Thursday, November 22, 2007

Project changes...

"It is not unusual for research plans to change after one begins fieldwork. A range of factors may alter one's carefully made plans, including the absence of expected economic institutions, local resistance to research objectives, state or other political intervention, and so on....So many ethnographies begin with a statement along the lines of 'I went to study A, I ended up studying B'. " (Gregory and Altman 1989:44 - "Observing the Economy")

My first post on this blog described research I was planning to carry out in Sikkim, with the Lepcha, on "Medical Culture". Having recently returned from Nepal after 8 months of fieldwork in a village there, my research is now: in East Nepal, with the Limbu, on the "Political economy of cardamom"! A major shift, though it still has something to do with plants (one plant!), and something to do, loosely, with health (one of the major uses of cardamom is in Ayurvedic remedies, though interestingly the villagers in Nepal who sell the seeds never use it themselves).

Pasted below is a short brain-storm of the new things that I became interested in whilst living in Mamangkhe, Taplejung:

What I’m interested in:

1. Cardamom:

1.1. History of cardamom in Mamangkhe; in Taplejung; and in Nepal/Sikkim more generally [I have photocopied 8 MSc theses (economics and geography) from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu which focus on cardamom cultivation in Nepal].

1.2. Technologies and techniques; knowledge of cardamom and ecology of forest; knowledge of what affects cardamom production (soil types, rainfall, etc.); are there people with more expertise or skill and where did they get this from – transmission of knowledge and experimentation and development of new techniques.

1.3. Economy of cardamom: economic and labour cost of production; market chains (selling cardamom); distribution and use of profits; enterprise, management

1.4. Ecology of cardamom: different forest/land types and their relative productivity; distribution of land types among families (this ties into section 3 below);

2. Class formation:

2.1. The histories of families that have moved away from Mamangkhe or partially-moved to Jhapa.

2.2. Competitiveness within the village as the tourist industry develops. People who can provide services to tourists (lodges, food, portering), often people who have bought houses by the main trail through the village, benefit rapidly and tremendously from this.

2.3. Land location and class: there is a probable relationship between physical location of land within the village and economic “position” or class. Tied to points 2.2 and 3, people who live by the main trail have often been able to buy property there from high-caste Nepalis who left in the last few decades. These houses are often large and modern (i.e. tin-roofed) with enough space to provide accommodation to tourists, porters and villagers passing-through. All village’s facilities are on the main trail: the school, health post, telephone, museum (which incorporates meeting rooms and, more recently, a computer), and all the shops from which villagers can buy basic essential goods (cooking oil, salt, soap). Houses located further above or below the main trail, sometimes up to 1 hours walk from the main trail, are visited less frequently by other villagers and tend to belong to somewhat poorer families (though this is of course not always the case).

3. Land use:

3.1. History of land use: some parts of the village which were previously agricultural -used for maize, rice and millet production - have been replanted with cash-crop cardamom and shade-producing trees. In other areas these basic crops have continued to be grown as it is important to produce a certain amount of ones own food.

3.1.1. What influences land use decisions;

3.1.2. What determines the kinds of land people have access to, inherit, or are able to buy or farm on;

3.2. Work on land:

3.2.1. Different work arrangements including adyiā, Tekā, bāndhoki;

3.2.2. How large land-owners distribute labour tasks to others in the village;

3.2.3. How land-owners who live outside Mamangkhe (Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam, Jhapa) relate to their village, the land, and supervise production (similar to 3.2.2);

4. Migration:

4.1. Migration from the village: historical movement out of village by high-caste Nepalis; more recent movement out of village by Limbus.

4.2. Temporary migration out of village: Families often move away from the village when the bread-winner goes abroad for long-term or seasonal work. This may involve moving to the mother or wife’s family home, or, in the case of around 15 households, moving to Jhapa. Several families live in temporary accommodation with no agricultural land and are uncertain about their future: if the husband returns with money saved, they can buy a property in the area and stay more permanently (4.1); if they have made no money they must return to the village (Mamangkhe) and pay back their debts.

4.3. Incentive to migrate: Many people cite the isolation and need to personally carry goods into the village from Tharpu (2 days walk away) as the major reasons why they would want to leave the village. Other reasons include bad health services and lack of a good education for their children. There is currently a road being built which will reach Mamangkhe within the next 5 years (supposedly). It is interesting to speculate on how this will affect migration, perhaps by looking at villages that the road has recently reached, like the village of Tellok, about 8 hours walk downstream.

What I have collected so far:

1. Survey of 201 households in Wards 1 to 7, Mamangkhe. Data on demography, education, language, economics (production/consumption/conspicuous consumption), cardamom, travel, health and religious activities.

