Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork and the Writing Machine VIBHA...
Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork and
the Writing Machine
Fieldwork transforms our identities in the field, in our discipline (sociology/social an-
thropology), and the discipline itself. My fieldwork has not ceased with my physical
exit from Sikkim, as by including archival data, worldwide web representations, au-
dio-visual material, personal papers, and legal case files, my ethnographic engage-
ment is a continuing one. Adopting the idea of 'writing machine' from George Marcus,
I argue that ethnographic writing is a decision while fieldwork is not a trope of entry
and exit but assumes an ever presence in us.
Dr. Vibha Arora is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social
Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), New Delhi, India
The act of "writing culture" is not merely writing but is the active
process that moves the researcher from fieldwork to text...
Marcus, 1999: 20
These words t h a t I key in on my computer and those t h a t I edit out will
take a life of their own in the wider world. Derived from our fieldwork
experiences, ethnographies are impressionist and impressionable
while the field and our locations and positions in this field remain
continually in flux.1 We take positions in the field, off the field, in
writing and by not writing ethnographically. The idea of writing
machines given by Marcus highlights 'the inter subjective and [the]
material modes of the production of both representations and the limits
of representation' (1999: 21). Any ethnographic writing is a decision
while fieldwork is not a trope of entry and exit but assumes an ever
presence in us.2
The rite de passage t h a t transformed me into a sociologist/social
anthropologist took place in the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim
situated in the Eastern Himalayas.3 Fieldwork transforms our
identities in the field, in our discipline (sociology/social anthropology),
and the discipline itself.4 I conducted multi-sited fieldwork in Sikkim
and the Darjeeling Hills of West Bengal between August 2001 and
September 2002, primarily among the Lepchas and the Bhutias, but
also among the Nepalis and the Tibetan refugees. Traditionally,
ethnographic practice privileges dwelling over travel: 'the field as a
spatial practice is thus a specific style, quality, and duration of
dwelling' (Clifford, 1997: 22). As places, locales sustain meanings in

136 Vibha Arora
communicative acts.5 My fieldwork was a combination of localised
dwelling in Kabi village of North Sikkim and a series of ethnographic
encounters in different sites to which I travelled to attend rituals and
document the history of sacred landscape.
A single-sited study could neither adequately represent the
contested discourses about Sikkim's landscape nor document the
polyvocality within an ethnic group and between different ethnic
groups.6 Excluding archival research and fieldwork at two sites, this
fieldwork was guided by the logic of association given by some Lepcha
and Bhutia ideologues. Serendipity played a critical role in this
fieldwork, though many of us do not seize the moment as we are
instructed to be non-participant observers (see Pieke, 2000).
Sociologists and anthropologists acknowledge the importance of
circumstantial activism in multi-sited fieldwork (Marcus, 1998 and
1999). Activism does not undermine knowledge production, as
engagement provides vital • insights and reinforces our long-term
commitment to the field and the dissemination of its knowledge.
The article begins by discussing the ethnographic terrain and the
fieldwork dynamics t h a t transformed a hostile field into a collaborative
ethnographic field for this fieldworker. The next section discusses the
extension of fieldwork into archives, courts and the domain of visual
culture. The final section extends the meaning of traditional
conceptions of fieldwork by including fieldwork in the courts, the
archives, the museums, the bazaar, and on the Internet. I conclude this
article by acknowledging the limits of ethnographic authority by
admitting the impressionistic nature of writing cultures.
The incorporation of the former kingdom of Sikkim into India was a
front-page story in 1975 and, in the 1980s, it re-entered news with the
death of the Karmapa and the Sikkim's last king, Chos-rgyal (a Tibetan
term for a righteous king) Palden Thondup Namgyal. The rise of the
Gorkha national movement in the neighbouring Darjeeling Hills in the
late 1980s with their separatist regional demands underscored the
ethnically eruptible tendencies simmering in this part of the
Himalayan region. In the 1990s and until recently, Sikkim's presence
in the Indian and international mass media was limited to news-items
about its three famous sons (Bhaichung Bhutia's football exploits,
Danny Denzongpa's acting talents, and Ugen Chopel's Nepali films),
frequent landslides, orchids, masked dances and occasional reports
about the Karmapa controversy and the Indian army guarding this
During the period of my fieldwork in Sikkim in 2001—2002, the
Maoist insurgency in neighbouring Nepal and the Lhotsampa exodus
from Bhutan had made the entire region politically unstable. In
contrast to these neighbouring kingdoms, Sikkim was (re)presented to

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork.
be an idyllic serene scenic Himalayan Shangri-la of this region.
