Friday, July 31, 2015

There’s a great deal of prejudice and ignorance regarding Tharu people – Piers Locke

Anthropologist Piers Locke driving his elephant, Sitasma Kali. Photograph by Piers Locke. Used with permission.

Piers Locke, inspired by Mark Shand’s book Travels on My Elephant, was drawn to Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, its captive elephants and the elephant handlers for his doctoral research. A renowned social anthropologist interested in posthumanist philosophy, multispecies ethnography, and other forms of more-than-human research in the humanities and social sciences, he is not new to Nepal, Nepalis and especially Tharus.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus spoke to Dr Locke about his research and his perception about the Tharu elephant handlers. Here’s an excerpt of the interview.

Voice of Tharus (VOT): How did you become interested in elephant management and particularly in Nepal?

Piers Locke (PL): After an undergraduate degree in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent I had decided I wanted to become an anthropologist. I had already visited India, and was drawn to specialise in South Asia. Consequently, I took a masters’ degree in South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. It was there that I found inspiration for my doctoral research in Mark Shand’s book Travels on My Elephant. It seemed to me that the skilled practices of the mahout would make for an excellent topic of inquiry. I decided the Chitwan National Park would be an ideal location since captive elephants play a key role in park management, biodiversity conservation, and ecotourism.

VOT: How did you come across Tharu elephant handlers? Since not many Tharu elephant handlers speak English how did you manage to communicate with them?

PL: The first elephant handlers I met were at the Biodiversity Conservation Centre (BCC) in Sauraha, run by the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC). I first met a Tharu mahout named Narayan, but we conversed in Nepali, which I had begun learning at SOAS. This was the language I used throughout my research. The most important person for my research was Rameshwor Chaudhary, the adhikrit subba, the chief of the government elephant section, a Tharu man with many years’ experience working with elephants. I also had the privilege of meeting Bhagu Subba, the aajivan subba, famous for saving King Mahendra’s life from a tiger attack during shikar. I made many great friends among the hattisare at Khorsor and Sauraha, most of whom were Tharus.

VOT: Can you tell our readers about your findings from the research? It would be great if you can tell something about the contribution of Tharus in the elephant handling and management in Nepal.

PL: My research was both historical and ethnographic. I was concerned with tracing the history of captive elephant management in Nepal and its changing role in trade, hunting, conservation, and tourism. I was also concerned to explore the private social world of the elephant stable, and to investigate the expert knowledge and skilled practices of the elephant handlers. I was particularly interested in apprenticeship learning, and I pursued these objectives by means of participant observation, photographic documentation, and interviewing. What became evident to me was that state sponsorship had fostered a tradition of skilled and dangerous practice by which the Tharu had become experts at capturing and caring for elephants. This tradition was still crucial for managing Nepal’s lowland national parks in the early 21st century, and yet the expertise and the effort of the Tharu hattisare was not well recognised. The historical status of the Tharu as masinya matwali (enslavable alcohol drinkers) was clearly important here, and the preponderance of Bahuns and Chetris in the DNPWC (Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation) was overwhelming - among this group I encountered a great deal of prejudice and ignorance regarding Tharu people, and a reluctance to acknowledge their expertise as elephant handlers.

VOT: Have you heard about King George V's hunting expedition to the Terai? Do you know any involvement of elephant handlers, particularly Tharus in facilitating the hunts?

PL: The King George V hunt is particularly well documented in photographs, and represents a topic of my current research on the historical photography of human-elephant relations in colonial South Asia. I had the pleasure of meeting Bhagu Subba, who had served on the rastriya shikar of 1959, when Queen Elizabeth II visited.

VOT: What's your general perception about Tharus? They have been complaining that they are the original inhabitants of Terai but have been pushed to the boundary and oppressed by the recent settlers from hills and southern border (India). What's your say on this?

