Dor Bahadur Bista: The 'Father of Nepalese Anthropology'

Features Issue 97 Jul, 2010

Missing Anthropologist” has been a periodic headline in the Nepal news about Dor Bista since 1995. In the early 2000s it included a plea to the public, seeking anyone who may have seen him. Under the headline above, a reporter speculated that “It was his practice to go to some remoter area for research without informing his family and then come back after completing his research.” Maybe. But if that’s it, why hasn’t he come back? Meanwhile, there are other theories about his disappearance.

Ihad tea with Dor Bahadur Bista at his home in Pulchowk, Patan, a few weeks before he disappeared. He didn’t look well. He was worried. Several things were bothering him. For one, he was concerned about reaction to his recent book on caste and modernization in Nepal, Fatalism and Development. Though it received great praise from some observers, others branded it as a blatant attack against Brahmanism. One reviewer called the book “schizophrenic” and “simplistic.” Strong, biting words.

There were also some powerful elites in Jumla District, he said, who were angry at him for working to empower the rural poor. In an article written for Himal magazine, Bista called the Khas people of far west Nepal “a group that fell through the cracks of history.” He had done rural development there for several years. It was the land of his own purkha, his ancestry; but more importantly he was there to do ‘applied research’. He was an academician endeavoring to apply theories of development to help the Khas community improve its social and economic condition. But the article projected a distinct tone of discouragement. Bista’s efforts “to develop awareness, self-confidence and a sense of worth” among the poorest of the Khas had resulted in a contrary reaction from privileged Jumlis. “The more effective the development activity, the more virulent and reactionary is the response,” he wrote. “For an academician... to try and practice what he preached, it came as a shock to learn that the political, economic and priestly forces are predetermined to join hands to prevent empowerment of the downtrodden.” It disappointed and upset him.

Bista had also been criticized by royalists over remarks attributed to him about the relative ‘purity’ of the Thakuri caste lineage of the (then) royal family. In a caste society, the bloodline (kinship) purity is a sensitive issue. Dor had speculated that somewhere, sometime in the past, the king’s noble heritage may have included an ethnic Magar relationship. He wasn’t the first to have said it, but when he did it raised a storm of protest.

These were among the reasons for his disquiet and feelings of imminent danger. He felt threatened, he told me. “I don’t go out at night. And in daytime I am careful where I go,” he said. He even considered leaving the country for awhile.

I was shocked, hearing this from my friend—the man who so many of us admired as the ‘Father of Nepalese Anthropology’.

A few weeks later, while traveling in west Nepal, Dor Bista boarded a bus in Nepalganj headed for Dhangarhi. He has not been seen since, neither by family nor friends and colleagues.

Who was Dor Bahadur Bista?
Dor Bahadur Bista was born in 1926 in Jaruwarasi, a village south of Patan, the son of an army man. After graduating from Patan High School, he attended Trichandra College. In 1952 he took a government job as the first headmaster of a girl’s high school in Patan. For several years he worked in education, including assignments at Dhandeldhura in the west and Biratnagar in the east. He also became headmaster of the Normal School at the College of Education. While there, an unexpected opportunity came along, one that put him on the path to becoming the country’s first anthropologist.

In an interview given in the early 1990s and published soon after his disappearance, Dor told how it happened. It began, he said, when a friend introduced him to Professor Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, an anthropologist from the University of London specializing in South Asian cultures. In 1957, Haimendorf wanted to study the Sherpas of Solu-Khumbu. When Bista heard that Haimendorf needed a combined assistant and informant, Dor offered his services and took leave from government service to do it.

“Frankly,” said Dor, “I had not even heard the word ‘anthropology’,” so he looked it up in a dictionary. At first he kept a journal in Nepali “and noted down everything—literally even trees and birds. All I was doing was opening my eyes and ears... I recorded anything and everything—that’s how I began.” Over time he disciplined himself, learning Haimendorf’s style of anthropological research.

They spent seven months among the Sherpas, followed by shorter visits to the eastern and central hills, and among the Chhetri caste near Bista’s birthplace in Kathmandu Valley. “By this time,” Bista recalled, “I had been well trained,” though as far as Haimendorf was concerned Dor was “still just an employee working for 100 rupees per month plus food.”

By the end of the fieldwork, Dor wanted to study for a degree in anthropology. His chance came when he was invited to London to assist in interpreting the field data for Haimendorf’s book, The Sherpas of Nepal (1964). About Dor’s studies, however, Haimendorf was not supportive. “Haimendorf didn’t think I would make a good student of anthropology,” Dor said later. But he persevered and after earning an undergraduate Certificate in Indian Ethnography from the University of London, he immediately registered in the graduate program.

But Haimendorf had other ideas, and persuaded Bista to return to Nepal to help him study the Thakali traders of the upper Kaligandaki river valley (Thak Khola) in Mustang District. And when that was done, Haimendorf dissuaded him from returning to London. Besides, he said, he had a wife and four small children, and a prolonged stay in England would place an undue burden on the family.

