Friday, November 18, 2016

Shama Chakeva – celebrating the brother-sister relationship in the southern plains of Nepal

With the changing times, the festival celebrations are changing throughout the world. And so is the state of ancient festivals that are on the verge of vanishing. But thanks to few enthusiasts, they are keeping the tradition live!

I am talking about Shama Chakeva, an important festival reminding the dedicated brother-sister relationship that was celebrated widely in the southern plains of Nepal both by the Tharus and the Maithils.

Though the grandeur of the festival is on a decline, few groups have been promoting it in different districts of terai.

This year, however, I was lucky to observe the little girls celebrating this festival.

Here’s how the Shama Chakeva festival is celebrated.

The sisters make clay statuettes of Shama, Chakeva, Sathbhainya, Chugla and a dog among others (characters mentioned in the story of Shama Chakeva).

Clay statuettes of Shama, Chakeva, Satbhainya among others.

Every night, they put the statuettes in a nicely decorated bamboo basket, put the basket on their heads and sing songs blessing their brothers and abusing the wicked Chugla. They gather at different houses and sing these songs till the full moon day.

Girls carrying their clay statuettes in bamboo baskets and women singing songs of Shama Chakeva.
Taking the Shama Chakeva to nearby pond.

The next day, their brothers help build small temple like floating baskets. Then the brothers and sisters gather on the bank of a pond and put the statuettes in the floating baskets after worshipping them and offering ‘prasad’ to them.

Displaying the clay idols on the bank of pond before offering prasad to them.

Displaying the clay idols on the bank of pond before offering prasad to them.
A little girl doing her final pooja before immersing the idols into water.

The statuettes are finally immersed into water. The children burn the moustache of Chugla and break the idol into pieces so as to punish the wicked Chugla.

Immersing the clay idols into water.

Here’s a short story on how the festival started.
Was lucky to observe the Shama Chakeva festival celebrated by sisters for their brothers. This little girl is feeding 'prasad' -- an offering to her clay idols before submerging them into water. The sisters make clay idols representing different colourful birds, Shama, Chakeva, Satbhainya, Chugla, and Brindavan -- the important characters of the story -- take them through the village alleys while women sing songs about Shama Chakeva, and finally immerse the idols into water. The story goes like this -- Shama was Lord Krishna's daughter married to sage Charudatta. Chugla made false stories about her making Krishna furious and thus turning her into a bird by his curse. When Charudatta gets to know about it, he worships Lord Shiva and also gets turned into a bird and both live happily as Chakeva and Chakevi. But Chugla lights fire to the forest to kill them. However, with God's grace it rains and both are saved. When Shamba, Shama's brother gets to learn about this after returning from Gurukul -- the school of earlier days, he worships Krishna and is able to make him happy and gets the blessing 'your sister will return on Kartik purnima -- the November full moon day'. From that time this festival is thought to have started. --------------------- #shamachakeva #terai #Nepal #festival #Tharus #maithils
A photo posted by Sanjib Chaudhary (@sankuchy) on

Interestingly, the migratory birds start descending from Siberia and far-off places to the terai from November. And among them are the ruddy shelduck called chakheva!

Can you relate this with the Shama Chakeva being celebrated in November and Shama and Charudatta turning into birds?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The dying tradition of painting evil eyes on the door entrance in Dashami

As Tharus embrace modernisation, many of their traditions are vanishing. And if not preserved on time, the young Tharus won’t even get to know about them!

Here’s one of the traditions of painting ‘Dain Jogin’ – an evil eye on the first day of Dashami in Eastern Nepal.

The evil eyes are replaced by these red and white patches on the seventh day of Dashami.

In the seventh day of Dashain, called Saptami, the evil eyes are replaced with these red and white patches of rice flour and vermilion. If you watch carefully, there are seven rows and seven columns of these patterns -- denoting the seventh day. These patterns are made by a wild plant's pods that I'll be posting later. These patterns are erased after the festival ends. There's an interesting connection to painting these patterns. Sangita Tharuni says, "The evil eyes are erased and replaced with these colourful patterns since the Goddess Durga gets her nayan (eyes) on this day." All the clay idols made during Dashain get irises in their eyes on this day. After this the idols are complete and are demonstrated for public viewing and worshipping. ------------------- #Dashain #tradition #terai #culture #tharus #easternnepal #graffiti #Nepal #beliefs
A photo posted by Sanjib Kumar Chaudhary (@sankuchy) on

The pod of the plant that is used to create the red and white pattern is called ‘sakhari bakhari’ in local Tharu language. Thanks for identifying it @shankarian!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Did Tiger Take the Rain?

I was surprised and happy to get an email from Dr Charles Norris Brown, an adjunct faculty from the University of Vermont. I had been leading the Year of the Tiger campaign in WWF before leaving the organisation to join SNV Netherlands Development Organisation. He wanted to write a book about conservation and tigers.

