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Spotlight: Yagnamurti Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Jun 24, 2018 in Fieldwork in Nepal

                                   Yagnamurti Shaligram

Yajna (or conversely, Yagna) literally translates as “sacrifice, worship, or offering,” and refers, in modern Hinduism, to any ritual done in front of a sacred fire. The tradition has evolved considerably over time, however, from the offering of objects and libations into a sacred fire to symbolic offerings in the presence of sacred fire (Agni). The word yajna appears throughout the earliest Vedic literatures (2nd millennium BCE) such as in the Brahmanas and in the Yajurveda. In the Rigveda, Yajurveda and others, it means “worship, devotion to anything, prayer and praise, an act of worship or devotion, a form of offering or oblation, and sacrifice.” In post-Vedic literature, the term meant any form of rite, ceremony or devotion with an actual or symbolic offering or effort.

Yajna ritual-related texts are also called the Karma-kanda (ritual works) portion of the Vedic literatures, in contrast to Jnana-kanda (knowledge) portions contained in the Upanishads. The proper completion of Yajna-like rituals was the primary focus of Mimansa school of Hindu philosophy, though the performance of various types of yajna ceremonies have continued to play a central role in a Hindu’s rites of passage, festivals, and community events. Modern major Hindu temple ceremonies, Hindu community celebrations, or monastic initiations may also include Yajna rites, or may alternatively be based on agamic rituals.

Yajnamurti Shaligrams are most often described as having markings of the two sacrificial sticks (sruk and sruva) along with a wide, flat, body and at least one (but occasionally two or three) large holes or depressions.  These Shaligrams should also contain sections or portions of red to reddish-orange coloration. Generally considered to be a subtype of the Mahavishnu – Dasavatara type Shaligram, Yajnamurti Shaligrams are commonly sought after for inclusion in specific home or community yajna rites as a presiding deity. (Also, depending on the tradition, sometimes associated with or considered to be a subtype of Kapila Shaligrams)

Veneration more generally also remains similar to other Mahavishnu Shaligrams, where they are said to ward off misfortune and to protect the family and community from evil spirits, unquiet ghosts, or from deceit through witchcraft or magic. As uninvoked, presiding deities at yajna rites, they are also said to ensure proper performance of the ritual and to ensure that the merits of the ritual are reciprocally rewarded.

References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 351 – 356

Descriptions:

Yajnamurthi: Reddish yellow in color, with a small opening and two circular marks, one at the bottom and one the other side on the right side. (P)

 
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Shaligrams Featured on “The Familiar Strange”

Posted by J Foster on Jun 6, 2018 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

 

Hey everyone,

My work on Shaligram stones has been featured on the popular anthropology blog The Familiar Strange.

Check it out.

“Living Fossils” — The Familiar Strange

 
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Seeking Vedic, Shastric, and Puranic References

Posted by J Foster on Mar 31, 2018 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Good morning, everyone!

I have a request to make. As part of the last section of my upcoming book, I want to include as many Scriptural references to Shaligrams as possible. My current compilation is solid but short, and I want to make sure that I am citing everything correctly.

If you are able, in the comments section or in a private message, can you send me any citations you are aware of or please offer the chapter and verse numbers of the citations below if you know them. I will continue to add more as my own archival research continues, but I am, as always, grateful for your help.

My current list is as follows:

Salagrama Sila Rupi Yatra Tisthati Kesavah |
Tatra Devasurayaksa Bhuvanani Catur Dasa
||

“With Keshava in the form of Salagrama śila reside all the devatas, asuaras, yaksas and the fourteen worlds.”- Padma Purāṇa

“All those holy rivers awarding moksha, such as the Ganga, Godavari and others, reside in the caranamrita of shalagrama.”- Padma Purāṇa

Lord Shiva states, “My devotees who offer obeisances to the shalagrama even negligently become fearless. Those who adore me while making a distinction between myself and Lord Hari will become free from this offence by offering obeisances to shalagrama. Those who think themselves as my devotees, but who are proud and do not offer obeisances to my Lord Vasudeva, are actually sinful and not my devotees. O my son, I always reside in the shalagrama. Being pleased with my devotion the Lord has given me a residence in His personal abode. Giving a shalagrama, is the best form of charity, being equal to the result of donating the entire earth together with its forests, mountains, and all.”

