Pilgrimage on the Package Tour

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.

Making Way

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.