Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Though not so fancy elements of worship in Jitiya festival, these are healthy and have anti-malarial properties

The Jitiya festival, celebrated with pomp by Tharu and Mithila women in the southern plains of Nepal, is only a few months away.

Read: Jitiya Pawain - the most revered festival among Tharu women

While Jitiya is observed for the welfare of children, the women observing the tedious fast eat a nutritious but neglected tuber, seeds of a plant thought to cause dropsy, offer sponge gourd flower and arrows of sikki grass among others to the deity Jitmahan.

The not so fancy materials sourced from the nature makes the festival more close to the nature. Let’s see why these materials are beneficial besides being used as materials of worship.

Elephant foot yam, commonly known as ol in Nepal.

Elephant foot yam
Elephant foot yam, commonly known as ol in the local language in the southern plains, is a natural medicine for piles and many other illnesses like dysentery, vomiting, stomach ache, and asthma. It can't be eaten without applying lemon, curd or pickles because of the Calcium Oxalate in it. It grows well in fallow land as well and doesn't need much water to grow. Tharu and Maithil women eat it as delicacy during the Jitiya festival.

It still needs to be popularised in main markets like Kathmandu and other urban centres, though people have started knowing its importance. People need to be made aware of its benefits and taught how to cook it.

Argemone mexicana is said to have anti-malarial properties.

The seeds of Argemone Mexicana
There's something mysterious about Argemone mexicana. While its seeds when mixed with rapeseed causes dropsy, the Tharus in Eastern Nepal eat its seeds (called bautara) during the Jitiya festival when fasting women eat the seeds soaked in water over night.

Interestingly, scientists have been experimenting giving Argemone mexicana extracts to people to make them immune against malaria. Tharus have been known for their resistance against malaria since centuries.

Is it also because they have been eating these seeds once a year in the pretext of following ages-old tradition? Well, only a thorough research shall reveal this. While in Mali, tea made from Argemone Mexicana helped 89% of the patients recover from their malaria.

A sponge gourd flower. Image by Flickr user Ton Rulkens. (CC BY-SA 2.0)  

Sponge gourd flowers
While flowers are offered to the gods during worship by the Hindus, sponge gourd flowers are offered to the deity Jitmahan during the Jitiya festival. It reminds us the benefits of the not so cared about vegetable. The sponge gourd is said to be an excellent blood purifier and good for stomach preventing indigestion. It prevents cholesterol and diabetes and cures jaundice.

Vetiver grass (c) Forest and Kim Starr. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
Sikki grass stalks
The sikki grass (also called vetiver grass) has a special place in the worship rituals during Jitiya. While the grass stalks might have been used in the festival due to their usefulness to make baskets, the new scientific findings lead to a totally different view.

The Nature reports the researchers found that spraying the mosquitoes with vetiver killed the insects. Comparing this to letting the sikki grass grow on the bunds and marshy land and boiling the sikki splinters with natural colours to get the coloured variants – the aroma and oil produced might have driven away the malaria carrying mosquitoes  and helped develop resistance to malaria, albeit in a small way. Well, that's just a figment of imagination and only further research can prove this.

So this year, if you are observing the Jitiya festival, don’t forget to talk about the benefits of these not so fancy elements of worship.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The psychology behind domesticating birds and animals

A Tharu house and ducks. Image by Flickr user Jean-François Gornet.CC BY-SA 2.0

If you have visited a rural Tharu household, you must have noticed different shaped enclosures for domesticated birds and animals.   

Also read: Unique enclosures for domestic birds designed by Tharus

Although, with the passage of time, the tradition of keeping domesticated birds and animals is being discontinued, pigeons, chickens, ducks, goats and pigs still are an essential part of a Tharu household.

But have you ever wondered why Tharus and other households in the Terai keep these birds and animals?

Let me take you to my ancestral house to analyse this.

I come from a strict vegetarian family. My grandparents and parents – all are vegetarians – and they were taught to be a vegetarian right from their birth. Now you can imagine the situation. Neither meat nor fish is allowed inside my house. And for a voracious eater like me, I need to either get to my neighbour’s for a plate of meat or build a make-shift oven out of three bricks and cook the delicacy in the cow-shed. That too in this modern day!

Now you will say why I am not changing all this. I have already started the change at my residence but I have never thought of changing the tradition at my ancestral home. It still, to me, is a sacred place.

The reason I am beating around the bush is to provide you with the context before I delve into what the title of the blog says.

In spite of being a strict vegetarian, my grandmother used to keep pigeons and goats. And my grandfather would always complain about this during the meals. He was finicky about cleanliness and he would always point to the droppings of pigeons and goats, making my grandmother run around with broom all the time and shoo away the pigeons while he would be eating.

My grandmother is a lady who likes to see her surrounding clean all the time. That’s why she didn’t raise chickens and ducks. The pigeons and goats are considered to be clean ones. 

We would never give a damn about her pigeons and goats but every year when I visited her there would be plenty of little pigeons to eat. Now don’t tell me not to eat pigeons, I have already left eating them. However, if you are a meat-eater, it’s tasty and really good for health.

Then, every time, we would sacrifice them to appease our forefathers and the village deity. We have discontinued this tradition as well. We have replaced the sacrificial rites with offering laddus to the deities.

Sometimes, my grandmother would sell the newly-born pigeon chicks to meet the daily household expenditures.

And it brought me to tears when my grandmother took out a pair of gold ear-rings and a tilhari (an amulet like ornament worn by married women) for my would-be wife. She had saved the money by selling the goats!

Now, let me go to the psychology behind rearing all these.

First and foremost, they are good source of protein. They can be culled anytime. No wonder, if you visit a Tharu household, you will be offered the fresh meat of these birds.

Secondly, they are can be treated as petty cash. You can sell them whenever you are in need of money.

Thirdly, you can feed them the leftovers from your daily meals. In a way they help minimise your food wastage.

Finally, the goat and bird droppings can be used as an organic fertiliser.

So, why not continue the tradition being followed in the Tharu villages? Let’s continue it! 

Monday, April 11, 2016

No one has long history of residing in Dang, except the Tharus – Prof Dr Shiva Kumar Subedi

Professor Dr Shiva Kumar Subedi. Image from his Facebook page. Used with permission.