2. Survey of 30 households in Aitabare and Happenchowk, in Jhapa district. Semi-structured interviews on similar subjects as the survey in Mamangkhe but included questions on past employment (where/how they made enough money to move down), house and land prices at the time of purchase/building, education of children (private boarding schools), motivations and perceptions of difference between up (Mamangkhe) and down (Jhapa).

3. Structured interviews with older men in the village (a total of 6) on the topic of personal, village and Limbu history.

4. Informal unstructured interviews with 8 local phedangma (shamans)

5. Participant-observation throughout my work in the village. This included work experience during every agricultural task from planting and weeding rice, ploughing terraces, clearing forest, picking cardamom, cutting trees, planting maize, setting up fish traps and fishing, etc. As well as involvement in any important local ritual or ceremony such as marriages, funerals, the museum opening, etc.

6. Over 2000 photographs and 200 video clips of all of the above (5) which have been categorised and labelled.

7. Over 150,000 words of field-notes.

Rice paddy (23/06/07)

The whole process of rice cultivation: preparing the terrace walls; ploughing; flattening out the terrace; transplanting seedlings from "seedling bank"; and planting the rice.

Picking out cardamom (17/09/07)

Picking out cardamom seeds from the fruit pods

Cardamom fields (17/09/07)

Funeral dance in Mamangkhe (22/06/07)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Photos from the survey: 5/8/07 to 30/8/07

A household cluster with shed for storing wood and seperate kitchen to the left

View of a single house with three floors. First floor is used as the kitchen, second as the sleeping and part-storage area and third as storage space.

Married couple with wife of son (who has gone abroad)

With of inside of house (ground floor)

Photo during an interview for the survey

Tin roofed house with wooden balcony and a small shop on the ground floor!

View of Wards 6 and 7 on the western-side of the mountain

Another view of the Kabeli river valley facing south-west

Two-storied house with cane roof

Preparing strips of bamboo for basket-weaving.

A rare view of both cardamom (upper half) and rice paddy (lower half) bordering each other. Usually rice paddy is grown closer to the river and cardamom in forested areas further above.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Trip to the sacred lake of Timbung (30/7/07 to 2/8/07)

Slate chorten on the way to the lake

Yak in the mist (or midst...)

Last rest point before ascent to lake

Small altar by lake with bells, Siva-forks, flowers and pieces of cloth

View (not much of a) of the lake with slate slabs sticking out by shore

Inside the main temple. Cloth, ash, rusty metal forks, and a very very cold floor (shoes and socks must be off!)

Scraps of notebook from school children hoping for good study in the years ahead

Odd flower by the lake

The spectacular Kendzophung (Limbu)/Padam Chal (Nepali) flower

News from The Rising Nepal: (

Landslide blocks Mechi Highway [ 2007-7-31 ]
By Our Correspondent
Taplejung, July 30: The Phidim-Taplejung stretch of the Mechi highway has been blocked due to perpetual rainfall.

Three day long Timbung Pokhari festival, which started from Sunday, has been affected because of the blockade.

The road has been blocked due to the landslide at Khokse and Khahare of Nangkholyang VDC-2 on Saturday.

To open the blockade hundreds of people including 25 Nepal armies, passengers and locals have been working since Saturday, said Chief District Officer Fanindra Pokhrel.

The cleaning of the road has not been completed because about hundred-meter road has been blocked in two places, said Pokhrel. Due to the hindrances, passengers going towards Jhapa have been stranded on the way, said Jung Mukhiya, counter in-charge of Mechi Transport Association.

Likewise, guests coming from different districts to take part in Timbung Pokhari festival have been stranded on the way. The guests have started returning back as they have to walk for two days to reach that place, informed Laxmi Limbu from Panchthar on the phone.

Meanwhile, the incessant rains in the last few days and the accompanying flood has washed away the suspension bridge over the Neu river thereby cutting off all contacts with half a dozen VDCs situated to the east of Taplejung district.

Itung Tapheng: Ritual for good harvest of cardamom, millet and maize (12/7/07)

Preparing to offer the first chicken

Holding the three chickens together

The altar with offerings of the two (of three) chickens

Examining a corn cob whilst chanting

Extract from fieldnotes (12/7/07)

Itung Tapheng (ituŋ taphεŋ)

When I arrive he is in the corn/millet terrace closest to his house facing the mountains (east wards) on the same level as the house. He has sprinkled soil on a large stone that lies on the edge of the terrace. On the soil he places four strips of banana leaf. He calls out to Indra B to make sure it is 4 and not 6. He did the puja last year but can't remember perfectly well. He has brought a plate with rice on it, and a bowl with ground corn. There is a bowl of water and he makes a wand with the remaining banana leaf and leans it on the bowl.
The rice is sprinkled on the leaves, an egg is placed on the first leaf (from the left), and corn flour has already been sprinkled on the earth below the leaves in small amounts.
A seat is prepared for IndraB the Pma, on a stool and a woven mat. He sits down, examines the wand and seems satisfied with it. He coughs to clear his throat and begins.

