Animals, persons, gods: Kaleidoscopic ontologies in a multispecies total institution
Based on fieldwork in Chitwan, Nepal, this paper explores the kaleidoscopic manner in which handlers accord ontological states to their elephants in the multispecies total institution of the sarkari hattisar, or government elephant stable, which operates under the administrative authority of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. Representing a highly ordered space in which the lives of elephants and humans are intimately bound together to fulfil the objectives of protected area management, biodiversity research, and nature tourism, the hattisar is a place where elephants are conceived as animals, as persons, and as gods. I demonstrate that the attributed states of animality, personhood, and divinity are most clearly revealed in correspondence with modes of relation that I designate as domination, companionship, and veneration. However, discrete categories of being are not exclusively allied to particular modes of relation. Rather, they are variably emphasized during certain activities, times, and spaces. Much like the child’s toy that produces changing images through the combination of mirrors and coloured glass, this has the effect of yielding patterned assertions of being that constantly shift. Boundaries between animality, personhood, and divinity are understood then as permeable and contingent, conflicting even, but nonetheless coextensive. As a result of this seemingly confounding situation, the implicitly humanist epistemology of ethnographic fieldwork is challenged, forcing a reformulation of my research as not merely a study of the human use of animals, but instead as an ethnographic study of two forms of life, only one of which happens to be human.