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Off-Script

Posted by J Foster on Jul 30, 2016 in Ask An Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

I was recently asked (and not for the first time), what I do with all the Shaligrams I accumulate over the course of my research. It’s a great question, and I think, a particularly important one because it speaks to concerns many pilgrims and devotees have about how these sacred stones are treated in the hands of someone (meaning me) who may not necessarily use them for their more ubiquitous ritual purposes. Additionally, I am often in possession of quite a fair number of Shaligrams, many of which have been collected directly from Kali-Gandaki River, where the bulk of my research takes place.

In the interests of the ethical practice of anthropology, the majority of these Shaligrams are given away. In many cases, the Shaligrams I collect in Mustang are gifted to pilgrims I encounter during my travels, especially if I have a Shaligram specific to their needs or desires (for example, a Mahavishnu Shaligram the person in question has been looking for but unable to find). In other cases, I am able to answer direct requests from Vaishnavas in the United States who are otherwise unable to undertake Shaligram pilgrimage (though I am not able to do this very often). In just a few days however, I will be able to send a group of Shaligrams I collected in June to a new temple being built in the UK.

I am especially pleased that I am able to do this because it provides opportunities not only to experience a wide variety of the Shaligrams themselves (without also needing to accept the substantial responsibilities of caring for so many stones) but also to follow the stones outwards and meet the people most involved in Shaligram practice. In that way, I am not just a researcher of Shaligrams but I am also a direct participant in their mobility. And for those of you who have been following along for awhile, this theme of mobility will have special resonance.

Lastly, this is not to say that I do not have any Shaligrams at all myself. I have decided, once again in the interests of research, to keep one in particular that I have developed a rather special fondness for. This Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram (pictured below) came to me as part of a group of Shaligrams I was bringing to a Vaishnava specialist in Kathmandu for identification. The rest of the group have since gone on to better practitioners, but this one was so unusual and so striking to my eye that I decided to keep it and, under certain circumstances, use it for teaching and demonstrations. Today, it lives in a small puja mandir in my office at home in Boston and, should I ever bring it out to the benefit of my students and colleagues, I am careful to observe the necessary ritual hand-washing procedures (I do not allow others attending the class or presentation to touch it), abstain from meat prior to handling, and ensure that the Shaligram never comes into contact with the floor, feet, or mouths.

It has been a privilege to conduct this work and I look forward to a great many more wonderful experiences in the world of Shaligram. As such, it is equally important that I continue to regard the objects of my inquiry with the respect they are due. This is true for the humans in question, just as much as it is for the Shaligrams.

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram at home in Boston

Lakshmi-Narayan Shaligram at home in Boston

 

 
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Yak Sandwich

Posted by J Foster on Jul 10, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

Outside of the annals of the Anthropology of Food, I find it interesting that anthropologists don’t often discuss their diets in the field. This may be partially because their daily food intake is likely to be relatively unrelated to their actual fieldwork or, it may be partially because we often don’t think about it. Until we have to, anyway.

I have written previously on my decision not to wear traditional clothing in the field (in short, because my informants would find it extremely odd and it would create more problems than it would solve) but I have yet to discuss the culinary flip-side for partial cultural assimilation in my particular section of the world. I may be off the hook sartorially, but I am hardly off the hook when it comes to food. In short, the people I work with may not care what I am wearing (within reason) but they care quite a bit about what I am eating (or, as in some cases, not eating).

Vaishnava Hindus typically adhere to a strict diet on religious grounds. This diet is, for the most part, vegan, in that it doesn’t allow for any animal products (of which meat is the obvious, but also includes eggs, fish, honey, insects, and bone meal). However, it does allow for dairy products; as cows are kept and cared for as sacred beings and their milk is “given in love.” This means butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese are common staples. It is vital that I keep to this diet as well, given that the objects I primarily work with (Shaligram stones) are deeply holy and the people I work with are in active pursuit of them. To handle a Shaligram with hands or body contaminated by blood or death is to disrespect the deity and to disrespect the deity is to disrespect the devotees.

As ethnographic dues-paying goes, it isn’t so bad and I quite enjoy many of the elaborate curries and other local dishes (potato burgers are spectacular!) designed to appeal to pilgrims’ dietary requirements. I also consider it one of the many ways in which anthropologists in general endeavor to “take seriously” the practices they study. Contrary to popular belief, to “take seriously” a particular cultural practice doesn’t necessarily mean to adopt it wholly for oneself. Or as Westerners would say, to “believe in it.” Rather, it refers to the many ways in which anthropologists in the field attempt to participate as fully as possible in the daily lives and meanings of the people they work with. For me, this means retaining my usual Western clothes (a short-list ensemble of jeans and long-sleeve shirt) but shifting the ways in which I perceive food as well as how others perceive me preparing at eating it.

However, I only wish this was as uncomplicated as it might first appear. Vaishnava Hindus and practicing Buddhists (whose diet is very similar) are only two of the cultures endemic to this region. Among the local Thakali (many of whom practice an indigenous animistic religion), eating meat is simply par for the course. For most of them, as it typical in high Himalayan regions where cultivation is next to impossible, this means a lifestyle rich in herding and husbandry practices and a diet similarly rich in goat, sheep, and yak meat. As ‘mobility’ and ‘sovereignty’ are the main themes of my current fieldwork, I have often found myself in one ethno-religious context in the morning and quite another by dinner-time. For example, this might involve taking a carefully prepared meal of dal bhat (cooked lentils and rice) and vegetables with Buddhist nuns in the morning and then sitting down for a meal of chicken and dumplings with a Thakali family at night. Needless to say, this has made navigating my shifting dietary requirements something of an unexpectedly complicated undertaking. The good news is that, for the time being, I have been rather successful in modifying my diet based on the day’s expected activities or, if necessary, participating in the washing and cleansing rituals that ensure I do not accidentally disrespect the focus of my research. In other words, I am never quite sure exactly what is going on until I see what I am eating.

