Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sidhara – the colocasia concoction

Can you imagine a concoction of colocasia stem, turmeric, garlic, dried fishes, radish and green chillies? The aroma is pungent, the taste is bitter and still it is one of the delicacies eaten by the Terai dwellers especially indigenous peoples like the Tharus, Danuwars, Musahars and others. Sidhara, as the locals call it, is a dried cake of dried fishes, colocasia stem and turmeric. Radish, green chillies and garlic are added to the cake to enhance the taste. (I have used the term colocasia referring the genus rather than using the particular taro plant, Colocasia esculenta – as species other than esculenta are also used in preparing sidhara.)

Fishes everywhere
During the rainy season, when the fields are awash with rainwater and there is no dearth of water, there are fishes everywhere – of all sizes and all tastes. The people in Terai are seen busy catching fishes through all sorts of traditional equipment – fishing rods, fishing nets, chachh, dhasha and konia which are traditional fish traps laid on the flowing waters between two adjacent fields.

The dhasha is the most popular equipment to trap fishes between the flowing waters in paddy fields. It is made of bamboo culms or jute twigs woven together and as the water flows from one field to another field the fishes are trapped in it.

Indigenous ingredients
The fresh fishes are eaten and the remaining are dried to make sukthi, dried fish to be used during the winter and other seasons. The dried fishes and dried vegetables are saved for times when it is difficult to get fresh fish and vegetables.

The Dedhna and Ponthi varieties are preferred to prepare sidhara. Both the varieties are found in abundance in the paddy fields and public water sources. The dedhnas are one of the smallest varieties of edible fishes and can be eaten with its tender bones. They vary in sizes between half an inch to one and half inch in length (so the name Dedhna – meaning one and half). The second variety ponthi is a little bit bigger and wider than the Dedhna and it too can be eaten with its bones.

Colocasia is found in abundance in the swampy places, ditches and nowadays even cultivated in the kitchen gardens. The leaves are eaten separately and the stems are used either for the sidhara or dried after being cut into small pieces. The dried colocasia is eaten in the winter and rainy seasons when there is dearth of fresh vegetables.

The dried fishes, together with the colocasia stem and turmeric powder is ground and made into small cakes. The cakes are left to dry in the sun for 10-15 days and after that it is stored in a dry place for future use.

Food value
Dried fish is very rich source of protein, containing 80-85% protein. Researches have shown that some compounds in turmeric have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. Besides being used as a colouring agent in key dishes, it enhances the taste and has medicinal properties as well. Colocasia is eaten widely in the Indian subcontinent. The extra additions – green chillies, radish and garlic enhance the taste, reduce the odour and are good for health.

Pungent aroma and bitter taste
The pungent aroma of sidhara is an open invitation to the neighbours to come and join the delicious dish. When the sidhara cake is crushed and fried in mustard oil before adding other ingredients, the acrid smell spreads in the surrounding and the word spreads that sidhara is being cooked.

Green chillies, radish, garlic and spices are added to enhance the taste. The mixture is cooked as a curry and is bitter in taste but delicious when eaten with beaten or puffed rice.

Next time you visit the Terai, ask for the colocasia concoction and I am sure your taste buds will be delighted to savour the traditional food!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Excuse me, it’s escargot!

When I first sucked out the snail from its shell, it nearly blew away my breath! Then as advised, I kept my lips closer to the opening of the shell, made it air tight and the snail, in a second, was inside my mouth. As it was the first time, the taste was somewhat awkward for my taste buds. However, as I kept on eating one after another – it became tastier with each gulp. The soup thickened with the ground linseed was more delicious than any soup I had ever tasted.

In spite of being born in Terai, I had restrained myself from eating the delicacy called snail. Partly, it was also the look of the dish that kept me away from savouring the recipe my kith and kin had been partaking for such a long time.

Frankly speaking, I was drawn to eating snails only after I saw the French eating snails as delicacy. When I was offered escargots, as they call it, I had to gulp down few pieces without even chewing. Then slowly I started liking it. When I compared it with the snails cooked in our villages in Terai, I could feel the difference. The French culinary is fabulous and you need not suck the snail out of its shell. However, the Terai dwellers have not been able to modernise the recipes.

Having high protein content
Had changes been made in the recipes, the delicious snails would have been one of the major delicacies along with the momos and chowmeins which have been imported from China. In fact the snails have higher calories and more protein than the red meat, fish and legumes. A research conducted by Ranju Rani Karn and Jeevan Shrestha from Tribhuvan University states that the protein content in “ghonghiBellamya bengalensis (local name for water snail) is 57.5 per cent which surpasses all other food items like cereals, pulses, meat and eggs. The protein value of apple snails Pomacea haustrum is reported to be relatively high at 72.9 per cent. In practice it means that out of 100 gram of snail protein, 72.9 gram human body proteins can be made.

