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Envisioning Identity: Deity, Person, and Practice in the Kathmandu Valley

Author(s): Bruce McCoy Owens

Source: American Ethnologist, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Aug., 2000), pp. 702-735
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
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envisioning identity: deity, person, and
practice in the KathmanduValley


Wheaton College

Throughan analysis of diverse accounts offered by those who perform "god's

work" for a large religious festival in the Kathmandu Valley, I argue that the
oppositional frameworks typically used to understand divergent perspectives
are inadequate to understand the multifocal polyphony that these accounts
(as well as most other ethnographic settings) present. The terms of argument
upon which conflicting accounts agree suggest that esoteric concepts of visu-
alization (sadhana) resonate with popular modes of constructing identities of
gods and selves and that this shared understanding helps account for the re-
production and transformationof the many dimensions of contestation that
have characterized this festival for centuries. [Nepal, Newar, hermeneutic
contestation, multifocal polyphony, identity, religion, ritual,tantra]

Forat least a century, anthropologists have been concerned with attending to the
polyphony of voices that speak in the inevitably heteroglot settings of their work.1
Most recently, they have been especially attentive to the intersubjectivityand politics
of relations between themselves and those whom they study and have worked to
make audible voices that were often obscured in earlier ethnographic accounts (Clif-
ford and Marcus 1986; Fabian 1990; Geertz 1988; Rosaldo 1989). Considerations of
divergent perspectives among those who are traditionally the subjects of anthropo-
logical inquiry (i.e., not anthropologists) have typically been less thorough, however,
particularly in studies of religious ritual. Though it is now nearly as commonplace to
assert that ritual serves as an arena of contestation (Dirks 1991; Ortner 1989; Ostor
1980) as it once was to assume the opposite,2 most considerations of intraculturaldi-
vergence in ritual interpretationand action have been attuned to oppositional distinc-
tions such as high caste/low caste (Ostor 1980), colonized/colonizer (Haynes and
Prakash 1991), upper class/lower class (Crain 1991; Lagos 1993)3, orthodox/hetero-
dox (Mumford 1989; Ortner 1989), elder/younger (Fowler 1987), and male/female
(Boddy 1989; Brown 1996; Lederman 1989; Sax 1991; Shaw 1985). Typically char-
acterized as examples of resistance and contestation, these relationships are most
often portrayedas instances of the subaltern (Guha 1982:vii-viii) confronting singular
positions of domination or discourses that are deemed hegemonic (see Ortner
In other words, for all the noise being made about the "postmodern"imperative
of attendingto polyphony (Clifford1986, 1988; Cliffordand Marcus 1986; Fischer1986;
Marcus and Fischer 1986; Rabinow 1986; Tyler 1986), many contemporary analysts
of ritual provide accounts only of duets-either dialogues between student and stud-
ied or differences in perspective among the studied that can be set in oppositional
frameworks.4Those who have tried to imagine ethnography that might successfully

American Ethnologist27(3):702-735. Copyright O 2000, American Anthropological Association.

envisioning identity 703

engage concerns typically identified as "postmodern" have generally insisted that a

multiplicity of perspectives be considered in any discussion of practices and beliefs
that are ostensibly shared within a culture. Heteroglossia, multiple voices (Bakhtin
1981), multiple fragmented realities (Linstead 1993), polyvocality (Cliffordand Mar-
cus 1986:15), polyphony (Clifford1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986), genealogy, and
archaeology (Foucault 1980:83) are all terms that critics have deployed to describe
aspects of cultural complexity that they claim merely "modern" ethnography has
tended to obscure. Their insistence upon attending to this complexity derives from
several key concerns that they identify as critical responses either to the substantive
conditions of postmodernity or late capitalism (cf. Jameson 1984; Knauft1994)5 or to
a postmodern sensibility, which Knauftdistinguishes from postmodernity with the
term postmodernism.
Jameson's oft-quoted characterization of postmodernism lists anti-modernism,
pastiche,6 and textuality as its identifying traits. Knaufthas offered a parallel list cast in
a more negative tone, including "the privileging of literary self-consciousness and
trop-ic creativity over sustained social analysis" and the infusion of a "surprisingahis-
toricism" (1994:1 18). However one situates oneself in this debate, the attention to po-
lyphony that some identify as a postmodern concern is justified on the basis of two
relatively uncontroversial assertions: first, all knowledge is historically and sociopoli-
tically situated, and second, to give a "referential"account-to claim that this or that
is (see Birth 1990)-inevitably privileges a particular voice, resulting in repre-
sentational distortion. Accordingly, the ethnographer can neither assume the authori-
tative voice (Fabian 1990:760) nor accord privileged authority to one particularother
voice in her ethnography.
Those anthropologists who have experimented with polyphony in their own
writing have typically stressed the first of these issues, generally championing a dia-
logic approach. These dialogic approaches typically tend to focus on the repre-
sentation of two voices: anthropologist and key informant.7This experimentation has
had a vitalizing effect on the discipline. Though anthropology's history of attending to
the problematics of representation in general and the relation between author and
subject in particular may be deeper than generally acknowledged, the more recent
writers who have grappled with these issues have urged their colleagues to contextu-
alize themselves explicitly in their ethnographic enterprises (something that I can do
only schematically here).8 The resulting ethnographic transparency generally en-
hances ratherthan diminishes ethnographic authority.
I will attend to the second issue, mentioned above, by focusing on the hetero-
glossia that exists outside ethnographic problems of representation or evocation (see
Tyler 1986). These take more complex forms than that of conventionally construed
dialogue.9 In this effort, I join Apter (1992), Eade and Sallnow et al. (1990), Fernandez
(1965, 1982), Holland and Skinner (1995), Keesing (1982), Mines (1995, 1997), Mur-
phy (1990), Wagner-Pacifici (1986), and others who have recently explicitly explored
these problems in ritual settings.10For none of these authors does the attention to po-
lyphony spring explicitly from either the substantive conditions of postmodernity or
its intellectual fashion (cf. Linstead 1993; Sangren 1988), but ratherthe cultural tex-
tures that have always been there, regardless of their acknowledgment (or lack of it)
by ethnographers."1
Inthe pages that follow, I will discuss a religiousfestival in the KathmanduValley of
Nepal in which contestationsover meaning and power within and between social groups
are multifocal. In particular,I attend to conventions about differentaspects of deity and
person that are situated across various lines of debate. I use the term contestation
704 american ethnologist

in a broad Bakhtinian sense, which suggests that all utterances address at least one
other party, whether explicitly and consciously or not (Bakhtin 1981).12Thus, in this
sense, assertions of identity and interpretationsof actions may be in contestation with-
out their authors' directly challenging or even explicitly acknowledging one another.
In each of the cases I will discuss below, assertions of identity are assertions of privi-
lege or rightsthat distinguish the claimant from others even if those others are not ex-
plicitly identified or challenged (and often they are not). For example, the typical
claim that I (or we) can touch the god contains the implied assertion that others can-
not. Thus conceptualized, contestation in this festival takes forms that range from di-
vergent claims (not necessarily directly engaging one another) to physical conflicts (in
which opponents clearly engage). The politics of identity played out in this festival
range from the political assertion of identity through self-representation in ritual con-
text to political protest vis-a-vis the state. Not every bone of contention is necessarily
salient for all social groups or all members of social groups engaged in a particularrit-
ual activity, but each argument situates a specific subject position in the context of a
particularassertion of identity at a certain historical moment. The assertions and con-
testations of meaning, identity, and privilege that emerge in this festival are multiply
situated, and the divergent claims that are made cannot be adequately understood in
terms of oppositional frameworks of analysis.
This ethnographic example indicates the limitations of oppositional conceptuali-
zations of contestive polyphony and points to a means of improving cultural analysis
by attending to the multifocality of polyphony. Heteroglossia in this conceptualiza-
tion of the ethnographic enterprise does not invade ethnography (Clifford 1988:51)
but instead provides an organizing principle for its construction. The cultural account
that results from this polyphonic approach directly confronts the issues of cultural re-
production and transformationthat so vex contemporary anthropologists. It provides
a basis for answering the questions, "How could this come to be considered as fact?"
and, "What are the consequences of treating this as fact?" ratherthan insistently ask-
ing, "Isthis fact?" and rhetorically pondering its counterpart, "According to whom?"
(see Linstead1993).
The "facts"of concern here are the accounts people gave me of their ritual prac-
tices and their reasons for engaging in these practices: accounts that were also claims
about these peoples' identities and the identities of the god(s) that they honored. The
divergences between these accounts and claims take the form of contestation that I
call multifocal polyphony. I distinguish multifocal polyphony from the more often
used terms, multivocality and polysemy, because these generally referto instances of
multiple meanings being attributedto a particularobject or event by a single speaker
(see Turner1967:50-52). Though this describes many symbols that are partof the fes-
tival, it is differences between the perspectives of various speakers that interest me
here. My combination of visual and aural (focal and phonic) tropes is deliberate; the
various told accounts are products of variously situated points of view, each of which
focuses on a particularaspect of a deity (or deities) both represented and present in a
single image.
By situating ritual accounts and practices in a multifocal framework, I find that,
though the meanings of ritual practices, the identities of practitioners and deities, and
the privileges and powers that pertain to these identities and practices are all subjects
of complex contestations, the manifold claims to power and privilege do deploy com-
mon assumptions. The arguments share certain terms; there is consensus in contest-
ation (both overt and non-engaged) that can only be discerned by careful attention to
polyphony. This consensus ultimately concerns how one envisions identities of gods
envisioning identity 705



-:i:.I-- ::
;:- .. :1-;-
- ---:i:--_-?S`i]-::j - -.:;,
'-- -

it -i1;1??

