I’m starting a new blog but don’t worry, I can explain!

As the readership of my Peregrinations blog has grown, it has become clear to me that the content of this blog should primarily focus on my ethnographic work, on Shaligram research, and on my continued relationships with the Hindu and South Asian community. In other words, it has come to my attention that the readership of Peregrinations is, aside from friends and family, almost exclusively Shaligram or pilgrimage based and, as such, some of my more general, political, or media oriented commentaries aren’t fitting to the readers.

Therefore, I am splitting my online writing into two sites. Peregrinations will now focus completely on my anthropological and ethnographic work. I will continue to post about my publications, my research, Shaligram discussions, my work in Nepal and India, and so on right here. However, my new blog, Mocking the Apocalypse, will now focus on the particularly political, social, religious, media, and popular culture discussions I tend to engage in otherwise.

So, if you like my writing, feel free to follow both. But you’ll have to catch my more controversial arguments at


Red + Blue = Purple (Bruises)

A few passing thoughts on the current state of things.

One of the tests of academic criticism is, I think, coming to an understanding that your work is not entirely your own. I don’t mean acts of plagiarism, but that, in all things, you must conform to the standards and expectations of your time. There is an irony in this, of course, as tends to be the case in anthropology; that we critique those who came before us as products of their respective times, but are unwilling or unable to break the mold of our own historical moments. Assuming that we can, of course (many would say not). But we recoil at the very thought, don’t we? Lest we be seen as irrelevant, out of touch, or “fluffy.” It’s an oddly functionalist approach to post-modern, or ostensibly post-modern, social science.

I’m sure this comes across as somewhat overly ponderous for mid-afternoon musings on the third re-write and revision of a four-page dissertation description (for a grant application, as it almost always is), but it got me to thinking about a division I have in my life between my academic endeavors (read: dissertation) and my creative endeavors (sculpture, writing, etc.). In short, I finally came to truly accept that, in the end, my dissertation will never be entirely mine. Rather, it is a chimera of committee and colleague feedback and recommendations, a formulation of scholarship before (a theoretical foundation) and scholarship right now (a conversation), a foregrounding of the voices and experiences of my research participants without whom none of this would be possible, and a little bit of my own experiences and observations. It won’t say all of what I want it to say in the ways that I want it to say it, in the hopes that it will say all that it needs to say and to the right people. In truly coming to terms with this, I realize the need for creativity and for activism. Only there are we king.

When you express yourself in writing or in art or in protest, it says what you want it to say and in the ways that you want to say it. It all comes back down to the same thing over and over again, doesn’t it? Having a voice. One’s own voice. And in the end, it doesn’t even necessarily matter all that much if anyone else is listening, you just don’t want anyone else to have a say in the expression. Ignore me if you like, but don’t change my words.

This might, under some circumstances, come across as a rejection of criticism entirely (and I can understand now a little better those for whom that is the case) but it isn’t. It’s about a deep and visceral desire to keep or discard criticism arbitrarily, at will. But without mastery, or the appearance of mastery (admiration), I’m afraid that only the rarest among us will ever truly get to experience that kind of voice. Public space, you see, always carries a price. The social is economic, as some might argue.

But for those of you who have been watching the last week or so unfold in America, you know that right now, a voice is more important than ever. Trump and his ban on Muslim-majority refugees and non-citizen residents (green card or not). Protests fomenting at major airports and the federal stay. Bills to attack LGBTQ rights on the nonsense grounds of religious freedom to practice/discriminate. Tariffs and taxes to pay for a wall on the US-Mexico border (despite dangers to trade, wildlife, and commerce), executive orders to attack abortion access and reproductive choice, and the looming threat of healthcare repeal. Antagonism of China. Israel pushing forward with illegal settlements, and it’s just the first week of an administration that is already desperately unpopular. The U.S. is gearing up for war; it’s just a question of against who and when. Our own citizens or someone else’s.

In the coming days, I anticipate that more marches will build more momentum, the Republican controlled administration will double-down harder, supporters and dissidents will become more polarized. There will be no “listening,” because the lines in the sand have already been drawn. There is no compromise to be made on choice or no-choice, equality or inequality, rights exercised or rights silenced. A forest fire is coming, and many of the trees will burn. What remains to be seen is what is left and where the new growth will begin.

In the end, though, we had this coming. We gave too much ground to ideology, compromised our own positions when our opponents and adversaries compromised none. A thoughtful revolution questioned itself into obscurity, wondering if the water was hot enough yet or whether or not it was the frog or the pot. We became too post-modern to criticize and as a result, we stopped saying the things we needed to say in the ways that we needed to say them. There have never been two sides to every story, but soon the fires of revisionist history will have you believing that there was only one. We live in a frightened and angry time. But we can never forget, that what comes after, won’t belong entirely to any of us.