Dr Shiva Kumar Subedi, a professor of Nepalese history, culture and archaeology, has published numerous research articles on history and culture of the Dang Valley. He has also written about the Tharus of Dang, their history, culture and cuisines.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus, with the help of researcher Uday Raj, spoke with Dr Subedi about his research works and publications. Here’s an excerpt of the interview.

Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus, Dr Subedi. Can you tell our readers about your research article on 'Prehistoric Study of Dang Area and Recently Discovered Artefacts' published in Ancient Nepal?

Shiva Kumar Subedi (SKS): Dang Valley, Located between Mahabharat and Chure ( Shivalik) ranges is one of the big valleys of Asia. It covers an area of around 50 kilometres in length from east to west and an average of 19 kilometres in width from north to south. The main drainage of the valley is Babai River which lies on the lap of Shivalik range.

I had studied different articles of Gudrun Corvinus, a German scholar, related to the geology and prehistory of Dang during my student life. I got chance to teach prehistory from the beginning of my teaching life. However, I had known a little about the cultural value of this area which attracted me towards the cultural heritage of Dang area. Later, I discovered a piece of Mesolithic tool and two Neolithic tools during my field work. Thus, the article was prepared and published. 

VOT:  In one of your articles you have mentioned that Tharus were the first to settle in Dang. How did you come to such conclusion? Can you tell our readers the facts behind that?

SKS: Nowadays, Tharus are in minority in Dang but they were in large numbers before the Land Reform Act of Nepal 2021 BS (1964 AD) and Malaria Eradication Project which were implemented around same time. Both helped the hill people to migrate to the plain land of the valley.

The first historical document is a copper plate of King Punnya Malla which hints the Brahmin entering in the valley. At present, more than 50 groups are living here but no one has long history of residing in Dang, except the Tharus. They have a cultural history of unknown past related with Dang.

Their settlement pattern, migratory behaviour, joint family system, nature dependent life, compact settlement pattern from security point of view, equal importance given to the cattle, etc., are the features of primitive life.

The ones who have migrated towards the west are known as Dangaura (originally of Dang). On the basis of these facts, I agree with the opinion of Prof. K.N. Pyakurel that Tharus of Nepal do not have a single origin and conclude that Dangaura Tharus are original inhabitants of Dang.

VOT: You have also written about the medieval history of Dang and cultural heritage of Dang. Can you highlight a little about it?

SKS: In the past, Dang witnessed a rich and glorious time during the prehistoric period. The discoveries from lower Paleolithic period to the Neolithic period in Dang prove this fact. Most of the artefacts are exhibited in the National Museum, Chhauni, Kathmandu. They show that Dang was rich in prehistoric culture. However, there is no clear picture of the historic period due to lack of reliable sources.

Ancient history of Nepal mostly depended on the cultural sources, outside of the Kathmandu Valley. The copper coins, which were discovered on the mound of Sukaura, so-called fort of the Tharus cannot hint at the history of Dang. On the basis of the tangible and intangible cultural sources and support of the neighbouring sources, it can be said that it was governed by the Tharus up to the early medieval period of Nepalese history. Tharus must be the local chiefs in the Khasha imperial period which is hinted by the copper inscription of Punnya Malla.

After the fall of that empire, some local chiefs got opportunity to be sovereign kings. But Dang was divided into different tiny kingdoms for a time being and different families got chance to hold the power. In this context, local chiefs related with the ruling family held the power in Dang.

The king of Dang during the period of unification was not of the Tharu family. This shows that the hold of Tharus in Dang was gradually falling down along with the rise of Khashas. However, the social status of Mahataun (village headman) remained similar to that of the ancient and early medieval periods. This system helped to continue the tradition of the Tharu community and Tharu culture became the culture of Dang. In the heritage of Dangali culture, we can say that Tharu culture is the cultural heritage of Dang along with Siddha Ratnanath sect.

VOT: You have also written about the cuisines of Dangaura Tharus. Please tell us in detail about the food items and how they are prepared. It would be good if you can also tell us the importance of the food items in the Tharu culture. When and why are they (some special items, if any) prepared?

SKS: The cuisines of human beings are mainly based on the local production and can be divided into two groups: habitual food and cultural food. Tharus are not exception from that fact. The cuisine system of the Dangaura Tharus seems to be more hygienic due to less use of oil and fat.

The major spice which is commonly used is pepper with turmeric powder. Boiled stick made of rice flour, dhikri, is used as a habitual and cultural food item.

Mad (starch) is a popular drink which is made from the mixture of rice, maize, wheat, barley and pulses. After boiling for a long time, it takes the form of liquid and is used as a non-intoxicant drink. It is also used during the day time and helps to maintain the scarcity of glucose. Rice, pulse, green vegetables and chutneys of local produce are common food habits.

Kappwa (made of rice and wheat powder) and Kanjuwa (made of sour starch) are the substitute variety of pulses.

Lachhara – dry piece of green vegetables is used in lieu of green vegetables when it is not available in kitchen garden.

There are limited food items which can be mentioned the items of food culture. They are dhikri, jhajhara roti and baria. Dhikri is made of rice flour which is cooked over steam. On the basis of their shapes and size, they are known as pauwa dhikri, lattha dhikri, gola dhikri and chhithi dhikri. This variety of food is essential in the great festivals like Maghi, Dashya, Gurai, etc.

Jhajhara roti is the next variety of occasional food which is made of liquid rice flour cooked in ghee. It is used during Dashain, Holi and other occasions to offer to those gods who do not prefer animal sacrifice.

Baria is similar to gola dhikri cooked either in oil or in ghee. It is needed in marriage and funeral ceremonies.

Poinkasan (a typical vegetable available in kitchen garden) is used in Astimki and Atwari festivals.
Fish is equally important for food habit and food culture.

VOT: Can you highlight any interesting incident during your research in Dang?

SKS: Dang is the area from where prehistoric artefact was discovered first in Nepal. Prof. R.N. Panday, Gudrun Corvinus, Randy Haaland have given their valuable time in prehistoric research in Dang. Dr Drona Rajaure and Prof. Dr Sharma have also given their attention to the cultural research in Dang. So, I was also attracted towards the research of this area. It was focused in the Babai area. One day while returning from the field on the evening, I saw a typical stone piece in the water of Babai riverbed. I picked it up. It was a piece of lost Mesolithic stone. It is the most interesting incident during my research on Dang.

