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Rituals of Ethnicity

Rituals of Ethnicity: Thangmi Identities Between Nepal and India

Sara Shneiderman
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Rituals of Ethnicity
    Book Description:

    Rituals of Ethnicityis a transnational study of the relationships between mobility, ethnicity, and ritual action. Through an ethnography of the Thangmi, a marginalized community who migrate between Himalayan border zones of Nepal, India and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China, Shneiderman offers a new explanation for the persistence of enduring ethnic identities today despite the increasing realities of mobile, hybrid lives. She shows that ethnicization may be understood as a process of ritualization, which brings people together around the shared sacred object of identity.

    The first comprehensive ethnography of the Thangmi,Rituals of Ethnicityis framed by the Maoist-state civil conflict in Nepal and the movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland in India. The histories of individual nation-states in this geopolitical hotspotas well as the cross-border flows of people and ideas between themreveal the far-reaching and mutually entangled discourses of democracy, communism, development, and indigeneity that have transformed the region over the past half century. Attentive to the competing claims of diverse members of the Thangmi community, from shamans to political activists, Shneiderman shows how Thangmi ethnic identity is produced collaboratively by individuals through ritual actions embedded in local, national, and transnational contexts. She builds upon the specificity of Thangmi experiences to tell a larger story about the complexities of ethnic consciousness: the challenges of belonging and citizenship under conditions of mobility, the desire to both lay claim to and remain apart from the civil society of multiple states, and the paradox of self-identification as a group with cultural traditions in need of both preservation and development. Through deep engagement with a diverse, cross-border community that yearns to be understood as a distinctive, coherent whole,Rituals of Ethnicitypresents an argument for the continued value of locally situated ethnography in a multi-sited world.

    Front cover:Lost Culture Can Not Be Reborn, painting by Mahendra Thami, Darjeeling, West Bengal, India

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9100-1
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. Chapter 1 Of Rocks and Rivers—Being Both at Once
    (pp. 1-31)

    Chanting these lines, the voices of Thangmi shamans rise and fall to the beat of an animal-skin drum. Monotonous yet captivating, every ritual event begins with these recitations about the origins of the world. This is also the soundtrack I always hear in my mind as I write about Thangmi lives. I can almost smell the incense, recalling myself in the midst of one ritual after another, some over a decade ago now. Weddings, funerals, supplications to territorial deities for a good harvest, most taking place late at night, lit first by kerosene lamps and candles and in later years...

  6. Chapter 2 Framing, Practicing, and Performing Ethnicity
    (pp. 32-60)

    Colorful banners around Gangtok advertised the event: “Tribal Folk Dances of Sikkim, presented in honor of Shri P. R. Kyndiah, Union Minister of Tribal Affairs.” It was November 2005, and each ethnic organization registered in India’s state of Sikkim, as well as in the adjacent Darjeeling district of West Bengal, had been invited to perform a single “folk dance” that best demonstrated their “tribal culture.”

    In the rehearsal session before the actual performance, it became clear that the fifty-odd dancers from fourteen ethnic organizations were well aware of the politically charged environment in which they were performing. These groups were...

  7. Chapter 3 Origin Myths and Myths of Originality
    (pp. 61-97)

    “I need photos of very ‘original’ Thangmi,” said Paras, as he pushed a stack of photocopied documents across the table toward me, indicating the terms of our exchange. With his signature plaid cap, dark glasses, and Nehru vest stretched over an expanding paunch, the president of the BTWA was the picture of a successful civil servant at the height of his career. Paras had been at the helm of the BTWA since the early 1990s, but due to his posting in the customs office some hours away in urban Siliguri, he was rarely present at BTWA meetings or events. Other...

