Alexander Macdonald

Alexander Macdonald was born in Scotland. In 1940, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Royal Scots Regiment and left for Asia via Madagascar. After landing in India, he went on to take part in the Battle of Burma, and in operations in Sumatra, Java and Thailand. He transferred from the Tenth Gurkha Rifles to Force ‘V’, then to Special Operations Executive (Force 136), and later to the Allied Land Forces Paramilitary Operations. Here he met Nepalese Gurkhas, as well as Kachin, Chin, Naga and Burmese. Sometimes, but only rarely, he would talk about his experiences. “When you live in the jungle, you have to learn how to take off your boots and walk barefoot. At first it’s hard to get into the jungle. But with time, it’s even harder to leave it.” At that time, he thought about becoming a tea planter in Assam. He visited Ladakh and many other places. In 1946, at the age of 23, he left the army laden with military honors and the rank of major, something that French officers who had resettled in Cambodia found hard to believe. But, in the end, rather than Gurkhas’ bravery, it was the civility and gentleness of the Buddhist highlanders’ lives that brought him back to Asia.

Post-war London was worn out, and Macdonald’s return to Great Britain a sad occasion. From 1946 to 1949 he began his studies at Saint John’s College in Oxford. In 1949, he moved to France with no regrets for the mists of Scotland: he arrived with two friends in an old car, captivated by the scenery. But if he decided to settle in France, it was because of the work of the Orientalists. From 1949 to 1952 he studied sociology, ethnology, history of religions and Sanskrit. In 1951, he joined the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He worked with Louis Dumont, and followed Rolf Stein’s seminars on China, as well as on the Epic of Gesar and Tibetan literature.

In the 1950s, he acquired an erudition that extended over a broad span of time and space: India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, China and Tibet. But learning would never be an end in itself for him: it was interesting only insofar as it gave a meaning to people’s lives, and made it possible to understand the dynamics of civilizations over long periods. His first works, written in the 1950s, dealt with the fundamental institutions of Asia, such ritual hunts, megaliths, village cloistering and symbolic dismemberment.

“However, do not take a library for the equivalent of a country.” That is why, in the late fifties, Macdonald returned to Asia after twelve years of absence to make his first extended period of field research (1958-1960).

He settled in Kalimpong, which for Westerners was still – though not for much longer – one of the gateways to Tibet and Central Asia. At the beginning of his stay, Kalimpong was still the end-point of the great caravans that came down from Tibet. The market here was famous, and Macdonald liked to spend time there. But in 1959, Kalimpong was also a scene of misfortune. After the Lhasa Uprising, the town saw an influx of Tibetan refugees from Kham, Amdo and Central Tibet, fleeing from the Chinese occupation. Some had lost everything, while others still held on to their weapons.

In Kalimpong, Macdonald devoted a part of his research to collecting Tibetan folktales. This work resulted in the publication, in 1967 and 1970, of two volumes of Materials for the Study of Tibetan Popular Literature: both relate to the “Tales of the Corpse”, originally from India but also written directly in Tibetan. In addition, he worked on an oral version sung by a bard from Kham. There were long recording sessions, followed by the transcription of the text and then the translation, which required a great deal of patience and presented many difficulties. Macdonald switched from Southeast Asia, his original domain of interest, to the Himalayas and Inner Asia.

He wrote an erudite introduction to “Tales of the Corpse”, and accompanied it with abundant footnotes, giving his readers a substantial critical apparatus. But beyond this introduction, he remained out of sight behind his “sources”. These tales from India also testify to the spread of Buddhist ideas in Tibet. And later, in his “Cinderella” (1980), he would show with force how, at different periods, this diffusion was conscious, organised, decided in high places, and directly related to the political centralisation of Tibet.

