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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.