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Dancing the Spiral

Posted by J Foster on Jun 25, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

I am tremendously cold right now. It’s partially the cloudy, drizzly, weather, which is always something of a treat in the Himalayas, and partially the long hike this morning. My guide and I left early to make our way all the way up to the Vishnu Chulo (Vishnu’s Kitchen), a small shrine/temple a few hundred meters further above Muktinath Temple on the far side of a ridge closer to the Thorong La Pass. Needless to say, it is quite windy and rather cold up there at this point. It was an interesting place though, entirely “natural” in its appearance in that the short, squat, cleaved-stone building housed a shrine that was made up of a large boulder altar with kum kum and tumeric smeared standing stones resting on top of it. Small incense wheels, flowers, and candles were placed variously around the standing stones and hundreds of white prayer cloths were hung from the wooden rafters only a few inches above my head. The overall effect was one of shrouded mystery, carefully picking my way through a dense thicket of Sanskrit cloths to get to the shrine tucked away against the far wall facing the high mountain winds. My guide mentioned to me that this mandir was made in such a fashion, as a “kitchen,” because Vishnu was very hungry; a reference, I think, to a common method of interacting with divine beings and Vedic deities. By that I mean food. Exchanging food with divinities (referred to as Prasadam in Hinduism), along with bathing (called Abisheka Puja), is generally considered one of the most basic responsibilities of any devotee and attributing hunger to divine entities is a reasonably standard method of organizing worship in South Asia.

But what fascinated me even more, actually, was the recurrence of carved or drawn spirals decorating stones and bridges all along our path. Now, the spiral has numerous important symbolic meanings in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Overall, it is a cosmological symbol that refers to the belief in Buddhism and some traditions of Hinduism that the universe moves in a clockwise direction (counter-clockwise if one is a Bon practitioner). This is one reason why pilgrims, nuns, and monks typically circumambulate temples and shrines in a clockwise direction. It may also represent a womb or the movement of a person from birth to death to rebirth (the karmic cycle, which is also represented by the swastika). But, it occurs to me that when you take a moment to look closer, and consider movement itself as a kind of sacred marker…..remind you of anything else?

One of the many spirals we encountered on our way to the Vishnu Chulo

One of the many spirals we encountered on our way to the Vishnu Chulo

Sudarshan Shaligram

Sudarshan Shaligram

 
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In Which the Anthropologist Goes Fossil Hunting

Posted by J Foster on Jun 21, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

If anyone had ever told my 12-year-old self that one day I would be fossil hunting in the high Himalayas while simultaneously conducting anthropological fieldwork in Nepal, I would probably have laughed myself sick. However, as it turns out, that is exactly what I have spent the last two days doing. More along the participant side of participant-observation, I have found that wandering the mountain sides and river banks looking for Shaligram stones is the perfect morning activity for meeting both Shaligram sellers and Hindu pilgrims, respectively. While I had never expected my childhood fascination with dinosaurs (I think I still have some small fossil collection buried in the basement somewhere) to come to fruition in this way, or at all really, such is the fluidity of anthropology. Also, the next time someone asks me if anthropology is where you dig up dinosaurs, I guess I will need to come up with a better answer than my usual reference to Indiana Jones.

In any case, ultimately, it is the links between these stones and those who scour the country-side in search of them that will form the basis for my research going forward. I say this because it is the mobility of both people and objects in both physical and sacred landscapes that are at the heart of the complex system of identities, boundaries, and meanings that make up Mustang District’s everyday lived world. In short, my fascination with religious co-participation has led me down a path where religious boundaries have become fluid and national and ethnic identities have begun to blend together because of shared sacred spaces all subsumed under the icon of an ancient ammonite fossil found no where else in the world. Time I got myself a pickaxe.

Broken ammonites are not considered Shaligram. A broken stone such as this one is unfortunately, "a blind eye."

Broken ammonites are not considered Shaligram. A broken stone such as this one is unfortunately, “a blind eye.”

This particular bed of ammonites was revealed in a landslide after the April Gorkha Earthquake.

This particular bed of ammonites was revealed in a landslide after the April Gorkha Earthquake.

The fossil bed manages to produce only a single unbroken stone for the day.

The fossil bed manages to produce only a single unbroken stone for the day.

