At a house party in London, Natalie Tobert met George Michell and John Fritz. Whilst chatting to them, she learned about their architectural and archaeological work in Hospet, India, and they invited her to join them for their following season’s work. Natalie had already completed a doctorate on Sudanese village housing, and they suggested she undertake a similar ethno-architectural research project in Anegundi, the seat of the original kings of Vijayanagara. As an ethnographic project, Natalie explored the architecture of Anegundi, not for its design or style or size, but rather how the space was actually used by the people who occupied it, and where within the village certain places were located.
Natalie Tobert is a British Medical Anthropologist and has undertaken three ethnographic research projects: the first was in Sudan for her doctorate on ethno-archaeology. Then she took up two in India: one was on architectural ethnography of the royal village of Anegundi, and another was on bio-medical and religious strategies for addressing mental health based in Pondicherry and Kolkata. She has also conducted research into ‘unusual’ visionary and auditory experiences (that sometimes attract psychiatric attention).
While an ethnography curator at the Horniman museum in London, Natalie created the popular exhibition “Sacred Lands, Devoted Lives” based on Anegundi village people’s daily life.
She then designed and taught courses on Cultural Diversity and Mental Wellbeing at medical schools and in hospitals since 2007, and on spirituality and health at universities since 1996. She also produced a Training Manual on Cultural Equalities for frontline medical and healthcare staff, and has facilitated workshop seminars in the UK, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and USA. Over the years she has had various other careers that includes an exhibiting sculptor, an art teacher, and a photographer. She has written around a hundred articles published on various topics, and the four books set out below.
- 2016: Cultural Perspectives on Mental Wellbeing Spiritual Interpretations of Symptoms in Medical Practice. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London
- 2014: Spiritual Psychiatries: mental health practices in India and UK, Virginia.
- 2000: Anegondi: Architectural Ethnography of a Royal Village in India, Vijayanagara Research Monograph, no.7 Manohar Press, New Delhi. Illustrated by Graham Reed.
- 1988: 'The Ethnoarchaeology of the Zaghawa of Darfur (Sudan): Settlement & Transience', BAR IS 445 Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology 30
Having met George Michell and John Frit and receiving an invitation to Hampi, Natalie packed her bags and flew to India. “I was grateful to receive travel and living grants from INTACH, ICOMOS, the British Council, British Academy, and British Association for South Asian Studies. These grants covered flights to India and travel within by train. The first time I went to India I stayed at the Vijayanagara Research Camp with the team set up by John Fritz and George Michell, and I went to Anegundi in a coracle across the Tungabhadra River, accompanied by Mr Guthi from the Aspiration bookshop at Hampi,” she told us.
Mr Guthi introduced Natalie to Anegundi elders. When the two reached the village centre, they saw a group of men sitting around a tree: one was older with white hair, and he wore a lime green neck scarf. This was the late Raja Tirimula Deva Raya who took them to meet his son Raja Ramadevaraya, and late Raja Achyuta Devaraya, his brother's son.
Natalie with Raja Krishnadevaraya's mother
Natalie took us through her experience of living in Anegundi and her interactions with the royal family and the local families.
After the first visit to Anegundi, Natalie went numerous times and stayed for a few months including 1987, 1990, 1993, and 1997. She was invited by the late Raja Achyuta Devaraya and his wife to stay in a simple room opposite their mansion house palace. “I remember the hot sun came through the window of my room, and I needed some shade. Walking around I found a cloth seller with his wares on a bicycle in the Ranganatha temple. I bought some material to cover the window, effectively putting myself into a simple kind of purdah, making myself more respectable, and then villagers seemed more willing to allow me into their homes,” she reminisced.
Without the support of the family, Natalie said she would not have been able to start, let alone continue the research. Raja Achyuta Devaraya’s family kindly introduced her to the Christian family of James Babu Reddy, whose daughters took her to people in the village, to ask if she might record their homes.
“I was reliant on these teenage girls, as I spoke none of the local languages. In later seasons illustrator Graham Reed joined me: he drew architectural details and recorded maps, in preparation for the final publication. One season during the 1990’s a French photographer Jean-Pierre Ribière also came out to Anegundi to record life there, and his photos were included in the exhibition “Sacred Lands, Devoted Lives” at the Horniman museum,” she explained.