VOT: What are your personal views about the Tharus? do you have any advice for the young generation?

SKS: Tharu is an honest and labourious ethnic group of Nepal Tarai that remained out of contact with other groups. When other groups came to contact, they went out from Dang. However, it was impossible to live without mixing with the others and it took a long time to be close to each other. It was essential to accept the cultural values of the hill people which is gradually being adapted.

Liquor and wine were the major drinks of the Tharus which had created misunderstanding and quarrels in the society. It was the major reason of misuse of grain which made them food-less during the farming period. It was also one of the reasons behind the poverty and made them rely on others. But now-a-days, Tharu youths are getting away from this tradition and are trying to change. It is good. However, some of the academicians of this community are giving slogans of extreme ethnicism which is harmful. Most of the youths are just trying to adjust with others and learning new things. I request the youths to be careful of this and learn from the mistakes of past.

VOT: Are you continuing with research and writing? Can you share with us your future plane?

SKS: Now-a-days I am active towards developing culture tourism in Rapti by the means of identifying the heritage sites, formulating master plans for the development and making people aware about it. Culture and nature are intertwined, so both should be launched together.

Government alone cannot do anything without people's participation which is essential for sustainable development.

I want to spend my remaining life in research and publications.

Friday, March 11, 2016

As signage around villages in Terai are being changed, there’s urgent need to revoke them

The name of Biyahi River has been changed to Behai without the local community's consent.

If you want to erase a community’s history, first attack its language and traditions – the community will slowly cease to exist.

While I write this, some group of people might be considering coining new words to replace the ages-old names of the places in the Terai. It’s not just changing names, it’s an attack on the language and culture of the region.

I had been hearing about the cultural attack on the names of villages and places in Udayapur after the influx of migrants from hills. One of the prominent examples I had been hearing was renaming “Satpatiya” to “Satpatre” – while it’s just a tip of the iceberg, the names of places are being changed throughout the Terai because of the influence of Nepali speaking populace.

A few days ago, I was pillion-riding on the Sitapur-Birendra Bazaar section of the East-West Highway in the Saptari district. As we passed by the “Gaihri” River, I was surprised to see the signage placed by the Department of Roads. The river has been renamed as “Gahidi”. As we moved a bit westwards, yet another change was awaiting us. The name of “Biyahi” River has been changed to “Behai”.

If you keep on following the upstream of Biyahi River, you will come across another river “Samdahi”. Interestingly, both the Biyahi and Samdahi rivers have been named after Tharu words that connote “first wife” and “second wife” respectively. And changing the name into Behai doesn’t make any sense at all. 

As we talk about building a strong Nepal and giving equal rights to all, how one community can think of  living in harmony with others if such types of cultural attacks are meted out by the newly-arrived migrants.

It’s not only the change of names, it’s the colonisation mentality which can never let peace prevail if such things keep on happening. 

The name of Gaihri River has been changed to Gahidi which doesn't make any sense at all.

Now let’s ponder over the names. The Gaihri River was named after its depth. It is the deepest river in the area. However, changing the name doesn’t make any sense at all. What is the meaning of “Gahidi”? It’s just a colonisation mentality – to rule over the local people and their mentality. Why has the local administration full of Nepali speaking people resorted to changing the names? Have they consulted the local communities? The simple answer is – NO. And they never thought of giving priority to local concerns.

Likewise, the name of “Bhiriya” village in Saptari district has been changed to “Bhediya”. When I talked with the local elders, they said that the place was named after its location – steeper than other places. Now changing the name to Bhediya connotes that it’s a settlement of people who raise sheep. And it’s not the case!   

As I keep on talking about the changing of names, it is not only limited to the names of places – even the commodities, fruits and vegetables have been renamed.  As I eat the green leafy “Bathuwa”, the vegetable vendors calling it “Bethi” always keep on hammering on my head.

It’s just like British India renaming Kolkatta, Chennai, Mumbai, Bengaluru to Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Bangalore respectively. It took the local people decades after India got independence from the clutch of British rule to get back the original names. However, it’s not too late in our case. We need to fight with the local administration, the newly migrated Nepali speaking populace and the colonising mentality to get back the original names.

The communities and few handful people who are behind these changes should always keep in mind that changing the names of the places and trying to colonise the mentality of local people will never lead to communal harmony. While trying to prove the supremacy of oneself, the rights of others should never be trampled down or encroached upon.

If you have heard of similar change of names, please add them in the comment section of this blog. The list will be a reminder to the local leaders and youth who are working towards saving the culture and tradition of Terai region.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Aginsair – a caretaker god or agnishala?

Aginsair temple
The Chure hills in Saptari district of Eastern Nepal houses ruins of ancient temples and palaces supposed to be built by Sen kings.

While the ruins of a temple in Chandrabhoga and remnants of a palace in Kanakpatti village are famous and have drawn interest from Department of Archaeology, the ruins at Aginsair have not attracted any interest of historians.

Aginsair, considered as one of the Shira Thans (place of worship of many villages in the vicinity, located in the north of the settlements) by the locals, lies at about four kilometres east of Rupani and to the north of the East-West Highway.

Stones in front of the temple
Temple parts inside the temple

Idol worshipped as Bageshri
Lord Aginsair in the centre
Damaged idols
Damaged idols
Chiselled stones and baked bricks are found in abundance here. The locals have collected statues recovered from the site and built a temple that houses them. Among them is an idol of Aginsair with a damaged face and a tiger statue worshipped as Baghesri, the tiger goddess. Next to them are broken sculptures and remnants of a temple.

Sanctum to the north of the temple
Outside the temple is a collection of temple remnants and to the north of the temple lies an enclosure of chiselled stones thought to be a sanctum.

When I talked with locals, they said that it is an ancient well but looking at its structure and the way it’s built it must be a sanctum, says Prakash Darnal, Chief of the National Museum in Kathmandu. 

Like other Shira Thans, the locals gather here on the first of Baishakh, the Nepalese New Year and offer prayers to Aginsair and sacrifice animals and birds to evade any possible outbreak of epidemics in the villages and save themselves and their animals from being attacked by wild animals.