Ato’dhisthana Vargesu Suryadisviva Murtisu |
Salagrama Silaiva Syad Adhisthanottamam Hareh ||

“The Lord resides in many places in which he may be worshipped, but of all the places Salagrama is the best.” – Garuda Purāṇa

Drstva Pranamita Yena Snapita Pujita Tatha |
Yajna Koti Samam Punyam Gavam Koti Phalam Bhavet ||

Lord Siva speaking to Skanda, “Any person who has seen Salagram śila, paid obeisances to Him, bathed and worshipped Him, has achieved the results of performing ten million sacrifices and giving ten million cows in charity.” – Skanda Purāṇa (Haribhakti vilas)

Pujito’ham Na Tair Martyair Namito’ham Na Tair Narah |
Nakrtam Martya Loke Yaih Salagram Silarcanam ||

Lord Siva speaking to Skanda states, “In this mortal world, if anyone does not worship Salagram śila, I do not at all accept any of their worship and obeisances.”

“Shalagramas do not require installation ceremony. When one begins the worship of shalagrama, however he should start with elaborate puja using all articles. The worship of shalagrama is the best form of worship, better than the worship of the sun.”- Skanda Purāṇa

Lord Shiva tells Parvati, “He who takes the charanamrita of shalagrama destroys all sinful reactions at their roots, even the killing of a brahmana.”- Skanda Purāṇa

“By taking the remnants of foodstuffs offered to shalagrama, one will get the result of performing many sacrifices.”- Skanda Purāṇa

Lord Shiva also states, “Even if a śila is cracked, split, or broken it will have no harmful effect if it is worshiped with attention and love by a devotee. It further states there that the Supreme Lord Hari, along with His divine consort, Lakshmi, live in the shalagrama that has either only the mark of a cakra, a cakra along with the mark of a footprint, or only a mark resembling a flower garland.”- Skanda Purāṇa

Lord Vishnu states that, “Any shila from the place of shalagramas can never be inauspicious though cracked, chipped, split in two though still in one piece, or even broken asunder.”- Brahma Purāṇa

Sri Narada Muni states, “It is impossible to fully explain the importance of Tulasi leaves (Holy Basil) in the worship of shalagrama, as Tulasi is the most beloved consort of Hari in the form of shalagrama.”- Brihan-naradiya Purāṇa

“Merely by touching a shalagrama one becomes freed from the sins of millions of births, so what to speak of worshiping Him! By shalagrama puja one gains the association of Lord Hari.”- Gautamiya Tantra

“Bhaktas should take the charanamrita mixed with Tulasi leaves from the shalagrama in their hand and sip it, sprinkling the balance on their heads.” – Gautamiya Tantra

“Shalagrama should not be placed on the earth or ground and worshiped.” – Sammohana Tantra

“In puja of shalagrama it is unnecessary to call the Lord for worship or request Him to return His abode upon completion.”- Shrimad Bhagavatam

 
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Excerpt from the Upcoming Manuscript: “Shaligram: Sacred Stones, Ritual Practice, and the Politics of Mobility in Nepal.”

Posted by J Foster on Mar 2, 2018 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Ato’dhisthana Vargesu Suryadisviva Murtisu |
Salagrama Silaiva Syad Adhisthanottamam Hareh

“The Lord resides in many places in which he may be worshipped, but of all the places Salagrama is the best.” – from Garuda Purāṇa, Ch. 9, 1-23

Early one morning, late in the summer of 2016, I awoke just before sunrise and set out for the Kali Gandaki River. Clad in thick canvas pants and a pair of Vibram KSOs (well-suited as they were to walking around in fast-moving, shin-deep, river water), I made it a point to tie my Australian field hat securely to my head with a chinstrap before venturing out into Kagbeni’s lively pre-dawn streets. Since the wind was always threatening to steal the hat every time I turned my head, I figured that the discomfort of a spare bit of leather was a small price to pay against an afternoon burnt red in the glaring Himalayan sun. A mother and daughter in chubas, traditional Tibetan dresses, passed me cautiously, hunched over their hand brooms as they swept the previous day’s goat droppings from the cobblestones and out into the adjacent fields. An older Mustangi man, passing by with his caravan of mules and donkeys laden with rice and kerosene, shouted out a compliment. “Just like cowboys!” he yelled, touching his own imaginary brim. It was a typical morning in Kagbeni, filled with young women chatting on their way to fetch water from the village taps, small children playing in doorways, and the clink of copper cookware banging out breakfast in nearby guesthouse kitchens. I turned west and headed towards the roar of the water.

The Kali Gandaki river bed is nearly a quarter mile wide in most places around the village, and as the river slowly meanders back and forth across the valley, breaking up and remerging, undulating from bank to bank over the course of the day, it is continuously revealing a new landscape of stones and silt. The trick to finding Shaligrams, as one veteran pilgrim once taught me, was to first find one of the many small, shallow, side-streams branching off from the deep central currents. The best streams were the ones in the process of moving off course, easily identified by the tall banks of sediment actively breaking off and sliding down into the water below. Conversely, one could also seek out a stream that had recently petered out in favor of rejoining the main river and walk along its muddy edges slowly up-river, all the while keeping a sharp look-out towards any recently exposed areas.

