Presentation of the Project

This project focuses on ritual dynamics in the Limbu ethnic community in Nepal and Sikkim in relation to the border separating east Nepal from Sikkim. The Limbu’s main area of settlement was divided by this border in the early 19th century; as a result, they became ‘transborder people’, some being citizens of Nepal, and others of Sikkim, which is now a state of India.

The context

The introduction of federalism in Nepal was accompanied by debates over the delineation of federal states along ethnic boundaries. In eastern Nepal, claims for the creation of a Limbuan state led Limbu people to lay greater emphasis on their individual religious affiliations. Given the religious diversity among the community, this led to transformations of the religious boundaries; besides shamanic practices, eastern Nepal Limbu also follow the Atmananda, Satyahangma (Phalgunanda), Omnanda, and Christian traditions. Contacts with Sikkim are also numerous; and in Sikkim, as in west Bengal, there is a long history of cultural and literary development and standardization.

In Sikkim, Limbu history is tightly linked to the foundation of the Namgyal kingdom, and this favored both the recognition of the community at state level, and the differentiation between Sikkimese and Nepali Limbu. The tribal policy introduced from the late 1970s encouraged the Limbu, like other ethnic communities, to highlight the uniqueness of their cultural practices. For Limbu engaged in these cultural-ethnic movements, crossing the border is an integral part of their endeavor. It is also part of the dynamics of cultural bordering and de-bordering.

Theoretical approach

In this project, ritual dynamics are approached in terms of the preservation, interpretation and reinterpretation, as well as transformation of ritual practices. The ritual dynamics discussed in this project concern the rituals themselves (the elements and steps of the rituals, the ritual performers), the interpretation of and discourses about the rituals, the visibility and place of performance, and the ritual context (religious and political).

As concerns the last point in particular, the diversification of religious practices among the Limbu sheds light on the continuation, reintroduction, and reinterpretation of shamanic rituals. These dynamics are also approached in terms of the social and political dynamics, as well as ‘geographic’ ones, with which they are entangled. In particular, ritual dynamics are explored in connection to borderland life and the social situation of the Limbu.

People’s experiences of transborder territories as living spaces in their own right—in which crossing the border is part of family, economic, and intellectual life—and the influence of state territorialisation on these borderland lives have been studied from several angles. In Sikkim and West Bengal, the large majority of people have their origins in Nepal, and thus part of their ethnic community lies on the other side of the border. In the region including Nepal, West Bengal, and Sikkim, people are connected by a dense network of kinship, religious, and economic relations.

For groups living on both sides of the border between Sikkim and eastern Nepal, crossing the border generates a consciousness of the efficacity of cultural practices to support political projects in both countries. On parts of Nepal, exchanges across the border provide people with livelihoods. Transborder spaces are imagined and used in ways that are not merely determined by state laws, institutions, and infrastructures, but also by transborder peoples’ memory, imagination, livelihoods and networks. Both these factors interact to construct borderland lives, rather than excluding each other.

The overall objective of the project is to contribute to the understanding of the processes of construction of a shared transnational territory, and of how people experience and imagine this transnational space. In this respect, rituals are approached as one of the planes of experience on which these representations and meanings are constructed.

Questions and objectives

The project focuses on the two-way interactions between ritual and border dynamics:

  • How do the transborder interactions among Limbu people, and the presence of the border, influence the ways Limbu people perform and understand their ritual practices in Nepal and Sikkim? These exchanges include, for example, family relations, economic mobility, and exchanges between scholars and cultural/ethnic association members.
  • How do ritual practices express, enact, and transform both the Limbu transborder territory, and the division of the Limbu people by the border? This part of the project aims at exploring the place of the border both in the visible shared territory, and in the ‘mythological’ territories revealed through ritual practices and their discursive context.

The central aim of this project is to study and document Limbu rituals in Sikkim and Nepal. The project focuses mostly on the shamanic ritual practices of the Limbu in both places, and on the Satyahangma (Phalgunanda) tradition, mostly in Nepal (see Ritual and Border Dynamics). The study is based on ethnographic fieldwork data, archival documents, local publications, and scholarly sources. Rituals are approached from a historical perspective, and their dynamics are analyzed in relation to political dynamics at the local and global scales (see publications).

Exploring Limbu ritual dynamics in Nepal in Sikkim leads to explore as well processes of ‘scripturalisation’ and production of written texts. The writing down or ‘scripturalisation’ of the mundhum (ancestral knowledge) is a major change in the religious system of the kiranti communities (into which often, but not always, the Limbu are included).