  8. Chapter 4 Circular Economies of Migration, Belonging, and Citizenship
    (pp. 98-127)

    “I think you are ready to visit Khaldo Hotel,” the young Rana Bahadur said to me conspiratorially one day in 2004 at the very end of my first extended stay in Darjeeling. Over the past several months, my eye had often rested on the hotel signboards that dotted the bazaar’s steep lanes. There were the colonial curlicues of the Windamere at the top of Observatory Hill, the fruity-colored hues of the Amba Palace down in the center of town, and the Lunar Hotel’s long, narrow sign atop a high Clubside building, pointing skyward toward its namesake (Figure 7). But Khaldo...

  9. Chapter 5 Developing Associations of Ethnicity and Class
    (pp. 128-168)

    A faded black-and-white photograph, reproduced in various sepia shades, in so many sizes. Sometimes it is a poster affixed to a wall, laminated against thick plyboard. Sometimes it is pulled out of a wallet, paper thin, scrunched up with the detritus of daily life. On still other occasions, it is a smooth, glossy print, carefully filed in a folder tied with string, sharing space with neatly typed photocopies, which like the photograph seem to take on authority simply by virtue of repeated reproduction and respectful storage. The photograph is always presented with pride.

    Whose faces can we make out (Figure...

  10. Chapter 6 Transcendent Territory, Portable Deities, and the Problem of Indigeneity
    (pp. 169-195)

    In June 2008, I sat in a Kathmandu conference room watching a set of increasingly detailed maps project on a screen: first Nepal as a whole, then the central Bagmati zone, then Dolakha and Sindhupalchok districts, and finally a set of hand-drawn maps representing the proposed contours of a Thangmi autonomous region within a federally restructured Nepal (Figure 14). Tek Bahadur pointed to the scribbled names of Thangmi villages and spoke passionately about the need for a clearly delineated Thangmi territory, separate from the Tamang autonomous region encompassing the putative Thangmi region on most proposed maps of federal Nepal.¹ This...

  11. Chapter 7 The Work of Life-Cycle Rituals and the Power of Parallel Descent
    (pp. 196-234)

    This chapter explores how life-cycle rituals effect the “work” of social reproduction across the Thangmi community. The marriage (T:bore) and funerary (T:mumpra;mamprain Sindhupalchok dialect) cycles posit a specific quality of Thangminess as a prerequisite for their success, while providing a means of recognizing that quality in one’s self by articulating clan affiliation. This quality is not based on an essential notion of purity embodied in idioms of blood (Clarke 1995) or bone (Levine 1981) as elsewhere in the Himalayas, but rather in a processual concept of how one becomes Thangmi—or, more accurately, how one “does...

  12. Chapter 8 Resisting the End of a Ritual
    (pp. 235-251)

    In October 2006, on Dasami, the tenth day of the Hindu festival of Dasain, a buffalo calf bled to death in the courtyard of Devikot. This temple complex dedicated to the tantric goddess Tripura-Sundari is perched on a hillside below the Dolakha bazaar. For the first time in remembered history, there were no nearly naked Thangmi men waiting, in trance, to drink warm blood directly from a buffalo’s vein as it was severed by a Newar butcher.

    Callednariin Thangmi, orhipathamiin Newar, every year these two Thangmi men (Figure 19) and their entourage walked the four hours...

  13. Epilogue: Thami ke ho?—What Is Thami?
    (pp. 252-256)

    “Hello, hello,” Rajen’s voice rang out across the cavernous Gorkha Duhkha Nivarak Sammelan (GDNS) auditorium in the center of Darjeeling Bazaar. He was testing the sound system for the public program at which my husband and I were to speak about our research with the Thangmi and show video footage from our fieldwork in Nepal. Invitations for this December 2004 event had been circulated to the entire BTWA membership, and a poster hung outside the GDNS building to advertise the event to the broader public: “First Time in Darjeeling: Thami Documentary Film Show on big screen.” The GDNS hall had...

  14. Glossary
    (pp. 257-262)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 263-276)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 277-292)
  17. Index
    (pp. 293-300)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 301-305)