Figure1. PullingBungadya'schariotat Lagankhel,Patan,1984. Photographby author.

and selves; hence the title of this article. The basis of this consensus, a shared cultural
orientation, provides a means of understanding how contestation has been continu-
ously reproduced as a fundamental feature of this immense collaborative enterprise
since its inception over a millennium ago.

context of contexts

Once a year, just before the monsoon rains begin, thousands of people in the
Kathmanduvalley commemorate the arrival of a benevolent god, whom they credit
with having saved their forbears by ending a 12-year drought some 1,400 years ago.
706 american ethnologist

His annual procession festival is regarded as an omen of the god's disposition toward
the kingdom of Nepal, and many also consider it to be efficacious. Everyyear, people
still discuss whether or not it actually rained on the final day of the festival, as it is
"supposed" to do, no matterhow clear the sky might have been at the time. This festi-
val, by any measure one of the largest and most importantof the many religious festi-
vals celebrated every year in the Kathmanduvalley,'3 involves the king of Nepal in
exceptional ways. First, the king, whom many regard as an incarnation of the god
Vishnu,14actually attends the last day of the festival to pay his respects in a ceremony
witnessed by thousands, one of only two such annual public displays of royal devo-
tion to any deity.15Second, and more important, chronicles reveal a tradition, which
my research indicates is still very much alive, of interpretingmishaps during the festi-
val as reflecting badly on the king and, by extension, the kingdom.16This in itself is
not particularlyunusual, but the festival is remarkablebecause this interpretiveframe-
work is coupled with an exceptionally high potential for disaster.
The chariot containing the god is uniquely precarious, featuring a massive spire
made of heavy timbers, lashed together with split bamboo and vines, and decorated
with pine boughs, towering some sixty feet over a temple sanctum on a wheel base
only ten feet square (Figure 1). Though carefully built to stand erect, it appears de-
signed to fall over, which it occasionally does. Less dramatic mishaps, resulting in
damage to buildings and the chariot itself, are regular features of the festival as the
procession route winds through narrow streets. Though less frequent, falling debris or
a wayward chariot sometimes causes bodily harm or even death to participantsor on-
lookers. This potential for disaster is a salient aspect of the festival for its participants,
many of whom display on the walls of their homes a gallery of photographs of broken
and toppled chariots; it also dramatically undermines the surprisinglypersistent con-
ventional wisdom about such royal processions in South Asia, which are often inter-
preted simply as confirming the legitimacy of the statuses of ruler and ruled (Allen
1992; Hanchette 1972; Toffin 1986).17
The festival attractsa wide range of devotees from all over Nepal, including peo-
ple different socio-economic statuses, castes, and ethnicities. The god honored by
the festival is known by many names, and his devotees include people of various re-
ligious persuasions. Most of his devotees referto him either as Matsyendranath,a pos-
sible historical figure revered as the founder of the Kaula or Yoginikaula school of
yoga;18Karunamaya,the merciful one; or Bungadya,19the god of the village Bunga-
mati, where one of his two temple residences is located. Though these epithets are the
most popular, this god is attributednumerous identities. His priests most often referto
him as Bungadya or Karunamayaand revere him as a bodhisattva, one who has
achieved enlightenment but, out of compassion for sentient beings, forestalled his re-
lease from worldly existence in order to assist others in obtaining enlightenment.
These identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the eyes of his devotees, nor
are they exhaustive. Most worshippers agree that Bungadya possesses both male and
female attributes. I have chosen to use the masculine pronoun because generally (and
I will discuss a notable exception in this article), most people see the male aspect as
predominant.20I use the name Bungadya to refer to this multivalent divinity, for it is
the least ambiguous name that is commonly used; the other epithets refer to other
gods as well.
Thousands of people come to Bungadya's festival to make offerings or to help
pull the massive chariot along its traditional route, a task usually requiringthe efforts
of at least two hundred people. Hundreds of men and women honor what they con-
sider to be traditional obligations to provide particularservices essential to the festival
envisioning identity 707

and its associated rites, performing tasks that they call dyabya jya (god's work). The
annual preparations for the festival include bathing and repainting the image, deco-
rating ritual paraphernalia, and constructing the god's chariot, among many other
tasks. This work can involve spending significant amounts of time, labor, and money
and can require fundamental changes in one's daily routine for extended periods of
time. This festival and its preparationstechnically extend over an eight-month period,
though the actual procession festival usually lasts only a month or two. The duration
of the procession in any given year depends upon the timing of astrologically auspi-
cious celestial configurations and the frequency and severity of procession mishaps.
The festival is normally punctuated by over one hundred major ritual events, many of
which have numerous components that may each last several hours or more. In this
article, I will consider this festival and the god it honors primarilyfrom four different
points of view: four examples of how god's work both reflects and defines the social
identities of those who performtasks for the god's annual festival, and four examples
of how the identities of deity and worker are interrelated, interdependent, and mutu-
ally constituted. Collectively, these examples will illustratehow ritualcan be at once
a product of extensive cooperation and an arena of contestation and conflict that op-
positional models of contestation fail to capture. The examples will also provide in-
sight into how such contestation is both reproduced and transformedover time.

Newars and Newars

The points of view I will be discussing are those of Newars. Though members of
many different ethnic groups honor this god, only Newars serve as his attendants, and
only Newars perform the hundreds of tasks that are vital for the success of his yearly
festival. Newars are frequently described as the indigenous inhabitants of the Kath-
mandu valley, but this description belies the complexity of their heritage, as the desig-
nation indigenous so often does.
The earliest historical record in the Kathmanduvalley is an inscription carved in
stone a millennium and a half ago. The inscription is in the form of a panegyric to a
king and is located in an elaborate temple complex. This, along with archeological
evidence and the existence of earlier textual and inscriptional references to Nepal
from outside the country, clearly indicates that a complex society of the type associ-
ated with Newars has long been in the valley (see Riccardi 1996). The history and
characterization of Newar ethnicity, however, is a controversial issue for Newars and
Newar scholars alike (see Gellner 1986).
The term Newar was first used to designate an ethnic group-as opposed to a
place or language-in the early 17th century (Riccardi 1977:55), and even then it
probably did not encompass the numerous caste groups that now embrace Newar
identity (Gellner 1986:140-142). The society of the valley has long been complex,
subject to multiple influences, and comprised of diverse peoples, for the cities of the
valley were for centuries major entrepots on the primary trade route between India
and Tibet. The threat of conquest by outsiders may have first compelled various caste
groups situated throughout the valley to articulate commonalities that could be called
ethnic; however, even the ultimately successful 18th-century campaign of Prithvi-
naryan Shah of the western kingdom of Gorkha to incorporate the valley in his expan-
sionist state failed to produce the kind of coalescence among Newars that one might
anticipate under the circumstances. In fact, the incessant in-fighting among the three
rulers in the valley at the time of conquest contributed to Prithvinaryan'svictory.21 As
Vincent's apt characterization of ethnicity as "a mask of confrontation" (1971) sug-
gests, impending invasion may well have galvanized sentimentsof ethnic commonality,
708 american ethnologist

but the confrontations that caused Newars to assume the status of a conquered people
were complex, including riftsamong those whom Newars would now identify as their
ancestors. It is therefore not surprisingthat ethnographic literatureon Newars, though
based primarilyon small-scale community studies within the 200 square miles of the
Kathmanduvalley, collectively reveals a wide range of cultural diversity among Ne-
wars. This diversity is evident in such basic characteristics as their caste hierarchies,
marital practices, and language. There are also both Hindu Newars and Buddhist Ne-
wars as well as Newars who describe themselves as both Hindu and Buddhist. Both
Hindu Newars and Buddhist Newars have castes, though their caste hierarchies differ
(see Gellner and Quigley 1995).
Newars do, however, share cultural characteristics that clearly distinguish them
from their conquerors from the western hills, who are often referredto as Parbatiya,
and it is primarily in terms of contrast with them that Newars formulate claims about
their own ethnic identity. Most importantly, most Newars speak Newari, a Tibeto-
Burmese language, as opposed to Nepali, the Indo-Europeanlanguage of the Parba-
tiya. Another distinguishing factor is particularlysignificant in the context of the festi-
val to be discussed here; much of Newar social life is centered around voluntary
associations known as guthis, which serve to organize and maintain religious obser-
vances and institutions ranging from funerary rites to religious festivals. These institu-
tions have far less importance among Parbatiya(see Bennett 1983; Gray 1995).
The festival discussed in this article is a focal point of ritual practice and belief
that involves various Newars from all over the Kathmanduvalley and beyond. Given
its size and importance, it is hardly surprisingthat the festival proves to be a complex
arena of collaboration in ritual activity on the one hand, and interpretive disagree-
ment on the other. Attending to polyphony and negotiations of identity were intrinsic
to this ethnographic enterprise from the outset.
Partof this project was to understand the religion (or religions) of Newars in light
of their diversity. Their religious diversity is not simply a matter of there being both
Hindu and Buddhist Newars, for within each of these categories also lies a great deal
of variation in ritual practice and belief. I propose that this variation is animated, at
least in part, by differences in access to power and the kinds of power to which people
have access. I use the term powerto denote a capacity to exert many different kinds of
control or achieve an effect, whether over one's own condition or the condition of
others, these others being either human or divine.22I also understand power to be fun-
damentally relational, multiply situated, diversely inflected, and animated, in part,
through the knowledges and practices of those who are most constrained by it (Fou-
cault 1990).
Among Newars, access to power, whether divine or temporal, can entail obliga-
tions among kings, gods, priests, and laypeople in all their possible combinations and
permutations.23It is importantto note that although the balance of power in these re-
lationships is often skewed, the obligations and constraints are imposed from both di-
rections. The responsibilities of the monarchy, for example, require the king's partici-
pation in this festival that has the capacity to call his legitimacy into question and to
render him vulnerable in other ways.24 More importantlyfor the argument I develop
here, Newars and their gods have the potential to be mutually coercive: ritualcan em-
power people to control gods as well as propitiatethem.
The initiated tantric priest can use the ritualtechnique of sadhana to compel gods
to act on the behalf of other humans. Sadhana, a Sanskritterm meaning, in its most
general sense, "leading straight to a goal" (Monier-Williams 1963:1201), is widely
used in Hindu and Buddhist contexts to describe meditative techniques used to
envisioning identity 709

