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Swargajyoti Gohain, Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands: Culture, politics, place

Mark Turin
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Swargajyoti Gohain, Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands: Culture, politics, place, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 21 b/w illustrations, 2020, ISBN 9789462989320

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1The people of Monyul, a Tibetan Buddhist cultural region in west Arunachal Pradesh, Northeast India, hold aspirations for local autonomy. In this sophisticated monograph, anthropologist Swargajyoti Gohain explores the many textures of Monpa ambitions as these are ‘overlaid by transregional imaginations that are pan-Himalayan in nature’ (p14).

2Rooted in long-term fieldwork in Tawang and West Kameng districts, Gohain’s text is one of continued intellectual refinement, exploring the complex cultural identities (language, place names, oral traditions) and transregional networks of connection that shape contemporary politics in Monyul. Gohain’s analysis is set against the indelible backdrop of the unresolved border dispute festering between India and China. Imagined Geographies takes on a great deal and Gohain has high expectations of what she can convey in her text as well as what her reader can digest. At no point in this engaging and textured monograph are we at all disappointed. Imagined Geographies is contemporary anthropology at its very best: ethnographically rich, analytically rigorous and theoretically omnivorous.

3Gohain’s fieldwork in Monyul took place between 2008 and 2013, with return trips in 2017 and 2018. She remains modest about the difficulty of working in what the Indian government has long deemed to be a sensitive area. One of the most reassuring aspects of Imagined Geographies is that the research questions seem to be generated by the location, in conversation with local Monpas and emerging out of the current political moment. Gohain has not entered Monyul to prove, disprove or assert a particular position. Instead, she ably demonstrates how ‘ethnographic analysis might tap into social and political practices as well as affective process that both inspire and aspire to the ideals of a spatial community’ (p30).

4Given the multidimensional nature of the subject, it is simply impossible for a review to do justice to the entirety of Gohain’s text. Instead, I draw out a few key elements. Monyul, we are reminded, while far from the urban metropoles of Delhi and Calcutta, is anything but remote. Almost by definition, in fact, Monyul cannot be ‘forgotten’ as it constitutes a disputed and heavily militarised territory along the Sino-Indian border where the imaginings and aspirations of the state, played out through roads and army settlement, are ever present.

5With considerable agility, Gohain shows how the ‘current political demand for autonomy thus offers an alternative image of Monyul: rather than engaging in regional conflicts, it invokes transregional cultural ties to project Monyul as a Buddhist region’ (p16). One of Gohain’s most effective interventions is to demonstrate that a postnational and imagined Himalayan geography is not constituted by physical mobility or patterns of migration, but rather predicated on the idiom of alliance along a ‘territorially non-continuous plane’ that is constituted by networks rather than bounded by locations (p20). An imagined Himalayan geography is not only good to think with, but a powerful expression of relationality and anticipated alliance. Gohain’s approach to analysing expressions of ‘Himalayan-ness’ will be valuable for readers of this journal, many of whom attend the Himalayan Languages Symposium or Himalayan Studies Conferences. As scholars presenting in such locations, we might consider whether we also invoke the ‘notion of the Himalayas as a cultural space’ that ‘transcends the boundaries of physical space’ (p20). For Monpa culture workers, ‘Himalaya’ has additionally – and rather helpfully – emerged as a substitute for Tibetan, albeit with ‘less overtly political overtones’ (p99).

6Bookended by an excellent introduction and a strong conclusion, Imagined Geographies is structured around five chapters with deceptively simple titles. Field presents the ethnographic location, offering some important historical background together with contemporary profiles of West Kameng and Tawang. The author makes a strong case for Monyul being considered a site of ‘selective development’, where in the absence of reliable public services, residents are dependent on the military for even basic infrastructural provisions (p63). Tying this back to practices that took root in the colonial era, Gohain shows how Monpas are rendered doubly peripheral by the various logics of post-Independence India.

