Social Science Baha

Walking with the Ancestors: Ritual Speech and Sacred Landscapes among the Rai of Eastern Nepal

Alban von Stockhausen

Among the Rai of Eastern Nepal, the recitations pronounced during shamanic rituals include countless references to the natural and sacred topography of the landscape and to aspects of the natural habitat inhabited by the performers. For every Rai group, often even for every clan of it, these references are “localized” to an great extent and therefore every social entity has its own way of being “rooted” in their natural and sacred environment. In a Post-Doc project by the Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) and the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies of the University of Vienna, I explore these connections in great detail with a focus on the Dumi Rai, an ethnic group settling in the northern parts of Khotang district in Eastern Nepal. By re-travelling the pronounced ritual journeys together with the shamans and knowledgeable elders within the real topography, these mental or “recitational” travels are mapped onto the real world. Using GPS technology and different means of multimedia documentation of the visited places and the related ritual texts, a wide array of information is gathered in a database that will eventually be worked into different kinds of multimedia publications. By complementing the data collected in the rural areas of Eastern Nepal with findings gathered among the diaspora Rai communities in other parts of Nepal and foreign countries, the influence of such concepts onto the understanding of the Rai’s own ethnic identity can be investigated. This experimental project is still underway and in the given paper some of its preliminary findings, methods and possible uses will be discussed.