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ANNOUNCEMENT: A New Blog!

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 www.mockingtheapocalypse.com.

Cheers,
JF

 
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A Guide to Getting There: Planning Shaligram Pilgrimage in Nepal

Posted by J Foster on Jul 4, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Planning a pilgrimage to the Kali Gandaki can be exceptionally tricky if you are unfamiliar with the region or with traveling in Nepal in general. But because the most common questions I get tend to relate to the logistics of actually going on Shaligram pilgrimage, I’ve compiled a handy short list of considerations below. Think of this as the first part of a brief “Guide to Getting There.”

Total travel days: Between 7 – 10

Total days searching for Shaligrams: 3 – 4 (with trip to Muktinath included)

1. If possible, arrange your travel to Mustang (where the Kali Gandaki flows) prior to arriving in Kathmandu. This can be done through a Nepali travel agent or trekking company easily enough and if anyone is especially interested, feel free to comment on this post for more information.

2. If you are arranging travel to Mustang after you arrive in Kathmandu, you should start with air tickets. From Kathmandu, you must fly first to Pokhara and then to Jomsom, where the pilgrimage route begins. I highly recommend doing this with either Tara Air or Buddha Air as they are the most reliable and are not as prone to random cancellations as some of the other airlines are (you will have to walk or take a taxi to the local ticket office to purchase tickets).

The second thing to keep in mind is that these flights tend to only go early in the mornings (due to weather) so you will likely need to plan for at least two days of travel to get to Mustang. Additionally, if you are traveling during monsoon, expect delays and cancellations (some which can run several days at a time during the height of the rains). PLEASE NOTE! Do not anticipate being able to get from Kathmandu to Jomsom on the same day. While theoretically possible if all your flights work out, it is more likely you will end up with at least one day in Pokhara.

If you plan to travel to Mustang by jeep or bus (from either Kathmandu or Pokhara), you can do so from any one of the many bus or jeep stations in either city. Private jeeps are expensive though, and can run a few hundred dollars (US) for the entire trip, which can be anywhere from 7 – 9 hours or up to 14 hours by bus. Buses are cheap however, and can get you to Jomsom for about $14 dollars (US).

3. Remember that you will need to get two permits to access Mustang, the TIMS permit and the ACAP permit. Both of these permits are available from the Immigration Office in Kathmandu or at the Immigration and Trekking Counter in Pokhara. The total fee is around $25.

4. The final altitude for reaching Muktinath is over 4000 meters. At this altitude, you will acutely notice the thinness of the air and, depending on your personal make-up, you may find it difficult to breathe or that you are tiring easily. This is to be expected, which is why it is important to plan at least a few extra days in case of altitude sickness or travel delays. If you are able, stop by any one of the many pharmacies in Kathmandu or Pokhara for a couple of doses of mountain medications to keep on hand I would recommend it. Just in case. Additionally, if possible, plan for at least one over-night in Jomsom. The elevation between Kathmandu and Jomsom is reasonably extreme (Jomsom is at around 3,100 meters), so if you are not sure how you will react to the altitude, be sure to give yourself enough time to acclimate.

5. It is possible to find Shaligrams in the Kali Gandaki just north of Jomsom. If you are prepared to trek, you can leave Jomsom early in the morning and follow the route of the Kali Gandaki towards Kagbeni village. Kagbeni is about 2 – 3 hours walk north if you follow the road straight but many pilgrims use this opportunity to find Shaligrams in the river as they go. If you choose to do this, plan for around 4 – 5 hours of walking to reach Kagbeni. Otherwise, you can either stay in Jomsom and look for Shaligrams north of the town (on the far side of the river, past the jeep stand and main gompa) or take a bus (in the morning only) to Kagbeni and stay there while looking for Shaligrams. Either place works, though I have noticed that the quality of the Shaligrams I have found outside of Kagbeni tends to be better than outside of Jomsom.