As one picks their way carefully along through sun-warmed, clear waters, Shaligrams reveal themselves to the discerning eye. The constant flow of water combined with the settling of the heavy black silt grains that compose the Kali Gandaki are always exposing new stones, new pathways across the river bed, and new landscapes. Heraclitus was rather befitting when he said that, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’[i] Apt in this regard, the Kali Gandaki renews its places of pilgrimage as often as it renews its arrival of pilgrims. I too was also discovering a new landscape, stepping out onto the very same riverbed I had visited just the day before but which now looked completely different—any familiar hills or rocks washed away in the night. Within a few minutes a Hindu pilgrim I had met previously in the week, a middle-aged Indian man dressed all in white, came up alongside me and asked if any Shaligrams had been revealed to me today. I smiled and replied that they hadn’t yet but that I was ready and the day was still young. He nodded. “Darśan will come,” he said. “I am waiting too.”

I was familiar with the practice of darśan from my time in India three years earlier. For Hindus, darśan is one of the most important aspects of ritual veneration, especially when it comes to the worship of murti, the sacred images and statues of Hindu deities present in homes and temples. Darśan is a Sanskrit word meaning “to see,” but this aspect of “seeing” does not just mean to see the deity physically. Darśan means to behold the deity as he or she truly is beyond the material form obvious to the eye and in return, to be beheld by the deity yourself. In other words, “seeing” is a form of direct contact between persons (human and divine) mediated by an exchange of gazes in the physical world but not limited to the material bodies involved. It is also a kind of knowing (Eck 1998: 2-5); through sight, both deity and devotee are said to participate in the essence of the other.

In the act of darśan, the deity is an agent who “gives darśan” (darśan denā in Hindi), and it is the devotee who “takes darśan” (darśan lenā). In the views of many Hindus, God presents himself to be seen in material form because humans are, by their natures, limited to the use of their senses in order to apprehend the world they live in. Therefore, when a deity is present to offer darśan, devotees arrive to “receive” what is given. What is given then is a kind of physical, bodily, and spiritual, interaction through the medium of the senses. Like the physicality of interacting with holy places, the dhams (the spiritual abode of the deity), the reciprocal gift-giving relationship in the darśan draws on sense experience to construct a concrete, material, appearance of the divine through continuous cycles of relations and obligations exchanged through ritual. Not only does one “see” the deity and be “seen” in turn, one also “touches” the deity with the forehead and hands (sparśa) and is “touched” as well. Devotees may also variously touch the limbs of their own bodies to establish the presence of certain aspects of the deity or to invite the deity’s attention to a particular physical issue or desire for contact. During the darśan devotees also equally “smell” the incense and lotus flower perfumes and “hear” the sacred sounds of the mantras,[ii] the ringing of bells, and the blowing of the conch shell (Eck 1998: 11-12).

This “exchange of gazes” is then what enables a subject/object transformation where it often becomes unclear who is acting upon whom and in what capacity. Similar to Nancy Munn’s description of Aboriginal ‘transformations,’ where ancestor spirits produce material objects within which they are in some way embodied (1970), deities in the darśan (Shaligrams included) demonstrate their own dynamic subjectivities in an association with an object world (1970: 143-147) that includes human bodies, ritual objects and other sacra, and landscapes. But Hindu deities are not only consubstantial with the objects they produce or inhabit, they are often described as being no different than them—their mythic presence and their material presence as one and the same thing. This is where the exchange or attribution of viewpoints also becomes possible; where the deities’ desires and actions are open to interpretation, ambiguous, and communally shared. For Shaligrams, darśan constitutes the first vital link merging stone and body as well as between deity and fossil, a link that is initially established beginning with the physical movements and spaces of ritual.

Arrangements of darśan altars (deities, deity accessories, miniature animals or people, photographs, sacred stones, etc.) are often carried out with the intention that each piece of the diorama can be connected to sacred texts, local events, household needs, and historical narratives that relate to the place or to the person that the altar currently serves. On an earlier trip to West Bengal, where I was first introduced to Shaligrams at the Radha-Krishna (Sri Sri Radha Madhava) temple in Mayapur, a local brahmacharya (celibate monk) once explained that his favorite stories involving Krishna’s pastimes were any one of the many tales of his days as a young cow-herder.  During the middle of the day, when the temple darśan altar was closed and veiled, he said that Krishna would then leave the temple at this time and engage in activities within the village dham, namely that he would re-enact his time as a cow-herder in the nearby goshala, where the sacred cows were kept. The brahmacharya often liked to represent these activities by placing small cow statues at the Krishna deity’s feet before closing the altar. For Shaligram devotees, the altar begins at the Kali Gandaki.