achieve the experience of non-duality, or, as Locke has put it, the "realization of the
void (Sonyata)and identity of the worshipper with it" (1980:115). In the Newar Bud-
dhist context, the term is most often used (by laymen and priests alike) in a transitive
verb clause, sadhan yaye, with a god as its object, and usually refers to a process of
compelling the presence of a god through ritual technique. As Gellner points out,
most Newars seem to conflate the phrase sadhan yaye with the phrase salah taye,
which means "to pull down" (Gellner 1992:291). This technique, in principle, entails
more than eliciting the presence and powers of gods for, according to the priests' rit-
ual manuals (vidhi), it involves visualizing a deity through meditation, achieving unity
with that deity through identification with the deity, and finally, by achieving identity
with the visualized god, thereby gaining some kind of control over that god.25 Both
the more abstractobjectives associated with sadhana and the process of identification
that sadhana involves as described in ritualtexts are rarelyarticulated by practitioners
or their clients. It has been a source of considerable frustrationfor scholars of Newar
Buddhism (myself included) that practitioners are either reticent or unable to articu-
late details of the process or their experience of sadhana (see Gellner 1992:290;
Locke 1980:121). The "veilings and obfuscations" present in tantrictexts and perpetu-
ated by tantric practitioners undoubtedly shield both ignorance and knowledge from
the uninitiated inquirer, even as they advertise concealment of secrets, as Levy has
suggested for Hindu tantric Newar priests (1990:299). Many Newar Buddhist priests,
including one friend from Bungamati whose skills as a ritual practitioner have earned
him great renown throughout the Kathmanduvalley, cannot understand the Sanskrit
they use in ritual performances. This is not to suggest that because they cannot fully
comprehend the texts, they are necessarily ignorant of the visualization principles
identified by religious scholars as critical to the practice of sadhana, for these princi-
ples are certainly articulated in graphic ways during rites of initiation (see Gellner
1992:273-278). Iwill argue that the esoteric practice of identification through visuali-
zation that priests are often unwilling or unable to explain fully has its counterpart in
popular (and priestly) conceptions of self and deity as revealed in ritual practice and
interpretation.Though the initiated priest may have the exclusive capacity to practice
sadhana on behalf of others, members of every sector of Newar society possess relig-
ious expertise that is unknown to even the most learned priest, and a layperson's ac-
cess to gods is not necessarily mediated by priests. Ratherthan taking recourse to the
"higher"or more orthodox authority of the priest or their ritualtexts to resolve the dif-
ferences among the beliefs that different devotees espouse, I have made these differ-
ences objects of my inquiry.

conformity, diversity, and the dialectics of identity

The perspectives of those who play four different key roles in this festival (the
Buddhist priests who attend Bungadya, the carpenters who build his chariot, the
woman who carries both the life of the god and the implements for his worship, and
Newar Brahminswho ceremonially urge the crowd to pull Bungadya's chariot along
its traditional path) will illustrate the polyphonic ramifications of a shared mode of
formulating identity and envisioning divinity. These Newar participants represent a
broad range of contrasts: Hindu priests and Buddhist priests, men and women, hand-
somely rewarded and virtually uncompensated, high caste and low caste. In spite of
their differences, their stories are fundamentally similar. All attributetheir privileged
status and associated obligations to their exceptional proximity to Bungadya, a prox-
imity that they claim by virtue of a particularhistorically situated relationship with the
god. Their ritualstatus and obligations also justify the physical proximity to the image
710 american ethnologist

Figure2. Panjusensconcedinthe chariotsanctumwithBungadya,Lagankhel,Bungamati,1991.

Photographby author.

that they assume over the course of the festival: only a few, for example, can touch the
god. It is in their portrayal of the basis for their proximity to Bungadya that their an-
swers to the question, "Who is this god?" differ. Their answers to this question also
constitute assertions about who they are, and their ritual practices confirm their iden-
tities as the "persons"they present them"selves"as being.26
In the following cases, those who perform all but one of these ritualroles referto
an account of the origins of this festival in their explanations of their participation in it.
There is no one account to which they all allude, various histories having emerged in
envisioning identity 711

differentsocio-political contexts over time (see Locke 1980:438; Owens 1989:161-165).

All the versions with which I am familiar agree, however, on the following very brief
synopsis. The festival of Bungadya originated from his being brought to the Kath-
mandu Valley people in order to end a 12-year drought. A king named Narendradeva,
a priest named Bandhudatta, and a farmer named Lalita Jyapu (or Rathan Chakra)
went to Kamarupa(a medieval kingdom in Assam) to get Bungadya, so he would bring
rain to the valley. Kamaropawas a kingdom of demons and demonesses (yaksas and
yak.srs),and the queen, Bungadya's demoness mother, refused to relinquish him be-
cause of his status as the youngest and most cherished of her 500 sons. Afterovercom-
ing numerous obstacles, the priest, with the king's assistance, used his tantric powers
of sadhana to secure Bungadya's life-force in a flask and transporthim from Kamarupa
to Nepal. When the group finally returnedto Nepal (i.e., the Kathmanduvalley), it be-
gan to rain, and thus a procession festival in the god's honor was established. Many
accounts of the origins of Bungadya's festival also mention that the priest summoned
Bhairabs (fierce forms of LordShiva) to intimidate Bungadya's demonic parents and
help carry the flask containing Bungadya's life force.
My initial plan was to analyze how different people might offer variations of this
account. It rapidly became apparent, however, that my reputation as a scholar was
not enhanced by my repeated questions about a story that I should have learned early
in my research (even though accounts did vary). The stories that festival participants
thought I should hear from them were about theirwork and how they came to partici-
pate in Bungadya's festival.

panjus: priests to Bungadya

The Buddhist priests known as panjus share the responsibility of attending to
Bungadya. Operating on a rotation, each panju's turn lasts one lunar fortnight, and,
theoretically, the priest is allowed only one brief absence from his temple post each
day in order to eat. The privilege and obligation of attending the god during the festi-
val rotates on a yearly basis, and two panjus attend the god while he is in his chariot
for the duration of the festival, one stationed on each side of the deity in the cramped
quarters of the chariot sanctum (Figure 2). The panjus and I first came to know each
other because of my conspicuously regular (and foreign) participation in the daily
morning and evening rituals taking place at the god's chariot. Their duties as atten-
dants shifted radically from periods of mayhem, when they responded to the demands
of thousands of devotees as conspicuous and vital intermediaries between worship-
pers and the god, to periods of calm between major rites, when they were confined, in
theory, to the god's chariot; it was during these periods of tedium that my questions
provided, I think, welcome distraction. Most of my interaction with the panjus took
place out of public view, however, for I did not want to create the impression that I
privileged their points of view over those of others. This mistaken impression could
have been quite easily conveyed, given the panjus' importance and privilege in the
eyes of the general public.
In addition to the spiritual benefits and enhanced social staturethat accrue to the
panjus, the panjus operate in the only role of the festival that involves substantial fi-
nancial benefits, and it is avidly sought with that in mind. The attending panjus are en-
titled to virtually all of the foodstuffs and money offered to the god during their watch,
whether Bungadya is in the temple or in the chariot. Attending Bungadya during the
chariot festival is particularly lucrative. Each of the two panjus in the 1991 festival
took in offerings worth over 50,000 rupees (approximately U.S. $1000 in 1991), a
substantial amount even in the Kathmandu valley, where the daily wage for skilled
712 american ethnologist

Figure3. Panjuwith Bungadyaduringdeity'sre-initiationas Panju,bothwearingPanjus'robes,

Ta Baha,Patan,1983. Photographby author.

labor was about two hundred rupees at the time. The status of panju does not, how-
ever, ensure one wealth, even according to modest Bungamati standards, where all
but a few live. Only one panju works full time as a priest, and most of the others, apart
from the elderly, are either employed as artisans or have government posts or busi-
nesses of their own.
Panjus offer several explanations for their privileged position as Bungadya's
priests. The most common alludes to a figure mentioned above; the panjus are the
descendants of Bandhudatta Vajracarya. Though some panjus deny that all share
envisioning identity 713

this ancestry, all panjus agree that Bungadya is the 32nd panju. The sangha, or initi-
ated community of high-caste Buddhists connected with Bungadya's temple, is com-
prised of several hundred members, but there are never more than 31 human panjus
within this group, Bungadya bringing the total to the auspicious number of 32. When
Bungadya's image is renewed each year, he is re-initiated as a panju along with his
two panju attendants. When I first witnessed this rite in 1983, the officiating panju
made it a point to show me how he adorned Bungadya with a small version of the spe-
cial red and white cotton robe that only panjus wear (Figure3).
Panjus are selected from members of the initiated community connected with
Bungadya's temple in Bungamati.27Membership in this community, the sangha, is de-
pendent upon birth and is thus inherited in the sense that sangha membership is re-
stricted to members of the priestly Newar Buddhist sub-castes, Vajracaryaand Sakya,
from Bungamati. These caste statuses are not simply inherited, however, but also
achieved through initiation. One is only born with the potential to be a Sakya or
Vajracaryaadult, for one must undergo a bare chuyegu initiation (a kind of monastic
initiation rite) to retain either of these high-caste statuses and be eligible for selection
as panju.28Bungadya must also undergo the bare chuyegu rite prior to his intiation as
panju. According to the panjus, as a result of these rituals, Bungadya is also a member
of their sangha and a fellow panju, and every year they re-initiate him as one of their
own. Forthem, Bungadya is, in a sense, a priest to himself.