6. Lodging in Mustang is fairly easy to come by. There are guesthouses and trekking lodges throughout Jomsom and Kagbeni (as well as near Muktinath) that offer reasonable rooms and meals (around $15 a night in Jomsom, $8 – $10 a night in Kagbeni and Muktinath). If you have specific dietary restrictions, however, you may have to plan ahead before you arrive. Most guesthouses have vegetarian or Vaishnava food available but the kitchens are not separated from the preparation of trekking meals. This means that meat, eggs, and other animals products are prepared on the same premises as everything else. There are a few houses and dharamsalas that specifically cater only to pilgrims here and there but you will likely need the help of a local travel agent to help you book them. If all else fails, consider bringing some prepared food with you before you leave.

7. Guide services are generally not necessary unless you plan to do more extensive trekking in the Annapurna region, such as the Thorong La Pass. If you are just planning on Shaligram pilgrimage (Jomsom to Kali Gandaki to Muktinath and then back to Jomsom), you won’t need a full mountain guide.

8. Finding Shaligrams in the river can be tricky but it’s not impossible. For most people, even on their first pilgrimages, they are able to find between 6 and 10 Shaligrams over the course of a few hours. The best advice I can offer is to focus on areas of the river where the water has recently passed. This means along the edges of the streams that flow through the main river bed as well as along the rocky areas where the water has recently moved over. Shaligrams will have a distinct inky black color in the water (or when wet) that helps pick them out from the surrounding silt.

9. The typical pilgrimage route is from Jomsom to Kagbeni (1 day), Kagbeni to Muktinath (1 or 2 days), Muktinath to Jomsom (1 day – with flight or bus leaving the following day). For this reason, try to plan at least 4 or 5 days in Mustang aside from 2 days to get to Jomsom and 2 days to get back to Kathmandu.

10. If you are traveling to Kali Gandaki during the summer months (June, July, August) the weather tends to be fairly mild: 10 – 12 C (50 F) during the day, 5 – 7 C (40 F) at night. During the fall and winter, however, it can get quite cold in the Himalayas. Always look up the expected temperatures for Mustang before you plan on arriving so that you can be sure to pack warm enough clothes.

Ok, anything I forgot?

 
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Shaligram Seminars in Stoke-on-Trent, Courtesy of the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire

Posted by J Foster on May 18, 2017 in Ask An Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

In April of this year, shortly after leaving Nepal, I had the distinct pleasure to conduct a two-day Shaligram seminar for the Hindu Cultural Society of Staffordshire in Stoke-on-Trent, England. They were also kind enough to film the seminar and, though some parts of the workshop portion of it is difficult to see on the video, you can view the entire talk at the links included below.

Shaligram Practices: Day 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nD-qaIKGD0

Shaligram Practices and Identification Workshop: Day 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8U6xsnMYMU

Shaligram Workshop – April 27 2017
Madhusūdana Shaligram Presiding

 
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Shaligram Talk in Kathmandu, Nepal (April 21st, 2017)

Posted by J Foster on Apr 20, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Fulbright Forum – Shaligram Talk

 
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Glimpsing the Divine on the Kali Gandaki River (Mustang, Nepal)

Posted by J Foster on Mar 24, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Kali Gandaki River Valley from Kagbeni Village

 

Kali Gandaki River Valley, Kagbeni and Mount Nilgiri in the Background

 

Kalpvriksha Shaligram appearing in the River

 

A rare Dasavatara Shaligram

 

Half-Surya Shaligram places near a cave

 

Gadadhar Shaligram appearing in the River

 
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Red + Blue = Purple (Bruises)

Posted by J Foster on Jan 29, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, In the Media

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.