Nevertheless, security was a prime concern, and I had to renew my
research permit every 90 days in order to conduct fieldwork in the
restricted access areas of North Sikkim and for some areas secure
10—15 day special permits. Despite the overt cooperation, these periodic
visits to renew my research permit to the Home Department of the
Government of Sikkim, the Sub-divisional Magistrate's Office in North
Sikkim, the police, and the Indian Army Headquarters at Gangtok,
reinforced the feeling of fieldwork being a privilege t h a t could be
withdrawn if I transgressed any boundaries. Many of those
apprehensions were justified as China had not formally recognised
Sikkim to be an integral part of India and this issue continually
surfaced in local, national and international politics.
I was writing my doctoral thesis at Oxford University when, in
mid-2003, some Lepcha and Bhutia politicians challenged Article 371F
during a protest rally at Delhi against the recognition of Limbus and
Tamangs as Scheduled Tribes. The leaders and their supporters
challenged the democratic incorporation of Sikkim into India and were
immediately branded as anti-Indian by other Sikkimese politicians and
the press. I was placed in a difficult position as I had interacted with
many of them during my stay in Sikkim. Those leaders altered their
positions subsequently, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It is relatively
easier to conduct fieldwork and write about Sikkim today after China's
formal acknowledgement of Sikkim as an integral part of India in 2005.
The reopening of the Nathula trade route after its closure for 44 years
signals a normalcy in this border region and the opening of a strategic
commercial chapter in Sino-Indian relations. Nevertheless, dilemmas
are inevitable and writing and publishing about cultural politics of
Sikkim has involved decisions on what to write and not to write.
The field has its own logic, and I submitted to it. Everyone distrusted a
social anthropologist who was studying in England while the
Sikkimese nationalists were hostile towards my 'Indian' identity. I
entered the field with letters of introduction from some Sikkimese
friends living in Delhi whose kinspeople welcomed me by giving a place
to stay in Gangtok and introducing me into their community. From this
initial location in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim located in East
Sikkim, I tried to find a place to stay at Kabi village located at the
border of East and North Sikkim.
Kabi is the historic site of the blood-brotherhood treaty t h a t was
entered into between the representatives of the Lepcha and the Bhutia
tribes in the fourteenth century by keeping the sacred mountain
Kanchenjunga as the divine witness. The treaty legitimised the
migration and settlement of Bhutias into Sikkim. This event is
materially represented by a shrine of stones in a sacred grove t h a t

138 Vibha Arora
becomes the locus of an annual ritual commemorating the
Lepcha-Bhutia alliance. It was this sacred grove t h a t I had chosen as
the base for my multi-sited study. Additionally, Kabi is an extremely
historic site close to Tumlong, the third capital of Sikkim and the place
where the Lepcha rebellion of 1826 occurred.
We approached the office bearers of the panchayat of Kabi and the
family members of an administrative official who was related to my
hosts at Gangtok. However, suspicion and a general atmosphere of local
anger at the strict enforcement of a recent Supreme Court directive on
use of forest resources and ongoing enquires by the Central Bureau of
Investigation (CBI) upturned all my fieldwork plans. Traumatised by a
recent CBI 'enquiry/inquisition' of forest thefts in North Sikkim, a
villager of Kabi had committed suicide in August 2001. My research
project on people's attitudes and relations with the forest, sacred groves
and the environment, requiring me to be stationed in this village, was
definitely not received well in this scenario. Those initial weeks in
Sikkim were spent in absolute frustration when someone circulated a
malicious rumour that I was an intelligence officer: 'which other Indian
woman will come and decide to stay in the backward forested villages of
North Sikkim! She is definitely an intelligence officer sent to spy on us
and report on forest thefts and Maoist infiltration in this region' (a local
resident of Kabi village who works in a government office at Gangtok).
No one was ready to give me a room to stay at Kabi, as I was a single
unaccompanied woman with no affiliation to a recognisable entity such
as a school or a hospital t h a t could situate me.
