Nepal’s German disciple

Yuyutsu RD Sharma:

It’s like coming home,” says German scholar Dr Christopher Emmrich currently in Nepal researching the pre-puberty rituals among the Newars of Lalitpur district, “I always feel at home in South Asia.” Christopher’s research remains a part of Heidelberg University’s mega project Ritual-dynamik in south Asia

This is Christopher’s second visit. But as you see him dressed in typical Nepalese Daura Sulwar and Dhaka topi, you realise vibrant colours of Nepalese culture have already charmed him. He speaks Nepali pretty fluently and is well versed in Sanskrit. Surprisingly first time he came to Nepal was about six months ago. He first came to observe the rituals and to locate the texts and data based manuscripts in the national archives in cooperation with the German Manuscript Preservation Project. This time he worked on the documenting the rituals like Ihi and spent time with Nepalese scholar in getting some of the Newari texts in Roman transliteration. He observed Velvivah marriage ceremony, Brata bandhan sacrad thread rituals, Ratomachendranath Rath Yatra and Antesthya death rites with the Newars of Lalitpur.

Translating the 18th century Newari text on Bel Vivaha with senior Nepalese scholar Aaishwaryadhar Sharma wasn’t an unexpected exploit. Even though Christopher has entered Nepal just recently, since his early childhood he has been associated with South Asian subcontinent. His first encounter with the subcontinent was at the age of five when his father was appointed as UN official in Sri Lanka. Destiny would have him in South Asia at 18 again when he chose to live in Bhutan with his parents, instead of opting for a wild time in a western university. It’s in Bhutan that he came to know of Nepal for the first time. People he knew there spoke of Nepal with great respect. He started studying Bhutanese and Sanskrit. He also initiated his studies in Thanka painting and ritual art.

“It’s also ‘Guru parampara’”, says the German scholar, “that the Asian continent has offered us. I chose to come to Nepal because my guru Professor Axel Michaels remains a great Nepal specialist and is instrumental in a big way in supporting Nepalese studies in Europe.”

When Christopher came to Heidelberg to work with Michaels, he became so fascinated with Michaels’ book, ‘Travels of the Gods’ that he decided to come to Nepal as a researcher. Michael’s book on Pashupatinath is strikingly original and succinctly blends the textual research and fieldwork. Christopher’s work involves an examination of how the rituals change over the centuries. It’s not just a surface, ethnographical perspective but a deeper understanding of who’s writing the text and who’s performing it. What involves the ritual text and practical performance? Do the Purohits, Gubajus change it because it’s not practical? Or are there other factors, ecological, geographical or others related to social changes and modernism? Christopher believes changes are much older than we expect them to be. “Changes are embedded in the texts. Because these texts are dynamic, not static.” He finds contemporary Nepalese scholarship very promising. We have excellent scholars like Kamal Malla. Of course some research both here as well in the West is redundant, focuses on the counting the akshras only. He is highly sceptical of giving priority to secondary sources in his research.

On being asked why German scholars take so much interest in Asian studies, he says, “It’s our quest to know the other world we have lost. Say lost childhood or God that we have lost. You can find it through such endeavours.”

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