Secular Stories Podcast — My Interview with Jonathan

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

Peace in a House of Cats

As many of you already know, a second earthquake (7.3 magnitude) struck Nepal on May 12th. This one, with an epicenter much further north, primarily affected Mount Everest and the surrounding villages but still resulted in a death toll around 80. And I am still going.

For the moment, my fieldwork plans have not changed significantly from the first post-earthquake revision. My plane tickets are booked, my itinerary still valid (as far as I know), my visa approved and my passport returned from the embassy. This does not mean, of course, that tensions are not already running high. My family is concerned for my safety and my committee is already bandying about some possible alternative plans should Nepal prove to be too geographically unstable for this summer’s planned project. There is the possibility of additional intensive language training, perhaps a supplemental religion class, even a full-scale project redirection back to northern India where my original fieldwork was conducted in 2012. I have “a lot of balls in the air,” as they a say. A metaphor one of my more theatrically inclined undergraduate professors at UW-Madison used to favor at particularly stressful times of indecision. Right along with “herding cats.”

But if I can go, I will go.

Barring a third natural disaster between now, then, and afterwards I feel it still imperative that I get on the ground as soon as possible. The trekking company that I have booked my transportation through is already using their resources to move relief supplies into the western provinces and with any luck, I’ll be joining them. This is how anthropology can both “see” as well as “do,” or in more disciplinary jargon, “observe” as well as “participate.” I know that things will be complicated and difficult once I arrive, but this was never a vacation. And I know that many will still be without adequate food, shelter, and medical care. But I also know that ritual, pilgrimage, and religious renewal are already re-taking hold throughout the region as people struggle to not just preserve their lives, but to sustain the spirit that gave them breath in the first place.

Kathmandu, Lifted Up

On April 24th, 2015, I successfully defended my dissertation proposal for conducting ethnographic fieldwork on pilgrimage and ritual practice in Nepal. Less than 24 hours later, a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, destroying significant sections of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and many villages throughout Sindhupalchok, Dolakha, Rasuwa, Nuwakot, Dhading and Gorkha Districts. As of today, at least 6,204 people are reported dead and over 14,000 have been injured. Many more still lack adequate food, water, and shelter. Within hours, many of my friends and colleagues had contacted me. “Was everyone I knew alright?” “Was my research still possible?” and perhaps even more saliently…”Was I still going to Kathmandu?”

The answer is yes. My plans to fly to Kathmandu on June 1st were made months ago. However, the initial project called for only a few days in the capital city before trekking westward to Mustang District where the bulk of my research would take place. Mustang was lucky. The people and temples and villages there were spared the worst of the tremors and my main fieldsite, the village of Ranipauwa and the temple of Muktinath-Chumig Gyatsa all survived the earthquake without casualties. Hours after the news reports started rolling in, I was also grateful to hear from Muktinath Foundation International (located in Amsterdam) that they had also successfully made phone contact with the Muktinath nun’s retreat monastery in Kathmandu. The nuns and their families all survived and the monastery, blessedly, still stands.

But the context of my work has shifted. Arriving less than 4 weeks after the disaster, my work will not only still be possible but more timely than ever. Undoubtedly, things in Nepal will change drastically in the coming months but ethnographic fieldwork is nothing if not accommodating of sudden changes in focus, the fluctuating nature of human experience, and fast-paced, on-the-ground, transitions. While my topical focus will likely remain much the same, I must now account for religious practice, cultural synthesis, nationalism, and pilgrimage in a time of great sorrow. I will also do what I can to help. In anthropology, we engage with human lives not only in the academic and abstract, but in the many harsh and painful ways it is actually lived.

It is likely that there will be little I can do to help directly once I arrive. There are currently multiple national and international aid organizations providing relief and aid throughout Kathmandu and the surrounding villages. And their work will continue as necessity persists. If you want to help, help them by donating. I will be there, listening, and learning, and lifting up where, when, and if I can. And when I have done that, I will return again later. And do it again. What I can offer may be small, but I offer it all the same.

In the end, that is what we all can do. Geological surveys indicate that Mount Everest dropped by an inch following the quake, and that Kathmandu was lifted roughly 3 feet from its original position. It’s part of the reason the city suffered so much damage. But if Kathmandu is to survive, it may need to be lifted again. May we join the hands that hold it high.

Kathmandu Earthquake

Syncretism in the Land of Sacred Stones – My Interview on “This Anthropological Life”

Ever wanted me to answer all those pressing questions you keep meaning to ask? Ever wonder how I successfully link Chuck E. Cheese metaphors with ethnographic fieldwork? Check out my interview on this week’s episode of “This Anthropological Life!” Hosted by Ryan H. Collins and Aneil Tripathy.

