Updated: Sep 14
Orton Academy Head of Research Dr. Jane Orton conducted fieldwork in the Himalayas investigating narratives about the region’s “hidden lands.” Here, she describes fascinating parallels between these and the rumours surrounding Europe’s most exclusive nightclub.
There is nothing more adventurous than the quest for a mythical hidden land. Since 2007, I have been travelling to the remote altitudes of the Himalayas, collecting stories of these biyul, which are variously described as spiritual havens, repositories of treasure, sanctuaries for the persecuted, or simply other worlds like ours. In between research trips, I would make regular month-long stays in Berlin to use its many libraries, where I discovered the city’s very own biyul.
In those days before the coronavirus pandemic, it was possible to spend every hour of the weekend in Berghain, the world’s most unique, hedonistic and exclusive nightclub. Sometimes during the daytime they would let the light in, a stark contrast to the usually dark interior. This was a clubber’s utopia, renowned for having the best music, the best sound systems and for its famously inscrutable door policy.
People would queue in line for hours to get into Berghain, knowing that they may be turned away for seemingly no reason and made to do the “walk of shame” past the long queue of would-be entrants. Yet many travelled from other European cities for a night or weekend with the sole purpose of attempting to gain entrance, and some expatriates claimed that they moved to Berlin with the aim of repeatedly being granted access.
When asked why people feel so drawn to getting in, one ex-pat told me: “it’s status.” Others agreed: “it’s like you’re assessed on how cool you are every weekend.” However, I think there is more to it than that: speculation about how to be allowed into the club raises issues of language, race, gender, sexuality and authenticity.
Berlin and Berghain
After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, there was an abundance of cheap housing available in East Berlin, which attracted artists and young people. Berlin has since become known as one of the liveliest, most exciting cities in the world. It is a very cosmopolitan city, with a large Turkish population and a growing ex-pat community.
The negative side of this is that accommodation prices are rising, due to the fact that it is relatively cheap for a capital city. This has led to resentment among some native Berliners, one of whom told me that “young professionals from other cities can work for nine months, then spend three months in Berlin partying, then when they have spent all their money on drugs, they go home, and are never really part of the community.”
At the very centre of Berlin’s party scene is Berghain. Housed in a former power station near the Berlin Wall, Berghain sits on the boundaries of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts, from which the club takes its name. Berghain’s roots lie in the gay community and its acceptance of fetish and it has a central role in the techno community.
So how do you get into Berghain? Common advice for would-be entrants is to dress down, to go in small groups (but not as a mixed-sex couple) and not to look too drunk or to speak English too loudly – but more specific criteria are often contradictory or vague. I was repeatedly told that “the bouncers look for life in your face” when deciding whether to grant entry, which seemed to be variously a warning against looking drunk, a recommendation that one should appear lively and fun - or occasionally it seemed to imply other, more intangible qualities.
On the surface, Berlin’s most notorious techno club and the sacred geography of the Himalayas have little in common, but in fact there is a fascinating parallel to be drawn. Indeed, such a study raises important questions about the history and methodology of anthropological research.
Religion, Spirituality and Hidden Lands
I was introduced to the concept of Himalayan hidden lands in the state of Sikkim, home to Mount Khangchendzonga, the world’s third highest mountain. Among the Lepcha people, Mount Khangchendzonga’s hidden land of Máyel Lyáng is seen as their place of origin and destination in the afterlife, guarded by the mountain deity Kongchen-Konghlo. Among the Lhopo people, it is sometimes said that to discover the hidden land of Beyul Dremojong, one must first be spiritually pure.
My recent research has been in Spiti, in Himachal Pradesh, where there are also narratives that only holy people can see biyul, or that storing up spiritual goodness may momentarily open one’s eyes to these otherworldly places. However, some Spitian narratives suggest that the psychological state of para momo, to have fear in one’s soul, may make one more receptive. As with stories about Berghain, though, this account is not universal, and in Pin Valley I was told that to be para momo does not mean that you can see biyul.
During my time in Berlin, I also noticed religious and spiritual language being employed. Regular Berghain attendees often refer to the club as “church” and use terms such as “mass” or “worship.” I came across this in connection to both the spiritual experience of listening to electronic music and self-identification as part of a community of Berghain regulars.
One Berlin resident told me, “Berghain and similar clubs have really active and fervent cults surrounding them.” The same resident told me he found such religious metaphor repulsive. Perhaps; but I wondered if there was substance to the idea that Berghain and its door policy provided attendees with something more spiritual than just a decadent weekend experience.
Change, Transience and Places of Refuge
Some justifications for Berghain’s door policy point to the need to protect the venue as a place of refuge. Head bouncer Sven Marquardt has expressed feeling responsibility to make Berghain a safe place, to honour the club’s roots in the gay scene in Berlin in the nineties, and to ensure a diverse mix of people on the night.
The club’s history of providing a safe environment for non-mainstream sexual practices is cited as justification for the perceived work of the bouncers in denying entry to non-members of these groups. Once, having gained entry in a group with another woman and a gay man, I was told that the man and woman in front of us had probably been turned away for looking “too much like a straight couple.”
However, others see the door policy as a marketing ploy, or as justification for discriminatory attitudes. One group of Turkish immigrants to the city told me, “the clubs in Berlin are not for people like us.”
In the Himalayas, hidden lands can be similarly viewed as refuge from political upheaval. In Sikkim, itself a haven for many Tibetan refugees, the search for hidden lands is sometimes linked to the promise of sanctuary from political trouble.
Also like Berghain, hidden lands themselves must be protected from the influx of too many people from the outside world. In Spiti, I was told that lamas and gurus can reveal hidden lands, but it would create problems by adding more people, so they do not. One resident of Ki Old People’s Home expressed the loss of biyul, suggesting that these existed mostly in early times.
It might be objected that, whereas Himalayan hidden lands are portrayed as supernatural phenomena, Berghain is really just a nightclub with a strict door policy. True, but a lesson for anthropologists here is that we should not romanticise other cultures while dismissing our own as a subject of contemplation.
Anthropology as a discipline has rightly undergone extensive self-reflection since its days of reducing non-Western cultures to being primitive subjects of study. By asking the same questions of a European nightclub as I would of a hidden Himalayan land, I began to see how aspects of the ordinary and the extraordinary coexist in each.
While many Himalayan stories describe hidden lands as magical places, some narratives in Spiti stress the ordinariness of life in the biyul. In Tashigang, I was told that sometimes it is possible to hear dogs barking and the nga (instrument) from the biyul in the road to Kibber; during ploughing times in Spiti, it is said that that the ploughing in the biyul appears to have already been done. Ordinary villages can even come out of biyul. In Spiti, I was told that Nasang, Youla, Khar and Chicham came out of a biyul; now anyone can see them.
My own visits to Berghain were not just pilgrimages to the seat of techno music, or quests to pass the Sphinx-like bouncers of Europe’s clubbing utopia. Those long, intoxicating pre-pandemic days and nights were rather a lesson in finding the extraordinary within the ordinary – and in finding the commonalities between other worlds and our own.
Find Out More
Discover the history and folklore of these hidden lands in the Himalayas, examine the history of Berlin since the Cold War and learn about the history and anthropology of techno music in our interdisciplinary course, How to Get Into Almost Anywhere.
If you have an interest in anthropology, why not look at our courses on Himalayan folklore, Tibetan and Himalayan studies or our other anthropology courses? Alternatively, perhaps look at our interdisciplinary course on the Secret History of Cities to discover the history, geography, folklore, literature, music, anthropology and ecology of some of the world’s most fascinating cities.
These are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!
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