Some years ago in the Dolakha district of eastern Nepal, a British linguist and anthropologist named Mark Turin was standing on a precipice late on a sunny afternoon at the end of a long climb. It dawned on him that in every direction around him was a separate mountain valley and that each valley was home not just to a different culture, but to its own language.
Nepal, a nation roughly the size of Montana, has 110 languages from four different language families. Turin and Sara Shneiderman, an anthropologist, both newcomers to Yale this semester, have spent much of the past 20 years studying one such culture, the Thangmi, a community of about 35,000 people concentrated in eastern Nepal. But that day on the precipice, the cheek-by-jowl richness of the Himalayas hit Turin with a sudden emotional force.
The same ragged landscape that had made the mountains a mother lode of biological diversity had made them a linguistic mother lode, too. For much of their history, these remote valleys had been largely inaccessible to one another, as well as to the outside world, and isolation had helped produce both a biological and a cultural flowering. Biological, cultural and linguistic communities now also face the same threats to their survival, as the forces of modernization, from cell phones to climate change, roll across these mountains. For Turin, understanding each part of this equation is essential to understanding the others.
That’s also the approach being taken by the new Himalayan Initiative at Yale: It isn’t enough for a hydrologist, say, or a religious studies scholar to work in relative isolation. Instead, village leaders and nongovernmental organizations within the Himalayas, as well as conservationists, anthropologists, art historians, political scientists and other specialists from the outside world, need to be talking and working together.
So far the Himalayan Initiative is just a promising idea, the product of two working sessions over the past year in New Haven, and one this past August in Dehradun, India, a center of natural resource studies in the foothills of the Himalayas. The ambition is to encourage loose collaborations across campus, as well as with researchers on other campuses here and abroad, under the rubric “environment, livelihoods, cultures.”
The tentative character of the effort is calculated. “I’ve been around enough as an administrator in academia,” says F&ES Dean Peter Crane, “to know that you can launch out onto the battlefield and then look around and see that the troops aren’t behind you. It makes much more sense to try to grow this sort of thing from the bottom up, rather than for a couple of administrators to say, ‘This is the direction we’re going.’ We need to facilitate a little, to find out where the faculty and students want to work.” The strategy, in effect, is to attract a coalition of the curious. Or as one researcher put it, “I don’t know yet what the initiative is about. But I’m delighted to play along with it.”
The idea of a multidisciplinary effort focused on the Himalayas originated soon after Crane arrived at F&ES in 2009, during a meeting with Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan ’91—Shivi, for short—a professor of anthropology and of forestry and environmental studies. Sivaramakrishnan has done his field research mainly in the forests of India’s eastern plains. He readily acknowledges, as does Crane, that he has no special knowledge of the mountains. But he saw a deepening involvement with the Himalayas as a natural part of his brief to expand the work of the South Asian Studies Council at Yale, which he chairs.
Having earned his masters at F&ES in 1991 and his doctorate in anthropology at Yale in 1996, Sivaramakrishnan was also familiar with the extensive work by an earlier generation of F&ES faculty and students in Nepal and Bhutan. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for us to work together,” he suggested to Crane, “and maybe this is not just an environmental studies activity, but something broader across the campus.”
The idea made strategic sense for F&ES, especially to Crane as a newcomer: “When you come into a complicated organization, the normal pattern is to see a huge amount of activity across a variety of topics and areas,” he says. “One of the challenges is trying to find the principal components of that activity—what are some of the main axes of activity that explain a good deal of what’s going on?” F&ES researchers have traditionally looked at forestry and other environmental questions from a community perspective, emphasizing equity issues, poverty issues, human rights and the special problems of marginalized and indigenous peoples—all highly relevant in the Himalayas. The Himalayan idea also drew together three areas, says Crane, that “might seem disparate, but really ought to be unified components of our program”—the work in Nepal and Bhutan and the rapidly increasing engagement by F&ES and the university at large with India.
Yale has been working since 2008 to establish itself as the leading center of India studies in the United States—an effort characterized by Yale President Richard Levin as parallel to the university’s work in China and logical in the context of both countries’ rising economic and geopolitical stature. The India connection also makes a certain historical sense. In the 17th century, an agent of the British East India Company named Elihu Yale piled up a fortune in Madras—now Chennai. Some of that wealth went to support the fledgling American university that now bears his name.
Levin promised that Yale would “provide a deep and rich curriculum covering all aspects of Indian civilization—its languages and literatures, religions and history, as well as its politics, economics and society. We also need,” he said, “to engage with the problems that confront contemporary India: equitable and sustainable economic development and public health.” So far Yale has committed $30 million and raised an additional $15 million for its programs on India.
Other academic programs focusing on India or China have rarely paid much attention to the Himalayas. South Asian studies has typically been dominated by Sanskritists and Indologists, who regard the Himalayas as the periphery, says Turin. East Asian studies often treats the mountains as “the barbarian fringe.” Beyond the academic world, Westerners typically gloss over the enormous diversity of the Himalayas and, instead, romanticize them, in Shneiderman’s words, as an “undifferentiated zone of cultural fascination,” somewhere between a backpacker’s paradise and Shangri-La. “Whereas for us,” says Turin, the Himalayas are “the heart of where nations, cultures, languages and ecosystems collide, and I think it’s very savvy and prudent of Yale to have realized that.”