According to Sahabir Chaudhary, 60, Aginsair appeared in the dream of an old man and asked him to dig him out. The locals then started worshipping the idol on the first day of the year. Haleshar Raj Bantar was the first priest and till this day the Raj Bantars have remained the priest of the temple.

Raju, grandson of Jhanjhu bataha
The statue was thrown in a well by an insane man called Jhanjhu bataha (bataha meaning mad). It was retrieved from the well but its face got permanently damaged after the incident. Jhanjhu’s grandson Raju, 75, is still alive and lives in Sitapur village.

Musaharu Das, Thanpati of Sitapur

As per Musharu Das, the Thanpati (caretaker of the Than) from Sitapur village, the first offering to Aginsair comes from Sitapur followed by hordes of sacrifices from people from other villages.

Bhikhan Chaudhary, Sitapur

Bhikhan Chaudhary, 72, says that after they started worshipping Aginsair, the wild animals stopped attacking cattle and people in the vicinity.

With the belief that their vows will be fulfilled, people throng to the site on the new year’s day to vow and to offer prayers and sacrifice to the Lord Aginsair.

This temple part resembles the temple part in Chandrabhoga.
Art scholar Kashinath Tamot opines that the name Aginsair must have been derived from Agnishala which later became Agnisair and finally Agnisair. The ancient kingdoms had provision of running yagnas and they constructed agnishala for the purpose.

Interestingly, one of the temple part (a row of shikhara style temple tops) housed in the temple resembles with the temple part in Chandrabhoga. The stone blocks and baked bricks found here also match with the ones found in Chandrabhoga.

Aginsair can be another piece in the jigsaw puzzle comprising the Shambhunath, Kanakpatti, Kanchha Khoriya and Chandrabhoga. If excavated and researched further, this area can perhaps unravel the story of an ancient settlement like Lumbini.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tharuism is good for preserving cultural identity but casteism is bad for cultural harmony – Ashok Tharu

Ashok Tharu with Sarita Pachhaldangya

Ashok Tharu, a legendary Tharu scholar, has dedicated his life to unearthing the different facets of Tharu culture. He has collaborated with many international and national researchers to write about the uniqueness and nuances of Tharu traditions, rites and rituals.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus caught up with Ashok Tharu for an inspiring interview. Special thanks go to Sarita Pachhaldangya for her coordination in interviewing Mr Tharu. Excerpts:

Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. You have carved a niche among Tharus researchers. How did the idea of conducting research related to Tharus come to you? Who and what was your inspiration?

Ashok Tharu (AT): At first, thank you so much "Voice of Tharus" for providing me this media corner. Let me go back into the past. The famous historian Yogi Narahari Nath was in a mission of establishing Sanskrit University in Dang. We all, the students of 8th grade, went to the infrastructure site to build small cottages for classrooms. There, I found a small booklet titled "Sthal Digdarshan" meaning "origin of the place". In the second page, a stanza was published in Nepali, "Bhāshā bhushan bhesh katā tira gayo, mul thalo ho katā, kasmā chhan tharakā thalā, tala hudā Tharu kasori bhayo". Meaning: Where did the languages, ornaments, dresses go? Where is the origin of castes? How did Tharu caste originate? Is it due to having low caste status or being inhabitants of Terai?

Once I was going through a dictionary written by Narendramani Acharya Dixit, published by Sajha Prakashan, Kathmandu. According to the dictionary Tharu means a term of abuse alongside bhate (one who wants to eat rice without doing any work), mula (jobless), chor (thief), chandal (a caste whose occupation is to burn dead bodies), and paji (baby of a donkey).

The above stanza and the definition of the Tharu word stirred my heart, mind and soul badly. Since then, I vowed to devote my life to preserving and promoting Tharu folk cultural heritages so that the Tharu word would be prestigious.

There are so many hidden essentialities within folk culture such as Tharu folk literature (epics, songs, stories, proverbs, mantras, etc.), folk arts and crafts (Ashtimki painting, tattoo, wall painting, wood carving, natural fibre knitting and designing, art of playing musical instruments and dancing, etc.); but all of these intangible cultural heritage (ICH) are going to get lost due to lack of transmitting them from generation to generation.

VOT: Can you tell our readers about your research and the publications you have published till date?

AT: I have written a number of articles in Tharu and Nepali languages in the subject of Tharu ICH which are as follows: (enlisted at the end of the interview)

VOT: Please tell us about yourself and your opinion about the Tharus?

AT: I’ve a bitter experience and feeling about our caste 'Tharu'. I was a teacher in a school established by my father. Once, a 10-year-old boy got admission in the 5th grade. When the class teacher asked his name, he said 'Chaudhary as his surname'. I asked him, “Would you like to write Tharu in lieu of Chaudhary?” In reply, he used the word ‘Dhat’. That means: “I feel embarrassed and inferior to be associated with the word Tharu. So, I won't like it [Tharu] to accompany my name.”

Knowing this, I felt very sad. Where is our young generation going? What's going to happen to our cultural identity? Why do they have inferiority complex about their own caste?  This event inspired me to write Tharu instead of Chaudhary. Since then my identity has been Ashok Tharu, even though before the unification of Nepal, my ancestors were designated as 'Chaudhary' [a post] by Falabangi King Shamsher Bahadur Shah, Gehendra Bahadur Shah and last prince Jitendra Bahadur Shah. In fact  the word 'Chaudhary' has been derived from 'Chauthdhari' meaning a ‘tax collector’.

VOT: You are also an art lover. Please tell us how you coordinated the cover
design of the book 'Barka Naach' by Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel?

AT: The Government of Nepal had declared 1998 as the 'Visit Nepal Year'. It also recognised cultural tourism which is one of the most important factors in increasing personal/national income and contributing to development.

One day Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel came to me, taking the name of Gisele Krauskopff with whom I had collaborated in 1989. They told me  about their research plan. Thus, came the opportunity to internationally spread the Tharu ICH through the Tharu Mahabharata Project.