PL: Arjun Guneratne has explored the ethnogenesis of the Tharu in his excellent book "Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal”. Malarial eradication and road building programmes transformed the Tarai environment and its access from the hills in the 20th century. This has caused massive demographic and socio-economic change, which has triggered some very lively identity politics. Since the Maoist insurgency we have also seen the rise of some very fractious politicking in the form of region based political parties, which I think has tended to inflame hatred and intolerance of ethnic others. In Sauraha, I think it is unfortunate that so much touristic development has happened with only marginal participation from local Tharu. I am though very much inspired by Tharu youth who seek to empower their local communities through local development work. My friend Birendra Mahato is an excellent example - he has played a major role in the Tharu Culture Museum, in working with local NGOs, in helping stimulate artisanal economic activity (like the production of paper from elephant dung), and most recently in responding to the devastating earthquakes.

Here’s a blog post by Piers during his recent fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

Interspecies Ethnography and Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia

Here’s an ethnographic documentary co-produced by Piers, based on his fieldwork at the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Centre.

Further, here’s a photo gallery by Piers.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Rice duck farming and the Tharus

The Chinese and Japanese had been releasing ducks in their rice fields since 1000 and 500 years respectively. In Nepal, the Tharus had been grazing ducks in the paddy fields since ancient times.

However, “It was not systematic,” says Krishna Chaudhary, a member of Paribartan Dhan Hans Palan Samuha, a group involved in rice-duck farming in Kathar of Chitwan.

Rice duck integrated farming uses the symbiotic relationship between rice and ducks to give a farmer better productivity.

The ducks eat away the pests and weeds from the rice fields and in return ensure better growth of rice plants by stimulating them with their beaks and paddling. The duck droppings act as organic fertiliser. 

Ram Lal Chaudhary, a member of Gunastariya Dhan Hans Palan Samuha, another group in Kumrose Village Development Committee of Chitwan, says, “I did not use any chemical fertiliser and pesticides in my paddy field but my neighbour did so three times in a single cultivation period.” “The ducks eat away the unwanted insects like drosophila and mosquito in the evening.”

From rice duck farming, the farmers harvest organic rice that commands a better price in the market. At the end, the ducks can be sold in the market and the farmers can thus earn more income.

To know more about the benefits of rice duck farming, read an Op-Ed that Menila Kharel and I wrote in The Kathmandu Post (published on 23 June 2015).

Monday, May 18, 2015

The message on a Tharu door

I am left spellbound whenever I meet and converse with eminent Newar scholar Kashinath Tamot. His knowledge and wisdom makes me a Lilliput and I crave for more every time I visit him.

When I visited him last time, we talked about one of the research articles he penned for Ian Alsop of the and his friend Michael Woerner. Michael had sent a picture of a wooden door, believed to be from a Tharu area and wanted help with reading and translation of the inscriptions on the door.

The doors, scheduled to be exhibited, lacked proper documentation. Mr Tamot did a thorough research on the Tharu door and wrote the below research article after months of hard work and perseverance.

With his permission I am publishing the article – the exact piece without any changes.

Tharu door. Courtesy: Mr Kashinath Tamot

The inscription of a Tharu door
By Kashinath Tamot
31 October 2014

I was attracted from a pair of decorative wooden shutter of a door sent by my friend Ian Alsop, USA in his email of 1 October, 2014, which was sent to him by his friend Michael Woerner from Thailand. There is an inscription written continued in three panels of the shutter. The door is from the Tarai-lowland of Nepal, where aborigine Tharu lives. This is beautiful Tharu door.

I started to investigate to know about such door from Tharu area of Tarai. I consulted with Tarain elite friends. They said that this is more than a hundred years old. The shutters are fixed by pointed extension inserted into bottom sill and top sill - cum - lintel. I came to know that such decorative door is rare, almost lost. Not only this, but several arts and crafts of Tharu have been vanished. Some of them are Kharam 'slipper, wooden', / hukka 'smoking device', Muskari 'wooden trap', Dhanus 'bow' and Tir 'arrow', Dhaphan 'thread to weave fishes', Koina 'fishing net' and so on. (Gachhadar 2012)

There are 16 panels in the left shutter and 14 in the right one. There is an inscription written continued in three panels from left to right shutter and inside an animal figure. Among 28 panels, there are carved depiction of elephants (11), Camels (3), Oxen (3), Cobras (2) and one each ass, crane, leopard, monkey, deer and horse. These all are related to Tharu life.

