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Religion Inscribed in the Landscape: Sacred Sites, Local Deities and Natural Resource Use in the Himalayas

Abstract

Numerous indigenous religious traditions express connection between people and the spirit world. Such spiritual perspectives locate humans within networks of reciprocal relations with other living and non-living beings. A place-based view shifts the understanding of nonhuman nature away from a utilitarian perspective that sees forests, rivers, and soils as natural resources to be used with maximal efficiency and toward a more inclusive perspective that values landscape as beings, or homes of beings, with their own inherent values, purposes, meanings, and destinies. In the eastern Himalaya, autochthonous deities, believed to be the original owners of the land, were not eradicated by Tibetan Buddhism, but incorporated into its pantheons and practices, creating a mechanism that mediates the connections between people to their landscapes. Tibetan Buddhists of Bhutan engage with specific places on the landscape to create and nurture the habits of mind that recognize forests, soil, rivers, mountains, and wildlife as beings worthy of respect. The prohibitions of autochthonous deities have shaped human settlement, land use patterns, local custom, and placement of religious structures. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, I show how religion shapes the landscapes in Tibetan Buddhist parts of Bhutan by dictating land uses and proscriptions in certain sites. Spiritual and religious perceptions shape the landscape through land use restrictions, the siting of religious monuments, and prohibitions against construction. Globalization is subtly shifting deity beliefs and associated landscape practices. It is having the paradoxical consequence of increasing interest in sacred natural sites and spiritual landscapes, while also intensifying forces that jeopardize their cultural and ecological survival. Greater understanding of sacred natural sites could contribute to greater appreciation and protection of their cultural and ecological aspects, and could shift ecological and geographical thinking towards a view that values the agency of non-human nature and the natural landscape.

Keywords

  • Bhutan
  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Sacred geography
  • Sacred natural sites
  • Spiritual ecology
  • International development

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Allison, E. (2015). Religion Inscribed in the Landscape: Sacred Sites, Local Deities and Natural Resource Use in the Himalayas. In: Brunn, S. (eds) The Changing World Religion Map. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9376-6_22

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