Anthropology of Inscriptions: Memory and Cultural Heritage in the Public Sphere

Up to the present day, inscriptions are omnipresent in Nepal’s religious and public life. Written artefacts in Sanskrit, Newari and Nepali language recording grants, donations or the establishment of trusts are found on temples, shrines, wells and rest houses alike. Due to the rapid urbanization, infrastructure development and/or natural disasters many inscriptions are currently highly endangered.

The Project "Anthropology of Inscriptions: Memory and Cultural Heritage in the Public Sphere” which is funded by the Flagship Initiative “Transforming Cultural Heritage” of Heidelberg University aims at investigating the crucial role that inscriptions, graffiti and other publicly displayed media of written communication have played for the construction of spaces, identities, collective memory and values in the Kathmandu Valley. A selected corpus of inscriptions will be documented, edited and published in digital form in close collaboration with the Nepal Heritage Documentation Project (NHDP) and the Research Unit “Documents on the History of Religion and Law of Premodern Nepal” (HAdW). By drawing on methods from Visual Anthropology and Philology, the inscriptions will be studied from an interdisciplinary and transtemporal perspective: as images and texts; as sediments of past meaning and sites of contemporary struggles; as historical objects embedded in monument sites, but also as literate practices through which ritual and festive activities are connected to heritage scapes.

For more information, please see the inaugural issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS), page 77.


Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia

What unites diverse, and at times ephemeral, communities in enabling or hindering heritage? From our perspective, the danger to the world’s heritage is not primarily war, terrorism, environmental change, tourism, or digitalization. Instead, it is the loss of interest or the inability to form and sustain solidarity across differences. The research project “Heritage as Placemaking: The Politics of Solidarity and Erasure in South Asia” (HaP), explores what enables or stymies heritage and the potential of heritagisation to ignite solidaric formations. The cultural dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals lies in the commitment of people to work together, to make place. Likewise, living heritage requires the individuals’ commitment to engage, collaborate, and invest in the joint cultural future of communities. This project is critical of the role of external authorities and experts in the process of sustaining cultural heritage and instead invests in those who identify with heritage, who uphold and maintain its existence. The goal of HaP is to investigate precisely what unites people and what therefore enables them to create heritage as placemaking.

We acknowledge that many heritage sites in South Asia are decaying due to rapid urbanisation and changing living conditions, as well as labour migration and climate change. The project explores how local and transregional agents use heritage as placemaking to fight eviction, road widening, or real estate development. We see heritage as becoming the political argument over which different stakeholders, cultural owners, and audiences negotiate the future.

The research team, based in Heidelberg, Kathmandu, London, and Delhi, explore how people—through forming temporary and/or longer-lasting groups of solidarity—decide over the formation, preservation, decay, and erasure of heritage. We ask: What informs decision-making when heritage is dynamically framed through engagement with the site itself, as well as with bureaucracy and governance? We question authorities in the discourses of development and advocate for the decolonisation of the heritage discourse to give local voices the weight they deserve, and we find social aesthetics and contemporary uses of the archive inspiring locations for fresh thought. Our study requires us to relationally approach affective and performative imaginaries and practices where nation-building and area-making are invoked in ways that transgress compartmentalized notions of ‘territory’ and ‘place’.

This project contributes to a critical reflection of heritage production beyond developmentalism and preservation. It is situated in the fields of critical heritage studies, new area studies, and transcultural urbanisation studies. The theoretical implications of our empirical studies will lead to a new model of enabling heritage through place-making. HaP works closely with NHDP, especially on the social and religious dimensions of the monuments. Scholars working on Nepal in the framework of NHDP extensively use NHDP’s database, DANAM.

For more information, please visit the website of the project.


Documents on the History of Religion and Law of Pre-modern Nepal

The foundation of modern Nepal, which until 2007 was styled as the 'only Hindu kingdom (of the world)', goes back to the middle of the 18th century when Pṛthvīnārāyaṇa Śāha, king of Gorkha, started expanding his dominion. He and his successors conquered many petty states, such as, in 1768/69, the rich Malla kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley, and soon ruled over a large territory, which subsequently developed into a nation state.

