Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation

October 31st, 2014 by admin

Creating a shared resource for the endangered culture of the Kalmyks

Almost four centuries ago ancestors of the Kalmyk people trekked across central Asia to form a Buddhist nation on the edge of Europe. Today Kalmyk communities are scattered across Eurasia, with the largest group in the Republic of Kalmykia. A new project will document Kalmyk heritage to produce an open-access online resource to help Kalmyk communities revive their endangered culture.

Early in the 1600s, several groups of Mongols travelled thousands of miles west in search of new pastures for their herds. The migration of the people who became known as the Kalmyks was prompted by tensions between Mongol communities. Their journey lasted more than a decade and they travelled around 3,000 miles to settle in the wide pastures west of the Caspian Sea. Here they formed the Kalmyk khanate.

In 1771, more than half the Kalmyk population attempted to return to their original homeland of Dzungaria, a region of central Asia then depopulated as a result of the Qing-Dzungar war. Only a third of those who set out on this return migration survived the perilous journey. Those Kalmyks who remained on the southern edge of Europe were incorporated into the expanding Russian Empire.

Today the Kalmyk communities living in the Republic of Kalmykia and the neighbouring region of Astrakhan (part of the Russian Federation) are remarkable in being the only Buddhist nation in Europe. Kalmyk culture, however, has long been considered critically endangered by Western scholars. Existing Western research on their distinctive way of life has been directed chiefly at the relatively small Kalmyk diaspora in the USA.

Now researchers at the Mongolia & Inner Studies Unit of the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, have started work on an ambitious project to document the cultural heritage of a people who are estimated to number around 300,000 worldwide. The objective of the project is to provide Kalmyk communities with a resource that can be used to compare, revive and popularise their endangered culture.

Making use of audio and video, the Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project will document Kalmyk culture in its broadest sense, including traditional songs and melodies, musical instruments, dances, oral literature, cuisine, crafts, festivals and many other. This unique body of knowledge will be deposited in open-access digital archives so that it can be shared worldwide.

The five-year project is being funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund dedicated to the preservation of at-risk cultural heritage and the environments. The principal investigator is Dr Uradyn Bulag, a social anthropologist known for his research into transnational studies of people, politics and culture – and particularly for his work on Mongolia and Chinese minorities.

“The project will focus on the Republic of Kalmykia and the adjoining Astrakhan region which is home to more than half the worldwide Kalmyk population. It will also look more broadly at Kalmyk communities in China and elsewhere in order to understand the inter-connectedness of Kalmyk culture in the Eurasian context,” said Dr Bulag.

“From the outset the project will involve local Kalmyk scholars and students. We hope that the resource we create will provide a means for long-separated communities to understand, communicate and exchange cultural information with each other.”

Throughout history, the Kalmyk people have been repeatedly displaced and oppressed. Many of the Kalmyks who attempted to return to Dzungaria in the second half of the 18th century perished. Those who survived the trip found themselves divided into various segregated settlements by the powerful Qing Empire.  In the late 19th century they suffered major devastations in the Muslim rebellions in Xinjiang.

The increasingly marginalised Kalmyks who remained in south west Russia were drafted by the Russian government to fight various wars of conquest which exerted a heavy toll. Between 1943 and 1957 the entire community was exiled to Siberia and Central Asia, charged with betraying the Soviet motherland by collaborating with the invading German army.

The fractured nature of the Kalmyk community – and the shifting identity of groups within it – represents a challenge to those seeking to document their culture. “In terms of the project, we are defining as Kalmyk the people who separated from the Oirats of Dzungaria in the 17th century, travelled to Russia where they formed the Kalmyk khanate, and later scattered,” said Dr Bulag.

“We hold that these people have a common culture even though, as a result of historical migration processes, some of them later adopted other identities and are now no longer called Kalmyk. In China and Mongolia, for example, they are known as Torghut.”

Under the Soviet Union, observance of traditional cultural practices was discouraged or banned. With the collapse of Soviet regime, opportunities opened up for minority cultures to rediscover themselves.

“The Kalmyks in Russia lost many of their traditional knowledge bearers in exile and, when were allowed to return in 1957, they found themselves living as a minority in the autonomous republic that bears their name. In these circumstances, post-Soviet Kalmyk cultural revitalisation has been slow and ineffective,” said Dr Bulag.

“We hope that the Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project will help to redress the balance by capturing and archiving an endangered culture and thus breathing new life into its richly distinctive practices.”

The team contributing to the project reflects its ambitious transnational reach. Dr Bulag and Dr Borjigin Burensain (University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan) will be overseeing the gathering of material among Oirat/Kalmyk groups in China. Dr Baasanjav Terbish and Dr Elvira Churuymova (both University of Cambridge) will be working in Kalmykia in collaboration with local Kalmyk scholars.

The project benefits from the expertise of Professor Caroline Humphrey (University of Cambridge) who is renowned for her work on Mongolian cultures.

