Lockdown in Nepal: the Corona, a cure for it and the goddess

The spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has deeply affected our lives and given rise to numerous uncertainties and anxieties. This new crisis, along with others such as the ecological crisis and climate change, has affected every corner of the world— the Himalayas included.

Anthropology’s past engagement with the various realities of epidemics can offer some enlightening “Pandemic Perspectives” regarding the present situation. Many scholars have been reflecting on this period of crisis and posting comments about the variegated ways it affects different people and places: “Pandemic Insights”, or “Dispatches from the pandemic” are good examples, among many others, of scholarly interventions such as those published on the “Corona times” website.

The pandemic has resulted in the unprecedented enclosure of our lives within the familiar walls of our homes. For some scholars, however, sheltering in place meant staying a long way from home at their field site. This was the case of our colleagues the linguist Boyd Michailovsky and the anthropologist Grégoire Schlemmer, both of whom experienced the lockdown separately in two villages in Nepal. At the time, fewer than 10 cases of the disease had been identified in Nepal, yet everyone was well aware of it when rumour of a cure for the coronavirus reached the remote villages where they were staying.

At the time, Boyd Michailovsky was in the village of Adhamara in Sindhuli district. Though the lockdown (from 22 March) had not actually affected people’s daily lives in the village or in the surrounding hamlets—inaccessible by road anyway—, early in the morning of 28 March the rumour that a cure was to be found buried just outside the door of their houses, to the left when entering, spread quickly.

Villagers digging for the cure for “corona” buried just outside a door. Photo by Boyd Michailovsky. 28 March 2020, Adhamara, Sindhuli district

With no further detailed information, villagers went from house to house, digging up small stones and bits of charcoal.

The charcoal said to be a cure for the Corona virus. Photo by Boyd Michailovsky. 28 March 2020, Adhamara, Sindhuli district

This agitation gradually died down before the morning meal and Boyd Michailovsky didn’t hear more about it over the following days.

The same rumour reached other rural places such as the village where Grégoire Schlemmer was hosted. During his stay, he was able to document villagers’ views and understandings of the disease. This led to his making a short film titled “Sansari. The Goddess and the Corona in the Himalayas” (19 min.).

The film documents how, at the end of March 2020, news of the virus spread through the village affected just like the rest of the country by lockdown. It describes how some villagers took it on themselves to perform a ritual to propitiate Sansari, goddess of epidemics, and adapted it to the current circumstances.

Just like anywhere else, villagers cast around for what to think and what to do, and cobbled together uncertain answers and rudimentary solutions. These emerged as a creative assemblage derived from respect for tradition and from adaptation to change, from human and divine responsibility, from rumours about a magical cure and from a learned discourse about the disease. This casting about saw the unfolding of the villagers’ relationship to politics, their relationship to nature, and the place of the stranger…

This short film by Grégoire Schlemmer, an offbeat perspective, is an opportunity to discover other reflections on the current crisis linked to the virus, and it strangely echoes what has been said and done elsewhere in this world—a world that the current epidemic has helped to make more global.

 

For the French version of the documentary, click here.

 


Stéphane Gros

Stéphane Gros is a social anthropologist at the CNRS (France), Centre for Himalayan Studies. He is the author of a monograph on the Drung of Northwest Yunnan province in China (La Part manquante, 2012), and has written numerous articles and book chapters on issues of interethnic relations and representations of ethnic minorities, poverty and categorization, as well as rituals and cosmology. He has edited or co-edited four collections of relevance to ethnographic theory, Chinese studies, and area studies. For 2012-2016, he was the Principal Investigator for a collaborative project titled "Territories, Communities, and Exchanges in the Kham Sino-Tibetan Borderlands", funded by a ERC (European Research Council) Starting Grant. His personal research currently investigates aspects of kinship and social organization, conversion to Christianity, as well as heritage politics and environmental discourses.

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