Moving in, moving out, moving up

Social and physical mobility in Walung, Upper Tamor, Nepal

An oral history project in the eastern Himalayas.

by Nyima Dorjee Bhotia and Martin Saxer

Playing with a Waterman ink box. © 2011 SOAS;Nicholas Haimendorf

Aim and Relevance

This project is concerned with tracing the mobile lives of the people of Walung in the upper Tamor valley, Eastern Nepal. It addresses the question how physical mobility continues to be linked with social mobility.

Until the late 1950s, Walung was a major trading hub. Situated near the Tibetan border on an important trade route across the Himalayas, the prosperity of the village was directly tied to the mobility of goods and traders passing through. After the so-called Democratic Reforms in Tibet after 1959 and the border demarcation between Nepal and the People's Republic of China in the early 1960s, the role of Walung as entrepôt declined and people started moving out – some to Hile and Taplejung, others to Darjeeling or Kathmandu. Walung, however, was never deserted. Other families from nearby villages moved into the abandoned houses of those who had left, and trade with Tibet continued, although with different goods and on a lesser scale. Still today, people move in, move up and move out.

Studying this dynamic of social and physical mobility in the context of a rural yet non-subsistence-oriented community provides a perspective on migration in the highlands of Asia that has so far not received much attention. The study is part of the 5-year project Remoteness & Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World (2015-2020), funded by the European Research Council and directed by Martin Saxer, LMU Munich.

Envisioned Output

Our primary objective is to establish a collection of interviews and conversations with a variety of people from Walung. The collection will include short biographical summaries of each of the conversation partners, audio recordings (as feasible), transcriptions, associated field notes, as well as photographs and documents relating to migrationary trajectories of the people involved.

Based on this collection, a MA thesis (Nyima Dorjee Bhutia) and a co-authored paper (Martin Saxer & Nyima Dorjee Bhutia) will be developed. The paper will be presented at an international conference and published in an international journal.

Furthermore, a biographical short film on the life of one of the protagonists will be produced and integrated into the larger collection of such portraits all over the highlands of Asia.

Methodology and field sites

The primary research method consists in narrative interviews (semi-structured and unstructured, open conversations) with people from different social backgrounds who emigrated from Walung or moved to Walung since the 1960s.

The selected interview partners are from a variety of social backgrounds, including the traditional elite, the non-elite trading families, herders, commoners, seasonal migrants (moving down over the winter), immigrants, educated professionals in the cities, Tibetan refugees who stayed in Walung, and the growing group of people who moved abroad, mainly to the United States.

The sample thus comprises families with different migration histories, including the first who moved out, those that followed in a second wave, and recent migrants. In addition, the sample also includes families who continued to trade in Walung, even though they no longer live there.

Forty to fifty interviews will be carried out by Nyima Dorjee Bhutia in Kathmandu, Darjeeling, Taplejung and Walung between August and December 2015. In addition, eight to ten interviews with Walungnga residing in New York will be conducted by Martin Saxer in 2016.

Apart from interviews, artefacts and documents, such as written debt records, photographs, and other important material remains from the past will be collected and categorised.

Related Events

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Dynamic Borderlands – Livelihoods, Communities and Flows: 5th International Conference of the Asian Borderlands Research Network (ABRN), Kathmandu, Hotel Annapurna, 12–14 December

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