Social Science Baha, Nepal

2012 Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya.

link: Social Science Baha

Paper Abstract:

Walking with the Ancestors:

Ritual Speech and Sacred Landscapes among the Rai of Eastern Nepal

Among the Rai of Eastern Nepal, the recitations pronounced during shamanic rituals include countless references to the natural and sacred topography of the landscape and to aspects of the natural habitat inhabited by the performers. For every Rai group, often even for every clan of it, these references are “localized” to an great extent and therefore every social entity has its own way of being “rooted” in their natural and sacred environment. In a PostDoc project by the Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) and the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies of the University of Vienna, I explore these connections in great detail with a focus on the Dumi Rai, an ethnic group settling in the northern parts of Khotang district in Eastern Nepal. By re-travelling the pronounced ritual journeys together with the shamans and knowledgeable elders within the real topography, these mental or “recitational” travels are mapped onto the real world. Using GPS technology and different means of multimedia documentation of the visited places and the related ritual texts, a wide array of information is gathered in a database that will eventually be worked into different kinds of multimedia publications. By complementing the data collected in the rural areas of Eastern Nepal with findings gathered among the diaspora Rai communities in other parts of Nepal and foreign countries, the influence of such concepts onto the understanding of the Rai’s own ethnic identity can be investigated. This experimental project is still underway and in the given paper some of its preliminary findings, methods and possible uses will be discussed.

Panel Description:

Contemporary Studies on Ritual Performance and Ethnic Identity among the Rai of Eastern Nepal

Focusing on the Rai communities in Eastern Nepal, this panel examines the link between ethnic identity and ritual performance from various angels. In the last two decades ethnic identity has become a major topic of discussion in Nepal, and ritual performances and religious affiliations constitute one of the main elements in defining ethnic boarder lines. In the process of identity building the Kirat, and especially the Rai, figure among those ethnic groups of Nepal, which through active promotion of ritual and dance largely succeeded in shaping the definition of what Kirat identity means, to the in-group and to the out-group likewise. But apart from this comprehensive, macrocosmic type of identity, many local, meso- and microcosmic identities are constantly negotiated, embodied, and installed in the Rai communities, rooted in the context of local ritual performances. The presenters of this panel examine three different aspects and levels of the topic: The macrocosmic perspective is looked at by focusing on the sakela dance which has been strongly promoted by Kirat cultural organisations as an expression of “Rainess” (Marion Wettstein), the mesocosmic perspective examines the ritual landscape that is encompassed by shamanic recitations to define a ritual geographical territory (Alban von Stockhausen), and the microcosmic perspective focuses on a funerary architectural structure, the chautaara resting platform, which integrates the individual into the genealogical line of ancestors (Claire Femenias). Dance performance as bodily expression of identity, mental mapping as topographical expression of identity, and architectural construction as monumental expression of identity, are all rooted in local ritual performances furnishing them with validity and credibility.

Copyright © Alban von Stockhausen