Centre for Himalayan Studies
UPR 299
Research Axes
> Politics, conflicts and justice
> Belonging, territories and changes
> History, knowledge and heritage
> Research on borderlands
research on borderlands

- Borderland tribes - Philippe RAMIREZ
- Mobility of land and men - Joëlle SMADJA
- Languages, cultures and territoires in North-East India - ANR Project
- Territory, communities and exchanges on the Sino-Tibetan Kham borderlands - Coordinated by Stéphane GROS
- Practices and social organisation of secular religious Buddhist devotees on the Sino-Tibetan Amdo borderlands (Qinghai) - Nicolas SIHLE


Ethnology and geography of North-East India: the Assamese borderlands

Accessible to foreigners only since 1995, North-East India is new to Himalayan and Indian studies. P. Ramirez embarked on a new project in the region in 2002, and J. Smadja in 2005, both of which are still under way. One of our motivations is exploratory: to collect basic geographical, historical and anthropological data on a region about which so far little is known. Yet the geographical and cultural situation of North-East India, at the cross roads between Gangetic India, Tibet and the mountains of South East Asia, in fact makes it an exceptional topic for social science studies. We have set out to decipher the numerous ecological areas, languages, lifestyles and forms of social structure which are of such great complexity. Moreover, this is naturally in keeping with the interdisciplinary approach developed by the team in Nepal.

Borderland tribes

Philippe RAMIREZ

The choice of anthropological fieldwork is overwhelming in this geographical unit which encompasses four language families, at least three descent types (patrilineal, matrilineal, bilineal) and numerous political systems. Since 2002, Philippe Ramirez has been researching several communities situated at the boundary between the plains and the hills on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River. These are relatively less populated areas with more visible geographical and cultural demarcations (hills/plains, tribes/castes, matrilineality/patrilineality, Tibeto-Burman languages/Mon-Khmer languages/Indo-Aryan languages…), hence spaces of transition where one supposes that it is possible to grasp some of the mechanisms structuring social, political and identity formations.

Fieldwork carried out between 2003 and 2007 among the Karbis, the Tiwas, as well as in Meghalaya, has helped enrich and narrow down the lines of future research after our first field trip among the Dimasas in 2002; firstly, regarding the description of the "traditional" politico-ritual systems (i.e. parallel to Indian State institutions) combining a clanic structure and some centralisation. Simply describing these systems is a challenge because it initially proved very difficult to grasp the spatial coherence, particularly through our informants' discourse. It is possible that we are dealing with non continuous territorial organisations, but this needs to be verified. Another line of research focuses on the structuring of identities and the correspondence between culture and identity. We have discovered how culturally and geographically similar groups may differ in the way they integrate regional society, or more precisely, in the representations and practices regarding the group's sustainability. Thus, the Dimasa and Karbi both view their respective group as an association of clans; they agree at least ideologically to having a matching lifestyle, culture and ethnicity; and they follow the paradigm of purification in their dealings with the outside. Yet they differ radically on the question of "adopting" a foreigner in their midst. Following enquiries launched in 2004 about the Tiwas, we can now add a third mode of identity to the first two in which coherence is not cultural but political.

Tiwas have the particularity of encompassing two culturally and socially distinct entities. Hill Tiwas follow a matrilineal descent system, they speak a Tibeto-Burman language and those who have not converted to Christianity, practise their own religion. Plain Tiwas are patrilineal, and like most neighbouring groups, they speak Assamese (the dominant Indo-Aryan language in the plains) and despite some specific rituals their religion is similar to Assamese Hinduism. The clans in each of the two subgroups are totally distinct and only exceptionally do they intermarry. Nevertheless, in terms of identity, Tiwas well and truly form a coherent entity compared to their neighbours. Likewise, they all recognise the nominal authority—completely obsolete today—of a "Tiwa king". The latter's ancestors had been entrusted by Assamese sovereigns with the protection of lowland markets as well as of the road ensuring trade with the Jaintiya State. P. Ramirez has attended the Jonbil Mela, an annual fair sponsored by Tiwa Kings in which their "subjects", belonging to different ethnic and cultural entities, come to barter products from the hills for those from the plains (for example, tubers for fish). These ritualized exchanges have drawn our attention to the possibility that some groups in the North East have emerged by virtue of their "borderland" position, an idea that had been suggested in other terms by Roy Burman (Tribes in Perspective, 1994) in his theory about "buffer tribes" appearing on the borders between States. The identification and documentation of other petty border kings will therefore guide some of our future investigations.

