Community based on diversity

What makes a group of people constitute a community? The most common definitions focus on similarities of place, interest, or practices. For example, Wikipedia says,

Human communities may share intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, and risks in common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness.

The standard view thus sees cohesion growing out of sameness. Can we even imagine a community emerging out of difference?

Imagined communities

In his book on nationalism, Benedict Anderson writes that a nation

is imagined as a community, because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings (p. 7)

For Anderson, all nations, indeed, all communities are imagined; they are distinguished by the “style” in which they are imagined.  In many countries, the imagining consists of defining a personal archetype, a single language, a religion, and a national mythology, which extends the nation’s history to a time long before anyone did imagine a nation.

Nepal ethnic groups

Nepal ethnic groups

But comradeship is neither guaranteed nor does it require, more objectively measured, or even imagined, similarity. Instead, Anderson’s imagined community is more akin to Anthony P. Cohen’s (1985) idea of community of meaning, in which the community plays a crucial symbolic role in generating a person’s identity and sense of belonging. A community is, because we conceive it to be.

Community based on difference

If we shift from defining a community based on shared attributes (religion, interests, age, place, etc.) to thinking of it as something that its members construct, we begin to see an answer to the question posed above: Yes, community can emerge out of difference, even because of difference.

The country of Nepal is so diverse in terms of geography, history, human physical features, language, religion, arts, and more, that it’s difficult to say what constitutes a Nepali, or Nepal as a nation. What makes all Nepalis the same, yet different from people in India, China, or elsewhere? Imagining such a sameness for people Nepal is more a stretch than it is for most other countries. How might Nepalis imagine their community, if such can exist?

Instead of focusing on sameness, many in Nepal conceive of their nation in terms of its diversity. What sets Nepal apart is not that everyone looks, dresses, talks, prays, or acts the same, but that people there seek common ground through recognition of and genuine valuing of their differences. This otherwise vague goal is enacted in many concrete ways.

Celebrating and building on diversity

For example, there are 123 recognized “national languages.” Following Section 32 of the Constitution, the Language Commission aims that

every person and community will be entitled to use their language, participate in cultural life… and promote their language, script, culture, cultural civilization and heritage. Similarly, the state has a policy… to promote national unity by developing… mutual harmony, tolerance and solidarity between different languages

There is active research to find and preserve languages that may have been missed before, but now need to be recognized and protected. Contrast that with the efforts of some in the US to make English the official language.

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Nepal flag at the top of Shivapuri

Consider also how many Nepalis view their flag and anthem, conventional symbols of nationalism. In many countries flag waving serves to inculcate a belief in nationhood based on imagined sameness. This is not so in Nepal.

Nepal’s flag has a unique double triangular (or double pennant) shape. As such, it’s the only non-rectangular national flag. The national anthem is also unusual in both music and lyrics. “Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka” was adopted in 2006, with music by Amber Gurun. The BBC places it third on its list of “most amazing national anthems” and described it as “the only anthem normally played on a Casio keyboard.” An English translation of the lyrics by Byakul Maila includes

Woven from hundreds of flowers, we are garland Nepali… millions of natural beauties, history like a shawl… races, languages, religions, cultures incredible… progressive nation, I salute Nepal.

Echoing ideas from many others, politician Biraj Bista says, “Most people feel proud to have such a unique flag. Personally, I look at it as a symbol of unification in diversity we have in Nepal” (Nosowitz, 2018). This idea of community in diversity provides a powerful resource for the current work there on progressive education.

Implications for the US

The US is currently conflicted over the notion of community. For some, there is a desire to imagine a “deep, horizontal comradeship” based on shared language, religion, ethnicity, and social values. This leads to actions against immigrants, racial oppression, imposing sectarian religious views in public life, and absurd efforts to institute assumed, or desired, commonality of language use. In support of this sameness aim, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services recently changed its mission statement to eliminate the description of the US as “a nation of immigrants.”