Barahi: carpenters of the chariot

The work of making and assembling the wooden chariot pieces is done by a
guthi of 24 carpenters known as BarahT.The BarahTbelong to one of the many Newar
artisanjats that collectively constitute what anthropologists of Newars typically call a
"caste," and they consider themselves to be "higher"than the agriculturalistjyapus.29
They describe themselves as followers of Shiva (SivamargT),but, as shall be detailed
below, they equate themselves in many ways with the Buddhist panjus. They have
one of the most demanding roles of those involved in the chariot festival; their efforts
are conspicuous during the few days spent building the chariot and even more so on
occasions in which they must repair a chariot mid-festival, but most of their other rit-
ual duties are performed out of the public eye. Though the period they spend reas-
sembling the chariot every year amounts to only a few days, the BarahTcarpenters
must also refurbish and replace the wooden chariot parts when necessary and must
completely re-make them every 12 years. The wheels, the most vulnerable partsof the
chariot, must be made anew more often, which requires several weeks of hard work.
In addition to the physical labor they invest in the chariot festival, the BarahThave the
most extensive ritualand feasting responsibilities of any of those involved in the festi-
val other than the panju attendants.
Itwas during their conspicuous performance of their chariot-building duties, car-
ried out next to Patan's busiest thoroughfare, that I firstcame to know Barahis.I hoped
that my obvious presence (which preceded my conspicuous presence at the rites de-
scribed above) would advertise my interest in the expertise of all/festival participants.
My particular concern in this context was to avoid giving the impression that I privi-
leged (or was privileged by) my emerging relationship with the government officials
who oversaw those with major roles in the festival, dispensing compensation, raw
materials, and occasional direction. The frequent opportunity and ritual necessity of
feasting provided an informal context, enlivened and lubricatedwith alcoholic bever-
ages, in which I established my relatively neutral sympathy as well as my inde-
pendence from local authorities. It soon became apparent that these government
714 american ethnologist

officials were faced with problems similar to those with which I was grappling. They
had to coordinate the collaboration of participantswho did not always see eye-to-eye
and yet somehow maintain good relationships with all of them. Forexample, the gov-
ernment official (subba)who directed the office supervising the work to be done for
the chariot festival told me separate feasts were scheduled for the carpenters and for
those who lashed together the wooden pieces that carpenters had assembled. When I
asked the subba why this was so, he said, surprisedat my naivete, "Theywould fight!"
If the chariot broke, one or the other of these groups was likely to be blamed, but this
was the first I had heard of the antipathy between them. This gave me an early glimpse
into the diverse forms that contestation could take in this festival and the extent to
which it could be concealed.
BarahTsclaim to have originally come to Nepal from Kamarupa,having followed
shortly after Bungadya. BarahTsalso say that they have the same lineage deity (digu
dyah) as Bungadya, and during the chariot festival they performtheir annual clan de-
ity worship for Bungadya as well as themselves, assertingtheir proximity to Bungadya
by including him in this ritual practice celebrated with kin. They say that the panjus
are supposed to send offerings over to them from the chariot while they are perform-
ing the clan deity worship on Bungadya's behalf, but the panjus deny that the BarahTs
and Bungadya share the same clan deity and send nothing.
BarahTsnot only claim kinship with Bungadya, but in several accounts related to
me suggested that they had also formerly held the status of panju. They told me that
the panju who sits to the left of Bungadya in his chariot used to be a BarahT,but that
one year the BarahT panju went to an outlying village to marryand stayed there dally-
ing with his young wife, compelling the panjus to supply another priest from among
their own. These BarahTsupport their claim that they previously served as priests by
citing several of their privileges and ritual obligations. The BarahT, for example, claim
rights to one half of the offerings made during the festival, though this amount has
been fixed at a level far lower than what the panjus actually receive. At the conclusion
of the festival, they are also entitled to receive one half of the cloth banners (patahas)
from the chariot, which they (and others) value for the banners' capacity to cure stom-
ach ailments, the panjus being entitled to the other half. Several BarahTsalso pointed
out that they observe some of the same restrictions as the Buddhist panjus while the
chariot festival is in progress, such as abstaining from sexual intercourse and from the
consumption of chicken and garlic.
Another part of their tradition that BarahTscite as an indication of their former
higher status is the extensive initiation rite that the BarahTnayah (group leader) must
undergo. Likethe panjus, who hold privileged distinction with respect to their fellows
sangha members, this smaller group of nayahs within the BarahTvoluntary religious
association, or guthi, enjoy special privileges after undergoing initiation. As many as
16 of the 24 BarahT can become nayahthough the high cost of this initiation (estimated
at U.S. $300-400 in 1984) prevents some who are eligible from being initiated. The
most distinctive feature of this rite is the feast of 84 dishes that they must share with
Bungadya. BarahTs who are in a state of purity, wearing gauze over their mouths and
noses lest they pollute their burden, bring the food for this four-day feast to Bunga-
mati. In 1984, the most recently initiated nayah, the owner of a lumber mill, told me
the following story that accounts for the custom of this initiation feast. Here he uses
the epithet Matsyendranath,which is not uncommon for those who do not emphasize
a Buddhist religious orientation in their self-presentation or identification:
As Matsyendranath was bornin a countryof demons,he usedto takeeverything,but
now, as he is a Bhagwan(greatlord),he cannot."Whatto do [he said].HereI cannot
envisioning identity 715

Figure4. BarahT
leadersacrificingsheepto Bhairabembodiedin recentlyrepairedchariotwheel,
Ta Baha,Patan,1984. Photographby author.

eat [meat,alcohol] but you must[inorderto do yourwork]."The BarahT saidto Mat-

syendranath thatunlessyou takemeat,neitherwill we. Afterarguing,Matsyendranath
said, "Allright,on the day a personis bornintothe BarahT
(clan),Iwill take itfromhis
hand."Butthe BarahT thoughtthatMatsyendranath mighttrickthem,so itwas decided
thatwheneverthey finda new nayahhe will haveto offereverything[allkindsof food]
to Matsyendranath.
BarahTs view this initiation as analogous to that taken by the panjus, and state that, after
being initiated, they too can touch the image of Bungadya. Other BarahTsundergo a
shorter initiation called gwah dan biyegu (the gift of betel nut). In an unusual parallel
with the high-caste Buddhists, if a BarahT does not make the betel nut offering, his sons
cannot become BarahTs,just as Vajracaryasand Sakyas who fail to take initiation can-
not pass their caste status on to their offspring.
Though they are remunerated for some of their efforts during the festival, this
compensation does not make the position of BarahTs financially advantageous, espe-
cially considering the extent of their obligations. The financial statuses of the BarahT
vary considerably. Some find the feasting obligations a financial burden; others find it
possible to pay someone else to fulfill their festival obligations.
BarahTsexplain their relationship with Bungadya in several different ways: by
claiming their former status as priests, their shared clan membership, and their com-
mon origins in Kamarupa.Fromtheir point of view, their initiated status not only dem-
onstrates their paritywith the panjus, but permits them to touch Bungadya and asserts
their commensality with the god: the BarahTand Bungadya eat together, a significant
markerof relative equality in caste society.
Though BarahTsclaim privileged access to and shared ancestry with Bungadya,
their relationship with the fearsome Bhairabsembodied in the wheels that they make
seems to be of equal, if not greater concern to them. The wheels clearly constitute a
716 american ethnologist

Figure5. The "hugeface"of HayagrTba

Bhairab,in templewith attendants,Bungamati,1991.
Photographby author.

threat while the chariot is rolling, there being at least one brakeman alive who has lost
a leg to them. Butthe wheels are also associated with danger even before they are put
on the chariot, as indicated by the fact that the BarahT must sacrifice 25 animals during
the process of procuring lumber for the wheels and building them. Even repairing a
wheel requires that a sheep be sacrificed to the god it embodies before it can be
placed, blood-stained, on the chariot (Figure4). These dangers are not merely ritually
acknowledged, but comprise real sources of personal anxiety for BarahT,as evident in
the following account provided by a BarahTnayah. A recently initiated nayah told me
envisioning identity 717

the following story after I had shown him photographs of old chariot wheels that I had
found around the city, apparently left over from festivals of the past, and he had ex-
plained that no one dared use the wood of these wheels for fear of vomiting blood and
dying as a consequence:
Once, when Iwas small,while helpingto buildthe new wheels, Ibecamehungry,and
went to BidyaLal'sshopto buy bread.Iwas hungry,so Iate the breadwithoutfirstof-
feringany to the wheels.30ThatnightI dreamtthatthe whole wheel was put on my
body. Thena figure,Bhairabdyah,like a man butwith a huge face,31told me that I
would haveto place the hah(partof wheel) by myself.32ButI couldn'tbecause I was
small.He said, "Ifyou don't,then Iwill pressyou withthe wheel."I was frightened.I
woke up and felta tremendousheatin my body. Iwent to anotherroomto sleep and
stayedin bed, ill, for28 days.
The BarahT's relationship with Bungadya is complex. Their explanation of the rite
of initiation that establishes their commensality with the god suggests that they have
remained true to their origins, whereas Bungadya, now a Bhagwan (great lord), has
had to forego the alcohol and meat he formerly ate in his native land of demons and
demonesses. The essential god's work performed by the BarahTsdemands that they
drink alcohol and eat meat for strength, and, most significantly, that they perform nu-
merous sacrifices, usually to the blood-thirsty Bhairabs(Figure5). Thus, the very work
that links BarahTswith Bungadya also distances them from him. Though they assert
that their currently recognized status is not commensurate with their ritual impor-
tance, their claim of proximity to Bungadya as former priests is at odds with their obli-
gations to mollify the fearsome Bhairabs with sacrifices, for panjus must never shed