In the first year, I proposed them to observe the process of Tharu Astimki painting which is based on Tharu folk philosophy. Kurt along with 18 tourists visited the Kachila village in Dang district. They very much liked the painting of Dambar Tharu. Thus, the creation of Dambar Tharu got to the front cover of the book 'Barka Naach'. On the cover, the illustrations included Dropadi, the most important character of Mahabharata and an umbrella used during the marriage ceremony. The whole story of Mahabharata is the story of Dropadi's sorrow, grief and sufferings. Another illustration donning the cover is that of Sun, Kunti’s first husband [Though Kunti was not married, she had a son with him] and father of Karna, the second most important character after Arjun.

Astimki painting is the most philosophical painting within Tharu folk art. Readers can consult the special publication ‘Chali Gochali’ [Let's go friend] magazine published in August 2015 to know more. Shila Chaudhary has translated my article about this painting into English in this issue. Nepali readers can refer to my article and book on the painting (check out the list at the end of the interview).

VOT: You have contributed a lot to highlight the Tharu Astimki painting. Can you
share with our readers about the philosophy behind the painting?

AT: I'm proud of unknown Tharu artists, painters and our ancestor's philosophy behind the Astimki painting created by them. Who can say they were backward, uncivilized and illiterate Tharus? Who can use the word Tharu as a term of abuse?

We should observe the painting from bottom to top. At the bottom, the sky blue colour symbolizes ocean. The creatures like fish, crab and tortoise remind us about Paleozoic Era. The man over the boat is 'Gurbābā', the first Tharu (Krauskopff, 1989: 52) who created lithosphere with the help of crab and worms. On the top row are five Pandavas  going to marry Dropadi who is shown on the second row. On the third row is the 12 headed Raavana, the most interesting character of the painting. Sita, the daughter of King Janak had fallen in love with Raavana during her marriage ceremony but Rama wedded her winning the competition. She could not forget Raavana and he was present in her subconscious mind even though see never talked to anybody about this except her sister-in-law. Tharu girls sing this story during the Paiyã dance in Dasya festival.

This philosophical painting is based on Tharu mythology. Around 50 years ago, Tharu painters used natural colours. They produced green colour from bean leaves, brown from catechu wood, black from dried and burned gourd. But now-a-days they use chemical colours. Every colour in the painting has a psychological meaning and significance. Tharu painters use geometric shapes which are drawn in a simple way representing the ancient method.

Astimki is not only a painting but a great ceremony in the dark night. Women take  to fasting and in the dark night, the beauty of well-dressed and ornamented-laden Tharu women in blazing flame of the ceramic lamp light is worth watching. The women worship the painting by singing Astimki songs the whole night.

Next morning, they go to a river and immerse the flowers and lamps in the river waters. The flowing of blazing light over the river is enchanting to watch. In short, the Astimki painting is a juxtaposition of multiple voices of Tharu folk art, artists and folk culture. The Tharu folk artists present multiple interpretations through their paintings. This folk art through its rhythmic colours related to the society highlights the Tharu folk cultural spirituality.  It is one of the most important Tharu folk cultural ICHs.

VOT: During your research, you worked with many international and Nepali
researchers. Can you share your experiences with us? 

AT: In 1989 when I was in a teaching job, I got an opportunity to join Gisele Krauskopff from CNRS, Paris. As the result, a very serious research book "Maitres Et Possedes" has been published in French. Many academician tried to translate it into English but CNRS didn't allow the translation. It is the symbol of French language's pride from which we Tharus should learn a lesson. This project was not only a job for me but an open university that enriched my knowledge and concept about Tharu culture and it enhanced my research skills. This project widened my public relations as well.

1991: I joined Veronique Bouiller from CNRS, Paris to research about Nath culture. There is very close relationship between Tharu and Nath cultures. I've analysed about it more in one of the chapters “Phulwār” (garden), in my book in Nepali "History, art and philosophy in Tharu folk literature". Do you know an interesting fact? Parvati, the wife of Mahadeva, was the daughter of the premier Tharu Gurbaba (Krauskopff,1989: 50/Meyer, 1998: 5). This is why they are worshipped in the deity room of every Tharu home. The song sung during a Tharu marriage ceremony is the tale of goddess Parvati and god Mahadeva.

1998: I got an opportunity to join Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel.  As a result the greatest epic among Tharu folk literature "Barkimar/Tharu Mahabharata/Barka Naach" has been published in Tharu, Nepali and English languages.

2065B.S./2008AD: I joined famous cultural scholar Mr. Tulsi Divas. As a result, the book "Tharu folklore and folk life" has been published  in Nepali and English languages. Due to lack of team co-ordination, there are some grammatical errors in Tharu words.

Once, Parsu Narayan Chaudhary of Gobardiha village narrated a very important folklore. The British annexed Tulsipur, the southern part of Dang state, unilaterally to the Indian state Balrampur in 1930. The British wanted to extend the territorial border up to the Chure range but the Manyajan of Deukhuri did not let it happen.

The elderly of the place tell the story of the Manyajan who claimed that the land belonged to them. They put forward the evidence that the discovery of coal in Koilabasa proved that they had been using the land as pasture for ages and if they were deprived of it, they would lose the source of subsistence and it would create a big problem.

The British accepted their request and the foot of the Chure range was agreed as the southern border of Nepal. As a result, the Tharus of Gobardiha (ancestor of Parashu Narayan Chaudhary) obtained the privilege of tax collection from the Koilabasa check post and the Tharus of Materiya (ancestor of Lokmani Chaudhary) obtained the privilege of tax collection from the Khangra check post.   

Since 2063 B.S./2006 A.D. Nepal Music Centre, Kathmandu has selected me as a representative of mid-western region for the folk cultural publication ‘Lok Sanskriti’.

Due to the above opportunities and my contribution to Tharu folk culture since 2013, I was selected to activate the ICH Convention 2003 by Ministry of Culture of Nepal and UNESCO. After completing the TOT, I have been listing Tharu folk cultural ICHs for the last two years.

While preparing the ICH TOT, I came closer to Mr. Dharma Raj Shakya, a stone sculpture and Vice President of Federation of Handicrafts Association of Nepal. As a result, I have established Dang Handicraft Association to promote cultural handicrafts.

In 2014 AD I joined Victoria Dalzell to research on ethnomusic. We both explored the 22 steps of Tharu Folk Dance Paiya.

