Through 'spirits': Cosmology and landscape ecology among the Nyishi tribe of upland Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India
AbstractThe Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeastern corner of India is a Protected Area running east-west along the contested McMahon Line that marks the International Border with Tibet Autonomous Region. It represents one of the most remote and least known areas of India. Dense tropical, sub-tropical and temperate forests cover more than two-thirds of Arunachal Pradesh and the state harbours globally outstanding biological diversity, representing one of the most diverse alpine botanic zones on earth. It forms part of one of thirty-four internationally-recognized 'global biodiversity hotspots'. This thesis constitutes the first detailed village-level ethnographic investigation of the Nyishi tribe inhabiting the remote upper belt of the state and provides a benchmark for future ethnographic work in the region. Based upon sixteen months of intensive fieldwork involving textual, audio and audio-visual documentation of rituals, ceremonies, oral histories and everyday discourses, the study explores how the perceived agency of spirits (uyu) inform ecological phenomena and village-level interactions with the landscape. Drawing upon Bruno Latour's (1993) critique of the nature-culture dichotomy, Philippe Descola's (2005) theory of animistic 'modes of identification', and Tim Ingold's (2000) 'organism-environment synergy' this study investigates the ritual and everyday significance of spirits and how human-spirit relationships inform key village-level economic interactions with the landscape, including hunting, animal husbandry and shifting cultivation (/hum). The thesis explores how the extraction of natural resources are locally configured, through spirits, as forms of'exchange'. Focusing upon the practices of shaman-priests (nyubu), hunters (nyegum) and storyteller- arbitrators (nyejuk), the research examines how landscape processes across a range of scales are expressed through a 'language' of spirits. A portrait emerges of how discourses about human-spirit exchanges causally bind such diverse phenomena as the clearing of mature forest for jhum cultivation, divination through the chicken liver omen, animal sacrifice, the hunting of spirit-reared forest animals, the seasonal deposition of snow and movement of forest animals between elevations, human illness, violent storms, landslides and floods, all within a highly dynamic and often capricious landscape. As a village-level portrait of how spirits inform indigenous experience of and interactions with the landscape the study contributes to contemporary debates concerning the status of indigenous ecological knowledge in Northeast India and beyond.