The New Year, Blessings, and Menstruation in Tamil Nadu – By Ilana Cohen

2017 started here in Pondicherry with fire crackers and intricate, colorful kolams carefully made before dawn on January 1st. Kolams are geometric shapes or images created out of a chalk and ground rice powder at the entrance of houses and businesses. They are made connecting a specific number of dots arranged in rows in particular patterns so as to create either icons (like birds, peacocks, lamps) or auspicious abstract symbols that swirl around and through the dots. Kolams serve multiple purposes: on the one hand, I have been told, they act as a deterrent to ants; in the old days the powder used to be made only from rice, so the idea was that the patterns were a kind of offering to ants and insects which would keep them from entering the house. On the other, the kolams are meant to welcome the goddess, blessings and good things in general into the home and signify that the houses they belong to are open and happy.

On New Year’s Day the kolams are particularly lovely and large and often include the phrase “Wish You Happy New Year 2017” arched across the top. The kolams decorate both the middle class, semi-urban neighborhood I stay in as well as the semi-rural villages on the outskirts of Pondicherry. Though there are two other Tamil New Years, one marked by the upcoming holiday of Pongal which falls on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai (this year January 14th) and the other on the 14th of April, December 31st was still festively marked and many New Year wishes were offered to one and all.

And in a way this seems to make sense; for blessings and good wishes seem to be a large part of Tamil life. I got to join my former colleagues from Eco Femme, a social business that makes washable cloth pads and that offers menstrual health education, on a holiday outing that ended in a home-cooked feast at one colleague’s grandparent’s house in their ancestral village. As the outing was wrapping up, all the attendees bowed to the grandmother, touching their hands and head to her feet in the traditional form of asking for her blessing. And she reciprocated by motioning to lift them up and placed red kum kum powder on the forehead’s of the grown women, wishing them well. Family members and acquaintances often seek the blessings of their elder’s because they are seen as possessing good will, being less selfish, and are greatly respected.

Indeed, one of the things I have been hearing and learning about as I explore perceptions and experiences of the Manjal Neer Aathu Vizha (Yellow Water Function, a menarche celebration and ceremony that many girls have in Tamil Nadu) is the blessing ritual known as Nalangu that is a key part of the function (it is also a part of marriages and other life cycle functions). In this particular context, Nalangu involves older women and female relatives smearing sandalwood and turmeric paste on the girl’s cheeks and arms, putting red kum kum powder on her forehead between the eyes, and blessing her by sprinkling raw rice and small jasmine flower petals on her. As menarche is a new beginning and considered both a happy and powerful happening here, it is fitting to offer the girl blessings of health and wellbeing as she starts a next phase of her life.

As I reconnect with my former Eco Femme colleagues, I am delighted to learn about the depth and breadth of their work. It encourages me to know that on-the-ground organizations, too, are integrating holistic approaches to menstrual health and wellbeing (beyond frameworks of simply hygiene) into their materials and that a rigorous process of action research has continued to inform their curriculum design. For, this seems to reflect the multi-layered context of menstruation here in Tamil Nadu, a context that is as intricate as the kolam patterns in front of each and every house.

I was invited to join the Eco Femme team for their holiday party a few days before our outing; we are holding a garland of Eco Femme washable cloth pads.

I was invited to join the Eco Femme team for their holiday party a few days before our outing; we are holding a garland of Eco Femme washable cloth pads.

The New Year Kolam in front of the house where I am staying.

The New Year Kolam in front of the house where I am staying.

Yak Sandwich – By Holly Walters

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 Himalayan Shaligram 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 shirts) 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 (Mustang, Nepal). 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.

Post 2 – By Vasavi Nigam

I returned the second day with a lot of energy, ready to start what was going to be 15 days of fun, joy and learning. I rearranged the plan for the workshop for it to span over the 15 days in June with follow ups over 4 Saturdays in July 2015.

The girls were divided again in the same categories according to age, 6-12 year olds and then 13-18 year olds. I had 3 batches, the third batch was a more advance class which had girls that I had already worked with last summer. I took on more disabled girls this summer increasing the number to 10 vs 6 in the past year.

