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 auction. 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.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

7 habits of highly inefficient Tharus

Let me start this piece of satire with a disclaimer – no offence to anybody whose single trait matches with one or more of the below mentioned seven habits. I am myself addicted to quite few of them.

I am not being critical. It’s a reality. Recently, Tharus have been highly inefficient.  And I am digging out the root causes of inefficiency so that the young generation finds a panacea for them and starts cultivating habits that make them highly efficient.

Tharus especially the young ones, though adorned with feel-good adjectives like strong, honest and humble, are often ridiculed with sobriquets like darupiya (alcoholic) and Madhise (derogatory word for people from Terai/Madhes with dark skin). In spite of Tharus, all the time, claiming to be different from Madhesis. Now let’s have a look at all the seven traits that are making the Tharus inefficient and ineffective. 

The first and foremost enemy of the Tharus is daru (alcohol). I don’t know what’s so special about alcohol that the Tharus are so passionate about it. Like they developed immunity against malaria living together with the mosquitoes in the dense jungles, they should have developed similar sort of immunity against alcohol. But it never happened. The Tharus have been brewing alcohol, offering alcohol to their deities and have been drinking it for thousands of years.  Still, not being able to control the intake and not being able to define the limit has led them to the brink of bankruptcy. In spite of knowing that their fathers and forefathers lost all their land, property and pride due to alcohol, they still have been drinking the liquid that makes them largely lethargic.

It’s spreading like an epidemic. Wherever I go, I see the youngsters wasting their precious time and money smoking ganja (marijuana). Earlier, so far as I remember, it was used as means of recreation. I am witness to the pot inhaling sessions of my grandfather and gang. They used to smoke it no more than twice a day and it was offered to guests to relieve them of their tiring travels. Nowadays, you don’t need a pain reliever as you never travel on foot for long. So why smoke pot? Though the youngsters know the habit will lead them to dangerous drugs later, they keep on being stoned throwing their ambitions away in ditches of dope.

Then the habit that’s killing the Tharus softly is procrastination. Though being taught Kal kare so aaj, aaj kare so abhi meaning do today whatever you want to do tomorrow and [do it] right now what you want to accomplish today, they keep on postponing important errands to a later date which makes success shy away from them. Opportunity knocks only once on your doors and if you don’t respond to it, it’s never going to come back again. Though there have been some exceptions, most Tharus have been victims of postponement. 

Another hindering trait is being timid. I don’t mean to say that Tharus are coward and can’t fight for any cause. But it really takes time to get them heated for a cause. Hit the iron when it’s hot is the saying, but they get heated only when the situation is out of control. They fear whether somebody will take it for bad if they talk about or do any antagonising action.

Coming to the fifth trait – have you heard a fable about bats? Bats were so confused that they neither joined the animals nor the birds and finally both the species banished them from joining their groups. So has been the fate of the Tharus. They are neither benefitting from being listed as indigenous people nor for residing in Terai which is being claimed as Madhes. Whenever any opportunity arises to crawl out of the marginalisation, it is either picked up by the hill indigenous people or the Madhesis. And the Tharus just get the naught.     

Being hesitant to use the networks and recommend the deserving ones for plum posts have always let the Tharus down.  Even the Westerners find it comfortable to use their networks and promote the ones they know. In Nepal, no need to mention, most people who have access to power and politicians use the nexus. However, they call it network! They find ways to promote nepotism terming it as capability. As if the ones who don’t have near and dear ones in power are worthless. Poor fellows, I pity on them.  I have heard hundreds of complaints against Tharu elders who rose to high powers. Whenever a fellow kinsman went to them for support, they sent him back telling to try on his own, build capacity and have faith on oneself. And while the fellow burned the midnight oil, his less deserving competitor got the opportunity, being pulled by the power of network.

The last but the most prominent trait that always restricts Tharus to rise upwards is their servile mindset. Though most claim this nature to being humbe, I take it as considering themselves inferiors to others. One of my seniors claims that the habit was imbibed by the Tharus because of the hundreds of years of serving the kings, Ranas and later the newly crowned landlords. The proud mentality prevalent in earlier Tharus turned into being servile. So now, they are ready to serve anybody. But thanks, they are not sycophants and the good thing is, they abhor boot-licking.

As every problem has a solution within itself, the hindering traits which have always tied the feet of Tharus have the solution within themselves. If you take out the first letters of all the bad habits, it makes the acronym, DGTBHS. And fortunately it gives a great lesson – Dig a pit and bury the bad habits.

So, why are you waiting?

Let’s abolish all the bad habits that are stopping the Tharus from being efficient and effective. Turn them into seven habits of highly efficient Tharus!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

5 foot-tapping Tharu dances

Barka Naach
Based on the story of Mahabharat, the Barka Naach is the biggest and most difficult dance performed by the Tharus. It hovers around the song Barkimar which tells the story of Mahabharat. In Tharu language barki means big and mar is a battle.

