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Narrating the Past in the Hindu Himalayas: On Social Memory in South Asian Oral Traditions

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The Khas people and oral history

An EU team analysed perceptions of time among India’s highland communities. The Khas people maintain an accurate oral history at odds with western understanding of the Hindu sense of cyclical time.

Society

The Khas ethnic minority of a part of northern India called Himachal Pradesh were mostly illiterate until the late 20th century. Hence, the Khas people rely on unique oral and ritual traditions to preserve cultural history. The EU-funded NPHH (Narrating the past in the Hindu Himalayas: On social memory in south Asian oral traditions) project studied Khas traditions. Researchers combined ethnographic fieldwork, which included local histories and ancillary traditions, with textual research. The team obtained texts of the British East India Company and the post-1858 British Indian government. Researchers documented the pertinence of social memory in the Khas case, which is a unique variant of the broader Hindu culture. They compared oral accounts of historical events with archived correspondence and local histories. Hence, the team identified shifts in how Himalayan societies represent the past and its meaning in the present. The various societies’ interpretations differed substantially. Historical events described by British observers contrasted with local descriptions of the same events, indicating different understandings of historical causality. The variation led to sharply conflicting interpretations of history. The Khas beliefs account for the differences. Investigators concluded that Khas practices contradict western notions that Hindu cultures lack historical consciousness because of their concept of cyclical time. Through examination of oral epics, researchers found that various highlander groups have very clear yet different understandings of their respective pasts. NPHH found that the mythic basis of current Khas beliefs and historical narratives reveals that separate communities were later assimilated into mainstream Hindu culture. Khas society is acutely aware of its past, which continually resurfaces as a reference for dealing with present events. The team participated in a conference in 2014, which helped to establish a new collaborative network. Further conference sessions in 2015 assisted with dissemination of findings, as did the completion of several manuscripts. The papers (to be published in 2018) detail the evolution of a novel regional identity among western Himalayan elites during India’s early colonial period. Researchers also collaborated with a documentary film-maker in the production of two documentaries. The work sheds light on the different perceptions of time.

Keywords

Khas, oral history, Hindu, NPHH, Himalayas, social memory

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