The aim was to start making all the new girls feel comfortable. Be it comfort in their surroundings, being among the other girls or inner body comfort, being comfortable in their own skin. The whole idea of the program was to help provide the girls with a creative outlet, help create a safe space for them where they feel secure enough to come and let their hair down, where they are content with what they are doing and most importantly content with themselves. Through various dance techniques and activities, we worked on achieving healthy bodies and trust among our fellows. Promoting a healthy and positive body image was very important as several of these girls had been through physical trauma and were somewhere feeling disconnected (or disgusted) with their own bodies. Another thing majorly lacking in these girls was confidence and instilling confidence in them was my prime goal.

Meanwhile, I started more intensely training the advanced batch girls as they were now already comfortable with their bodies. For them it was more about learning how to push themselves, set goals and actually working hard to achieve them. The aim for this summer was to have them understand the feeling of wanting something, setting their heart to it and achieving it! Through several dance exercises on a daily basis we would push ourselves further and further be it physically or mentally. Something as simple as push-ups had the girls working hard. We would set a goal for each class as a group and promise to achieve it. Each day increasing by one push up. These kinds of exercises also fostered a sense of community and teamwork owing to the rule of if one stops, everyone stops and then we all start again. This encouraged the girls to keep boosting each other’s morale. They kept encouraging each other not to quit, not to give up and together we would work through whatever pain we might be feeling to achieve the goals we had set together.

15 days passed way too fast for me to even realize, because last summer the project went on for almost 7-8 weeks. Due to shortage in time this year, we were not able to put up a mini-show for an audience like we did last year but we made sure to have our own private party on the last Saturday that we met where all 50 girls got together and just celebrated. I played different songs and we had dance circles, some girls showing off their newly learnt moves and group dancing. Some were still shy, but most participated. The whole idea was to just have them laugh and enjoy themselves.

All in all, it was a fruitful summer yet again and I would not trade this experience in for anything. I will be heading back over winter break to do a small one week workshop (if permissions come through). The past two summers of work at the Nirmal Chhaya home has left me enriched with so many skills, knowledge and life lessons that will stay with me forever. So thank you, Brandeis India for giving me this opportunity to carry my project out!

Post Two – By Marlharrissa Lagardere

Disclaimer: I am not a profound scholar or novelist but I often wish I were. As I attempt to tackle this loaded concept of identity while studying abroad, I must first confess that I am only profoundly knowledgeable of my sole definition of identity and that I am cannot confidently reference literary geniuses or notable scholars who have made it their lives’ work to document the meaning of identity. I make this disclaimer to say that all experiences I will be writing about while in India will be made in the first person, it is not be said that I will not try to gather insight from the sparse population of African and Afro-American individuals residing in India. Furthermore, my goal for these blog posts is not to insinuate that India is a racist country, rather it is to address that, like the United States, racism is inherently apart of their cornerstone code.

I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My paternal family lineage has been traced through the soil of Haiti dating back to the nineteenth century. Now how accurate these records are can be left up for debate but as it stands, I am Haitian, my parents are Haitian, my grandparents are Haitian, and my great-grandparents are Haitian. And had it not been for the turbulent reign of Papa Doc and the governmental instability of Jean-Bernard Aristide, my mother would not have fled her home and opt to raise her children within the American borders. Bypassing through all the immigration nightmares my family endeared to secure proper documentation, it seemed as though identity took a backseat in order to protect against possible deportation. Now how realistic were those fears in a nation that seems to only associate undocumented citizens with our neighbors below the border can be left up for debate as well. Yet, the realization is that for ten years, I was warned against detailing my family’s origin and heritage. All sense of inherent Haitian identity was substituted with that of an African-American female, speaking fluent English and from an American household with parents who only may had been taken as Caribbean due to their sun kissed brown skin and mild, incomprehensible dialect of American English.

