A Himalayan exorcism
Somewhere in the middle of my career as an academic anthropologist, I found myself searching for my next research topic. I didn’t know exactly what that topic would be – I only knew that I wanted to work on the religion of the lowest castes of the Hindu social system in the Himalayas. In my doctoral research I had concentrated on the cult of the Himalayan goddess Nanda Devi, and done most of my research among the highest castes of Brahmin priests. In my subsequent research on folk theater I had worked closely with the other regional high-caste group, the Kṣatriyas, or Rājputs. And now, in order to deepen my knowledge of local culture, I planned to work amongst the lowest castes, locally known as Harijans. It is difficult to decide which term to use for the lowest castes in the central Himalayas, where I have conducted most of my research. “Untouchable” is offensive to many, and “untouchability” is in any case illegal in India. “Scheduled caste” is an awkward and rather vague term, though it is often used of people of this group. “Dalit” (literally “oppressed person”) is preferred by those who are politically active and aware, but the term is hardly known in the central Himalayas. Here I use the term “Harijan,” which was coined by Gandhi and means literally “child of god,” because it is the most widely used and politically neutral term in the region.