Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Some more photos from Hee-Bermiok, West Sikkim

Not even in the Amazon had I seen so much papaya on one plant

View over the valley

Millet: no fermenting allowed at the Brahman's house though one nearby Limbu house is preparing hundreds of litres for a wedding. Here at JD's they grind it and make flat-cakes.

Maize, millet and rice-straw in JD's garden, Berthang

View over millet, with Rinchenpong hills beyond

An old (30 years) and new (6 months) bridge in Berthang

Rice paddy and irrigation channel

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bit of protry:


Internal memos. Ongoing memories. Sharing a couch with a sacklet of tea. BBC on my ears, or at least one of them as the other is half-busy with dog barks and the whirr of voltage stabilizers. How would I redecorate this house? Hang weavings from the corners and get some of those classic wood-backed photographs. Gutters and concrete-floor-stackings; strained-necks under the weight of gravel or bananas; heapings of bright Chinese-made blankets and jumpers – tufts of polyester sprinkled on the floor; the smell of samosas and “veg-paradise”-thali’s from below; the train-track-clicking of tailors busy over woolen jackets and saffron-silk-shirts; the honk-beep-aluminium-clatter of cars, sausaging through town at 10 rupees-a-hill. Languid busyness this town ere.

shovel-noise at night,
glitter as stones crack,
everyone is building a house.

when is winter?
balcony to the bedroom:
“I sleep diagonal in my bed”.

indoor blossom-droop,
tempted by television.

after “a fine balance”
cloth to the tailors –
shirts for ministerial dealings.

hill-top whiskey and tea,
worryingly enthusiastic
how to say no to ch'ang?

Extracts from my fieldnotes:


“Basically this morning as the fog contemplated lifting, we had some light rice/veg and marched off towards a village below Rinchenpong where JD (as he seems to be known as by the "fieldworkers" of this NGO) was expected to attend a village meeting to verify the progress of the toilet-building project, supported by the State and his Health and Environment Conservation Society. The down hill was tremendous. Extremely steep and continuous, without a moment of flatness, and occasionally extremely slippery on wet rocks,. something my hard-soled boots are not great at dealing with. Down down down as the knees crickled, down towards the village of Chingthang, largely Rai. There were a couple of people assembled but basically the men were off as it had rained in the morning and the assumption was that the whole thing would be postponed . A large number of toilets had been built with money given by the State (1500 rupees towards costs), but people were still not really using them, and there was no running water to the toilet. JD had to go down to Legship to sort out some financial business (as he is the Gram Panchayat secretary for this area and has to sign off paperworks and permissions). I walked to Hee Bermiok, through Barfok (mostly Gurung, as are the villages on the other side of the valley to the village of Berthang), with JD's fieldworker (just finished school in March and will start up college doing CPI (chemistry, physics and maths: he earns 1000 rupees a month as fieldworker. The accountant in the Health/Environment NGO earns 3000). Walking mostly flattened out until we headed down to the river then up to the village as a short cut across the valley. Intensely and basically unbelievably exhausting. I had so many thoughts about fieldwork, about Bolivia and Yaranda, about why I wanted to study Lepchas in particular and why not study Nepali's in Sikkim (pretty unusual though they are the majority, and this would also coincide with the increase these days in studies on diasporas... I kept thinking about the unit of analysis; what would it be: a village-level study, or an ethnic group? the problem is that most villages, well at least many of the ones around here, are extremely heterogenous. What is the point of going after villages that are homogenous when they are not the norm - in the sense that they are representative of Sikkim in some way. The Lepchas are such a minority now and mostly live only in Dzongu homogenously (though even then there are Nepali labourers, either semi-permanent or seasonal), and in a few villages in North Sikkim near Mangan, supposedly. These are the villages that I should go and visit next...”