What he does is call in the three spirits that this puja is for. Two males and a female. A big chicken for the mountain spirit of toksombo (male) , and small chickens for tambhungma (female) and siring (male). I'm not sure I have it clear as to who the male and females are.
In any case, during the puja at a certain point he asks Tikka-sir where his alaichi are, he names about 6 places, and IndraB adds another two that Tikka-sir has missed out. He mentions "AlAichi bAri" a few times, as well as mandok and maki (millet and corn). The puja is done around the time of the breaking of corn, where the stems are broken and the corn fruit is picked. This will take place in around a week from now.
During the puja IndraB shakes severely and is almost unable to speak thrice. He puja lasts around 10 minutes outside including the actual killing of the chickens. This is done quickly by holding the neck down against the blade (which faces outwards) of Tika-sirs bampok and quickly cutting the neck whilst holding the body and head apart.
The head is placed on the banana leaf, three heads on the three leaf-strips excluding the one with the egg on it. The body is held up side down to let some blood trickle on the leaf, and then it is let go to run around the field for a few minutes. It is then recovered and aninner feather is pulled out and put on the altar with the chicken heads. The puja then is short, a few more words chanted, and IndraB heads up to the house to drink a tongba (it's absence about which he had jokingly complained about earlier: "they don't give tongba or raksi here....kasto mAnche!".

In the house the chicken feathers are plucked off using hot water and it's innard examined. This tells something about the year to come. There is gland behind the liver, is this the gall-bladder? kwiying (L); पित्ता (N) (which I think is the gallbladder, bile-making gland!). If this is green then all is well. If it is white then the season will be bad. If it is big, good; and small, bad again.
Equally, the small intestine, tomrum (L), is also examined, and if along it's length there is a split, or the intenstine is marked with black lines or a black spot, "there will be a death".

Planting millet (8/7/07)

Planting millet in early July beneath the soon-to-be-picked maize plants.

Extract from journal:

"The planting is intensely tedious. It involves unraveling a bundle of seedlings, of perhaps 100 seedlings and selecting a suitable sub-bundle, of perhaps 20-40 seedlings, to work on at a time. They are held by all in the left hand with the roots just below the hand, and the thumb and first two fingers prepare a single seedlings for the right hand to pick out by rubbing against the lower part of the stems near the roots. This rubbing action pushes forward a single seedlings from the bundle, if done skillfully, and the right hand picks it up with the thumb and first two fingers and pushes it into the mud-soil. Some people use the thumb above the fingers and horizontally (the thumb that is) push the roots in (men tend to do this for some reason), and others (women mostly) use the thumb upside-down-vertically held between the first two fingers to push the seedling in more neatly. A fast seedling planted can plant up to 15 seedlings in 10 seconds. A slower, (men tend to be slower) seedling-planter would poke 5 in every 10 seconds, or so. People tend to squat on their feet mostly, though women will also stoop, with their backs bent over, to plant rapidly, thum, thum, thum, it seems to make a noise as they bullet their seedlings in accurately spaced about three fingers wide-apart."

Fixing a bridge (1/7/07)

Certain projects, such as building community facilities and infrastructure, involve a large number of villagers. In this case, all the villagers who own land on the other side of the river (mostly cardamom plantations), came to help. A total of 14 adults cooperated on fixing this flimsy looking bridge.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Transplanting cardamom for replanting (06/27/07)

A young cardamom plant with rhizome and flower. These are pulled out from a larger, older cardamom plant "stack" and replanted. This transplanting occurs constantly as many of these young plants do not get used to their environment, and die. These "cuttings" are sometimes paid for though more often than not picked without permission from neighbouring cardmaom plantations!

The cardamom fruit will grow where the white flowers are visible creating a cone of seeds.

A small stack of seedlings I collected...

Tying together a bundle of cardamom seedlings to transport them to another field.

View of an un-cleared (un-weeded) cardamom field.

Carrying the seedling bundles to another field

Closeup of the cardamom flower-cone

A recently cleared and transplanted young-cardamom seedling.

Preparing an area for replanting

Making a mud oven

Spent one day with some friends in the village building this mud oven (25/06/07). The idea is to build up a mound of earth which you cover up with clay using paper to seperate the two. You then pull the earth out from the inside and from a pre-cut door. For cooking, you have to build up a fire and get the whole oven very hot (about 2 hours), then push the firewood to one side of the oven (or remove it completely) and put what you want to cook on the other. With the door closed, the pizza-bread-potatoes-meringues-etc cook very fast!