 
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Getting the Lay of the Sacred Landscape

Posted by J Foster on Jun 15, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

Space and Movement. I can already see that these two concepts may well become the foundational framework for this project going forward. Space because religious co-participation in this region is highly contingent of the sharing of sacred places. Movement because it is through various types of motion (circumambulation, pilgrimage, travel of the sacred stones through the river, ritual movement through temple spaces, and returning home with sacred objects) that religious and national identities and boundaries are continuously negotiated. In short, this means that, at its heart, the blending of Hindu, Buddhist, and shamanic traditions in Mustang are largely brought about through the blending of various peoples in shared spaces that hold meanings at multiple levels. For example, the same object (say, a Shaligram Stone) means one thing to one person and another thing to another person, but what they agree on is the meaningful importance of the object, or the place, so in question. In additional to layers of economic exchange and the sharing of ethnic and national identities, this results in a kind of religious synthesis that produces traditions of worship that are both continuously exchanging characteristics and remaining linguistically and ontologically distinct from one another.

As one who is moving through these spaces herself, I had the opportunity yesterday, based on a local tip, to visit on the few mountain Shaligram beds. These black shale beds are used, primarily, by Buddhist stone sellers to mine sacred stones directly from the mountain-side rather than wait for stones to be found by stone hunter/wholesalers further down on the Kali-Gandaki river banks. The downfall here, while the shale beds produce many stones, is that Hindu pilgrims largely do not prefer these stones. Their sharp edges and broken chakras (shells) too often render them as “the blind eye” and are harder to sell because the deity represented within the stone cannot be accessed. This was even more strongly demonstrated when I was given access to the Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath by an elderly Shiva sadhu (holy man) tending the temple grounds. Each stone installed as a deity in this way is whole and without chip or blemish. This is typical of Shaligram Stones used in home worship and these are the stones Hindus come here to find.

Sadly, post-earthquake, there are few pilgrims visiting Muktinath this summer season, so I have not had as many opportunities as I would like to conduct interviews with Hindu pilgrims. My exchanges with local residents and with the sadhus and nuns minding the many temples and gompas scattered everywhere in this area have, however, been incredibly enlightening. For now, perhaps it is best that I get the lay of the land as those who live here know it, because tomorrow who knows how it may change.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The black shale Shaligram bed.

The black shale Shaligram bed.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

The Shaligram Mandir at Muktinath.

This was the day's "haul" from the Shaligram bed.

This was the day’s “haul” from the Shaligram bed.

 
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Settling in at 4000 Meters

Posted by J Foster on Jun 11, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

At 4000 meters, the view is not the only thing that’s breath-taking.

It’s a pun I’ve heard a few times now, but it is more truth than humor. The village of Ranipauwa, where I’m slowly settling in for the next few weeks of fieldwork, is truly a fascinating place. Focused largely on the Hindu pilgrims that frequent Muktinath-Chumig Gyatsa temple (only a few hundred meters outside of the village), the main road of the village tends to include mostly guesthouses or dharamsalas (for poorer pilgrims), a few shops selling water and snacks, and some strategically placed permit checkposts lest you attempt to wander the area surreptitiously. As in Pokhara, there are also a few Shaligram sellers and also just as in Pokhara, they are all Buddhist. I suspect my interest in the kinds of religious syncretism and co-participation common to this region will soon be taking an economic turn. The number of stones sold is surprising, and many stone sellers explain that they have a specific supplier. By the sounds of it, as I suspected in Jomsom when I met a few stone hunters on the banks of the Kali-Gandaki, there are professional Shaligram hunters who scour the river beds for stones that they then sell to Buddhist shops all along the pilgrimage circuit. This is particularly interesting because the Skanda Purana specifically forbids the buying and selling of these stones and yet, I can’t help but conclude that the sheer volume of stones being sold must indicate the Hindu pilgrims are buying them. To Western trekkers, they would be little more than a cheap novelty, if they knew what they were at all.

My insistent questions have also revealed a few other interesting points of order. Firstly, that some Buddhist sellers are no longer content to wait for the relatively rare stones of the river beds to materialize and are now actively mining them from the mountain side. Secondly, these mined stones (which are clearly not rounded and many aren’t even black) are being met with some degree of resistance. Those who buy stones are obviously less interested in “mountain stones” than they are “river stones.” However, many sellers have commented that “the mountain has so many stones” and waiting for river stones is sometimes difficult. Lastly, the earthquake has been both a concern and a boon in this region in terms of stones. While very few tourists have made their way to Muktinath this season, the earthquake does not seem to have deterred many pilgrims, which is providing at least something of a windfall for the economy here. And while the earthquake did not cause significant damage to Ranipauwa, there are several areas where landslides and fault breaks have revealed new stone beds in the mountain side. Many people have already begun digging in these areas in search of new stones.