As there are depictions of more elephants in eight simple and three ridden by Mahautya (elephant driver) with umbrella. This door must be related with elephant concerned person.

As sherpas are heroes of mountaineering, so Tharus are heroes of big game hunting of Nepal.

I remembered the reference:
From 1846 to 1951 (i.e., Rana period - KNT) Chitawan became the site of huge big game hunts, to which the maharajas invited all world's nobility (OLDFIELD, 1880/1974: 201ff.; KINLOCH, 1885; LANDON, 1928/1976, II: 150f.; SHAHA, 1970:2ff). A visit of King George V of England in 1911 entered into the annals. No fewer than 600 elephants were assembled from various parts of Nepal. New roads were built and a special camp for the King at Kasara (today headquarters of the national park) was constructed. (Műller-Bőker, 1999:37)

InscriptionI read the inscription consulting with several persons written in Devanagari script, colloquial and a dialectal Tharu language:

(Inscr.  I) Śrī chidhīrā jelāla pu(II)raba saṇeṭ magaru thāru lepacā sīlāl (III) cāchisa kākā

There are four persons mentioned: Jelal, Magaru, Silal and kaka (uncle) qualifying by words chidhirā, saṇet, lepacā and cāchisa. The last one may be a personal name of 'the uncle'.

Nothing found of qualifying words of the inscription. I bought some books on Tharu. I went through Royal documents from the collection of Tej Narayan Panjiar issued from 1726 to 1971 published in The Kings of Nepal and The Tharu of the Tarai. I found a document useful to us. It is a Lal mohar (royal deed) issued by the king Rajendra Bikram Shah (1816-1847) to Daya Raya, appointed him as elephant trainer in 1820 CE (Doc. no. 28). There it is described:

To Daya Raya: We bestow upon you the turban of honor (pagari) for training elephants (rautai) and the land previously given to Bandhu Raut. Capture the elephants by Jaghiya or Khor Kheda hunting methods according to the order of the elephant stable manager (daroga) and be at his disposal. Be loyal to us and enjoy the customary taxes and income from the elephant training function (sidhali rautai) for this area according to the record.

Tek Bahadur Shrestha and Gisele Krauskopff translated it and commented on this Royal document as below:
This document, dated 1820, deals with the post of elephant trainer (raut) and the privileges attached to it. The "turban of honor" is given to Daya Raya (or Daya Raut as he is addressed in document 29). Raut appears clearly as prestigious title related to raya or rai (see document 35). The Pagari was a headdress, a turban sometimes adorned with silver ornaments which was worn by high officials. Even if made of simple cloth, it was a symbol of honor.
As seen above (see document 24), many staff workers were needed to run the elephant stable. The post of daroga was the highest, followed by the raut who led the staff of drivers (mahautya), capturers (phanet) and cleaners. One of his main responsibilities was to capture and tame elephants, a skill at which the Tharu of this area were expert.
                                                                         (Krauskopff and Meyer, 2000:149)

My eyes flashed on the word phanet 'capturer'. Suddenly, I remembered the word sanet in our document and also remembered a Tharu caste name thanet/thanait. I realised, there seems to be relation between these words, possibly these are dialectal forms of the same word having the same meaning.

Sanet Magaru Tharu should be elephant-capturer! (Compare also Nepali samāt(nu) 'capture, seize'. (See Turner 1951)

Chidhira Jelal Puraba preceeds Sanet Magaru Tharu in the inscription. So, he should be senior to Magaru. Puraba 'east' (easterner) seems to be a given name by local people from his original place as Tharus give name such way.

