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Tourism in Nepal

In Pursuit of Shangri-La

Michael Hutt ( teaches Nepali and Himalayan Studies at SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom.

Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal by Mark Liechty, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017; pp xiv +387, $35.

Mark Liechty’s name is already well established among students and researchers of Nepali history and society, and Suitably Modern, his wryly titled 2003 book on the Kathmandu middle classes, is a rare example of a Nepal-focused monograph that has made it onto anthropology reading lists worldwide. So, this reviewer was not alone in greeting the news that Liechty was about to publish a study of the history of tourism in Nepal with delight. It turned out that he had been working on it for over 20 years, latterly with the assistance of two of Nepal’s excellent young researchers, Rashmi Sheila and Ramakanta Tiwari.

The book under review, Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal, at a little under 400 pages, is quite a hefty tome. Its cover is a Desmond Doig watercolour of the iconic view of the Basantapur tower of the Hanuman Dhoka palace in Kathmandu, as seen from “Freak Street” during the hippie heyday. Foreigners fill the street, the men all long-haired, with just one Nepali figure at the margin. Signboards declare: “New Hungry Eye,” “Orient Lodge,” “Don’t Pass Me By Restaurant.” The title and its cover, therefore, suggest that this is a study of the “hippie” period of the history of tourism in Nepal. However, Liechty’s account of the hippie period actually amounts to a little under half of the study, because the book attempts to do a great deal more than simply reconstruct (and deconstruct) a fascinating period. As the book’s title suggests, its central purpose is to analyse the history of tourism in Nepal in terms of an “encounter” between the foreign visitor and the visited Nepali.

The book is divided into three uneven parts and begins long before the arrival of the first hippies. Liechty records that, before 1950, Kathmandu had received no more than 300 “foreign” (that is, non-South Asian) visitors, less than a quarter of the number who had managed to get to Lhasa. Much of Part 1, “The Golden Age,” follows a path previously trodden by Peter Bishop in his book, The Myth of Shangri-La (1989), but with much closer attention to local cultural and political contexts. Thus, we meet the mystics and eccentrics of late 19th- and early 20th-century Euro-America, such as the theosophist “Madam” Blavatsky, whose claim to have been inspired by a meeting with a princely Nepalese “master” in London in 1851 Liechty politely dismisses by pointing out that Jang Bahadur and his entourage actually visited London one year earlier. And, of course, the point is well made that the often-deluded imaginings of Blavatsky and her successors were focused not on Nepal per se, but on their own notions of “Tibet.” The fact that Tibet became totally inaccessible to foreigners at almost the same time that the exclusionary Rana regime came to an end in Nepal meant that Nepal became the next best thing for seekers of an essentially “Tibetan” Shangri-La. This is one of the more interesting coincidences of Himalayan history.

One aspect of the Euro-American pursuit of Shangri-La that Liechty rather misses, however, is the atmosphere of moral uncertainty that existed in Europe following the end of the 1914–18 war, and particularly the near deification of British mountaineer George Mallory, who disappeared on Mount Everest in 1924 and is widely believed to have provided the character template for the hero of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, in which the “keyword” Shangri-La was first coined.

Tourism in a recognisably modern form dates from the 1950s in Nepal, and the figure of Boris Lissanevitch, the Russian founder and proprietor of Kathmandu’s first international hotel, looms large over this period. It was during this period that mystics faded away and were replaced by well-heeled American tourists who flew in for a few days as an extension of their Indian tours, and by mountaineers. Liechty digs more critically into Lissanevitch’s story than authors like Michel Peissel whose book, Tiger for Breakfast (1972), first mythologised a man who knew exactly how to sell to a new breed of foreign visitors the colonial fantasies that they craved. Liechty argues that Lissanevitch’s ability to run his business depended greatly on remaining in favour with King Mahendra, for whose coronation in 1955 he organised the catering and hospitality, importing the food in three DC-3 aircraft flying non-stop shuttles between Patna and Kathmandu, and bringing in over 200 catering staff from Calcutta. International media coverage of the coronation, Liechty writes, proclaimed “Kathmandu’s antique and Oriental charms to an audience predisposed to dreams of Shangri-La and eager to imagine that such a place still existed in some remote corner of the Himalayas” (p 44). However, the Shahs realised the potential of foreign tourism to generate large amounts of foreign income and, by 1969, Lissanevitch’s hotel was closed and he was put in prison.

