Field and Distance

In just a few short weeks I will be returning to the U.S. for Christmas break. Upon my return, however, I will be gearing up for my third and last pilgrimage into the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal for this research field project. It’s hard to believe that I have already spent nearly 6 months in Nepal and 12 months total in the field working on Shaligrams. With just 5 more months to go, I’ve begun planning, and in places drafting, the final ethnographic work that will result from more than 17 months of research.

For the past few weeks I have been engaged in textual translation in order to ensure that I include all possible primary Sanskrit, Hindi, and Nepali sources. I have also had the pleasure of working with early adventurer logs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, mainly in French and German, where local Shaligram practices were recorded (albeit briefly and not very well) and described. Combined with direct accounts by modern Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims as well as long conversations with Shaligram practitioners in their homes on and off since 2012, my hope is that the resulting monograph will be as useful to Shaligram devotees themselves as it is for social scientists and the lay public. But if this is going to be the case, now is the time for hard questions.

Part of my initial drafting of a book on Shaligrams is to see what I am missing. By plugging information into a tentative framework of chapters and sub-sections, I can get a better idea of where the overall work is heading, how the narrative is shaping up, and what inconsistencies I have yet to address. Needless to say, hunting your own work for flaws is not always the most pleasant exercise, but it is a vital one. And the least for which is because this research isn’t just about Shaligrams themselves but the people, places, and cultural ideals that make them unique.

Recently, a friend of mine here in Kathmandu mentioned that my research seems to be on par with a body of research called “fossil folklores.” While I had heard this term before, I was intrigued and asked her to explain more. Fossil folklores are, in fact, a fascinating thread of inquiry within the Humanities typically undertaken by literature specialists, historians of science, and the occasional intrepid paleontologist. Fossil folklores asks questions of the relationships between people and fossils and analyzes the ways in which various cultures have used the fossil record to explain cultural myths and legends, especially religious ones. This should come as no surprise to us really, as even today in the US, fossils remain a contentious topic between Young Earth Creationism and Science and Education.

But the difference between my own work and the typical perspective of fossil folklores that I see is one of ontology. By this I mean that I have chosen not to assume a stronger “truth” to the scientific discourse of evolution compared to Shaligrams as manifest deities. This does not mean that I am setting out to deny science in anyway here, but that I am holding two competing forms of knowledge on equal footing and at a distance from one another to better see how they interact in this specific context. In other words, I ask, Is Shaligram a Fossil?

In all likelihood it will take a lifetime of publications and hundreds of pages to answer that question. Even then, the answer may not be all that satisfactory. But here in the field still, all things are possible. The ritual world is close and the Shaligrams immediate. It won’t be until later, when I am far away from Nepal and a fair degree of time has passed, that distance will help me see the field yet again, in another way; as a whole composed of parts which is comprised of smaller workings and somehow still manages to transcend them. The emic and the etic at last. Such is the conundrum of Anthropology.