SOAS University of London

Interview with Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf

(0.00.23) [long right side shot]
Alan: The Himalayas have long been an area which, that have attracted famous travellers, explorers and anthropologists, and among these one remembers the names of Frances Hamilton, Brian Hodgson, Joseph Hooker, Sven Heden, J.H. Hutton. And perhaps the last of this great series of explorers and anthropologists, all curiously beginning with the letter “H”, is Professor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, the Emeritus Professor of Asian Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies. And I would now like to introduce Professor Haimendorf and to talk to Himalayas in the following minutes about his work and life in India and in Nepal. Professor Haimendorf, you were born in 1909 in Vienna and you went to University in Vienna, I wondered what courses you did at Vienna?

Christoph: In the University of Vienna the courses in anthropology are fairly comprehensive, namely one doesn’t only study anthropology, you also - which was then called ethnology - but also you have to take other subjects, so I did archaeology and also physical anthropology. It is quite useful afterwards if you have some idea about these neighbouring disciplines. And people asked me often when I was in Vienna, I mean this was then Austria which had become small - it was not a colonial power - why were you so interested in doing anthropology? Actually, I got to anthropology through India. As a school boy of age 15 or 16 I got very interested in India, I read Tagore, I read about Gandhi and so on, and so I thought “Ah well, if I take anthropology I might have the chance once to go to India”, so it really - India was the first interest and from that I got on to anthropology.

Alan: That’s exactly the question in my mind. Which were the people who influenced you most during your courses? [Zoom in - closer right side]

Christoph: Well the anthropology in Vienna at that time was under the influence of what was called “Die Kulturkrieslehre”, I mean the theory about the circles of different cultures - there is no good English translation of “Kulturkrieslehre”. And the two figures who were there most interested, was Professor Wilheim Schmidt, who is a great linguist - and I think now perhaps more known for his linguistic work - and then there was the head of the Institute of Volkerkunde - Institute of Ethnology as one would translate it - who was Professor Koppers. But apart from these two there was also Professor Heine Geldern and he had perhaps the most lasting influence on me because he was mainly interested in South East Asia and he was a great archaeologist - he had done hardly any anthropological fieldwork - but he was very well-known for his archaeological work. And I think it was due to Heine Geldern that ultimately I chose the extreme North East of India for my first fieldwork - namely the Naga hills - I think without Heine Geldern I perhaps wouldn’t have come to this particular area which I found then afterwards extremely rewarding.

Alan: You did a Doctoral Thesis at Vienna, what was the subject of that thesis?

Christoph: Yes, that also has something to do with that area. It was a comparative study of hill-tribes in Assam and Burma, and with the main kind of interest in their social organisation, political organisation etc. Now that would to a present-day British academic audience sound strange that you write about a people whom you had not seen because by that time I had not been to India or South East Asia, but the Austria of the Inter-War years, between the two wars, was then very short of funds for fieldwork so people usually did their Doctorate first and if they were successful in that, they then managed perhaps to get funds. So I went through the literature on the tribes and when I finally got there I really knew quite a lot about them, that was the one advantage. And that was also one other interesting - which might be interesting feature in that you asked me before about the courses in anthropology - that it was a very kind of wide coverage which is not very common nowadays anymore. Namely, you didn’t from the beginning only deal with India or only deal with Africa, you had to have a sort of broad knowledge of the whole world more or less. I mean you had now and then a course of lectures on South America, North America or Africa and so on, so you perhaps didn’t know as much as a student in a British university might know about his particular field - like Africa - but one had a very wide view and could probably then choose your area with the idea that that is what interests me most - there are other possibilities too - but that would be the most interesting, and I think it was in this way that I approached South East Asia and the hills of Assam and finally the Nagas. At that time I also wasted a lot of time once in 2 years in trying to learn Chinese because Heine Geldern thought that then one could also read the Chinese literature on South East Asia, but that was of course a hopeless thing because you can’t just do Chinese in addition to anthropology.

Alan: Was that during the time that you were a University of Vienna Research Assistant?

Christoph: Yes, that was at that time.

Alan: That was between 1931 and 1934. (“Yes”) Then you did finally receive some research funds to go to India. Who did you - who funded you?

Christoph: I got that from the Rockerfeller Foundation. The Rockerfeller Foundation at that time gave funds to countries which had been badly hit by the war before and which were short of funds and consequently the University of Vienna got some Rockerfeller funds and that enabled me first to come to England for some time, because the Rockerfeller Foundation rightly thought that people should have a wider view of university studies on the area on which they would be dealing. So I was given the choice where to go. I think that the university, the Rockerfeller Foundation expected me to say Harvard, Yale or Berkeley perhaps, but I thought that if I want to go to India I must go to London, which was quite correct of course, so I came to London and I spent 2 terms at the London School of Economics and joined the famous seminar of Professor Bronislaw Malinowski where...

Alan: Who was at that seminar?

Christoph: That was a sort of general post-graduate seminar - I had already my Doctorate then - a kind of post-graduate seminar, and that was in 1935 and 1936, the autumn term and then the spring term, and so I met there most of the anthropologists really or future anthropologists of Britain like Raymond Firth and Barry Ford I think was there too, and quite a number of...Audrey Richards and Shapiro. So by the time, many years later I came back to London to the university I had a lot of contacts already.

Alan: And then after London you set off for India. You went first - you sailed by boat to Victoria - and then you went to India and you first stayed at the Vice-Regal Lodge with Lord Linlithgow. That must have been an interesting experience?

Christoph: It was a very interesting - and extremely lucky - incident really, and if I may be a bit frivolous over that, it was due to a friendship I had before I left - in London - with a young girl whom I had met at a ball at the Austrian Embassy, and she happened to be a friend of the Linlithgows and when I said that I was going to India, she said “Oh, I have got friends who are going too, the father is going as Viceroy, so I am sure they would put you up” so I had the great advantage which in India at that was obviously extremely conservative and it was very necessary to have the right connections, so I once started with being known as a friend of the Viceroy.

Alan: Well that got you a certain way, you then went on by train to Assam, which is where you were going to work, and you travelled to meet someone who was going to have a great influence on you, that was the District Commissioner, Mills, at Kohima, could you say anything about Mills who would later have a great influence on you?

Christoph: Well that was another lucky incident, namely that at the time that I was in London, J. P. Mills, Philip Mills, he was on leave in London, so somebody put me in touch with him and we got on very well, and he told me both about what I would find in the Naga hills and promised to help. And again that was immensely valuable because Mills was at that time Deputy Commissioner of the Naga hills, the Naga Hills District, and had worked among the Nagas already for many years, had written 2 books, The Ao Nagas and The Lotha Nagas, he was just at his third book was coming out at that time, I remember he showed me the proofs. He was an absolutely charming person, and quite a scholar, and also a great friend of the Nagas and a very good administrator. He had been in the Naga hills already as a Junior Officer, he Subdivisional Officer in Mokokchung, when Hutton - who later became Professor of anthropology in Cambridge, J.H. Hutton, was Deputy Commissioner in Kohima. So there were these two British Officers who both had a great interest in anthropology and they worked together. I am always annoyed now when I see films - like the film on Gandhi - that, and also other films, where the British are sort of, the British Officers are described as extremely unsympathetic, and stiff and rigid in their views. I must say this is totally different from what I have experienced, not only in Assam but in other parts of India too, I thought that among the Indian civil service there were so many people who were scholarly, who were most sympathetic to Indians, and who had really made great contribution, not only to the administration of India but also to our knowledge of India. I mean very, what these I see as Officers wrote and published is far more than what many of their Indian colleagues did.

Alan: Yes, I was going to ask you about others like Grigson and so on later. But you then, you arrived at Kohima, and Mills [zoom out a little] immediately swept you off on a two-week tour with him. This was your first arrival, having come from Vienna and The London School of Economics in the field, among a people who you later described as the “Naked Nagas”, people entirely different, I wondered if you could just say something about your first - if you recall your first reactions arriving in Nagaland?

Christoph: Well it was a very great experience, I mean having all read about people and written about them even, from a basis of lack of knowledge really, because I had never seen any Nagas and then suddenly you were thrown into them. It was very lucky that I did that first tour with Mills who could tell me so many things which otherwise one would take a long time to find out. The great problem of course from the very beginning was language. I had tried to learn a little Assamese then at The School of Oriental Studies which already existed while I was at LSE, but I had not been very successful there. And so when I came to Nagas I had really no language which was very useful but I was young still and when one is young one picks up languages relatively easily so I engaged a young Naga who had some English and within about a few months I managed to speak that kind of lingua franca which is a kind of pidgin Assamese, which is now still the only language in which the various Naga tribes can communicate with each other because they all have different languages, mutually not-understandable, Tibeto-Burman languages. So I managed, among the Nagas, to acquire enough of the language so that after 4 or 5 months I didn’t need very much any translator except for difficult, particularly difficult, subjects. But the experience to be in the field of course was extremely pleasant, and also I had the great fortune being with Mills who had all the sort of arrangements, I mean I didn’t have the difficulty of finding out how does one get food and how does now get someone to cook it for you and all these things, because I was at once introduced into the kind of style of life of District Officers, and District Officers then were very different to what they are now, because of course then they walked on foot and there were no motor roads and they walked on foot although sometimes they might have used a pony. Now of course Indian District Officers have jeeps and so they rush from their headquarters to some villages, arrive, talk for an hour or two to the villagers and in a cloud of dust disappear again, so they haven’t that close contact which the old colonial British Officers had, and that actually makes a great difference to the whole administration as it was and as it is now.

Alan: Can I ask you again about the language. You learnt - as you say - pidgin Assamese. Did the other District Officers, Hodgson and Mills, speak Naga?

Christoph: They spoke absolutely fluent this… what is now called “Nagamese”, namely it is a kind of, an Assamese adapted to Nagas, they learnt also some of the dialects of the Nagas and I think that Hutton I think for instance was quite fluent in one of them. But on the whole, as the Nagas talked to each other in that pidgin Assamese, it was for the District Officer who in any case had to deal with different tribes, I think adequate to have this lingua franca.

Alan: You, yourself, decided to work with one specific group of Nagas. Which one did you choose and why did you choose them? [Zoom in close, still right side]

Christoph: These were the Konyak Nagas. They seemed to be the most interesting because they had not been under British administration for very long and only a small group of the villagers were under administration at that time, those were the ones where I could go. They were virtually unknown, very little had been written about them. There was one tour done by Hutton, he had once visited some Konyak villages, otherwise nothing was known. The main large tribes, the Angami Nagas, Sema Nagas and Ao Nagas, had all been described in a series of monographs which are still classics nowadays, mainly by Hutton and Mills. So I didn’t want to go to a tribe which had already been studied, so I chose the Konyaks which was very lucky because they were extremely interesting and also very attractive people.