My hope now going forward is to try and get more time with the incoming pilgrims. Meeting the stone sellers is one thing, but I now need to know more about who they are selling to.

These raw "Golden Egg" type Shaligrams have been exposed by a recent landslide related to the earthquake.

These raw “Golden Egg” type Shaligrams have been exposed by a recent landslide related to the earthquake.

Finally, a decent picture of the famous Thorong La Pass to Tibet.

Finally, a decent picture of the famous Thorong La Pass to Tibet.

The view taken from just outside Ranipauwa.

The view taken from just outside Ranipauwa.

On our way up to Muktinath Temple.

On our way up to Muktinath Temple.

 
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“Khana khannu bhaiyo?”

Posted by J Foster on Jun 8, 2015 in Fieldwork in Nepal

“Khana khannu bhaiyo?” means “Have you eaten” and it is a common informal greeting in this region. How do I know? Because at last, my guide and I have arrived safely in Jomsom, Mustang District.

I wish I had words to describe this place to you in a way that could convey the motion your heart makes in your chest when you first behold the high Himalayas. Snow-capped peaks that cover the sky; the Himalayas are an incredible sight to behold. “Grandeur” seems like such a cliche and photos and inspirational quotes inadequate. The mountain flight to get here, however, was not something I highly recommend to those already leery of flying. A moderately bumpy 20 minutes of bounding and turning through mountain passes and valleys in the world’s tiniest commercial airplane finally lands you at 2700 meters but not without a fair degree of white-knuckling (at least, on my part). But in doing so, I have traded Pokhara’s humid 90 degree afternoons for a cool and clear 50 degrees in the day time, a fair westerly wind, and a pace of life far more suited to my explorer’s disposition. That, and my last night in Pokhara was a little rough. I finally figured out why I kept waking up covered in insect bites and, as it turned out, the bed was infested with fleas. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep after draping the mattress in towels and a blanket but at that point, there was little I could do. My arms and legs still look like I got into a fight with a toddler wielding a red magic marker but one of the benefits of altitude is that the bugs really thin out up here and I really couldn’t be happier. My choice to undertake fieldwork in a less…..tropical….setting has already proven the right choice. Cold I can do.

Not unexpectedly, internet is a little spotty, though. Connectivity is pretty limited in terms of times of day and access to Wifi signals, so I have no way to predict how often I will be able to post and update. I purchased a mobile modem in Pokhara much as I did in India a few years ago but if the signal just isn’t up to par, I might try out any one of the few scattered internet cafes I have already seen in the area. But for the moment, my current guesthouse has working Wifi.

Now, my guide and I rest up here for today to continue our acclimation and head for 4000m (to Muktinath) tomorrow afternoon. First by Jeep to Ranipauwa and then maybe we walk it….maybe I find myself a suitably horse.

My current base of operations. Well, for a day anyway.

My current base of operations. Well, for a day anyway.

Jomsom

Jomsom

Jomsom Airport. To wit, "flying low" is a very relative term in the Himalayas.

Jomsom Airport. To wit, “flying low” is a very relative term in the Himalayas.

Jomsom - Surrounded by the peaks.

Jomsom – Surrounded by the peaks.

It says, "Welcome for Climbing."

It says, “Welcome for Climbing.”

 
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My Notes Runneth O’er

Posted by J Foster on Jun 7, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Today I visited the shopkeepers of Pokhara, Nepal. Specifically, I concentrated on speaking with shopkeepers who sold Shaligram stones. For those of you who don’t know my work as well, it is important to understand that in Hindu Vaishnava theology, it is a karmic sin to place a monetary value on or exchange money for a Shaligram stone. Now, the bending of religious rules such as this one for the sake of making a living selling religious objects is not necessarily unheard of among merchants who are both faithful and business savvy, but in my past experiences, Hindu Vaishnavas who venerate these stones have always been particularly serious on this point. Therefore, one of my pressing questions in regards to the commonplace sale of stones in both India and Nepal had to do with who was selling them, who was buying them, and how the stones were making it from the high Himalayas where they are found into the tourist markets of Pokhara, Kathmandu, and beyond.