VOT: What is your personal view about Tharus? Do you have any advice for the
young generation?

AT: Tharuism is better for our own cultural identity but casteism is bad for cultural harmony. We Tharus are more influenced by Nepali culture. We prefer to speak Nepali rather than Tharu language with our children. It is a slow poison for Tharu's cultural identity (ICH). It is said, “If you want to kill any culture, attack it through its mother language.” It’s not only the question of language, there are so many ICHs hidden within Tharu folk culture. Those are being lost rapidly because of not being handed over and transferred to new generation.

VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us
your future plans?

AT: Promoting ICH through research, analysing, publishing, and production is my life's goal, so how it can stop. It’s my hobby, not a job.

Nothing can be said about the future. Thank you so much for providing space for my thoughts in your blog. Wishing all of you and the Voice of Tharus team all the best!

Articles by Ashok Tharu:
How much scientific is the Tharu folk cultural festive event's ritual 'Gurai'? Published in a college journal ‘Hamar Pahura’ (our gift). 2050B.S./1993 A.D., Tharu student comt. Dang.

O Sakhi (Girlfriend)! on the occasion of Maghi festival, we have drunk sweet liquid Jãr (Alcohol), Published in New Morning, Kathmandu.

In the question of Tharu language, Part 1/2/3 published in Yugbodh national daily, 2058B.S./2001 A.D.

History, Art and Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, published in Yugbodh national daily, 2059B.S./2002 A.D.

History, Art and Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, published in Saypatri journal, Nepal Academy, Kathmandu, 2059B.S./2002 A.D.

History, Art and Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, published in Saypatri journal,
Nepal Academy, Kathmandu, 2062B.S./2005 A.D.

History, Art and Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, published in Pragya journal, Nepal
Academy, Kathmandu, 2059B.S./2002 A.D.

Tharu folk dance: Sakhyā / Paiyã, Folk Culture Journal, Published by Nepal Music
Centre, Kathmandu, 2063B.S./2007 A.D.

Sexual feeling in Tharu folk art, folk literature and folk culture, Published in Jyotsna
Journal, 2064B.S./2008 A.D.

Freudism in Tharu Folk Literature, Folk Culture Journal, Published by Nepal Music
Centre, Kathmandu, 2064B.S./2008 A.D.

Tharu Traditional Organization: Deshbandhya (Regional controller), Mahatawa (village
chief) and Ghardhurya (household chief), published in Yugbodh national daily,
2065B.S./2008 A.D.

Tattoo, Gorkhapatra, 2066B.S./2009 A.D.

Do your deities like dirty place? Gorkhapatra, 2066B.S./2009 A.D.

Madho-Sundari in Tharu Folk Literature, Folk Culture Journal, Published by Nepal
Music Centre, Kathmandu, 2066B.S./2009 A.D.

Harmonious co-existence to strengthen the local cultural, published in Yugbodh national
daily, 2067B.S./2010 A.D.

Tharu folk Art: an over view, Folk Culture Journal, Published by Nepal Music Centre,
Kathmandu, 2067B.S./2010 A.D.

Radha and Kanha: In Tharu folk literature, Published in Khasãni Journal, Midwestern
Literature Society, 2068B.S./2011A.D.

Tharu Folk Art Astimki: A short over view, Folk Culture Journal, Published by Nepal
Music Centre, Kathmandu, 2069B.S./2012 A.D.

Daharchandi (A Goddess), Gorkhapatra 2069B.S./2012 A.D.

Disappearing Tharu folk tradition of marriage, Published in Chali Gochali Journal,
Kathmandu, 2069B.S./2012A.D.

Books in Nepali/Tharu languages:
Tharu Mahabharata: A short and comparative analysis (in 2055 B.S./1998 A.D. Nepali)
Published by Pamela Deuel, Jagadamba offset Press, Patandhoka.

Tharu Mahabharata: A short and comparative analysis (in 2055 B.S./1998 A.D. Tharu)
Published by Pamela Deuel, Rapti Offset Press, Dang.

Tharu Mahabharata: A short and comparative analysis (in 2055 B.S./1998 A.D. Nepali)
Published by BASE, Rapti Offset Press, Dang.

Gurbaba: Tharu - Nepali - English Dictionary, Published by BASE, Dang.

History, Art and Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, published by CAF-Nepal,
2063B.S./2006 A.D.

Tharu Folk Art: A classical study, Published by Academy of Fine Arts, Kathmandu, 2070
B.S./2013 A.D.

Papers presented in different workshops:
Tharu Traditional Organisation : Deshbandhya (Regional controller), Mahatawa (village
chief) and Ghardhurya (household chief), INSEC, 2065B.S./2008 A.D.

Folk Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, Nepal Academy, Kathmandu, 2067B.S./2010

Strengthening the local cultural to build up Harmonious Co-existence in Nepal, World
View Nepal- /CECI-Nepal, European Union, 2068B.S./2011 A.D.

Developing traditional skills in Tharu culture and resources of economic income,
National Cultural Study Centre, Nepal Sanskrit University, Kathmandu, 2069B.S./2012

Cultural rights and national cultural policy -  2067/2010.

World View Nepal- /CECI-Nepal, European Union, 2069B.S./2012 A.D.

Strengthening the local cultural to build up harmonious co-existence in Nepal, World
View Nepal- /CECI-Nepal, European Union, 2070B.S./2013 A.D.

Use of classical theory in Tharu folk songs, 3rd Folklore Congress of Nepali Folklore
Society, Kathmandu, 2070B.S./2013 A.D.

Tharu Folk Festival Event: Hāryā Gurai, 4th Folklore Congress of Nepali Folklore
Society, Kathmandu, 2070B.S./2013 A.D.

Books in collaboration with:
Krauskopff, Gisele (1989), Maitres Et. Possedes, CNRS, Paris.

Ed. Meyer, Kurt/Deuel, Pamela/translator: Dinesh Chamling Rai/Kalpana Ghimire/Ashok
Tharu, (1998) Barka Naach: A Rural Folk Art Version of Tharu Mahabharata, Himal
Books, Patan Dhoka and Ruska Trust California.

