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Reflections of Nepal: The Tharu of the Terai

We felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety after learning the finalized details of our volunteer placement: We were to work with and learn from the Tharu people, an indigenous group who inhabited the Terai region of Nepal. Arriving after an eleven-hour bus ride to the small town of Lamahi in Dang District, we were once again reminded of the country’s spectacular geographic diversity. This land of red dust and flat farmlands, far removed from any tourist attractions, was to be home for the following three weeks. It could not be more different than the mountain vistas of the Himalayas or the congested and bustling streets of Kathmandu.Knowing next to nothing about the land and its people, we tried to be receptive and perceptive to our surroundings and our hosts. In turn, we were rewarded with a wealth of information regarding Tharu history, culture, and worldviews and how their intimate bond with place and land has profoundly shaped their past and present relationships with nature, culture, and self.

A Brief History of the Tharu

After conducting some initial research and conversing with our local contacts, we quickly discovered that the Tharu were far from a homogenous ethnic group. The name, believed to be derived from “thar”, simply means “man of the forest.” Millions of people across Nepal and India identified themselves as Tharu despite having little in common. This diversity has led to a wide range of speculation on the group’s origins. Some believe they have always existed, living on the same lands since the dawn of time (Muller-Boker, p.62). Others claim a nobler heritage as descendents of Rajputs from Rajasthan who fled from Muslim invaders during the 16th century (Muller-Boker, p. 63). The Tharu we spoke with in Dang believed their roots could be traced back to the clan of the Buddha more than twenty-five hundred years ago.

We sensed a common thread in these tales: Whatever their origins, the Tharu had sought peace and found refuge within the dense sal (Shorea robusta) forests that used to cover much of Southern Nepal and Northern India. Here they lived in isolation for generations uncounted, developing a unique resistance to malaria and practicing a semi-nomadic lifestyle of shifting cultivation until well into the twentieth century.

Farming The Land

Tharu Farmer Nepal

Our host’s father, still farming in his sixties.

We saw firsthand the physical connection the Tharu people had to the land early on. Our host’s son brought us to the family farm, serving as transport, translator and guide. A youthful and bright-eyed twenty-year old, he undoubtedly found it difficult to believe that there were people who did not farm. Sensing our curiosity, he endured our ignorance with politeness and our stream of questions with patience, pausing often to look up at the sky, searching for ways to convey Tharu ideas and words that have no English equivalents. There was a keenness and zeal to his explanations and responses; he was proud to have contributed to the creation of something tangible, useful, meaningful, and justifiably so.

Eager we were also to explore and learn about this farm. The plot itself was by most measures modest, no more than a hectare in size. But like most family farms, it possessed a rich teeming vitality that stemmed from an abundance of diversity and life. We counted no less than fourteen crops on the various quadrants of the farm, all in different stages of growth, from more familiar plantings of cauliflower and tomato to the tropical silhouettes of papaya and starfruit trees. This was wintertime, our guide said, time for growing vegetables.

Yellow Flowers Mustard Fields

Blooming mustard flowers known as Tori.

The largest fields were barren and broken, for rice had just been harvested and the land tilled several days prior to our arrival. Sacks of the precious staple were still stacked inside and outside the main house; half went to the landlord while half was retained for personal use. Brilliant yellow flowers bloomed in the adjacent fields; after the rice plants came the mustard greens, grown primarily as a cash crop to be pressed for oil. For cooking, selling and also good for the scalp, our guide ran his hand through his hair and grinned a boyish grin.

Green Roof Gourd

We took care not to walk too close for fear of falling gourds.

Nearby, scaling vines crept over the thatched roof of a storage hut, spreading broad leaves that sheltered ripening squashes and foraging chickens. We admired the multifunctional nature of the space; this was a green roof like none we have seen. Indeed, the productivity extracted from this small plot of land was extraordinary; every square-footage was seemingly utilized to capture, store, and convert incoming solar energy into a more usable form. We could not help but be impressed by this biologically prolific system. In the west, we praise crop diversity and polycultures as though they were new ideas; here things are commonly done because they seemed good to do and were always done.

Walking towards the back of the farm, we noticed a long shed of mud, straw and bamboo. Blocks of straw wrapped in plastic bags sat inside the dark damp interior. Mushrooms, our guide gestured excitedly after searching for the right word in English, a new crop we started this year to turn straw into food and money. We saw the wisdom in turning the waste of one source into food for another; it reminded us of the principles of permaculture and designing for sustainability. We saw another example of this with the biogas generator near the house, which utilized cow manure to generate clean cooking gas, reducing the demand for harvesting firewood while simultaneously improving indoor air quality.

Traditional Technology and Thinking

Disposable Leaf Plate

Leaves from specific trees are stitched together with bamboo threads to form bowls and plates.

We tend to think of technology as something primarily produced by an industrialized and modern society. But on this farm we saw technology that was thoughtfully applied, ecologically sustainable, and surprisingly sophisticated.  Many of these originated from Tharu traditional knowledge, accumulated over centuries living in contact with the surrounding flora and fauna. Making use of the natural regenerative resources of the nearby forests and grasslands, the Tharu developed a material culture that was both aesthetically distinct and supremely adapted to the local environment. Their homes, constructed with walls made from a mixture of mud, dung, and straw, stayed cool and comfortable even during the hottest season and were easy to repair after the rains of the monsoon season. Almost all household materials, barring metals for tools and jewelry, were created from wood, clay, straw, and leaf. Once objects became unusable, they could either be reshaped or left to rot. We noted the advantages of these traditional technologies in the areas of sustainability, biodegradability, and suitability. The leaf plate decomposes and provides nutrients for the land; the inflexible bonds of the styrofoam equivalent endure.

