some 165-140 million years ago (Geological Survey of India 1904: 46). In the discourse of Hinduism, Shaligram Stones are the direct, aniconic, manifestations of Vishnu, gifted to the sacred Kali-Gandaki River (or “cursed” to appear in the river, depending on which origin story you follow) as objects of veneration for worthy devotees. In terms of classification, both are “true” in that both sets of classification tell us something about the world these objects inhabit. In one sense, these fossils tell the story of a Himalayan region once covered by a shallow sea long before the shifting of tectonic plates pushed ragged peaks into the clouds. Before mammals had arrived on the scene, before humanity was even so much as a teleological consideration. In another sense, these sacred stones tell the story of human mobility and meaning-making, of the making of persons and cultures across time and space. They tell a story of a time of divine intervention, the musings of gods, and the creation of the world also long before humanity had much say in the way of things. The famous geologist’s metaphor is to describe the careful peeling back of stratigraphic layers of rock as reading the pages of a book. But what Shaligram Stones show us is that we are not so much “reading” this story, as equally as we are “writing” it.
All narratives require a scale. All stories need a chronology. And for this reason, like it or not, human motivations will always creep into descriptions of the natural world just as much as they dominate our understandings of ritual and religion, of ethnicity, race, and nation. These stories are paradoxical and difficult. The further we delve into the world around us, the more obscure are the events and the less certain the narrative. But we must start somewhere, and in a world of Great Big Things, let it begin with the thing itself (as Appadurai would say). If nothing else but to gain a new appreciation for the richness of life and our human place within it, where a fossil can be a deity and a deity can be a fossil, both millions of years old and imminently present, and have logic be all the better for it.
Posted by J Foster on Jan 15, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology
, Fieldwork in Nepal
I encountered my first Shaligram in India during the summer of 2012. Since that time I have searched virtually every library and bookstore from Kolkata to Kathmandu (and spent an equally exhausting number of hours on Google) for any text I might find about the sacred stones of the Kali-Gandaki River Valley. Curiously, once I had managed to obtain copies of the source texts (mainly the Skanda and Garuda Puranas, the Taittiriya Upanishad, and the Brahma Sutras) that mention Shaligram veneration, I could find little else. Other than a few commentaries and pamphlets available in India and Nepal, there didn’t seem to be a published work about Shaligrams that was “about something.” By that I mean, aside from a few passing mentions here and there in the ethnographies of the Himalayas and of Hinduism, I could not find detailed descriptions of Shaligram practices in Nepal or elsewhere, of pilgrimage experiences, or of the history of Shaligrams in South Asia. But my searching did finally pay off in one respect, when I finally purchased a copy of the Salagrama – Kosha at a book market in New Delhi.
Published by S.K. Ramachandra Rao in 1996, the Salagrama-Kosha (trans. Book of Shaligrams) has, thus far, provided the most complete account of Shaligram worship available to interested readership. It explains the physical and textual origins of Shaligrams in the standard theological sense and it also contains a great deal of valuable information regarding Shaligram origin myths and methods of identification. What is more, it points to other possible sources for inquiry, including Anupa Simha’s “Salagrama Pariksa,” the “Salagrama Sila Lakshana Paddhati,” and a number of other manuscripts written in the last 200 years or so, many of which have never been translated or published.
During my time in Mustang, and among Shaligram pilgrims in both Nepal and India, it was interesting to note that the Salagrama-Kosha, along with the Puranas and other Vedic texts, comprised the vast majority of the average pilgrim’s and practitioner’s referential knowledge of Shaligram texts. As is typical in Hinduism, there appears to be no standardized body of texts that specifically direct Shaligram practice (though various texts at various times certainly hold a great deal of influence), just as there is no standardized body of texts that specifically direct Hindu worship in general. But within this complicated tapestry of inter-related threads, the absence of careful research into Shaligram meanings and practices located in place and time has lead to a noticeable gap in the literatures and in understandings of this widespread but strangely invisible practice. After a time, many of the devotees I met and spoke with even articulated similar concerns.
It’s hard to claim, off hand, that this is what I intend to remedy at the conclusion of my field research in South Asia, but it is with a final planned research monograph that I hope to bring together as many of these texts as possible with in-depth ethnographic research into Shaligram practices such as they are today. This means not just ascertaining what sacred texts say about Shaligram stones, but how people actually use them and what experiences they have in the arduous journey to acquire them.
As the Salagrama-Kosha notes, “the Deity is like an ocean of nectar altogether devoid of waves.” And yet, the physical world remains unsettled, battered about by the winds and tides of everyday life. The research process is, unfortunately, not much different. It’s difficult to tell what leads to chase down, what avenues to explore first, and of course, there remains the perpetual worry that something important might be left out. What texts might I have missed? What ritual specialist might I not have spoken to? What temple or pilgrimage site might I have inadvertently walked past?