Glut of ghonghi
When the paddy season is on the full swing and people are busy planting rice in the Terai region, the paddy fields, ponds, river streams, all have plenty of snails. This is the season you will find loads of snails kept to be sold in the weekly haats (makeshift marketplace) in the Terai.

You will see women and children busy collecting snails from the public water sources. The collected snails are then left overnight in a vessel to get rid of the soil and waste inside the snail shells. The next morning, the tails are cut so that when cooked it is easier to suck the meat out of the shell.

The snails are then boiled and cooked like regular curries, but the most essential part is the addition of ground linseed which not only makes the gravy thicker but also enhances the taste. The snails are eaten as delicacy along with rice. The combination of rice and snails had been a staple food for ages for the indigenous people in the Terai.

Traditional beliefs
It is believed that snail meat provided the immunity power to the indigenous people like Tharus, Botes, Majhis, Danuwars to fight against malaria when they were the only inhabitants in the densely forested Terai.

In the Tharu communities, the old people with broken bones were suggested to eat snails. The Tharus believe that snails build stronger bones. Eating snails clears the bowel movement and helps keeping the eater healthy. In the past, snails were offered to pregnant women as protein supplement.

In the Terai, still mired in superstitions, the snail is considered a witch’s weapon. If you happen to eat a snail smeared with vermilion, you will die within the span fixed by the witch (a superstition that I abhor). It is believed there are no medications for diseases caused by “jog” (the vermillion smeared snail).

Need to conserve snails
In spite of such superstitions, snail eating is gaining more popularity among the poor people, as it is a cheap and easily found source of protein. Slowly the snail is becoming favourite also among others apart from the traditional eaters like Tharu, Rajbanshi, Santhal, Jhangad, Bote, Musahar etc. However, the overharvesting of snails from the water sources has led to the near extinction of the varieties in high demand.

The rapid urbanisation has not only led to the encroachment of public ponds but has also polluted and dried the water sources which directly affects the snail population. The rampant use of pesticides in the paddy fields is another factor depleting the snail population. The commercial fish farming in the village ponds has also contributed to the vanishing of snails.

These days when I suck the juice out of the snail, it feels like I am also one of the reasons behind the extinction of some water snails which are in high demand in the Terai. However, looking at the brighter side, I ponder modernising the snail recipes and popularising them among the Gen-Y.

Will you eat snails after reading this? Just consider them escargots and you will relish the recipe!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Unprincipled peace

By Gyanu Adhikari (Courtesy: The Kathmandu Post)

There was a time when the Maoist party argued that land, the precious commodity of feudal Nepal, was the most unfairly distributed asset in the country. During their “protracted civil war,” the Maoists forcibly seized land from many comparatively richer landowners all over the country and said that they were handing it over to the landless. They attacked the Land Revenue Office in many districts, seized the land ownership certificates (ironically called Lal Purja, the Red Certificate) and burned them. The justification for this war on landowners was that the feudal land arrangements were deeply unjust and that Nepal needed “scientific land reform”. The justice argument (Jasko jot usko pot) was supported by the economic efficiency argument — Adhiya farming was also unproductive since the incentives for the farmer did not exactly match that of the landowners.

Land was an issue that resonated with many Maoist supporters. For example, the Tharus of Dang believed that their land was unfairly usurped by the Pahadiyas, the hill people who migrated down south. Supported by a state that favoured them, the Pahadiyas accumulated more land than they could farm. Many Tharus became peasants who toiled in lands that once belonged to them. The new power balance was humiliating. Tharu girls were forced to become servants at the landlords’ houses in order to secure the man’s favour, for the landlords big and small, fearing the selectively implemented tenant rights (mohiyani granted the farmers a stake in the land they worked on, so the landlords changed their tenants once every few years).

The land issue reached tragic heights when the Maoists decided to take on the then Royal Nepal Army with their attack on the Army barracks in Dang. But in order to fully grasp the story, a little bit of political history is required. The Tharus are the biggest voting block in Dang. Fooled by the communist land reform propaganda, they have, till date, overwhelmingly favoured the radicals among the left parties. During the 1980s, they gave shelter to various underground communists. After the democratic reforms of 1990, they voted for the CPN(UML), the then radical party whose leaders had been selling them the dreams of land reform throughout their underground years in exchange for free shelter.

The Army suspected that the core Maoist support in Dang came from the Tharus, especially since the Maoists had been issuing “revolutionary” orders which would allot two thirds of harvest to the farmer, instead of the previous arrangement of dividing it equally. In the aftermath of the Maoist attack on the Army’s barracks in the district headquarters, revenge-hungry Army soldiers in civilian dress found an easy way to identify Maoist supporters: the Tharus who wanted two-thirds of the harvest. One horrifying morning, the Army team in civilian dress gunned down 11 Tharus from a single village. And this particular case of human rights abuse, among others, are kept alive today by the very NGOs that the leader of the Maoist-led government has accused of “sowing conflict to harvest dollars.” It’s sophistry: In the strange land that the Maoist establishment thrives in, the initiators of the decade-long bloody civil war blame with an indignant face, the human rights defenders of sowing conflict.

