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Humanities fellowship supports research in India’s mountains

May 29, 2009

Two Arizona State University faculty researchers are about to journey into the mountainous wilderness of western India, and what they might find there - frightening demons, gods and goddesses, or a peaceful utopia - depends on whom they ask.

But they won't be searching for physical evidence supporting these types of cultural beliefs about the area. Their goal is to discover the meanings which the country's sacred mountaintops hold for the many types of people who visit them. 

The project brings together experts from two differing traditions and methodologies, a natural resource social scientist and a religious studies scholar who aim to expand our understandings of the complex meanings associated with wilderness and other natural places that have religious significance.

The collaborators are Megha Budruk, professor in the Parks and Recreation Management Program in ASU's School of Community Resources & Development, and professor Anne Feldhaus in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"We plan to explore the range of meanings that people ascribe to natural places," says Budruk. "Focusing on commonalities among those meanings allows for contested places to become places of harmony, thus reducing conflict and building stronger communities."

Both researchers have spent significant parts of their lives in Maharashtra, India, where they'll begin the study in early July. They have strong attachments to the region and are cognizant of its cultural nuances, enabling them to conduct culturally relevant research that also incorporates international theoretical perspectives.

Their academic backgrounds, however, are quite different. Budruk is a natural resource social scientist who explores human-nature relationships from a social-psychological perspective. She's particularly interested in the concept of place attachment - the special bonds that humans develop with nature-based places. She has published several articles on this topic and has conducted some of her research in Maharashtra.

Feldhaus is a scholar of religious texts, rituals and oral traditions, whose work has emphasized human imaginations of the natural world. Originally trained as a philologist, she began in the early 1980s to combine ethnographic fieldwork with her text scholarship. She has published two books on the religious geography of Maharashtra, using this combined methodology.

"What initially brought us together was our common love of the Maharashtra region of India," says Feldhaus. "But as we began talking, we realized that we also had a lot of theoretical, academic interests in common."

They will conduct extensive interviews in natural settings of religious significance like goddess temples and river-origin sites, such as the mountaintop temples at Mahabaleshwar. Budruk and Feldhaus will speak with temple priests, pilgrimage leaders, pilgrims, tourists, local community leaders, and officials from agencies that are involved in the areas.

"I think we'll come away from this with new ways of looking at natural places," Budruk says. "We are only just beginning to understand place meanings at natural settings. However, my field has its roots in Euro-American philosophies of what the wilderness is, and I think the meanings of nature go beyond that. In the intangibles, we haven't explored the full range."

Feldhaus says, "People in the field of religious studies have done a lot of work on the religious poetics of holy places in beautiful natural settings, and on the rituals that pilgrims and priests perform at such places. But we have not yet looked enough at the economics and politics of such places, at their human social dimensions."

The project is funded by a $45,000 fellowship from ASU's Institute of Humanities Research. The institute, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, supports two annual fellowship programs to encourage transdisciplinary activity at ASU. The theme for this year's program is "utopias, dystopias and social transformation" and was designed to attract scholars whose work addresses the nature, value, and meaning of utopias/dystopias for social transformation by using cross-boundary perspectives and methodologies. "The Feldhaus/Budruk project fits the parameters of our theme," explains Sally L. Kitch, director of the institute, "because it explores the utopic and dystopic aspects, as well as the cultural importance, of particular nature-based religious places."

The fellowship also provides funding for the two ASU scholars to invite Ramachandra Guha, an internationally noted Indian environmental historian, for a public lecture in spring 2010. Guha's lecture topic will be "Wilderness and Democracy." This will coincide with a seminar Budruk and Feldhaus will teach to graduate students and advanced undergraduates regarding natural places, religion, pilgrimage, tourism, and social transformation.

For information about the School of Community Resources & Development, visit To learn more about the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, visit For details on the fellowship, visit