[chatting and Christoph says “do you think it went all right”, then smiles]

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[direct face close-up]
Alan: So you arrived to do your fieldwork in among the Konyak Nagas. One of the first sights you saw were the megalithic monuments which stood in the Naga villages. Did this interest you?

Christoph: It interested me yes because I had in Vienna, under the influence actually of Heine Geldern who was very interested in megalithic cultures altogether, I had then taken interest in the distribution of megalithic civilisation throughout South East Asia, but I must say, I had also been for a long time by that time in Malinowski’s seminar and so I had slightly changed my view in the sense that I realised that when you go first to any tribe for the first time, any population, you have to try first to get the social system straight and mainly from that point of view would have been almost a thrill/frill(?) where I would not particularly take a very great interest, quite apart from the fact that among the Konyak Nagas the erection of megalithic monuments are not as important as among for instance the Angamis, where they have great feasts of merit, and Konyaks don’t. Konyaks only really put up stone monuments when they had brought in some head, they were head-hunters as all Nagas. But by the time I came there the Konyaks didn’t hunt heads anymore, of those villages where I was. Later on I had a good deal of experience of seeing heads on trees, among other Nagas.

Alan: I was going to ask you about that. But can I ask you about another institution which you came across and I am interested in your reference to Malinowski and his well-known interest in sexual behaviour of savages. Because one of the institutions you came across were the “Men’s Houses” or Morungs as they were called, which you described as an institution much like the English public school. I was wondering if you could describe what a Morung was, how it worked.

Christoph: Well a Morung is a men’s house or bachelor’s home which is a kind of ritual centre of the village, it is also a place where the unmarried young men, boys and young men, sleep, where some married men spend a good deal of their time, which is the centre for village rituals and festivals. You refer to Malinowski’s interest in sexual behaviour, in the Morungs there was no sexual behaviour of any kind, because that was banned to girls, to women altogether, but there were also girl’s dormitories. And while the young men and boys went to the Morung, the girls went to the girl’s dormitories, and the young men could visit the girls in their dormitories; indeed the girl’s dormitories were put up and constructed by those young men who were potential mates for the girls. So it is quite true that this is in Naga culture is quite an important feature, the men’s house and the girl’s dormitories. And of course, men’s houses are very wide-spread among different tribes, not only among other Naga tribes, there is that well-known book “The?????” by Elwin, and he described the used dormitories of the Muria Gonds in Bastar. There are other Indian tribes too like the Oraons, or the Gadabas, the Bondos who all have either men’s houses or use dormitories. So it is quite an important institution.

Alan: And you also find it I believe in Nepal among the Gurungs.

Christoph: In, yes, among the Gurungs you have the Holi Ghar which is however very different from the Naga men’s houses. The Naga men’s houses are also very important because they are the places where most of the wood-carvings and sculptures, wooden sculptures, are because they are highly decorated and painted, so the men’s houses are really a centre both for ritual activities and for artistic activities because the other houses are not decorated. But in the men’s houses there are figures of men and women, elephants and tigers, and that was very sad when I returned to the Konyak Nagas, 34 years later, in 1971, I found that most of the men’s houses didn’t exist anymore. Modernisation had really done away with that.

Alan: Did you manage to take photographs of these carvings?

Christoph: Yes I did, and in my first book then about the Konyaks which was not a proper anthropological monograph but almost like a travel book, called the “Naked Nagas”, in that there are quite a number of photographs. I also actually collected some of the smaller sculptures, not taking them out of the men’s houses which I think would have been quite wrong, even if one could have done that, but I got the same artist to carve them for me. Some of them are in the Museum of Anthropology, the Volkerkunde Museum, in Vienna, a few I think are in Cambridge. So I did do some collecting. Later on I must say that I found that to collect sufficiently to bring back museum collections takes too much time, and I in the future I did not really collect very much.

Alan: On this first expedition you collected...

Christoph: On that first expedition I collected quite a lot.

Alan: What objects apart from the...

Christoph: Well, carvings, textiles, they are easy to collect and easy to transport, all sorts of domestic implements, pots and pans, and grass skirts, and spears and...

Alan: drums...

Christoph: Small drums and a few things which I had again, they have for instance those gongs the Nagas, with a slit, they are really xylophones, the proper term is a xylophone. And so I had one or two made miniature xylophones, but the big ones would need a huge aeroplane to bring them back.

Alan: The main collection that you made is in Austria, is it?

Christoph: The main...correct...because then I was based in Vienna still and I had got some money from the Museum fur Volkerkunde, so there is quite a substantial Naga collection in Vienna in the Ethnographic Museum.

Alan: But also some of your collection is here in Cambridge.
[Zoom out, still front on]

Christoph: Yes, there are a few pieces in Cambridge, and there are very few pieces in the Horniman Museum in London.

Alan: You said that when you went back the Morungs were falling into decay. You talk in your book “Return to the Naked Nagas” about the influence of the Baptist Missions in the Naga hills. I was wondering whether they were behind some of this change in attitude?

Christoph: They largely were. The Konyak Nagas as I knew them in 1936 and 1937 had not been under any mission influence, and the interesting thing is that after the departure of the British Officials and after the departure of the American Baptist Missionaries, there were Nagas who then spread Christianity among tribes who had been untouched before. And the Konyak Nagas were one of those tribes and I remember in the village, the village called Lokching where I had spent most of the time when I was first working there, the people told me “Well, you know, since Christianity came in, we have given up many of our old rituals and festivities, and but we aren’t really Christians either so now we are nothing. I mean we have lost our old religion and we have adopted a new one.”

Alan: It seems on the surface strange that a society which you describe as so happy, gay, cheerful, drinking their own form of alcohol, engaging in very free and open sexual relationships and social relationships, should with such zeal take to a very ascetic form of Christianity. Do you have any idea why they should have done this?

Christoph: Well actually I must say they didn’t. Namely outwardly, they became Christians and I think the main reason was at that time - why for instance the Konyaks - that Christianity was linked in their minds with education, there had been Mission Schools, the other tribes had literates etc., then these Naga missionaries came in and said “look, if you want to survive in the modern world and the world of modern Indian politics, you must become literate. And now we will bring literacy.” And it is quite true that all the Nagas who are - presently - are in any government positions, they are all the products of Mission Schools. So those Nagas, those Konyaks, who told me that “now we are nothing, we aren’t Christians and we aren’t, we haven’t got our old religion”, they are those who certainly didn’t take it - didn’t take up Christianity with any particular conviction. See they certainly didn’t give up drinking or rice beer and I very much doubt whether their sexual morals have changed very much.

[Zoom out, now long shot face on]
Alan: On their sexual morals, although one shouldn’t go into it too much, one of the very striking features which must have struck you was the difference between the Western, European, Christian attitude towards pre-marital intercourse and the attitudes in this society. What was the main difference between their attitude and...

Christoph: Well the main difference was among the Konyak Nagas was that all the young boys and girls would have love affairs, and nobody objected to that, then and later on, once they had some period of pre-marital enjoyment, then they would marry. And on the whole, and that is not only among Konyak Nagas, it is the same for instance among the Basta Gonds described by ??? Elwin in that book on the youth dormitories, that where there is great freedom before marriage among the young people, the marriages then are relatively stable. But I found that other Gonds I had studied, and we might come to that later on, there is not very much pre-marital permissiveness, there the marriages are by no means stable, and there their sort of flexibility comes in later that people have a succession of marriages. So, certainly one can’t generalise because in modern Western society there is pre-marital permissiveness but not necessarily marital stability, so you might have it both ways too.

Alan: During your fieldwork you suddenly received a message that J.P. Mills was going to go on a punitive expedition into an area, to the Patkoi hills. Could you perhaps tell us something about that mission?

[Zoom in]
Christoph: Well that was a great piece of luck for any anthropologist I think, that I was allowed to visit...sorry.. to accompany a District Officer who was going on an expedition into areas where neither he nor any other British Officer, not to talk of anthropologists had ever been. It was a kind of punitive expedition but not entirely. It was really an expedition into the unadministered tribal areas which lay between the administered Naga hills district and the frontier of Burma, where head-hunting was going on and everybody knew that and there was I mean, there was no intention to administer that area, but if people from that area raided into the administered parts of the Naga hills then expeditions were undertaken. And in this particular case there had been some raids on villages which were although not administered, were somewhat friendly with the British-administered Nagas and some people had not only, many had been killed but others had been captured, and taken what was said, across the Burma border because the Nagas on the other side of the borders were known to use captives in war for human sacrifice, as a sort of alternative for head-hunting. And the idea of Mills was to free some of those captives, he also succeeded and he freed a few, some of them were children. So the whole expedition had really the purpose of (a) to establish that if they exceeded their sort of permitted limits of head-hunting and made great raids on villages and killed just too many people and captured others, that the Government, the British Government would take some steps, and that was quite successful. But it was marvellous for me because for the first time I got into areas which had never been administered, which had never been even looked at, which were white spots on the map. And that is sort of what an anthropologist really would like to do, to see a society which had not been influenced by outside administration at all.

Alan: This was an extremely dangerous mission, you went with two and a half platoons of Assam Rifles and with 360 coolies, and you travelled off into the forest which was filled with sharp pointed sticks to trap you and with the possibility of people firing poisoned crossbow arrows at you. You must have been slightly apprehensive as you set off?

[Zoom in]
Christoph: Well, I was a little apprehensive but not very apprehensive I must say. I must say it was not quite as dangerous as later on, in what is now AR?? Pradesh in, then called the Northeast Frontier Agency, I think I did trips that were a bit more dangerous than that. But because there after all we had at least some sort of Assam Rifles, this kind of police force recruited from Gurkhas, Nepalese Gurkhas. But we were actually attacked by several hundred of Nagas and we had to run away. We ran a little faster than the Nagas, not because we could inherently run faster, but because our Assam Rifle escort managed to fire into the group of Nagas which were running after us and that put them off. No it was a little dangerous.

Alan: Because at one point you were running up a hill with 500 Nagas behind you and they were firing at the Nagas...they shot 5 of the Nagas, is that right?

Christoph: They did. If they hadn’t shot those 5 which were sort of in the front rank I think you wouldn’t be talking to me now because I think we were outnumbered to such an extent, probably 20 to 1, that we wouldn’t have had any other chance.

Alan: So we’re talking to you now but you…what was the final result of the expedition? Did they destroy the villages, or?

Christoph: The expedition was that those 2 villages which had refused to give up any of those captives and had taken the captives away with them, they were set on fire. Of course that sounds worse than it is, because these houses are built of bamboo and thatch and they can be very easily rebuilt, it was not like burning a village with solid houses, and in order to get them to see that the government is really serious about pursuing their aim of getting these captives back, and he got them back, I mean Mills got them back. So they were freed.

