Having spent most of his childhood and adolescent years in Shimla, for Prof. Aniket Alam of the Centre for Exact Humanities, the hills do come alive with the sound of music. However, his first research interest into the social history of the Himalayas began in the aftermath of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, forcing him to take a relook at the romanticized visions of the mountains he had always held. This led to his doctoral research that mapped out the broad history of the Western Himalayas. And in 2007, he published a book, Becoming India: Western Himalayas during British Rule. Though the book is based on his doctoral research, Prof. Alam says that it is not a general history of the colonial period in the Western Himalayas. “Rather it narrates the story of the transformation of the social formation of the Western Himalayas during the period of British rule.” After a hiatus, the former journalist-turned professor at IIIT-H has returned to academia to study his first love - the Trans-Himalayan region, otherwise also known as the Asian highlands - stretching from Central Asia to South-East Asia.
This time around, the professor has won a 15 lakh grant from ICSSR for a 2-year research project on the study of continuity and change in the Spiti Valley over the past millennia. The Spiti Valley is an essentially Buddhist region. But the monasteries of Spiti served not merely as religious centers but as sites central to creating social, economic and political meanings, codes and structures. Hence the research proposes to look at five of Spiti’s most important monasteries -- Tabo, Dhankar, Key, Komic, and Kungri -- and see how their role has changed in Spiti society. Prof. Alam is collaborating with two other researchers, Dr. Neekee Chaturvedi, a historian who has extensively studied the various forms of Buddhism in the Himalayan region and their salient features; and Ms. Ayushi Negi, a lawyer in the Himachal Pradesh High Court, who is also engaged with legal studies of local traditional laws and customs. “Our method will be to combine a historical study of the monasteries with an anthropological approach. We will study the traditional customs, values, and rules through the prism of legal studies and compare them to the new laws and rules which were imposed since the 19th century.”
Scope of the Project
According to the Professor, “To say change is happening is a banal statement”. In order to measure and document specific changes in the Spiti Valley, he is also looking at it in the context of general changes taking place in Anni Valley, which is near Shimla. “Spiti valley is a cold desert while Anni Valley is the more regular part of the mountains, with trees and greenery”, explains Prof. Alam. “We want to study the effects of modernization, accessibility to the rest of India through the development of roads, changes in people’s mobility, new laws, the coming up of markets, the advent of the internet, and Spiti valley’s growing popularity as a tourist hotspot. We also want to see and document what commodities people buy from markets now that were previously either self-cultivated or hand-made, changes in the cropping pattern and so on”.
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According to the professor, the Spiti valley has historically been an important part of the social, cultural and trade networks of the Asian highlands. Due to its relative inaccessibility and severe agro-climatic conditions, Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh is one of India’s least studied regions. Its history is millennia old and today it is important both in terms of India’s larger geopolitical imperatives as well as its culture and heritage.
Computational Tools and Analytics
The research proposal mentions that for the purposes of the study, textual and oral data will be collected from the selected monasteries, from other local sources, from land and forest settlement, census (from 1881 till the present), other government records, and secondary literature. Recognizing that computers can analyze vast amounts of data in a short period of time with high accuracy, Prof. Alam plans to use computational tools and statistical modeling to bring new insights to the data collected. The plan is to convert data collected from various sources into digital records, clean them for computational processing and tweak available data analysis tools. This will help not just identify patterns and correlations which would be hidden to the eye otherwise, but also to help cross-verify and corroborate the available data. The research team also proposes to use available natural language processing tools to mine this data for new information. In fact, Prof. Alam plans to bounce ideas with his colleagues from the other research centers on how to use geo-tagging and GIS to track movements of locals. “We’re exploring how perhaps we can get the locals to download an app on their mobiles which can record where they are moving and how. And then we can go back to historical documents and try and see what the patterns of movements were earlier and study how the movements of people have changed.”
As part of the first exploratory study conducted during the Summer of 2018, Prof. Alam has already uncovered interesting changes which will be formally documented as findings of the research project. One of the first visible changes he noticed is in its landscape and cultivation pattern. From traditionally growing food grains such as barley, there has been a shift towards the more popular cash crops such as apples. With this, there’s a shift in dietary patterns as well since apples are grown for their commercial value and less so for self-consumption. There are other changes in the way that the monasteries’ influence over the locals is getting diluted. For instance, it has always been ordained that the second son of every family must become a monk and join the monastery. Prof. Alam says that not everyone follows this diktat anymore. At the Pin Valley monastery in Kungri, the researchers met Rinpoche Yomedr, considered to be the reincarnation of the first Buddhist teacher of this region. From him, they learned that while growing up, he was forbidden from learning either English or Hindi in the monastery and had to learn only the Bhoti (Tibetan) language in which all the religious texts were written. Now as the head of the monastery, he is personally encouraging young monks to learn different languages as well. Interestingly enough, Bhoti, a language restricted to the monasteries is now being taught in the local schools too. Previously unheard of, the Rinpoche is now elevating the status of the female nuns in the monasteries and giving them education equal to the Lamas. He discourages animal slaughter, alcohol brewing, and its consumption. The research team also stumbled upon a very different style of Buddha statues - typically found in Orissa and the Bihar region. This again is attributed to the Rinpoche who is propagating the new sculptural style.
The IIIT-H based project entails 2-year-long research which will culminate in the formal publication of a project report, as well as a few research papers. As the research team heads out to the mountains to hire and set up other staff members, here’s wishing them luck!