Religious Festivals in India: Where Celebrations take part in Public Domain – By Talia Bornstein

During my first week in Pune, religion became a part of my nightly routine. Every night, I crashed into bed, my body exhausted from jetlag, my mind spinning with stimulation. Every night, I drifted into sleep despite high-pitched songs, and chants, booming through speakers; the sounds of the Ganesh festival became a lullaby. An enormous stage, with moving statues, blocked my window. The pulsating rhythms and incessant beats embody for me the indefatigable presence of religious celebrations in India. Even in the privacy of my bedroom, there was no escaping the public celebration.

The public lights, bright colors and festivity remind me of Christmastime in New York. Yet in New York, the public symbols of Christmas are secularized and commercial, and feel almost separate from Christianity as a religion. As a Jew, I’m never confronted with the religious aspects of Christmas because those rituals take place within homes and churches. In India, it is impossible to avoid the religious aspect of the Ganesh festival. Brightly decorated streets are filled with streams of people praying at Ganesh shrines. While the celebration of Christmas in America is primarily a private celebration, Ganapati is communal and public. Many of my friends celebrate Christmas, but I only experience it when I’m invited into their homes to celebrate with their families. The Ganesh festival is an extreme contrast to my experience of religious celebrations in America. As a Jewish foreigner, I felt more involved and immersed in this Indian celebration than I have with any religious holiday in America, outside of my personal religious practices. My ability to take part in this Hindu festival is telling of the public nature of religious expression in India. These holidays are celebrated as a collective community.

The Dusshera festival gave me another taste of India’s fervent, communal, religious celebrations. My experience of Dussehra felt more intimate than Ganesh, but maintained the same energy and excitement: Streets jammed with people, neon-lit floats dedicated to Gods, piercing music, fireworks. But what was most exciting were groups of young men and women, drenched in sweat, drumming and dancing, with beaming smiles. Standing on the side, holding onto my walker, I viscerally felt the religious and celebratory fervor. Even as a non-Hindu foreigner who does not celebrate this holiday, I felt included in the celebration and excitement that it was occurring.

Interestingly, on final night of Dusshera, I was observing a Jewish Holiday, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is an introspective holiday when Jews atone for misdeeds, a contrasting mood to that of Dusshera. I have always experienced the acts of self-reflection and repentance on Yom Kippur as an individual process. Yet this Yom Kippur in India, I felt more engaged with the Jewish community as a whole and less focused on my individual self.

Services on Yom Kippur in India, like in America, take place in a private synagogue. Unlike America, the synagogue here has no security, and throughout the day the gates remain wide open. During services, windows are open, revealing Jewish prayer to the public. It felt like an invitation between the Jewish Indian community and the Indian community-Yom Kippur prayers in sync with Dusshera’s pounding drums. Another form of religious practice is through names. Many people I have met in India have names relating to Hindu ideology, and so far, every Jewish Indian I have met, has a Hebrew name. Most Jewish Americans have a secular name and a separate Hebrew name used for religious purposes. This practice separates religious names for the private, and secular names for the public. In India, Jews constantly wear and live their Judaism, continuously bringing it into the public sphere.

In India, Jews are a tiny minority. With the small number of Jews in Pune- around 250- I didn’t expect a strong Jewish community to exist. I was wrong. Despite the small numbers, there’s a significant sense of Jewish community. Every Indian Jew I met was proud to be Jewish. I also learned that they also felt fully Indian. After Yom Kippur was over, we moved from a private setting into the public domain. With the gates wide open, and everyone dressed in white, we sat outside, breaking the fast, and then stood and chanted Hebrew prayers to the moon. I felt no fear, no sense of shame, or embarrassment being so outward in a relatively unfamiliar religious expression. The public celebration of religion in India enabled me to experience two important holidays at the same time.

India Fellows Blog 1 – By Talia Bornstein

I am studying abroad in Pune, India, focusing on contemporary Indian issues. I have completed three out of four courses and now in my internship component. I am interning at Deep Griha Society. Deep Griha Society is a family welfare organization that helps low-income families with educational, medical, and childcare opportunities. Deep Griha began as a clinic, but is now grown into a larger program, which specifically targets women, and women empowerment.

I am working in the crèches at Deep Griha. There are four, which range in ages 6 months to 7 years old. My first few days were extremely overwhelming; there are over 25 kids in each crèche, with only two teachers. I have only worked in private preschool settings, so this was drastically different from my past experiences. In addition to providing free day care services, all kids in the crèches are given nutritious meals. Food offered daily includes nutty ladoos (an Indian sweet), milk, eggs, porridge, and fruit. Many of the children fed through this program are also affected by tuberculosis, which adds to the importance of a healthy, nourished diet.

In addition working and teaching English in the crèche, I am writing success stories of children who’s education is sponsored by a program. This program, Aadar Kendrea, sponsors students –often orphans or who come from sing-parent families- and provides them with school materials, uniforms, meals, healthcare, counseling and educational programing. Emotional and mental support is emphasized in this program, with field workers making daily visits to the children’s schools and homes. Deep Griha even has a program called “Girl Child Programme” which tackles the issue of underage marriage; although the organization disagrees with this practice, it acknowledges its prevalence and works towards educating girls on topics such as sex education, hygiene, relationships, nutrition, physical and mental health, self-defense and personality development.