 
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Spotlight: Narasimha Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Jan 22, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Description:

As described in the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram, Narasimha, or conversely Narsimha or Narsingh, is an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna who is considered to be the supreme God in certain traditions of Vaishnavism but is also a popular deity in Hinduism more generally. Narasimha commonly appears in early Hindu epics, iconography, and temple and festival worship and dates back to well over a millennium. Narasiṃha’s appearance is particularly distinctive, usually depicted as having a human torso and lower body with the head and arms of a lion. Narasimha is also colloquially referred to as the god of “in-betweens” given his most famous appearance as the ‘Great Protector’ of the devotee Prahlada or as the protector of all devotees in their times of need. For example, when Narasimha appeared to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu, he did so in such a way as to circumvent the demon’s boon not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma, not to be killed at night or by day, on the ground or in the sky, nor by any weapon, human, or animal. Narasimha thus appears as the blending of a man and a lion, at twilight, at the threshold of the courtyard, places Hiranyakshipu on his thighs, and disembowels him with his claws.

The general distinction between the Narasimha Shaligram and its more common counterpart, the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram is in the presence of a “mouth” and “teeth” but without the inclusion of the two visible internal chakra-spirals.

For the most part, Narasimha Shaligrams are sought after for their highly protective qualities. As manifestations of Narasimha, the god who defends his devotees in their times of greatest need, Narasimha Shaligrams are said to bestow protection from theft or the influences of evil or impure persons. These Shaligrams are also said to aid in the healing of mental illnesses, especially anxiety and phobias, and to restore spiritual balance to persons caught in chaotic home situations. In some cases, Narasimha Shaligrams are also included in daily puja rituals for the sake of obtaining divine guidance before undertaking an especially challenging endeavor related to household or marital harmony.

In some Shaiva traditions, this Shaligram is interpreted as the deity Bhairava, a fierce and terrifying manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347-348, Skanda Purana, Nagarekhanda, 244: 3-9, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21), Garuda Purana (Panchanan Tarkaratna, Part 1, Ch. 45), Agni Purana; Bengavasi ed., Panchanan Tarkaratna, Saka 1812, Ch. 46

Vedic Description:

Large opening with two circular marks, glittering to look at (BV).

Mark of a mace at center, circular mark in lower middle, upper middle portion comparatively bigger (G).

(i) With a big opening and two circular marks.
(ii) With a long opening and linear marks resembling the mane of a lion, and also with two circular marks.
(iii) Marked with three dot-prints other things being the same as above.
(iv) Uneven in shape with a mixed reddish colour, having two big circular marks above it, and a crack at the front.
(v) Reddish in colour and printed with several teeth like marks, three or five dot-marks and a big circular mark.
(vi) With a big opening, a vanamala and two circular marks. This type is popularly known as Lakshminrisimha.
(vii) Black in colour with dot marks all over his body and two circular marks on His left side. This also is a variety of the Lakshminrisimha sub-type.
(viii) Printed with a lotus mark on His left side. This also is a sub-type of Lakshminrisimha.
(ix) When any of the above types of Narasimha is marked with five dot prints He is popularly called Kapilanrisimha.
(x) Printed with seven circular marks and golden dots and also having openings on all sides. This type is called Sarvotmukhanrisimha.
(xi) Variegated in colour, having many openings including a large one and marked with many circular prints. This type is popularly called Paataalanrisimha.
(xii) With two circular marks inside the main opening and eight others on His sides. This also is a variety of Paataalanrisimha.
(xiii) Aakaashanrisimha: With a comparatively high top and a big opening and also printed with circular marks.
(xiv) Jihvaanrisimha: Big in size, with two openings and two circular marks. He being the giver of poverty, His worship is forbidden.
(xv) Raakshasanrisimha: With a fierce opening and holes, and also marked with golden spots. His worship also is forbidden.
(xvi) Adhomukhanrisimha: With three circular marks one at the top and two on the sides, having His opening at the bottom.
(xvii) Jvaalaanrisimha: Marked with two circular prints and a vanamala, and having a small opening.
(xviii) Mahaanrisimha: Printed with two big circular marks and a few other linear marks one above the other. (P)

 

Narasimha Shaligram

 
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Spotlight: Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