As a result of its territorial expansion and emergence as a nation state, Nepal experienced a rapid and extensive increase in the deeds and other documents produced in it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Within the state administration, in temples, in the execution of law and in economic life, textualization reached unprecedented levels.

The project "Documents on the History of Religion and Law of Pre-modern Nepal" aims at investigating the country’s rich textual material, consisting of historic temple documents and administrative and legal documents. It wishes, among other things, to understand developments entailed by the formation of the Himalayan state, such as the restructuring of social institutions and the expansion of Hindu rule. With research units in Heidelberg and Patan, Nepal, the project studies this unique textual corpus systematically; it also makes selected documents accessible in digital scholarly text editions, accompanied by translations.

The centrepiece of the academic endeavour is the creation of a digital open access database, a pioneering work within research on South Asian documents. This database unites references to both edited and published documents and unpublished ones, and enables complex searches within the data sets. Moreover, the research based on the textual corpus connects to wider scholarly discussions on, for example, the legitimation and affirmation of rulership, political unification and nation building, the importance of the textualization and codification of law, and the development of elite cultures in the 19th century. This helps to form a more nuanced picture of Nepal’s socio-cultural transformations between the late 18th and first half of the 20th century.

This project and NHDP share the aim of creating an open access databases. NHDP uses this research as a source for historical information on monuments.

For more information, please visit the website of the project.


Urban transformation and Placemaking: Fostering Learning from South Asia and Germany

The project “Urban transformation and placemaking: Fostering Learning from South Asia and Germany”, funded by DAAD, in their framework Promotion of Subject-Related Partnerships with Institutions of Higher Education in Developing Countries from 2020-2023, is located at CATS/HCTS in Heidelberg and is a part of the Shaping Asia networking initiative. In cooperation with Sujan Chitrakar at the Kathmandu University’s Centre for Art and Design and Prof. Arunava Dasgupta from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, the project aims for an inter- and transdisciplinary exchange of students, faculty, museums and non-governmental institutions.

The multi-sited network pays particular attention to the study of urban responses to the interconnectivity of natural and man-made crises in cities, e.g., earthquakes, climate change, migration, endangered heritage and cultural diversity. A focus on placemaking, that is, how people shape their urban habitats and everyday worlds in cities, is especially promising for such an approach. To explore this in a multidisciplinary, comparative and connected way is a major goal of this triangular partnership. Thematically seen, the comparative lens on Delhi and Kathmandu contributes to better understanding of intra-Asian urban transformation without reducing the cities to the often attributed stereotypical ‘chaos’. Delhi and Kathmandu are contact zones for a wide range of communities from varying ethnic and geographic origins. Along with this, the mobile population of migrants and visitors, both domestic and foreign, makes these cities receptacles of cultural and social diversity. Across the wide spread of these metropolises, the multi-layered physical and social fabrics of the city is characterized by distinctive zones of concentrations of urban life and heritage, e.g., mansions (havelis) in the historic town of Shahjahanabad in Delhi or Buddhist compounds (bāhāḥ,bahi) and arcaded rest houses (pati) in the royal quarters in Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. Each of these identifiable zones with their local histories has shaped diverse identities that these historic cities unfold as resourceful. Through this, both in Delhi and the Kathmandu valley, many of the erstwhile traditional neighbourhoods have been steadily giving way to new public spaces, gentrification and ‘modernisation’, the idea of neighbourhood, the design of heritage areas, suburban areas and even slums. In such areas, as the old is transformed in terms of its apparent function and relevance, new populations (in Kathmandu from the hills and plains, in Delhi from the country-side and other towns) bring in new aspirations, sensibilities, living narratives and practices of placemaking.

This partnership will jointly explore how institutions of Higher Education can respond to the ways in which cities in South Asia and Germany are shaped and transformed, how and what can be learnt from their often-substantial changes. The aim is to train young generations of students and faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences as well as Art and Urban Design, to shape socially responsible and sustainable career paths by means of handling future-oriented questions and methodological challenges related to the ‘Urban Age’.

Since heritage is an integral part of the multi-layered fabric of the cities in question, NHDP and especially DANAM is a useful resource for studying Kathmandu.

For more information, please visit urban transformation and placemaking