Moreover, if Hill and Plain Tiwas can still be largely distinguished by their descent systems, patrilineal descent is gaining ground in the hills and this, surprisingly, without the parties concerned noticing a fundamental change and without the kinship terminology being significantly affected. The structural conditions leading to this phenomenon have yet to be identified.

An initial comparison between "borderland tribes" was made at the conference held by the European Association for Southeast Asian Studies (EUROSEAS) in September 2004. The paper was recently published (in Sadan & Robinne eds., 2007). Reflections on the mechanisms of ethnic group formations in North-East India have prompted the creation of a multidisciplinary research team (see below). For it is clear that work on such a spatial scale and on such composite phenomena cannot be confined to a purely anthropological approach.

Mobility of land and men


As in Nepal, research in North-East India focuses on land use, natural resource management, the populations' perceptions and representations of its milieux, the political consequences of environmental protection for farmers and cattle breeders, as well as territorial restructurings. Research is under way in both the Himalayan part of Arunachal Pradesh and the Assamese Brahmaputra plains.

For centuries, the vast floodplain has been given over to rice cultivation and, since British colonization, to tea plantations. The plain is bordered in the north by the Himalayan Mountain Range and in the south by that of the ancient Gondwana continent on the slopes of which, in both areas, farmers practise shifting or rotational slash and burn cultivation, called jhum.

Three characteristics of the region were identified during our first field trips: the high degree of mobility of environments and men, the ephemeral aspect of land in the Brahmaputra plains and the spatial separation of communities.

The events and patterns that go towards explaining these characteristics are the subject of our research. This involves both political (Partition in 1947 between India and Bangladesh, separatist movements, the expansion or creation of protected areas) and physical phenomena on different scales (earthquakes, seasonal events such as flash floods and flooding). Indeed, as the most seismic region in Asia, North-East India is also the wettest, and holds the world record for rainfall, with more than 12 metres of rain per year in Meghalaya. In recent times, a major event to have affected the reconfiguration and territorial divisions of local society was the 1950 earthquake and the successive flash floods from the Brahmaputra over the two years that followed. As a result, many villages disappeared or changed location, and populations were displaced. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries regularly change course according to annual floods, leaving portions of land under water, uncovering new land that is rapidly occupied by the poorest populations in order to cultivate cereals or vegetables before the next floods. This land, called sapori is a source of envy and of much conflict, even with nature reserves' administrations. Accessing land is a crucial issue in the region: the population density, ranging from 10/km2 in Arunachal to nearly 500/km2 in Assam and over 1,000/km2 in neighbouring Bangladesh speaks for itself. It explains the migration of Bangladeshis towards the north. In order to curb the various population flows, barriers have been erected: dykes have been built on the border of the Brahmaputra along with a wall whose construction started in 1985 and which runs the length of the border with Bangladesh ...

On another register, the mobility of land and men is also one of the components of mountain and hill milieus where jhum prevails, i.e. slash and burn farming which is either shifting or rotational. This type of agriculture is accompanied by a social organisation and by religious practices specific to tribes in these regions. Its scheduled decline, encouraged by the government for the sake of irrigated rice-farming land, impacts both milieus and economic/social spheres.