The villagers argued t h a t their houses were small, and they could
not be sure t h a t their men folk who got drunk regularly would not
misbehave with me. I did not know then that Kabi is notorious for its
black-magic practitioners who poisoned their adversaries to augment
their family wealth. Some concerned villagers reminded the people
interceding on my behalf of this: 'an outsider dying of poisoning here
and one who was rumoured to be an intelligence officer would be
catastrophic' (a local resident of Kabi village). My friends in Gangtok
impressed on me the wisdom of shifting to another region; two recent
cases of death by poisoning added weight to their argument. The
veracity of whether these deaths by black magic and poisoning were
t r u e could never be verified during my fieldwork. Given Kabi's historic
importance and the location of its sacred grove on a national highway
amidst rice and cardamom fields, I did not want to shift to another
However, I had started surveying other sacred groves of Sikkim as
an alternative sites, when a chance meeting with a bureaucrat (an
Income Tax Officer stationed at Siliguri), who had studied at Delhi
University and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, expressed his
interest in my research project secured me the necessary foothold. He
turned out to be the younger brother of the late Kalzang Gyatso, the

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork... 139
former Rajya Sabha Member. After his intervention, his relatives at
Kabi village were persuaded to give me a small room to stay. I was
given this room on the condition t h a t I would cook for myself and t h a t I
would not accept food and drink (excepting water) from anyone at Kabi
or its neighbouring villages excepting the four households who were
entrusted the responsibility for my well-being during this stay. Given
my vegetarian inclinations, the villagers accepted my declining all
meal invitations and acceptance of only hot-water drinks (tato-pani in
the Nepali language). I became an 'untouchable Brahmin' of the village,
accepting food and drink only in the village monastery and public
religious ceremonies in the village.
I moved into the village in midst of the monsoons, and my initial
horrified reactions to the blood-sucking leeches became a source of
amusement and much mirth for the villagers. Some unlucky falls into
ditches while I got used to walking on the narrow hilly tracks convinced
the villagers t h a t I was definitely not physically strong enough to be an
intelligence personnel. To assuage villagers' suspicions t h a t I was not a
spy and to explain how I knew about the historic importance of Kabi, a
sympathetic villager floated a rumour t h a t perhaps I was originally a
Sikkimese resident of Kabi who had been reborn in Delhi. My repeated
reference to historical texts or a research design to justify my selection
of Kabi and the interventions of my Gangtok friends were floundering
when this rumour succeeded in begetting my acceptance.
I am an upper-caste-Hindu-vegetarian-single-Punjabi woman. The
general upper-caste Hindu denigration of the beef-eating Mongoloid
tribals (including the Lepchas and the Bhutias) and their kinship
customs (such as bride-price, polyandry and polygyny) directed much
criticism in my direction, but I stoically lived through all their anger
and remarks at Kabi and in other parts of Sikkim. The conversion of
some Buddhist sacred places into Sikh shrines by the Indian army in
the 1980s unfortunately placed me at the hostile receiving end of their
simmering anger against Punjabis; I explained continually t h a t I was
not a Sikh.
Some relief came when some lamas and nuns commented t h a t I was
perhaps a reincarnate of a Buddhist nun (mo-btsun in the Tibetan
language): 'only a Buddhist nun will have such patience and forgo the
pleasures of life. She spends so much time learning about rituals and
with the lamas. ..when our own don't care to learn about our culture.. .'.7
I compromised with this reincarnated (re)definition of myself, and even
started wearing the traditional Sikkimese costume on ritual and festive
occasions. My regular presence at the monasteries of Sikkim and
attendance at rituals and journeys to sacred sites were now being
interpreted as pilgrimage.
This persona received a respectful reception everywhere and fictive
kinship networks ensured t h a t I travelled safely and securely without
any harassment.8 Instead of the forest, I was seen spending all my time

140 Vibha Arora
with nuns and lamas in sacred sites, and people started sheepishly
laughing about the initial rumours of my being an intelligence officer.
My extended stay at Kabi village legitimised my fieldwork in other
parts of Sikkim and specifically its historic sites, with the kinship and
friendship links of these villagers also facilitating fieldwork in other
Fieldwork cannot be conceived off as an external encounter, as it
involves an internal dialogue within the self. Fieldwork was humbling,
and involved both an unlearning of the self and the learning to think,
live, and feel like them. In the beginning, I had no status because I had
no role in the order of things. I sensed their dwelling in the landscape
and the contested discourses in the differing ways in which they
engaged with the land, the landscape and the sacred site. The villagers
could not spare any time for idle chat on various things with me. I
assisted them in their fields, walked with them as they grazed their
cattle, helped the children with their school homework, helped them in
their cooking and joined them when they had time for leisure.
