23rd European Conference on South Asian Studies

University of Zurich (Switzerland)

23 to 26 July 2014

Date and Start Time 26 July, 2014 at 09:00

official conference page



Martin Gaenszle (Institute for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies)

Alban von Stockhausen (University of Vienna)

Marion Wettstein (University of Vienna)

Short Abstract

This panel examines how, in the on-going socio-political developments in Nepal, ethnic identity is expressed, shaped, and perceived through public means, such as journals, magazines, films, novels, media coverage, programs of ethnic or religious organisations, festivals, dances, or public rituals.

Long Abstract

In the last two decades Nepal has witnessed far-reaching political and social changes, especially through party politics, the so-called People’s War (1996-2006), and the restructuring of the post-monarchic state. In the process of these still on-going developments collective identities have often been reformulated through notions of ethnicity. Debates on ethnic boundaries and definitions have intensified or newly developed. This is most obvious in the process of formulating a new constitution for the country: One of the main reasons for the failure of the Constituent Assembly in 2012 was the unresolved question whether to delineate the federal states according to ethnicity. This option is strongly favoured by ethnic activists and firmly opposed by members of the high Hindu castes, who now also have begun to claim the status of janajati (indigenous groups). In this context the question how, on a practical level, such identifications are actually publicly displayed, conveyed and processed among opinion leaders, activists, and the general public has become an important issue. This panel therefore invites contributors to examine how ethnic identity is constructed, expressed, re-shaped, and perceived in Nepal through public means, such as local journals, ethnic magazines, films, novels, media coverage, programs of ethnic or religious organisations, ethnic festivals, dances, public rituals or any other cultural events and activities. Particularly welcome are contributions with a focus on both discursive and performative aspects.


‘Sakela is our national dance’: the enactment of identity-roles in folk dance performances of the Rai in Nepal

Author: Marion Wettstein (University of Vienna)

Short Abstract

Fostered by activist groups, sakela dance has gained increasing importance in the on-going process of the (re)definition of Rai ethnic identity in Nepal. Drawing on this example the paper explores why dance in general seems to be highly effective in installing a sense of ethnic belonging.

Long Abstract

In the continuous process of the shaping and re-shaping of Rai ethnic identity in Nepal a specific type of public event has gained increasing importance over the last two decades: The sakela dance. Performed in circles, the dancers are following a dance leader and through gestures and bodily movements imitate agricultural techniques, crafts techniques, and movements of (mythological) animals. Originally this dance was only performed by a handful of skilled ritual dancers in the villages of some of the Rai groups in Eastern Nepal, accompanying the village priest during the offerings for the ubhauli and udhauli rituals celebrated before planting and harvest to reassure prosperity and fertility of the land. Today sakela is danced by thousands of people, in the villages and the cities, at times in large groups and also as secular events such as dance competitions.

This paper examines why sakela dance has become such an important aspect in the (re)definition of ethnic identity among the Rai. It argues that sakela dance has effectively been used by activist groups to install a sense of ethnic belonging. Exploring how dance can, in general, unfold its enormous potential to this end, it suggests that dancing, when linked to the conscious enactment of a specifically defined identity-role on the ‘central stage’ of a national festival performance, co-integrates this identity into personhood through its inherent potential to sensuously connect body, mind, and emotion.


Consumption of public meanings: doing ethnicity in contemporary Nepal

Author: Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka (Bielefeld University)

Short Abstract

Consumption of Public Meanings: Doing Ethnicity in Contemporary Nepal

Long Abstract

The past two decades have seen a tremendous upsurge of ethnicization in Nepal’s political communication. Ethnic organizations and their activists have engaged in forging public representations of their collective identities, have performed depictions of ethnic unity and solidarity and went on to demands for social inclusion and state restructuring. In this process, new public meanings came to the fore. They were on one hand expressions of local ethnic cultures as well as of global ethnic meanings adopted into the Nepalese context.

This contribution is an inquiry into the forms of adoptions of global meanings transported into Nepal’s public space through transnational and international ethnic networks. It examines the aspirational strength of the language of ethnicity, buttressing political demands and allowing actors to shape their politics of the self. The analysis then goes on to recent negotiations and positionings vis-à-vis the public representations, addressing the manifold tensions between public and private meanings.