Lastly, this region with its many tribal populations throughout is characterised by a partitioning of communities in terms of space. They often have a special status (forestry regulations for example differ from national regulations, and may vary from one State to another, and even from one community to another) and live in spaces with a specific type of production. This is the case of the Rabhas in the "forest villages" or of the "Tea tribes" in the tea plantations, a closed world with its own rules; of the Karbis in Karbi Anglong, who live for the most part off slash and burn farming and, like the Khasis from Meghalaya, have their own legislation, notably forbidding access to land to any persions other than those from their community; the Adis, Nyishis, Akas, etc. from Arunachal Pradesh.

Part of our research focuses on the characterisation of the different territories and on their development, on their specificity in the Indian and more specifically Himalayan world.

We also intend to examine the extent to which claims over land or modern folklorisation processes, linked in particular to nature protection and to the tourist industry, can be the source of a revival in identity claims and can lead to setting strict limits between groups depending on so-called ethnic, religious, linguistic and historical criteria.

We are particularly interested in the vocabulary used for practices, techniques and the physical environment. What is common to the different groups, why, what has been borrowed, from which group, etc.? What circulates from one group to another and in which language? How does the recent introduction of rice farming on the floor of valleys and at the bottom of slopes in Arunachal Pradesh, for example, impact both territorial and social changes, and cultural and linguistic changes? Given that tribes never having practised this type of farming call upon populations from the Assamese plain who come to the mountains with their tools and their technical vocabulary.

Though the groups are compartmentalised, our aim is also to find out which practices tend to standardise society, to erase differences. For example, how is Christianity superrimposed on these different communities? What are the consequences of the religious discourse that heralds a totally new economy and thus a method of managing resources and different spaces.

This research is in keeping with the ideas on territorial restructurings on a scale of the Himalayan Range, making valuable contributions to the work carried out in Nepal and undertaken in the Western Himalayas, and with more general thoughts on the repercussions of nature conservation policies in very densely populationed rural milieus.

Languages, cultures and territories in North-East India

Joint research programme financed by ANR for the period 2007-2011, run by LACITO.

Developed by F. Jacquesson (linguist from LACITO, project coordinator), Philippe Ramirez and Joëlle Smadja.

This project brings together three researchers from UMR 7107 (LACITO), three researchers from UPR 299, a researcher from UMR 8564 (Centre d'Études de l'Inde), a PhD student from EHESS and five lecturers from Guwahati and Shillong local universities.

We started by observing the complexity of correspondences between linguistic, cultural, ethnic and geographical classifications in North-East India. Cases abound in this region with the same languages being shared by several ethnic groups and conversely with ethnic entities using several languages, cultures or lifestyles. Our aim is to identify the crossed mechanisms governing the way these similarities and differences emerge. What dynamics are at work in the crystallisation and the maintenance of distinctions? The method we are pursuing consists in comparing different classifications according to criteria that are specific to our respective disciplines, i.e. to superimpose maps prepared by linguists, social anthropologists and geographers. We are particularly interested in areas of non-overlap between classes, areas of ecological or cultural transition as well as in current and past migrations.

This research work also meets the important need for documentation about the people of the North-East. The project has provided historical documentation in this respect that will enable so far unpublished royal Assamese chronicles to be translated into English. This work will prove useful not only for linguists wanting to develop Assamese lexicons for the 17th-18th centuries, but also for social anthropologists, by highlighting identities, institutions and ancient practices. Ongoing work within the project and our preliminary results are presented on the "Brahmaputra Studies" website "Autour du Brahmapoutre".

Sino-Tibetan Borderlands

Territory, communities and exchanges in the Sino-Tibetan Kham borderlands

Coordinated by Stéphane GROS (ERC Project, Starting Grant n°283870)

Eastern Tibet, traditionally called Kham, is a turning point between central Tibet and the Sino-Tibetan borderlands in the east. This project aims at studying Kham from a historical, anthropological and linguistic point of view in order to throw light on the specificities of this region from a perspective based on complementary disciplines. This multidisciplinary approach is essential to the project which calls for a two-tiered analysis:

  • a level that roughly defines Kham, today an entity straddling an area made up of Western Sichuan, North Yunnan and the Tibet Autonomous Region. This involves using historical sources and field enquiries, documenting the various definitions of the Kham region as a whole, not only in historical, geographical and linguistic terms, but also through referents and expressions of identity in their contemporary dynamics.
  • a level that thoroughly analyses precisely located fields of enquiry. Historical and anthropological research is particularly oriented towards the region of the ancient political entities such as that of Derge, in Western Sichuan (Ganzi Autonomous Prefecture). Research relative to social organisation and to family structures, underlining the regional diversity of Kham, falls within a comparative perspective which also aims at documenting exchanges between local communities, both as far as commercial, technical and cultural aspects are concerned.

