Introduction to Nepali

Language and Culture

Maureen Durkin – Ayurveda Dissertation


The above link contains the entire pdf of Prof. Maureen Durkin’s dissertation on Ayurveda in Nepal. She’s a professor of public health and an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also got her PhD; she’s since moved on from Ayurveda and Nepal to do other things. Here’s the abstract of the dissertation from UMI. I copied it from its reproduction in the predecessor to the journal Himalaya, which used to be called Himalayan Research Bulletin. So please excuse OCR-scan errors if there are any!

Title: Ayurveda in Nepal: A Medical Belief System in Action

This study documents the ayurvedic medical tradition as it currently exists in urban Kathmandu, Nepal. It
reviews conceptual issues in medical an’thropology concerning medical systems and distinctions made between
disease and illness. It clarifies these concepts and uses them to define ayurveda as a medical system and to
explore its role in shaping illness experience and healing activities. The thesis of the study is that ayurveda’s
forte and one reason for its persistence and continued popularity is its attention to the social and affective
aspects of illness in Nepal.

The study describes the context of this ayurvedic system as a pluralistic health care configuration and reveals
various patterns of resort to ayurvedic healers within this context. It found eight distinct, extant types of
ayurvedic practitioners in Kathmandu City, including midwives, sorcerers, apothecaries, bone-setters,
specialists in treating the dying and general practitioners. The study describes each type and typical life
histories, knowledge, practices and clienteles of practitioners of each one. In doing so it provides the first
ethnographic account of Nepal’s ayurvedic tradition.

The final chapters focus on one type of ayurvedic practitioner–the kaviraja–and describe in detail his
baCkground, knowledge, approach to diagnosis and therapy, clientele, and clinical interactions with clients.
They also present case studies and semantic analyses of two “cultural sicknesses” managed by the kaviraja–
leukorrhea and jaundice–and reveal the kaviraja’s expertise in interpreting the multiple meanings of these
sicknesses and managing their social and affective aspects. Further, the study describes and compares
explanatory models for these sicknesses expressed by kavirajas with those expressed by their clients and with
those conveyed in Sanskrit medical texts and notes interesting discrepancies and consistencies.
In the dissertation’s appendices appear a number of ayurvedic medicinal formulae used in Nepal and a list of
163 of their botanical ingredients. Voucher specimens of these substances were collected by the author and
deposited at the University of Wisconsin Herbarium.

The data for this study were collected during thirteen months (1980-81) of fieldwork by the author among
ayurvedic practitioners and their clients in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The Tibetan medicine post

So as we noticed, Martin Chautari’s recent medical anthropology bibliography for Nepal leaves out Tibetan medicine. This makes sense, because it’s a vast subject in itself. So I thought I’d include some resources in case you want to learn about Tibetan medicine as well.

A conference at the University of Minnesota in 2011 posted one bibliography. This includes a lot of material on religion as well as some on medicine, and some of it links up with Ayurveda. Second International Tibetan Medicine Conference: Healing Mind and Body.

Some well-known anthropologists who have worked in Nepal and on Tibetan medicine are Sienna Craig and Vincanne Adams. Their edited volume with German anthropologist Mona Schrempf, who does her research in Tibet, is a good introduction to Tibetan medicine and its intersections and interactions with contemporary biomedicine: Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds.

Sienna’s own ethnography, Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, was recently published. UH library doesn’t have a copy yet, but if you’re interested in this medical tradition, it’s worth owning.

And finally, here is a short article of Sienna’s on one of the older amchi or Tibetan doctors she met when she first went to research medicine in Mustang, an autonomous kingdom in the central-western mountain area of Nepal: Portrait of a Himalayan Healer.

A starting point for studying development and difference

Stacy Pigg’s article “Inventing Social Categories Through Place” introduces how the international development industry and the Nepali state have constructed “the Nepali village” as a place that is backward and in need of development intervention, but also still the location of a Nepali essence. This article will give you some sense about how official discourse (especially of the Panchayat period, 1960-1990) links and perpetuates hierarchies of place, class, caste, ethnicity, and gender.


Pigg 1992 Inventing Social Categories Through Place

Martin Chautari Bibliographies (including Medical Anthro)

Martin Chautari is a private research institute in Kathmandu. Chautari means a resting place; Martin is the name of one of the founders of the original Chautari research group. When he unexpectedly died young, the group was named in his memory, and evolved into a full-fledged institution. It focuses on media and policy studies and has weekly discussion meetings on a variety of topics. It also publishes books and journals, has a useful library that focuses on its research topics, and is a great place to meet other academics in Nepal. There are other research institutes too, like Social Science Baha, and then of course there are the universities.

One thing that Martin Chautari has been doing is publishing bibliographies on various Nepal-related topics. They can be found on their website,

Here is the most recent one, which deals with medical anthropology and medical sociology in Nepal. It does not include Tibetan medicine, but maybe they’re keeping that separate. We can come up with a Tibetan medicine bibliography later.

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Background Readings

It’s hard to choose just a few background readings about Nepal! When I was first going to Nepal as an undergraduate, I checked out every book on Nepal that I could find in the public library. I was treated to a lot of fantasy literature masquerading as non-fiction, about treks on quests for Yetis and disturbingly orientalist accounts of volunteering among Tibetan refugees. The Lonely Planet guidebook was slightly more realistic, but nevertheless, I didn’t really find much out about Nepal at all.

If you start with these books, you might get a better idea, and actually recognize the place they are talking about.

Manjushree Thapa, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (2nd edition)

This is a “personal” history, sort of a memoir and sort of a journalistic account of how Nepal got itself into the political mess of the mid-2000s.

John Whelpton, A History of Nepal

John Whelpton has admitted that his book contains a number of errors, so you should try to get the latest edition in case they’ve been corrected. In any case, it is a far better history than you will get from the Lonely Planet but still highly accessible.

DFID and World Bank, Unequal Citizens: Gender, Caste, and Ethnic Exclusion in Nepal (Summary Report) [pdf]

In 2005 the World Bank and DFID, to put it cynically, spent a lot of money to state the obvious. The results at least were useful: they produced this summary report, and participation in the research allowed those involved to write more in-depth academic papers on related subjects. I can point you to a few of those if you’re interested. But this report is a good place to start to understand the dynamics of gender, caste, and ethnicity-based social exclusion in Nepal.

Susan Hangen, Creating a New Nepal: The Ethnic Dimension [pdf]

This short policy monograph distills a lot of the issues about ethnicity into a succinct introduction.

Ernestine McHugh, Love and Honor in the Himalayas: Coming to Know Another Culture

This is a personal account of the author, a psychological anthropologist, and her experiences living in a Gurung village north of Pokhara. It is one of the best examples of the ethnographic memoir genre that I have read.

Mark Liechty, Suitably Modern: Making Middle-Class Culture in Kathmandu

Even though the fieldwork for this book is primarily from the 1990s, you will still recognize the Kathmandu of Suitably Modern. If you are interested in youth culture, media, or theorizing about social class, this book is also a great introduction to those subjects.

…and one on Bhaktapur because both of you will be spending time there:

Suresh Dhakal and Sanjeev Pokharel, Local Movements, Political Processes, and Transformation: A Case Study of Bhaktapur Municipality.

It deals with waste management, which has connections to health… 🙂