Alan: And from the poles in the village you took off a basket full of heads which no-one would be prepared to carry and so you had to carry them back yourself.

Christoph: Yes they had hung up in good Naga fashion the heads of their enemies and they were fortunately not absolutely fresh heads, they had still hair and skin on but the hair and skin were dried and so on. And as I was then collecting for a museum, I wanted to have those head trophies, and I found a basket in a deserted house and put them in. But then none of the Nagas who had come with us wanted to carry that basket because they said “well, we carry heads which we have taken and so on, but we don’t really know what the ritual position of those heads is, and it might be quite dangerous for us” so I had to carry those heads myself.

Alan: One more question I want to ask you [cut]

[long shot]
Alan: As anthropological specimens, you decided that instead of taking them to the museum, to distribute them to the waiting Nagas and you witnessed what, I think, as you described must be an absolutely unique thing for an anthropologist ever to have seen, which are the head-hunting ceremonies. Could you just very briefly describe…

Christoph: Well, the Konyak Nagas among whom I had been living for by that time about 7 months before I got on that trip, they had been were very excited because they knew that I was going with an armed force in an area where there, where head-hunters would be fighting and they expected of course that we would possibly get some heads. They thought of heads which we would cut off, which we hadn’t done, but when I brought back these dried heads they had all been looking forward to fresh heads and they thought “well, dried heads are better than no heads” and they thought that it would possible, it would be possible to perform the ceremonies which are normally performed if a head is brought into the village by a member of that village. Now, I had lived long enough there so they thought that I could for ritual purposes, be considered as being a member of the community and having brought those heads. And then they didn’t ask very much how I had got them, or whether I had actually killed the people or not - heads were heads. So, then they…the question is now, there were altogether I think 6 or 7 heads, now who would get those heads. Now fortunately, it is not necessary for the ceremony to be performed to have a whole head, you can do it with parts. And also, in the same way, as if a real head is brought in, sometimes it is split up, and everybody who participated in the raid will have one part. And they were so keen on performing these rites and having the head because only those young men who participated in the ritual of bringing in enemy heads were entitled to wear certain ornaments and also to have their faced tattooed which is necessary for head-hunters. And as they had lived under the pax Britannica for several years already, they had not had the chance of taking heads themselves, so these substitute heads were very useful. So actually, the ritual was done exactly as if they themselves had brought in enemy heads, and I could both photograph it, I could record it, I could record the various songs and whatever was being said. Unfortunately in those days, in 1936, there were no tape-recorders so I had to write down what they said. And rather amusingly, when 34 years later, when I went there again, and I saw some men who had face tattoos, middle-aged men, and I said “how can it be, there is no more head-hunting and you have these tattoos” and they said “these are your heads”, but actually I think even now I think the last record that confirmed type of head-hunting I think happened in something like 1962 or 1963, on the Assam-Burma border, and I think that on the Burma side where there is virtually no administration, I think head-hunting probably still goes on.

Alan: What is the, very very briefly, what is the function - so to speak - of head-hunting? What do they see as the virtue of head-hunting?

Christoph: The virtue is that they believe there are certain kinds of magical forces in the human head and the person who takes the head and brings it home to his village, this kind of magical virtue, that is transferred to his village and therefore the heads are put on shelves in the men’s houses, or chief’s house, and they are kept there, and several times a year they are being fed with rice and rice beer in order to keep this magical force alive. So the idea is really that it is useful for the fertility of the village - the fertility of men and women, of cattle and of the fields - to have these heads. And that’s the same reason that human sacrifice had been performed. Among Nagas, human sacrifice was really a substitute for head-hunting, namely it was that if you bought a slave and killed him, you got all the prestige of head-hunting without risking your own life. But even now you always read about human sacrifice in the Indian press because even now there are cases, only I was recently in India and I saw one or two small reports of somebody being arrested because of having killed somebody in a Shiva Temple and so on, because human sacrifice is…has certain advantages for getting for instance when a new tank or a new bridge is being built, kind of foundation sacrifices and that has not completely disappeared from India now.

[rise and then zoom in, face on]
Alan: Well perhaps we ought to move on since we have talked a good deal. There is a great deal more about the Nagas obviously and your return to the Nagas, but fortunately some of this has been written up in your books. You went then from the Naga hills to go and work in Central India, but at a later point you returned to Assam but not to the Nagas. Why did you return and where did you return?

Christoph: Well that was really again lucky coincidence. I had, after doing my first 13 months of fieldwork among the Nagas, I had come back to Austria but I had felt that my work among the Nagas had not been completed, I wanted to have another period. So as soon as possible after this I set out for India again with the intention of going to the Naga hills. Actually, a fortnight after I arrived in India the War broke out so neither could I go to the Naga hills, nor was it really possible to go, what I didn’t really want, back to Vienna, because by that time another raid had taken place, namely Hitler had occupied Austria, and consequently Austria was then part of Germany. I had by that time a German passport so when the War broke out in India, I was in the position of an enemy alien, but fortunately I had good connections and so I was allowed to do anthropological work in the place where I was when the war broke out, which was Hyderabad State and I then worked for quite a number of years in Hyderabad. In the fourth year of my stay there I had an offer from the Government of India through my old friend, Philip Mills, who was by that time no longer Deputy Commissioner of the Naga hills but was Advisor to the Governor of Assam. And this message from him offered me a post, under the Government of India, as Special Officer and Assistant Political Officer on the Northeast frontier, which was then called NEFA - North East Frontier Agency, to do some exploration among the virtually unknown tribes which live in the mountains between Assam and Tibet. They had never been administered, all through the British rule, because there was no apparently need or advantage, but in the course of the war, when the Japanese occupied parts of Burma, it was felt that anything might happen in these North-eastern mountains too, and therefore it would be advisable to at least what sort of conditions were there. So 2 or 3 expeditions were sent into these areas and in one section I was chosen to go in and do some - from the point of view of the Government of India - some exploratory work for my own point of view connected with that anthropological work. And I had there the great advantage of going into an area which was inhabited by several different tribes, the most interesting perhaps were the Apa Tanis, who were about 15,000 people living in one single valley, very densely populated, surrounded by quite different tribes. And, to study a society which had never been administered by any outside power and therefore everything was as it had been probably for centuries. So, I spent then, it was in 1944 and 1945, until the end of the war when that whole project was called off, I spent among Apa Tanis and then also neighbouring tribes, and therefore - as I said before perhaps trips there were somewhat more dangerous than among the Nagas because they were very war-like tribes and if you were friendly with one and went to the other you could possibly be attacked. It actually didn’t happen. So I worked there and also later on wrote some books about the Apa Tanis, and I tried in recent years to re-visit all the various people I had met before and it was particularly interesting among the Apa Tanis because they in the meanwhile had been administered by the Indian Administration and had developed extraordinarily fast, they had schools and consequently there were educated Apa Tanis. This was, again I was there last in 1982, which was after all nearly 40 years later, and I could see there the whole change that had taken place in a previously untouched society. But whereas in other parts of India, change usually meant a kind of deprivation, namely people lost their land to more advanced people and their general standard of living and so deteriorated, it was not so among the Apa Tanis. They had greatly improved, if you may say so, the area had not been overrun by outsiders, and the Apa Tanis had sort of accomplished the transition to modernity and modern politics and all that very rapidly and very successfully. There are now Apa Tani members of the Legislative Assembly and other politicians and many are…have University degrees and are members of Government services etc. So that was very interesting to see them in their original state and to see them a long time afterwards.

Alan: Yes, we’ll go on to talk about the problems of tribal people and their contacts with the major civilisation. I wanted to just go back to your first arrival [zoom in]among the Apa Tanis and you said that this was more dangerous in many ways than the Nagas, but it seems to have been at least partly a self-imposed danger in that against the advice of almost everyone, you set out unarmed without any escort…armed escort, because the Government wanted you to take some Gurkhas with you, also with your wife Betty, who before, in your previous fieldwork you hadn’t been married, you were now married, so you took a white woman and yourself unarmed into these hills. Why did you decide to do that?

Christoph: Well I decided to do that very much against great opposition on the part of the Government of India because they said nobody ever went into those hills unarmed so and “we don’t take any responsibility and if you want to take your wife with you, you must sign that it is on your own responsibility etc.” But I thought that if I go into an area which had had no contact with the outside world and I arrive with an escort of Gurkha soldiers there is just no chance of establishing any kind of friendly relations. So you have to take a little risk and to go in alone, unarmed and also, it’s a great advantage to have your wife with you because they think that people who go with their wives they are probably have no hostile intentions and they don’t go there in order to make war on anybody, even if they had no arms. Apart from that, by that time, it was 1944, we had about done fieldwork in other parts of India in Hyderabad state together for some time and we didn’t want to give up. An so it was for personal reasons as well as for reasons of diplomacy, because that was, made it possible to go to people who one could say were quite wild, in the sense that they had a lot of feuds among themselves without getting very much involved.

Alan: You went to 2 areas where as you say people were thought of by the plainsmen as extremely “wild and ferocious”, and yet in your books you describe them with great affection and warmth. How, physically and mentally did you find the hills tribesmen of the Assam area?

Christoph: Well those people who were known as ferocious, the people then known as Daflas, now they call themselves Nishes(?), they were friendly to us and they can be very charming to their friends, but they also can be very fierce to their enemies and actually they were probably the most, how shall I say, marshal, ferocious people I had been working with. I mean, I think everybody, every other man had been involved in raids and many of them had been captured and then held to ransom. So it was a society, a bit like the Pathans on the Northwest frontier, who were continuously in a kind of process of feuds, revenge killings and then periods of peace and then again a raid or feud, and that was - it seemed to be so interesting - to study a society where there didn’t seem to be any kind of local authority. I mean there were no headmen, there was no village council, everyone was really a law unto himself and had to look after himself. I mean if somebody had a grievance, there was nobody he could appeal, there were no legal sanctions, if you killed somebody that man had no redress except that, I mean the family had no redress, his brothers and sons might then kill someone of your side. I mean this was really a possibility of seeing how does a society with apparently no real authority system, how does it function, but it does function.

Alan: In this, in their temperament, from the Apa Tanis

Christoph: Yes they were very different because the Apa Tanis, they lived in a very compact area they had large villages of up to 800-1,000 houses, so they couldn’t have really, that society couldn’t have worked without some kind of local system of authority and administration. While the Nishes, they were lived in dispersed settlements so it was not so essential to have a very close control over people’s actions, although the Apa Tanis were dry cultivators, they had a complicated system of irrigation and that too needed some co-operation, some control etc.

Alan: Although they had a complex economy, as you said they were a very technologically, very simple society in that they were really pre-wheel and largely pre-plough cultivators when you first went there, weren’t they?