Thus one particular focus of this project is to delve into the complexities of Tibetan society in China, on the basis of new ethnographic and historical data on four complementary cross-disciplinary themes: 1) trade and commerce, 2) ethnicity, religion and local identities, 3) political entities and social organization, and 4) representations and cultural politics, each of which in its own way will improve our understanding of the particular historical, social and political characteristics of the Kham region.

The multidisciplinary team is undertaking ethnographic field studies and documentary research including archival research. By contributing fresh, first-hand material to the study of socio-cultural diversity of Kham, the research will highlight a number of trade, family and religious networks that, throughout history, have forced us to consider this region as a space made up of a set of multiple centres linked by communication and exchange processes: a node of a reticulated space rather than a finished and clearly defined space.


Tibetan Borderlands

Rituals of power and violence: Tantric Buddhism in a community of the Tibetan Himalayas

Nicolas SILHE

Ce projet, déjà entamé par une première recherche de terrain en 2006, est l'extension aux marges sino-tibétaines du Nord-Est d'une problématique auparavant creusée en Himalaya et au Tibet central.

Il s'agit d'une approche proprement anthropologique d'une tradition religieuse du « livre », hautement complexe, le bouddhisme tibétain, abordé spécifiquement à travers les dimensions à la fois sociologiques et religieuses d'un type encore peu étudié de religieux tibétains, les tantristes (ngakpa), religieux non monastiques, maîtres de maison, spécialisés dans des rituels tantriques mobilisant typiquement un pouvoir fort à des fins mondaines, en particulier dans l'exorcisme.

Dans ce contexte, l'importance frappante de la violence rituelle dans nombre de traditions de tantristes, ou l'absence d'accent porté sur le renoncement, invitent à repenser certaines idées reçues sur les sociétés bouddhiques. Les matériaux tibétains permettent d'approfondir et renouveler une anthropologie du monde bouddhique qui longtemps s'est appuyée essentiellement sur les sociétés du bouddhisme Theravâda (Asie du Sud-Est et Sri Lanka). Parmi d'autres traits marquants, le caractère central d'une dimension « magique » dans le rituel tantrique (à visée sotériologique ou mondaine) permet de reconsidérer certaines théories du rituel. Par ailleurs, le projet vise aussi à examiner l'articulation entre une entité culturelle complexe et étendue, comme le bouddhisme tibétain, et les divers ordres socio-culturels locaux qu'elle englobe. Un lieu important de cette articulation, et un thème privilégié du projet, est le texte écrit, en l'occurrence les manuels rituels locaux, en large partie constitués d'éléments d'origine extérieure à la communauté qui les utilise, mais aussi un des lieux de la constitution indigène de la tradition rituelle locale.

L'ancienne province de l'Amdo, aux confins Nord-Est du monde tibétain, se singularise par l'importance locale et régionale des communautés de religieux bouddhistes séculiers, dont l'activité et la visibilité sociale et religieuse connaissent actuellement une très nette renaissance après une longue période de répression par les autorités chinoises. Outre les thèmes de recherche mentionnés plus haut, cette région se prête aussi à la documentation des mémoires du bouddhisme tibétain sous Mao et la République populaire de Chine, ainsi qu'à l'étude des processus contemporains de transmission et de réinvention des traditions religieuses.

De premiers résultats de cette recherche ont été présentés dans le cadre du meeting annuel du American Anthropological Association (Washington DC) et un ouvrage collectif est en préparation.