My positioning in the village was crucial and my later relocation to a
house near the forest check-post t h a t functioned as a centre of gossip,
the handicrafts school, and the residence of the village matriarch of the
village emplaced me in the landscape. I picked up lot of news and gossip
from the village shops, the post office, and the children who attended
the handicrafts training centre located in the room adjacent to mine. I
would sit for hours sunning out in the winter, appearing to doodle
sketches while keeping an observant eye on the activities around the
grove and the monastery, which was just below the house I stayed in.
Initially, my notebook was perceived to be invasive but the Sikkimese
villagers embraced my camera as they were used to the tourist gaze. As
I attended social occasions in Sikkim, gradually I was transformed into
an ethnographer-photographer documenting their stories and life
I moulded my enquiry to events and encounters in the field.
Abandoning all attempts to document people's ethnobotanical
knowledge and relationship with the forest, I was sucked into
documenting cultural politics. Many of my fieldwork experiences were
not of my own choosing. 'Being there' is not sufficient, but 'being there
to witness certain events' can become critical. If I had not witnessed a
local dispute at Kabi then I would not have become the official
ethnographer of the Lepcha pilgrimage to worship Mt. Tendong in
August 2002. On October 16, 2001, the villagers of Kabi refused to let
the members of the Lepcha association perform rituals at the Kabi
grove, and this led to a Lepcha boycott of the a n n u a l ritual at Kabi. In
protest, the Lepcha association decided to found another sacred shrine
at Mt. Tendong in August 2002. My witnessing of their humiliation at
Kabi village and subsequent interactions with them transformed my
fieldwork into a collaborative enterprise. The gut feeling I had about

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork... 141
Kabi village proved right in the end as moving to another locale would
not have yielded the insights I gained here, though I had to reframe my
research questions.
Another breakthrough came with my serendipitous location on
December 3, 2001 at the Tholung temple in North Sikkim, the epicentre
of an earthquake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale. Etymologically,
the word Tholung derives from the union of two Lepcha words atho and
lung, meaning 'a high rocky place'.9 Tholung temple is located at the
altitude of 2592 metres and is considered to be the second highest
Buddhist temple of Sikkim after Lachen temple (at 2653 metres). On
December 3, 4.00 am, we were rocked awake by big tremors, shrieks of
scared animals, utensils and other things falling off the walls and racks
of our wooden hut. When these tremors subsided, huge boulders started
sliding down the slope hitting our wooden house: we were trapped
inside. The noises emanating outside were eerie and deafening for the
next few hours and we cowered in the hut. The lamas started chanting
prayers to placate the place-deities and after a few hours the landslides
ceased. We gathered the courage to venture outside, and the scene was
horrifying. Boulders had broken trees, huge landslides had broken
away large areas of the slope, an entire yak-herd had disappeared, but
miraculously our wooden hut, the monastery, and some other houses
nearby had escaped these landslides: there were no h u m a n casualties
in this massive earthquake. There were approximately 200 people,
including a large number of lamas and novitiates at Tholung, and none
of us suffered any physical injuries.
My continued field-presence after this tumultuous earthquake was
interpreted positively and subjected to a religious interpretation: 'the
spirits of Tholung sacred grove and the place deities of Tholung have
accepted her and we have to cooperate with her research as she can
disseminate our cosmologies to the wider world in a language t h a t they
will understand' (Lamas of the Tholung temple and monastery). The
Teesta project was being implemented in this region and the activists
welcomed me in their midst. I did not abandon fieldwork, but nativised
myself into Sikkim:
[...] This Tholung experience transformed people's [\\\\Lepcha-Bhutia]
perception of my research project, as one lama succinctly impressed
on me: "you have to tell our story to the outside world".... I had
undertaken two pilgrimages to Tholung and the acceptance of my
presence in this most sacred grove and its temple opened hitherto
closed doors in Sikkim, prompted recalcitrant people to share critical
information, and to naturalize my presence in Sikkim's landscape.
