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Nepal Studies Program



Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute Nepal Studies Program

The Nepal Studies Program began with generous support from Jeffrey M. Smith, a Principal Shareholder with the international law firm of Greenberg Traurig, LLP. The three-year program focuses on a different faculty-led topic of interest each year, and engages with scholars and practitioners both on the ground in Nepal and in Cambridge.

In the first year, starting in 2017, Jerold Kayden, Frank Backus Williams Professor of Urban Planning and Design, Harvard Graduate School of Design, led a study on earthquake preparedness, with events in both Kathmandu and Cambridge.

In Year 2, Leonard van der Kuijp, Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, led an exploration of the spread and development of Buddhism in the India-Nepal corridor based on medieval documents and modern practice.

Currently, in Year 3, Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit, is leading an exploration of aspects of Hindu religion in Nepal, especially of various rituals. This, too, is based on medieval documents and modern practice. Special attention is placed on their co-existence and the mutual influences with related Buddhist rites.

Between January 20 and 22, 2019, Michael Witzel will lead a conference in Nepal, with an opening speech by former Nepali ambassador Jayaraj Acharya, followed by 14 talks led by leaders in the field. This conference will explore some of the rituals, past and present, that are typical for Nepal. Stress is put on the extensive documentation that has been carried out over the past few decades. This conference will focus mainly on fire rituals, including Agnihotra, Homa, and more. A companion conference will take place at Harvard University in early May 2019.

Faculty leaders shared their ideas about the program:

1. What makes Nepal a unique place to conduct academic research?

Jerold Kayden: Nepal has a relative openness to comparative academic exploration. That doesn’t make it unique, but it does make for better collaborations and information collection.

Michael Witzel: Nepal is a unique area to conduct academic research. It encompasses, within the 100 miles from the Indian to the Tibetan border, all climates, from tropical rainforest to glacial deserts and the respective flora and fauna; as for the latter, the western and eastern Eurasian biospheres overlap on its territory, with remnants of Ice Age species. Human diversity matches this: there are 61 nationalities (janajaati) speaking Indo-European (Indo-Aryan), Tibeto-Burmese, Munda and totally isolated languages, and following various strands of Hinduism, Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, tribal religions and various amalgamations of all these religions. The various cultures involved are as diverse, and often unique, such as that of the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley.

In addition, the Nepalese government has always practiced a benign approach to research carried out by foreign scholars, with few bureaucratic hindrances. Consequently, it has always been a pleasure to conduct research, singly or in collaboration with local scholars. Almost all scholars have returned for more work in Nepal. There also is a network in place for public presentation of results of one’s research.

2. What is your hope for this program, and Nepal Studies more generally at Harvard?

Kayden: Nepal is a fascinating country swirling with compatibilities, contradictions, and sometimes conflicts. By bringing Nepal into the Harvard orbit and Harvard into the Nepal orbit, we can create a new intellectual terrain for all of us. That’s my hope for the initial stages of the Nepal Studies Program.

Witzel: We hope that the three years of the Nepal program will lead to increased research on Nepal, carried out by persons affiliated with Harvard (and beyond) and by their Nepalese counterparts. This can and should involve researchers from virtually all Harvard Faculties and Schools. They could include: human genetics, human altitude adaptation, untapped opportunities for economic development, renewable energy (water, wind), understanding Hindu-Buddhist religions and cultures, social problems like women trafficking and export of labor, to name but a few.