“I think that the river is like the flow of the mother,” commented a Hindu woman with a blue sari and a neat, white, bun sitting near the river banks. She held two small Shaligrams in her hand and, as I watched, began preparing a memorial puja ritual to mark the first anniversary of her own mother’s death[iii] and cremation. “It comes from the mountain. Shaligrams come from the mountain first. Then the river. I brought one Shaligram from my home here. It is Krishna Gopala; Krishna the infant with mother Yashoda. And then today another appears to me in Kali Gandaki. Now I have two Krishna Gopalas. This one you see,” she held the slightly larger of the two Shaligrams aloft, “this one is me just like I am with my mother. This one,” she now held aloft the other, “this one is my mother, who always worried after her children, letting me know she is with God. She is gone now, but I see her here. Krishna is here. She is here. I see them here, and they see me.”

The complex mapping of kinship, deity, time, and distance was common among Shaligram practitioners who often described, as this woman did, a Shaligram as being both a manifestation of God (in this case, Krishna Gopala) as well as evidence of the presence of a deceased loved one. The “birth” of a Shaligram from the mountain and the river could be expressed both as a divine birth and as a representation of the devotee’s own birth, the birth of their families, or of specific children. But this layering of time in the context of mythic origin became even more complex within the relationships between Shaligram and devotee where, in the example above, the Shaligram is simultaneously Krishna as an infant in the presence of his mother Yashoda as well as the Hindu woman in the presence of her own mother now deceased. Unsurprisingly, several areas along the banks of the Kali Gandaki river are often used to perform death memorial pujas and more often than not, Shaligrams are incorporated. This begins the bridging of birth and death through the flow of the river which mirrors the bridging of birth and death in the familial genealogy (inheritance) of the Shaligram. In this case, an old Shaligram, passed from mother to daughter, was carried and worshipped by a woman who spent her lifetime as a doting mother to her children. Then, a new Shaligram is born out of the river, which becomes that same deceased mother’s care beyond death, encapsulated in the story of Krishna Gopala. Through the material linking of myth, ritual, and landscape, both the deity and the dead can then be “seen.” This practice of seeing and being seen by the deity (and the dead) is 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 in Mustang, and throughout South Asia.

Searching for Shaligrams is its own kind of darśan. 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 is the first thing that tends to catch the seeker’s eye (since it stands out against a mix of silty grey and dirt brown); the second was the subtle appearance of ripples or spirals (the tell-tale ridges of the fossil ammonite shell) along an exposed surface that might indicate that a stone in question was, in fact, Shaligram. But not every stone that might initially appear this way was really Shaligram. Oftentimes, the refraction of light through the flowing water gave the impression of similar patterns on otherwise smooth stones and the accumulation of silt underneath the current was occasionally responsible for the appearance of analogous ridges in the sand that covered the river bed. More than once, a burst of excitement and a quick scoop of water to retrieve a Shaligram appearing in the riverbed would end with nothing more than a handful of sand and a plain rock.

Finding a Shaligram often left me with the sense of something truly born from the river, something which was appearing only at the very moment that I happened to see it. Carried down through millennia of time (or 175 million years if we’re going by geological counts) by an ancient and sacred tirtha (a Sanskrit term meaning “bridge/place of crossing/ford”) revealing itself just at that moment and just for me. Something that I was “seeing,” perhaps, that hadn’t been there a moment before. Tirthas often refer to places where the divine world and the physical world are closer together, and it is not unusual for important pilgrimage sites and sacred rivers throughout South Asia to be labeled as tirtha. Later on, I also found tirtha to be an apt concept for describing Shaligrams and Shaligram practices as a whole. In Western discourses, religion and science are often juxtaposed against one another. But among Shaligram practitioners, “deity” is equally “fossil,” and “stone” is also “body.” Nor do Shaligram devotees hybridize religion and science, as two possible if unrelated points of view regarding the essential nature of the same object, but instead, use them to draw links between two different ways of knowing. This is to say that, rather than describe a blending of separate, “purer,” forms of knowledge (as one might use syncretism to describe the blending of religious traditions), Shaligram practice demonstrates how Shaligrams as ammonites, Shaligrams as persons, and Shaligrams as deities constitute a shared reality.

_______________________________________________________________________

[i] Fragment 91, “Cratylus”

“Each time I remember Fragment 91 of Heraclitus: ‘You will not go down twice to the same river,’ I admire his dialectic still, because the facility with which we accept the first meaning (‘The river is different’) clandestinely imposes the second one (‘I am different’) and gives us the illusion of having invented it.” – Jorge Luis Borges, “New Refutation of Time,” Other Inquisitions.

