Priests and Cobblers: A Study of Social Change in a Hindu Village in Western Nepal

Bookworm Issue 68 Jul, 2010
Text by Patricia Caplan

It has been 35 years since anthropologist Patricia Caplan published “Priests and Cobblers”, her first and only book on Nepal. It has been republished with only a brief new Foreword to distinguish it from the original. Caplan’s pioneer work on caste and society in the far western hills was well received in the 1970s, and is bound again to become required reading for students of Nepali history, society and culture. Priests and Cobblers takes the reader back to a time and place that in some respects, remains little changed, but in other ways has been hugely revolutionized. Two decades later, her research site was seriously impacted by the Maoist movement. Her focus on caste and economy reveals some of the roots of that movement.

Caplan’s study is about inter-caste relations, elite and Dalit, Brahmin and Cobbler, in ‘Dauri’ village of ‘Belaspur’ District (both are pseudonyms). The book has seven chapters, beginning with an Introduction, three chapters on Village Economy (Resources, Earning a Living, and Recent Changes), two chapters on Village Politics (Factions, and The Growth of Caste Conflict), and Conclusions, plus tables, maps, photographs, bibliography and index. (There are some real classics noted in the Bibliography, which it would do us well to revisit from time to time.) Disputes over land ownership are at the heart of the study. (Has anything changed?) It focuses on how Cobblers have suffered, but also how they have used their strength in numbers to fuel factional politics. About social change, the author warns readers looking for easy answers that “change is not uni-causal; there is no single, independent variable”. Rather, a full understanding of the situation (then and now) requires examining relationships between many variables and factors of change. This book examines those relationships.

When it was published in 1972, Priests and Cobblers was one of a very few descriptive analyses of the deeply ingrained and conservative caste system as found in many villages of rural Nepal. It told us what we knew, but were then (and to a degree yet today) uncomfortable or unwilling to face; that is, how easily an ‘elite’ ‘upper’ caste community can make the life of poor Dalits so economically difficult and socially uncomfortable. Second, revisiting it now reveals some of the background to the rise of Maoism, and to contemporary development planning in the hills. It describes deeply rooted socio-economic discrimination, not greatly changed by various government and donor-sponsored ‘development’ schemes of that earlier time. This is, perhaps, its greatest significance for today’s reader. There is a lot to learn from Caplan’s description and analysis about Nepal then and now.

Caplan wrote her book as one in a series of case studies about social change in traditional societies around the world. In this re-issue of the book, she admits to something that all foreign scholars and writers on Nepal should heed. When the book was first published in 1972, it was intended for Western students and was unavailable in Nepal. In retrospect, she says, “I have become increasingly aware that it is our responsibility to ensure that the fruits of our work are made available to the people with whom we carry out our research.” Whether the book ever reaches ‘Belaspur’ (in what appears to be Rapti Zone), is one thing. In what language, is another. But at least, it is now available in Kathmandu, in the original English, in paperback.

Mandala Publications, Kathmandu, in collaboration with International Textbook Co. Ltd., 103 pp (illus.). Price Rs 250/-.
Book Courtesy: Mandala Book Point
Ph. 4245570.