Christoph: I think the Apa Tanis must have been, until 30 years ago, very much comparable to a Neolithic civilisation. Namely they had a fairly developed agriculture and irrigation and careful control of their resources, they had not only rice fields but groves of fruit trees and pine trees etc. So it was a society where they had, their economy was quite complex but without the plough, they didn’t plough, they had not - although they had…[cut]

…The Chenchus, the Hill Reddis, the Gonds, because that is both chronologically right and also in the level of economy, the economic level, food gatherers, shifting cultivators etc. Then I think as there is nothing really exciting in the Gonds and so on, you could then fairly soon ask, although that’s…obviously I did a long stretch of pure anthropological fieldwork, then I came to the administration…so you can ask about that.

Alan: The Apa Tanis had a very sophisticated economy, but they lacked a number of features of more developed economies. What features did they lack?

Christoph: Well they didn’t have the principle of animal traction for instance, although they have cattle, the cattle were neither used for ploughing nor for carrying, so their economy was really very sort of in a way Neolithic, not stone age because they had metal.

Alan: Do they use wheels?

Christoph: They did not use wheels. I think the first wheel the saw was on the first Indian aeroplane when the Indian army made an airstrip there. They had no wheels.

Alan: You worked among the Apa Tanis, but quite soon after you visited with your wife, another white lady visited them, namely Ursula Graham-Bower. Did you meet her?

Christoph: I had met her before but actually her husband was then appointed there as Political Officer. That was not immediately after I had finished there, there was a kind of period in between when the Apa Tanis again were left to their own devices, then already after Independence, the Indians established there a much more complicated administration. Now Ursula Graham-Bower who had worked independently in the Naga hills, she then came to the Apa Tanis and also then wrote a book on them called “The Hidden Land”, and her husband was a Political Officer, so a certain amount of anthropological material was also provided by her.

Alan: The people you worked among, the Apa Tanis, and also among the Nagas, were they physically an attractive people?

Christoph: The Nagas were very attractive, particularly the Konyak Nagas, they were really quite beautiful people there were all these wonderful figures - girls were very attractive. They are Mongoloid but are also sort of like Malays or Indonesians, and very good looking. The Apa Tanis were also Mongoloid, they were perhaps not quite as attractive as the Konyak Nagas but still I would say that on the whole they were attractive people - they looked attractive.

Alan: And what about the place itself - the physical landscape?

Christoph: The Naga hills are absolutely beautiful, the landscape, they are not very high and the villages are lying between the altitude between 3,000 and 6,000 feet. So beautiful rolling hills and with that pattern of shifting cultivation, I mean forest here and there, golden rice fields - very very attractive. The Apa Tani valley as such is also a beautiful place - it’s set in between wooded hills, the valley bottom is about nearly 5,000 feet high, the hills left and right are about 6-7,000. And apart from the area which is under rice and is accordingly sometimes pale green and sometimes golden and so on, they have quite a lot of orchards and in the spring it is absolutely beautiful when all these fruit trees are in blossom. So the whole area is extremely attractive, on clear days you see the Himalayan peaks at the back.

Alan: Later we would like to return to the question of how the Apa Tani economy changed, but I wondered if we could now turn from Assam and the NEFA to the other area where you did a lot of work, chronologically going backwards. You first went to work in Hyderabad among some very simple people - hunter/gatherer people - called the Chenchus. What made you study them and what were they like?

Christoph: Well the whole position in Hyderabad was, I mentioned before, that I was sort of caught there by the outbreak of the war, and allowed by the Hyderabad Government, Hyderabad was then under the Nizam of Hyderabad, to work among the tribal populations and it was a fairly obvious choice. There was one tribe not well-known and not well-described, known as Chenchus, they were one of the few tribes of hunters and food-gatherers left still in peninsular India, so it was reasonable to start among them. It was a great contrast to the highly advanced Nagas with their huge villages and their very beautiful people, Chenchus are rather, one would say, rather unattractive and very dark skinned and have nothing of all the beautiful clothes for instance which the Nagas have. So it was a disappointment for my wife, she had always seen the lovely photographs of the Nagas and this was the first time that she accompanied me on fieldwork and there there were these very poor Chenchus who live under windscreens or little huts and had really very not much which was visibly attractive. But they were very interesting because they were one of the few tribes who still lived on collecting - food collecting - digging up roots in the forest and some forest fruits etc. Hunting - there wasn’t much hunting left because their territory is quite small and people had come from outside with guns etc. who had more or less wiped out all bigger game. So they just managed to survive as they were, but that type of life-style was probably as in India hunters and food-gatherers were for centuries if not thousands of years. We know that in South India there were Palaeolithic cultures and those makers of these Palaeolithic scrapers and hand-axes must have lived on the same kind of forest produce as the Chenchus did. So from that point of view it was interesting.

Alan: What was the most striking about the Chenchus. Is there anything that you found most extraordinary about their way of life?

Christoph: Well I think probably again it was, the striking thing was that they too, as I mentioned before about other people in Northeast India who had no kind of judicial system, no authority system, but they seemed to manage to live peacefully without conflicts largely because I think the communities were so small, the areas of conflict were so few because nobody had any property, and everybody went out in the morning and collected roots and fruits from the forest, so there was not much reason for any kind of conflict, apart from that if two people in the group didn’t get on, then one would probably move to another group, because nobody had any property in land, so there was great mobility. I mean, if you saw a settlement of 8 or 9 huts at one time and you came perhaps 2 months later there, you may find 3 or 4 families may have moved from there and settled somewhere else because they are never settled for very long in one place. So that was interesting, this great flexibility.

Alan: Moving from that very simplest of social organisations, although very complex as well, to your next piece of fieldwork in Hyderabad. You worked among the Reddis, in the hills, what sort of society was that and why did you choose it?

Christoph: I went there again because nobody had studied them, the whole area which was in the Eastern Ghats(?), about where the Godavari river breaks through the Eastern Ghats, and in these some people lived who were shifting cultivators rather than the Konyak Nagas were shifting cultivators too but much more advanced with large settlements etc. The Reddis lived in small settlements, again great mobility, they lived for 2 or 3 years in one place and then they shifted their fields and very often also their huts. So they were really in a way the next stage after the Chenchus, the Chenchus were only food gatherers and hunters, the Reddis were also still lived a good deal on what they gathered from the forest but in addition they also had slash and burn cultivation and grew millet and pulses, and not rice because it’s too dry there and they had no wet fields, but perhaps they lived on the grain which they reaped could live for about 5-6 months, the rest of the time they had to look for food in the forest. So they were on really in the state of transition between food gatherings and cultivation. Also they had begun to have some income from forest labour - they were used by forest contractors to cut bamboos. In that way they were very often rather badly cheated in that they didn’t know how many bamboos they had cut, and they were only paid perhaps after some weeks and they were told “well, you delivered this many hands of bamboos” and it was kind of piece work, and they were not very well treated by the outside world, but somehow they subsisted on a bit of wage labour, a bit of slash and burn cultivation and still some hunting and gathering in the forest.

Alan: What sort of settlements did they live in?

(1.19.21) [zoom in]
Christoph: Well, they lived partly in settlements in the forest where there were perhaps 4/5/6 houses in forest clearing, that was in the hills. Some had moved down near the banks of the river and there they had, there were villages of perhaps 15/20/25 houses, and there they had began some permanent cultivation, there was some flat land and they had begun there to use ploughs and cultivate sorghum and other crops. The tragic point in that was they had been advanced to permanent cultivation but in more recent years they nearly lost all their permanent land because outsiders, mainly from the coastal areas came in, non-tribals, Telegu-speaking people and so the Reddis lost most of that land again.

Alan: You then moved on having done enough fieldwork for most anthropologists for their lifetime, but you then went on to work among a more economically settled population, the Gonds, but they were still slash and burn. [zoom out]

Christoph: No, the Gonds were already proper plough cultivators. There are different types of Gonds, some but those I mainly worked with which were also in Hyderabad State in a District known as Adilabad? District, they also lived in forest areas but they all had permanent land, and cultivated with ploughs and bullocks and were much more settled than the Reddis. Of course, the Gonds have an old history, there were Gond rajas and even in the middle-ages, Gond states and they were in many ways on a level with Hindu population, perhaps economically. So it was quite a different scenario and also the Gonds were very numerous, there were alone in Hyderabad there were nearly 100,000 Gonds, altogether in India there are nearly 4 million Gonds and they are divided into different tribes. For instance Gonds were also studied by Verrier Elwin?, I mentioned before his book on the Youth Dormitories, the Muria Gonds, in Basta, which is adjoining to Hyderabad. Well each of these tribes has its peculiar system, and these so-called Ray Gonds that I studied were very different to the Basta Gonds and in a sense economically more advanced. But they were then also under threat, namely their land was quite attractive, the rich soils was particularly suitable for growing cotton - black cotton soil- so there had already begun a process by which Gond land was alienated by more advanced people who came from the plains. The Gonds in the highlands of Adilabad- in the hills, I mean not mountains but sort of on plateaux and areas a bit different from the big river valleys like the Godavari valley. And people from there then were infiltrating into the highlands and the process had begun whereby some of the Gonds lost their land.

Alan: You describe in your book on the Gonds, because this was a society that you worked on longer than on any other society - nearly 3 years in their villages you spent, you describe a sort of contradiction between a society which has a very free association of equal peoples combined with a sort of feudal system. I wondered how what, how their society worked?

Christoph: Well the feudal system was a kind of remnant from the days of the great Gond Rajas. There was a kind of hereditary aristocracy. At the time when I came to the area they really held no more political power because that was taken over by the administration of the Nizam’s Government. But the descendants of the former Raja they had still some status and not material privileges but they were still highly respected. They, in a sense, their word counted more than other people - if there were drawn-out disputes then very often preferred, people went to one of the Gond Rajas and asked him maybe to mediate. But basically it was an egalitarian society so that we find that in the villages there were really no status difference except for the few members of the Gond Rajas.

Alan: Was this a beautiful area that you were working in, I mean physically?

Christoph: Not as beautiful as the Naga hills but quite attractive. I mean at that time there was still a lot of forest so the villages were enclaves in the forest. And it was, I would say, it was an attractive area without having beautiful scenery.

Alan: And what of the people, the same, the Gonds?

Christoph: The Gonds are, one can’t say that they are very handsome, but they are attractive people. They are not spectacularly dressed or undressed like the Nagas, they were more or less like Indian villagers in dhotis and saris. But I, they are very pleasant people and I was quite enjoying my stay there, but at that time there were already endless problems over questions of land and exploitation.

Alan: We’ll return to those questions later.

[close up]
Alan: After your purely anthropological research among the Chenchus, Gonds and Reddis, I understand that you were employed by the Hyderabad Government in an administrative capacity. I wonder if you could say what you did in that work?