My research on the sacred landscapes of the Lepcha and the Bhutias
gained an acceptance that was unforeseen and unanticipated.... Five
consecrated rlung-ta (Tib.: Buddhist prayer flags) earning spiritual
merit for my family, listing three of my wishes, and the title of my
doctoral thesis Just a Pile of Stones, are flying near the Tholung
temple adjacent to the rlung-ta planted by the Tholung family, and

142 Vibha Arora
the other lamas of Tholung. These prayer flags were consecrated a
day after the greatest earthquake that rocked Sikkim occurred at 4
AM on 3 December 2001. These flags materially symbolize the
turning point of my fieldwork on sacred landscapes among the
Lepcha and the Bhutia tribes of Sikkim and the Darjeeling Hills.
After this earthquake, Agya Jetha the head of the Tholung family
decided to narrate the history of this sacred landscape and his
family's association to me... (Personal field notes, December 2001).
I was transformed into an ethnographer invited to and given the
responsibility of documenting and disseminating Lepcha and Bhutia
cosmologies to the wider world. My notebook and camera became
instruments of dissemination of their ethnic revival and promotion of
an understanding of their culture. It was my absence at two rituals that
alerted me of this role-transformation. I found myself witnessing ethnic
encounters, documenting controversies around the Rathongchu and
the Teesta hydroelectric project, and participating in rituals t h a t were
a result of complicity and serendipity than any scientifically prepared
research design. During the course of this fieldwork, I started
analysing ethnic self-presentation and representations of the diverse
ethnic groups. The influence of these representations in cultural
politics of Sikkim became a central issue of my research encouraging
me to diversify into archival research on Sikkim.
Looking back, t h a t period of fieldwork in Sikkim is a tangled web of
negotiations and complicities with diverse sections, including the
villagers (Lepchas, Bhutias, and Nepalis), the ethnic associations of the
Lepcha and the Bhutia tribes, the Buddhist monastic association, the
Lepcha ideologues including their shamans, the bureaucracy of Sikkim,
the Indian judiciary (in Gangtok and Delhi), the army, and other
Indians. My constant movement between sites and different levels of
Sikkim's society gave it an activist character. Personal conflicts and
contradictions were 'resolved not by refuge in being a detached
anthropological scholar but in being an ethnographer-activist
renegotiating identities in different sites' (Marcus, 1998: 8). The
ideologues and the leadership of the cultural associations of some
ethnic groups, more specifically the Lepchas and the Bhutias, perceived
me to be a useful instrument who would disseminate information about
them to the wider world.
I will not say t h a t I conducted fieldwork under fire or in flaming
fields, but the field was politicised with different ethnic groups either
reviving or ceremonialising their cultural identity to assert their
indigeneity and rights to Sikkim's landscape while expecting myself as
an ethnographer to document them for the wider world. In the last leg
of my fieldwork, both the Indian army and the Government of Sikkim
complemented me by giving me the rare permission to conduct
short-term supervised fieldwork among a dwindling Tibetan
yak-herders community living in the land-mined areas of the

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork.. 143
Indo-Tibetan border.10 In July 2002,I was formally invited to sensitise
the army personnel about Sikkimese culture, while the locals were
delighted t h a t now I could bridge gaps on their behalf. I could not give
these lectures, as I was winding my fieldwork and preparing to leave for
England. On my return from England in 2005, my teaching
commitments have not permitted me to undertake extended fieldwork
in Sikkim, although I conducted short-term fieldwork in October 2006.
The ethnography I am writing is shaped not merely by encounters in
the forests, villages and the fields of Sikkim, but also discoveries in the
archives in Sikkim, Delhi and England, the analysis of legal case files in
the High Court of Sikkim and Supreme Court of India, and circulation
of images in postcards and posters.
As discussed earlier, I conducted fieldwork in historically significant
locales, a n d history was part of this living present. The field encounters
and oral history t h a t I collected had to be related to the history
available on Sikkim. There has never been any conscious attempt at
archiving history within Sikkim, though history is lived and part of
their present: a past that is embodied, materially affirmed and
reworked in ritual performances, but not formally archived as history.
In 1947, the British Raj took the Sikkim archives with them to
England. Until 1975, Sikkim was an independent kingdom; hence, very
few documents relating to Sikkim are available at the National
Archives in Delhi or in Bengal. Sikkim's history had to be collaged from
the texts, documents, papers, photographs, personal papers available
at the Sikkim State Archives, the Asiatic Society Library in Kolkata,
the National Archives in Delhi, the British Library, the Royal
Geographical Society in London, the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, the
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, and some
personal collections in Sikkim and England.