[ii] The chanting of the mahamantra, for example, requires the repeated chanting of Krishna’s names and constitutes another instance in which one “sense aspect” of God is “no different” than another. Put another way, “seeing” God in the form of the deity is no different than “hearing” his name spoken or as Stephen Knapp explains: “The name Krishna is an avatara or incarnation of Krishna in the form of sound” (2011: pg 30).

[iii] In Nepal and India, a death anniversary is known as shraadh. The first death anniversary is called a barsy, from the word baras, meaning year in the Nepali and Hindi languages.

Shraadh means to give with devotion or to offer one’s respect. Shraadh is a ritual for expressing one’s respectful feelings for the ancestors. According to Nepali and Indian texts, a soul has to wander about in the various worlds after death and has to suffer a lot due to past karmas. Shraadh is a means of alleviating this suffering.

Shraddhyaa Kriyate Yaa SaaShraadh is the ritual accomplished to satiate one’s ancestors. Shraadh is a private ceremony performed by the family members of the departed soul. Though not mandated spiritually, it is typically performed by the eldest son and other siblings join in offering prayers together.

 
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Time and Writing: Reflections on Shaligrams and Knowledge-Making

Posted by J Foster on Jan 3, 2018 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I am exceptionally pleased that, as of the end of November, my manuscript on Shaligram pilgrimage and practices was officially complete. It’s six chapters long, nearly 320 pages, and contains virtually all the learning, knowledge, and experiences I have had with Shaligrams and Shaligram practitioners over the past five years. Over the weeks of December, it was in review with my doctoral committee members and with a few other research participants concerned with the accuracy of the material. And now, it’s back! And with the New Year finally here, I am ready to sit down and hash out the details and nuances of revision in preparation for my defense in (hopefully) a few months.

This also, of course, begins what is usually the hardest part of manuscript editing: ensuring that I have properly engaged with previous literatures in my field. For those of you who are not as well versed in academic writing, any piece of social science research work must, at least to some degree, refer to and position itself within previous works in the same field. For me, this means that I must not only talk about and analyze other ethnographies of the Himalayas, India, and Nepal but I need to be able to articulate how my work with Shaligrams relates to theories in anthropology that deal with time, space, nationalism, kinship, and religion. In the end, it means that there are likely to be sections of the finished book that are written in terms of their “political positioning” within anthropology rather than by what I want the chapter to actually say about the silas. It’s a delicate balancing act: writing for an academic audience in my field while keeping the work accessible to all those who have participated in its creation in the first place (and who are looking forward to reading it).

Regardless, I remain humbled by the journey. Since beginning this work in India in 2012, I have had the great privilege to travel all across Northern India and into Nepal to spend over a year in the Kali Gandaki region as a student of pilgrimage, of Muktinath, and of the Shaligrams themselves. Now, what remains, is to do justice to everything that has come before in a narrative that I can only accept will have to be, by its nature, incomplete. There is simply too much to say for one book, or perhaps even for one lifetime.

But it also means that the end is in sight for this particular part of the project. I have no doubt that Shaligram practices will continue to be a major part of my ongoing work and that I will be returning to Nepal and to India in the future as I expand this research further. But for the time being, my focus is going to be on getting this manuscript finished and getting myself settled into the academic world (i.e., getting a job) so that I might finally have a position of relative stability from which to continue. Sadly, this kind of research requires a fair amount of funding as well as academic and community support.

I think, though, that the time has finally come for me to get this work out there and to do everything that I can to ensure that as many people as possible can access it. You’ve all been waiting so very patiently and I can’t thank you enough.

Happy Wednesday and Happy New Year. May love, light, and illumination follow you through all of your days.

Shaligram in the River

 
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Madhusudana Shaligram Darsan

Posted by J Foster on Nov 29, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Have a lovely Madhusudana Shaligram Darśan.

We seem to need it today.

 

Madhusudana Shaligram with Padma

 
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UPDATE: Where Are We Now?

Posted by J Foster on Nov 25, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

My apologies for not spending as much time updating here as I usually do. As many of you know, I am hard at work on completing the manuscript for my book about Shaligrams and Shaligram pilgrimage.

I am happy to announce that the first complete draft is done. I am now sending it out to my dedicated reviewers to ensure that I have comprehensively and respectfully covered all of the materials that I want to for this volume. And at some 340 pages, it’s a fair amount of work to get through. While I can’t share a tremendous amount of what will be in the book, I can certainly share the current abstract for everyone so patiently waiting until it is ready to see the light of day.