I won’t supply all the gritty details here (as such details constitute the raw data of my research and I do not have as clear an idea of what everything really means just yet) but suffice to say the stones are rather routinely sold (not by Hindus) and for roughly Rs 350 to upwards of Rs 1000 (about $3.50 to $10.00), are often bought (not by Hindus), and have a very concerning method of getting from point A to point B (involving intentional destruction of whole stones into smaller pieces). It is the last point that has me, currently, the most intrigued, as, for the moment, it would appear that shopkeepers who sell the stones are either unaware of (or claim to be unaware of) what these stones are in terms of religious significance or, are aware of their significance and are intentionally destroying them before placing them up for sale.

Needless to say, my notes runneth o’er.

Also, lastly, I leave for Jomsom/Muktinath with my Nepali guide early tomorrow morning. I don’t know what my internet accessibility situation is going to look like once I get there so….I’ll see you all when I see you, maybe sooner, maybe later.

Another broken Shaligram. Every stone, with a couple of rare exceptions, was sold in this manner.

Another broken Shaligram. Every stone, with a couple of rare exceptions, was sold in this manner.

A basket of stones for sale.

A basket of stones for sale.

Another broken Shaligram. In fact, almost no shopkeeper sold undamaged stones.

Another broken Shaligram. In fact, almost no shopkeeper sold undamaged stones.

Can you spot the Shaligram here? It's hiding on the trinket shelf.

Can you spot the Shaligram here? It’s hiding on the trinket shelf.

Broken Shaligram - A typical shop stone.

Broken Shaligram – A typical shop stone.

Raw Shaligram stones often appeared on shop shelves mixed with other minerals and semi-precious stones.

Raw Shaligram stones often appeared on shop shelves mixed with other minerals and semi-precious stones. This was the only shop I encountered selling whole stones.

 
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Get All the Information You Can, We’ll Find a Use for it Later

Posted by J Foster on Jun 3, 2015 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

One of the truths of working in anthropology is that you never know what is going to be useful. Really. So in most cases, ethnographic fieldworkers often find themselves documenting everything they can (including the most inconsequential minutia) with the somewhat agnostic hope that God will sort it out later.

My first day in Kathmandu has already proven a fine example of this dilemma. Though the airline lost my baggage somewhere between New York and Abu Dhabi, and therefore left me without my field notebook, I’ve been able to jot notes here and there on my guesthouse receipts and a couple of business cards I picked up from a trekking agency office. So far this has included thoughts about the still obvious earthquake damage I’ve already encountered, the generally warm welcome of everyone I have met, and the reactions I have gotten from shop-keepers and service people when I converse with them in Hindi rather than English (confused then excited). Without meaning to, I think I may also have partially terrified the woman sweeping the guesthouse stairs this morning when I asked her how she was today (Aj aap kaisi hain?). But since then, every time she sees me walking past she is keen to talk to me right away, mostly for the novelty of it I think. The other good news is that, as it turns out, I am able to communicate more and understand much more than I thought I would initially. Though Hindi and Nepali have a great deal in common, they are not the same language, and I was concerned my previous language learning wouldn’t be as beneficial as I hoped. Clearly, I am quite pleased to be proven wrong in this case.

Even better I also had the foresight to pack my camera in my carry-on, so I haven’t been without the joys of looking like a true tourist as well. Other than that, I am left until tomorrow with my computer, a bottle of Tylenol, and a bag of Skittles I bought at the airport. At least I thought to wear comfortable clothes. Thankfully, a few hours wandering through the narrow streets of Thamel District (not far from my guesthouse) I was able to find the bare essentials necessary to see me through: a power converter to charge my computer and a bottle of shampoo. Seeing as I haven’t bathed in three days, I’m really looking forward to the latter.

So, speaking of which, I think I might just get to it while we’re all taking a mid-day heat rest.

Buddhist Stupa nearly destroyed by the Gorkha Earthquake.

Buddhist Stupa nearly destroyed by the Gorkha Earthquake.

Thamel District, Kathmandu

Thamel District, Kathmandu

Thamel District, Kathmandu

Thamel District, Kathmandu

Thamel District, Kathmandu

Thamel District, Kathmandu

The building on the right was destroyed by the quake. The surviving building is on the left.

The building on the right was destroyed by the quake. The surviving building is on the left.

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