Shaping the Tourist's Gaze: Representing Ethnic Difference in a Nepali Village

By Guneratne, Arjun | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Shaping the Tourist's Gaze: Representing Ethnic Difference in a Nepali Village


Guneratne, Arjun, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


A certain practice associated with the tourism industry in Nepal's Chitwan district, the 'village walk', has become one way through which ethnic status can be expressed and claims to modernity made by local people. This phenomenon illustrates how globalizing processes reinforce the particulars of locality by providing people with new frameworks through which to interpret their societies. Thus, the ideology of modernity has replaced that of caste as the way in which Tharus and Brahmans in rural Nepal understand inter-ethnic relationships. Foreign tourists serve as a foil for this reinterpretation through the practice of the village walk, in which high-caste tourist guides conduct tourists on cultural tours of Tharu villages. The representation of Tharus as 'primitive', jungly', and living in another time meets both the desire of tourists for exotic experiences and that of high-caste Nepalese who wish to represent themselves as belonging to the modern world from which the tourists presumably come.

In a recent book, Appadurai (1996: 178) asks whether anthropology retains any 'special rhetorical privilege in a world where locality seems to have lost its ontological moorings'. I am not convinced that locality has lost its moorings; on the contrary, I believe that loca1ity, which Appadurai (1996: 182) defines as something relational and contextual, a 'structure of feeling that is produced by particular forms of intentional activity and that yields particular sorts of material effects', is being reinforced. Globalization does not produce a global culture except in the most superficial sense; instead, it serves localized cultural purposes and helps to reshape pre-existing systems of thought. Globalization reinscribes locality in new ways. I explore this idea by discussing how the presence of tourists in a village in Nepal (which l call 'Pipariya', a pseudonym) serves to accentuate ethnic differences among the people who live there and provide a new idiom to talk about that difference in place of an older id iom (which scholars have described under the rubric of caste) which is no longer seen as relevant. A certain practice associated with local tourism, the 'village walk', has become one way through which ethnic status can be expressed and claims to modernity made. Globalization helps to produce in Pipariya a locality of a particular sort, with a 'structure of feeling' that has always hierarchized social groups, but where the meaning of one's ethnic identity is now understood in new ways, as older ways of inscribing ethnic relations give way to the forces of change.

One seldom hears a discourse of group difference in Pipariya in terms of the concerns described in much of the ethnographic literature on caste. Scholarly discourses about caste, whether they privilege purity or power, have emphasized that ritual is crucial to an understanding of status in South Asian (and especially Hindu) societies (e.g. Dumont 1980; Marriott & Inden 1974: 985; Quigley 1993; Raheja 1988). Views of modern Indian society that draw on ancient texts and the depiction of religious values in those texts have been dismissed by Beteille as the 'book view' of Indian society (Beteille 1991, cited in

Fuller 1996: 4). Fuller (1996: 5) has observed of this 'book view' that, by privileging uniformity over diversity, it 'focuses attention on continuities with the past and the scriptural tradition at the expense of the discontinuities that are becoming proportionately more salient'. Here I deal with one of these discontinuities, for a concern with ritual values as the basis of ideas about Status is not ve ry apparent in Pipariya. To put it differently, the body of meanings covered by the English term 'caste' sits less comfortably on the Nepali term jat than does the concept of ethnic group, which I use in its stead.

The Brahmanical orthodoxy regarding caste was expressed in nineteenth-century Nepal in the provisions of the legal code known as the muluki ain (or Chief Law), adopted in 1854 AD. …

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