ICI Research Associate Chris Crews was part of our research group that recently traveled to the far western district of Humla in Nepal as part of our new Sacred Himalaya Initiative. One of his reflection pieces was recently published on the State of Formation religious blog where he is a Contributing Scholars.
I recently returned from a month of fieldwork and research in Humla, the northwestern district of Nepal bordering Tibet and India. I was there as part of a research initiative focused on the concept of sacred landscapes in the Himalaya, with special interest in the pilgrimage routes leading to Mount Kailash (Kang Rinpoche in Tibetan) and Lake Manasarovar. These two geographic features, located on the Tibetan Plateau northwest of Nepal, have served as the focal point for millions of religious pilgrims from a wide range of traditions for centuries. Both are considered sacred sites by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Bönpos, as well as many syncretic and animist traditions still thriving in the region.
Although I have been doing research on sacred landscapes for several years, this was my first time going to Nepal and walking some of these trans-Himalayan pilgrimage routes that have been used for generations by people within this region. Spending a month traversing this beautiful yet challenging landscape gave me a renewed appreciation for those religious devotees who commit to such an undertaking, as well as the people who have made this area their home. While I wasn’t traveling intentionally as a religious practice, I nonetheless felt a powerful sense of purpose and awe as we climbed mountains, descended valleys and explored the landscape.
One of the most poignant observations for me was how deeply embedded religious symbolism and meaning is within the landscape, far more than I have ever felt in my travels in northern India or southern China. Some of this influence is a function of the Tibetan Buddhist culture of Humla and the Limi Valley area we were in. But even the more Hindu-dominated areas closer to the district capital of Simikot still had a certain sacredness that was distinct. While some of this has to do with the distinct rural mountain folk culture of western Nepal, even in the heart of the Kathmandu Valley and the capital there was a sense of this pervasive religious influence unlike anywhere I have traveled before.