I connected him with WWF Nepal’s communication team and went with him to hear his plans at WWF Nepal office. His plans were just plans at that time. The communication team assured him of the support for his book – but it was not possible to fund his venture.

So, Charles and I, with support of my friend Shree Narayan Chaudhary went on a whirlwind trip of western Nepal. We were lucky to find support from many other friends in the field –Nandalal Rana and Bhaktaraj Rana among others.

We visited villages in Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang collecting stories about tigers and conservation from Tharu elders. Charles had been clicking pictures and drawing sketches of little children while jotting down the stories in his notebook – told in Tharu language, translated in English by me.

Charles, on his return to the US, spent a sizable amount of his time writing a children’s storybook based on the stories collected from the western Nepal.

He again returned to Nepal the following year to meet with the communities once again and show them the draft of the book.

After several revisions, the book ‘Did Tiger Take the Rain?’ has come out in its present form. The book is being released this October by Green Writers Press.

Cover of the book 'Did Tiger Take the Rain? Used with permission.

In his website, Charles writes:

[…] But it is not the fate of the tiger itself that raises concern. Like the ubiquitous canary in the mine, what happens to the tiger is intimately connected with what happens to the habitat in which it lives, and the habitat in which the tiger lives is, in its turn, finely connected with the sustainability of the human biosphere. As the children in the book note: we all breathe the same air.
The problem addressed by the book is that a dry and hot climate could be the result of the cutting of the forests which upsets the naturally occurring precipitation cycles. The solution: to stop cutting the forests or at least be certain that new forests are allowed to thrive. The challenge is to produce a children’s book that shows both determination in the face of obstacles as well as the hope that efforts will bear fruit in a practical way. The strategy in this book is to share a story around raising a question, then actively seeking an answer and finding a way to resolve the problem through action. The book aims to develop a story that will help children from different cultures share a means to become empowered to take action that will hopefully make the world a better place. […]

Charles, an anthropologist by profession, was an artist from young age. He earned his PhD from Lund University in Sweden in Sociology and Social Anthropology. His post-doctoral work took him from India, to Borneo, to Appalachia, and to Canada where his focus was (and still is) on people of the forests and on their place in the health of the ecosystem.

He says:

[…] The message of conservation needs to focus among communities – the people who live near the forests (and its animals such as the tiger) as well as those far away. All of us share this world with the tiger – and not only the tiger. We share this world with all living things. We breathe the same air. We feel the same wind. How could I combine my approach to anthropology with my art to create messages for children? […]

Thus, the book ‘Did Tiger Take the Rain?’ was born.

Read an excerpt of the book from Amazon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The benefits of miracle tree 'Moringa'

The recipes and cuisines vary from place to place and get customised according to the tradition and culture. The teraibasi (the inhabitants of southern plains in Nepal), especially the Tharus, have developed unique cuisines of locally available ingredients. The recipes have been adopted by others with the passage of time but still the dishes cooked by Tharus have something special about them. For instance, they have been using flax seeds (linseed powder) to garnish the curry of snails (ghonghi), drumstick and bamboo shoots which is not common among other communities. And that makes the curry more delicious!  

While the locally available vegetables are not a big hit among Nepalis in general, slowly they are gaining popularity. One of such neglected but nutritious vegetables is drumstick.

Moringa flowers and pods

Drumstick, locally called 'munga', 'sahajan','swejan', is a superfood in the West. Moringa oleifera, one of the most useful trees, lie unattended and uncared at most of the places in the southern plains of Nepal. Nobody cares to propagate this immensely useful tree. Instead, they are uprooted and thrown away if they grow near a house – to ward off the army of caterpillars munching on the juicy leaves.

The tree branches, however, are used as bio-fences. The branches grow into trees quickly and the plant needs not much water or soil nutrients to grow. The branches can be easily lopped off and the leaves are also used as fodder for the goats. And the goats like it!

Our folks in Terai never thought of cooking the leaves although they are used in soups and curries in neighbouring India. It was always thought as poor man’s diet – only the fruits, resembling drumsticks are cooked and eaten. However, it’s becoming popular these days with the demand from urban centres. The young fruits called jokiya in local language due to its jonk (leech) like shape are lip-smacking. The ripe fruits that take triangular shape on their maturity have hard seeds and one needs to get rid of them before cooking. But still the drumstick curry is finger-licking delicious.

The wonder tree Moringa oleifera is a fast growing, drought resistant tree. The pods are source of all vitamins and minerals. It has Vitamin C seven times than that of an orange, Vitamin A four times than that of a carrot, Calcium four times than that of milk, Potassium there times than that of a banana, and protein three times than that of curd. According to Ayurveda, drumstick can cure 300 different diseases.

And still it is considered a poor man's vegetable and no one cultivates it commercially!

What a pity!

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.