Malini: bearer of implements and life

On the day Bungadya is placed in his chariot, the MalinTis responsible for bring-
ing to his image a flask that contains Bungadya's "life" (jTvan).She carries this jTvan
from a ritual performed at a point at the edge of the Kathmanduvalley where Bun-
gadya's mother is said to have parted from her son after a confrontation between the
demons of Kamaropaand the gods of Nepal (Figure6). During the festival, the MalinT
must also bring supplies daily to the chariot for the initial sunrise ritual.
Her role in the festival is of particular interest because it is the only role of such
prominence that must be performed by a woman. She describes herself as a descen-
dant of the farmer from Patan who went to Kamaropaand has inherited the role in-
itially played by him in bringing Bungadya to Nepal. She is a member of the Newar
agriculturalist caste, or jyapu. Jyapus were traditionally obliged to carry their land-
lord's ritual implements and supplies to rituals, and the MalinT'swork reflects this tra-
ditional role. As is typical among the jyapu farmers, the MalinTswith whom I have
spoken consider themselves to be both followers of the Buddhist dharma and devo-
tees of LordShiva.
Strictly speaking, the MalinTis not necessarily a descendant of LalitaJyapu, for
the role is passed along among the wives and daughters of the men of one patriline. If
a MalinTinherited her title from her mother, then her successor would be her sister or
her brother'swife. Ifthe MalinTacquired her title through marriage,then her successor
would be her unmarried daughter or her son's wife. Because a MalinTmust pass on
her title when she marries or if she is widowed, her status is thus either dependent
upon her or her mother's marriage into the patriline. To become a MalinTthrough
marriage, she must be initiated by panjus in order to assume the title and so that she
718 american ethnologist

Figure6. MalinTwith Panjus,participatingin ritein which Bungadya's"life"(jfvan)is retrieved

fromthe riverat Kotwaldaha, Lalitpurdistrict,1983. Photographby author.

may share food with her husband. This initiation confers the responsibilities of the
MalinTonto the initiant, elevates her status to full commensality with members of the
MalinTpatriline, and, according to a former MalinT,entitles the new MalinTto touch
The MalinTis paid nothing for her services, but is obligated to perform rites, in-
cluding two sacrifices, that, in the past, presented real financial burdens for her. Her
envisioning identity 719

duties require that she walk six miles barefoot over rough trails to participate in a rit-
ual at the valley's edge twice a year, having fasted each time for three days priorto the
journey. During the chariot festival, she must rise before three in the morning in order
to bring the ritual implements required for the god's first daily worship. The MalinT
and her mother (a former MalinT),whom I came to know during the firstthree years of
my research, were gregarious, widely well-liked, and respected. They lived alone, the
MalinT'smother having been widowed several years earlier. Distilling rice spirits
(ayla),ostensibly under license for the purpose of consumption in ritualcontexts, pro-
vided some income for the family. Their home occasionally served as an informal
"speakeasy"for those thirstyfrom conducting god's work, and they regularlysupplied
me with the beverages I required in order to offer proper Newar hospitality in my own
The MalinTwas one of several people who teased me about my constant pres-
ence at rites involving Bungadya (about which she was singularly qualified to testify),
calling me dyah wem, or, literally, "god crazy." When I first knew her, the MalinT'srit-
ual duties entailed real economic and physical hardship for her and her family, but
she persisted in performing her role for the "honor" (ijat) it brought her. Her task of
bringing the ritual implements to the chariot each morning of the festival made her the
focus of a great deal of attention and placed her in a position of importance, for she
would distribute water that had been used to bathe the god's image in the morning's
ritual as holy prasad, a gift from the god to his devotees. Itwould appear that the fact
that she no longer does this regularly is indirectly related to another way in which the
status of MalinThas social implications that extend beyond her ritualrole.
The MalinT'sproximity to Bungadya apparently makes her a particularly attrac-
tive marriage prospect. The MalinTof 1982-84, prior to her marriage to a successful
Newar businessman, received numerous matrimonial offers from the people of Kath-
mandu, who, according to her mother, regarded her as a god. Her marriage has con-
tributed to a dramatic turn of fortune for herself and her family, which her mother at-
tributes to their service to Bungadya. Neither the current MalinT(the former Malini's
younger sister) nor her mother spend time at the chariot every morning as they did be-
fore, and, ironically, some point to their new wealth as the reason for what they per-
ceived to be their indifference to ritualobligation.34
When asked why only women are MalinTs,a former MalinTand mother of the
present MalinTimmediately responded, "Because Bungadya is a woman!" She sup-
ported this statement by noting that a woman, the MalinT,carries a flask containing
Bungadya's jivan from the rites performed at the valley's edge to his temples in Patan
and Bungamati, concluding that the god inside must therefore be a woman. On one
occasion, while settling in for the night at a remote makeshift shelter in preparationfor
the long series of rites culminating in MalinTcarryingthe god's jTvanthe next morning,
the MalinT'smother warned her son not to touch his sister. She said that by this point
the MalinT"is Bungadya." In explaining her status, the MalinTradically emphasized
the widely recognized female attributesof Bungadya to the exclusion of male attrib-
utes. It is through her connection to the descendants of LalitaJyapu,established essen-
tially by virtue of her sex, that MalinTexplains her role and her right to touch Bun-

Rajopadhyay: Hindu priests and chariot coxswains

The Rajopadhyayare Newar Brahminsand often function as priests. Male mem-
bers of two Rajopadhyaypatrilines ceremonially lead the public in pulling the god's
chariot. During these processions, they stand on the long central yoke of the chariot
720 american ethnologist

m. . i
\ .^tSgrffi~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Figure7. Hahpahbiyemhaat the frontof the chariotyoke, with Rajopadhyay

priests(in white)
behind,below chariotsanctum,Kumaripatti,Patan,1991. Photographby author.

below the sanctum where the god and his Buddhist attendants are located. The
Rajopadhyaydo not have physical access to the god and receive only a token pay-
ment for their services.
It was only through the intervention of a well-respected older member of the
Patan community, Aditya Puri,who honored me by working with me as a research as-
sistant, that I could arrange my initial formal interview with one of the Rajopadhyayat
my home; I thought it unlikely that he would permit me-someone without caste
status-to enter his home. Mindful of his status as a Brahminwho eschewed alcoholic
beverages and who would be unlikely to accept any water that I offered, I purchased
soft drinks for the occasion. When I offered him a cold Coca Cola, however, he de-
murred, saying that "nobody knows what's in that stuff,"a point with which I had to
agree. Given his close attention to maintaining his caste status as a Hindu Brahmin,
his explanation for his role in the festival is all the more remarkable.35
The Rajopadhyays'account of the origins of their status in the festival is unusual
in that it does not begin with Bungadya's arrival in Nepal. According to the
Rajopadhyay,a Newar king of Patan established the practice of having Rajopadhyays
lead the chariot pulling about three-and-a-half centuries ago. My Rajopadhyayguest,
who was so suspicious of Coke, explained his family's involvement in the festival with
the following narrative.36

Duringthe reignof Siddhinarsimha Malla(1619-61), the chariotgot stucknearthe

royalpalace for severaldays. Inthose timeswe Hindus(SivamargTs) did not pay any
attentionto Bungadya.One day,the kinglookedout fromhispalaceatthe chariotand
saw to his astonishmentthat inside the chariotwas not Bungadyabut Krishna.He
went to look into Krishna'stemple,and there he saw not Krishnabut Bungadya.He
called a conferenceof religiousadvisorsto determinethe meaningof this.
In the meantime,people worshippingat the chariotfound that a dumb boy had
envisioning identity 721

miraculouslybegunto speak,havingbeen enteredby Bungadya.The boy/Bungadya

declaredthathe wouldgo [backintohis imageandon withthe chariotfestival]only if
the Brahminwho livedherewould come to leadthe pullingof the chariot.
Wordof this got backto the king'sconferencewith his advisors.One of the king's
advisorswas a Rajopadhyay attendantin the Krishnatemplewherethe kinghad seen
Bungadya. This Rajopadhyay revealedthat he had become angrywith his wife be-
cause she had gone to give offeringsto Bungadya,and he had locked her in a room
and denied herfood. Havingheardall this,the councildecidedthatthe Rajopadhyay
fromKrishna'stempleshouldhenceforthleadthe pullingof the chariot.
The Krishnatemple discussed in this account was built by Siddhinarsimha Malla
just opposite his palace in the central square of Patan. The Patan Rajopadhyaysstill
function as Krishna'sattendants in this famous temple and continue to honor Bun-
gadya in the ceremonial role that they have assumed as a result of their ancestor's dis-
Though the story of the Rajopadhyaybegins unusually with their flagrant disre-
spect of Bungadya, it ends on a more familiar note. They, like the Barahr,complain of
a diminution of their status. Until only a few decades ago, their role was not just cere-
monial; they actually led the crowds pulling the chariot. The role of the jyapu habpah
biyemha (encouragement giver), who now solicits and coordinates the efforts of those
tugging at the chariot ropes, is a relatively recent development.
Afterthe restorationof the Shah dynasty to power in 1951, the kingdom of Nepal
engaged in what has been called an experiment with democracy. In response to na-
tionwide civil disobedience (satyagraha),King Mahendra declared on December 15,
1957, that a new constitution would be promulgated, establishing a multi-party par-
liamentary system of government, and that a general election would be held in just
over two years. The new government, formed on May 9, 1959, was short-lived, how-
ever, for the king exercised his emergency powers and dissolved it only 18 months
later. Itwas during this brief period of democratization that the Rajopadhyaysay their
role of actually leading the chariot pulling was usurped by young jyapu farmers who
continue to take charge of their peers strainingat the ropes today.37
The jyapu leader takes a precarious but highly visible position at the very front of
the chariot, thus placing himself between the Rajopadhyaysand the crowd (Figure7).
Several different individuals typically assume leadership over the chariot pullers dur-
ing each day of the festival, each attempting the critical and difficult role of coordinat-
ing the pullers' efforts. Assuming this role involves something of a popularity contest
and, occasionally, heated argument; it is usually the cheering or jeering of the hun-
dreds pulling the chariot that determines the duration of any particularindividual's at-
tempt to lead them. Those who are unsuccessful but reluctant to admit failure are
likely to be unceremoniously pulled down from their perch at the tip of the chariot's
yoke in order to make way for another. Their position is thus precarious in more ways
than one, as it is conferred and sustained solely through popular consent. Whoever
might be at the chariot's helm, the royally appointed leaders (the Rajopadhyaypriests)
no longer mediate between the pullers and the god they pull. According to the
Rajopadhyays,a national populist political struggle, resulting in a brief experiment in
democracy, emboldened the young lower caste farmers to appropriate the authority
of Hindu priests and lead their peers in pulling the god's chariot. The Rajopadhyays
do, however, continue to participate in their diminished, largely ceremonial role,
acquiescing to what they see as the consequences of a shift in the political tide.
722 american ethnologist