In the end, with so many possible books filtering down through the hands of academics and pilgrims alike, and so many transient experiences carried off by the high Himalayan winds, and so many silent and contemplative faces moving through the endless streams of the Kali-Gandaki River each year, I can’t even begin to imagine just how many stones have been left unturned.
Posted by J Foster on Nov 25, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology
, Fieldwork in Nepal
It has been three months since my return from Mustang, Nepal with a basket of Shaligram stones brought from the Kali-Gandaki River, and I am already planning my return. It is likely that I will be back in the Muktinath Valley sometime around June (funding willing), and undertaking Shaligram pilgrimage again by the time pilgrimage season is in full summer swing. This time, I may attempt the journey beginning in the Damodar Kund (the source of the Kali-Gandaki River in Upper Mustang), moving southward towards Muktinath, and ending in Kagbeni village. Unfortunately, the permits required to access Damodar Kund are quite expensive, must include a guide, and are best undertaken in a group in order to defray costs. Though, I am not the only one who found this troublesome. Unfortunately, many pilgrims I encountered along the way also expressed their concerns regarding the difficulty in traveling northwards along the Annapurna circuit, and with Nepal’s continuing political and economic frustrations it’s hard to predict what complications might still arise. If I am unable to take the pilgrimage route to Upper Mustang, it is likely I will retrace my original steps from Jomsom, to Kagbeni (where the Kali-Gandaki is easily accessible), to Muktinath again. However, this time, my goals are slightly different.
As I continue to work on gathering interviews and data for the book that will inevitably result from this research, I am turning my attention less to the material and spatial aspects of Shaligram practice and more towards the experiences of Shaligram pilgrimage from home to river and back home again. To this end, anyone who is interested in discussing their experiences with Shaligrams is encouraged to comment here or to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am particularly interested in hearing about personal experiences while on pilgrimage, while finding Shaligrams in the river, or even with Shaligrams kept in home shrines. All responses sent to my email will be kept confidential.
In the end, it is the social life of Shaligrams that holds the most mystery. Even for the ones living here in Boston.
Radha-Krishna Darshan at Home
Shaligrams from the Kali-Gandaki
Hey guys, check out my follow-up fieldwork interview on this week’s episode of This Anthropological Life!
Back from the Field: Syncing into Holly Walter’s Research Part 2
Posted by J Foster on Aug 24, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology
, Fieldwork in Nepal
One of the more interesting challenges I have been tackling since returning from the field is in categorizing my fieldnotes in a usable way. By this I don’t just mean figuring out major recurring themes or breaking down conversations into relevant questions and answers, I also mean attempting to organize categories and photos of various types of Shaligram Stones into some kind of short-hand grid. While variously arguing with Excel or tearing my hair out with Photoshop, it occurred to me that what I might actually be attempting to do is something along similar lines to that of a naturalist’s field guide. And while the relationship between famous naturalists of old and modern-day anthropology is a long and fascinating one, I am also attentive to possible critiques of “butterfly collecting”: a version of social anthropology derided by Edmund Leach (1961) that saw any attempt at creating social typologies or other systems of anthropological classifications as an imposition of the anthropologist upon the culture in question. He made this critique on the grounds that any resulting classification systems made no more sense than, say, grouping all blue butterflies together and pronouncing them the same based on shared color. In more recent anti-colonialist and anti-development literature, classification is also rejected on the grounds that it is a method by which the hegemonic West asserts power over marginalized or “othered” groups.
So how does one deal with the problem of categories in this case, then? Especially since categorization is both still ubiquitous in social science literature and is commonly used among the very people we seek not to categorize by our own standards. For my research, a two-prong approach is best I think. Firstly, I am already leveraging categorizations of Shaligram Stones in use by the people themselves who venerate the stones (many of such categories being drawn from Vedic and other religious texts) and secondly, I am acknowledging that designations and differentiations can be employed to the benefit of research while also addressing possible flaws, over-generalizations, and the problem that all systems of neat categorization tend to erase the fluidity of boundaries and categorical outliers that demonstrate just how problematic believing in this entire process is in the first place.
And yet,”classification is possible because a society is no more just a collection of individual human beings than a house is just a conglomeration of lumber, bricks, and nails (Lewellen, Political Anthropology, 2003).” And it is for this reason, in part, that a field guide to Shaligram Stones will comprise at least one part of my larger research. The second reason is that my interlocutors and informants have already expressed great interest in such a work, one that draws together a wide variety of their current sources into a single, referential, text available to all; and for anthropological ethnography, the idea that your final publication could be both valuable to your discipline and equally so to the people you work with is the finest compliment there is.
A Field Guide to Shaligrams
A Field Guide to Shaligrams
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
25 minutes of pure, white-knuckled, “joy”