Research Project

Ritual and Space: Identity based on Ritual Landscape among the Rai of Eastern Nepal

Project Description

In late 2008 a society named Tomakema & Kakchilipu Society was founded by various Rai individuals. Named after the mythological culture hero of the Rai and his two sisters, the society was formed to identify and preserve places within the landscape linked to the mythological and historical past of the different Kiranti groups. A major aim of this society is to designate and develop these places as Cultural Heritage Sites. The idea of rooting ethnic and political identity in the surrounding landscape is not new to the Rai: typically Rai sub-groups live in a unique and partly imagined topography, which forms the base of their local identity. Repeatedly mentioned in ritual recitations, these landscapes, which are full of mythic memories, define a specific religious and political worldview. However, the topography constructed in the rituals and recitations encountered so far is predominantly restricted to the small geographical area of the respective local subgroup. The notion of an all-encompassing Kiranti mythological geography seems to be a recent phenomenon, which developed in parallel with the process of political and cultural change of recent years in Nepal and is related to the call for an autonomous Kiranti homeland expressed by various political groups. In a process of homogenisation local variations of mythic landscapes have gradually been subordinated to the “greater idea”; and it is quite likely that in this active revision of mythological geography the most dominant subgroups will assert their views in the name of the whole collective. Currently the Rai subgroups find themselves in a transition phase, in which local rituals and mnemotopes are tested against each other in competition and slowly are assimilated to the newly for-mulated comprehensive geography. There is therefore an urgent need to document the local concepts and practices in their context in order to be able to understand the syncretic constructions in the making.

Since 2001 Stockhausen has been studying rituals, recitations and mythology among the Dumi Rai, a small sub-group of the Kiranti who are settled in eastern Nepal. His main focus was on death rituals (Stockhausen 2006) and it was in the recitations of these rituals that he first noticed the close link between ritual, mythology and topography: The journey of the soul of the dead, which is recited by a ritual specialist in the course of the funeral, more or less traces out a circle around the actual Dumi area of settlement. Each clan has its own “village of the dead” within the settlement area – except for one clan, whose dead travel outside the territory. This clan, it is said, was once incorporated from a neighbouring Rai group. Thus the dead travel back to their ancestors (also see Gaenszle 1994, Mumford 1989). One of the keys to research on the relation between actual topography and mythological geography – apart from the specific territory itself – are the ritual recita¬tions and performances conducted by the ritual specialists. And thus this project has three main focuses, which can be referred to under the headings: territorial ritual, ancestral landscape, and mapping.

Territorial Ritual

Among the Rai many ancestral rituals (which require special communicative competence, see
Gaenszle 2002) have a territorial aspect and play an important role for the kinship units and for the
larger community. These will be the major focus. In the Dumi system there are six types of ritual specialists, who are responsible for different types of rituals. The various Rai systems of ritual tasks and roles are highly complex and remain to be properly understood (cf. Schlemmer 2004). While most of the rituals performed by specialists are family- or clan-based, there are also rituals which cover a whole village or even region, as for example the worship of bhume (a deity of the earth and fertility) or the worship of water sources. These large-scale rituals call not only for the recitations and performances of the ritual specialists but also for the general lay audience to perform a special type of ritual dance, the sakela, which is the main topic of the parallel project “Ritual, Mimesis, Identity: The sakela dance of the Rai in Eastern Nepal”, conducted by the anthropologist Marion Wettstein (click here for more information). All these rituals are closely related: the movements of a shaman in a domestic séance, for example, are to some extent similar to those featured in the sakela, being basically mimetic and referring to the same mythological background.