Christoph: Well the Hyderabad Government, the Nizam’s Government at that time, Hyderabad as you know was the largest of the Indian Princely States, had…was aware that there were problems in the tribal areas and as I had worked among the tribes by that time for about 4 years and also had been employed by the Government of India on the Northeast frontier, they decided to offer me a position as Advisor for Tribes and Backward Classes, as the position was called. But actually it was an administrative position where I had not only to advise but I was then head of the Department - a kind of Tribal Welfare Department - now it is called like that and dealing with all the problems which are faced by the tribes. And the main problem was to secure them in the possession of their land. So I started among the Gonds, with a sort of large scheme of land reform that the Gonds were actually in possession in occupation of land but only few of them had any permanent rights, so the first step was to provide them with rights to the land they had and those who were not in occupation of land, to give them land and at that time the idea was to provide every family with anything between 15-20 acres which is quite adequate, of dry land. That was sort of the essential foundation for any kind of improvement in their economic position, because the idea was that from then on nobody could acquire tribal land. Legislation was passed, large areas. The major part of the districts inhabited by tribals were made sort of Scheduled Areas as it’s called in India, where only tribals could acquire land and no outsiders. And I held that position for 4 years and at the end of this period it seemed that the tribal problem from that point of view had really been solved, of course it wasn’t known at that time that Hyderabad State would be incorporated into India, that the Nizam’s administration would come to an end, and that quite a different kind of government would come in - a government which was not so interested in the affairs and welfare of the tribals and when I now go back to Hyderabad, which I do quite often, I find that much of the land which in my days was given to tribals had again been alienated by an extraordinary influx of non-tribals from the neighbouring areas, partly even from outside the State - from Maharashtra there was a great immigration. But that is part of that mobility in India which also has recently created all that trouble in Assam where so many people from Bangladesh and Bengal entered Assam. And in Hyderabad too, Hyderabad of course now only the town is called Hyderabad now, the area is called Andhra Pradesh, the tribals have suffered very badly from the influx of non-tribals much more advanced, much more experienced in dealing with the administration, so that actually the situation - the economic and political situation - of the tribals is not particularly good now. But at the time of the Nizam’s rule I was able not only to carry out that system of land reform but also to start schools for tribals, and schools in which they were first taught in their own language - Gondi is a Dravidian language but it is quite different from Telegu and other Dravidian languages, so the idea was to have schools in which the children at first would be taught in their own language. There were of course no books so the books had to be special readers and primers had to be composed and printed. So that was again an attempt to kind of secure the Gond culture which is quite complex, I mean Gonds have a large fund of myths and legends etc., but they had no script - they had no literature, so that was an attempt to create a kind of Gond literature. Unfortunately, again, the changed political situation has really more or less wiped out those advances. Now there are no more Gondi school books used, but the tribals have to have the same kind of education anybody else has. So this again was an attempt made that didn’t lead to very much, it would have led if there had not been very great political changes, but the anthropologist can’t know that. But I think to go the, I think inherently, it is a very important function of anthropologists who have spent perhaps 3 or 4 years to learn about a group of tribal people that then they should become able to put in a position where they can do something concrete for the tribe. But nowadays it’s not very likely that many western anthropologists can do, I mean Indians can do that, because it’s the end of the colonial period. There are not many parts of the world where anthropologists actually are entrusted with the administration of tribal people.

Alan: Could I ask, on the administrative side, I know that you admire greatly the philosophical and theoretical system put forward by a man who combined anthropology and administration, Verrier Elwin. You knew Elwin, and you worked on many of the same societies as Elwin, could you say something about him?

Christoph: Well Elwin was a very wonderful person. He came to India as a missionary, then he found out, and worked first among Gonds of the Central Provinces, which is now Madhya Pradesh, and he found that Gonds didn’t really need a new religion but what they want is help in practical matters. And he really set up some sort of welfare centres first, entirely privately with some funds which he collected, and later on however, he was employed by the Government of India again as Advisor in the NEFA, in between however, he had done a lot of anthropological work in areas such as Basta and he had written books like “Maria Murder and Suicide” etc. He was perhaps the greatest sort of anthropological idealist I had ever met, he was a very well-educated person with a very wide and broad outlook on life. And he was absolutely fascinated by tribal people and he collected for instance a great deal of their myths and epics etc. He also married twice tribal girls, one Gond girl and another later on, and then finally he lived in his last years in Assam and Shillong. He died relatively early, but not before he had made a very great contribution, not only to anthropological literature also in sort of inspiring people- for instance he had close contact with the Prime Minister Nehru, pundit Nehru - and I think that much of what had been done is due to the influence of Verrier Elwin who said we must protect tribal people, we must not think that they must be totally assimilated to the culture of the advanced sections of the population. So he had, I think he served a very healthy influence on the thinking of that generation of Indians like Nehru. Again, much of that has disappeared, but not completely because in the NEF, which is now called Arunachal Pradesh, in that territory, the situation of the tribals is far better than anywhere else. Because there is the so-called “Inner Line” Policy, namely a policy that there is a line drawn between the tribal areas and other parts of the country, in this case between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and whereas the tribals cane move across that line, I mean can come out and go in again, outsiders - also Indians - are not allowed to cross that line without special permission from Government. The idea is to avoid what has happened for instance in Andhra Pradesh that so much tribal land falls into the hands of outsiders, that has not happened. The Apa Tanis for instance, they might have been overrun by people - because they have quite fertile rice land - if that had not happened, if they had not been protected. Also the Apa Tanis, when they then, after my first experience with them, they came into close contact with the Indian administration and with the people of Assam because Apa Tanis could go to Assam, when they started to develop, for instance, some trade with the rest of India - with Assam - they were not at once, they didn’t have to fight the competition of the ordinary trading castes, there were no money-lenders in there, so they could really develop in a modern way but, and also develop on their own. And there also the education which was then introduced was very successful, so that very many Apa Tanis got good education, first in their own area and then young people, promising young people were sent away to Indian universities. So you have now large number of Apa Tani graduates, and some in Civil Service, and Apa Tani Doctors and veterinary surgeons etc. There is hardly any other area in India where tribals are…have been as successful, and they have been successful because during the essential period of development they were protected from the competition with more advanced outsiders, so they could also become advanced. Being more or less left on their own, but yet given them, I mean they were given the possibilities for education, for development etc.

(1.41.59) [pan down]
Alan: Well thank you very much for explaining that. At this point you had done a lot of fieldwork in two different areas, which is more than most anthropologists have done, but you then came back from your administrative post here London to become Professor of Anthropology. At what date did you become Professor at The School of Oriental and African Studies?

Christoph: Well, I came back, I was offered a job at The School of Oriental and African Studies in 1949, when then I left, I mean I resigned from my post at Hyderabad, and I felt that really that was not a period in India when a non-Indian could effectively work in quite a controversial position, namely having to do tribal administration is always controversial because there are always the vested interests who try to acquire tribal land, who try to exploit the tribals, so I think an outsider here in the present set-up in India could not effectively work. Apart from that, I though also from the point of view of my anthropological career, that 10 years continuously in India, most of it spent in fieldwork, were about enough, and that it was time to go back to a university, also to catch up with everything which has happened for 10 years in anthropological thinking and theory, so that position at The School of Oriental and African Studies seemed very attractive and I was able, then gradually, in the Department, the newly created Department of anthropology, to build up a type of interest in the areas in which I was interested and also expand my own field perhaps. The School of Oriental and African Studies has the great advantage that they were very research oriented and that meant that it was not necessary to wait for a sabbatical, one could quite often go to the field. So I was able, very soon after I has established this Department, not only to encourage my students and members of the staff etc., to spend a good deal of time in fieldwork, but also myself to go. And once, that was in 1953, when I had actually gone back to Andhra Pradesh to see what had happened to the Gonds, that was just the time that Nepal was opened for outsiders. Nepal which had always sort of interested me because I had worked a bit in the Eastern Himalayas among the Apa Tanis, Daflas etc., but Nepal seemed a wonderful field for anthropology but it had been closed at the time of the Rana rule. And only when the Rana rule came to an end was it possible for westerners and western anthropologists to work there.

Alan: So in 1953 you went into an entirely, yet another, emerging territory so to speak, and spend a shortish time there, revisited in 1957 and at other times. Where did you go to work in Nepal?

(1.46.14) [zoom in]
Christoph: Well I started with the Sherpas. At that time that particular area had become quite famous through the climbing of Mount Everest and also one had heard about the Sherpas, and I thought now after having been for so long in the tropical areas, I mean of South India, it would be very interesting as a contrast to go to an area of high altitude. Now the Sherpas live in valleys, in villages, from between 12-14,000 feet, and also I thought it would be very interesting to start in an area which was under Buddhist influence, I mean not only, they were actually Buddhist, of the Tibetan type of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism. So I expected something totally different, and I think this is very important for anthropologists, not just to stick to one area. Of course, of which you can get the complete expertise admittedly, but the comparison of such people as different on the one hand the Chenchus, the Konyak Nagas and the Apa Tanis and so on, and then in Nepal I found the Sherpas who were of course, compared to the people like the Gonds, and so on, highly civilised people. Among the Sherpas, for instance, certainly more than 50% of the adults - particularly adult men - could read Tibetan because they needed that for their ritual performances in their Gompas. And then there were these interesting Buddhist monasteries. So it was something totally new. And so although I continued, and even now I usually spend some time of the year in the one or other area of my previous interest in India, actually since 1953 - certainly for about 10 years - I concentrated almost entirely on Nepal, and in the course of that, I walked really through the length and breadth of Nepal, and then found areas which seemed worthwhile of study so that I could encourage students of mine to go to those areas and do a much more detailed study than I had been able. But I did manage, not only to do some work on the Sherpas, and write a book on the Sherpas, a kind of first book…monograph on any people in Nepal, which incidentally I have to rewrite now I was recently there…[cut]

Alan: what did you do then?

Christoph: Well while I was working among the Reddis I thought that I should know something about their neighbours too, and then I did a trip into Orissa, into the hills, the Eastern Ghats, where there were 2 tribes which had never been really described at that time, one is called Bondo(?) and the other is Gadabas(?). The interesting thing is that they were quite different from anything I had seen in Hyderabad and they reminded me in a way of the Konyak Nagas. Linguistically, they also don’t really belong to the South and they don’t speak Dravidian languages but they speak Austro-Asiatic languages, and these Bondos and Gadabas they in some ways they have cultural similarities - I don’t think connections - but similarities to the people in the Northeast. And I found, I did not do a detailed study there, but they also for instance had a very developed megalithic culture, and they had - you mentioned before - youth dormitories, and similar institutions perhaps in a way as the Nagas. So I found that that was only a short interlude, but they were again something quite different from anything that I had seen before and of course they gave me some comparative material, rather than that I made a detailed study of them. I think that we can cut now and move back to the Sherpas.