Ed. Divas, Tulasi/Reasercher: Dr. Govind Acharya/Ashok Tharu/Bir Bdr.
Khadka/Jitendra Chaudhary (2065/2008) Tharu Folklore and Folk Life (Nepali edition)
Published by Nepali Folklore Society, Kathmandu.

Ed. Divas, Tulasi/Bhattarai, Govind Reasercher: Dr. Govind Acharya/Ashok Tharu/Bir
Bdr. Khadka/Jitendra Chaudhary (2065/2008) Tharu Folklore and Folk Life (English
edition) Published by Nepali Folklore Society, Kathmandu.

Photo credit: Durga Lal KC/ Kantipur

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ethnic politics and ideas of modernity heavily influence contemporary Tharu musical performance – Victoria Dalzell

Victoria Dalzell (Tori) with Tharu researcher Ashok Tharu.

Victoria Dalzell, an ethnomusicologist, conducted her research on musical practices of Tharus in Western Nepal from August 2012 to March 2014. Sanjib Chaudhary from Voice of Tharus caught up with her for a detailed interview on her research. Excerpts: 

Voice of Tharus (VOT): Welcome to Voice of Tharus. Can you tell our readers about your dissertation on Tharu folk music practices and the publications you have published till date?

Victoria Dalzell (Tori): I'm an ethnomusicologist, or a researcher who looks at music in broad terms as a human activity revolving around sound. I focus on the people who make music, the situations in which they perform, and the musical choices they make to respond to circumstances around them. So looking at "the music" is a central component to what I do, but not the only aspect on which I focus.  

My dissertation is entitled "Freedom, Margins and Music: Musical Discourses of Tharu Ethnicity in Nepal". For clarification, I overwhelmingly focus on the Dangaura Tharu, as I carried out my research in Dang district, and to a lesser degree in Banke, Bardiya and Kailali. So what I have to say about Tharu culture applies immediately to Tharu communities in the Western Terai; I have not travelled to the Eastern Terai.  I elaborate on these distinctions for my readers in my work, but for simplicity's sake in the title, I just used the common ethnonym "Tharu". I conducted my research from August 2012 to March 2014.

My dissertation does not just categorise or describe the musical practices of Tharu communities in Western Nepal, but examines how Tharu people often respond to circumstances around them through musical performance. The majority of my written work focuses on three case studies.

First, I look at music's role within Tharu development efforts that emerged out of the Kamaiya freedom movement. A number of Tharu leaders have reframed Tharu experience with bonded labour in terms of human rights, and I look at how this language emerges in performers' music. In this part, I focus primarily on maghauta nach performances during Maghi.

Second, I look at how ethnicity is gendered within community and stage performances. For this, I focus on how different generations of Tharu women experience and perceive the sakhya-paiya nach, an oral epic performed almost exclusively by Dangaura Tharu girls during Dashai. I show how Tharu girls are not bearers of some untainted musical tradition, but actively shape and change it as they pass it on to their peers and the next generation of Tharu women. Within these two case studies, ethnic politics and ideas of modernity heavily influence contemporary Tharu musical performance.

In my third case study, I examine how ethnicity, modernity, and Nepal's changing political landscape effects the musical choices of Christian Tharus. This case study continues to explore how music factors into community belonging, but how it can simultaneously articulate difference.

In sum, musical performance is a site where the Tharu community not only responds to the cultural and social changes they are experiencing, but often negotiates what these changes look like within their respective communities.

A lot of good scholarship on Tharu ways of life has come out over the past several years, both from foreign researchers and local scholars and intellectuals. A lot of it has focused on political formations and social movements within the community, but the scholarship overwhelmingly focuses on the elite or state structures. I was interested in how a wider array of people--such as women and youth--lived out their Tharuness. So I see my work as a story from below. Music was a really good entry point for looking at this, as I'll describe below.

VOT: You have said that all Tharu performance practices occur in accordance with an agricultural and ritual calendar. Can you share with us in detail about the findings?

Tori: The Tharu agricultural and ritual season is book-ended by two rituals: the harya gurai and the durya gurai. The harya gurai is conducted in each village around August, and opens the music/dance season--people can now play drums and dance. After the durya gurai is conducted in May, people are not supposed to play the drum or dance, as it’s said to bring bad luck to the growing rice crop or exacerbates the danger of disease spreading in a village. Songs are still sung during this time, but traditionally no drumming or dancing is allowed. So most traditional musical performances in Tharu communities take place between August and May. That's a simplified description, but it’s the basic idea.

Tharu repertoire is really vast, so I chose to focus on song-and-dance genres, namely the sakhya-paiya, and the maghauta, and to a lesser extent, genres like the hurdungwa and latwa. The sakya-paiya is a ritual genre performed by Tharu teenage girls during Dashai, and maghauta is associated with Maghi and participated in by members of both genders and all ages. While these two genres are associated with specific holidays, the hurdungwa and latwa can be performed any time between the gurai rituals and are traditionally performed only by men. Even though most Tharu performance practices can be categorised seasonally or are associated with various holidays or rituals, people are changing that as these practices are increasingly moved to the stage, or become presentational.

I want to introduce two terms that some ethnomusicologists use to describe different kinds of music making situations. "Participatory" is often used to describe a performance where a divide between audience and artist is blurry or non-existent--there are only various participants or potential participants who have roles varying in length and intensity.

"Presentational" refers to musical situations where one group of people--musicians, artists--provide music for another group of people--the audience--who do not participate in music making or dancing.

Most Tharu performances are participatory. For example, teenage girls are the primary performers at sakhya-paiya, but men will rotate accompanying them on drums; older women will comment, chide, and encourage the girls' performance (and sometimes join them just for fun!); and the performing girls will rotate in and out of the dance to attend to guests and visitors as asked. Because it’s a ritual, the village leader and shaman have additional roles. Participants’ roles are constantly changing over the course of a performance. Even though it’s a ritual, the event is far from solemn; a lot of flirting and teasing between boys and girls goes on. But I also saw sakhya-paiya performances during a folk festival in February, months after Dashai. This performance was mostly made up of paiya dances, not the sakhya song, and because the performers were on a stage, there was a definite divide between performer and audience. The dances were much more choreographed, and took into account the time limit given by the organisers. The audience of non-Tharu onlookers and judges made this performance not about community or ritual life, but about presenting a particular Tharu image, so the performance genre was altered to fit that new objective.   