refracted dialectics of identity: gods, ritual participants,

and multifocal polyphony
Those who play these different roles all attributetheir privileged status and asso-
ciated obligations to their exceptional proximity to Bungadya. It is in their explana-
tions of their proximity to Bungadya that their answers to the question, "Who is this
god?" vary and, at times, contradict one another. These four examples show that the
social identities of the devotees reflect their involvement with Bungadya, just as their
ways of identifying Bungadya are reflections of their social identities. The panjus are
the priests of Bungadya, and Bungadya is one of the panjus. The MalinTis daughter or
wife to a descendant of LalitaJyapu, and Bungadya is a woman. The Rajopadhyayat-
tendants to Krishnaceremonially lead the crowd in pulling the chariot of Bungadya,
and Bungadya is LordKrishna.
The case of the BarahTis somewhat more complex due to their multifaceted rela-
tionship with Bungadya. They link themselves with Bungadya both indirectly, as for-
mer priests, and directly, as fellow clan members, though they are no longer priests
due to the dalliance of one of their forbears and though their clan connection is di-
minished insofar as Bungadya has differentiatedhimself from them by restrictingtheir
commensality. For the BarahT,their recognized status is not commensurate with the
level of their involvement in the festival, but neither is the nature of their god's work
consistent with their claims to former priesthood. The contradiction between the two
different ways in which the BarahTclaim privileged positions of proximity to Bun-
gadya is, however, consistent with their unusual view of the deity as a reformedeater
of meat and drinker of alcohol; I have heard no one other than a BarahTcharacterize
Bungadya in this way. The BarahTexplain their proximity to Bungadya in terms of his
identity both before and after his transformationfrom carnivorous inhabitant of the
land of demons to benevolent "Bhagwan."The BarahT'sdual vision of Bungadya re-
flects their dual vision of themselves as former priests compelled to offer blood sacri-
The position of the hahpah biyemha who has usurped the Rajopadhyay'srole is
different from the others I have examined in two critical and interrelatedways. First,
hahpahbiyemha offer no account of the origin of their role, per se, other than to claim
(contra the Rajopadhyay)that this has been done "since long before" (nhapa nhapa
nisem).38Second, though these leaders are always male, typically young, and, as far
as I have been able to tell, always jyapus, their explanations for undertakingthis role
pertain simply to their individual capacity to do it. The hahpahbiyemha's proximityto
the god as leader of the chariot pullers (and fellow rider of the chariot) is often fleeting
and utterly dependent upon the collective opinion of those whose efforts to pull the
chariot he is trying to coordinate. His proximity is in no way ascribed; it is entirely
achieved and is subject to continuous review. The basis of selecting the one who fills
this role is, in a sense, utterly democratic, as was the basis for its very creation, ac-
cording to the Rajopadhyay.
The diversity of the ritual interpretationsoffered by these different participants is
a reflection of the multidimensional diversity encompassed by Newar society and the
importance of Bungadya as a powerful god. These interpretations differ in compli-
cated ways that are not captured in the oppositional frameworks of the hegemonic
versus the counterhegemonic or the dominant versus the subaltern. Only in the case
of the hahpah biyemha is there an example of people participating in the festival in a
manner that could be interpreted in such terms: farmers defying the authority of
priests and, by extension, the king.
envisioning identity 723

But the other four accounts I have offered cannot be legitimately construed as
taking this form. It is inappropriateto assume that interpretationsoffered by those who
are not clearly in a position of dominance are necessarily distorted products of resis-
tance, incomprehension, or unawareness vis-a-vis some explicit dominant ideology
or unarticulated hegemony.39 The dialectics of identification in such formulations
would be misplaced; the assertions of proximity detailed in the explanations of ritual
activity I have described are positive declarations of affinity and identity more than
explicit denials of the privileges of others, challenges to the positions of dominance
that others might occupy, or rejections of some kind of overarching hegemonic for-
mation. None of the accounts of festival participation I have examined, for example,
suggest that the panjus should not be priests to Bungadya or deny that they should
have the privileges that they exercise. The carpenters, who claim former status as
priests, state that they used to sit to the left of the deity: a position of inferioritywith re-
spect to the other priests, the panjus. If she has married into the MalinTpatriline, the
MalinTrequires an initiation available only from the panjus before she can assume her
ritual responsibilities. Even the hahpah biyemha, whose proximity to Bungadya is en-
tirely achieved, and who could be said to challenge positions of privilege, directly
challenges only the authority of the Rajopadhyaypriests, whose position is at least as
emblematic of submission as it is of privilege.40The disagreements among those who
participate in Bungadya's festival are complex and result from people envisioning a
god in ways that stress particular attributesthat reflect themselves; the polyphony of
their voices is multifocal.41
In order to understand the disparities among the accounts offered by those who
do god's work in this festival, I have attempted to situate each account within the par-
ticular sociocultural milieu, or, to borrow something of Bourdieu's formulation of
Weber's "habitus" (1963:158-160), the "system of dispositions" from which it
emerges (Bourdieu 1977:72).42 The specific systems of dispositions in terms of which
these festival participants define themselves are constituted, in part, through the par-
ticular kinds of work they do on behalf of deities, which are in turn culturally consis-
tent with various other dimensions of their social identities (gender, initiated status,
caste or sub-caste, guthi, lineage, or clan membership).43The identity of the deity that
is the focus of their work depends upon the social identity of the worker, even as his or
her social identity is constituted, in part, by participating in god's work.
Fernandez, in his penetrating analysis of Fang ritual, found "congeries of pur-
poses" in the Bwiti cult and stated that "individuals select among these purposes ap-
parently those that most suit their temperaments and most speak to their conditions"
(1965:906). This observation led him to make the important distinction between so-
cial and cultural consensus, stating that collaboration in ritual activity depends upon
the former, but is limited to the extent that it required the latter;the degree and scale
of collaboration possible in any ritualendeavor depends on the capacity of the rite to
accommodate multiple interpretations(Fernandez 1965:907, 1982:557). The festival
of Bungadya clearly illustrates this principle but also demonstrates a kind of cultural
consensus about relationships between humans and gods that makes it inevitable that
cultural consensus at one level breed cultural contestation at another (in the sense of
producing antagonistic meanings that do not necessarily get debated). This cultural
consensus, because it concerns the relationship between proximity and power, is also
instrumental in producing social contestation (in the sense of actual debates and
physical confrontations over access to divinity) that is an integral part of the festival
and gets reproduced every year. Forexample, residentsof one neighborhood regularly
724 american ethnologist

sabotage efforts to move the god away from their locality to the next by stealing the
massive ropes needed to pull the chariot.
The claims to privilege and proximity that each of these festival participants
make vis-a-vis Bungadya have a great deal in common with the principles of the eso-
teric practice of sadhana that plays such a critical role in accounts of the festival ori-
gins and in the rites performed by the panjus during its annual celebration. Recall that
sadhana is a process in which the priest visualizes a god and himself as one in order to
bring the god into his presence. Eachparticipantoffering an account of his or her festi-
val role envisioned the god in a manner that reflected some aspect of him or her-
self-whether as priest, reformed carnivore, woman, or Lord Krishna-and it was
through the basis of this identification with the god that each person justified his or her
access to him. In other words, the contesting voices to which I have attended agree
that identity, proximity, and visualization are interrelated in this way with respect to
deities. This leads to three concluding points.
First, Gellner has said of Newar Buddhism that "it is yogic Visualization
(sadhana) which provides the frame of all rites, of all kinds" (1992:287), and that
"without the motor of visualization the whole religion would grind to a halt"
(1992:290). I suggest that fundamentally the same concept of visualization serves to
frame far more than the rites performed by initiated Buddhist priests, also framing di-
verse understandings of relations between people and gods that are held by laypeo-
ple, Buddhist and Hindu alike.44Second, by virtue of sharing this conceptual frame-
work, it is inevitable that those of differing social identities, variously conceived, will
produce conflicting interpretationsof ritualsdevoted to one image, even though they
may collaborate in reproducing these rites. In other words, given this particular
shared cultural conceptualization of the natureof relations between gods and humans
(i.e., cultural consensus), cultural contestation of the kind described here will inevita-
bly be reproduced as well. And third, given that ideas about the importance of prox-
imity as related to access to divine power are also widely shared, it is certain that so-
cial contestation will occur, as it does every year across nearly every conceivable
parameter of social distinction: ethnicity, gender, religion, residence-both at city
and neighborhood (twah) levels-guthi, lineage, and clan.

