Rediscovering and Remaking of an Ancestral Place: Ritual, Place-Making and Indigenous Historical Agency in Nepal
In this paper, I discuss how Dhimal, one adivasi community from Nepal’s easternmost lowland plains, the Tarai, use their village ritual to reclaim their historical relationships with their ancestral territories once they have forgotten and how ordinary individuals inscribe and write their ethnic histories into the newly rediscovered ancestral land by physically being at the place during the ritual. The paper is based on my ethnographic fieldwork with and among the Dhimal from 2007 and 2009 in different parts of Morang and Jhapa.
Until a few years ago, a village called ‘Raja Rani’ in Morang district did not carry any special sense of place for the current Dhimal indigenous activists. After the discovery by Dhimal activists in the late 90s that their ancestors used live the Raja Rani areas until the early 20th century, the place has now become a ‘sacred place’ where Dhimal ethnic histories and ancestral spirits dwell. Now Dhimal inaugurate their most important village ritual, Shrijat Puja at Raja Rani by collectively traveling to the place on the Nepali New Year and performing the ritual for the wellbeing of all Dhimal. They are promoting the Shrijat ritual as the rastriya puja (national puja), the collective jati puja of the adivasi Dhimal. Recently, the place Raja Rani has entered into Dhimals’ political demands for ‘Dhimal autonomous state’ in the federal restructuring of the nation-state in Nepal. Why has Raja Rani, where no Dhimal currently lives, acquired such a heightened sense of place for them?
I will analyze this particular ‘place making’ practice by locating it within the contexts of Dhimals’ historical experience of the Nepali state, their search for jati ithihas (ethnic history) and the contemporary indigenous articulation of ‘autonomy’ in Nepal. Drawing on the theoretical perspectives on ‘place’ that combines phenomenological and political economic approaches to place-making and experiences of place, I will underline the collective creative agency of indigenous activists and ordinary ritual participants in transforming a once ‘forgotten’ place into a place of lived ancestral histories. For instance, by showing how a seemingly simple statement such as “I was here in this place with my grandmother twenty years ago” can become part of a powerful history-making narrative in specific historical-political contexts, this paper will help us to understand how people actually produce and write histories in the land by physically being at and participating in the Shrejat ritual at Raja Rani. In doing so, this paper will highlight how locally embedded place-making practices become inherent indigenous political projects in the making of ‘New Nepal.’