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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