Preparing to Leave the Field

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….

On My Decision Not to Wear Traditional Clothing

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…

The Phenomenology of Shaligram Hunting

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!

Never a Straight Line

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.



A River Runs Through It

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

A Stone’s Throw

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.