There must be a considerable amount of health-maintenance/promotion knowledge that is not formalised, and most probably not transmitted consciously. Most of this knowledge probably deals with minor health-imbalances such as headaches and stomach problems: the common complaints. More chronic illness or severe (how to decide what and when this is?) is probably dealt with more formally, either with a dhami/jhankri or at the (sub or main) Primary Health Centre. It is interesting to think about the aspects of people's life and culture that are more visible (ritual is in part more visible, though the meanings, effects, interpretations etc..are not), and those that are less visible, such as ideas about health and healing. The science partly comes into play when you develop methods, ideally systematic and replicable, to uncover these hidden or partially covered meanings and activities and explain them in terms that other people can understand. Seems obvious enough except that I do find the distinction between visible and partially/complete hidden interesting in that it is usually the visible that one first notices, and can most easily document, and it is certainly the visible that most interests economists and politicians: how many rice-paddy's do you have? - That sort of question. The partially/completely hidden is more the work of the culture-surgeon anthropologist(!)

I had thought up an interesting and simple way of measuring what people desired materially, or at least, that which they knew could be purchased. I was thinking that this could be added to the general Economic module in the TAPS research project. The question would be simple. To ask the person what they would do with X amount of money. To have perhaps three figures, low, middle, high and ask the question for each one. Here in India the unit could be 100 rupees (perhaps something temporary and more immediate, but probably more than just a bar of chocolate or good quality rice), 1000 rupees, and 1 lakh (100,000 rupees, or as they write it here 1,000,00). I guess the problem would be a classic anthropological one of realising that there is always a difference between what people say they do (or would do) and what people actually do. This could be tested on a small scale I guess by randomly alloting people with small sums of money that they had previously (say 1 month before) said they would spend on X-thing. The trouble then is that peoples minds change. Perhaps they said they wanted a pair of shoes, but at the time decided a 10 pairs of thick socks would be better. Of course the additional problem is that small sums are necessarily for smaller and more temporary desires. I couldn’t randomly assign 100,000 rupees to 25 % of the sample to test the theory. Though it would probably be the larger dreams that would change less.

Back from Berthang, Hee-Bermiok, West Sikkim

Managed to organise a visit to an agricultural valley area with no road access in West Sikkim. The Hee-Bermiok Constituency down the valley from Rinchengpong, with the twinkle of Gezing visible at night on the upper flank of the hills facing out from Berthang village, where I stayed with the extremely enthusiastic and passionate “JD”: director of another NGO called “Health and Environment Society”, who mostly busied himself with the largely voluntary (i.e. very low paid) job of Gram Panchayat secretary. The family I stayed with is a Brahman family that has been in the area for two generations. The village itself is predominantly Brahman/Chetri, with large numbers of Rai and Limbu, as well as some Lepcha and Bhutia. Above the village, and above the road that links Kaluk with Dentam, a small community of Sherpas live close to a reserved-forest area; opposite Berthang are other villages, some majority Gurung, other mostly Rai or Limbu. An extremely ethnically diverse, agriculturally productive, and fairly well-populated - but precipitously and dizzyingly steep valley area.

The house I stayed in, and in fact much of the village, is almost totally self-sufficient in terms of food consumption. They produce most of their own rice on the wet-paddy terraces that intermittently run up the side of the valley from the Kaleg and Rangit rivers, that meet to head down towards the town of Legship. Maize, millet, and varieties of manioc are the supplementary carbohydrates. They grow around 4 varieties of lentils (distinguished by colour), have access mandarin fruit, which dots household and land everywhere, grow tomatoes, spinach and herbs in home or kitchen gardens, and almost every house I visited has at least one cow. They buy essential food items such as oil, salt, sugar, tea and spices from the roadside shop a winding 2 km uphill (takes an hour to walk it). It is hard to make generalisations about the village as a whole, in part because the actual concept of the village is extremely loose, but mostly because I stayed with probably one of the richest families in it – they owned what seemed like a considerable amount of land, whereas some families, a couple of Limbu households for example, owned nothing: no land and no house. They simply worked on other people’s land in exchange for part of the food production determined either beforehand or ona fixed 50% basis (the famous kutia and adhia systems common throughout Nepal for example).