Seminar – 28 October – Jim Canary

October 21st, 2014 by anna.c


4.30–6.00 Mond Building Seminar Room

Jim Canary

University of Indiana

Exploring the Tibetan Book: Meeting the Makers


Beneath the text in the books and manuscripts of Tibet is a world of artisans that provide the support for the words with paper, pen, and inks.  Preserving these texts involves delving into that world to understand how things were done using what materials and how they differ from place to place and in time. As a Conservator and student of Tibetan I have had the opportunity to examine a variety of Tibetan materials and have been documenting the old ways of book production.  We will have a look into that world and see the richness of their traditions.

Seminar – 14 October – Maria Lundberg and Yong Zhou

October 6th, 2014 by anna.c


4.30–6.00 Mond Building Seminar Room

Maria Lundberg and Yong Zhou

Norwegian Centre for Human Rights

Rights of Peoples and Minorities in Development in China


The discourse on minority nationalities and development in China has little content with regard to the realization of rights and the rule of law. In view of the challenges that natural resources exploitation and enviromental protection in regional national autonomous areas pose to the cultural survival and the material basis of peripheral peoples and minorities, this seminar shall discuss some obstacles to the institutionalization of group rights in China. A few case studies in relation to projects of hydropower development and ecological resettlements shall be the focus.

The research has been undertaken under the China Autonomy Program at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo.

Climate Histories Interdisciplinary Discussion Series – Seminar programme 2014-2015

September 30th, 2014 by anna.c

Climate Histories Interdisciplinary Discussion Series

The Climate Histories Interdisciplinary Seminar is about bringing  together and expanding a network of people from different backgrounds (sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as people working in policy, media, and industry) to tackle questions about climate and environmental change in the past, present, and future.

The general questions we ask as a network are: Why does environmental knowledge matter? What can we learn about climate change from history? How can different disciplines work together to develop our understanding? (See our website created for a one-year AHRC  network project at http://climatehistories.innerasiaresearch.org/)

The aim of the seminar series will be to share knowledge, start conversations, and work towards new ways of thinking for future research projects.

Michaelmas Term: In this first term we propose to call on the expertise of people who are observing shifts in global environmental conditions and are involved in producing public accounts of those observations.


Wednesday October 8th  14:30-16:30 Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:

Roundtable Discussion on Fracking Natalie Bennett (Leader, Green Party UK), David Reiner (Cambridge Judge Business School & Energy Policy Research Group, Cambridge), Tim Harris (The Warriors Call, Anti-Fracking Initiative)
Chaired by Susan Crate (George Mason University)

Thursday October 9th  10:00 – 12:00 Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:

A 1 hour talk (followed by 1 hour Q & A) on the subject of ‘Climate change and interdisciplinary anthropology’
’Anthropological Investigations of the Bottom-Up Complexity and Adaptive Challenges of Change in Contemporary Rural Contexts’ – Susan Crate

Wednesday 22 October Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:


Wednesday 05 November Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:

Technology, Climate Change, and Engineering SolutionsHerta Nobauer (Vienna)

Wednesday 19 November Room SG1, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:

Trails and Mapping of Climate Change in North AmericaMichael Bravo (Cambridge) at Climate Histories

Wednesday 03 December Room SG2, Alison Richard Building, CRASSH:

Communicating Climate Change through ArtSteve Waters (Theatre Director), Edvard Hviding (Bergen) at Climate Histories

2 October 2014 – Learning Pathways through Changing Places: Exploring the Global

September 29th, 2014 by admin

Learning Pathways through Changing Places:
Exploring the Global

Thursday 2nd October, 3pm to 6pm; Nihon Room, Pembroke College:

Faculty of Education and Division of Social Anthropology

Introduction: Dr Richard Irvine discusses cross-cultural element and initial findings of the pilot study

Part 1: UK

Hildegard Diemberger discusses the Skype cross-cultural exchange between primary schools in Nepal, Italy and East Cambridgeshire followed by Q and A.

Chair: Richard Irvine


Zulfikar Sarkit  and Amaraa Dorj discuss Education and Change in Mongolia followed by Q and A.

Chair: David Sneath

Part 3: ALASKA

Jana Harcharek is an Inupiaq woman from Barrow, Alaska with decades of experience thinking about the intersections between Inupiaq and Western ways of knowing as they come together in the classroom and the importance for young people to have Inupiaq forms of learning validated.  She has worked with Inupiaq teachers from the North Slope Borough primary and secondary schools to design curricula which reflect Inupiaq modes of learning and knowing.  She will discuss some of the ways her experiences have helped to open up new pathways for learning and teaching.  The talk will be followed by Q and A.

Chair: Barbara Bodenhorn

Part 4: FILM – ONE HOME: The Alaska-Mexico Interchange

Between 2006 and 2011 young people from indigenous communities on the North Slope of Alaska, the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca (Mexico) and the Purepecha region of Michoacan had the opportunity to live together for a month (alternate years in Alaska and Mexico) learning about their respective environments from elders, scientists, resource managers, host families, and each other. Corey Ahnangnatoguk, a young Inupiaq (Eskimo) man made a film about this experience from his perspective. The words, music, and images are his but he has been mentored of by Dustinn Craig, a Native American film-maker from Arizona. The film is a personal exploration of an intense, alternative educational experience which was transformative for many of the young participants. The showing will be followed by Q and A.

Chair: Barbara Bodenhorn