Polyester Blessings: The Persistent Incarnation of Purity in Contemporary Mongolia

When and Where

Thursday, February 23, 2023 10:00 am to 11:30 am


Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko


In the presocialist period (before 1921) in Mongolia there were very few prayer scarves in use. Prayer scarves were made from silk, and they were expensive to purchase. Where ritual offerings were enduring, such as the rocks placed upon the sacred rock cairns that stand atop Mongolia’s mountain passes, they discoursed with invisible beings who would protect and assist in the procurement of good fortune for those who passed. In the contemporary period, religious items are often mass produced and are cheap and easy to purchase. These items are now made from materials which cannot reintegrate into ecological systems. Frequently utilised in Buddhist and other rituals, prayer scarves have proliferated in quantity. At once highly valued and yet easily replaced, the sacredness of these scarves makes their single-use yet enduring qualities deeply ambiguous. Unlike the sacred rocks whose stability marks the sanctity of the landscape, store-bought imperishable prayer scarves take on a new kind of materiality that lingers problematically. By looking at the multiplication of polyester prayer scarves in Mongolian rituals, this talk will examine the intersections between Buddhism, capitalism and environmentalism in Inner Asia. It will explore how certain spatial and temporal aspects of global capitalism are being betrayed by the enduring materiality of plastics, even in religious rituals. Plastics, I argue, as an unintended consequence of their actuality, can draw our attention to what it means to exist within capitalism.

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Dr Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko is an anthropologist and the author of Enlightenment and the Gasping City. Her work is situated at intersections between environmental changes and cultural praxis, in multi-scalar and trans-species contexts. She has carried out extensive research on Buddhism and other religious traditions in Mongolia, Australia and India, particularly as they relate to uncertainty, pollution, and the more-than-human world. She is currently a Research Fellow within the Center for Contemporary Buddhist Studies at the University of Copenhagen. Her current research project ‘Impermanent – Imperishable: Plastics and Praxis among Buddhists in Oceania’ looks at how Buddhists in Oceania relate to radical permeability and toxicity amidst the changing ecosystems on the planet. Dr Abrahms-Kavunenko has carried out research projects at The University of Edinburgh, The University of Erfurt, New York University Shanghai and The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. She is the co-founder of Cenote a travelling multi-disciplinary residency program.

This series is co-sponsored by the Religion in the Public Sphere initiative of the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. The events are organized by Rory Lindsay, Assistant Professor, and Frances Garrett, Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.


Ho Centre for Buddhist Studies, Religion in the Public Sphere