An interesting Hindu funeral (some photos below) by the river on the last day:

Good to be in a such a productively "busy" village:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lepcha medical culture in transition: ethnobotany, health and healing in Sikkim, India

On the 7th of November I will be arriving in Delhi, India, to begin fieldwork as part of my DPhil (PhD) in Social Anthropology. The current plan is to initially travel up to Sikkim and stay in Gangtok for two months. The initial focus of my project will be to take intensive Nepali lessons, in Sikkim, Kalimpong and possibly in Nepal itself for three or four months. This will be combined with "contact-building" and basic familiarisation with the general area and tentative plan-making for specific fieldsite locations. The longer-term plan is to carry out around 18 months of comparative research in at least two sites in Sikkim and possibly one further one in East Nepal.

My research interests focus on ecological and medical anthropology and the relationship between economic and cultural changes - in particular how changes in livelihood affect the knowledge (linguistic/recognition & application skills) and use (practical-situationa l) of "traditional knowledge", with particular focus on traditional medical knowledge. My Probationary Research Paper (PRS) is available here. This is a summary the research project as described in the paper:

This research project will focus on how and why traditional medical knowledge is changing among the Lepcha of the Himalayan state of Sikkim in North India. It will focus in particular on both their ethnobotanical knowledge and use of medicinal plants, and their conceptions and perceptions of health and health-systems. There are three aims: firstly, by studying two particular domains of Lepcha medical culture - plant knowledge and conceptions of health - to show how practical knowledge and perceptions are intertwined; secondly, by carrying out a comparative study in two villages, an urban-based one and another more rural community, this study will attempt to determine to what extent medical knowledge is in transition, transformation and change. Finally, the reasons for these changes, if any, will be considered by linking broader social, political and economic changes with local experiences. By integrating ethnobotany with medical anthropology, this research hopes to contribute to a scarcity of studies among the Lepchas. The comparative framework will provide insight into how knowledge changes, why it changes and how people experience these changes through something crucial to their everyday experience: their health and their knowledge of healing.

Methodologically I am interested in combining "classical" anthropology methods (long-term participant observation, in-depth semi/un-structured interviews, linguistic analysis, etc.., with methods developed and recently used considerably in ethnoecology-focussed anthropology. Fundamentally my interest is in integrating ethnobiological methods that have examined what counts as "knowledge" and tested methods for best measuring it, with an historically-influenced, contextual, descriptive-literary-ethnographic study of how one particular group (the Lepcha), is - very broadly (and simplistically) speaking - experiencing change.

In a giant-brushstroke-summary-generalisation, my research project is stimulated by an interest in:

1) Health and what it means to be "well" (e.g. the importance of livelihood - investigating the impact of subsistence vs. cash-cropping on self-perceived well-being);
Healing and methods developed to maintain/improve/change health (e.g. medicinal plant knowledge, ritual-healing practices);
The transmission/transformation/creation/practice-and-performance of "Traditional Knowledge", particularly related to medicinal plants (as this links with 1 and 2, and particularly as explored in the ethnobotanical/biological literature so far).
4) The dynamics (form and effect) of cultural and economic "change" and how they affect/relate-to each other (e.g. is there such a thing as a "transition" from locally-derived traditional medicinal plant use to internationally-developed biomedical-use and how does this influence people's knowledge and use of "traditional knowledge").
5) Methodology as a systematic (or somewhat unsystematic as fieldwork inevitably starts off as) procedure for creating, organising and analysing anthropological observations. Generally my interest is in combining qualitative and quantitative methods and enlarging, as much as an anthropologist can, the domain that is traditionally thought of as "anthropology" by referring to, in discussions and analyses, to the broader disciplinary domain of the social sciences.