It was not until my Hindi professor asked me, in front of my classmates, what my mother tongue was that I realized whatever identity I was clinging to, whether it is Haitian or African American, was suddenly berated. I stood there, dressed in traditional Indian attire, a kurtha, leggings, my Vibrams Five-Toe Shoes and my kinky black hair twisted back into a slight up-do, staring at her. I could not even fully comprehend her question before I heard slight gasps and gentle hints of laughter coming from my peers that I realized she was insinuating that I was not raised speaking English. I could not understand how after being informed that I was a student from the United States and hearing me speak several times in class with a mild Southern American accent that she would ask if English was my second language. And as if my muted response was not evident enough that I did not want to entertain her question, she continued on to ask if my mother tongue was Swahili, a language spoken vastly in East Africa; 12,000 kilometers from Haiti and Georgia-my birthplace and my place of residency. I should stop and explain that my Hindi teacher is an elderly woman and that her questioning may not have came with bad intentions but is that enough reasoning to compensate for her questioning. Would the assumption that she simply did not know better allow for her to non-so discreetly claim that my difficulty in learning Hindi was because I was raised speaking Swahili, instead of English like the rest of my classmates, who, coincidently, were also struggling to learn Hindi. At what point will ignorance be unraveled from the shield of lacking knowledge?

In Which the Anthropologist Goes Fossil Hunting – By Holly Walters

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.”

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.

Read more on Holly’s blog.

Jaggery Festival – By Sara Taylor

Originally published at buda-honnavar.blogspot.com

Dawn hit the Angadibail forest center, freshly dressed after its final construction, and stirred a frenzy of excitement for the day. Ashish began what would become his 24 hours as a chauffeur and went to pick up our participants. We all peeled back our layers of jungle which had built up in our previous days of preparation and took hold of the celebratory mood. We heard squeals of delight sound from the jeep, barreling down the red-dirt road. Our eccentric group poured out, wide-eyed at the landscape which they’d just been thrown into. Bharat’s flute hung over the place, the most fitting and soothing soundtrack you could imagine to first discover the beauty of the jungle. We greeted everyone warmly, arming them with our homemade soap-nut pouches and bamboo shoots of charcoal tooth-powder in our effort to keep the stream water clean which flows through the forest center.

Charcoal toothpowder in bamboo shoots & re-fillable scrub bags of soap-nut

After a brief exploration of the new center, we fed out hungry travelers (with plenty of jaggery for idly on their banana leaves) and challenged them to our first task of cutting down sugarcane. Just as the sun started its blistering effect on the forest, we set out to give pooja to the earth and began our harvest. We handled machetes and tried our best to cut and clean the sugar cane as well as Eshwarana had demonstrated. Meanwhile the four youngsters went back to the center to create their own statues of Ganasha for our final pooja after harvest. Our most experienced and enthusiastic participant in the harvest was Savita’s Appa by far. He held a wide grin and laughed joyously, reliving childhood memories of sugarcane harvests past.

Appa gleefully demonstrating sugarcane harvest technique

Krissy & Luci hauling back some of our harvest

After our sweaty efforts, we hauled what sugarcane we harvested back to the center and cooled off with a glass of kokum juice. We had a beautiful (thanks to those artistic Ganesha figures) harvest pooja where we thanked the earth for letting us take her fruits. Everyone enjoyed a cool stream water bath and we settled into lunch, again filling our banana leaves with jaggery-flavored dishes. After a nap and some quiet time, I headed out to the house where we’d be camping/watching jaggery production with Poornima to put some last minute touches on our festival area. Meanwhile everyone at the center revved up for the site-visit by watching a cooking demonstration of Bangli Rotti, a local cake-like jaggery treat.

Bangli-Roti, traditional jaggery recipe that uses burning coals to bake

Ashish managed to get everyone in the truck and the participants arrived at the campsite with anticipation and eagerness to participate. We fed them the traditional roasted peanut and jaggery snack to welcome them to the house and quickly made our way down the road to see the traditional style jaggery production before dusk. There, many local friends and villagers joined us in the celebration of traditional jaggery processes. The bulls that pulled the gaana were calm but monstrous in size. The farmers guided us on how to push the other side of the gaana and quickly the children and a few brave participants (shout out to my fellow students) joined in on the work. All the while we sipped fresh sugarcane juice which our hosts poured for us abundantly.