The cases of the Rajopadhyayand hahpah biyemha point out that these "systems
of dispositions" are continuously in the process of transformationand that they inflect
shifting relations of power at all levels. The populist democratic forces that prompted
the brief democratic experiment of four decades ago and thus emboldened jyapu
youths to usurp the Rajopadhyay'srole have recently re-emerged to transform an
autocratic monarchy into a constitutional and democratic one. The first multi-party
national elections were held in May 1991. Though neither of the two festivals imme-
diately following these elections exhibited notable change, several interpretationsof
festival events did reveal new interpretive modes that reflected the influence of de-
mocratization. The chariot, formerly identified with the kingdom and king, is now
conceptually divided such that the fate of a particularpart of the chariot indexes the
status of the government as distinct from the king. People also accused members of
particular political parties of refusing to participate in the festival, though I could
never substantiate any of the accusations made.
During Bungadya's 12-year festival in 1991, I was surprisedto see the hahpahbi-
yemha and chariot pullers completely disregard the official signal that the chariot
pulling was to end for the day. Ignoringthe signal (musket shots fired into the air by
envisioning identity 725

the honor guard serving the king's guru, the gurujuyapaltan), the hahpahbiyemha and
chariot pullers persisted and, in the gathering darkness, ultimately toppled the chariot
when one of its wheels slipped into a ditch. Surprisingas it was, this behavior seemed
to me at the time to be consistent with democratization and the empowerment felt by
those who had seen populist revolt result in political transformation. I later learned
that these events were not unprecedented, however, and that similar disrespect for the
authority of the gurujuyapaltan had surfaced in years past. The toppling of the chariot
in the festival of 1995, however, though apparently accidental, seems to have been
the result of unprecedented disregard for several forms of authority, both royal (as
manifest in the gurujuyapaltan, Rajopadhyay,and subba) and local (as manifest in the
breakmen and others who traditionally control the chariot's progress); essentially,
there was no one controlling the chariot but the popularly and informally appointed
hahpah biyemha. At this writing, this level of indifference to traditional authority has
yet to manifest itself again. It remains to be seen, however, what the distinction of do-
ing god's work for a festival that involves a still-powerful king will come to mean for
god's workers, most of whom now vigorously proclaim themselves to be either "con-
gress" or "communist" of various kinds: new dimensions of identity that complicate
the politics of representing self and other and compound the multifocality and po-
lyphony of voices that require and demand ethnographic attention.


Acknowledgments. Researchuponwhichthisarticleis basedwas supportedby the Wen-

ner-GrenFoundationfor AnthropologicalResearch,a TravellingFellowshipfromColumbia
University,the SouthernAsianInstituteof ColumbiaUniversity,a FloydLounsberry Fellowship
for AnthropologicalResearchfromthe AmericanMuseumof NaturalHistory,the American
PhilosophicalSociety,the Centerfor International Studiesat the Universityof Chicago,and a
faculty research award from Wheaton College. Earlierversionsof portionsof this articlewere
presentedat the Universityof Chicago'sWorkshopon Powerin SouthAsia, presidedover by
McKimMarriot,and the AnthropologyDepartmentSeminarat HarvardUniversity,and I am
gratefulto theirparticipantsfortheircomments.I am particularly indebtedto EytanBercovitch,
Diane Ciekawy,WilliamFisher,MichaelHerzfeld,CharlesLindholm,andthe fouranonymous
reviewersfor AmericanEthnologist, all of whom have providedhelpfulcommentson earlier
draftsor presentationsof thiswork.
1. RobertsonSmith(1889)pointedout in hisworkon religionsof the semitesthatthe same
ritewas explainedby differentpeople in differentways, and Sapircites Dorsey'scarefulinclu-
sion of the caveat,"TwoCrowsdeniesthis,"in "OmahaSociology"(1884),as an illustrationof
the need to avoidmonolithicformulations of beliefsystems(Sapir1968:569).
2. Thisis notto exaggeratethe demiseof this still-dominantmotif.Bellnotesthat"aswith
ritual,mostattemptsto analyzehow symbolsdo whatthey do also assumethatthe purposeof
symbolismis socioculturalsolidarityby meansof the naturalization of politicaland ideological
values"and that"despitethe evidence forthe ambiguous,unstable,and inconsistentnatureof
belief systems,recentliteraturepersistsin the view thatritualhas an importantsocial function
with regardto inculcatingbelief"(1992:214,216).
3. Thisis ultimatelythe emphasisof bothLagosand Crain,thoughthey bothconsiderthe
multidimensionality of contestation(see also Crain1994).
4. Mycritiqueof ritualstudiesin manyways parallelsOrtner'srecentcritiqueof ethnogra-
phiesof resistanceinwhichshe observesthatthe "psychologicalambivalencesandsocialcom-
plexityof resistancehave been notedby several,but not enoughobservers"(1995:175). Inher
directiveto recapture"thickness" in ethnographicrepresentations of resistance,she also briefly
notesthatthe "resisted" havetypicallybeen portrayedin monologicways (1995:178, n. 4), and
thus in overly simplistic"binary"(1995:174)relationto resisters.See also Van Dijkand Pels
726 american ethnologist

5. Among the conditions of postmodernity listed by Knauftare the growth of service indus-
tries and decline of factory industrialism,the increase of informationflow in volume and scope,
the shift of production from use value to consumption, "time-space compression," the "shift
from Fordistcentralization to flexible accumulation," and "the collapse of large-scale commu-
nist and socialist regimes" (1994:119-120).
6. This, instead of Lyotard's"end of metanarrative"(1979). See Rabinow 1986:249.
7. These effortsare clearly ultimately devoted to the modern problematic of representation
in that they seek to validate particular representations by rendering transparent the process
whereby they were constructed. See Marcus and Fischer 1986 and Pool 1991.
8. I have devoted an entire chapter to this issue elsewhere (Owens 1989).
9. In Bhaktin'sconceptualization, it is the base condition of heteroglossia that makes dia-
logism imperative (Holquist in Bakhtin 1981:426-428, see also Bakhtin 1981:411-422). As
Rabinow has pointed out, dialogic approaches need not be "dialoguish" in the conventional
sense of engaging only two interlocutors(1986:245-246).
10. Bateson's radically experimental Naven confronted the problem of heteroglossia by
considering alternative interpretivestrategies as well as divergences in "native"points of view
(1958). Leach (1965) and Turner (1967:27) are two other well-known analysts of ritual who
raised these issues much earlier. Though not concerned primarilywith ritual,Berreman's(1972)
work in the Himalaya also pioneered efforts to explore and make explicit the nature of investi-
gator-subject relations and indigenous heteroglossia.
11. Hudson (1982) in his work on festivals in Madurai,for example, points to the multiple
dimensionality of conflicting claims that festival participants can make about themselves and
the festival in which they take part, though he does not pursue the theoretical implications of
this observation.
12. To put this most succinctly, "there can be no actual monologue" (Holquist in Bakhtin
13. Thatthere is broad consensus on this is abundantly demonstrated in the literature.See
Dowman 1981:246-7; Levi 1990:144; Nepali 1965:316; Regmi 1965, pt. 1:572; Slusser
14. Sthiti Malla (who reigned approximately 1382-95) was the first Nepalese king for
whom there is documentary evidence of his declaring himself Vishnu incarnate (Slusser
1982:67). This identification was recognized by many of those whom I questioned during my
fieldwork, including Buddhist priests. See Toffin 1979, 1993 for detailed discussions of the
identification of the Kingof Nepal with Vishnu. Hoek (1990) offers furthertestimony regarding
the importance of this divine identity of the king, though I differ with his portrayalof rituals of
kingship in Nepal as immutable.
15. The other is IndraJatra(see Toffin 1992).
16. See Locke 1973 and 1980 concerning BurmgadyoNepale Hahgu Kham(The Story of
the Bringingof Bungadya to Nepal), by A. K. Vajracarya(1979); Padmagiri'sVamsavalT(chron-
icle) of 1825; Wright's Chronicle of 1877 (in Hasrat:1970); and Wright's History of Nepal
17. This putative "function"of these processions may indeed, in many cases, have histori-
cally served as part of the rationale of powers of state for supporting them. But as Ostor (1980)
and others have shown, many festivals have the potential of having the opposite effect, most
dramatically evident in the well-known South Asian festival of Holi and Gai JatraNewari,
Sa&pru)in Nepal. Even these explicitly subversive procession festivals, however, have been
viewed as ultimately (in the case of Holi) having the impact of confirming and stabilizing caste
and class hierarchy (Gupta et al. 1979:32), or (in the case of Saparu)"servinga larger moral or-
der" (Levy 1990:597).
18. ASaivite school that shared the fundamental tenet of Vajrayana Buddhism that en-
lightenment can only be attained through yogic ritualpractices and the development of mental
powers (Locke 1980:431-432). See also Briggs 1982.
19. The method of Newari transliterationused here representsa compromise between in-
dicating Newar pronunciations and using Sanskritloan words in their conventional form for the
sake of comprehensibility for the non-Newar specialist. Hence, the Newari parsad is rendered
envisioning identity 727

