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.