For others, there is acceptance of diversity, and an understanding of how it enriches the life of society. However, that difference perspective is often accompanied by unease over perceived changes in society, and a difficulty in defining what constitutes nationhood.

Nepal provides a strong refutation of the sameness conceit and a clear articulation of a pluralistic or multicultural view of community. It shows a way in which the unity of a people, or a nation arises, not in spite of, but precisely because of the willingness to embrace difference.

References

Meeting the marsh mugger

Our excellent guide, Suman, with doongas, on the Rapti River

Our excellent guide, Suman, with doongas, on the Rapti River

Ordinarily, I’d like to share beautiful photos, or at least ones that convey useful information, such as a title sign. But today you’ll see some of my worst.

We were on a doonga (canoe)/walking safari in Chitwan National Park. For this trip, we floated down the Rapti River for about 2.5 miles, then walked through the jungle for another 5-6 miles.

Elephants passing by

Elephants passing by

In the beginning of the doonga portion we saw unusual birds, elephants, lush tropical vegetation, and along the banks, the occasional crocodile, namely, the marsh mugger (Crocodylus palustris), or crocodile of the marsh. They’re listed as threatened–vulnerable, so we were careful not to disturb them.

Gharials at the conservation center

Gharials at the conservation center

We felt fortunate to see majestic creatures whose ancestors appeared 200 million years ago in the Triassic, and which can grow to 10 feet or more long. The area also provides a home for the critical-endangered gharials, or fish-eating crocodiles. We didn’t expect to see them in the wild, but did see many at the crocodile breeding center.

Mugger under water

Mugger under water

But there was a moment when I lost all interest in the marsh mugger’s conservation status. One large one approached our doonga, possibly touching it. His shoulders and front legs were next to Susan’s seat; his impressive mouth was next to mine.

Mugger next to doonga

Mugger next to doonga

I knew not to trail my fingers in the water, but there would have been little defense against his attempting to overturn the canoe. As we had eight tasty people on board, and there were probably several other muggers nearby, that could have been disastrous.

Raju, with trusty stick

Raju, with trusty stick

I tried to get a photo, but being generally inept and only now trying out a smart phone, I mostly managed to get photos of my palm and the sky. I won’t impose those on you, but I will share a couple that do show the crocodile.

On the trail

On the trail

The most important photo shows the stick that our guide, Raju, used to bang on the head of the mugger to discourage it. Later, we learned that this was not a normal event, nor an exciting treat for the tourist, but a real emergency. The story went around Sapana Village, and Raju was a deserved hero.

On the trail (2)

On the trail (2)

Next to dormant termite mound

Next to dormant termite mound

Mugger along the trail, apparently dead, but very much alive

Mugger along the trail, apparently dead, but very much alive

Pokhara Valley

Machupuchare (Fish Tail) from our hotel balcony

Machupuchare (Fish Tail) from our hotel balcony

 

Machhapuchhare (Fish Tail), at 22,943 ft., which stands in the center of the photo above, is an iconic mountain, which has never been climbed, as it’s considered sacred to Shiva. Climbers have approached the summit, but have always stopped out of respect for Shiva and his followers.

Flowers en route to the World Peace Stupa

Flowers en route to the World Peace Stupa

Machhapuchhare’s distinctive fish tail shape would make it special anywhere. It’s also amazingly tall. Nothing in North America comes close to its height.

For example, the tallest mountain in Mexico is Pico de Orizaba (Citlaltépetl) in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. At 18,406 ft. it’s 4,533 ft. below Machupuchare. Mount Logan in the Saint Elias Range is the tallest mountain in Canada, at 19,541 ft. Denali in the Alaska Range, the tallest in the US at 20,310 ft, is still 2,633 ft. less. The tallest mountain in the contiguous US, Mount Whitney, barely deserves comparison, at 14,505 ft.

World Peace Stupa

World Peace Stupa

You begin to understand the mountainous nature of Nepal when you learn that Machupuchare, which stands tall above every mountain in North America, is far from the highest even among its nearby neighbors.