I noticed the word sidhali rautai "elephant training" in the Lal mohar (doc 28). Sidhali and chidhira sounds similar (si-fricative, chi-affricate). There is one word in Nepali sadhaunu 'to train, teach, accustom' and sadhai 'training'. Sidhali has the same meaning. Rautai has also the same meaning - training. Sidhali rautai is a synonymous word compound of sidhali and rautai. From this, we know that rautai could also be said sidhali and so Raut is also could be a form of sidhali (Nepali sadhaune 'trainer'). We have chidhira for it. From this, we come to know that Jelal (Skt. Jayalal) is a Raut 'elephant trainer', senior to Sanet Magaru Tharu.

Shrestha and Krauskopff have described that there needs several staff workers to run Royal elephant stable which are established in Tarai area. They are as follows:

1. Daroga - Elephant stable manager
2. Raut - Head of the elephant care team
3. Mahautya - Elephant driver
4. Phanet - Elephant capturer
5.  ?     - Elephant stable cleaner

These are government official names. In our case Raut is Chidhira and Phanet is Sanet for local people, which seems to be their own dialectal name.

We have Lepaca used after Chidhira and Sanet. This seems to be missing word of elephant related glossary meant 'cleaner' of the stable. There is Sanskrit word lepaka 'plasterer, one who smears, white-washer?. Lepaca possibly developed from it with meaning expansion to be meant cleaner. There is done smearing of (elephant) dung first to keep aside to clean the stable. Silal (Skt. Shivalal) and uncle Cachisa seems to be cleaner of an unknown elephant stable.

Conclusion:I have interpreted here Chidhira as elephant caretaker, Sanet as elephant capturer (and also might be elephant driver) and Lepaca as stable cleaner with common sense of my knowledge of linguistics. These are not attested.

Lastly, I translate the inscription:

Honoured elephant trainer Jelal Puraba, elephant capturer Magaru Tharu, stable cleaners Silal (and) uncle Cachisa.

The decorative Tharu door seems to be of 19th century from a residence, where elephant trainer Jelal Puraba, capturer Magaru Tharu, stable cleaners. Silal and uncle Cachisa live. The door might have made donated by them from a skilled carpenter of the Nepal Tarai, possible from Chitwan. 

Gachhadar, Pramila, 2012
Tharu woman and their Arts & Crafts. Final Report submitted to Social Inclusion     Research Fund, SNV Nepal, Lalitpur.

Diwas, Tulasi and Pramod Pradhan, 2008
Tharu Lokabarta tatha Lok jeewan (A study on Tharu Folklore and Folklife).     Kathmandu: Society for Nepalese Folklore and Folk culture, VS 2065.

Muller-Boker, Ulrike, 1999
The Chitawan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Anthropological Approach. Stuttgart:     Franz Stener Verlag. Tr. by Philip Pierce.
Chaudhary, Shanker Lal, 2003
Tharus: The Pioneer of Civilization of Nepal. Lalitpur: Shila Chaudhary.

Krauskopff, Gisele and Pamela Deuel Meyer, 2000
The kings of Nepal & the Tharu of the Tarai. California: rusca press/Kirtipur: CNAS

Turner, R.L., 1931
A comparative and Etymological Dictionary of the Nepali Language., New Delhi:     Allied Publisher:, Reprint 1980.
Tharu Door Inscription
Devanagari transliteration:


जेलाल पु


रब  सणेट्
मगरु था
रु लेपचा

Below (in ox image):

स काका

Inscription in running text:

(१) श्री छिधीरा जेलाल पु(२)रब सणेट् मगरु थारु लेपचा सीलाल् (३) चाछिस काका

Roman transliteration:


jelāla pu


raba saṇeṭ
magaru thā
ru lepacā

Below (in ox image):

sa kākā

Inscription in running text:

(1) śrī chidhīrā jelāla pu(2)raba saṇeṭ magaru thāru lepacā sīlāl (3) cāchisa kākā

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mallu Mahato – the man who rode a rhino for mere five rupees (five cents)

Mallu Mahato's portrait on the wall of Bulbul Nest Guest House. Photo by Ujjwal Acharya. Used with permission

While the case of a runaway rhinoceros wreaking havoc in Hetauda is going viral in the social media and mainstream media, you will be surprised to know that a man in Sauraha of Chitwan rode a rhino for a mere bet of NRs 5 (5 cents).

