Hildegard Diemberger and Sayana Namsaraeva, ‘Water beings in Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Inner Asia and beyond: Reflections on a cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural workshop’

All images courtesy of Sayana Namsaraeva.

In the morning of March 16th , 2024,  the venerable Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov celebrated a ritual for the water beings of the River Cam, relying on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as practised in his native Buryatia. The chanting and the gestures resonated with the small crowd of onlookers of all ages and walks of life but predominantly scholars and environmental activists who had gathered in Pembroke College and at the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit to share ideas about water beings and water management across Asia. The glittering waters of the Cam, beautiful and yet troubled, provided the right stage of an encounter that addressed the spiritual qualities of water and their relationship to human and non-human beings living in, with and through them. The workshop “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”  took place on 15–16 March 2024  and was jointly organised by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Pembroke College (Cambridge) and The Silk Roads Programme of King’s College (Cambridge). 

The workshop “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”  took place on 15–16 March 2024  and was jointly organized by the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU), Pembroke College (Cambridge) and The Silk Roads Programme of King’s College (Cambridge). 

The idea of focusing on water beings, originated with Sayana Namsaraeva, a Buryat anthropologist of the Mongolia and inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU), who recognised that Lus spirits associated with water in her homeland have deep roots and are widely networked. Shaped by traditions that have travelled across Asia, they are highly local in the way in which they inform the sense of place and yet seem recognisable across centuries of travels and translations. Sayana’s observations resonated with the finding of many scholars who encountered water beings in many different contexts, from ancient Sanskrit sources to Tibetan, Nepali, Bhutanese, Thai contexts and beyond. Most remarkably these water beings seem to have found a new life as the focus of environmental activism dedicated to the protection of particular sites and their waters. This is how stories of water beings that can be found in early Indian Buddhist sources and travelled through many pathways– transplanted in many settings, reframed and transformed in light of pre-existing traditions– ended up resonating with the River Cam. Both spiritual and political, immaterial and material, these water beings became the site of encounter of different traditions of knowledge and engagement with the environment. Lama Dobdon’s ritual and the workshop were just part of a new chapter in a long story of cosmo-political ecologies.

Venerable Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov is preparing offerings for the water beings of the River Cam.   Among many other ingredients it contained some herbal remedies klu sman (Tib.) to heal water-deities’ body and their skin, damaged by raw sewage spills and water pollution.

With the increasing concern in global policy about the management and governance of fresh-water resources and the mitigation of water disasters, MIASU sought to address these challenges from a vantage point that takes on board lessons from post-humanist engagement with the environment. A string of research and impact projects have reflected this approach. For example, the river Selenga (Mongolian: Сэлэнгэ мөрөн; Russian: река Селенга; Chinese: 色楞格河) running from northern Mongolia into Russia’s Lake Baikal (which actually contains up to 40% of the global fresh water) has been the focus of attention from different state and non-state actors, including extensive Chinese economic and political interest. The management of this river, which is the focus  of the ESRC funded Project titled, ‘Resource frontiers: managing water on a trans-border Asian river’, provides an exemplary case study of collisions of different human and non-human perspectives in ways that can be defined as cosmopolitical. Similarly, the project ‘Himalayan connections: melting glaciers, sacred landscapes and mobile technologies in a changing climate’  (funded by the research council of Norway) explored environmental governance in communities affected by climate change related disasters such as GLOFs. Focusing on the ways in which non-human entities can be  engaged with as actors in the socio-political arena, this approach was also used in a variety of research contexts in the recent volume ‘Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Asia: Places and Practices of Power in Changing Environment edited by Riamsara Kuyakanon, Hildegard Diemberger, and David Sneath (2022) based at MIASU.  

Joint celebration of a ritual for the water beings of the River Cam.

The interdisciplinary two-day workshop that took place at Pembroke College and MIASU addressed the question of water management in Inner Asia with a theoretical focus on ‘religio-hydraulic’ knowledge across Asian belief systems, paying special attention to water beings (water deities –  nāgas (Skt.)  and lus (Tib and Mong.), that embody ideas about non-human powers and relations between species (humans, animals, plants, deities, etc).  The materiality of water manifested in freshwater scarcity, water caused calamities, problems of pollution as well as daily needs emerged as an arena where religion, natural resource extraction, environmental awareness, and nationalism can co-shape narratives and practices involving water beings. Also, anxieties related to environmental changes, growing distrust in bureaucratic solutions of environmental issues, increasing frequency of natural calamities, along with human health concerns (especially after the Covid pandemic breakdown), often involve appealing to the agency of the water beings and their regulatory role in managing watery non-human worlds.  Recent fieldwork across the region, from the Himalayas to Mongolia and Buryatia, therefore, suggests the need for deeper discussion on the growing relevance of water beings for environmental solutions in local communities. This phenomenon requires wider cross regional/cultural comparisons and interdisciplinary expertise from different knowledge sources.   