I have to say though; the yak sandwich I had a few days ago was delicious.

 
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By Any Other Name

Posted by J Foster on Jul 4, 2016 in Cultural Anthropology, Fieldwork in Nepal

A few days ago, despite the monsoon rains, I was able to visit one of the ammonite fossil beds located a few hundred meters above the Muktinath Valley. The layer of fossils, the remnants of an ancient sea floor, sits up around 5000 meters and is slowly eroding out of the mountain to form a large wash of broken stones and fossil shells that extends some 300 meters down the mountain, slowly tumbling en masse towards the Thorong La river (which joins up with the Kali-Gandaki at Kagbeni a few kilometers to the south west). My purpose for visiting this particular fossil bed was two-fold: one, it allows me to observe the earliest geological processes that will eventually result in some of these ammonites becoming Shaligram and two, it gives me a chance to see unmodified structures in the stones that, given an additional few thousand years rolling through river silts, will become the characteristics of deities as read in the stones’ final manifestations. For example, one of my favorite Shaligrams is called Krishna Govinda (Krishna the Cowherder). It’s a typically palm-sized, smooth, and perfectly round black Shaligram which bears a white “cow hoof” impression on one side (an effect created by the breakage of a concentric quartz ring). As luck would have it, I was able to find just such a structure in one of the “raw” ammonites in this particular fossil wash-out as well. Naturally, many photos and comparisons followed.

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At first glance, it may appear that my approach in this particular case is largely a scientific one; replacing religious interpretation with geological analysis; or “cow hoof” for “quartz erosion” to look at it another way. But my intent is not to replace one method of analysis with the other necessarily. Rather, one of the things I find most fascinating about Shaligram stones in general is their capacity to join scientific discourses with religious narratives, as opposed to assuming these interpretations to be mutually exclusive. Shaligram stones are ammonites and their geological history spans roughly 175 million years, through dozens of evolutionary taxonomies, and they provide us with a tremendous amount of information about the early ocean environments of ancient Earth. Shaligram stones are also the direct manifestations of divine movement in the form of deities of the Hindu pantheon, joining a physical landscape to a sacred landscape and linking individuals and families to profound cultural histories and ritual practices that have been in use for at least 4000 years. In other words, not only have Shaligrams passed down through eons of wind, river currents, and tectonic uplift but they have also equally passed down through inheritance, births, deaths, marriages, and pilgrimage. A Shaligram is not a Shaligram absent either one of these threads. In short, Shaligram stones exist at a juncture wherein Science and Religion are having a very fascinating conversation with one another, in particular, a conversation about what it means “to be” something. This is how Shaligrams can be both ammonite fossil and divine manifestations, just as rivers can be both vital economic and social waterways emerging out of the glacial melt and tirthas (bridges) into the sacred world of gods and goddesses.

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Shaligrams are largely venerated by Vaishnava Hindus (devotees of the god Vishnu) and one of the defining characteristics of Vishnu’s story is the theology of the Dasavatara, or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. In this particular aspect of Vishnu’s lengthy mythological history, is it said that he has appeared on Earth in some form on 10 separate occasions (or will, given that we are currently only up to 9 in the 10 avatar stretch). This does not mean, however, that each avatar was human (or even human-looking); rather each avatar took on a specific form and function designed to accomplish some particular set of tasks necessary for the given time in which the avatar appeared. Given the circumstances of his appearance, Vishnu has manifested as a fish (Matsya), a tortoise (Kurma), a boar (Varaha), a half-man half-lion (Narasimha), a dwarf-man (Vamana), a warrior bearing an axe (Parashurama), Sri Ram the god-king of Ayodhya, Krishna the divine lover and hero of the Mahabharata, the Buddha (depending on what tradition you come from, there is some contention on this one. As some traditions place other famous gurus or teachers in this position), and finally Kalki, the destroyer of the current age who is yet to come. Given all this, one might imagine that becoming a stone can’t really be all that difficult in the grand scheme of omnipotence (though I must save discussion of the many Shaligram origin stories for another post).

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Unsurprisingly, the Dasavatara are also represented in Shaligrams. There are Matsya Shaligrams and Kurma Shaligrams, Ram Shaligrams and Krishna Shaligrams, each appearing according to the characteristics laid out in the Puranas and in the Epic stories of the exploits of the Dasavatara. But what is more, I can’t help but notice that we live in a time where the narratives of religion and science are increasingly at odds, and they are certainly fighting about much more than ammonites. Both religion and science have become a part of the political project, in service to various agendas seeking national or geo-political power. As such, they are pitted against one another as two presumptive sides to the same Almighty Dollar coin. Religion is poised to reject Science, and Science employed to tear down Religion. So the more I think on it, perhaps Shaligrams, just as all the rest of the incarnations of Vishnu, have arrived both as fossil and as deity, in just the right form for what this time needs most.

Another ammonite fossil emerging out of the erosion wash.

Another ammonite fossil emerging out of the erosion wash.

 

A quartz structure in a "raw" ammonite fossil resembling a "cow hoof"

A quartz structure in a “raw” ammonite fossil resembling a “cow hoof”

 

Fossil wash-out near Jhong village.

Fossil wash-out near Jhong village.

 

Hard at Work

Hard at Work

 

Ammonite fossils -- Kshetra Shaligram (Mountain-born Shaligram)

Ammonite fossils — Kshetra Shaligram (Mountain-born Shaligram)

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