Three of the ten highest mountains in the world—Dhaulagiri at 26,795 ft., Annapurna at 26,545 ft., and Manaslu at 26,781 ft., are visible from the Pokhara Valley, and all within 35 miles. All three can often be seen from the World Peace Stupa, but it was cloudy on the day we climbed up to that. See what we missed.

 

Doongas on Fewa Lake

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

Fewa Lake, Pokhara

Friday was the eve of the new year (2075) in Nepal, with big celebrations in Pokhara. We celebrated by paddling a doonga (or dunga) on Fewa Lake.

A doonga looks a bit like a canoe, but it’s much heavier. They’re made of old teak from the Terai in southern Nepal. This is much denser wood than found in the local teak, hence it’s stronger and heavier. One doonga can weigh 500 kg (1100 lbs.).

Our dunga (blue & yellow)

Our dunga (blue & yellow)

They’re good boats, which can easily carry five or more people. They’re stable unless the wind gets too strong. We found them to be slower than a canoe, and a bit tiring with the heavy teak paddles. Nevertheless, they’re mystical to see on the lake.

Navaraj repairs a 35 year old doonga

Navaraj repairs a 35 year old doonga

Fewa Lake is beautiful, with large sections of shoreline undeveloped. There are views of green hills all around, and behind them the Himal, with occasionally clear sights of Machupuchare (Fish Tail) mountain.

Cotton rope, a form of oakum, for sealing the doongas

Cotton rope, a form of oakum, for sealing the doongas

After our paddle, we talked to  Jhapu, who builds and repairs doongas. He described how he used cotton rope to fill cracks between the planks. He then covers the rope with pitch, applies a layer of primer, and finally enamel.

Lake view with marina in center back

Lake view with marina in center back

Lalita’s shop

Lalits'a shop from the outside

Lalits’a shop from the outside

There are countless little shops not far from my apartment in old Patan. One I frequent is Lalita’s. She basically just has a convenience store. But it’s one that’s about 5% the size of one in the US, with much more stuff. Stepping inside is like entering the TARDIS; it’s bigger on the inside.

Lalita’s shop has drinks of all kinds, including coffee, tea (black, green, herbal), soft drinks, club soda, beer, and wine. There are of course multiple kinds of cookies, candies, chips, and tobacco, like any decent convenience store.

Lalita with neighborhood friend

Lalita with neighborhood friend

But there are also eggs, ice cream, milk, yogurt (both sweet and natural), yak cheese, canned goods, prepared foods, soups, rice, bread, cereal, condiments, hanging herbs and garlic.

Lalita’s shop has razors and creams for shaving, toilet paper, aspirin and other basic pharmaceuticals. There’s much more, imported and domestic, including some items I can’t identify. Most items can be purchased by the piece or by the box. For example, you could choose to buy just five eggs.

On the steps outside there are both 1 liter and 20 liter water jugs. Thanka (Tibetan Buddhist paintings on cloth) hang on the wall.  My goal before leaving here is to discover something she doesn’t have.

You can see in the last photo below a small door at the back. Lalita sometimes has to step back there, for example, to find a drier wine. My suspicion is that there’s a gigantic warehouse appended to the shop, and that she can step through that to get an Amazon delivery. Or, maybe Amazon gets all of its stuff from her store?

When I enter the store each time, I wonder how I can fit my body in what passes for an aisle. But soon, I find that I’m inside the store along with children, other shoppers, young and old, and often a delivery person. There’s lots of friendly chatter and Lalita manages to teach me a few words of Nepali each time I visit.