Part 2, “Hippie Nepal,” is the heart of the book. Liechty’s account of the way in which the first seekers of peace, love, and cheap legal cannabis were taken in by low-caste Newars (food sufficient, cash-poor, unworried by notions of ritual pollution) is well researched and fluently written. It leads on to a fascinating account of the growth of Kathmandu’s famous Freak Street, the dwindling of the hippie flow, the closing down of the government-licensed cannabis trade, and the emergence of the city quarter known as Thamel, which is where the (relatively) clean-living young tourist has always almost stayed since the 1980s. Liechty locates all of this persuasively against the backdrop of Cold War geopolitics and the emergence of the 1960s youth culture (although the European contexts of the latter are somewhat neglected in favour of the North American), and his account is greatly enriched by its focus on some of the key players, both Nepali and foreign, many of whom he tracks down and interviews. Thus, we meet fascinating pioneers such as Ravi Chawla, an Indian whose early initiatives led to the emergence of Freak Street, and D D Sharma, the Nepali proprietor of the famous “Eden Hashish Centre.” Liechty also tells us a lot about the cultural legacy of this period. Interestingly, many of the Western-inspired innovations in art, literature, and music that took place in Kathmandu during this seminal period stemmed rather more from interactions with diaspora Nepalis from Darjeeling than with local actors.

Part 3, “Adventure Tourism,” is the book’s shortest section, and deals with the advent of the trekking industry and the way in which Nepal has become a prime destination for Euro-American followers of “Eastern religion,” thus picking up the threads with which the book opened. One of its most interesting passages recounts the career of Zina Rachevsky, the Paris-born socialite who played a central role in the establishment of Kopan Monastery as the hub of a worldwide network of Buddhist study and meditation centres. Liechty contrasts Western religious seekers’ construction of Nepal as a “Buddhist country” with many Nepalis’ unwillingness to acknowledge Tibetan Buddhism as an attraction that brings dollar-spending tourists to their country. Inevitably, tourism in Nepal nowadays is more of a business than a cultural encounter, especially when seen from the Nepali side: “If Freak Street had been a lark, Thamel meant getting down to business, a business that transformed tourists from foreign curiosities into extractive resources” (p 322).

This fascinating book is not without its flaws. Large chunks of three of its chapters were previously published as articles in the journal, Studies in Nepali History and Society, and have not been integrated into the text of the book as fully as they might have been. As a result, the book is sometimes marred by unnecessary repetition. Also, Liechty’s laudable aim of producing a balanced account of the encounter between the visitor and the visited is somewhat hampered by the imbalance of the material available to him: while tourist sources abound, documentation of the Nepali response is scarce. He makes up for this in considerable measure by interviewing key players, but there are inevitable gaps in the record. For instance, it would be incredibly interesting to chart the role of the Shah monarchy in more detail. Although the hippies were entirely oblivious to the political currents that swirled about them, the 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the repressive Panchayat regime, and kings Mahendra and Birendra clearly took a political view of tourism while seeing it as a generator of revenue.

The publication of this book coincided rather neatly with that of Paulo Coelho’s new novel, Hippie (2018). But, the story it tells is not over. A notable development on Nepal’s tourist scene in recent years is the arrival of a growing number of Chinese visitors, both in organised group tours and as individual young travellers. Perhaps, because of a revival of interest in Buddhism in China, many visit not only the Kathmandu valley but also Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal’s Tarai. What Liechty’s book demonstrates is that Euro–American visitors to Nepal have always been lured there by their imaginings, which often remain impervious to the realities of the society they encounter. What, then, are Chinese tourist imaginings of Nepal, and what do they tell us about the way in which human beings from different places construct and encounter one another? Liechty’s book provides both a signpost and a template for further research on such questions.



Updated On : 26th Nov, 2018


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