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

Final Report Summary - NPHH (Narrating the Past in the Hindu Himalayas: On Social Memory in South Asian Oral Traditions)

The project investigated forms and mechanisms of Social Memory in non-European environments through the oral and ritual traditions of West Himalayan societies. Building on the substantial corpus of predominantly European-focused studies on the way societies “remember”, it underlined the particular manifestations such of historical transmission among the Khas ethnic majority of Himachal Pradesh, India. Specifically, it demonstrated that contrary to the trenchant misconception of Hindu societies as lacking in historical consciousness due to their belief in a cyclical notion of time, the highlanders have very clear, and often widely disparate, understandings of their pasts. By examining oral epics and folktales that recount historical events, community rituals, and local historical writings from the heyday of British Imperialism, it found that Khas society is acutely aware of its past, which repeatedly surfaces as a cardinal point of reference for explaining the trials and developments that impact the region today.

The method employed was a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and textual research, most notably in the archival records of the British East India Company (and, from 1858, the British Indian Government) in London, as well as in local histories and ancillary traditions culled during fieldwork in India. This fruitful combination of Anthropology and History was examined in light of insight from related fields, most notably, Borderland Studies, Oral Traditions, Ritual Studies, and South Asian Historiography, which collectively demonstrated the pertinence of Social Memory to a unique regional variant of the Hindu cultural world. The emphasis on non-textual traditions was key to this endeavour, since literacy rates in the region were exceedingly low till the latter half of the twentieth century. By addressing the details of oral accounts of historical events and cross-referencing them with archived correspondences and local histories, it was possible to elucidate Himalayan societies' shifts in the representation of the past and their changing functions and meanings in the present. The interpretations given to past events proved remarkably varied. Thus, historical events that are explained in the dry, factual, and often prejudiced tone of British Indian officials frequently contrasted with the archived depositions of local parties found in the same sources, indicating an altogether different perception of the conditions and causative factors singled out in the writings of government officials. Accounting for the belief systems and ritual practices current among Khas society helped explain these divergences, whose processual development led to still greater rifts in interpretation when read in light of local historical accounts and present-day enquiries with the concerned communities’ descendants during fieldwork.

Throughout the project, the fellow conducted a series of ethnographic enquiries in Himachal Pradesh (India) alongside visits to the British Library in London (UK) for pursuing research. As the amount of case studies increased and their implications for the writing of Himalayan history became evident, grander questions relating to the role of history throughout the mountains that divide India from China emerged. This encouraged participation in the Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference at Philadelphia (USA) in 2014, where new collaborative networks were established, leading to the co-edition of a special issue on Himalayan Histories in the peer reviewed journal, Himalaya. Presentations in seminars, workshops, and conferences -- including invited participation in a seminal convention devoted to the bicentenary of the Anglo-Nepal War in India in 2015 -- furthered the dissemination of findings, alongside several important publications on the topic. Most notably, the fellow completed a manuscript that delineates the historical evolution of a novel regional identity among West Himalayan elites during the early colonial encounter that is to be published by Amsterdam University Press in the latter half of 2018.

In the project’s final year, the fellow obtained a copy of an unpublished ethnography of West Himalayan Khas society that was written over a century ago by a senior British official, who had spent over a decade in the region. This source shed important light on beliefs and ritual practices that remain central to regional identities today, and thus proved crucial for understanding the historical development of highland religion and, by extension, local conceptualizations of the past. The mythic charters underlying current beliefs and narratives of past events were found to reflect historical events among micro-communities that were subsequently tied to the grander domains of modern historiography and the orthodox Hinduism of the plains. The prevalence of spirit possession as a means for communicating these foundation myths led to further specialization, which was facilitated by the fellow’s election to a research group devoted to spirit possession across cultures at the Israeli Academy in Jerusalem. In order to contextualize the claims found in the archives, the fellow collaborated with a documentary filmmaker during the last period of fieldwork. Together, they captured ritual activities and possession séances on film. Two documentaries are currently in postproduction phases, and a research paper on one of these films is in preparation. The filmed material was compared with earlier recorded instances of the same activities, revealing a processual development from a distinctly autochthonous mode of expression to a composite culture wherein orthodox Hindu religions are on the rise.