Landscape, Ritual and Identity among the Hyolmo of Nepal

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Davide Torri
Vitality of Indigenous Religions
  • London: 
    , April
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The late 20th century was an era of active, even aggressive, ethnogenesis, a trend that continues into the 21st and threatens to undermine or reverse the “integrative revolution” diagnosed by Franz Boas and Clifford Geertz. In Landscape, Ritual and Identity among the Hyolmo of Nepal, Davide Torri documents and analyzes this process for the Hyolmo, an indigenous group associated with the Helambu or Yolmo region of Nepal. Although recent decades have witnessed a large-scale migration to the city of Kathmandu, Torri argues that Hyolmo identity is created and maintained through a collective memory of culture, ritual, and territory based on the mythistorical establishment of the beyul (“hidden lands”) by ancestors like Buddhist masters Padmasambhava and Shakya Zangpo.

Accordingly, as expressed in the book’s title, Hyolmo identity—consistent that of indigenous peoples and nation-state populations alike around the world—is predicated on a relationship with place or landscape, identity simultaneously arising in/from and inscribed onto those places. As an Adivasi or indigenous group of Nepal, the Hyolmo are in a particularly interesting position—one of the 36 percent of the country’s population who are non-Hindu, with their own language, religion, culture, and territory.

The book’s second chapter (the introduction serving as the first chapter) provides the historical and political background for contemporary emerging Hyolmo ethnicity, from the unification of the kingdom of Nepal in the late 1700s to the present. Hindu migration away from Muslim northern India led to the founding of polity in which indigenous peoples were subordinate to the “twice-born” upper castes. The second half of the 20th century was an era of unrest, from the panchayat (village council) system to the 1962 Constitution defining Nepal as a Hindu state, to socialist/communist resistance to the government. In the midst of this turmoil, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities was formed, explicitly characterizing indigeneity in terms of language, culture, religion, and land.

The third and fourth chapters explore the local concept of beyul. Hyolmo landscape is traced to the culture hero and Buddhist master Padmasambhava, the landscape becoming a “sacred geography” and a “mnemonic map” of his adventures. Hyolmo land is further entextualized in shamanic songs, while also inhabited by a congeries of nonhuman beings, both divine and demonic. At the extreme, the land is “an animated agent in itself.” Torri stresses the prominence of stories about hidden and often idyllic places in the Himalayas, not least captured in the western imaginary of Shangri-La. In the so-called “treasure literature” of the region, “paradisiacal lands” are described as places without sorrow, illness, or pain, where pure air, fresh water, and abundant food ensure health and happiness. This leads to an account of the other founder figure, Shakya Zangpo, credited with originating one of the key tulku (reincarnated lama) lineages, renovating a major Buddhist stupa, and “opening” the beyul of the Hyolmo—granting him and his descendants “jurisdiction over the land.”

The fifth and sixth chapters examine Hyolmo ritual more directly, particularly shamanism. Entering into the fraught debate about shamanism in South Asia and beyond, Torri distinguishes between the Hyolmo shaman (bombo) and oracle (lha pa), noting that the latter operates within the Buddhist “arch-narrative” linking worldly and otherworldly beings whereas the former is “autonomous” and not subject to Buddhist authority. The fifth chapter especially is a detailed description of the Hyolmo shaman and therefore is of interest to scholars of shamanism across cultures. The sixth chapter turns to “ritual dynamics” more generally, discussing for instance how the gompa or Buddhist center constructed in Kathmandu in the 1990s became a focus of Hyolmo community and identity formation and the site of the Hyolmo Society Service Association. As in much of the ethnogenesis in the contemporary world, “internal homogenization or standardization” was a critical element of this emerging identity. Another element was and is the adaptation of traditional religion, like shamanism, to modern and urban conditions, for example the rejection and substitution of animal sacrifice.

The seventh chapter and the conclusion essentially order and summarize the book’s findings, reiterating that the rural Helambu villages continue to orient identity for urban Hyolmo. But such “traditional” sources are paralleled by modern institutions like the aforementioned Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, which organize and support their political and cultural agendas.

Landscape, Ritual and Identity among the Hyolmo of Nepal belongs to the important and expanding literatures on ethnicity and on emplacement, the two obviously intimately connected. Torri identifies the “founding myths” and the present-day processes that construct a people in relation to and in terms of land, language, and religion in a multicultural setting. For a very short book (180 pages of text), the volume spends considerable time explicating basic anthropological concepts like ritual and ethnicity, making it well suited to students and generalists; however, its contents are rich enough to interest specialists of Nepal, religion/shamanism, and ethnic-identity formation. The general contours of Hyolmo ethnogenesis will be familiar to most scholars, but the specifics are well presented in this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is head of global anthropology of religion at the Global Center for Religious Research in Denver, Colorado.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Davide Torri is currently a researcher at the Department of History Anthropology Religions Performing Arts (official English translation of the SARAS [Storia Antropologia Religioni Arte Spettacolo]), at Sapienza University of Rome. In addition, he is associate member of the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (Germany) and of the Centre d’Etudes Himalayennes of the CNRS (France).



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