Ethnicity and national identity in Nepali dailies and the blogosphere

Author: Johanna Buss (University of Vienna)

Short Abstract

The current debates about identity and rights of ethnic groups in Nepal are strongly influenced by the printing press and blogosphere. In my paper I am analyzing the discourses about ethnic groups, ethnicity as well as national identity in main Nepali dailies as well as Nepali Blogs.

Long Abstract

The debate about identity and rights of ethnic groups in Nepal has intensified since the elections for the constituent assembly in April 2008. The passage of the new constitution, anyhow, could not be realized due to the inability of the elected representatives to reach a consensus on the restructuring of the state considering the manifold multi-ethnic groups and their demands.

The rapidly developing printing press and blogosphere strongly influence the debates in the public sphere. The dailies as other mass media are frequently accused to be biased towards the high caste groups as most of the journalist of the influential media formats belong to these groups and therefore the old high caste dominance is perpetuated in the selection of journalists as well as reportage of the mass media. In my paper I am analyzing the discourses about ethnic groups, ethnicity as well as national identity in six main dailies as well as 2 main Nepali Blogs between the election of 2008 and the upcoming election for the constituent assembly in November 2013.

From Helambu Sherpa to Nepalese Hyolmo

Author: Davide Torri (University of Heidelberg) email

Short Abstract

This paper will address the topic of the creation of a space, both physical and conceptual, functional to the identity building processes, where to enact performative practices to provide support and substantiality to the Hyolmo community ideas about its own identity.

Long Abstract

The Hyolmo, a janajati adivasi group, are facing fast and dramatic changes in their lives. Their “traditional” homeland, Helambu, where until twenty years ago they were living as farmers and herders, has been mostly deserted in the last decades, with a consistent move toward urbanization, mainly centered around the Boudhanath area of the Kathmandu valley.

Largely ignored by domestic and international social, ethnographic or anthropological research, the Hyolmo started to assert, discover, negotiate and “invent” their own identity during the ethnic revival ´movement which followed the first jana andolan.

This identity assertion process, driven mainly by the community elite residing in the Kathmandu Valley, was centered around a communal project: the establishment of a spatial focus, in the form of a Hyolmo rNyngmapa Gompa, served the purpose to provide a public space for self-representation in a system of frameworks ranging from the purely local dimension (i.e. the Hyolmo as a Buddhist janajati adivasi group), to the national (i.e. the Hyolmo as a national minority) and even the wider transnational one (the Hyolmo diaspora working abroad in the E.U. or in the Far East).

This paper will address the topic of the creation of a space, both physical and conceptual, functional to the identity building processes, where to enact performative practices (music, dances, cultural programmes, community gatherings, religious rituals), to provide support and substantiality to the community ideas of its own identity (or identities).


New ritual landscapes and the formation of Rai ethnic identity in Eastern Nepal

Author: Alban von Stockhausen (University of Vienna)

Short Abstract

The paper examines how new ritual landscapes are appropriated in the process of the (re-)formation of Rai ethnic identity in Eastern Nepal.

Long Abstract

The paper examines how new ritual landscapes are appropriated in the process of the (re-)formation of Rai ethnic identity in Eastern Nepal. Taking the example of a new pilgrimage site in Eastern Nepal, it will be shown how the strong emphasis on ethnic identity in national politics and the declared freedom of religion have led to a new importance of sacred space. Claiming sacred territory has become a potent strategy in the struggle for power and recognition within the Rai communities in Nepal and its diasporas. The given example of Tuwachung Hill near the famous Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage site of Halesi / Maratika illustrates the on-going processes in which cultural and political activists are strategically utilizing sacred, ritual or mythological space as a powerful means for claiming territory and thereby defining new ethnic identities. The paper is based on an on-going research project on “Ritual, Space, Mimesis: Performative Traditions and Ethnic Identity among the Rai of Eastern Nepal” at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan, and Buddhist Studies of the University of Vienna.


Observations on public concern for the mother tongue after Vice President Jha’s oath in Hindi

Author: Alaka Atreya Chudal

Short Abstract

Ethnic groups in Nepal identify themselves not only by their ethnic origin, culture and religion, but also as separate ethnic groups on the basis of language and region. Interest and pride in presenting such forms of identity can also be seen in the definitions of a mother tongue.