Dor later referred to his discouragement about not completing the advanced degree as part of his “conflict with Haimendorf.” Haimendorf even went so far as to warn Dor against publishing anything in English (but in Nepali was okay). A few years later, in 1967, when Dor published his book, People of Nepal, and again in 1971 when he published an important article on the Thakali, Haimendorf “was shocked”. Both publications, in English, were based on Dor’s own research. They firmly established him as Nepal’s first indigenous anthropologist. Dor put Haimendorf’s attitude down to being “a product of colonial days” with a prevailing “native-versus-Western-university-professor kind of attitude.”

In 1963, Dor resigned from government service to join the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as a research officer. There he worked under John Cool in the village development division. Together, they pursued action research for development as ‘applied anthropologists’.

The early 1960s “was a time,” says Cool, “when a big field trip for most USAID people was to be driven down to Birgunj for a night to look at the road building in Rapti. Even hiking (the term ‘trek’ had not then entered common usage) to Pokhara or up the Kali Gandaki was seen as quite venturous.” Cool and Bista, however, trekked (‘hiked’) far and wide and did real fieldwork. Dor’s insights, says Cool, significantly enriched USAID’s collective knowledge base, cultural sensitivity, and development policies.

For several years they worked together on an in-depth study of a Terai community called ‘Padipur’ (a pseudonym). The research was designed to measure the impacts of development on rural farmers, to understand their life under absentee landlordism, and to immerse several Nepalese university students in a village study where they would learn the anthropological techniques of ‘participant observation’. Among their findings was the discovery that the locals knew virtually nothing of the existence or purpose of the government extension farm that USAID supported, nor could they remember when a government extension agent had actually visited Padipur. Instead, the researchers were intrigued to find that some “Bangladeshi banias [entrepreneurs] were running a highly effective and profitable marijuana extension program, providing high quality seed, supervising planting and cultivation... and paying cash before the harvest which they collected at the peak of the season.”

Dor worked for USAID until 1968. By then he was well known among foreign anthropologists. That year he was invited to the USA where he met many prominent scholars and was able, briefly, to continue graduate studies, though he never completed an advanced degree.

After returning to Nepal, Dor rejoined government service as Planning Officer and Executive Secretary of the Remote Area Development Committee in the Home Ministry. There, he applied his anthropological knowledge and insights to development in Nepal’s northern hinterland.

In 1972, the King chose Dor to be Nepal’s Consul General in Lhasa for three years. Later, he published Report from Lhasa, which he described as “a travelogue”. Then, back in Nepal, he became Executive Chairman of the Nepal Resettlement Company, a quasi-governmental organization, which put him in touch with social and economic affairs in the Terai.

In 1977-78, he was once again in America, at Columbia University in New York City where he spent a year as a visiting professor under auspices of the Fulbright Foundation.

All of these experiences gave Dor the exposure and confidence he needed to take up what was certainly his most creative and important position. In 1978 he was appointed Executive Director of the new Center for Nepal and Asian Studies at Tribhuvan University (TU) followed, from 1982 to 1989, as Professor and Head of the TU Central Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. While at the university Dor established a strong applied approach to anthropology—an anthropology of and for Nepal, by Nepalese, with periodic inputs from well-known foreign scholars. It was mostly for his work at TU that he proudly accepted on the title of ‘Father of Nepalese Anthropology’. It was also during this time that Dor began writing his most well known but controversial book, Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization (1991). (See box.)

Thereafter, until his disappearance in 1995, Dor Bahadur Bista ran the Karnali Institute, an NGO that he founded. Through it Dor and his anthropologist son, Hikmat, conducted development work in Jumla. Financial support came from various sources, including international aid agencies and a study program that brought foreign student volunteers to the site.

Where did he go
There are three theories about Dor Bahadur’s disappearance. One is that he committed suicide—unlikely; not his style. One is that he was killed—but by whom, where, why? The third is that he simply opted out and left Nepal, to pursue the last phases of a Hindu’s life. While some of his friends point out that Dor was not a religious person, he once described to this author, with some passion, the four phases of a Hindu’s life—the celibate student (Brahmacharya), the married family man (Grihastha), the elder hermit in retreat (Vanaprastha) and, finally, the wandering mendicant (Sannyasan). It is possible.

Within a few years of his disappearance, Dor’s family heard that he had been seen in Hardwar, the sacred city in India’s Uttaranchal state where Mother Ganga debauches out of the Himalayan foothills on to the north Gangetic plain. He may have joined an ashram there, a communal residence open to all. Family members have even visited Hardwar looking for Dor, without success.

“He’s now about 83, so it is possible that he is still alive, though I don’t think he is in Nepal,” Dor’s son Hikmat Bista recently told me. “It is not so easy to survive for such a long time in Nepal, alone. The most likely possibility is that he could be somewhere in Hardwar. We’ve heard reports that he was seen there...”   n

Sources: The initial headline is from (No.3, Jan. 2008).  Dor Bista’s study of ‘Padipur: A central Terai village’ was published in the TU journal Contributions to Nepalese Studies (1978).  Dor’s article ‘Khas of Chaudabisa’ (of Jumla) was published in Himal magazine, May 1995. The interview published posthumously in 1996 was with Prof. James F. Fisher in Current Anthropology (v.37, n.2).  Prof. Alan Macfarlane’s essay on Dor’s book is entitled ‘Fatalism and development in Nepal’, published in the UK journal Cambridge Anthropology in 1990, just prior to the book. Dor Bahadur Bista was also a creative writer, with several short stories, poems, and novels to his credit.