Our host invited us to his home and farm again the following week, this time to celebrate the completion of the rice harvest. Most Tharu rituals, festivals, and ceremonies revolved around agriculture and the six distinct seasons of the area. Before dinner, our host regaled us with tales of his encounter with local wildlife. By far the most memorable and fantastical was the story of a herd of drunken and vengeful elephants that pillaged his fields and forced him to run away shoeless. Only the accidental electrocution of the lead pachyderm forced to the assailants to retreat back into the jungle.

Such stories may seem unbelievable, but they were simply a part of everyday life for a people not far removed a subsistence lifestyle in a wild and untamed environment. As we continued to converse under darkening skies, we began to understand the significance of farming to the Tharu. They saw themselves as an agricultural people first and foremost; all the men we met considered themselves farmers in addition to their other occupations. Good farming practices were simply necessary for survival, along with a deep and intimate knowledge of the local flora, fauna, and resources.

Unintended Consequences

For outsiders throughout much of history, “to spend a night in the Terai was thought to tempt death” (Guneratune, p. 22). The malarial jungles and swamps of the region thus acted as a sanctuary for the Tharu, deterring immigration into the area and permitting them to survive with little contact from the outside world.

All changed with the introduction of DDT spraying programs in the 1950’s. The introduction of this infamous product of the chemical revolution unleashed an unforeseen chain of events that had enormous social and environmental ramifications. With the vectors of malaria eradicated, land-hungry peasants from the hills, known as the Pahari, descended from the hills to settle the low-lying plains, now inhabitable and rich in timber resources and agricultural potential. Rapid deforestation of the region ensued. Better integrated with the outside world, the Pahari also understood the new land reform policies instituted by the Nepalese government at the time, and preceded to register areas the Tharu had cultivated and lived on for centuries. Illiterate and ignorant, many Tharu were dispossessed from their lands overnight. Several local contacts shared with us a commonly known story:

Once the Tharu were the king of the land, and the land existed only for the Tharu with their immunity to malaria. Then one day after the forests had been cleared there came a hill person to the Tharu village. The Pahari bore a gift, a lemon, offering it to a Tharu villager. The naïve villager gratefully accepted it. After a time, the Pahari returned to the village with more lemons, but demanded that the villager pay him five rupees for the first lemon. Having no money and no knowledge, the Tharu was forced to give up the only possessions and skill he had – land and labour. (Paraphrased)

In Dang, desperate families were forced to migrate west to the district of Bardiya in search of new opportunities. Others remained behind, farming existing lands as indentured servants for new landowners, often accruing exorbitant levels of debt that could never be paid off. As a result, entire families were enslaved for generations in what is known as the kamaiya system.

Tharu Migration

A depiction of the Tharu exodus from Dang to Bardiya. From the Tharu Museum in Ghorahi.

The ramifications of these events have formed the collective identity of the modern Tharu community in Dang as victims of systematic displacement, marginalization, and exploitation. During our stay, we spoke frequently with the program director of the grassroots organization we were volunteering with. A soft-spoken and tireless social worker, lawyer, farmer, and Tharu, he had dedicated his life towards improving the socioeconomic status of his people and other disenfranchised groups. He repeated a narrative we heard over and over again during our time in Dang, that the Tharu were a simple, honest, innocent but backwards people who were cheated out of their lands by clever outsiders. His organization had achieved great success in breaking the vicious cycle of debt and intergenerational slavery through education and economic empowerment. But he acknowledged that the only long-term solution is land reform. The Tharu must have land for livelihood, he stated matter-of-factly.

On the way out from the office, we were reminded once again of the bond between a people and the land. By the stairway on a whitewashed wall decorated with torn schedules, faded photos, and yellowed newspaper articles, our eyes were drawn to a solitary phrase of English that served as the headline to an advocacy poster. Clear and distinct, it stated simply, powerfully: “Land is Life”. So it was not only for the Tharu of the Terai, but with all the people of the world.

Next Up: A return to regular Ekostories.

Related Ekostories:

Reference

Guneratne, Arjun (2002). Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal.  Cornell University Press, New York.

Müller-Böker, Ulrike (1999). The Chitawan Tharus in southern Nepal: an ethnoecological approach. Mass Printing Press, Kathmandu, Nepal.

8 Comments

  1. This is a great story, it sounds like an amazing place. Do you mind saying what the name of the organization your volunteered with is called? My wife and I recently founded our own non-profit and are always looking for examples of others doing the work we hope to do. Thanks for your writing.

    • Hi Tanner,

      The local NGO we worked with is called SWAN Nepal (there is more than one with the same name) Their office is based out of Lamahi in Dang. They also help run a girls hostel located in the village of Narti which houses freed kamalaris (girl slaves). They have a website: it’s pretty basic at the moment at http://www.swanlawajuni.org.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. wow. there is so much here in this story. although the Tharu of Terai are far from here in time and place they demonstrate practices that we would be wise to take note of and put into action. how DDT impacted their existence is fascinating. thanks for documenting your experience.

    • You are welcome. I am always grateful to be able to learn about worlds that are very different than mine. I don’t necessarily want to idolize them, but there are elements and insights gained from other perspectives that I would otherwise never think of. There’s a lot more I could have written about the Tharu, just not enough time.

  3. Our vast Culture and Tradition makes us proud. The most laborious, Honest Indigenous people. We are known as Eco-Friendly and Peace loving Peoples. INGOs, NGOs must help to research on Ethnomedicinal knowledge among we Tharu peoples. It is in extension perspective.

  4. Hari Singh Rana says

    Hello sir.
    It’s great information. I am also from Rana Tharu tribal of Uttrakhand India. Now tharu like a slave their own land. We have registered org. Called ” Karuna Ashram ” we want to do something for our tribe. But it’s not possible becouse of money. But we are doing as good as possible.

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