Deurali danda (hilltop)

Early morning bus ride to the SW hills

Early morning bus ride to the SW hills

A word to the wise:

If you’re in Nepal, and you get invited to join a group of 15 year-olds from Nisarga Batika School for their six-hour spring walk, ask a few questions ahead of time:

  • What kind of “walk” are we talking about?
  • Is a spring walk what we Americans call impossible mountain climbing?
  • Is this just a warmup for their upcoming seven-day trek in Pokhara?
  • Does your trip leader, Sudeep, happen to be a triathlete?
  • Did he recently come in third in the Pokhara triathlon sprint?
  • Are you older than 15?
On the way up

On the way up

Despite my lack of forethought, I not only survived the trek, but had a great time. We climbed Deurali danda, which I thought from a map lookup was far west of Kathmandu. Apparently, though, it just means hilltop, of which there are many in Nepal, even in the Kathmandu Valley. The summit is near Chandragiri Hill, where there is now a modern cable car for tourists.

A welcome rest stop

A welcome rest stop

Our ascent was gradual at first, but soon we heard some alarming advice from our trek leader: “It now becomes a single track, steep, and slippery from the rain. Watch your step. Stay in groups of four to watch for slips.”

Also, “Be alert for wild animals. We saw leopards on the last two treks. Clap your hands and yell when you see one.”

At the top

At the top

There were no leopards as far as I could see. Our mishaps turned out to be minor. There were many screams when one student picked up a leech. One had minor cuts and a sore wrist from a fall. Another sprained an ankle, reinjuring some previous damage from sports.

I broke the ice, or rather the leaf litter, when my foot sank through a deep hole. No damage except to my pride. That recovered a bit when I saw one after another of the others have minor slips.

Abandoned cable car, for industrial use

Abandoned cable car, for industrial use

The students were all in better shape than I was at their age, but a few appeared to have had a bit too much screen time, for which I was grateful. There were frequent calls for rest breaks.

Lunchtime

Lunchtime

A hilltop resident, turning 6 today

A hilltop resident, turning 6 today

An old stupa? Even my hosts weren't sure

An old stupa? Even my hosts weren’t sure

Fiddleheads, a favorite food treat in both US and Nepal

Fiddleheads, a favorite food treat in both US and Nepal

Beautiful fern cacscades

Beautiful fern cacscades

Golden trumpet trees

Golden trumpet trees

Celebrating near the end

Celebrating near the end

Some guys don't even recognize it's a trek

Some guys don’t even recognize it’s a trek

Coffee Tea & Me

Coffee Tea & Me serves up an international menu, including excellent coffee, to what appears to be an entirely local crowd.

That’s due in part to the fact that it’s tucked away down a small alley. That alley slips in between some souvenir shops just 50 meters north of the Bhimsen temple at Patan Durbar Square. You need to know about it in advance, not just wander in.

The little restaurant has great food, served in an unpretentious style. There are only seven tables, with low seating for those seeking a traditional style, and higher ones for anyone with extra long legs.

The menu

Each time I’ve gone in, I’ve relied on Ruby Maharjan, the chef, to suggest what was good that day. One time I had a chicken noodle dish with fresh vegetables, which was delicious, just spicy enough. Another time I had a river-caught bachwa with a wonderful sauce and accompanied by a nice veggie salad. As you can see I couldn’t wait for a photo the way a good food blogger would.

Bachwa fillet

Bachwa fillet

The room layout is enchanting, with walls painted in modern patterns inspired by traditional Nepali and Chinese designs. The painting of Buddha portrayed on the wall is the center of attraction.

There are many other excellent places to eat or have coffee in Patan. They offer not only good food, but fascinating old architecture, charming courtyards, and relaxed atmosphere. I single out Coffee Tea & Me because it gets everything right in a minimalist and very affordable way. It also happens to be close to where I’m staying, just north of Durbar Square.

Bhimsen Temple

The Bhimsen Temple landmark, by the way, is located at the northern end of Durbar Square. It’s dedicated to the god of trade and business.

Bhimsen Temple, Patan Durbar Sq.

Bhimsen Temple, Patan Durbar Sq.

The current temple was completely rebuilt in 1682 after a fire, then was restored after earthquakes in 1934 and 1967. It’s under repair once again, from the 2015 quake. It has an unusual, rectangular, but non-square footprint.

In the photo you can see the old and new in the building itself, in its supports and scaffolding, in the clothing of passersby, and in the cotton candy and cola sales.