During her many evenings at the village, Natalie was approached by Raja Rama Devaraya who would ask her about her day and would also review her notes of the day, and offer his kind comments. “I was grateful for his knowledgeable input about life there. On a later trip, Raja Rama Devaraya generously gave three of us space in a room within his own compound, and offered us food during our stay. In the early 1990’s it seemed that few people were conducting ethno-architecture research into village or town life, recording the location of dwellings with kinship diagrams of residents. The research work that I did, recorded village dwellings and architecture at a certain point in time,” she expressed. Natalie is still in close contact with the family through WhatsApp, and was delighted to meet them when they came to London a couple of years ago.
Anegundi was almost a forgotten place in the present era. Work and records by people like Natalie, John, George and many others, and not to forget, the wonderful work by the royal family, the limelight is back on Anegundi.
Natalie had seen writings of the historian Robert Sewell that Anegundi was known as the burial place of kings, and she was told that the rulers of Viyanagara had originally resided in Anegundi, and from there had chosen to establish their capital city on lands the other side of the Tungabhadra river. “For myself and contacts within the village, Anegundi was not forgotten, as Raja Achyutadevaraya and his relatives knew the history of their family. Perhaps it felt like it was forgotten compared to the scholarly attention on the architectural grandeur of Vijayanagara Empire palaces, temples, and ceremonial streets. I’d visited Magota hills above the village to record memorial stones of previous royal family members, and these can be found in the book,” she explained.
When Natalie first reached Anegundi, it felt, straight away, like more than just a village, and she realised it was more like a town, with an important administrative centre for the area. It was also clear that it had a far longer history than Vijayanagara, going back some 15,000 years, which according to the historian Sugandha dated from 3rd C BC. This was obvious from the ancient architectural remains found here and there in the streets and undergrowth, and above the settlement in the hills. It was also well protected, with fortified gateways in the hills, and the Tungabhadra river creating a boundary on two sides, to the south and east. She was told that the direction of river flow was particularly auspicious.
We asked Natalie about her findings on Anegundi and the impact it had on the empire. “Given the history of Anegondi, the question is not what impact it made on the Vijayanagara Empire. It was rather to acknowledge Anegundi as the original seat of the rulers of the Empire, who chose to place their capital city nearby, on the lands to the south of the Tungabhadra river. The ancient king Devaraya moved from Anegundi in 1336, to establish the new city, after his home was sacked in 1334. However from the 14th century, Anegundi became known as the burial place for kings. A more detailed history of Anegundi after that time can be found in Appendix 3 of my book,” she elucidated.
Natalie Tobert with Raja Shri Krishnadevaraya and Rani Smt Rathnashree Raya; Natalie with Raja Krishnadevaraya's sister
Apart from her ethno-architectural work in Anegundi, Natalie also authored a book on mental health practices with a focus on Indian spirituality. “The second set of research I conducted in India from 2000 onwards was within the discipline of medical anthropology, and it explored many narratives for mental health and spiritual experience. It explored what people actually did for their wellbeing, alongside a western medical model of health. I wanted to know whether the practices in India were transferable to UK, with its diverse, muti-ethnic, and multicultural populations. I was aware that the spiritual experiences that people had, whether in India or London, were interpreted in different ways, and treated differently,” she explained.
In this, and in a subsequent book, she argued that it was important for medical and health care clinicians to be aware of a variety of explanatory models for mental distress, which lay outside a western biomedical model. “Although today in 2022, change is happening: I know that some medical students seem much more aware about multiple narratives for health and illness, as well as sensitive to the history of colonisation, and dominance. The book was entitled: Spiritual Psychiatries: mental health practices in India and UK,” she expressed.
We asked Natalie to take us through the thought process behind this book. “This book was an exercise in cultural humility, as it took a meandering journey across India. I wanted it to offer a powerful message for mental health service providers, carers, and patients in Britain, that there were other narratives, which could be considered alongside western biomedical models of health. It explored the plurality of perspectives for understanding what it meant to be a human being, and frameworks for understanding a multiplicity of views for mental wellbeing. There was no longer room for a single narrative when working with human beings. It was important for me that the biomedical model of mental distress ran alongside more humanised spiritual models,” she elucidated.
In the final section of the book, she drew specific parallels with what was happening in the UK, and the failures of the mental health services to appropriately support the UK's culturally diverse populations. The book suggested that we needed more consultation and collaboration, with a deeper understanding from the Health Commissioners about educational requirements and training for staff. There is more sensitivity and cultural humility among medical and healthcare staff today, but still room for more profound training.