prasad, a term also comprehensible to the Newar, and Bhailadyah is rendered here as Bhairab,
an alternate Newar pronunciation that is more generally familiar. Well-known terms, proper
names, and place names have been rendered, for the most part, without diacritics in conven-
tional forms, hence Bumgadyahis rendered Bungadya, Krsnais rendered as Krishnaand samgha
is sangha. I have retained the authors' own transliterationsand spellings in citations of their
works, as Newari spelling is far from conventionalized. The final short a is rarelypronounced in
Newari, and is therefore omitted unless the Sanskritform is used. Nasalization of a vowel is indi-
cated by a following m, and, finally, h is used to indicate the prolongation of the vowel that pre-
cedes it, indicated in Newari with the visarga.
20. For example, there are numerous stories about the god's amorous adventures with
young women during festivals of the past, and those attending the long series of life-cycle rites
that the god undergoes every year find the inclusion of rites normally administered for females
to be worthy of comment, as if anomalous. Thus it is the god's feminine ratherthan masculine
qualities that seem to be remarkable and worthy of comment when they are ritually acknow-
21. The rulersof the three kingdoms in the Kathmanduvalley at the time of Parbatiyacon-
quest, now commonly embraced by Newars as "Newar kings" (Newah jujupim) in contradis-
tinction to members of the currently ruling Parbatiya Shah dynasty, actually distinguished
themselves from Newars (Gellner and Quigley 1995:9). Thus, the emergence of a sense of eth-
nic commonality among their subjects is not incompatible with a lack of political cohesiveness
between their kingdoms.
22. Here I follow Inden's suggestion that "we may take such agents [as gods] to be real to
the extent that complexes of discursive and non-discursive practices constitute and perpetuate
them, even if some would deny their reality"(1990:27). Such constitutive practices as ritualpro-
pitiation and invocation would thus have the capacity indirectly to influence human agents in-
sofar as they participate in or acknowledge the efficacy of these practices.
23. Here Iam using the term laypeople to referto those who are neither priests nor kings. It
is a somewhat problematic term precisely because many of those who fit into this category,
though not ritualpractitionersper se, do preside over ritualsthat they performfor the benefit of
others (usually fellow clan, lineage, or family members), as well as themselves. The ritual spe-
cialist/non-specialist distinction is not clear-cut; lay participants have varying degrees and
forms of access to "a major medium of symbolic production and objectification." This instead of
being denied such access in ways that Bell suggests would lead to overt struggles to define the
world (1992:214).
24. See Heesterman 1981 and Toffin 1979 on what Heesterman has characterized as the
"conundrum"of divine kingship. See also Hoek 1990 and Owens 1989 on this and for further
details on the vulnerability of the king in this festival.
25. The majorityof Newar Buddhistpractitionerswhose performance of this rite I have ob-
served regard sadhana primarilyas a method of controlling deities. Its more esoteric meanings
are discussed in Blofeld 1970:84-86, Gellner 1992:287-292, and Locke 1980:115-121.
26. I am here deploying Janice Boddy's explication of Kenelm Burridge's(1979:7) theo-
retical construct of self in which she distinguishes "self" from "person" by stating that "a self
which is integrating in conformity with others manifests or realizes the 'person' " (Boddy
1989:253). At issue here is with which "others"one is conforming in realization of one's per-
27. Upon a panju's demise, the choice of his successor is based, in part, on the amount of
money a candidate is willing to offer for the position. This payment, known as a salamf, now
typically amounts to approximately U.S. $1,500 and is made to the government office (Guthi
Saristhan) created in 1964 to administer the maintenance of temples and ritual practices sus-
tained through land dedicated by the king for that purpose. The inflationof this sum, which used
to be a token amount within living memory, has made it difficult for many otherwise eligible
sangha members to apply for the role of panju.
28. Vajracaryasmust also undergo the additional aca luyegu rite in order to maintain their
sub-caste status.
728 american ethnologist

29. I make this distinction because Newars use the termjatto referto a wide range of cate-
gorical distinctions, including caste. See Toffin 1995 for a discussion of the complex issue of the
caste status of artisans such as the Barahiin Patan.
30. Everyday that the chariot is under construction offerings are made to the wheels (or
chariot chassis if the wheels have not yet been installed) before the BarahThave their communal
31. The image of HayagrTbaBhairab at Bungamati, the most important of the Bhairabs
linked with the ritual cycle of Bungadya, is a huge gilded metal face with hands holding a skull
cap under its mouth.
32. The hah are large wedge-shaped sections of the wheel that are analogous to spokes.
They are heavy and must be wedged very tightly into place, fitting together to form a solid
33. Though the panjus administer ritesthat include sacrifice, they scrupulously avoid ac-
tually killing the animal, a task that the BarahTperformthemselves. See Owens 1993 for details
on Newar Buddhist participation in sacrificial rites.
34. The MalinTherself insisted that she still performed her duties as before; thus her own
motives forthe changes in her routinethat I(aswell as others)noted were impossibleto ascertain.
35. See Toffin 1995 for a discussion of the various ways in which, by his account,
Rajopadhyaycan be regarded as anomalous Newars, if Newars at all.
36. This narrativeis substantially edited here for the sake of brevity. The full narrative,for
example, has the king going back and forthfromthe chariot to the temple three times to confirm
that his eyes are not deceiving him and includes narrationof his comments of surprise (uttered
to himself). Both devices are typical features of Newar oral narrativeform.
37. What little historical evidence exists in the way of illustrationsof the festival does not
contradict this scenario: a scroll painting of 1617 does not include either the Rajopadhyayor
hahpah biyemha, and another such painting from 1712 includes the Rajopadhyay, but no
hahpahbiyemha (see Vergati 1985). An extremely large and detailed drawing commissioned by
BrianHodgson sometime between 1820 and 1843 (now in the Musee Guimet) also clearly illus-
trates the presence of the former but not the latter (see frontispiece, Levi 1990). That the
Rajopadhayonce actively led the chariot pullers is suggested by the popular name for their role,
say bajya,say being a call traditionally used to urge the pullers on, and bajys being a colloquial
Newari term for Brahmin.
38. Though I realize that absence of evidence is not conclusive evidence of absence, it
was nonetheless strikingthat no myth of origins for this role was forthcoming from the hahpah
biyemha themselves.
39. Here I am following Comaroffand Comaroff'sdistinction between hegemony and ide-
ology (1991:24). I adopt Haynes and Prakash'sdefinition of resistance-"those behaviours and
cultural practices by subordinate groups that contest hegemonic social formations,that threaten
to unravel the strategiesof domination; 'consciousness' need not be essential to its constitution"
(1991:3)-with one importantcaveat. To relinquish consciousness as an aspect of everyday re-
sistance makes it impossible to distinguish simple laziness, ineptitude, or incapacity from politi-
cally motivated action that might also take any of these forms. Some may object that this
relatively narrowconception of resistance is inconsistent with my more inclusive use of the term
contestation. However, just as I insist that consciousness informs resistance, so do I stipulate
that contestation intentionally entails assertion. All of the utterances and actions that I have
identified as contestations constitute intentional claims about selves in contrast to others, speci-
fied or not (Bakhtin 1981). See Kaplan and Kelly 1994:125-127 and Ortner 1995:1 74-1 75 for
overviews of this controversy.
40. Lederman'sobservation concerning women in the Mendi valley of New Guinea per-
tains to the Rajopadhyayas well as others whose roles are discussed here: "Theiracquiescence
to exclusion does not itself demonstrate that they share the values in terms of which they are ex-
cluded" (1989:239).
41. Though Bell is content to use the language of resistance and domination in her discus-
sion of ritualand power, her formulation of ritualmastery is open to the multifocality I have de-
scribed, for she states that "ritualmastery, that sense of ritual which is at least a basic social
envisioning identity 729

masteryof the schemes and strategiesof ritualization, means not only that ritualizationis the ap-
propriationof a social body but that the social body in turn is able to appropriatea field of action
structuredin great measure by others"and adds that such mastery "mustalso enable the person
to deploy schemes that can manipulate the social order on some level and appropriateits cate-
gories for a semicoherent vision of personal identity and action" (1992:215-216).
42. The notion of habitus elaborated upon by Bourdieu is useful in that it recognizes the
possibility of distinct habituses coexisting intrasocietally and intraculturally,as in "group"or
"class habitus" (1977:80-81), and in that it is conceived as continually constructed through
"practice."Its utility is limited, however, insofaras it offers only a model for the reproduction of
"objective conditions" and conventional conceptualizations of them, but not their production
or transformation(see Apter 1992:6; Comaroff 1985:5). Herzfeld's notion of a "collective self"
accommodates the agency of strategic ritualactors without succumbing to methodological in-
dividualism by situating ritual activity and interpretationwithin what he calls "segmentary so-
cial values" (1990:114), which also captures the sense of intrasocietal divergences described
here. The concept of "multinodal hegemony" proposed by Laclau and Mouffe (1985) provides
another such conceptual frameworkthat highlights Gramsci's (1971) notion of culture as a site
of struggle (see also Hulsether 1993).
43. Conspicuously absent fromthis list is class. Ineach of these cases, those who occupied
each of these roles varied substantiallywith respect to socioeconomic status and even the gross-
est of class distinctions: the possession of a means of production or lack thereof. One might ar-
gue that the emergence of the hahpah biyemha role itself was based on class antagonisms, but
one could just as well argue that Newar identity was as much at stake, the jyapu being consid-
ered and considering themselves to be "ur-Newars,"and the Newars having been subjected to
particularlyharsh repression under the Rana rule that ended just before the experiment with de-
mocracy began.
44. I have argued elsewhere (Owens 1995) that the process of sadhana is, in a sense, re-
peatedly routinized in the metaphor of theft as practiced in ritual festivity and related in myth.
My efforts here could be viewed as an extension of Tambiah's critique of the anthropological
construction of a "GreatTradition"(as foil to local practice), which posits a uniformityof doc-
trine that overlooks divergences (1970:375). I also share his attention to "circumstances in
which classical ingredients exposed to the fire of contingent human life and its needs synthesize
into intriguing compounds" (Tambiah 1970:376), just as Parish, in his recent work on Newar
morality, has emphasized the contingency of "the moral" as emerging from "people's engage-
ment with life" (1994:286).
The principles of sadhana that are manifest in popular understandings of visualization as
implicated in identity have strikingparallels with Babb's (1986) description of Satya Sai Baba's
concepts of "seeing," and something of the relationship between visualization and identity that
I relate to sadhana specifically is also pervasive in South Asia at a general level in so far as
darsan, "the visual perception of the sacred," constitutes a transformativeexchange of gazes be-
tween devotee and image (Eck 1981:5).

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accepted October28, 1999

final version submittedJanuary 24, 2000

Bruce McCoy Owens

Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Wheaton College
Norton, MA 02766