Traditional GaaNa, pulled by bulls, to extract sugarcane juice

More ‘bulls’ to help the process

We were just in time to see the farmers take the sugarcane juice which had been cooking in an enormous vat over a large fire and filter it through cloth. We could smell the caramel-like aroma of the finished jaggery and soon we were served a healthy dose of the stuff which we hesitantly slurped down, trying ignore our bodies cry of: enough sweets! But the local treat was just too good for any sane sweet-tooth to turn down. As the sunset left us with a pink sky, we walked back to our campsite to continue the festivities. There at the house, we ran three stalls: 1) a bottle rope-wrapping station where participants decorated recycled bottles to fill with jaggery 2) a cow/bull bell beading station and 3) a cooking demonstration of a crispy crepe-like jaggery treat, todedevu. As the crickets began their symphony, we quieted down from our bustling day and enjoyed sitting still, working with our hands. Soon everyone had crafts to show each other proudly. We leisurely had our dinners and the strongest among us even ate more jaggery treats. A bonfire crackled by the tents and once by one we trickled down to sit by its warmth and hear stories and songs from each other until sleep took us over.

Sugarcane finished cooking down to liquid jaggery, about to be filtered

A dewey morning came and we had everyone russle up their belongings to head to the location of a house that did mechanized jaggery processing. Sleepily, we somehow piled even more people and items in the truck and bounced along the back roads through the sweet-smelling jungle. Our new hosts welcomed us and led us to their processing site where we learned how the modern, mechanic technique works. More sugarcane juice and the caramel-like taste of the jaggery ‘cream’, filled our mouths with sweetness again. We sat down to a breakfast of jaggery dosa and green chutney as the sun began to heat up. After a farewell, we piled back in the truck and headed toward a near-by water fall. Our short trek to the falls was full of wonderment as we stared up at the beauty of ancient trees and playful, vibrant flowers. At the sight of the falls we were elated, a few of us unable to contain our excitement and jumping in right away. The water was cold, even by Luci’s Minnesotan standards, but it came as a relief to the sun, humidity and layer of camping we’d acquired.

Everyone piled up in the truck!

The waterfall

Smiling and soggy, we came back for our final meal together at the forest center. We chatted, napped and reflected on our journey. We came together to share our favorite moments and everyone got to try the bangli-roti they’d learned to make the afternoon before. As a parting gift, we gave out jaggery recipe booklets filled with traditional delicacies our friends could try to make at home. A successful first annul jaggery festival had us already planning for next year. The weekend finished as it had begun, with smiles and sweetness flowing between BuDa friends in the forest.

Recipe booklet binding, one of the preparations for the festival, enjoyed by the BuDa team

Post One – By Marlharrissa Lagardere

Disclaimer: I am not a profound scholar or novelist. My biggest goal in life is to simply live and luckily not make any enemies along the way. I have traveled to India in order to fulfill the mandated international experience required for all International and Global Studies majors at my respected university. I chose India on a whim, simply because it was one of the countries that I knew the least about and would possibly give me the greatest cultural experience. And that is what has lead me here: writing a blog about being a brown-skinned woman in a country living in a country once colonized by the imperial strong arm of England and is currently combating systematic hierarchies, deeply rooted with hints of racial separation, such as the caste system that has plagued their country for centuries.

I have never experienced racism. Actually I am lying; in kindergarten, I had accused three white girls of being racist towards me because they did not sit next to me at the lunch table. My teacher’s attempt to address my accusation was to have me to point out all of the people who were my friends and as I single-handedly pointed out people one by one, I was taken back at the end of her exercise when I noticed I had pointed out an astonishing number of white classmates. Even at six years old I had been bested by my own ignorance, an ignorance that would follow me for years to come, believing that racism was simply a white and black issue. It would not be until my second year of college that I would have another run-in with covert racism. One of my professors had taken the liberty to count the number of African American students out loud to illustrate his point of the percentage of students who were not closely related to Neanderthals in contrast to white students, who are the closest related descendants of Neanderthals. As if clearly stating the researched fact was not enough for college educated students to comprehend, counting out the number of brown-skinned individuals had to be added to add a slight flair to his point. Was it even fair for me to count this incident as my professor being racist, I am unsure; but I know that in that moment I had never felt so singled out before. Yet, even then I still believed that racism was a black and white issue because of how the incident presented itself.

