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"The project’s dual focus on environmental history and on peoples’ everyday lived experiences and practices, and the inclusion of diverse disciplinary perspectives, enable us to see how religious traditions interact with each other, and with changing social, geopolitical and natural environments."

—Dr. Toby Volkman, Program Director of Policy Initiatives

Grant Spotlight: Sacred Landscapes and Sustainable Futures Project at The New School

The Center of the Universe

The center of the universe—according to many Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Bonpos—can be found at the heart of the Himalaya where the borders of China, India, and Nepal converge. It is the home of Shiva; it is the site where Buddhist sage Milarepa defeated the Bon shaman Naro Bon-chung; it is the birthplace of the world. At an elevation of 21,778 feet, Mount Kailash is not only a site of immense spiritual significance, but the surrounding region—a 31,000 sq km area known as the Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL)—is home to over half a million people.


Mount Kailash with prayer flags. Photo credit: Chris Radcliffe

With a grant from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs (HRLI) in 2010, the India China Institute (ICI) at The New School built an interdisciplinary network of researchers and policymakers concerned with religion and sustainability in the Himalaya and honed a conceptual framework for analyzing the relationship between everyday religion and the environment. In 2014, a second grant enabled ICI to draw on that network and framework to generate new research on the intersections of religion and ecology in one of the world’s largest shared sacred landscapes.

Extending from the remote southwestern portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, to the far western regions of Nepal and the northeastern corner of India, this landscape is home to one of the highest, most holy peaks of the Himalaya—Mount Kailash. The KSL includes the mountain, lakes, shrines, rivers and a vast network of pilgrimage routes considered sacred by five different religious groups. It is an area of enormous biodiversity that is highly sensitive to climate change, and it contains the upper catchment of four of Asia’s major rivers. When considered as a whole, the region supports more than one billion people who live downstream and whose livelihoods depend on the flows and resources of these rivers.


Family at the top of Dromo La. Photo credit: Chris Crews

Although multiple religious communities use the pilgrimage routes and share the landscape, the Kailash area has been notable for its lack of conflict. In recent years, however, this stability has been challenged by rising pilgrimage numbers, expanding tourism, new roads and development projects, along with growing poverty and climate-related changes such as droughts and floods.

Providing Perspective

One organization currently working to address these challenges is an intergovernmental center based in Nepal called the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). In 2012, in collaboration with the governments of India, China and Nepal, ICIMOD spearheaded the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative with the goal of achieving long-term conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity while enhancing communities’ resilience and protecting local cultures. Since then, ICIMOD has been working to develop a regional cooperation framework and conservation strategies.

While the Conservation and Development Initiative is premised on the need to respect, protect, and develop an internationally recognized shared sacred landscape, it relies primarily on government officials and environmental scientists. Without the input of social scientists and scholars of religion, critical perspectives on the religious and cultural significance of the area would not have been included in its thinking. Recognizing this limitation, ICIMOD invited ICI to investigate the impact of religious beliefs and practices on this evolving landscape.


Pilgrims pray and pass each other on the kora around Mt. Kailash.
Photo credit: Chris Crews

Ashok Gurung, senior director of ICI and faculty at the graduate program in international affairs at The New School, led the initiative, in collaboration with faculty members Mark Larrimore, a religious studies scholar, and Rafi Youatt, a political ecologist. Additional members of the research team from China, India, and Nepal contributed not only disciplinary expertise in religious studies, anthropology, history, linguistics, and political theory, but the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the bureaucratic and political dynamics of the region.

A Collaborative Legacy

For the HRLI, this grant has been somewhat unusual in terms of thematic and regional focus. Program Director Toby Volkman explains that she saw in this project an opportunity to support an exploration of the ways in which religion, politics, and landscape are profoundly interconnected. “Kailash is more than a sacred mountain or a profusion of routes traveled each year by thousands of pilgrims who circumambulate its peak. The project’s dual focus on environmental history and on peoples’ everyday lived experiences and practices, and the inclusion of diverse disciplinary perspectives, enable us to see how religious traditions interact with each other, and with changing social, geopolitical and natural environments. Not only is the research team addressing these questions, but its findings could have a real impact on policy and the course of development in the Himalayan region.”

One of Gurung’s objectives throughout the project has been to impart to scholars and policymakers the importance of understanding this region through a range of perspectives—political, ecological, and cultural. “Better understanding how religious resources act as catalysts for action, especially environmental conservation, will allow more locally-relevant and site-specific engagement strategies to be developed,” explains Gurung. As the area becomes more accessible, “new ways of engaging with our understandings of conservation and ecosystem services, rights for nature and collective personhood, and sacredness, may be the last and best policy mechanism for protecting globally important shared sacred landscapes.”

The team at ICI is in the process of disseminating its work through a variety of outlets aimed at providing new resources about the KSL to decision makers, scholars, and the general public.

To address the needs of local, regional, and international policymakers, a report will be issued that should inform debates about the future of the Kailash area, including whether to nominate the region as a World Heritage Site.

Works in progress include a dedicated issue of either the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture or Himalaya devoted to the project findings. Those findings were also shared at a conference on Mountains and Sacred Landscapes in April 2017 at The New School, held jointly with the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture; American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (also a grantee of the HRLI, for a project on religion and climate change); and ICIMOD. ICI is also developing an online, interactive map in collaboration with The New School’s Parsons Institute for Information Mapping. It will capture the diverse landscapes of lived religious practices, sacred sites and pilgrimage routes, as well as ecological features and development efforts. Visual artists, photographers, and writers have also contributed to the project and their creative work will result in an exhibition (Kailash Cartographies) and two books of regional folktales.


Visitors explore the Kailash Cartographies exhibition.
Photo credit: Chris Hyun Choi


Monkey prints by Atul Bhalla. Photo credit: Chris Hyun Choi

This initiative will continue to enrich teaching and scholarship with the creation of new courses at The New School: Politics of Walking; Not to Scale: On Sacred Mountains; Sacred Boundaries: Faith, Ecology, and the Politics of the Himalayas; and Global Himalaya: Rethinking Culture and Ecology. As Mark Larrimore has written, the initiative contributes to debates within the field of religious studies, challenging a “world religions” paradigm and directing our attention “to where and how religion lives, and to how the worlds shared by human and other-than-human are sustained in practice and in time.”

Building bridges across geography and discipline has been integral to the project. The advisory relationships established between scholars and policymakers, the folktales and rituals shared by local herdsmen with visiting artists, and the complementary perspectives of environmental and social scientists will, the project participants hope, extend beyond the life of the initiative.



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“Better understanding how religious resources act as catalysts for action, especially environmental conservation, will allow more locally-relevant and site-specific engagement strategies to be developed."

—Ashok Gurung, Senior Director of the India China Institute at The New School