The dance is performed during the Dashain festival and harvesting season. Tharus believe that the dance brings better harvest and cures diseases and illnesses.

Barka Naach clip uploaded by Nathuram Chaudhary.

Sakhiya Naach
Sakhiya Naach is based on the story of Lord Krishna’s life. The dance is performed during the Dashain festival. In Tharu language sakhi means a friend. As it is danced with friends, it might have got the name Sakhiya. 

Sakhiya Naach clip uploaded by Ganga Dagaura.

Sakhiya dance clip uploaded by Lovely Ramu.

Hori Naach
Hori Naach is performed during the Holi festival. It is performed by Rana and Katharia Tharus. The men and women dance throughout the month of Holi.

Hori Naach clip uploaded by Jacques Trevisan.

Maghuata Naach
Performed during the Maghi festival, Maghauta Naach starts from first of Magh and is performed till the third of Magh. It is performed by the women folks.

Dance clip uploaded by Punaram Chaudhary.

Dhumra Naach
Dhumra Naach is performed during the Shukrati/Deepawali festival. It is performed to appease the Chora Devta, a mischievous deity thought to be responsible for infant mortality.

Dhumra Naach clip uploaded by Subash Chandra Chaudhary

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tharus and Chanarbhoga, the erstwhile winter palace of Sen kings

If you travel to Eastern Nepal, make sure to visit Semnath and Chanarbhoga shrines which lie to the south and north of the East-West Highway’s Rupani-Sambhunath section in the Saptari district.
Temple remnants at Chanarbhoga
Artefacts at Semnath
Semnath, also called Sambhunath, is worshipped as Lord Shiva by the locals. However, Bhulai Chaudhary, the Central Advisor of Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha denies it being Lord Shiva. According to him, the shrine is that of Semnath, a Tharu deity. It is like a pillar and unlike other Shiva shrines, people sacrifice goats and pigeons here to appease the lord. Nowhere in the world the devotees offer animals and birds to Lord Shiva. According to him, Semnath was later Sanskritised to Sambhunath. 

Lord Semnath
Another interesting offering made to Semnath is a pair of brinjals stuck to both ends of a long stick. People vow to offer the brinjals to Semnath in order to get rid of warts on their bodies. And interestingly many people have been able to cure the skin ailment!

The columns and idols at Semnath are similar to the ruins at Chanarbhoga, the shrine on the Chure hills to the north of East-West Highway. Locals believe that the artefacts at Semnath were brought from Chanarbhoga.

According to Bouli Chaudhary, in an article in Tharu Sanskriti, Semnath and Debnath were brothers. One day, Semnath’s maternal aunt hit him with larna, a flat ladle-like kitchen equipment used for stirring while roasting food items, he turned into a stone. He then instructed a local, in his dream, to take him away from Chanarbhoga.

Amrit Lal Chaudhary, 60 years, from nearby Khoksar village echoes a similar story. As Semnath took the form of stone and was swept away by the floods, shepherds tried sharpening their knives on it. But it bled whenever they sharpened their tools on it. Later, a man from the current Sambhunath area dreamt of Semnath instructing him to take him away from the site.   

So when the villagers came in hordes to take him to their village in a bullock cart, the stone didn’t even move an inch from the place. However, as instructed by Semnath, when they brought a small toy cart and loaded in it, the cart started rolling. It came to a halt at the place where the current temple of Semnath is situated.

Some old people whom I interviewed in the area told me that the dent on the top of the pillar worshipped as Semnath represents the hitting by larna. Likewise, the yellow colour on top of the pillar resulted as Semnath ran through the fields of mustard before he turned into a stone.   

Chanarbhoga, though visited by the surrounding villagers only once a year, has significant cultural and religious value. People vow to sacrifice goats and pigeons to Chanarbhoga to get their wishes fulfilled. Bhulai Chaudhary says that Chanarbhoga might be the Shira Than (which lies to the north of the village) of the Tharus. The Tharus worship the deity at Shira Than and sacrifice goats and pigeons so that they and their cattle are not attacked by any wild animal and evil spirit in the jungle.

Though not much has been written about Semnath and Chanarbhoga, some historians relate them to the Sen kings who once ruled the area. Hari Kant Lal Das from Rajbiraj says that the ruins in the Chure hills are remnants of Ekagarh, the winter palace of the Sen kings. According to him Chandrabhoga was their clan deity. He claims that Sambhunath (Semnath) was the erstwhile Ambarpur, the winter capital of the Sen kings.

As the area has not been excavated, not much can be said about the place. However, looking at the affinity of Tharus to the place, one can imagine the ties between Semnath, Chanarbhoga, Sen kings and the Tharus.

If you want to know more about Semnath and Chanarbhoga read my earlier blog posts and the Op-Ed published in The Kathmandu Post.