“Sometimes ethnographic investigations are pretty straight forward. Sometimes, its like getting submerged in a ball pit with the task of sorting all of the colors, figuring out which ones are older than the others, and grappling with any surprises (and there will be surprises) that come your way. Join us as we talk with Anthropologist Holly Walters on her dissertation work at Muktinath, Nepal and learn about the sacred stones that draw people in as well as spreading out across the globe.”

Syncretism in the Land of Sacred Stones



Eat, Pray, Shop

The article is called “Preserving Nepal’s Soul” and it appears in the March 19th edition of the Nepali Times. “For many of Nepal’s development partners, the priority is poverty-reduction, health and education.” Stéphane Huët begins, “But as Nepal makes progress in literacy and mother-child survival, some have turned to preserving Nepal’s unique and rich cultural heritage.”While it is interesting to note that literacy and mother-child survival are excluded from Nepal’s otherwise rich cultural heritage in this set-up the gist of the article is actually about the particular interest the United States has taken in Nepali cultural preservation projects over the past decade or so. For the most part, this interest involves funding for the architectural and artistic restoration of ancient shrines and temples as well as programs for eco-tourism that promote the reinvigoration of cultural performances. For example, the article continues: “In 2012, the program supported Alliance for Ecotourism for the preservation of intangible heritage, the Kartik Nach dance which had not been performed in its full form since 1949. Ambassador Bodde says he was touched when he sat through the performance and watched hundreds of young Nepalis proud of a revival of a nearly-lost part of their heritage. “If we can help do that, we’ve done something special,” he said. ”

It might be confusing as to why my tone here appears circumspect. After all, doesn’t this sound exactly like the kinds of helpful, culturally-sensitive, partnerships we should be engaging our post-colonial, globalized, dollars in? In light of recent tragedies showing the destruction of museums and artifacts by extremist groups in the Middle East, is this not the noble way to ensure the cultural continuity of marginalized peoples? In principle, that would be the hope but unfortunately, such is not always the reality. In Sienna Craig’s “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal,” we’re introduced to a more sobering account of preservation efforts through the case of Thubchen Lhakhang, a temple built in 1472 and located in the heart of Monthang in Mustang District. Bringing together a veritable Greek chorus of characters (a US-based preservation foundation, a couple of Nepalese conservation and development organizations, a Kathmandu-based international architecture and restoration firm, a host of foreign and Nepali subcontractors, and the “rather nebulous category of “community support”” (15)) the project to restore and conserve Thubchen Lhakhang had something of an unanticipated result. The Loba people who once used it, now can’t.

It’s true, the physical monument has been restored (for the time being, at least) and a gripping NOVA documentary has been produced and shown world-wide. But that “intangible heritage” so lauded by the Nepali Times just moments ago seems to have gone missing. The Loba people of Mustang, the “cultural owners” of the monastery, somehow became antithetical to their own culture in the process of saving it. What I mean by this more plainly is that the crumbling edifice of the building itself had been taken to mean neglect by the people, now culturally-bankrupted by the forces of modern society. In other words, the peoples of Mustang, in their efforts to reconcile their lived realities with pressures to “modernize,” became agents in their own cultural demise. For the agencies involved, Loba culture needed to be saved from Loba people. What was important now was preserving culture; a culture that now existed within the construct of a 15th century religious complex. As Craig describes it, “the socio-economic, political, and even aesthetic underpinnings of Thubchen’s neglect – as well as the place of Mustang’s people as agents of this change, is rendered superfluous to the larger mission: to preserve, protect, and restore cultural heritage as a catalyst for what the arbiters of this perspective see as “positive” local practice.” (16).

While this ideological split is frustrating in and of itself, the final result was that, in the end, new centers of Loba cultural identity and activity now no longer appear in Mustang District, but in the urban center of Kathmandu, where many groups located in outlying districts have begun to relocate. As for the preserved centers of “culture” still located in ancestral lands, they’re now visited only by tourists. A new kind of “cultural zoo” has come about; traditions frozen in time and space, set aside for the paying interests of foreign visitors, donors, and trekking agencies.

By designating specific sites as places of “cultural heritage” indigenous peoples are often erased or removed from notions of universal heritage, especially in cases where money, government agencies, and international collaboration are centered around an idea that culture is, somehow, going away (even though, ironically, it is as more and more people leave Mustang District behind for the less destitute opportunities of urban life). And what is more, that which is preserved is no longer produced by the practices and traditions of the peoples located there. Instead, it is produced through an Italian conservationist’s paint brush, an American development specialist’s spreadsheet, and an Indian architect’s blueprint. It may not be their intent, but this culture is different than the one that came before it. This is culture for sale.


Craig, Sienna. 2002. “A Tale of Two Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal”

Huët, Stéphane. 2015. “Preserving Nepal’s Soul.” Nepali Times. 19 March 2015,2092