Vignettes on Change and Permanence in India and eastern Africa

Vignettes on Change and Permanence in India and eastern Africa

By Jonathan Walz

In recent decades, people and places in India and eastern Africa have, with increased frequency and scale, been impacted by environmental disasters, population growth, magnified social and economic inequality, and the influences of tourism and extractive capitalism, often layered over on-going cultural or religious contests and/or imperial and colonial debris from past experiences. These vignettes attempt to capture a selection of such trends in three cases that stoke internal societal debates and practices at the intersection of change and permanence. People balance change and permanence in ways meaningful to them: through symbols, expressions, and acts that assure, that make the unfamiliar relatable, and that serve as mechanisms for societal negotiation about what should remain defining or shift. In an era of loss and substantial stress, like the one that characterizes much of the Indian Ocean world today, the places, events, concepts, expressions, and aesthetics that people value mediate potential transformation. A somewhat different methodological approach – noted in the essay’s conclusion – may help to better understand and explain human expressions at the interface of change and permanence.


I – Unburying the Temple

The Lete Hanuman Temple in Prayag (near Allahabad), India, lies near the Trivedi Sangam: the holy intersection of the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Sarasvati rivers. Hanuman is the monkey god. Inside the temple on the west bank of the Ganges is one of a very few places where there is a huge murti[i] of Hanuman lying down. Devotees perform worship on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The temple occupies the sandy riverbank. During the monsoon season, floodwaters and sediment inundate the temple. As the water recedes, much of the temple – including the murti and the temple’s interior descending stairwells – is revealed to be buried. In Banaras, another holy Hindu city on the Ganges River – there are other small temples on the ghats[ii] that also are buried during these seasonal events. The temples are then dug-out and cleaned.

Symbolism is rife in this seasonal change of scape.[iii] In effect, Hanuman is buried by the river/god (Ganges/Ganga). Through the natural cycle of flooding and the human ritual of unburying, the temple reveals the permanence of Hanuman in the form of a murti. The river’s cycles naturalize the power of Hanuman as “deeply rooted” at a confluence of rivers defined by constant change.[iv] It also is said that in an earlier time of Islam, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb learned of this temple. His soldiers were unsuccessful in their attempts to remove the murti of Hanuman, reinforcing the narrative of religious permanence at that place.

II – Serpent Trails

In northeast Tanzania, the West Usambara Mountains are dramatic. These mountains ascend quickly and house a biodiversity hotspot at altitude. The Usambaras are part of the Eastern Arc Range characterized by highland forests with a density of endemic plants and animals. The Shambaa – agriculturalists and speakers of a Bantu language – yield produce from the area’s rich soils and malaria-free slopes. They interact with lowland people, such as the Zigua, who negotiate a much drier and less healthy surrounding landscape. Mountain tops and other unique features, including caves, are considered sacred domains of nature spirits: giant serpents, called nondo. In part, the Shambaa identify these nature spirits by the trails they inscribe along mountain gradients during heavy rains. Other residents affiliate the trails with the paths of mudslides and floods first said to have impacted the area more than a century ago.

Orographic rainfall in these mountains derives from moisture in the Indian Ocean. Forest clearance has a long history in the highlands. By the late nineteenth-century, German and, later, British colonials amplified overharvest,[v] which further destabilized slopes and degraded the upper soil horizons important for farming, negatively influencing Shambaa livelihoods. Amidst these changes, nondo emerged during seasonal downpours. The physical impacts of disaster along slopes are layered overtop of pre-existing eco-social changes and “harms”, including insufficient care of the land and community traditions. Serpent trails led to calls by some residents to return to proper veneration of nature spirits. Public healing rituals performed after flood events reference serpents both to heal the land and to restore social order,[vi] as serpents wash away harms. Community custodians of heritage employ serpent trails to convey histories of trauma and persistence during more than a century of change.

III – Verandas of Power

On December 25, 2020, a portion of the Beit-al-Ajaib (House of Wonders) collapsed in Zanzibar, killing two workers. This historical building is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site known as ‘Stone Town’, associated with the Swahili society of coastal eastern Africa. It is a nineteenth-century ceremonial palace built by Sultan Barghash along the town’s Indian Ocean waterfront. With its multiple verandas, the structure is a part of an urban legacy of local and colonial rule.[vii] The neglected structure collapsed while under renovation. Currently, new Western-style hotels – rather than historical or Swahili monuments – dominate the waterfront. The Hyatt Hotel and its verandas, opened in 2011, have supplanted meaningful Swahili places.[viii] The hotel’s size and presence block views of the ocean and coastal breezes, and violate precepts of Swahili architecture. New verandas of power have replaced older models in an age of development and tourism linked to foreign influences and capital.

Performances and oral narratives conducted along the waterfront have begun to stand-in for permanence as past monuments are erased or remade. Intangible (rather than built) expressions – music, dances, stories, and ceremonies – are scheduled to occur repetitively (at a certain time of day, each week, or during the same month across years). Such gatherings and moments have been a part of Stone Town’s ethos, but not to this degree. Some of these activities – through recent “heritagization” – are established to attract tourist fees. Yet, in changed times, Swahili songs, dances, and familiar rituals, such as those performed at prominent trees (treated as spirit dwellings), also appear more frequent and scaled to assure permanence.


Time spent in these societies during the last 25 years has impressed on me the potential of “slow research” and “wit(h)nessing”, each of which assisted me with identifying layers of meaning about why and how societies make themselves even as the experiences of previous generations resonate in the present.[ix] Slow research – quality time in settings and with people over many years that generates insights and understanding otherwise not readily apparent – instils deeper reflection about the pasts and potential futures bundled in the contemporary moment. As is implicit in “slow research”, wit(h)nessing also requires “being with” (i.e., with-ness, as in being with a community), but also alludes to and unsettles the concept of “witnessing” (in terms of “observing” and “bearing witness”, both of which suggest removed presence).[x] For each society, certain places and cultural expressions are good to think with and to act on; they motivate and/or mediate transformation. The recognition of such elements is enabled by with-nessing, patience, and humility.


[i] A sacred embodiment in a sculpted image.

[ii] Landing spots for boats along river banks characterized by flights of steps that descend into the river.

[iii] For examples elsewhere along the Ganges River in India, see Debjani Bhattachary, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[iv] Philip Lutgendorf, Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 246.

[v] Christopher A. Conte, Highland Sanctuary: Environmental History in Tanzania’s Usambara Mountains. (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004).

[vi] For a similar case in South Africa, see Jacob Tropp, “The Python and the Crying Tree: Interpreting Tales of Environmental and Colonial Power in Transkei,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 36, no. 3 (2003): 511-532.

[vii] Garth A. Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa. (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2003).

[viii] Abdul Sheriff, “Contradictions in the Heritagization of Zanzibar ‘Stone Town’,” in Travelling Pasts: The Politics of Cultural Heritage in the Indian Ocean World, eds. Burkhard Schnepel & Tansen Sen, 221-245. (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

[ix] Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013).

[x] Louise Boscacci, “Wit(h)nessing,” Environmental Humanities 10, no. 1 (May 2019): 343-347.

Jonathan Walz is Associate Professor at SIT-Graduate Institute in Vermont. He earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Florida and has led collaborative ethnographic, historical, and environmental projects in Tanzania, India, and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region.