7In Locality, the author takes on the ‘compromised realities and contested imaginations of the autonomy discourse’ (p68), showing how the Mon autonomy movement is less concerned with asserting indigenous rights in a conventional sense and rather more focused on a cultural agenda concerned with preserving Tibetan Buddhist traditions, since these are understood to have come to define a ‘singular Monpa identity’ (p73). Central to such representations is the vitality and visibility of Bhoti, a language which exists in a curious middle space of being at once firmly ‘of’ the Monpa community, and therefore integral to their sense of a shared belonging, and yet strategically pooled with other Himalayan communities across all of northern India who collapse real linguistic difference for representational purposes, tactically bolstering speakers’ numbers in the decennial census (cf Turin 2014). Whether it be traditional medical (Sowa Rigpa) or language (Bhoti), Monpa demands for autonomy confirm that ‘the imagined community of the autonomy discourse is much larger than the territorial community within the Mon region’ (p99).

8Chapter 3, Connections, traces complex narratives about the transregional origins and migration of the Monpas. As inhabitants of a border region, Monpas must be delicate in how they navigate ‘questions of origin and national belonging’ (p109). While assiduously avoiding the role of ethnographic authenticator, Gohain carefully examines how Monpas ‘re-invent narratives of Tibetan origin, migration and marriage through re-telling’ (p110). In her cogent analysis, the Monpa community are not seeking international recognition or material benefits from the state such as Scheduled Tribe status. Rather, they are reacting against regimes of recognition that are territorially determined and confined within the narrow strictures of the nation state. Monpas, in other words, are looking to break free from frameworks of recognition that are not of their own making, and in so doing, to navigate the politics of autonomy through the fluidity of boundaries and with an awareness of the constructed nature of categories of belonging.

9In Chapter 4, entitled Periphery, Gohain takes on the politics of toponyms and the renaming of local sites with Hindi names. Through resisting these political (if often unofficial) acts along with the wider ‘Hindification’ of the landscape, and in advocating for the restoration of traditional place names, Monpas counter the nationalist production of memory and space and construct places of difference. While such toponymic exertions can be read at several registers, they certainly serve as ‘claims for the repatriation’ of non-material culture and intangible heritage that resonate with actions by other communities across the Himalayan region (Turin 2002; Daurio and Turin 2020).

10Through Region, Chapter 5, we learn how the Tibetan refugee issue ‘crystallises the tension between the Monpas’s regional identity and their transnational affiliations’, thus complicating the imagined Himalayan geography (p167). Monpas, Gohain argues, must sit with the paradox of, on the one hand, adhering to a regional ideology in which Tibetans are ‘interlopers’ while on the other, valuing the idea of (and seeking membership in) a Tibetan Buddhist community in which Tibetans are naturally accommodated.

11My small quibbles about this entirely delightful monograph are ones that have nothing to do with the writing. The image reproductions are regrettably poor, lower in quality than what a home printer can produce, and do a disservice to the text as a whole. In addition, the price tag of well over 8,000 Indian rupees, even for a PDF version, will likely mean that Imagined Geographies is out of reach for all but the most affluent Monpa. Given that the contents of this book will surely be of intellectual interest and tactical utility for the Monpa community as they navigate their imagining for their collective future with intention and care, we can only hope for a reasonably priced South Asian edition before long. Gohain is to be commended for crafting a nuanced and erudite text about a poorly understood community living in a profoundly misrepresented region. Both humanising and very readable, Imagined Geographies is a service to Himalayan studies, a testament to the power of rigorous ethnography and most of all, I imagine, a very useful text for the Monpas of Monyul.

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Daurio, M and M Turin. 2020. ‘”Langscapes” and language borders: linguistic boundary-making in Northern South Asia’. Eurasia Border Review 10 (1): 21–42.

Turin, M. 2002. ‘Ethnonyms and other-nyms: linguistic anthropology among the Thangmi of Nepal.’ In Territory and Identity in Tibet and the Himalayas, edited by K Buffetrille and H Diemberger, 253–270.

Turin, M. 2014. ‘Mother tongues and language competence: the shifting politics of linguistic belonging in the Himalayas.’ In Facing Globalization in the Himalayas: Belonging and the politics of the self: Governance, conflict and civic action, Vol 5, edited by G Toffin and J Pfaff-Czarnecka, 372–396.

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Mark Turin, « Swargajyoti Gohain, Imagined Geographies in the Indo-Tibetan Borderlands: Culture, politics, place »European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [En ligne], 59 | 2022, mis en ligne le 21 décembre 2022, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Mark Turin

Mark Turin is associate professor at the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The author or co-author of four books and editor of 12 volumes, Turin has worked in collaborative partnership with Himalayan communities on language and culture documentation projects since the early 1990s.

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