Shaligram: Sacred Stones, Ritual Practice, and the Politics of Mobility in Nepal

For more than two thousand years, the veneration of sacred fossil ammonite stones, called Shaligram Śila, has been an integral part of Hindu ritual practice throughout Nepal and the Indian subcontinent. Originating from a single remote region of Himalayan Nepal, in the Kali Gandaki River Valley of Mustang District, ritual use of these stones today has become a significant focus of pilgrimage, religious co-participation, and exchange between Nepal and India and among the global Hindu Diaspora. Viewed primarily as natural manifestations of the Hindu god Vishnu, Shaligrams are considered to be inherently sacred. For this reason, they require no rites of consecration or invocation when brought into homes or temples as presiding deities over the household, the family, and the community. But at their core, Shaligrams are symbolic manifestations of divine movement, either through a geologically and mythologically formative journey down the sacred river, or transnationally in the hands of devout pilgrims. Pouring out into the river each year following the summer melt high in the mountains, Shaligrams are gathered up by pilgrims, tourists, and merchants alike. On their way out of the mountains, they travel through forests and cities, into temples and homes, across great expanses of time and space, carried by the indescribable forces of nature or the complex networks of pilgrimage and kinship exchange that underlie a mobility that is vital to Hindus and Buddhists throughout the world. As divine forms, Shaligrams are representative of power expressed as a journey through a sacred landscape, and in the high Himalayas, religion is constantly on the move.

In this ethnography, the mobility of Shaligrams is the locus for cultural transformation. Along the pilgrimage route required to obtain a Shaligram, this mobility becomes a political practice of re-imagining and resisting ideologies of national and ethnic belonging in Nepal and India, where political restrictions on the mobility of Shaligrams and pilgrims becomes a point of contestation for the realization of national and religious identities. As practitioners move outwards and return to their places of residence, the mobility of Shaligrams is then translated into ritual personhood through their intimate ties to community and kinship networks of reciprocity and exchange; a transformation that will also make them available for the continuous making and unmaking of community and familial relationships in a time of great social upheaval and out-migration. This work then considers the multiple narratives of movement that shape the lives of Shaligram devotees in South Asia into a distinctive, alternative, community which relies, not on any single place or time to identify themselves, but on the power and ambiguity of Shaligram mobility itself.

 
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Pilgrimage Stories (Part Two)

Posted by J Foster on Aug 16, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

“My elder brother inherited all of our family Shaligrams.” Suresh began, carefully folding his white pilgrimage wraps in order to keep them clear of the mud. “I wanted at least one but that was not possible. They all went to my brother. But now I have two sons and we’ve recently moved away from India to our new home in Australia. I don’t want to lose the tradition and I am afraid that my sons won’t understand Shaligram so I’m coming here to Kali Gandaki to find new Shaligrams for our family.”

I nodded. “Is this very common in your experience? For second and third children to have to begin their own traditions?”

“More common than you might think.” Suresh nodded. His companion, Manu also nodded as well.

“In my family,” Manu interjected, “There are three boys and two girls. Both of my sisters received a Shaligram at their weddings but my brothers and I don’t have any yet. Our father still keeps our family Shaligrams. I think he will for a long time, so I am coming now too for my own Shaligrams so that I can give them to my children when the time comes.”

Suresh smiled. “Oh yes, no favoritism on my end. Both of my boys will each receive Shaligrams. If I find enough, I will keep some for me and my wife and then I will have one or two each for our children to look after. It will be good for them to start right away.”

“How old are your sons, Suresh?” I asked.

“Ten and Thirteen. I wanted to start earlier but it is so difficult to come to Kali Gandaki as you know. And with our move to Australia it became even harder. We are considered foreigners now, even though we are Indian.”

“And have you found the Shaligrams you wanted?” I continued.

Suresh looked down at his hands shyly. “I am almost embarrassed to say. I came here to pray for the appearance of Shiva. In my family, Shiva is very important but my wife said that is not who would come to us. She said I would see the Devi first because the Devi is who watches out for us now. It’s a very long story but it has to do with my wife’s illness. She prayed for Devi and well…” He pulled the small linen bag from his belt and opened it to show me two surprisingly large Shaligrams resting within.

“These are the first Shaligrams that have come. They are Durga and Parvati. This one here, I think though, might be Shiva also. Shiva-Parvati, but I am not sure. I will bring them to our guru when I see my parents in Kolkata on the way back.”

Manu stopped to take momentary darshan on the Shaligrams before looking back up at me. “I will go out onto Kali Gandaki early tomorrow morning for my first look. I’m praying for Vishnu to appear but any Shaligram is fine with me. I think that whatever Shaligram might appear is what is meant for me and my family. Though I have a feeling that it will be Lakshmi or possibly even Narasimha.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s a feeling you get.” He explained. “When you come to this place and you begin pilgrimage, you start to see how God comes to you, how God speaks to you, in the river and in Shaligram. It’s a feeling I have so I think that is who will appear.”