VOT: You have also mentioned that one of your interlocutors Bejlal Chaudhary performed excerpts of various songs for specific festivals, rituals, life cycle events, work and pleasure, all of which depended on the season of the year. It would be great if you can elucidate a bit for our readers. 

Tori: I interviewed Bejlal near the end of my fieldwork. It was only about an hour long. The interview was more to check my understanding of the various genres I had been seeing and hearing throughout my fieldwork. Bejlal answered my questions, but was much more interested that I hear what these various songs sounded like, and was aware of musical variations within the genres.

This interview helped me make connections between much of what I was hearing and seeing at my various field sites. Tharu culture is incredibly diverse; not only are there several subgroups but various waves of migration westward have also contributed to cultural differences between Dangaura Tharus living in various districts. Bejlal was able to show me that some of the recordings I had made across districts were in fact recordings of the same genre, even though people called it by different names and each rendition sounded different. 

VOT: Can you cite any interesting anecdote during your stay with the Tharus in Dang?

Tori: In order to be effective in my research, I had to get to know the community in more ways than just music. I would accept invitation to visit people at work or in their homes, and look for ways to become involved in what they did. Before the onset of the monsoon, one of my host family's relatives worked with the Red Cross to distribute mosquito nets to various wards within her VDC (Village Development Committee) and I got to go with her on one occasion. She gave me the job of collecting the coupons that she and her co-workers had distributed weeks before that people redeemed for their free mosquito nets. So I stayed all day collecting stacks of coupons. When it came time for the village I stayed in to get the mosquito nets, my host sister couldn't get away from her house and fieldwork to go pick up the family's allotted mosquito nets. Because there wasn't any other adult in the family to go pick them up (her husband was away with his mother, who was hospitalised at the time, and her two boys were at school), she sent me to go pick up the mosquito nets. Most people in the village knew who I was, who I was staying with, and understood why I had been sent to pick up the mosquito nets, but I still turned a lot of heads when I showed up with the coupons. People asked why the bideshi (foreigner) was getting free mosquito nets! 

These kinds of activities were not a waste of my time, and often showed me how real community issues were. For example, collecting the coupons showed me how widespread migrant labour was. Each coupon listed the family members currently living in the household. I was amazed that almost a whole generation of 20 and 30 somethings were missing; often, the only people listed in the household were school aged children and grandparents--most parents were abroad working. Living in Dang for a year, I got to know a number of the women and children in the vicinity, but I found that men were often away working in cities or in India--they would come back to the villages to plant rice in June, and for the holiday season and harvest in October/November, and quite possibly for Maghi in January. If they were farther away, such as in Malaysia or the Middle-East, they may come back once every three to five years. 

VOT: During your research, you worked with many international and Nepali researchers. Can you share your experiences with us?  

Tori: Because of anthropology's colonial roots, there's a longstanding myth of researcher-as-discoverer. Even with all the changes that anthropology has gone through, going and doing fieldwork still involves a lot of romanticism--meaning the primacy of the researcher as an inspirational figure. But when I did my research in Western Nepal, I really had a sense that my work was as successful as it was because of what previous researchers--foreign, Nepali, and Tharu--had done. I did the majority of my work in the same Tharu village as British anthropologist Christian McDonaugh. I did not plan this; because of who I knew I just happened to end up in the same place almost thirty years after him. Talking to older members of the village got me to look not only for him, but his mentor, D.P. Rajaure. When I met Rajaure, he asked me how I had come to know about him and his work, and he was really surprised that I had heard about him from older members of the Dang village. Rajaure and McDonaugh's previous work gave Tharu residents a category for me--researcher--and so that made explaining the work I came to do so much easier. At the beginning, I was connected with Ashok Tharu and Govinda Acharya, who connected me with a lot of people in Dang and beyond. I was a nobody, but a lot of people paid attention to me and gave me time because they respected and trusted these men, who had referred me. So I had a very real sense of not breaking new ground, but building on the work of other researchers before me. 

VOT: Can you share with us link to your writings and publications?
Tori: I published an article on the sakhya-paiya nac in the December 2013 issue of Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS). Unfortunately, because it’s a more recent issue, they do not have the article available on their website; however, they can be contacted for copies.

UCR published my dissertation as an Open Source document, meaning anyone with an internet connection can access it. Here's the link to download the PDF file.

Additionally, I wrote a short blog review for two albums of Nepali ritual music released by Smithsonian Folkways, a non-profit record company that produces traditional music from around the world. The review can be accessed at the following link.

In addition, the songs on the albums can be listened to for free on the website.

VOT: What are your personal views about the Tharu? Do you have any advice for the young generation?

Tori: I loved my time in Tharu communities! One of the things that impressed me about the Tharu people was their initiative--they don't wait for someone else to bring change to their communities.
I understand that swift social and economic changes have caused a lot of societal restructuring, and made some of the previous ways of life difficult to maintain. Getting an education, participating in the labour market (office jobs and migrant labour, etc.) are necessary today. However, I think music still has a vital role to play in community life. For one, musical participation builds much needed leadership experience and confidence in young people. The morhinyas and pachginhyas (song and dance leaders) of the sakhya-paiya performances that I wrote about in my dissertation were leaders. Not only did their peers look up to them, but they were well-respected by all members of their village community. Some of the women I encountered working at NGOs and in school classrooms were previous morhinyas and pachginhyas. I'm sure that early leadership experience in the dance provided them with the leadership skills they needed for their school and office jobs. Learning how to speak in front of a crowd, organising and implementing a programme, or working as a liaison between community members are things that are not always learned through modern schooling. 

VOT: Are you continuing with your research and writing? Can you share with us your future plans?

Tori: I just finished my PhD in August, and am currently on the job market. The academic job market in the USA is not that good at the moment, so I'm doing a lot of temporary work. I'm still presenting at conferences. I presented at the Society for Ethnomusicology's Annual conference in December, and will be presenting at the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies conference in February. When time allows, I'm hoping to revise one of my internal dissertation chapters as a journal article for publication in Ethnomusicology, one of my discipline's flagship journals.