Mallu Mahato, 104 years, is alive and kicking. He not only rode a rhino to win a bet, but also has several experiences of trapping a tiger and fighting for life with a bear, reports Keshav Bhattarai in the Chitwan Post.

Mallu Mahato at his home in Sauraha. Photo by Chitwan Post (25 January 2015). Used with permission.

Probably, he is one of the oldest living Tharu legends. He is one of the pioneers contributing to establish Sauraha as a tourist attraction and conserving the Tharu culture in Chitwan and surrounding areas.

Hemanta Mishra, in his acclaimed book The Soul of the Rhino, says Mallu opened the doors for him to have a meaningful dialogue with the community. Mishra considers him as a key partner in conservation and remembers visiting his house frequently.

In his reportage, Mishra further mentions that Mallu was the first to practice what one preaches. He converted his house in Sauraha into an inn for those who travelled with tight budgets. The name of his five-room inn was “Wendy’s Lodge”. Soon a number of lodges named after rhino, tiger, Rapti River, jungle, crocodile and similar words sprouted all over Sauraha, turning it into a bustling tourist centre.

Mishra also talks about helping Mallu revive and market the traditional Tharu “stick dance”. He was one of the leading stick dancers during his heydays. The late kings Tribhuvan, Mahendra and Birendra used to observe his stick dance whenever they visited Sauraha.

His contribution towards establishment of Chitwan National Park is crucial as he was instrumental in moving away the communities from Kutuwa of Padampur, Kachuwani, Bansbari, and Amrite villages, according to Bhattarai.

The one-horned rhinoceros is an icon not only in Chitwan but around the world, and because of it the Chitwan National Park and Sauraha are considered the must-visit tourist attractions. However, neither the state nor the communities remember Mallu who gave his whole life towards developing Sauraha and establishing Chitwan National Park.

My salute to the hero who rode the rhino!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Collection of Tharu songs sung during different rituals

Tharus have inherited a rich culture from their ancestors. However, many traditions have been encroached and manipulated by the influence of new settlers – migrants from hills and neighbouring states of India. Earlier and even till date, Tharus have a rich tradition of singing songs during rituals ranging from birth till death.

These days, most of the songs have vanished along with the old ladies who used to sing during the different rituals. Still some songs are sung during the major occasions, but no one is sure whether they are the right songs. Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Nirmala Devi Chaudhary from Mohanpur Village Development Committee in Saptary district of Eastern Nepal, most of the songs have been collected and published. 

The collection includes songs sung during the Ghardekh – a ritual when the close relatives and groom’s father visit the bride’s house to confirm the engagement. Likewise, the bride’s father and his close relatives and friends visit the groom’s house for the Ghardekh. It includes song sung for the home deity followed during the Ghardekh followed by the songs sung when the visitors (Ghardekhiya) are having lunch.

Similarly, the collection comprises songs sung prior to the marriage (Kumraun) and during the installing of Maruwa (the makeshift structure where marriage takes place). Likewise, the collection boasts of songs sung during the different rituals related to marriage: worshipping a basil (Tulsi) plant and a religious tree at Than (place where people worship the village deity), marrying a well and a mango tree (the bride and groom get married to these!), roasting rice (that is showered over the bride and groom and the deities), uprooting Dwib (a kind of grass that doesn’t wilt), welcoming the groom to the bride’s house and welcoming the bride to the groom’s house, and all steps leading to tying the knot.

The collection also has traditional songs like Birhain, Chachair and even songs sung during rice plantation and Sama-Chakewa festival.

The collection, published 14 years ago, still has a significant role in preserving the rich Tharu tradition and culture. Only a thousand copies of the publication were printed and I am not sure whether the book is available at any bookstore in the country.                     

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Tharus and the rhinos

Chitwan National Park, Nepal’s first national park, is home to the second largest herd of one-horned rhinos in the world. The park boasts of having above 500 rhinos, thanks to the local community who have been joining hands with the government authorities to save the endangered species.

The Tharus take pride in living together with wild animals and conserving them and their habitat before and after the influx of migrants from northern part of the country and bordering India.