Another part of his fieldwork in Kalimpong opened a new field of research that had never previously been studied: that of Nepalese healers (jhānkri) who had settled in Bengal. This time, the fieldwork was different, because, as he said, healers are defined above all by an oral tradition: how should one go about collecting a tradition that leaves no traces? “Rather than providing a theoretical model, I prefer to provide the full-length account that a healer gave me of his own initiation”. Here we find, right from the outset, the same importance that he had accorded, in the “Tales of the Corpse”, to “representations of the other”, free of all influence of Western thought.

At this time he also collected the stories of the healers themselves about their own experiences that they would relate each other. These “materials”, collected in two articles (1962, 1966) are among the finest examples of the literature on the subject, and not only in the domain of the Himalaya. We enter a different world: the story of Nursing, pushed into the fire by the spirits and saved in extremis by a healer; the same Nursing who healed the daughter of his master in Calcutta; Bal Bahadur Tamang, carried away at night into the forest by the spirits; Gobind Prasad, whose corpse is found in a tree.

Through these stories, Macdonald revealed fundamental themes in the eyes of the healers themselves: uncontrolled trance; disappearing into the forest; the necessity of having two teachers, one in this world and one in the other; the progressive control of the trance, and so forth.

At that time, everything that was not Buddhist was “Bon”. Were the Nepalese healers Bon-po? No, said Macdonald. We find in them the influence of shamanism; traces of local and ancestral cults, as well as Tibetan, Lamaist and Bon-po elements; the influence of Hinduism, and especially of Shivaism; perhaps some distant Taoist influences, not to mention the healer himself who may have grafted his personal interpretation onto pre-existing beliefs. Thus the long history of the influences that the Nepalese healer embodies is very different from that of the Tibetan storyteller. With the healers, “We are in a border region,” says Macdonald. In Kalimpong, Nepalese healers and Tibetan storytellers rub shoulders, but they belong to different worlds.

Later, when Macdonald was asked what he thought was important about the healers, he answered in a single sentence: “Through their séances, they make the gods visible”. They transmit a tradition through a performance.

On his return from Kalimpong in 1960, Macdonald’s influence was immediate and lasting, and it remains present in the directions taken by research in the Himalayan Domain.
In 1953, Nepal was opened to foreign researchers, and scholars came from Germany, the United States, France, Great Britain and Japan. In France, Macdonald joined the research group set up at the initiative of Corneille Jest, who has just returned from a lengthy period of fieldwork in Dolpo, in Nepal.

In the course of his fieldwork in Nepal in the 1960s Macdonald turned to new areas of research. These included Indo-Nepalese low-caste singers, in collaboration with Mireille Helffer; the Tharu of lowland Nepal, and later the Tamangs and Sherpas in the highlands, and the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. His influence took the form or short introductory articles on themes that were taken up by young researchers of all nationalities. His articles on the hierarchy of lower castes and on witchcraft in the Nepali Legal code inspired Andras Höfer and his important study on the 1854 National Code, the Muluki Ain, of Jang Bahadur Rana. Likewise, his interest in the ethno-history of the Sherpa clans came to be shared by Michael Oppitz. He also led Kham Bahadur Bista to produce a pioneering work on the clan divinities of the Indo-Nepalese people of the Kathmandu Valley. His ideas on representations would be developed by Nicolas Allen, who extended his investigations in a Rai community to Tibetan-Burman speakers in general. And later, in 1976, when Hitchcock and Jones’ edited volume Spirit Possession appeared, it was clear that Macdonald was at the forefront of research on the subject, and that many scholars had been influenced by his work.

Until then, it had been philologists who had dominated research in Asia. By contrast, it was anthropologists who were particularly influential in Nepal. And whereas in 1961 Macdonald had been critical of scholars who limited civilisation to stone monuments and written sources, he now turned his fire on those who were incapable of carrying out comparative research. He praised Louis Dumont’s dual training in India, and also the merits of his “Bible”, Le Népal, in three volumes, published in 1906 by the Orientalist Sylvain Lévi.
In 1969, besides initiating the teaching of Nepali at the National School of Oriental Languages (Inalco), in Paris, Macdonald joined the Laboratory of Ethnology and Comparative Sociology at the University of Paris X (Nanterre), which Eric de Dampierre had founded. From 1970 to 1986 he held a weekly seminar there.