In 2002, my archival research at the National Archives in Delhi on
Sikkim's trade routes had to be abandoned (or suspended) as consulting
these documents required time-consuming clearances from the
Ministries of Home and External Affairs.11 I had a time limitation, as I
was writing my thesis at Oxford. In striking contrast, research in the
British and the Sikkim state archives posed no such problems. The
reports on the trade on the Sikkim frontier narrated the significance of
Sikkim to the imperial interests, the administrative reports on Sikkim
revealed the development of the region, and the official papers on land
disputes and other administrative matters showed the contours of
administrative intervention and bureaucraticisation of Sikkim. It was
the papers I discovered in the Sikkim State Archives t h a t helped in
tracing the crystallisation of indigeneity and migrant identities of
ethnic groups in the region. The discovery of a law prohibiting racial

144 Vibha Arora
miscegenation between the Lepchas-Bhutias and the Nepalis, and
historical maps contouring ethnic settlement of groups guided the
subsequent analysis of Sikkim's ethnoscape. Petitions of common
villagers against their landlord's ill-treatment gave insight into
Sikkim's feudal past and excesses, while the intervention of religious
functionaries in administrative matters indicated the extent of
Sikkim's theocratic inclinations.
Given the dearth of textual documentation of Sikkim's history, I
have turned to other sources such as the photographic collections and
films produced by the Political Officers of the Tibet cadre, the papers
and pictures of the Kanchenjunga expeditions, visual illustrations in
ethnographic texts such as Hooker's Himalayan Travels, and the two
monographs on the Lepchas to supplement my archival research
(Gorer, 1984; Morris, 1938). The chance to browse through the former
King's personal albums at the filmmaker Ugen Chopel's residence
during my fieldwork had ignited my interest in looking at other visual
records of Sikkim and to trace the continuities and discontinuities in
the visual imagination of Sikkim.
The 60 rolls of photographs and slides t h a t I took during this
fieldwork period constitute a comprehensive visual document
independently of the ethnographic text t h a t I am writing. I constantly
refer to these pictures in order to compare them with the photographic
archives available on Sikkim and the visuals circulated in postcards,
posters, and brochures on contemporary Sikkim. I have started a
collection of postcards to document the commercial production and
dissemination of Sikkim's self-reflexive representation to the world.
The images published and circulated on websites and agencies
promoting tourism in Sikkim constantly feed into this discourse. In the
near future, I intend taking some of these archival images to Sikkim in
order to elicit comments from the community and analyse changes in
specific locations in Sikkim's landscape. The pictures t h a t people take
in Sikkim have themselves become a subject of my enquiry: visual
representations and imagining of Sikkim. My physical entry into
Sikkim and exit from it no longer define my fieldwork engagement.
The analysis of the constitutional provisions relating to Sikkim and
the special privileges enjoyed by the Lepchas and the Bhutias
channelled me into the realm of constitutional law and a deconstruction
of identity politics and the state-construction of tribes. What was the
self-presentation of the Lepchas-Bhutias and the Buddhist activists to
the wider world? What was the response of others to this
self-presentation and arguments against the implementation of the
hydel project? Why did not the activists network with other
resource-related struggles against hydel projects in Northeast India
and India at large?
After informally accessing some legal documents in 2002, I finally
secured special permission from the Chief Justice of India in January

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork... 145
2003 to cite the Rathongchu hydroelectric project case file in my thesis.
As I juxtaposed the documentary account of my field experiences with
those legal case files of the Rathongchu hydroelectric project and the
archival documents and pictures of Sikkim, I realised how the field and
legal narratives structured the representations of the Buddhists and
Lepchas-Bhutias as primordial environmentalists. Large sections of
my thesis were read and commented upon by an eminent lawyer and
constitutional expert; in fact, the entire chapter dealing with the
Rathongchu hydroelectric project controversies was minutely screened
as the case could have been reactivated in the Supreme Court of India
after some controversies arose in the project location.
The legal perception and representation of the Sikkimese people in the
courts (such as the Supreme Court of India) under construction has
become another arena of of my fieldwork. The Limbus and Tamangs of
Sikkim were recognised as Scheduled Tribes in 2002; they are challenging
the constitutional provisions buttressing the Lepcha and Bhutia
privileges, while the activists protesting against the implementation of
the Teesta hydroelectric project in Sikkim have approached the Apellate
Court in Delhi for redress in 2005. I am following all these proceedings
with interest. The appropriation of some of my research articles by the
activists has ensured a dialogic exchange between the field and the
fieldworker and validated its status as knowledge.
