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Shifting Identities Among High-Altitude Border People


Gerard Toffin

THE INNER AND OUTER SELVES: COSMOLOGY, GENDER AND ECOLOGY AT THE HIMALAYAN BORDERS
By Subhadra Mitra Channa
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. xiii 319, Rs. 995.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 9 September 2014

Throughout the 2,400-kilometre-long Himalayan range, high-altitude populations live in areas that are crossed by physical political borders demarcating South Asian nation states (Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bhutan) from China. These state boundaries have been drawn and redrawn over the course of history and have been contested by most of the political players concerned. They more or less overlap the cultural and linguistic boundaries. Indeed, anthropologically and linguistically speaking, the Himalayan region can be seen as an interface between Hindu populations and people belonging to the Bhotiya culture and/or ethnic groups speaking Tibeto-Burman languages. The close proximity and interrelationship of Hindu and Buddhist communities belonging to different cultural traditions are a key element in this zone. One often forgets that Bhotiya Tibetan groups that can be found from the western to the eastern part of the Himalayan range and who live in small enclaves, are one of the common ethnic markers in this region of the world. A number of them regularly cross the northern border to barter salt, horses, dogs for grain and other products from the South. Yet the border was closed after the Indo-Chinese War of 1962 and the annexation of Tibet by China. The people dwelling in these borderlands have been forced to adjust to a new situation.   The Jad Bhotiyas (a group not exceeding 800-900 individuals, including children) are one of these borderland people. They live in the northern part of the Uttarkashi district of Garhwal, in the Uttarakhand Himalayan state of India. The Gangotri glacier, a sacred place in Hindu religious geography and the source of the river Ganga, lies close to their villages. Jads do not form a closed, self-contained, bounded society. They live off pastoralism, straddling different cultural zones through their economic activities. They accompany their herds (mostly sheep) during seasonal transhumance over various ecological belts, between high-altitude pastures and low valleys. More importantly, in the past they privileged trade relations with Tibetans. Jads wore clothes similar to Tibetans and drank Tibetan tea. The cessation of the salt trade with Tibet led them to extend their network of connections with other Garhwalis.   Throughout the region, the distinction between hill-folk (pahari) and plain-dwellers (desi) plays a crucial role in daily life. The latter tend to look down on the former. Paharis boast their own specific culture as opposed to the mainstream culture of the Hindi belt in the plains. This contrast has significantly influenced local ...


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