Sacred mountain landscapes and biocultural diversity

Our session had only five papers, but the depth of analysis, the warmth of the discussion and the enthusiasm of the participants were wonderful.

A number of recurring themes emerged across the five papers. The first was the sense that the ‘sacred’ is often used as an excuse for something else. In Robert Zomer’s paper the sacred was used as an ‘entry point’ to allow for transboundary negotiations where questions of water or actual international boundary demarcation were too sensitive. The ‘sacred’ in Kailash Sacred Landscape thus allowed for a suspension of politics in a highly politicized form, but through this sidestep it became possible to agree pathbreaking transboundary agreements in a fragile and threatened area.

In Karubaki Datta’s paper, the sacred was woven into the political history of Sikkim, and sacred sites had become sites of ethnic resistance as the power structures in the state had changed over two centuries. As she pointed out, where elsewhere in the world sacred groves were being lost to development and changing values, in Sikkim they were thriving (at least in the traditionally Bhutia and Lepcha areas) because they were connected with identity politics in a contested landscape.

A certain discomfort with this approach emerged in the questions—is the sacred only an entry point? Is it only an instrumental category?—but at the same time, these first two papers made it clear that the sacred is political. Fausto Sarmiento’s paper returned to this question when he proposed a political ecology of the sacred.

The second sense that emerged was that defining, or at least analysing, the sacred is possible and necessary but everywhere local, processual and negotiated. In Robbie Hart’s paper we followed the problems that emerged when his team asked their Naxi informants around Yulong Xueshan in Yunnan to list and characterise sacred sites. While the results were illuminating, to say the least, they revealed strong distinctions within the Naxi community as well as awkward points of encounter between Naxi and others. Two examples mentioned were the effects of tourism in the Naxi region, leading both to wealth and also folkloricisation, and the difficulty of encompassing ritual romantic suicide sites, which are a distinct category of Naxi sacred site, within a scientific analysis. The strong voices of Naxi as author and informants in the paper meant that these difficulties were neither avoided nor analysed away, but allowed to persist in the paper.

This point resurfaced in the questions, where one person asked how we might balance consultation and research in determining what, how, and where were sacred sites in any one place.

The third point that emerged was a strong, and very personal, acknowledgement of the positive value of sacred sites in the broader mountain project. Constanza Ceruti gave a sweeping autobiographical presentation of her work on sacred mountains in South America, Asia, Central America and North America. Her obvious joy within the photographs as well as in her presentation allowed the gathered researchers to gasp, laugh and hope along with her. It is always difficult to generalise around measurable characteristics of sacred sites, but their capacity to empower, uplift and restore is sometimes lost in the drive to encompass them within usable frameworks—and Constanza’s presentation bluntly refused that loss. She ended with a poem, which Fausto Sarmiento picked up as the opening for his paper.

Fausto presented us with an ambitious theoretical and critical synthesis of these dynamics. Without refusing any of these elements—the practical/political, the local/obstinately particular, the hopeful/affective—he proposed a complex but elegant overarching framework. While inevitably his framework derives from the particulars of the central Andean context, his work demonstrates that these are not incompatible challenges. Indeed, this same determination erupted at the end of Robert Zomer’s paper, when he moved from a discussion of the instrumentality of the sacred in the Kailash project to an ambitious new project looking at sacred mountains in the Altai region.

In sum, then, our panel showed that a firm commitment to methodological and theoretical honesty and depth does, actually, allow for something beyond a waffly and numinous use of the sacred as a nice thing. While the sacred as a category is political both in its genesis and its deployment, local engagements around sacred sites that use participatory methodologies and do not shy away from emotional value do, in fact, lead to measurable and practical results that can offer projects around the documentation and stewardship of cultural and biological diversity much greater capacity, stakeholder commitment, theoretical depth, and practical effect.

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3 thoughts on “Sacred mountain landscapes and biocultural diversity

  1. A fantastic and typically eloquent summing up by our fearless session leader Will Tuladhar-Douglas. Less eloquently, and at risk of repeating, some common themes that I noted down during the session:

    -The search for a quantifiable (or even identifiable) connection between sacred spaces and biodiversity. Are there shared processes or only shared patterns? Shared goals or only shared outcomes arrived at incidentally? Are sacred landscapes more important to/for identity (Andean-ness, Lepcha identity, etc.) than to biodiversity?

    -The fractal / nested scales of sacred landscapes, extending from transboundary regions to kingdoms, mountains, forests, groves or individual trees.

    -The role of the international community (other nations, NGOs, international researchers) in shaping national behaviors based on cultural values of national minority groups.

    -Depictions of sacred mountains: in photos, maps, thangka, orthography, or the paintings of Roerich.

    -The conversion of sacred landscapes: what changes when a Celtic boulder is overlayed with Christian belief, when Padmasambhava converts a local god of place to a Buddhist protector, or when a sacred place begins to host more siteseers than religious pilgrims?

    -More perhaps than anything, the deep personal relationship with mountains that all presenters in the session (and perhaps the conference) clearly felt. We each apply our own framework(/s) to attempt to understand these landscapes, but we all feel their transformative and numinous nature.

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  2. Robbie,

    Thank you! You’ve definitely caught key elements I missed.
    The question of representation is, I think, actually tangled up with the question of how sacred sites are shared.

    I contributed a paper to a great collected edited by Glenn Bowman called Sharing the Sacra that emerged out of a panel at an anthropology conference. We had each decided that we didn’t like the idea—as strongly advocated by some conservative theorists—that sacred sites are captured in a sort of ‘clash-of-civilisations’ way, and each of us worked in places where sacred sites were sacred *because* they were shared. Being delighted by multiple representations of a sacred site, rather than regarding them as attempts at control, was at least part of what we were seeing—so in the best case, a biodiversity specialist, a tour company, a state forestry office, and a tantric priest would all see each other’s representations of a site as mutually enhancing.

    Clearly that’s not always true, and we in this panel all saw a threat posed by state-backed enterprises, whether it was mining, logging, or unsustainably intensive tourism. Representation comes up here: is it a renewable resource, a strategic asset, a medicine mountain, an economic development opportunity?—that’s very different from multiple representations that nonetheless cohere around stewardship of the natural site.

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