Long Abstract

The first ever Vice President (henceforth VP Jha) of the Republic of Nepal Paramananda Jha took the oath of office and secrecy in Hindi on 23 July 2008. According to the interim constitution of Nepal (which was in force at the time), the President and Vice President could only take the oath in the Nepali language. As taking the oath in languages other than Nepali was said to be a violation of the Constitution, some Nepalese pressed charges against him in court. The issue of VP Jha’s oath-taking led to a discussion of linguistic and cultural rights and the use of mother tongue languages. VP Jha’s controversial oath provoked a heated debate in the Nepalese media. Against this backdrop, this paper aims to outline and study the discourse which emerged on the mother tongue issue, raised in various newspapers and online blogs published between the first and the second oath of office taken by VP Jha. Our focus topics, such as the importance of the mother tongue, its definition, the disagreement with VP Jha’s oath in Hindi, the interest in preserving one’s culture and language, and mother tongue in particular, reflect mostly recurring public concerns in the discussion. It can be observed that unrelated to any particular language issues, VP Jha’s oath has also made the public think about, discuss and define the idea of a mother tongue in general. The paper will attempt to present these recent discussions and definitions of the mother tongue as they appeared in the Nepalese media.


Performing ethnic identities within the Limbu diasporic space

Authors: Susanne Kirkegaard (Roskilde University) email

Jytte Agergaard (University of Copenhagen) email

Short Abstract

Investigating the processes of negotiating Limbu identities in a diasporic space, the paper challenges notions of elite-driven identity construction in Nepal, by highlighting the complex mechanisms of identity performances and articulations across place and space in the Limbu diasporic communities.

Long Abstract

Through exploring Limbu ethnic identity formation, the paper aims at re-examining ethnic identity and nationalism through an understanding of trans-local cyclical practices of identity construction. To conceptualise trans-local space, Clifford’s understanding of diasporic dimensions of contemporary native live is applied. The paper develops an analytical concept, Limbu diasporic space, in order to situate Limbu communities as stretching different locales such as Kathmandu and localities in eastern Nepal. The notion of home-and-abroad is used as a tool in contextualizing sites of ethnic representations thus exploring the articulated Limbuwan autonomous state as the border between home and abroad.

The analysis is based on three months of fieldwork in Nepal in 2012. Empirically, four sites/events of Limbu ethnic representation are examined; the central office of the organisation KYC and the cultural performance of Balihang Tangnem in Kathmandu, the Kirat religious ‘capital’ Mangsebung, and cultural performances in relation to Dashain in a Limbu village in Eastern Nepal. By using these sites, the paper analyses how constructions of identity narratives are fabricated in dialogue between different social, political and geographical positions within the Limbu diasporic space, and highlights how the cultural identity performances and articulations are used to reconstruct and produce public sites of ethnic identity. Concluding, the paper discusses how a) these different sites are presenting a cyclical practice of ethnic identity construction, highlighting linkages between elitist driven identity projects and commonly perceived primordial identity; and b) ethnic identities as a result of continuous negotiation shaped by the geographical locations of communities and their inter-linkages.


Youths and military migration: recruitment, ethnic identity and social change

Author: Avash Piya (Aarhus University) email

Short Abstract

I shall explore how the decisions relating to recruitment and migration are being negotiated within ethnic Gurung families, and how the ethnic identity of Gurung boys are expressed during the process of recruitment, as they aspire to become ‘Gurkha’ soldiers.

Long Abstract

Gurungs have been the highest providers of ‘Gurkha’ military service proportional to their population than any other ethnic group in Nepal, and have also benefited from these services as they have higher literacy standard and acquired higher remittances. Gurung families also see recruitment in ‘Gurkha’ services as a way to create continuity between the past and the future generations of Gurungs. Thus, Gurung families continue to send their sons for recruitment as it is the most preferred choice of employment. However, over the years the number of intakes has decreased, and competition has been very high as thousands of young people go through various stages of screening to fill in a few places. There has also been an interest from other groups, ethnic and non-ethnic, who see recruitment as an opportunity that very limited to them previously. On the other hand, Gurungs families are now able to invest on education and other forms of career for their children, as historically they have always been on the margins of the State. There are also now political debates within Nepal that voices to cease recruitment as ‘Gurkha’ soldiers altogether. Given these social and political processes of change that are taking place in contemporary Nepal, Gurung youths with their history of military migration in the family are uniquely poised to take advantage of their new social and economic conditions. Are they better able to express their ethnic identity in the process of recruitment as they aspire to become ‘Gurkha’ soldiers?