Himalayan travelogues are full of stories. For the most part, those stories fall into a specific genre, one that I tend to refer to as “my magical adventure in an exotic land.” Mustang, especially, has this reputation. In fact, multiple coffee table books easily available from booksellers everywhere pay homage to the “Lost Kingdom of Tibet,” the “Lost World of Lo,” and the “real Shangri-La.” Unfortunately, these books and pamphlets on high altitude travel are equally full of popular orientalist tropes of “pure” cultures and “innocent” people who somehow exist “out of time” despite being just as familiar with and a part of the “modern” world as anyone else is. But the impetus to see Mustang (and the Himalayas generally) as “magical” place filled with “spiritual” people is a hard one to resist. Most especially because the illusion is not just conjured up by Euro-American travel agencies or National Geographic specials but by Nepalis and Tibetans themselves, many of whom rely on the trekking and tourism industry for their livelihoods in a land politically marginalized between China, Kathmandu, and India.
Anthropologists sometimes study sensitive topics and it is therefore not uncommon for ethnographic work to attract serious criticism along such lines. In a recent social media thread, I encountered one such critic whose principal argument was, that both I the ethnographer and the academic study of religion in general had no business writing about religious traditions (Shaligrams, in my case), should not be participating in rituals or engaging with sacred objects. What should the ethnographer’s response to this be then? What is our role in all this?
Neither the Fulbright Commission overseeing my work nor the US Embassy in Kathmandu could contact me and, in the interim, the three other visitors to Mustang had all been declared missing and then subsequently found dead. This was one of those situations where, due to the fact that I was believed to be hurt or lost, a series of emergency procedures would go into effect. I would also later find out that several staff members at Fulbright had already been quietly talking about what kind of memorial they would be holding when the inevitable news arrived.