Author: Holly Walters, a cultural anthropologist at Brandeis University, United States. Her work focuses on religion, language, and ritual practice in South Asia. Her current research addresses issues of political practice and ritual mobility in the high Himalayas of Mustang, Nepal among Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who venerate sacred ammonite fossils, called Shaligrams.
When I first embarked on fieldwork in the Nepalese Himalaya, I went into my research with grand dreams of one day writing an ethnography that everyone could read and enjoy. It was going to be accessible yet analytical, insightful yet witty, and I was finally going to craft a manuscript that could be all things to all people.
Of course, that didn’t really work out.
Speaking to academics…
My fieldnotes from Nepal and India are a morass of sketches, jotted bits of conversation, dates, places, and descriptions. But what emerged from them early on was the fact that my work was speaking to very different audiences, each of which had very different needs.
As the first academic work on Shaligram stones (sacred fossil ammonites used in Hindu, Buddhist, and Bon ritual practices), my dream book needed to explain how and why anthropological theory applied to the subject. I also had to say something about the nature of the ethnographic method, since I was increasingly having to treat Shaligram deities with the same kinds of focus and framing as I did their human counterparts.
Shaligrams are sought out, sold, and traded but they are primarily treated as “divine persons” by the people who care for them. This meant crafting a book that was both an “object-ethnography” and a “transhuman ethnography” at the same time.
For my informants, divine personhood – that is “sacred-object personhood” or “ritual personhood” – works in much the same way as human personhood. This means that each Shaligram has agency and autonomy when it comes to acting in the world and forms a variety of relationships, kinship ties, and rivalries throughout its “lifetime” as a household deity but is not animate in the classical sense of the word.
…and speaking to informants
But there was also the greater Shaligram devotee community to consider. Facing increasing restrictions on pilgrimage and the challenges of diaspora, Shaligram practitioners are well aware that their ritual traditions are in danger of disappearing. Fewer and fewer pilgrims are able to access Mustang, Nepal (a place Shaligrams are mined), as a result of political unrest and rising expense. Many in the diaspora have lost contact with their home temples, gurus, and ritual specialists who were responsible for keeping the oral traditions alive.
As such, nearly all of my research participants were especially keen on seeing our collaborations in print.
For some, a book about Shaligram traditions represented one of the only chances they might have to educate their children on the history and complexities of Shaligram interpretation. For others, such a book could potentially help to preserve and revive Shaligram pilgrimage at a later time, even if the current practices fell into obscurity or were simply outlawed entirely. And lastly, for at least a few, a book on Shaligrams was a chance to learn about the variations of the practice as it might exist in traditions outside their own or among people elsewhere in the world.
By the time I returned home in 2016, I realised that my fieldnotes contained two manuscripts. The first one would be my academic ethnography; the book I was expected to write for the academic establishment that had funded me through my budding candidacy. A book that – don’t get me wrong – is something I think will be of great value. But the second had to be something else.
I debated for quite a long while as to what kind of second project I thought would be the most useful, given the circumstances. I considered going the digital route and attempting to secure a 3D scanner so that I might create some kind of explorable online platform (something I am still very interested in doing should I ever get the resources!). I also thought about the possibility of doing something like a photo-journal or “coffee-table book.”
My main concern, however, remains: what will be the most accessible and useful for Shaligram practitioners themselves?
As much as I love the idea of an online platform, the realities of internet access in South Asia would essentially render this idea moot from the point of view of most older, rural, people who are still in charge of maintaining the oral traditions. I needed to produce a printed book first. Everything else would have to come later.
But there was also a fair amount of interest in the idea of a photo-journal. While there are old, extant, Sanskrit texts that contain images of specific types of Shaligrams, the vast majority of them are only partial and the images are hand-drawings that are difficult, if not impossible, to read.
The majority of religious texts that discuss Shaligram practices, such as the Puranas and the Shastras, do not contain images of any kind. Learning to identify deities manifest within Shaligrams is a matter of extensive trial and error and the help of a very knowledgeable guru.
“Write a book about how to interpret Shaligrams!” was an imperative issued to me more than once. “Fill it with photos!” came shortly afterwards. And thus, my second manuscript was born out of the sketchbook that I carried with me as a companion to my standard field notebook.
What had initially begun as my own kind of short-hand booklet for keeping track of the wide varieties of Shaligram characteristics (chakra spirals, white vanamala lines, vadana (mouths), colors, shapes, etc.) soon became the focal point in many of my later interactions with household practitioners and temple attendants alike.
There were several instances where I was even invited to view a collection of Shaligrams on the promise that I would photograph them, sketch them, and then enter them into the book for others to see and read about. I attended abishekam (bathing) rituals for household deities and temple puja events also on similar admonishments.
“Photograph them. Draw them. Put them in the book and then send it back to us. We will give to you so that you can give to us.”
These words continued to resonate with me even after returning to the United States. It’s any anthropologist’s dream to have good relationships with the communities they work with and to feel like their work is valuable, not just to the academic study of culture, but to the people whose culture it is in the first place.
I was lucky. Shaligram practitioners live throughout South Asia and all over the world, including the US, UK, Australia, and South America. And at every turn, they not only welcomed me into their homes as a friend but also as someone they believed could help them with the project of recording, preserving, and educating the world about Shaligrams. It is a project I take very seriously.
The end of the road
Now my first manuscript is complete, under contract with a university press, and recently returned from peer review. I’m happy to say that the report was extremely positive and I am flattered by and grateful for all the encouraging comments made by my reviewers. I look forward to finishing up my revision plan and getting it into print as soon as possible.
I’m also happy to say that my second manuscript is nearly finished as well. In the end, I went with a kind of “field guide” approach where each unique type of Shaligram (there are about 85 different name-types to contend with) gets its own page with a full description, a list of identifying characteristics, a reference plate with primary Sanskrit texts to consult, and at least three photographs of three different stones that match the interpretation. This way, you can read about what a particular Shaligram is supposed to look like, both from many of my own teachers in the oral tradition as well as how they are described by Puranic texts, as well as see how these characteristics are then expressed in actual stones. I make no claims to comprehensiveness, of course, but two years later, I am still getting six to ten emails a week asking when the book will be available.
When I think about it, I realise that it is the second manuscript that may be the most important thing I ever actually write; to give something back.
“Shaligram: Sacred Fossil Pilgrimage in the Nepal Himalayas” by Holly Walters is due out from Amsterdam University Press in early 2020.
[Image of Shaligram stones sourced from Wikimedia Commons: Shaligram (2)]
[Image of notebooks: ‘Old Bookshelf’ by Julia Joppien on Unsplash]