Nepali Times Asian Paints
The mountain of the horned sage


The process of 'sanskritisation' (or what some would regard as 'nepalisation') taking place for well over three centuries, beginning in the western part and gradually moving eastward, is something that has been well researched and documented by scholars studying Nepali society and culture. Such studies have made known the general contours of this process of acculturation, and also that different Tibeto-Burman communities have been affected in varying degrees, with the Magars being the most thoroughly acculturated. What is not so well known, however, is how this process occurred among the Magars, the one ethnic group that has lived contiguous to the dominant Bahun-Chettris for the longest period of time. One of the major contributions of the book under review lies in precisely in explaining this process.

A work that combines historical analysis with ethnography, Resunga: The Mountain of the Horned Sage has other distinctive features as well. It concentrates on an area of Nepal-the western hills-that has long been neglected by sociologists and anthropologists. Also unique is the fact that the geographical boundary of the area studied is not ecological such as a basin or a watershed but political, constituting as it does, the two districts of Gulmi and Arghakanchi. Lastly, all the contributors to the volume are French. There has been substantial work on Nepal by French authors, including the celebrated Le Nepal by Sylvain Levi, but almost all of it unfortunately remains largely inaccessible to a Nepali readership proficient in English at best. In this sense, Resunga has tried to bridge the gap even as it offers wider appreciation to French scholars writing about Nepal.

The nine chapters in the book look into the various aspects of Gulmi and Arghakhanchi districts, ranging from topography to population, natural resources, history and politics, through an approach the editor calls a "pluridisciplinary" approach. Research was carried out by young scholars affiliated to the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique between 1985 and 1993, and it generated several PhD dissertations, and Masters and engineering theses. The volume, which derives its name from a hill overlooking Tamghas, the headquarters of Gulmi, has been culled from those dissertations and theses.

The book comes with a few limitations though-some more serious than others. One of the minor ones concerns its inability to take into its purview the political and social changes that overtook the districts during the 1990s. Since the research was conducted between 1985 to 1993 it would have been worthwhile either to publish the book earlier say during mid-1990s or to update a few key articles such as the one that documents changing political leadership once publishing got delayed.

Another concerns the organisation of the book. One fails to understand the sequence of the nine disparate articles ranging from landscape diversity to kings and potters, while these could easily have been grouped into several themes. Structured in, say, three or four broad topics, the themes could have been more clear compared to the present form where the only link is the focus on a common geographical area.

More serious, however, is the manner in which the more sociological and anthropological of the chapters have tended to portray their subjects. I am talking about the issue of representation, and since this concern may not be so easily apparent, some explanation may be in order.

Historically, one of the contributions of anthropology has been to salvage distinct cultural forms of life from Westernisation and to serve it as a form of cultural critique of the West as Marcus and Fischer (1986) point out in Anthropology as Cultural Critique. One of its enduring weaknesses, until recently, has been the uncritical manner in which other cultures and societies were represented. With the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) the problematic nature of representing cultures and societies different from one's own, has increasingly become recognised. Sociologists and anthropologists studying other cultures and societies are now more engaged in critical self-reflection. Some of the issues they need to reflect on is: how and under what circumstances do they enter the social scene being studied, what is the relationship between those studies and oneself, and how do those being studied finally become represented. The manner in which Resunga discuss various facets of social life in Gulmi and Argakhanchi, reveals either a lack of awareness or insensitivity towards the problem inherent in representing other cultures and societies. Reading the book one gets the impression that the debates on method, problems of epistemology, interpretation, and discursive forms of representation that have raged in the past two decades, had, in fact, not occurred at all. Or, it seems not to have affected the authors.
What one also seems to miss in the volume is: (1) the linkage between the empirical material presented and the research questions asked, and (2) the connection between research questions and the dominant concerns of contemporary social sciences. For those interested in larger theoretical questions, the connection between the empirical material and social theory simply cannot be made. Given that some of the thinkers who have significantly affected social theorising during the 80s and 90s have been French, one would at least have expected some sort of a mention of Michel Foucault (discourse, power and knowledge), Jean-Francois Lyotard (modernity as a grand narrative), Jean Baudrillard (simulations, hyperreality and implosion) and Pierre Bourdieu (habitus and the field), to name a few. These names that have impacted social theory at the close of the twentieth century are conspicuously absent.

These limitations aside, the text is rich empirically. On the whole, Resunga: The Mountain of the Horned Sage is an immensely readable book made all the more reader-friendly by the numerous pictures, photographs, charts and diagrams it contains. With its treatment of a range of topics it would prove useful for students and scholars across a spectrum of disciplines ranging from anthropology to engineering, not to mention to development practitioners and experts. t

Resunga: The Mountain of the Horned Sage
edited by Philippe Ramirez
Translated from the French by Susan Keyes
Bibliotheca Himalayica, Volume 16
Himal Books, Lalitpur, 2000
pp. 304.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)