Alan: Could I ask you, before we go look at the Sherpas themselves, I noticed that you dedicated your book on the Sherpas to your wife Elizabeth, and you mentioned her frequently and you said that she helped you gather the statistical data and she helped you in the medical work and so on. I was wondering if you could say something about her part in your anthropological fieldwork?

Christoph: As soon as we got, my wife and I went to India, we were always together in the field and so she naturally took a very considerable interest in it. Indeed I mean there was nothing else, if you are married to an anthropologist and you are sitting among, in a little village, you obviously, either you go mad or you have to take an interest in the people you are living with. So, it is very difficult to say what the one or the other contributes. I mean I did the more sort of professional part of it, but she always was, made perhaps partly the public relations work, I mean she always treated anybody, people who work sick, had any problem, and distributed medicine and so on. So I think it was quite an important co-operation in the field and I think it is, I have the feeling that it is probably easier for two people who are not exactly doing the same. I think that couples who are both professional anthropologists, it is more difficult to work together in among the same people. If one is an anthropologist and the other is, looks at the people from a different, purely human sort of point of view, I think that works very well. Later on my wife of course, as you may know, went into anthropological bibliography, all those bibliographical works on the bibliography of South Asian anthropology.

Alan: You talk, since you are talking about fieldwork, many of the areas you went into were extremely remote and without any kinds of modern facilities, and what did you find the most difficult aspect of fieldwork? You mentioned, particularly among the Apa Tanis, the lack of privacy, the constant, being watched and being surveyed, even your private most private ablutions and so on were watched, and you gauged the age of the watchers by the height of the small holes they bored in the wall, was that the most difficult part of fieldwork?

Christoph: Well I think that is, if you are, come to people like the Apa Tanis who are very many people living in one area, so it’s a large population and they have never seen any outsider, and you are surrounded virtually during daylight hours by large crowds all the time, I think this is difficult. One gets used to that too. The other difficulty is I think purely, what shall I say, purely physical hardship, for instance the Chenchus, these people in Hyderabad there, hunters and gatherers who don’t produce anything that is very edible for you, nevertheless you have to move with them through the forest, you can’t really carry much with you. So there, I mean, and you live there more or less in the open because they have no houses, and well you can have a tent but in the Indian summer it’s simply the climatic difficulties and so on. I mean everything has its own advantages and disadvantages, I mean Nepal has the enormous advantage that the scenery is so beautiful and there are houses to live in etc., on the other hand, while you suffer from the heat in the Deccan in South India, the cold can be very troublesome too if you are travelling. I have just now been, about a month ago I was back among the Sherpas and even in the houses it was very often sub-zero temperatures.

Alan: We’re back in Nepal so perhaps I can ask you about Nepal and about the Sherpas further. What struck you most about living among the Sherpas, were there any features of their society which surprised you most?

Christoph: Let us say, which didn’t surprise me very much because I expected it, but features that I had previously not encountered, I mean I had no personal contact, for instance one was their marriage system - polyandry - and I was surprised to see that - polyandry which means that one woman has two or three husbands, that seemed to work so much better than polygamy - namely one man having 2 or 3 wives doesn’t seem to run as smoothly as one woman having 2 or 3 husbands. Now these are sort of little experiences that one has in a sense, you find what, something that you don’t expect.

Alan: Since many people are interested in polyandry and it is a special feature of that area, could you explain why you think (a) the system works so well and why it’s there at all? Is there any rational to it?

Christoph: I think it works well, perhaps that, perhaps one may say that on the whole men are a little less jealous than women are. Perhaps because, among the Sherpas particularly, these men have other interests in the sense they move about a great deal, they have to go with the yak up to the high altitude, someone needs to look after the house so it is quite useful if your wife is not alone in the house but your younger brother is there because he’s also married to her, that may be one of the reasons. But another is, I think in Indian families where there is polygamy, very often the women are jealous of each other for the sake of their children. If the son of one wife seems to be favoured by the husband, then the other wife gets jealous. Now that doesn’t happen in polyandry because nobody knows who the father is of the children, the children all belong to the brother, the husband, usually there are two brothers of a husband, together, so there is not that extra possibility of becoming jealous, because jealousy over the attention given by the husband to the children. But why, you may ask, how do I know it works better. Quite apart from the observation that there don’t seem to be many quarrels, I have never seen 2 men quarrelling, because sometimes in other polygamous societies you see the wives shouting at each other etc. But that in the folklore, legends and tales etc. of polygamous society there is very often the motive of the jealousy of the younger wife poisoning the elder wife, and the elder wife poisoning the younger wife etc. Now I have never found a single legend or story, fairytale, of the joint husbands being in conflict, so I thought that that might be a fairly good reason why one might say that it works more smoothly.

Alan: I wondered if you could say something about the economy of the Sherpas, when you first went there what was it?

Christoph: Well the economy of the Sherpas, indeed of other high altitude people, other Bhotia groups whom I then later on studied in a similar altitudes, the economy is based on the one hand on agriculture, although the period of cultivation of course is short, between May and September, the only time when this area is not under snow. So one part of the economy is agriculture, the other is animal husbandry and mainly the breeding of yak, and the third is trade because in these very high areas, without some kind of additional income the population really could not survive, so they have to also, apart from breeding yak and growing buckwheat and potatoes because much more you cannot breed at that altitude, so they also were kind of intermediaries between on the one hand the grain-growing areas of Nepal and on the other hand, Tibet. And they were placed favourably near the higher passes so they took the transported the grain from the lower areas into Tibet and they brought from Tibet such commodities as salt, mainly salt, and wool and various other things to Nepal. So they were really both agriculturists, and cattle breeders and traders, the difficulty arose of course when with the change of government in Tibet and the Chinese occupation of Tibet, for temporarily these frontiers were closed and then the Sherpas had to look for other sources of income and actually it just happened that tourism developed in Nepal and the Sherpas were able to make up for their shortfall by not only working for mountaineering expeditions but also becoming tourist guides. And that had really completely changed their whole social situation in the Sherpas area, in Khumbu, and the economy and as I have just mentioned, I very recently was in Khumbu and went back to the same Sherpas villages were I had worked in the 1950s and one can hardly recognise the society anymore because now the men who work as tourist guides, they are only spending about perhaps 2 or 3 months a year in their villages, the rest of the time they are in other parts of Nepal or in Kathmandu and so that the, certainly the social life is now no longer in balance in the villages, there are women and very old people and children and the able-bodied men are all away from there. It’s rather like the labour migration perhaps in Africa, so things have changed very much.

Alan: Yes, it is similar to quite a lot of those tribal groups with labour migration to the army.

(2.05.37) [zoom out]
Christoph: Yes for instance the Gurungs, whom you know so well, and where so many of them are in the Gurkha regiments in the British and Indian army.

Alan: Did you get to visit the Gurungs territories?

Christoph: Yes I did, indeed I think I was the first anthropologist who did a little trip through the Gurungs areas, and then it happened to be, you know the work of course of Pignede whom I met in Kathmandu, and I advised to go to the Gurungs which he did. But I never published on the Gurungs but I found them very interesting.

Alan: What other groups did you visit, you mentioned the Bhotias?

Christoph: Well after I had more or less, after I finished with the Sherpas, or let us say I had completed my work among the Sherpas I did a kind of exploratory tour through Eastern Nepal where I visited Rais and Limbus and the people of the Upper Arun and the Arunchung(?), and again in order to encourage students then to go these areas, in the West I did myself a little more intensive work among the Thakalis of Thak Khola. And then also visited Mustang which again is an area under Tibetan cultural influence which was very interesting, and then Dolpo, which is where the villages, the permanent settlements are even higher than Sherpas villages, I toured there. And then I made a fairly extensive, several quite extensive tours into Western and North-western Nepal, and again there for instance in Humla, I did some work on the Bhotia people, again on the closure of the Tibetan border, and made there some kind of study of the trade and the system of the trade, exchange of grain against salt etc. So it was mainly the areas in high altitude - which I had once done a bit of exploratory work among the Newars because nobody had worked there, but that was in my first visit.

Alan: You worked among these high-altitude peoples, many of whom were Buddhist or were influenced by Buddhism, and you noted among the Sherpas the very heavy influence of the monasteries, and the strong religious impulse. You don’t ever speculate, as I recall, why they should be so enthusiastic to set up monasteries and send so many nuns and monks.

Christoph: Well obviously one speculates but I can’t really have a very definite answer to that. I think the reason is that they are within the area of Tibetan Buddhism after all, they are, I mean they speak a Tibetan dialect, they undoubtedly, 300-400 years ago emigrated from Tibet into their present area of habitation across the border. So they brought already a Tibetan Buddhist civilisation with them, they continue to have close contact with Tibet, so they are really, it isn’t that they invented or decided to become Buddhist or were converted to Buddhism, they already came with that tradition and maintained that tradition by their constant contact with Tibetan monasteries and also trade with Tibet, now that had changed now because in Tibet monastic life has more or less been destroyed by the Chinese, but the interesting thing is that the Sherpa monasteries seem to flourish, and that is something that also for me is a bit of a problem. About 10 years ago I spent some time with the Sherpas and I was a little disturbed because then I found that the monasteries seemed to have declined, the intake of new novices etc. had come down. Now to my pleasant surprise I find that the monasteries that I knew, like Tambut(?), seemed to have revived and they have quite a lot of young novices and the influence of the monasteries is quite strong again, although everything else has changed in Khumbu. It may be that the greater prosperity which recently has come there through tourism and mountaineering, made it possible to divert some economic resources again to the monastery. I mean it is quite expensive to keep so many people who are not involved in the economic process in monasteries, I mean they feed them there. And that is of course, I mean that is easier for a society which is quite well-off, and that seems to have happened again.

Alan: Yes, I think you said…[cut]

Alan: Well Christoph, we’ve travelled with you round to ethnographic, well several ethnographic areas, and I wondered if now if we could talk more generally about your work, your approach to anthropology. Firstly, about the approach, the fieldwork approach. As you know some anthropologists spend all their life studying one small island in the Pacific and then use this as a basis for vast theoretical schemes, or maybe a better example would be one small tribal group in South America. Others, like yourself, travels very widely. How would you advocate one approach or the other, to widespread fieldwork or more detailed?