Fieldwork experiences essentially produce ethnographic knowledge,
though theory informs the writing of these experiences. Some fieldwork
experiences become templates, while our writing filters these
representations of cultures t h a t are own and strange at the same time
(Parkin, 2000). Ethnographic writing is neither subjectively objectified
writing nor a disguised autobiography (see Okeley and Callaway,
1992). Since the mid-1980s, the conception of the field has undergone
radical transformation. Fieldwork cannot be conceptualised as a trope
of entry and exit. In an extended sense, fieldwork becomes a central
ever-presence in us with pictures, news-reports, conversations, emails
and web-chats with interlocutors, our archival discoveries and
engagements with material culture in museums, while the circulation
of representations in the mass media, production of audio-visual
material, and conscious acquisition of personal papers and
photographs, continually redefine our sociological sensibilities and the
production of knowledge.
By including archival data, worldwide web representations,
audio-visual material, personal papers, and legal case files, my
fieldwork engagement is a continuing one. Events occurring during the
writing-up process structure these arguments and the selection of data
and its presentation as knowledge in text. Any writing of cultures is
provisional and impressionistic, not only because the field is

146 Vibha Arora
continually changing, but also because our arguments with
collaborators in formal and informal settings of conferences, coffee
houses, courts, and in university corridors impress our writing and the
production of texts — visual or ethnographic.
My ethnographic knowledge of Sikkim is the complex outcome of
field notes and pictures, continuing communications from my
collaborators in the field and my future visits to the field locales
condition any narrative. The doctoral thesis contains in situ discussion
of how my ethnic identity and some research questions became
occasions for Sikkimese people to reflect about ethnicity and Sikkimese
nationalism and the anthropological (mis)representation of the
Lepchas and the Bhutias in earlier ethnographies (Arora, 2004:
121-24, 131-34).
I am acutely aware that my writing can be challenged as other
ethnographies are being debated within the field. Can I ever forget the
hostility directed towards anthropologists by the Lepchas angry at the
misrepresentation of their sexuality and marriage practices! In the
middle of the Lepcha reserve, during my fieldwork in December 2001, a
Lepcha ideologue placed a copy of Gorer's Himalayan Village (1984)
and demanded to know my position on it. His concerns centred on the
politics of ethnographic representation and how the community is
striving to vanquish those earlier representations of themselves as
sex-obsessed promiscuous primitives t h a t have been held to
international ridicule. Ironically, the monographs by Geoffrey Gorer
(1984) and Major John Morris (1938) are the only texts that the
Lepchas have as a record of their culture, yet they feel defiled in those
pages. My discussions with the Lepchas would often include a sarcastic
reference to these texts, and they would cite an extract to me and advise
me to refer to it t h a n wasting my time doing fieldwork in a physically
inhospitable terrain.
In 2002, during my fieldwork in Kalimpong, Lyangsong Tamsang,
the Lepcha ideologue expressed his extreme anger at a recent
web-representation by a Leiden-based Dutch anthropologist Helen
Plaisier about the Lepchas of Kalimpong as 'inhabiting a jungle'. This
description was totally unacceptable to the Lepchas of Kalimpong, and
Lyangsong expressed his disgust with anthropologists and distrust of
any ethnographic representations: 'the Lepchas are now educated and
we should write about ourselves and set the record right'. Any research
among the Lepchas was possible only after I pacified the ideologues and
assured them t h a t they would have access to my writings and right to
disagree with anything objectionable. Such fieldwork encounters add
weight to the impressionist nature of ethnographic writing, and show
the erosion of ethnographic authority and the blurring of boundaries
between the home and the field.
I will conclude this paper by arguing that the inner struggles within
us, the kind of fieldwork we chose to do and serendipitously experience,

Continuing Engagement of Fieldwork... 147
the theoretical prisms we select in our arguments, the archival
documents we include and silence in our writing, t h e pictures we take,
include in our narratives and frame out, are intentional decisions of
conscious representation t h a t outline t h e contours of this
representation. My computer screen is continually transformed into a
field-site, where I engage with different kinds of narratives, t e x t u a l a n d
visual, authored both by the self and the others. The metaphor of
'writing machine' deployed by Marcus encapsulates my continued
fieldwork engagement while setting the limits of my representations
and ethnographic authority as a knower.