In these weekly seminars he demonstrated a masterly grasp of the facts, both historical and comparative, and as a philologist and anthropologist. We see an example of this in his outline of the series “Introduction to the Himalayan Domain”:

Is there a Himalayan civilization? First, we will place the Himalayas in its geographic, ethnic and cultural context between India and China. We will focus on the substrate, the indigenous culture on which India and China “worked”, via Tibet. We will review the literature on quadripartite organization on which, according to some theories, the Indian caste system was based. Starting from the examination of the productive base – simple agriculture and slash-and-burn cultivation, hunting, raising of yaks and buffaloes, development of rice fields, various barter systems, etc., centralization operated by the chiefdoms, fiefdoms and petty kingdoms. … The process of centralisation first took place in India and Tibet before appearing on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. There are two systems of centralisation: the Sino-Tibetan and the Indian. Historically, these two systems achieved their distinctive forms in situ before encountering each other in the Himalaya via the trade routes. Comparisons will also be drawn with the encounter between India and China in Southeast Asia….

Macdonald had gone to the Sherpas with the idea, perhaps inspired by Gene Smith, to “catalyse a situation where the Sherpas themselves would be interested in what ethnologists do at home.” Those years were a very special period in his work. His original idea had been to co-author, with the Sherpa monk Sangye Tenzin, a story of Buddhism in the Sherpa country. In time, however, following the Tibetan tradition, he encouraged Sangye Tenzin to write his own autobiography. For a long time, Sangye Tenzin declined: he had achieved too little in his life, he said. Macdonald managed to convince him, however, and while Sangye Tenzin began to work, he himself scoured the Sherpa country in search of pilgrimage guides, family genealogies, descriptions of “hidden lands,” biographies of lamas, texts on local geography related to land, irrigation, grazing rights, clan legends, and suchlike. Some of the documents he reported were unknown to Sangye Tenzin himself.
What the resulting book shows (together with the subsequent articles, this time in English), in the years 1979-1981, was how the Sherpas had remained on the margins of the expansion of Hinduism, which had recently entered their territory, and even, to a degree, of Buddhism from the north. Above all, the texts highlighted the importance of the oral tradition. They showed how, in ritual, the past is present among the Sherpa, in their perception of the landscape; and above all, that “if a book survives in the Tibetan cultural context, it is because it is in direct relation with the oral tradition inherited from the past”.

A final word about Sangye Tenzin: he was not the only person with whom Macdonald worked during his successive field-trips. There had been bsTan-‘dzin phrin-las, the Khampa storyteller; Bal Bahadur Tamang, the Nepalese healer, and others besides. How was it that Macdonald’s informants were so talented?

In addition to his desire to present “materials”, Macdonald published texts or short articles of twenty or so pages, always on the subject of different populations. At first glance, the themes he dealt with seem to be unrelated. What is the relationship between Nepalese healers, the theory of the mandala, Newar art, the history of Sherpa clans and Tibetan pilgrimage? In fact, his work has a unity at a deeper level. Admittedly, it does deal with very different subjects, populations and historical periods, but the centre of gravity was the same in all cases, and we shall return to this matter presently.

Every five or ten years, Macdonald would take stock of the state of the art in a given field: the evolution of South-East Asian Studies (1961); the development of Himalayan Studies (1974); manipulation of power (1987), and so forth. Here again, these are short articles, but full of substance and providing a critical assessment of a field of knowledge. He asked questions that would pave the way for new avenues of enquiry.

However, between the volumes of “materials”, the short articles on very specific subjects or more wide-ranging themes, editions of collected works (to which we shall return below), we should not forget the dozens and dozens of book reviews that he published in the trade journals. He could be highly critical, but polemic was not an end in itself for him. If the reviews were sometimes excoriating, it is because of the high standards he wished to maintain for the disciplines in which he worked, and out of respect for the intellectual inheritance of past generations.

