Mapping Religious Lives in the Himalayan Borderlands

11 July, 2019 | International Association of Tibetan Studies Conference, Paris

Delivered at the roundtable on Mapping Tibet: Past, Present, Future.

The places associated with a life, set forth in literature, can also be read on the ground as a kind of biographical text. The notion of a geographic biography is thus useful as a means for teasing out the relationship between Tibetan life writing and sacred geography while critically addressing received notions about the forms they inhabit. 

Michel de Certeau has suggested that the narratives of a saint’s life story are a “composition of places,” charting an itinerary of departures and returns that ultimately come to define the life through the places it inhabits. In past years, I have worked (and published) on the intersections of text and terrain in the recording of an individual’s life. In particular, I have been looking at sites of transformation in Mi la ras pa’s biographical narratives, arguing for what might be called a geographic biography. I suggest that the topography of Mi la ras pa’s life constitutes an important (but frequently overlooked) form of life writing in its own right.

I further suggest that the topography of Mi la ras pa’s biographical tradition was unstable, subject to both change and revision much like the tradition literary biography As individual locations evolved over time, they appear to have served as powerful sites for remembering episodes of the yogin’s life story and for re-recording how those stories were told. The sites of transformation in the geographic biography thus reveal a dialogical relationship between a life story recorded on paper and a life imprinted on the ground. Biographical narratives may landscape the terrain, but sacred sites in turn serve to re-imagine how those narratives can be written and read.

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