“I am just happy for what I have now.” Suresh concluded. “My wife was right. This is what is meant for us.”

(For the next several weeks, I am going to be posting a series of pilgrimage stories from the Kali Gandaki and from Muktinath. But while I will be discussing my own experiences for the most part, I am also interested in hearing from you. Do you have a pilgrimage story? If so, would you be willing to share it? Please feel free to write about your experiences in the comments or, if you would prefer, send them along to me via private message).

 

 
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Pilgrimage Stories (Part One)

Posted by J Foster on Aug 4, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

I meet a great many people in the course of my travels but some of my favorites are those I meet on the pilgrimage trail to Muktinath. Shaligrams have a way of bringing out the best in people and, more often than not, also bringing out the best in their stories. One particular story that has stuck with me over the years involved an older woman, on her first Shaligram pilgrimage to the Kali Gandaki in Nepal, whom I met while we all gathered one evening for dinner at a local guesthouse. She and I had been discussing Shaligrams off and on throughout the day and when I saw her sitting alone at a table on the far end of the dining hall I called out to her with my customary greeting, “Namaste Didi! Sanchai Chha?”

She smiled up from her tea and motioned for me to join her. “You would never imagine what has happened today.” She began, excitedly grasping my hands and bouncing up and down on the bench.

“No?” I responded. “What is it?”

From the folds of her jacket, I watched as she produced a small, rusty-looking, Shaligram from a kathag wrapping. It was about the size of a golf ball, round and flat, with a clear Surya chakra deeply imprinted on the front. But I was slightly puzzled.

“Didi,” I started, “This Shaligram is not finished in the river yet. It is still orange and red and rough all around. It hasn’t turned completely black yet and the chakra is partially obscured.”

She nodded happily. “Oh yes I know.” She said. “But you see, it was the very first Shaligram that came to me. I went down to Kali Gandaki to do my prayers. And you know what I prayed about? I prayed about my son. He died a few years ago from a sudden sickness, so I prayed for him. And then, just as I was about to step out into the river, I saw it. Right there next to my feet. Right at the very edge of the river. Looking up at me and waiting there.”

I took the Shaligram carefully in my hands, turning it over and over again while she continued to explain.

“And then I just knew. I knew that God was speaking. My son, his name was Surya. And he died so young. Unfinished, right? This is his Shaligram. This is Surya. Unfinished. Now Shaligram has come to help me through and to help him through. Now we can go on in our lives.”

I could see what she was talking about. The Surya Shaligram that I held was just beginning to glitter with golden colors throughout the edges of the spiral. The chakra itself was deep in the stone, but iron ores and other minerals from the mountain had not yet been completely worn away by the river and so the Shaligram had been born “unfinished.” But still it was beautiful and I could see that it had already taken up residence in her heart. She began puja that very night and carried the new Shaligram with her, in layers of soft cloths, wherever she went.

When we parted ways a few days later, I waved goodbye to my new friend on the outskirts of Kagbeni village as she began the long walk back to Jomsom (and back to the airport). In the course of her pilgrimage, she found several more Shaligrams. A total of eleven if my memory is correct. But she left with only one. The rest made their way into the hands of other pilgrims we met along the path.

“My Shaligram has come to me.” She explained. “It is all I need. The others are just appearing so that I can send them on their way to wherever it is they must go. They are not for me.” We then bid one another farewell. I turned and walked off back towards the village, while she pressed her walking stick into the late summer mud and trudged off into the Himalayas. I realized at that moment that, in a sense, we were also sending each other off… to wherever it was we needed to go as well.

(For the next several weeks, I am going to be posting a series of pilgrimage stories from the Kali Gandaki and from Muktinath. But while I will be discussing my own experiences for the most part, I am also interested in hearing from you. Do you have a pilgrimage story? If so, would you be willing to share it? Please feel free to write about your experiences in the comments or, if you would prefer, send them along to me via private message).

 
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Learning to Love Nepal – Reflections of Leaving the Field (News Article: May 2017)

Posted by J Foster on Jul 7, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

As the rickety bus barely rounded another corner, an audible gasp went through the passengers. A recent blizzard had taken out the road between the high Himalayan villages of Ranipauwa and Jharkot, leaving some 800 meters of mountainous mudslides between us and the first of many 1000-foot cliffs all the way down to the Kali Gandaki River valley below. A few feet on our right were the steep walls of Nepal’s Annapurna mountain range, soaring up to heights of 8000 meters or more. To our left was a sheer vertical drop which began less than a foot away from the trundling wheels of our makeshift vehicle as we wound our way precariously along the peaks. More than once, our bus slid into the treacherous rocks, tilting almost completely sideways over the edge and holding us out over the endless expanse. It would take at least another hour white-knuckling to Kagbeni, the village along the river that would be our stopping point on the trip back to Jomsom, the region’s largest town a few kilometers away. Had I known the road was so poor at the time, I would have made my way down the mountain by my more typical choice of transportation: horseback. But the Himalayas are nothing if not unpredictable and I hadn’t anticipated the late-spring weather to be quite so fickle. My choice in taking the bus was that the trip by horse is somewhat over six hours while the bus is usually only about two, and I had hoped to reach Jomsom before nightfall. Now I, and several other pilgrims to Roof of the World, clutched our seats and each other for dear life, wondering if the half-ton truck would make the trip at all. At least, I remember thinking as we lurched wildly onward, I would have been confident that the horse’s sense of self-preservation was as strong as mine.

