Spirits in a material world: Mediation and revitalization of woodcarvings in a Naga village

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This article is about woodcarving and the role it plays in religion. It is an attempt to grapple with the idea of heritage as partnership — involving “persons in action,” that is between human and non-human persons — focusing on the work of an artist, Lepten, and the seven themed wooden pillars he and others carved in Mopungchuket village in Nagaland, India. It demonstrates, in this case, how heritage as a process opens up conversations between representing the past and the present in the religious grammar of Baptist Christianity and its relationship with materiality through the medium of wood. It also sheds light on the multiple meanings of heritage that are about openings and pathways for people to discuss how they experience memory and change, renewal and loss. I will consider, first, how woodcarvings in the Naga context represent the uneasy relationship between two different, but intimately connected, worldviews – traditional (pre-Christian) and the more recent Christian present. Second, I ask, how woodcarvings represent a kind of “heritage.” The key to addressing Lepten’s woodcarvings is to approach mediation as a practice that makes immediate the different kinds of agencies, whether divine, human, or the wood itself, to form. This view is fruitful in seeking to revise the concept of heritage not solely as a secular practice that can be viewed and appreciated as representing the cultural essence of a people, but situated dynamically as entangled with “spirits” and “gods” as part of the texture of the social fabric based on experience. Heritage, therefore I suggest, is never fully the ideal representation of a singular idea — either institutional or otherwise — but involves a myriad of partners. This paper seeks to give ethnographic flesh to these partnerships, by suggesting that what is represented as the “past” in heritage is never dormant but perpetually being animated through the relations that revise, form, and re-embed in newer ways. In this sense, the problem of heritage and the different forms of mediation must take into account how carvings are viewed in Ao Naga society, drawing on both Christian and indigenous Naga concepts that continue to push where the boundaries of heritage as an idea and practice begin and where they end.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-498
Number of pages32
JournalNumen: International Review for the History of Religions
Issue number5-6
Early online date29 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 13 Sept 2018

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • woodcarving
  • Nagaland
  • Mopungchuket
  • partnership
  • purification
  • materiality
  • religion
  • heritage


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