Christoph: Well I would say that I prefer and would also advise any student starting a career of anthropology to see various areas and not to concentrate on one or two only. I mean, I think its quite essential that you get used to work for a long period in one society, I did that for instance among the Gonds, I spend initially about 3 years there. And certainly if you do that, you get used to looking at all the details and you also realise that what you learn in the first 3 months you can largely discard, because as you go on, you learn more and more about that society. So I think that one should have once that experience, and it need not be 3 years, it is financially nowadays often impossible, on the other hand I think that it is very important to know many different societies - as different as possible - as different for instance Gonds and Sherpas, Nepal or Chenchus and Nagas because then you realise that you just cannot generalise about human behaviour. And you can’t even say if you study an institution - let us say like polyandry - that polyandry is like that, because the polyandry of the Nayas of (?) is quite different from the polyandry of among the Sherpas. So I think that it is really very important for an anthropologist to know a lot of different societies, and then there is of course another consideration too, I think as one gets older, I think you need continuously the stimulation of something new otherwise you can get very sort of, I wouldn’t say bored, but you can, if you do not get the stimulation, you, your appreciation diminishes. I mean I feel that now sometimes, only a few weeks ago, I went into Bihar to (?), not to do anthropology but to visit a university, giving a talk etc., and I was taken around to some of the Monda(?) villages, and I thought “My God, how lucky I don’t have to work there”. I really couldn’t sit down here and again study all the details, it’s seemed so familiar, not that I worked among the Monda(?), but similar to others, while if I go to something new, let’s say if I could start to do something in Bhutan which I have only visited twice but never worked, I think I would have this kind of stimulation of something new. Then there is of course another consideration, I think any anthropologist who spends a great deal of time in the field, let us say almost half of his working time, I think will almost more or less remain a better or worse ethnographer but basically an ethnographer, and somebody who aspires to be a theoretician, of the type of Levi-Strauss and so on, then he probably should only see one little society because then he hasn’t got material in front of him which will combat his theory, his conclusion, and he will be quite happy to spin this kind of lovely fantasy which you can create if you have a very narrow base and finally really do philosophy. Philosophy stimulated by some experience with one or two people, but which is very different from a sort of comparison of a dozen of different societies belonging to different cultures, like Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus and so on. So I think it depends on your own personality, what is good for one student of anthropology may be bad for the other.

Alan: Thank you. Well you advocated there a comparison in space as a basis for work. I wondered what you felt about a comparison in time, particularly the idea, which you seem to have practised, of revisiting again and again and again over long periods the same society, at least the same-named peoples, yet not always the same society. Do you feel that is something that is valuable?

Christoph: I think its extremely valuable. I am always amused if I let’s say I go to Kathmandu in Nepal, young man comes from Berkeley or Yale or whatever, and I ask him “what are you going to do”, “Oh, I’m going to study social change among the Newars”. He comes in 1982 or 1983, wants to study the change, the change from what because he hasn’t seen what there was 20 years ago. So I think that if you really want to study social change, you must allow a certain period to elapse to that you can see the stages of change. Now I think it is very revealing to go back to the same society, see a different generation, possibly also the same people and see how are they when they are 30 years older or 40 years older, because we don’t remain the same and so naturally Apa Tanis or Nagas and so on, don’t remain the same either. So I think this is very revealing and I think it’s quite important. I am always rather surprised that on the whole, relatively few anthropologists have done that. There are some who have, but the urge among senior anthropologists to go back to their old areas doesn’t seem to be very great. It is particularly noticeable for instance among Indian anthropologists who are so near and for them there is no expensive air fares and so on, they could easily monitor the development of one society over a long period, but it’s not done much. I think people find it perhaps a bit boring because they know what to expect. I don’t think it’s boring, it might be depressing because you go back and you find they were much better off 20 years ago and now they are worse off, or they are very depressing people who were beautifully dressed in their original dress and now you always see them in jeans and bush shirts. But even that of course is an observation which is relatively perhaps important if we talk about, even diffusion, diffusion of western customs, diffusion of western dress, of all that. And then we have the possibility of seeing it with your own eyes, so I think this is important. Of course one factor is that one has to live long enough, and you can’t say that somebody who dies at 35 will go back, in his next reincarnation perhaps.

Alan: I wondered, in fact, if you thought that if you hadn’t made earlier visits, for example, I mean, you are a very good person to test this, if you hadn’t visited the Sherpas as one of the first people to have visited the Sherpas, or the Apa Tanis or the Nagas, you were always the first in all these cases. If you had in fact been a modern anthropologist who had gone there 30, 20 years later, do you think that given the absence of historical records you could have recreated by oral history or any other means, what the society had been like, 20-30 years before?

Christoph: I would think you could not have done that. Because certainly, for instance Sherpas society, has now changed so much. Of course, certain features like the clan system or inheritance, things like that, but you couldn’t have got the sort of atmosphere, you couldn’t have refound or found at all, discovered at all, the kind of spirit of the society. Similarly, for instance, among the Chenchus, I mean I still saw them when they were hunters and food-gatherers. Today they are still gatherers, but they don’t gather for their own consumption, they gather for contractors, and they gather forest produce which is then used by pharmaceutical industries. So, both are gathering societies but they are quite different. So I think, what, anything, any society we don’t study today, a tribal society, relatively simple, a society which was isolated, you can’t say it can’t be done now, but perhaps there is no particular hurry, it could be done in 20 years. Therefore, this I think is an argument when anthropologists have to fight for funds, competing perhaps with archaeologists. Now, archaeologists they can wait whether they dig out something which has been there for 10,000 years or 500 years, that can be dug out and studied any time, while the anthropologist who doesn’t study the society now, he cannot do it in 30 years time. I mean he can still do a study but then it’s something totally different.

Alan: This fact that you were the first in many of these societies and that you did detailed studies makes these studies very very valuable, nearly as records of civilisations which have now disappeared, many of them very early forms of society as you explained, therefore I wondered if I could ask you about what in fact you collected in the way of a record and what recording there is, in other words the fieldwork techniques you used. When you first went to the field there were no movie cameras or tape recorders, but did you just have notebooks or diaries, did you take still photographs?

Christoph: From the very beginning I always took still photographs and I took quite a lot of photographs, always. So that of course, these records are in existence now. Then I had always hardback reporter diaries, and they still, not diaries, ordinary for current fieldwork, I also had large diaries, also hardback, where I wrote every evening a diary, but otherwise these reporter notebooks, they are still in existence now, and so even those notes which I did not use, for instance we talked before that I did some work among Bondos and Garabas(?), also Asiatic-speaking people in Orissa. Now I didn’t do, I didn’t publish much about them, I think 2 articles, but the notebooks are there and I recently went back to the same village after 40 years and the people said “Oh yes, can you remember you camped under those trees there” and then of course when you go back it is absolutely invaluable if you have your, let’s say the house list, when I went now to Sherpas village Khumjung, 92 houses, now I took my old notebook with me. And I said “what had happened to (?), what had to (?), what had happened to his son”, because I had all that there. So I could in a very rapid time, I mean very rapidly, I could reconstruct so to say, what had happened in between to those families. So it’s very important to keep your notebook and not to keep to keep your notes on loose pieces of paper or type it out and on loose, you have to have something which is fairly solid because none of us are so terribly careful with pieces of paper, but if you have it in solid notebooks and then diaries of course, you can then keep it over a long period. Whether it is then very useful for other people in maybe in 50 or 100 years time, I mean if it is kept in a library, an archive, maybe useful. I doubt whether anybody would be very interested reading such things after 10 years, although I have when I suggested to students, my own students to go to a particular place in Nepal, I usually leant them my notebooks for a few weeks so that they could take note of that and knew what might be interesting and for what they may look. So that is one thing. Otherwise I think that the method of fieldwork probably cannot be taught because everybody has slightly different ways of approaching people. There are certain features which I think is important: when you come to a village or any kind of group of people, I think you have to go and spend the first weeks on the boring job of making lists of the houses and finding out who is who and how are they linked and how do they fit together. I think that you must have because as your fieldwork goes on, and things happen in the village, you can always ask “who is that” and then you can put them into that slot, it belongs to this family, this clan etc. That is important, therefore it is (?) when one gets used to it for instance, I worked in India and they were always societies which have unilineal descent, I mean either patrilineal or matrilineal, then I went over to the Philippines, only for some comparative work, there they haven’t got that you see, there is no unilineal descent, it is all sort of bilateral, so you can’t, it is very difficult then when you are used to doing it one way then to switch over to quite a different way, because there you can’t easily find out how is A related to B and X and so on, because they don’t belong to the same clan, they have totally different and complicated network, so therefore I think it’s quite complicated if you move to something totally different.

Alan: That is very helpful for people who are going to go out to do fieldwork, I wondered if there was any other advice, looking back over your fieldwork, which you would give to a young fieldworker who was going out to work?

Christoph: I think perhaps the most important advice is not to go with preconceived ideas and think “now I must find out data to prove the theory of Professor so and so” because I am very interested in that theory, and also not only interested, I think that is a marvellous approach to anthropology and so on, so I must find material which will prove that theory or fit in. I think this is, I think you must allow your theory to come out of your material, I think you must go knowing obviously as much as you can about that part of the world, that those societies, I mean if you go to one Naga tribe, if you read the books about neighbouring tribes, obviously, but not to go with preconceived ideas that you want, just study one particular part of that culture, in to follow up one specific theoretical line. Later on when you have all your material, then of course you can do that, but I think it is very essential to come with a sort of very, to have a very broad approach. Of course you must have a reasonable time to sort of learn about all aspects of a society or culture, but I think this is a piece of advice I would give to anybody.

Alan: You mentioned the hard and strong and durable notebooks, and also that you took a lot of photographs. Did you use any other recording devices, like tape recorders or movie cameras?

Christoph: Yes. Movie cameras I used very early, already in 1940. I didn’t have a movie camera among the Nagas when I was there in 1936, then I could have, they were not so light and easy to handle, but I could but I didn’t. But then I had a movie camera in 1940 and did quite a lot of films, and I think this is after all a very useful way of documenting because whatever you see and write, it’s quite different from when you see people moving. Also if there is some complicated ritual, if you can, if you can actually take a film of it you can actually see what is happening, what the sequence is. And in that respect, for instance, I found the help of my wife very useful because I was taking the film and she in the was meanwhile doing, I mean describing, I mean taking notes and so on. For one person this is rather difficult. So, then of course there is the question of tape recording. Tape recorders came in much later than film cameras, tape recorders I didn’t have in all my early work and that was a great handicap for instance when I was recording the mythology and epics and so on of the Gonds because it took endless to transcribe it all by longhand, to, in their language which is difficult enough, to listen to it and write and you would have to interrupt the narrator all the time. While with a tape recorder you can it down and you can play it to your informant and get the translation of the individual sentences. So that, I found also tape recorders also very useful to record a conversation with somebody who is quite voluble and who talks, who tells you a lot, but you can’t always take it down, so that you can…[cut]

Alan: Christoph, you said that in justification of taking a whole lot of different societies in different cultural regions and religions and so on, one of the justifications was that it prevented you from making any rash generalisations about human nature and so on. And this fits in with one of the roles of anthropologists which is to show that almost everything is culturally determined and that almost nothing is natural. I wondered whether you could say something about 2 of the distinguished lectures which you gave and which were subsequently published, in relation to general concepts. The first was the Henry Myers Lecture on Concepts of Sin, and I wondered what your main conclusions from looking at sin and the concept of sin in the tribal belief systems was.