Making offerings to water-beings of the River Cam.

The workshop, “Water management in Inner Asia: human and non-human actors in placed-based approaches”, aimed to engage multiple publics (– both in the UK further afield), – to explore different Asian settings involving water beings in times of climate change and expanding natural resource extraction (, in what is sometimes defined as Anthropocene), and to develop a broader understanding of a ‘new’ frame of reference involving human and non-human reciprocal sociality in this part of the world.. Methodologically, this event was planned as an experimental workshop to facilitate dialogue between multiple publics beyond academia such as environmental activists, UK government policy officers for Environment (DEFRA), artists, religious practitioners and researchers to re-frame ‘water recovery’ paradigms. It also explored ecological pedagogies in schools by illustrating some of the current activities involving primary schools in different countries. enabling schoolchildren to translate experiences and concerns about climate change and water across different cultural contexts, including the place of spiritual and narrative understandings of landscape.

At the end of the first day, a roundtable, jointly organised with Cambridge 0 and the Cambridge Festival, engaged Professor Charles Kennel (Scripps Institute of Oceanography, USA) in a conversation on water beings and environmental thought in a cross-disciplinary perspective looking at different knowledge paradigms, exploring knowledge action networks and interrogating concepts such as the anthropocene from different vantage points. 

Members of Mongolian community in Cambridge enthusiastically joined the ritual. It is believed that worshipping water-deities brings prosperity, health, and is beneficial for mental health.

We hope that the workshop succeeded in facilitating a wide-ranging dialog across academia and beyond. For example: activists representing CIC Water Sensitive Cambridge are going to collaborate with ven. Lharamba Dobdon Maksarov in restoring chalk streams of Cambridgeshire to include religious actors in their community watery work. From the academic perspective, Hildegard and Sayana  are planning to publish a volume based on the workshop participants’ contributions to explore the significance of water beings in Inner Asia in times of climate change and expanding natural resource extraction.  Meanwhile,  Sayana started a collaboration with the “Water efficiency in faith and diverse communities” Project (based at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge) to engage with other religious views of water that might contribute to her attempt to develop a new concept of ‘Water-based kinship’. To add to a growing list of -cenes and remembering Donna J. Haraway’s invitation to reflect on the naming of new kinds of creative relations between humans and non-humans alike, which she calls ‘Chthulucene’  (2016b), Sayana is experimenting with the term ‘Lusocene’ (or Nagacene ?). This involves Interrogating  translation processes to  decenter the anthropos and depart from Greco-European cultural and terminological heritage to formulate a term combing globality from different vantage points and region and place based perspectives – a concept that embodies connections (even kin-based proximity) within Inner Asian landscapes with their human and non-human actors.

Hildegard Diemberger is Research Director of  the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit (MIASU, University of Cambridge) and a Fellow of Pembroke College. She has published numerous books and articles on the anthropology and the history of Tibet and the Himalaya as well as on the Tibetan-Mongolian interface, including When a Woman becomes a Religious Dynasty: the Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet (2007), and the edited volume Cosmopolitical Ecologies across Asia (2021). Most recently she has co-led (together with Hanna Havnevik and Bhaskar Vira) the interdisciplinary research project:  “Himalayan Connections: Melting glaciers, sacred landscapes and mobile technologies in a Changing Climate”.

Sayana Namsaraeva is Senior Research Associate at the Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit at the University of Cambridge, working on the ESRC funded project ‘Resource frontiers: managing water on a trans-border Asian river’. Throughout her academic career spanning over twenty five  years, her research interests embrace a wide range of topics in Mongolian and China studies, Buryat Diasporas and Kinship, Continental Colonialism and Border Studies, with a particular attention to Innerasian borderlands. In addition to her numerous publications, she co-edited the volume entitled, Trust and Mistrust in the Economies of the China-Russia Borderlands (2018).

References

Kuyakanon, Riamsara & Hildegard Diemberger, and David Sneath. 2022. Cosmopolitical Ecologies Across Asia: Places and Practices of Power in Changing Environment, Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781003036272