The research project “Ritual, Space, Mimesis: Performative Traditions and Ethnic Identity among the Rai of Eastern Nepal” aims at the ethnographic documentation and comparative study of ritual traditions among Kiranti groups in Nepal under conditions of cultural and political change. Its regional and ethnic focus lies on the Dumi-Rai and their neighbours, small ethnic groups settling in northern Khotang district of Eastern Nepal.

At a time when a new constitution is being drafted, the concepts of ancestral space, landscape and territory are of special topical significance, inasmuch as ethnic activists are demanding an autonomous homeland for the Kiranti. Through such ritual performances as priestly offerings, shamanic journeys or collective dance, cultural spaces are being claimed and (re)appropriated. The ethnic activists, who have organised themselves into various social, political and cultural associations, are trying to counter a loss of ancient Rai culture by transforming and reforming Rai culture and ‘religion’: in particular: they are striving for a standardisation, scripturalisation and greater public display of local languages, ritual texts and mythological accounts, and for the political staging of a specific form of ritual lay dance, the sakela.

Making use of recent approaches in ritual studies which highlight ritual change, transfers, recontextualisation, instrumentalisation etc., the project  focuses on ritual performances in two sub-projects carried out each by a postdoctoral researcher.

The sub-project “Dumi Ritual Landscape” by the anthropologist Alban von Stockhausen examines the construction of Dumi Rai ancestral geography through their shamanic ritual tradition. The project documents and analyses indigenous concepts and mappings of space as expressed in the domains of ritual action, mythological narration and social practice.

The sub-project “Sakela Dance“, led by the anthropologist Marion Wettstein, examines the construction of ethnic self-images through collective dances called “Sakela”. Taking performances as a multi-layered foundational (cosmological) ‘text’, the sub-project documents oral and gestural recitations, mimetic movements, and the performative contexts as a whole and analyses changes in the current context of political instrumentalisation.

Taken together and supplemented by a comparative study on “Puma Ritual Texts” based on data from the Chintang and Puma Documentation Project (CPDP), the two sub-projects are working towards detailed ethnographic studies with an emphasis on those features that are currently being most intensely instrumentalised by ethnic leaders in their search for identity and their demand for an autonomous Kiranti homeland. Their aim is to contribute substantially to a more comprehensive and comparative understanding of the rich but endangered ritual traditions in eastern Nepal.

The research project is financially supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and based at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB) of the University of Vienna. It is headed by the anthropologist Martin Gaenszle.

All data generated within the project will be archived and made accessible through the Himalayan Archive Vienna (HAV).