Christoph: Well this is a very wide subject but I could only say that it confirmed me that different societies have very different concepts about morality, and that the very idea of sin in the Christian way, for instance, or in the Islamic way, is absent among many societies. Because in a society where for instance, the gods, as nearly every society has some ideas of supernatural beings, gods, deities, well they don’t really take very much interest in human morality. Obviously, there is not the concept of sin in the Christian way, this is an offence vis a vis the deity. So that I think came out of this comparative work quite clearly.

Alan: Did you find any correlation between a concept of sin and the idea that doing something would automatically anger some supernatural powers, any correlation between that and the type of society, in other words that very simple tribal societies, like the Chenchus, didn’t have a concept of sin and yet stratified, settled, agriculturalists did, or did you find any correlation like that or not?

Christoph: I would say no, nothing very obvious. I think one would have tried perhaps to look at many more societies and find out whether some correlation could be found. That you could do in a littlish study, I mean go to all of them, but I don’t think so. I think perhaps the way to come to very complex societies, sophisticated societies, there it’s more likely that there is a correlation because there is the idea that if you in some way offend a supernatural being or deity, it’s perhaps something you would also offend some authority in your own society. But on the other hand, I think for instance if you take, even a society like Hindu society, which is quite obviously extremely sophisticated with a complicated philosophy, the very idea of evil in the Christian sense does really hardly occur, there is no sort of figure of Satan, and yet you cannot say that Christian society is more sophisticated than Hindu society. I think it’s very difficult to, one need perhaps be a philosopher of religion to say something very definite about this. But I think it’s very worthwhile to do this comparisons.

Alan: Having shown that there is no indigenous concept of sin, they are subjects which many anthropologists including Robert Hertz(?), who you mentioned, was interested in, connected to this was the subject of your Frazer Lecture at Cambridge on the “Afterlife in Indian Tribal Belief” because obviously the idea of sin is very related to your ideas of what happens to you after your death, particularly in Christian eschatology. Did you, what were the main features of the concepts of afterlife which you found in, particularly in the Nagas, and Apa Tanis and the other tribals groups you worked with?

Christoph: The interesting thing is that certain concepts, for instance, would be within a culture area which I think Apa Tanis and Nishes and Nagas are, there would be certain similarities, even if the tribes are otherwise not so similar. So certain motives you would probably find. But again we have here the question: “what produces good results for the life after death?” And, take for instance, the neighbours of the Apa Tanis, the Nishes, because there is particularly clear. If you have killed many people, if you have married many wives, if you have taken slaves, if you have been successful in war, all the things which are not considered particularly good in our society, our Christian society, then you have a better chance in the next life because you did something which was admired on this earth, in this world, and would be also admired in the next world. While the person who didn’t do any of these things would be a sort of considered of no importance. So I think there is great difference between a society like western society where the idea is that your fate in the next world is not necessarily the same as here, if you acquired a great deal of wealth among the Apa Tanis you would have a great deal of wealth in the next world. Here, if you gave away your wealth or didn’t acquire much, so that is a kind of promise for perhaps you are rewarded for the things you didn’t have, in tribal society where the next life is really a repetition of this life, you will live again as you were living in this life. I mean the big man will be a big man, the slave will be a slave etc. These are the differences.

Alan: One of the main features you found was that, as Durkheim might have predicted, the afterlife was almost an exact, a direct reflection of this world. Even down to the physical details of the afterworld. Whereas in more, in different systems, it’s often an inversion of this world or it has no relation to this world at all. Well, was that the case in the Himalayan, the Nepalese areas you worked in as well, or was that just?

Christoph: Of course, in the Nepalese areas where I was working was very much influenced by Buddhism. Whether they were actually like the Sherpas, just sort of Tibetan Buddhists with all the concepts of Buddhism, or whether they were only influenced, nevertheless there was very much the idea of you gain(?) married, and if you have gain(?) married which is very much like the sort of Christian type of married, by leading a good life and doing charity, and doing all those things, then you will have a better chance in the next life, either having a good reincarnation or going towards the paradise in the western world etc. So there I think it was very clear that the ideas were influenced by one of the great historic religions, and I think wherever that is, now the Apa Tanis are getting a bit confused because some of their students have gone to universities like Shillong and Gauhati etc., where there are Christian Khasis and Christian Assamese and so on, so they hear a bit about that. And among the Apa Tanis there was the idea that the good, I mean the desirable life, is in an underworld where everything is as it was on this life and if you, not because of sins, but if you died of an accidental death, drowning, being killed in war or eaten by a tiger or something like that, then you go up into a sky-world which is not so desirable. Now these people who have seen Christian pictures of heaven with clouds and also pictures of hell down below, they get confused of course, and one elderly Apa Tani said to me “I’m not so sure whether I really want to go down into the underworld, I think perhaps in the life in the sky may be, among the clouds, may be better”.

Alan: Could I turn from that afterlife aspects to, you wrote a book on Morals and Merit, which was drawing together many of these features and you had a chapter on the morality of war and vengeance discussing the Naga morality and the blood-feud and what you talked about in relation to the Daflas. There seems to be a very strong contrast between two of the areas you worked in anyway, the Dafla/Naga area where you get a lot of war, vengeance, blood-feud and honour an esteem emerges from killing, and the Sherpas/Bhotia area where you might have predicted, one might have predicted from other anthropological areas like the Pathan area or the Atlas of North Africa, that pastoral peoples living in the inhospitable mountain terrain, away from central government and so on, might also have been violent, sheep or yak-stealing and vengeance-filled, as in other parts of the world, yet you describe them as, I think, very peaceful. I wondered whether you could say something about the contrast between the mentality and the social organisation of these two areas and why you think that it might be why one is so peaceful?

Christoph: I think that this would definitely be the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. That they are so, that the mild person is admired, and that the person who acquires merit by being nice to people, I mean where killing even of animals is considered as sinful. So I think even if these people were perhaps a bit war-like before, I think they probably were, under that dominating influence of Buddhism, I think they became what we might say was better in a sense, they had much more regard for the other person. That they also they had the idea that it would be evened out in the next life, it was not necessary for instance, to take revenge here, because the person who has harmed other people, he would suffer in his next existence. I think it may be that.

Alan: Could it also be related, if you, if one was more economically deterministic, to the different economic systems in that in the north Assam is really a pocket for mountain (?) with very little traffic and trade through it, and it’s forest-cultivating societies, and it’s usually in these forest areas that you find very considerable head-hunting and warfare and vengeance, whereas one of the features of a trading people, like the people along the Himalayan areas, if you engage in too much vengeance, blood and so on, your trade tends to decline, because people can’t move around, they can’t move through your territories. Do you think that a combination of Buddhism and the need to maintain quite amicable relations over long-distances?

Christoph: That may be something, but on the other hand you have the situation of the Pathans who are pretty fierce in vengeance etc. who also had some trade and indeed depended on some trade. So a similar economy does not necessarily mean similar attitudes over such matters and altogether I once did a comparative study because the Nagas have sometimes been compared with the hills tribes of northern Luzon in the Philippines, and indeed so much in the material culture is so similar in these two areas. So many people had seen the Nagas, and many people had seen the Ifugaos etc. in the Philippines, but there was no one person who had seen both so I thought well it’s not so far, I will go and spend a few months among these, they were also head-hunters etc. in the Philippines, and really I mean the economy and the material culture down to textiles and irrigated rice on terraces were so similar. I would say if I had been dropped there by a helicopter I would have thought “I am in a Naga village, I don’t know which Naga village, it looks so”, so all that was true, it was so similar. Then I came down to the social systems, and attitudes etc. Totally different. You couldn’t imagine 2 systems, I mean the succession into the family, and the bilateral system and so on - totally different. So that really gave me the idea that societies can have almost the identical economies, they can have almost the identical material cultures, but for reasons we can’t really understand, they are quite different in their social attitudes.

Alan: Yes. I wondered if I could end up by just asking you about one or two other people whose works you refer to or knew. Firstly, Brian Hodgson who was, as you know, British Resident in Kathmandu and whose works you must have seen. Could you just say something about Brian Hodgson.

Christoph: Well of course he died a long time ago, so I have no personal experience of him, but I think anybody who has worked on Nepal admired him for having been virtually the first who had attempted some kind of linguistic and some kind of ethnological work there. I mean his early writings, they are quite important and he was one of the few people who could go outside the Nepal valleys sometimes, so I think he is an important figure. But we hadn’t really, we don’t know much about his personality as far as I know. I have never seen anything which would be diaries which would show his character. So one can only say that he was obviously one of those highly scholarly British officials, as they were in that period quite a number, who made a basic contribution, but more I really wouldn’t dare to say.

Alan: OK. The next person is not an anthropologist, but is a plant collector who is very widely esteemed now, one of the earliest explorers in the region, that is Kingdom Ward, who was buried in Granchester near Cambridge here. I wonder if you knew Kingdom Ward?

Christoph: I knew him quite well because I met him socially at the Royal Geographic Society and so on. He was a very pleasant person and he had of course a wide experience, particularly in areas which interested me, like in NEFA and he had travelled there in areas which are of considerable interest to anthropologists. He must have been a really intrepid traveller and it must have been very difficult to keep really pace with him because I think he undertook these travels with very little equipment and he was very tough. And he wrote very well, I mean his book, for example, “Assam Adventures”, it very vividly written and I found it quite interesting because he mentions things he saw on the Tibetan side of people who were very similar to tribals I saw on the Indian side and it seemed to be quite similar and so on. So he had very good sort of power of observation without being an anthropologist. But he was a remarkable man, there is no doubt about it.

Alan: I think that would be a very good epitaph for you as well Christoph, as an ending, a remarkable man (?) who wrote books of great power and interest. Thank you very much indeed for speaking to us.

Christoph: Thank you, thank you.


  • This interview was conducted by Professor Alan Macfarlane at his house in Lode, Cambridge in June 1996.
  • Generations of this interview exist in various different formats, including Sony BR U-Matic, Video 8, Hi-8, and also VHS. Alan Macfarlane has copies of all.
  • The interview lasts approximately 3 hours.
  • The numbers in brackets refer to the time in hours, minutes and seconds.
  • The bracketed quesion-marks (?) throughout the text imply the spelling is unknown or that the word was spoken unclearly.
  • The interview was transcribed by Mark Turin during 1996.