Posted by J Foster on Jan 19, 2017 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I think it’s time for another Spotlight series…

Description:

Narasimha, or conversely Narsimha or Narsingh, is an avatar of Vishnu or Krishna who is considered to be the supreme God in certain traditions of Vaishnavism but is also a popular deity in Hinduism more generally. Narasimha commonly appears in early Hindu epics, iconography, and temple and festival worship and dates back to well over a millennium. Narasiṃha’s appearance is particularly distinctive, usually depicted as having a human torso and lower body with the head and arms of a lion. Narasimha is also colloquially referred to as the god of “in-betweens” given his most famous appearance as the ‘Great Protector’ of the devotee Prahlada or as the protector of all devotees in their times of need. For example, when Narasimha appeared to destroy the demon king Hiranyakashipu, he did so in such a way as to circumvent the demon’s boon not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma, not to be killed at night or by day, on the ground or in the sky, nor by any weapon, human, or animal. Narasimha thus appears as the blending of a man and a lion, at twilight, at the threshold of the courtyard, places Hiranyakshipu on his thighs, and disembowels him with his claws.

As a variation on the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram, the Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligram is easily recognized by the presence of a “fanged mouth” at the apex of the primary opening which also reveals the two internal chakra-spirals typically characteristic of the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram. This “mouth,” then usually contains a row of “teeth” visible either along the outer edge of the upper part of the opening or encircling a second inner opening through the central column forming the end of the primary opening.

As manifestations of Narasimha, worship of these Shaligrams is said to bestow protections from enemies and from attacks on one’s faith.  As such, Lakshmi-Narasimha Shaligrams are often sought after by those who live in regions where their particular religious tradition is in the political minority or by those who intend to immigrate to a country significantly outside of their usual cultural mores (such as America or the UK). These Shaligrams are also said to bestow confidence, strength, and righteousness more generally and are considered highly desirable for inclusion in daily puja rituals.

Vedic References: Praanatoshani Tantra pg. 347, Brahmavaivartta (Prakritikhanda, Ch. 21)

Vedic Descriptions: Large opening with two circular marks, glittering to look at, with vanamala mark (BV).

Discussion: This Shaligram bears similar resemblance to the Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram but is identified by the distinctive “mouth-like” structure located at the top of the main opening. This structure is formed by the incomplete wearing of the ammonite shell out of the surrounding shale nodule, which leaves at least one cross-segment of the internal portion of the ammonite still in place as it breaks out of the shell mold.

Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

Lakshmi – Narasimha Shaligram

 
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My Divine Pet Rock: Notes on Gender and Authority in Anthropology

Posted by J Foster on Dec 17, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal, Gender Studies

“Isn’t He just adorable.” Gangadevi laughed, clutching the small Krishna Govinda Shaligram in her right hand. “I have had Shaligrams for many years but He is special, you see. Krishna was my very first Shaligram. The very first Shaligram I ever dressed or offered praśadam to. The first every morning to received sandalwood tilak and water. You know, I call him my divine pet rock.”

Chuckling together, I feigned incredulity. “A divine pet rock?”

“Oh yes!” She replied with glee. “But we wouldn’t use those googly eyes for his face. That would just be cruel.”

The first time I related this story, I was conducting a fieldwork presentation to a room full of colleagues, students, and peers some three months after returning to the United States in the fall of 2012. It had always struck me as a particularly humanizing and fun anecdote from my fieldwork in India, one that demonstrated the multiple, and sometimes humorous, ways in which people engaged with their religious traditions and sacred objects. Gangadevi’s use of the term “divine pet rock” was also particularly fascinating because it helped her not only to explain her beliefs and actions to someone not otherwise familiar with them (me) but allowed her to interact with her faith in compliment with her ebullient and jovial personality. In fact, I had many such stories from Gangadevi, several of which included joking renditions of ritual failures told with animated delight or notations on the amusing tales she loved to tell her grandchildren about the occasional slap-stick exploits of God in the world. It was therefore to my surprise when my tale was suddenly met with harsh criticism.