He would often enter into personal contact with the authors of the works he reviewed. He would sometimes make the first approach. He published the work of young researchers in the Haute-Asie collection he founded at the University of Paris X, and translated and published works that seemed important to him.

He joined the editorial boards of scholarly journals both in France and abroad. In Nepal, he was a founder-member of Kailash: A Journal of Himalayan Studies, and established links with researchers from five continents.

Macdonald took advantage of the opportunities offered by the changes taking place in Asia. In 1973-1975, he moved to Nepal, having been invited to set up the Department of Sociology at the Institute (later Centre) for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) of Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur. In 1979-1980, he was in Hong Kong and took part in setting up the Department of Ethnology of the Chinese University in Shatin. That year, he visited Communist China and reported on the state of ethnological research on his return to Paris. In 1984, he was Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He was frequently in London. In 1986, he conducted a field survey of the Naxi of China’s Yunnan. In 1988, he did the same in Chengdu in Sichuan. In 1991, he was elected Secretary General of the International Association of Buddhist Studies for a period of four years. After contributing to the updating of the Constitution of the Association, and organising two international conferences, one in Paris (UNESCO) in 1991, the other in Mexico City in 1994, he passed on the presidency to his German colleague from Freiburg, Oskar von Hinüber.

With Newar Art (1979), written in collaboration with Anne Vergati, Macdonald moved away from small communities perched on high mountains to tackle the cities of the Kathmandu Valley. Now he was no longer dealing with stories of migration, trances or folktales, the special closed arenas where the interaction of millennial influences is briefly revealed, but the splendour of Newar art; now it was no longer the bards, the lamas or the healers who transmit the tradition or effect changes, but the stone carvers, the bronze founders and temple builders.

It was Gustave Le Bon who, in the great square of the city of Patan, confronted with the spectacle of palaces, statues and sanctuaries, evoked the dreams of an opium smoker. For the first time, Macdonald was tackling the legacy of over two thousand years of history. Is it not said that the Buddha himself had visited the valley? That it was the Emperor Ashoka who built the stupas of the city of Patan? And, for the first time, it was not the philologist who guaranteed the quality of the work of the ethnologist, but the opposite: Macdonald refused to accept the separation of art, society and religion.

Once again, however, as with storytelling, trance or singing, it was a question of avoiding the superimposition of a Western vision, and of trying to understand how the Newars themselves perceive their works of art. The idea of “materials” is again present here, though in a more diffuse way. Like the healer who manifests the gods through his trance, the stonemason or the bronze founder is not merely the craftsman that the Westerner sees: the artist’s work ends only after the ritual in which, for the first time, he brings down the god into the stone image he has made. Newar art is the support in which the gods are incarnated. Like the healer in a trance, the stonemason and the bronze founder are also performers: the gods assume the faces that the craftsman has given them. Macdonald opposed the idea of a syncretism of Buddhism and Hinduism “rooted in animist beliefs” among the Newars. The Newars’ way of envisaging their pantheon is not that of a Westerner: it is a function of caste, lineage, family and profession. At the end of the day, religious choice remains a personal choice that takes place within a tradition.

The Newar city is the work of craftsmen. It was they who were the agents of “a way of creating order, of giving shape to the world, that is, to the local landscape”. They were sculptors and urban planners, and also creators of the cosmos, because Newar art pervades everything: the individual, the city and the universe.

Outside the city, in the “wild world” beyond the ramparts, the gods are incarnated in a rough stone or in a piece of shapeless wood. Inside, they assume the faces of the gods of Hinduism, or masters of Buddhism. Thus, if we accept that integration into the community is done through the stages of the life cycle where the gods are present, then it is the artisans who were the founders of Newar society. If one accepts that art was used by the Newar kings to “assert their power and establish their state”, then it is the artisans who legitimised royal power. And if we accept that it is art that has given shape to the gods, then it is the artisans who were the missionaries of the great religions from India. “The Hinduization of Nepal was not achieved by books. It was accomplished through works of art.”

