The Sacred Himalaya Initiative: Sacred Landscapes and Sustainable Futures, is a new Luce Foundation funded initiative which builds on the successes of the Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya (ERSEH) initiative. For the next three years (2014-2017), ICI will be working with a team of researchers from India, China, Nepal and the United States to study and document relationships between religion and ecology, sacred landscapes, pilgrimage routes and ecological, economic and cultural sustainability and resilience in the Himalaya.
The Himalaya is one of the most significant religious, cultural and ecological regions in the world, and continues to be the focus of much global scholarship. As the region experiences rapid changes associated with increased tourism, environmental degradation, and climate change, the livelihoods of local communities are impacted, which highlights the necessity to develop strategies to ensure long-term ecological and economic sustainability for Himalayan communities. In this regard, the rich socio-religious traditions of the region are an invaluable resource for developing climate adaptation strategies. By working with local NGOs, communities and transnational collaborations like ICIMOD‘s Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI), this project will bring the critical academic focus of ICI to help examine these important issues in the Himalaya.
- Create an expanded community of scholars focused on generating new field based research on the intersections of religion and ecology in Himalayan communities;
- Develop an innovative and interactive sacred landscape mapping resource (Sacred Landscape Mapper) to aid scholars, students, and policymakers;
- Produce academic papers, journal articles, or other critical media related to the intersections of religion and ecology in the Himalaya;
- Design new undergraduate and graduate level courses;
- Produce critical research and analysis documents and make recommendations for improving, expanding or rethinking existing and future academic and policy approaches to shared sacred landscapes.
The number of pilgrimage sites in India and Tibet is so large that the whole of IndoTibetan region may truly be called a grand sacred space.
– K.T.S. Sarao
Several articles have also been written documenting parts of this project below.
We have a photo gallery from the research trip in Humla, Nepal in the fall of 2014, which you can see here.
As part of our outreach on this project we have produced a short video from footage around the Mount Kailash area.
A Unique Region
The Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) is a shared sacred space and a diverse, multicultural landscape spread over the remote southwestern portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China (TAR), adjacent districts in the Far Western region of Nepal, and the northeastern flank of Uttarakhand State in northern India (see above). KSL is important because of the region’s size (31,000 km2); its significance to five religious communities (Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Bönpos); and its ecological dynamics, forming the upper catchment of four of Asia’s major rivers: Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali/Ganga. In addition, this area has enormous ecological significance as a global biodiversity hotspot. When considered as a whole, this landscape supports more than one billion people who live downstream from these rivers and whose livelihoods are interlinked with their flows and resources. The Sacred Himalaya Initiative presents a significant opportunity to deepen knowledge and shape policy about how the global community can address the interplay of ecology, religion and cultural factors to create sustainable futures.
What makes Kailash a sacred space?
The KSL is home to many individual sacred places (shrines, sacred rivers, etc.) as well as a vast network of pilgrimage routes intersecting the Himalaya. Mount Kailash and the adjacent Lake Manasarovar (both within the TAR) are foremost among these sacred sites, serving as a pilgrimage destination for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Bönpos. Within India the practice of tirthayatra, or the act of making a spiritual journey to a sacred spot, has a long tradition going back to the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, and is considered a sacred duty by many Hindus today. For many Tibetan pilgrims, the practice of ritually circling Mount Kailash, referred to as kora or kyang khor, plays a central role in the spiritual cleansing of pilgrims and acts as a way to connect with mountain spirits. For Jains making a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, the top of the mountain is said to be the site where Bhagavan Rishabha, the tirthankara or holy founder of Jainism, first achieved spiritual liberation. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is similarly said to have made an important pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, where he learned many great spiritual lessons that he recorded in the Sidh Gohst, or Dialogue with the Sages. And the indigenous Bön tradition has its founder, Tonpa Shenrab, taking up residence near Mount Kailash and establishing the ancient Zhang Zhung civilization.
Another methodological approach in this project will involve ethnographic field research in the study area. This approach will support other research efforts seeking to understand and document everyday lived religion and the mapping of sacred values, meaning and symbolism across a diverse and shared landscape. Field research will be focused on several specific areas within the KSL, allowing for a richer and more nuanced set of case studies to be developed.
The ethnographic approach will be combined with literature reviews, strategic workshops with key scholars from India, China and Nepal, in-depth community interviews and oral histories, community focus groups, and through various additional social science data collection methods.
This project draws on a recent movement by scholars known as lived religion. Suspending questions of the definition of religion for attention to the details of life on the ground, it focuses on ordinary people as religious actors. It understands their ways of integrating the many concerns of their lives and the lives of their communities as comparable to what past scholarship thought was the exclusive domain of religious specialists–in other words prophets, priests, shamans and monks.
Documenting the flows of cultures, goods, peoples, and ecosystem services within the KSL is another research component with clear policy relevance to the question of religious resources in shared sacred landscapes. Improved regional case studies focused on sacred landscapes and religious resources can help highlight relevant and overlooked community concerns, which in turn can improve the available information and data that will inform and guide policymakers and scholars.
Mapping Sacred Space
By developing a Sacred Landscape Mapper, this project seeks to bring underutilized resources, like data visualization and geo-spatial mapping, to expand critical social science research on religion and ecology. In reviewing literature in this field, it is clear that no serious work has been done to bring together the power of interactive digital maps with on-the-ground ethnographic research and case studies in the Himalaya. Any contribution by this project in this regard would be an important first in this field of study, and could be a significant contribution to the expanding body of scholarship focused on sacred landscapes.
An exciting part of this mapping component is the idea of crowd sourcing data from within the Himalaya, especially relating to the ideas of everyday religion as it manifests within the context of the sacred landscape framework. By developing basic data collection standards for researchers, and integrating these with existing applications, the project has potential far beyond the idea of sacred landscapes in the Himalaya.