The Cultural Politics of Land and Water in Sacred Landscapes
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This research explores the cultural politics of devithans (Nepali sacred groves) in the eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim, India. The proliferation of devithans in the village of Biring, East Sikkim, reveals the contestations and appropriations around the symbolic value of sacred sites. In a context where worship of nature has become critical for different ethnic groups to validate political and cultural claims to Sikkim’s sacred landscape, devithans are a potential “political instrument” (Sithole, 2004:132). They not only satiate the “quest for belonging” (Geschiere, 2009:1) for the Nepalis, whose cultural associations with Sikkim’s sacred landscape remain invisibilized, but also become symbolic of their claim to autochthony, as much as the Buddhist Lepcha-Bhutias. Sacred grove scholarship in India, predominantly anchored in the language of ecology, tends to locate their sustainability in past traditions and reasons for their decline in the politics of today. By using a cultural politics lens to understand devithans, I problematize such simplistic narratives. I argue that such narratives shift focus away from present day cultural politics internal to communities that often not only sustain them, but also help them to proliferate. Nevertheless, agreeing that there is an inherent sublimity to devithans that “eludes the grasp of systematic and objective knowledge” (Ivakhiv, 2003: 25), I keep my analysis of sacred landscapes open, acknowledging the polyphony that constitutes it.