Ancestral Landscape

For the analysis of the relation between ritual, myth and topography the most interesting rituals are those in which ritual journeys are performed through verbal recitation (Allen 1974, Bickel & Gaenszle 1999). Depending on their individual purpose, the rituals involve different kinds of journeys along different routes by different modes of travelling. In the case of funerals (see above) the soul of the dead is escorted away. In shamanic healing rituals (cintā), however, it is the soul of the ritual specialist himself which travels, in order to retrieve a lost soul (that of the sick client). What is typical in Nepal (cf. Gaenszle 1999) is that the routes of these ritual journeys lead through the “real” or known geographical landscape: i.e. the mythic space is mapped onto topographic space. The close study of these journeys is part of von Stockhausen’s methodological approach and can be expected to give crucial insights into the conceptual and historical background of these traditions. There are also rituals in which the shaman travels as a physical being. As an example, we can take the yearly pilgrimages to important water sources. Thus, it is not only verbal journeys, but also physical journeys in ritual – or as Oppitz (1989) puts it, “kinetic journeys” – which define the ritual landscape and trace out a mythological map of the ancestral territory.


Rai topographical orientation is rooted in rivers and mountains, the two vertical features that most bear upon the indigenous view of the landscape. Most Rai live in a vegetative zone of forested hills below the timberline. In their sloped terrain prominent rocks, trees and water sources, along with cultivated terraced fields, are the major landmarks and points of orientation. The knowledge of these topographic features and their names is closely linked to knowledge of ritual paths and mythological events. People usually know the physical landscape described in the death ritual of their own clan and maybe some of the landmarks of other clans. The toponyms of nearby stations in the soul-travel of a dhāmi will be known to everybody, as will points of great importance, such as villages or rocks, which latter may represent certain gods and goddesses. Moreover, there are many stanzas in the ritual chants which refer to plants, animals or humans associated with a specific physical location and thus figure as features on the mental map. This mental mapping of the ritual and mythological landscape which is projected onto the physical landscape forms a significant part of the identity of the local groups as it strengthens the bond between the people and their land. And because these mappings are filled with what the local groups perceive as the very core of their culture – the founding of their clans, the intro¬duction of cultural technologies, the appropriation of an ancestral homeland – they represent a highly significant means of supporting the quest for an autonomous Kiranti homeland in eastern Nepal.

Research Aims and Questions

The main research questions are thus concerned with the ritual landscapes and territories as perceived by local communities: In what ways are they defined as a sacred topography in myth and ritual? And how are they used by local agents in power struggles and in the formation of contemporary identities?

The two projects will take the ritual recitations and practices as their major source and starting point, and the research will set about documenting the major ritual texts and ritual symbolism. This leads to larger issues concerning the role of the rituals in the social and political order. Among the Dumi Rai for example not only do the travel routes of the souls of the dead delimit Dumi territory, but each clan seems to mark out a sub-territory by means of the travels of their own souls. The hypothesis therefore is that travel routes may indicate the demarcation of territorial rights and the relation between in- and out-groups even within the smallest social units of a local culture. Further questions emerge, such as: How do the mappings of ritual landscapes relate to cultural realities? For example, how do they relate to migration routes, clan- or lineage-related structures, settlement patterns, or trade routes (cf. Oppitz1999: 167ff.)?

In order to clarify the local notions of space, one major approach will be the study of local toponyms. As there is a strong tendency to replace Rai names by Nepali names, a thorough documentation of indigenous names is of great urgency. The traditional names are often full of mythic and historical references, pointing to a rich and meaningful past. Moreover, besides the ordinary names there are often distinct names used in the ritual language, which raises additional questions. A systematic study of Rai place names has not yet been done (Witzel 1993 is a pioneering paper on hydronyms).

Though the Dumi Rai will be the major focus of the project, a comparative outlook is important in order to understand unique local features, and so the project will make selected use of the Puma materials (ritual texts dealing with the landscape and territory, shamanic journeys, listings of toponyms etc.) which have been collected by the CPDP (Chintang & Puma Documentation Project) project, as well as other relevant and accessible data. In spite of their great “family resemblance” there are significant differences between the Rai groups which may create considerable problems for political groups when it comes to formulating a mythological geography that encompasses all Rai groups. This leads to the last set of research questions: What are the political strategies for the construction of an all-encompassing Kiranti mytho-ritual geography and identity, like it is currently being done by various political organisations in Nepal and how are such demands legitimized vis-à-vis other settlers, such as Gurung, Tamang or Sherpa, who also live in the region? Will the ritual journeys be reinvented as new, politically charged pilgrimages, as they have been in other ethnographically documented examples from Nepal (Pettigrew et al. 2009)?