Macdonald’s teaching at the University of Paris X directly resulted in two volumes of essays. The first was Les royaumes de l’Himalaya (Kingdoms of the Himalaya). Published in 1982, it consists of five monographs: on Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. Macdonald himself dealt with Ladakh, leaving the other sections to his collaborators. The wide-ranging historical introduction he provided gave the work its unity.

His 1987 article “The manipulation of power …”, marked a return to the Himalayan kingdoms. The article and his introduction to the book complement each other and provided readers with a broad overview.

In both works, Macdonald again raised the question of a comparative approach to the Himalayan domain and its unity. Certainly, he insisted on the need to combine the study of texts with fieldwork – philology and ethnology in partnership.
The other edited volume, closely related to his seminars at the University of Paris X and his influence outside France, was devoted to Himalayan rituals (Rituels himalayens, 1987), and brought together a dozen contributions.

In his introduction, Macdonald emphasised the change that this volume represented in the study of ritual. Until then, he observed, authors had confined themselves to highlighting the respective stratified and juxtaposed components of “animism, Hinduism and Buddhism”: this approach was sterile, and he had always been critical of it. On the contrary, it was necessary to analyze the reciprocal interaction of these various components; to approach the ritual from the perspective of its effects on society. What had to be understood was the purpose of the rite and the issues involved – very often, the acquisition of a power. In fact, the change that Macdonald noted in the study of Himalayan rituals was largely the result of his own influence.

In due course, one of Macdonald’s main interests began to take shape. It manifested in a series of articles that brought together the themes of pilgrimage, the maṇḍala and the perception of local landscape.

For the first time, in 1971, Macdonald conceived an interest in pilgrimage: specifically, that of Gosainkund, in Nepal, which takes place during the full moon of the Nepalese month of Saun, when the faithful come to perform their devotions to the local manifestation of Shiva. On that day, Newar Buddhists also come up from the lower part of the valley. Tibetans are also present, as are Tamangs, accompanied by their own intercessors. Thus, there are places and dates that are exceptional: for a brief period there is a powerful profusion of rituals, different traditions and multiple beliefs.

Later, in 1975, he published a translation of “A little read guide of the Holy Places of Nepal”, the Tibetan manuscript of which dates from the eighteenth century. The Buddhist author describes the high places of the Kathmandu valley, as well as others, close to the Tibetan border. He insists that in certain special locations men and gods are bound by the common traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. The work offers a lucid account of the process whereby Nepal became Buddhist.

1979 saw the publication of another work on pilgrimage, this time in a pivotal region of Nepal, the Muktinath valley of Mustang District, where Brahmanism from the south meets Buddhism from the North. In the small Bon-po monastery of Thini, near Jomsom, Macdonald discovered and copied another Buddhist pilgrimage guide. The article emphasised the point that there is no relationship between the view of the landscape and a guide’s description of it. What the author of the guide is doing is the stereotypical projection of a mystical vision of the landscape. It shows the transformation of the local mountain, the spirits of the earth and the waters, as guardians of the Buddhist faith.

In his 1983 article “Religion in Tibet at the time of Srong-btsan sgam-po”, Macdonald investigated the belief of modern Tibetans that their seventh-century king built twelve Buddhist shrines to “pin the body of the demoness to the ground”. This belief, he pointed out, is based on an after-the-fact reconstruction by late Tibetan authors. The theme of “dismembering” the demoness, the traditional model of power in the Himalayas, was deliberately manipulated by the elite to make the king a Buddhist. The goal was to help build Tibetan national unity, and also to link Tibet with India. The process is reminiscent of the 84,000 Ashoka stūpas. From now on, the study of pilgrimages and that of the mandala would be in direct relation to what Macdonald called “Operation Buddhism”.
In 1985 he published the study of another pilgrimage, that of Halase, in eastern Nepal. This is the place where Padmasambhava, while en route to Samye, subjected the local demoness who left traces of her flesh and blood at the site. It also bears the footprint of Padmasambhava. Formerly, the submission of the demon has allowed humans to settle in this country. Even today, pilgrims flock every year to benefit from the power that manifests itself in these places. It is a ancient drama that legitimises and justifies contemporary activity.