1. My supervisor, David Parkin would often remark that my writing resembled an
impressionistic painting giving space to the polyvocality of the field and reveal
the battles within myself as I related my field notes with other material.
2. The distinction between fieldwork (collection of data) and ethnography
(physical and mental acts making up the fieldwork, including the writing up)
collapses in this paper.
3. Fieldwork is often cited as the rite of initiation into a mature professional
identity and the authoritative basis of ethnographic knowledge. My fieldwork
was conducted in what constituted the area of the undivided kingdom of Sikkim
including the Darjeeling Hills that were annexed by British India and
incorporated into Bengal in 1835. My doctoral research and fieldwork were
funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (UK), and the Beit
Fund for Commonwealth History, the Radhakrishnan Trust, and Linacre
College at the University of Oxford. I am indebted to my thesis co-supervisors
Marcus Banks and David Parkin and examiners Caroline Humphrey, Wendy
James, and Robert Parkin for their constructive criticism. I thank Keith Sprigg,
Subhash Jain, Narmala Halstead, Amalendu Misra, Anand Chakravarti,
P.K.B. Nayar, M.N. Panini, and N. Jayaram for encouraging me to write on
fieldwork. The usual disclaimers apply.
4. Social science disciplines such as economics, law, social work, and history do
involve fieldwork, but here I am restricting myself to discussing the impact of
fieldwork on sociology and social anthropology.
5. Giddens defines them as 'a physical region involved as part of the setting of
interaction, having definite boundaries, which help to concentrate interaction
in one way or another' (1984: 375).
6. A multi-sited study is designed around 'paths, conjunctions, or juxtapositions of
locations' in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal, physical
presence, with a posited logic of association between them shaping the
argument of the ethnography.
7. This comment was made by the treasurer of Kabi temple. The villagers related
to my vegetarianism as conforming to the austere diet of a Buddhist nun.
8. On the whole, Sikkim is safe for single women to travel alone, and the
Sikkimese women enjoy greater mobility than Indian women. I avoided places
when I found men drinking in groups and did not respond to any sexual
innuendos that were directed towards me.

148 Vibha Arora
9. This site is located in a landslide prone area. These landslides are often inferred
to signifying the anger of the Tholung deities and Sikkim's other protective
10. The watchful presence of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate in the area, a Research
and Analysis (RAW) agent, and army personnel ensured supervised access.
11. Such archival research on border zones should become easier in the future with
the restoration of peace on the Sino-Indian frontier.
Arora, V.
: Just a Pile of Stones!: The Politicization of Identity, Indige-
nous Knowledge, and Sacred Landscapes among the
Lepcha and the Bhutia tribes of contemporary Sikkim, In-
dia. Unpublished D.Phil, thesis, Oxford: School of Anthro-
pology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford.
Clifford, J.
: Routes: Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century,
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Giddens, A.
: The Constitution of Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gorer, G.
: Himalayan Village: An Account of the Lepchas of Sikkim,
London: Michael Joseph.
Marcus, G.E.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Princeton: Prince-
: ton University Press.
: Critical Anthropology Now: An Introduction. In G.E.
Marcus (Ed.), Critical Anthropology Now: Unexpected Con-
texts, Shifting Constituencies, Changing Agendas, Santa
Fe, Mexico: School of American Research Press, 3-28.
Morris, J.
: Living with Lepchas: A Book about the Sikkim Himalayas,
London and Toronto: Heinemann.
Okely, J. and
: Anthropology and Autobiography, London: Routledge.
Callaway, H. (Eds.)
Parkin, D.J.
: Templates, Evocations and the Long-term Fieldworker. In
P. Dresch, W. James and D. Parkin (Eds.), Anthropologists
in a Wider Workd: Essays on Field Research, New York:
Berghahn Books, 91-108.
Pieke, F.
: Serendipity: Reflections on Fieldwork in China. In P.
Dresch, W. James and D. Parkin (Eds.), Anthropologists in
a Wider World: Essays on Field Research,
New York:
Berghahn Books, 129-150.
THE INDIAN JOURNAL OF SOCIAL WORK, volume 67, issues 1 & 2, Jan-Apr. 2006