I have been in India for over forty days. And within those forty days I have been asked what my “mother tongue” is, if I really was a student studying abroad from America, and generally ignored on a daily basis. I am studying in India with sixteen other students from America and who all happen to be white, expect one Asian student. I am not here to pass judgment on any of my fellow peers but I am here to properly paint a picture of my experience. I have lost count the amount of time that I have subtlety and overtly been overlooked in order to get near my white peers or have the opportunity to have a picture taken with the “white Americans”. I know that this sort of behavior is not specific to just India but in a city who has one of the largest foreigner populations in India, my ignorance of racism and of the heritage of this country made me assume that I would be as widely accepted as my fellow Americans. Instead, I am attempting to understand the still paralyzing effects of the caste system and how it has left me as brown as a common Indian and as African as my very distant ancestors. How I once believed that people saw me is no longer because that would imply that people actually see me. In a country with over one billion residents, it would be futile for me to think that I would be received with open arms and sought after like a rare gem, yet when I have seen almost three white-skin foreigners to my black-skin ones, one cannot help but wonder why the minority is not favored?

Post 1 – By Vasavi Nigam

As I boarded the plane at London Heathrow airport, several different thoughts and questions came running to my mind. I was nostalgic looking back on the beautiful 6 months I had spent studying abroad in London, and as usual excited about going home and being able to see my family in New Delhi. One thing that definitely made me chuckle was the contrast between being back in the scorching Indian heat after about 6 months of dealing with gloomy English weather. Surprisingly, the sky as I flew out of London was actually clearing out and there were beautiful rays of sunshine falling through the clouds on London while upon landing in New Delhi the next morning and heading to work on permits for work, it was in fact raining.

Beautiful Delhi sky.

I looked forward to the heat, I looked forward to the summer in New Delhi and most importantly somewhere, looked forward to reuniting with the beautiful girls I had met last summer during the Phase 1 of my Brandeis India Fellowship in the summer of 2014. Since this was a project where I was working with the Indian government at the largest Government girl child shelter home of the country (which was located inside one of the most secure prison facilities of the country in New Delhi), it took a lot to get past the bureaucratic layers of the system in order to obtain permissions and get verified. Definitely, a more harrowing experience than the Summer of 2014 where the rules were relatively more lapse. Due to having established relations with the Residing Officer/Superintendent of the shelter during my first summer there, the process was a little faster but it did not help that she was getting transferred to a different post the month I was about to start. This meant having to convince the new Superintendent about the benefits of the program and working on establishing a fresh and effective relation with her.

After jumping through the many hoops like a circus animal, I finally had all the permissions and verifications in place to see my girls and start my work for the summer. The only unfortunate thing in this situation was, by the time all this came through, they barely had 15 days left for their summer vacation to end which resulted in me having to reschedule and rework my program plan.

I remember standing outside staring at the half broken rusty dusty board that said Nirmal Chhaya – Girl Shelter, Tihar Jail Complex for a couple of minutes. I had all these apprehensions; I was anxious as to whether the girls would remember me, did they want me back, would anyone come to class or will I be able to make a difference this summer given the limited time I had. But I knew I had to go in to find out, so I quickly gave myself a pep talk and entered through the big grilled doors of the home. After doing my entry in the visitor’s log as was routine, going through a physical check and submitting my phone, as soon as I entered the premises I saw almost all of the girls were standing there in anticipation, waiting! It felt like a typical dramatic Bollywood movie where you see characters reuniting after ages. We ran towards each other and they all flooded me together resulting in a big hug. That feeling of meeting the girls after a year can not be described in words. It was such a happy moment for me and them. In that moment, all my apprehensions were gone, I knew this summer would definitely be fruitful. We chatted for a few hours till their lunch time and with a promise to come back the next day, I left with so much hope and happiness in my heart. Seeing the girls so happy to see me definitely boosted my confidence and made me feel like I somewhere did make a difference. I was all charged to return back the next day and begin phase 2 of my project!!

Settling in at 4000 Meters – By Holly Walters

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.

Read more on Holly’s blog.

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.

 

The view taken from just outside Ranipauwa.

 

On our way up to Muktinath Temple..