“You shouldn’t mock your informants.” An older, male, professor warned sternly. “You need to take your work seriously. Poking fun at your research isn’t going to be viewed lightly.”

“Yeah!” A male graduate student interjected approvingly. “You should watch your tone if you want to present this at a conference.”

The women in the room looked at the floor.

Negotiating authority and respect both in the field and in academia is nothing new to female scholars. As an anthropologist who works in religion, I am often deeply cognizant of the ways in which I interact with my research informants, often in terms of what I say; especially in cases where women are not allowed to fully participate in certain practices (as is the case in some types of Shaligram worship) or are not considered to be capable of holding expertise in esoteric subjects. But my use of humor also uncovered the deeply troubling truth about negotiating authority and respect in academia as well; where, ostensibly, my advanced PhD candidate status and extensive fieldwork in South Asia should equalize my claim to a seat at the scholarly table. Or, at least, as I had assumed, earn me the benefit of the doubt.

This was not the first time something like this had happened. Once, while teaching an undergraduate class in the Anthropology of Religion, a male upperclassman repeatedly and disruptively challenged my description of a particular ritual drawn directly from my own ethnographic work. Later on, while we discussed the incident in office hours, he admitted to knowing nothing himself about the ritual in question but simply shrugged and said “You didn’t sound like you knew what you were talking about.” Even in my course evaluations, which are generally positive overall, I am apparently constantly swinging between “should be more nurturing” and “acts entitled to use complicated words.” I have also faced down my fair share of peer reviewers and conference participants who’ve rejoined with some variation on “you should be more scholarly.” Nothing specific to the content of my research or the quality of my analysis, just the presentation of my character. Apparently, as long as I maintain a “mind-to-be-reckoned with/take-no-prisoners” attitude, I can enjoy the derision of one side who feels that my demeanor is arrogant and inaccessible and the policing of the other who is sure to let me know exactly what it means to be “professional” and “academic.” What is not lost on me, or really any other women for that matter, is that these critiques largely come from men. The critique and engagement of my female mentors, while strict and to a high standard, have never taken this form.

Balancing wit and wisdom is often difficult for even the cleverest scholars, but it has become clearer to me over the years that the icons of the venerable sage and the irascible raconteur are images largely reserved for men. In short, we as a culture don’t quite seem to know how to interact with women who don’t obviously fit the role of the “loving, maternal, guide” or the “power-hungry, frigid, bitch.” The former, of course, being highly regarded for supporting their students and academic departments under a load of uncompensated emotional labor (see especially Bellas’ “Emotional Labor in Academia: The Case of Professors” and Guy and Newman’s “Women’s Jobs, Men’s Jobs: Sex Segregation and Emotional Labor”) and the latter being the ivory-tower elitist everyone just loves to hate. If the only way to demonstrate my knowledge is to be mean about it, it starts to feel an awful lot like having to be mean to the guy constantly asking you out on a date, because if you’re nice he doesn’t get the message.

The worst thing about it all, sadly, is that the majority of my male colleagues have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, and when I bring it up, they shake their heads and throw up their hands. “Well, I’ve never seen it. Maybe it was something you said.”

But it wasn’t about what was said. It was about who said it. They use humor and crack wise all the time, to no detriment (rather, they are usually lauded for it). Their students don’t write out class evaluations complaining about their emotional distance or about not feeling sufficiently cared about. Their colleagues don’t remind them to watch their tone otherwise people won’t take them seriously. But my female colleagues know it all too well, nodding their heads in silent solidarity each time someone sees fit to pipe up during a roundtable and call out the woman presenting for how she presumes too much, takes herself too seriously (or not seriously enough!), how “stuck up” her tone is. How “condescending.” How “ ‘splaining.”

It was a really funny story about a pet rock though. Or maybe you just had to be there.

 
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Field and Distance

Posted by J Foster on Nov 26, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

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.

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