An Ontology of Water and Land in North Bihar, India

Luisa Cortesi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
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The floodplain of the Himalayas is a land formed and destroyed incessantly by the water of its rivers. Measures intended for flood control, aimed at separating productive land from river water through earth levees, have instead worsened the inundations, disrupting the beneficial flow of soil through floodwaters, obstructing water drainage, and resulting in enormous waterlogged areas. This article proposes that the failure of flood control in Bihar, India, is due to misunderstanding the river as a matter of water only, hence attempting the conceptual naturalization of an otherwise relative ontological distinction between water and land. Local knowledge of water reveals that neither water nor land can even be named, let alone understood, without the other. Informed by ethnographic fieldwork and multidisciplinary research in North Bihar, this article presents land and water as being in intimate correspondence with each other. By virtue of comparison, the ethnographic encounter is held to defy other ontologies of water that see the two substances as being in opposition. As a result, this article posits ontologies of natural substances as ‘watertight’, sclerotic, mutually exclusive, unable to adapt, and prone to be caught in a semiotic conflict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)870-889
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

My deepest gratitude goes to all the many people who shared their time and knowledge with me in North Bihar. Kalyanakrishnan Sivaramakrishnan, Michael Dove, Paul Kockelman, and Karen Hebert offered their precious and patient advice. I am thankful also to David Mosse, who introduced me to the social study of water, to Jim Saiers, who guided me through hydrogeology, to James Scott for our conversations on rivers, and to William Kelly for his guidance in becoming an ethnographer. Many thanks to all members of the Curl Prize Committee, who selected this essay in 2016, and to former Editor Elizabeth Hallam and three anonymous reviewers of the . This research has been supported by the Fulbright Commission, the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner‐Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the American Institute for Indian Studies, the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust, the Yale MacMillan Center, the Tropical Research Institute, the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, the Agrarian Studies Program, and the Yale South Asian Studies Council, to whom I wish to extend my gratitude. JRAI

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Royal Anthropological Institute

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