Working in the crèches, I have noticed an abundance of physicality between children (both loving and aggressive), which is extremely uncommon in America. In fact, in the states, it is actually taught to keep hands to oneself. Almost every child is violent in some way to another, when they are mad, or want something. One boy, Arush, is a buddy of mine. He’s older than most of the kids, and he has a very commanding and authoritative presence. Sometimes when kids are being too aggressive with me, and I’m telling them to stop, he’ll intervene. Today I saw him approach a little girl crying. She pointed to another kid, so it looked like she was upset at him for doing something. Arush went up to the boy and hit him. It wasn’t ok that he hit the boy, but it was sweet how he was protective. Sadly, I think that comes from the lack of teachers and attention on the kids. It’s impossible to stay on top of all the children because there are so many. This is an example of a child taking on the role of an adult, which often occurs in low income Indian society. Even though Deep Griha Society helps with this issue in Indian society, it still occurs even if it’s in small doses.

There are many improvements that need to be made in crèches, especially regarding sanitation. Kids don’t wash their hands often, and when they do it is in a bucket filled with dirty water. Bathrooms are also an issue; for three of the crèches, there is only access to two bathrooms, which means up to five children at once will be urinating or defecating at the same time. There have been many incidents in the crèches since most kids don’t wear underwear, due to the cost. I understand the difficulty of maintaining a clean environment. There are not many facilities and there are so many children and so few teachers it’s overwhelming.

Even with limited recourses, Deep Griha Society manages to educate, support, and entertain children. On children’s day, there was an activity fair, open to all children in the community. Tall the objects used in the games were found in the building. One activity used flour to cover coins, and in order to find the coins, you need to blow on the flour. This results in faces covered in white flour, which is very funny to have happen and to watch. The kids, whose ages ranged from 3 to 13, absolutely loved this game. It was amazing watching something as simple and cheap as flour, entertain and excite kids. Songs and nursery rhymes are another inexpensive form of teaching.  Throughout the day, children recite English, Hindi, and Marathi songs, leaving them with smiles on their faces, and new vocabulary words in their minds.

This organization is so important, not only for children, but for adults. There are many vocational seminars and trainings held for adults who do not have higher education qualifications. These trainings include computer skills, and jewelry, clothes, and card making. There are also reading and writing classes offered for the adult community. Many adults have taken these literacy courses and not only become equipped to help their children with studies, but also become empowered. Deep Griha’s work can be summed up in this quote: “Empowerment of the marginalized through capacity building and sustainable rural and urban development programmes.”

“Asking to see the air”: On Heat and Menstruation – By Ilana Cohen

As my time in Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu wraps up and I prepare to head home, I have been reflecting very initially on some themes emerging from the interviews and conversations that have filled the past few weeks. One theme is the notion that the body is susceptible to experiencing different degrees of internal heat, brought about, in part, by eating certain foods and engaging in certain activities. It’s a kind of heat beyond what you might expect in a climate where the winter temperature is a humid 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a heat of the body and of the being, and during menstruation, I’ve been told time and time again, the body has too much heat which must be managed accordingly.

Often in my conversations with women, and also men, I learned about practices observed during menstruation, always followed by the comment that they are cooling or that they reduce heat in the body. For example, almost everyone I’ve spoken with commented that they have a “head bath” (that is, they wash their hair along with the rest of the body, something usually only done once a week on Fridays) as well as an “oil bath” (applying coconut oil to their hair first before washing it) on the 3rd day of their period. This is thought to be both cooling and purifying. My conversations have also included numerous references to certain foods that must be avoided because they are hot foods, or that must be eaten only before dark because they are cold foods. One person mentioned a friend of hers who can induce menstruation each month by drinking pineapple juice—a hot fruit! The frequently referenced practice of prohibiting menstruating individuals from touching the pickle jar was explained to me by a homeopathic doctor as a result of the fact that any amount of exposure to excess heat will cause pickle to develop fungus. Thus, from one perspective, it is not menstruation in particular that poses potential harm to the pickle but heat. Then, strenuous activities like cooking and walking far distances are also thought to induce extra heat, and over time, I have been told, have thus been ritualistically discouraged in the form of prohibitions against women entering kitchens (which would mean they would be cooking) and temples (which would require them to circumambulate the temple grounds).

When I asked one woman to help me understand how this whole system of hot and cold works, she looked at me for an instant, silently, and then said “that’s like asking to see the air.” In other words, how could she explain something that is so intuitive, so inherent in the rhythm of daily life that it is as essential (and ungraspable) as the air we breathe? In some ways, accessing the underlying frameworks that make such systems make sense is the anthropological project in a nutshell, and my current short experience of fieldwork is just an initial, small step towards such an endeavor. The learning for me here, then, is that many of the women I am speaking with experience menstruation as directly influenced by and related to the foods they eat and when they eat them, how they clean and care for their bodies, and the physical work they do all month long. However, in an effort to push myself to internalize these concepts inherent to daily life—try to see the air—I asked the same woman and her family to help me chart which foods are hot and which are cold. And from this I have learned that watermelon is cold while mango is hot, coconut water is cold while ghee is hot, and that bananas are neutral.

By Any Other Name – By Holly Walters

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 (the sacred stones I am here to study) 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.

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.

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 day).

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.

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.