(The above project description is based on a funding proposal handed in to the FWF, Austria)

Further Reading and Sources

Project Website (University of Vienna)

CIRDIS (Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Documentation of Inner and South Asian Cutlural History, University of Vienna)

Article at UNI:VIEW Magazin


Allen, Nicholas J.

1974. “The ritual journey: a pattern underlying certain Nepalese rituals”. In: C. v. Fürer-Haimendorf (ed.). Contributions to the Anthropology of Nepal. Warminster: Aris and Phillips. Pp. 6-22.
1976. Studies in the Myths and Oral Traditions of the Thulung Rai of East Nepal. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Oxford University .

Bickel, Balthasar & Martin Gaenszle (eds.)

1999. Himalayan Space: Cultural Horizons and Practices. Zürich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität.

Driem, George, van

1993. A Grammar of Dumi. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ebert, Karen H. & Martin Gaenszle

2008. Rai Mythology: Kiranti oral texts. Vol. 69. Harvard Oriental Series. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.

Gaenszle, Martin

1991. Verwandtschaft und Mythologie bei den Mewahang Rai in Ostnepal. Eine ethnographische Studie zum Problem der ‘ethnischen Identität’. Beiträge zur Südasienforschung 136. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.
1994. “Journey to the origin: a root metaphor in a Mewahang Rai healing ritual”. In: M. Allen (ed.). The Anthropology of Nepal: peoples, problems, processes. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point. Pp. 256-268.
1999. “Gesungene Reisen zum Ursprung: Mytho-rituelle Topographien im Himalaya”. In: Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft 7: 171-185.
2002. Ancestral Voices: Oral Ritual Texts and their Social Contexts among the Mewahang Rai of East Nepal. Münster: Lit Verlag.

Hardman, Charlotte E.

2000. Other Worlds: Notions of self and emotion among the Lohorung Rai. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.

Mumford, Stan Royal

1989. Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Nicoletti, Martino

2006. The Ancestral Forest: Memory, Space and Ritual. Among the Kulunge Rai of Eastern Nepal. Kathmandu: Vajra.

Oppitz, Michael

1989. “Mythische Reisen”. In: Lettre International 7 (winter 1989). Pp. 37-42.
1999. “Cardinal directions in Magar mythology”. In: Balthasar Bickel & Martin Gaenszle (eds.). Himalayan Space: Cultural Horizons and Practices. Zürich: Völkerkundemuseum der Universität. Pp. 167-201.

Pettigrew, Judith, Yarjung Kromchain Tamu & Mark Turin

2009. “Anthropology and shamanic considerations”. In: Christopher Evans (ed.). Grounding Knowledge/Walking Land: Archaeological Research and Ethnohistorical Identity in Central Nepal. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Sagant, Philippe

1996. The Dozing Shaman: The Limbus of Eastern Nepal. Bombay, Calcutta, Madras: Oxford University Press.

Schlemmer, Grégoire

2004. Vues d’esprits; La conception des esprits et ses implications chez les Kulung Rai du Népal. Lille: Atelier National de Reproduction des theses.

von Stockhausen, Alban

2006. Guiding the Way: Death Rituals of the Dumi Rai of Eastern Nepal (Unpublished MA-Thesis, University of Zürich).

Witzel, Michael

1993. “Nepalese hydronymy: towards a history of settlement in the Himalayas”. In: Gérard Toffin (ed.). Nepal, past and present. Paris: CNRS Ethnologie. Pp. 217-266.

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The project is affiliated with the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) of Tribhuvan University Kathmandu. From October 2011 onwards, the project will be integrated into the project “Ritual, Space, Mimesis: Performative Traditions and Ethnic Identity among the Rai of eastern Nepal”, lead by Prof. Dr. Martin Gaenszle at the Institute of South Asian, Tibetan, and Buddhist Studies (ISTB) of the University of Vienna. It will be conducted as a sub-project by Alban von Stockhausen alongside the project “Ritual and Mimesis: Identity based on Dance” by the anthropologist Marion Wettstein, and funded by FWF (Fonds für Wissenschaftliche Forschung), Austria.