Over the course of my anthropological fieldwork, one of the most common questions I am asked is if I have fallen in love with Nepal. And each time I am asked that question now, it brings me back to this story. Not because it was a particularly terrifying experience that turned me away from traveling in South Asia (far from it) but because it highlights the variability and unpredictability of working in remote reaches of the high Himalayas. There are ups, downs, and everything in between. What I try to explain is that learning to love Nepal is a little like traveling through it.

I arrived in Nepal for the first time in the summer of 2015, just a few weeks following the massive Gorkha earthquake that rocked the country in April of that year and killed thousands in the span of just a few days. In 2016, I arrived in Kathmandu as a Fulbright scholar to begin a year-long research project in the Himalayan district of Mustang (near the Tibetan border to the north). My field site, a Hindu-Buddhist pilgrimage temple called Muktinath, lies just below the Thorong La Pass at roughly 4000 meters (about 13,000 feet), between the Himalayan peaks of Dhaulagiri and Nilgiri. My work focuses not only on the multi-traditional pilgrimage that characterizes Muktinath but on the ritual use of a kind of sacred stone which comes from the river just below.

In Nepal, politics and religion are a part of the geography. Since at least the 2nd c. B.C.E., the veneration of sacred fossil ammonite stones has been a prevalent feature of Hindu ritual practices throughout South Asia. But more importantly, these fossil ammonites, called Shaligram, originate solely from a single remote region south of the Tibetan plateau, in the Kali-Gandaki River Valley of Mustang. For the past several years, my work has detailed the ritual use of Shaligrams as objects of pilgrimage in Nepal, as focal points for religious co-participation (Hindu, Buddhist, and a tradition of indigenous shamanism called Bon), and as vital objects of trade with India, China, and among the global Hindu Diaspora.

As both late Jurassic fossils (about 165 to 175 million years old) and as symbolic manifestations of divine movement, Shaligram stones blend science and religion together through their journeys across a sacred landscape. However, given Mustang’s long-standing status as a travel-restricted political buffer-zone, my work also highlights some of the ways in which sacred landscapes have continuously come into conflict with political landscapes or, more specifically, how politics and religion don’t mix. For this reason, the challenges of working in Mustang are only partly created by high altitudes and treacherous terrain. One must also be careful about the tenuous political relationships that currently exist between Nepal, China, and India and that have resulted in the constant military presence along the border between southern Tibet and northern Nepal and in the mountain pass that connects them.

As an anthropologist, my job is to take particular cultural case-studies and apply them to broader problems; in this case, how sacred stones relate to political conflict, but it is also my duty to communicate the importance of cultural understanding across different nationalities, religions, and ideologies. The upcoming book will hopefully help to bring Nepal a little closer to the rest of the world, to show how the conflicts and triumphs of one place are not so far removed from another. Or how the distant struggles of one people are connected to struggles here at home. Shaligram stones and Himalayas rivers might seem far away and exotic but they’re not as distant as you might think.

In the end, I did come to love Nepal though perhaps not in the way that most people assume. I came to respect the awe and power of the Himalayas and at the same time, I learned to give it due deference and to never think of myself as the conquering victor. At great altitudes, there is no such thing. I have made life-long friendships among the peoples of Mustang and the Kathmandu Valley and been invited into their lives and in their homes as a friend and sister, but I have never come to think of their culture as mine. I have participated in ancient rites and learned to sing and speak in languages that date back to the beginnings of human civilization, but I strive to honor their voices above my own. And most importantly, though I set out now to complete a book as a culmination of my research in Shaligram pilgrimage and practice, I do so foremost to return the knowledge I have accumulated to the people of Nepal, India, and Tibet who have helped me to complete this work and only secondly, to improve academic understanding. This does not mean that furthering academic analysis isn’t important but that cross-cultural communication is, at this point, paramount. For me, this is what it means to love Nepal; even if I will never, ever, take that bus again.

Five Dead in Mustang Bus Accident – Just five days after leaving my fieldsite, a group of pilgrims were tragically killed along the travel route I often take.

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