Finally, with an article devoted to the pilgrimage of La-phyi (1990), Macdonald returned to the nature of a cosmic drama whose traces are recorded in the landscape. This drama is that of the opening of the doors of the site by accomplished Buddhist masters: the gods of Buddhism had to be victorious so that humans could settle in these places. What happened in La-phyi, once again, raises the question of “the Buddhist incorporation of Hindu and animist spirits”. And this general scenario of converting Tibet to Buddhism is a ubiquitous theme that features in every local landscape.
Macdonald had settled in France mainly because of the Orientalist school, which comes through so clearly in his writings. He made an effort to make the works of Pelliot, Granet and Przyluski better known, and published the English translation of Paul Mus’s masterly “foreword” to his Barabudur, to which he also wrote a preface.

He had constant recourse to Paul Mus’s ideas about a “Religion of Monsoonal Asia”, and many of Mus’s words could be applied to his own work: what the immense geographical areas of Asia have in common is “an indigenous substratum” … “an ancient local foundation” … “caught in the pincers of the combined influence of India and China”. And in this conceptual framework, like Paul Mus, he showed from his earliest writings that “the ancient local foundation … that was already complex … has not only survived the organization of India, … but even conditioned it.” He also doubted “the passive nature of indigenous India”. Moreover, he did not accept the idea that India can be reduced to a Sanskritic formulation of its civilisation. He had first applied these ideas about India to Southeast Asia. He continually adapted them to the Himalayan Domain and to Tibet, fields that he had made his own since the time when A. Spanien-Macdonald was preparing her work on Tibetan royalty.

In the spirit of R.A. Stein, this impulse to compare explains the diversity and number of the populations that he studied. It is in response to the questions he raised that he would alight on the peaks or on the valley floors, or investigate the influence of Buddhism or that of Hinduism, or whether he would work among the Indo-Nepalese, the Newars or the Tibetans.

In fact, this historical unity of the Himalayan Domain that he constantly asserted, that of the interaction of the Asian base “caught in the pincers formed by China and India”, became a methodological tool. He had of course shown, among other things, that Chinese thought seems to be rather distant in the Himalayas; it is India, in all its forms, that is especially present, and its echoes are heard in Tibet. Certainly, in this interaction, the archaic institutions that organised the old societies had been supplanted by the major religions with a new meaning.

But beyond this aspect of unity of the Himalayan Domain, what the work of Macdonald emphasises, on the contrary, is the extreme diversity of the paths and the influence of Indian thought on the substratum, its successes, its accelerations, its delays, its absences and its shortcomings. He highlighted the multiplicity of “closed fields” in which the interaction of India and the Himalayan “base” takes place: tales, laws, rituals, works of art, landscape, city plans, healind, architecture, pilgrimages, and so on.

The interaction of the “Asian base” with Indian and Chinese thought ought to have demonstrated the historical unity of the Himalayan domain. But in fact, it shows its extreme diversity. Like all pioneering works, Macdonald’s oeuvre is paradoxical, and it is for this reason that it continues to exert its influence.

Nevertheless, beyond his works, which have left their mark on the current direction of Western research in Asia, it seems that Macdonald’s real originality is to be sought elsewhere. During the Second World War, he, the West, fought side by side with Asians. The essence of this experience, he would later say, was doing things together. Once peace  had returned, his experience of the war remained present. It is surely in this sense that we should interpret the work done side by side, and in Tibetan, by Sangye Tenzin and Macdonald on the Sherpas of Nepal. Alexander Macdonald gave an unprecedented orientation to anthropology. He, the Western scholar, contributed to the Sherpas’ exemplary awareness of their own identity.