Many unsung heroes have gone unnoticed with the media blowing horns for only the vocal ones who apparently are non Tharus. The journalists only talk about the Tharus who have been a sensation – like a Tharu man jumping on a rhino to win a bet of just five rupees, the first woman mahout in Nepal who is a Tharu, and a Tharu mahout who handled the elephant whenever the king used to visit the park.   

However, the researchers who spent years in Chitwan, Bardia, Dang and other Tharuhat areas have spoken and written a lot about the Tharus – both the unsung heroes and the legends.   

Professor Ulrike Muller-Boker, in her book The Chitwan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Ethnoecological Approach, details the Tharu beliefs about rhinos. 

Tharus regard rhino as a symbol of strength and potency. They, rather than believing on the aphrodisiac effect of the rhino horn, take it as an extreme case of good luck if they get hold of the flesh, blood, skin, urine or even dung of a rhino.

Tharus believe that placing the rhino horn under the pillow of a delivering mother makes the delivery quick and smooth. In her book, Ulrike mentions: And they share one other notion about the magical powers of the horn with many other Nepalese: radio transmitters and receivers work because there is rhino horn in them. “How else,” added one Tharu, “could words and songs fly from one place to another?” Events that cannot be explained or else chalked up to divine intervention become comprehensible by means of the rhinoceros.

The meat of a rhino, whether it is rotten or decayed extracted from dead or poached rhinos buried by the authorities, is considered as delicacy among the Tharus. They believe consuming rhino meat helps one evade cycle of rebirths. Besides, the meat offers health, courage and strength.      

Arm bracelets and pots are made from the skin of a dead rhino. Tharus believe that wearing a rhino bracelet protects from the attacks of spirits.

Tharus gather the dried clumps of rhino blood which drips drown when a rhino gets injured in a battle with another rhino. They then dissolve it in water and take of apply the liquid as medicine.

Likewise, the rhino dung and urine are also thought to have healing powers. If a puddle of urine or urine-soaked sand is discovered, they retrieve the liquid. If they find wet sand (with the rhino urine), they flush it with water and use the liquid, again as medicine.

Ulrike writes: The Tharus know to use the powers of a rhinoceros, of whose effectiveness they are convinced, without having to kill the animal; they merely “process” the excretions of a living creature of the cadaver of a dead one. This is also true of other animal species which are seldom slain in order to enjoy the healing and beneficial properties. 

Tharus have been living with the rhinos and saving them for generations – using only the urine and dung, clotted blood, and the skin and meat of a dead rhino. They, along with the newly arrived neighbours, know the importance of a rhino – how it is bringing tourists to the area and helping the local economy grow.

It is high time the media highlights the conservation efforts of local community and unsung heroes, because they are the ones who love the animals and play crucial role in saving the species. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

The motifs and messages on doors of Tharu households

It is a fascinating image. A well-carved door – around hundred years old – has been posted for sale. Men and women engaged in different activities including some daily chores cover the door frontal with floral patterns bordering the motifs. One prominent figure shows men carrying a palanquin. One of the images portray a man playing drum and another figure in a dancing pose. Luckily, or say unfortunately, it used to be a door of a Tharu household.

Few months back, I was mailed an image of a door from another Tharu household which was being readied for exhibition. I could just decipher the name of the house owner from the door and few wild figures including deer, elephants and tigers carved on the door. Looking at the animals carved on the door, I guess it was either from a house in Chitwan or Bardia district.

There is a huge demand in the West for the artefacts and it adds value if it is more than hundred years old and belongs to tribal communities. 

It’s bad that our antique items are finding ways to collectors’ market in the West. However, like every black cloud has a silver lining, it could be a good source of income for few impoverished families which are in possession of such beautiful objects. And especially if such items are thrown in a corner, neglected, making way to cheap modern plywood doors.

Below are few doors, still in use, in the Tharu houses in Eastern Nepal. They have a common design – a floral border and geometrical patterns on the frontal.

It would be great if you can post pictures of old doors from Tharu households in your vicinity.