Today, of course, the Maoists (at least the establishment faction lead by PM Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal) have made a u-turn on the land issue by agreeing to return all land the Maoist party seized during the war — without the state making a provision for the genuinely landless peasants or an alternative initiative for land reform. The issue, most likely, will fade into oblivion, but the resentment of those deceived is sure to linger. At the same time, the Maoist establishment has explained its decision by invoking the need for compromise to expedite the peace process. Since returning seized property has been the long-held demand of the Nepali Congress and the CPN(UML), this explanation, although incomplete, is believable. But the fact remains that the politics over land is an example of communists’ (especially the CPN(UML) and the Maoist) hypocrisy.

Land is not the only issue that has fallen victim to unprincipled politics. Five years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), it’s amazing to see how selectively it is interpreted. Important clauses related to ending feudal land ownership, land reform and the democratising the Nepal Army, which includes determining the right number of personnel in the Nepal Army, appear to have been sacrificed, ostensibly to achieve a consensus among the parties. And the ugly thing about consensus is that although it sounds pleasing to the ear, it is more about sharing power (and the national treasury) than about social justice and social transformation envisioned by past struggles and agreements.

When you think of the 11 Tharu farmers in Dang (and countless others in the proposed Tharuhat region) gunned down for asking too much from their landlords, it’s clear that they’ll be punished twice for buying into the communist propaganda. First, the dream of land reform never materialised. Second, the prospect of justice for those who were summarily executed look bleak. PM Bhattarai, having shut down the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is advocating a “forgive and forget” philosophy. If he and his men get their way, one of the biggest commitments of the CPA — the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission and the commission for the disappeared — are sure to be rendered toothless in punishing the violaters of even the grossest of human rights abuses.

About a month ago, PM Bhattarai told the media that he was “sacrificing personal principles for the sake of the peace process.” This significant line leads to a natural question, just what kind of peace do you expect from leaders without principles?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tharus of the Terai : A walk into their home

By Pat Kauba (courtesy: ECS)

What if I told you that within the deepest Terai jungles, amongst the inhospitable swarms of mosquitoes and ants, between the tigers and rhinos, live a tribe, a community of people who first appear to have little, but on further inspection, probably have more than the rest of the world could ever dream of?

Who am I talking about? The Tharus of the Terai – another thread in Nepal’s complicated ethnic lining and patchwork. The natural jungle people of the plains, secluded away for centuries until the jungles were no longer safe from outsiders.

Inside the home is where the Tharu culture is the strongest with the home of Keshu Chaudari a prime example. What you would not guess looking at its wattle and daub walls is that within this “simple” home, 32 people share their lives together. The family spans for generations, from himself, the eldest at 70, to Rita Chaudari, the youngest, his great-granddaughter, still a babe in her mother’s arms.

Keshu has a piercing eagle’s stare, one that cuts you straight through – most likely honed in the dense and wild Bardia jungles of his childhood. I ask how he feels about living with all his family. He says that he could see it as nothing better. Now in his relaxed winter years, his daily task is caring for the family’s 19 buffaloes and three cows, along with the goats and chickens. He handed over responsibility as family-head to his son a few years back.

In we go
The home (measuring about 30 m long, 8 m high and 11 m wide) sees little sunlight but lots of fresh air – fed through small air holes above ground level, which help to ventilate the home and send cooking smoke outside easily. The first room is large: the full width of the building, and about a fifth of its length. Used as the storeroom for all the family’s rice grown for the year, it is full of colossal mud-built tanks for storage. I turn to the hallway, long, dimly lit, running down the centre of the building. Each side has large rooms, all looking completely bare except for strange bundles hanging from the ceiling. Each family has a room. For example, each of Keshu’s sons has his own room with his wife, children. At night, bundles of bedding are unfolded, and in the morning, they are all rolled back up, keeping the whole place perfectly tidy.

I go back to the hall and, to my astonishment, I notice the walls are actually not walls but compartments for storing more dry goods like lentils, rice and grains for optimal use of space. I enter the last room at the end, about a fifth of the building’s size again, with a small space partitioned to the right behind more storage tanks. The left hand side is where the magic happens... the feeding zone. Here is where one woman is responsible for feeding all the family – three times a day, equaling 96 meals. And, it is all done using just three open fires. I am told of homes further inside the jungle with as many as 90 people living inside them.

The smiles and easy-going nature of the family give a great sense of serenity and togetherness. I ask if they are happy, and the main is response is yes, with lots of, “of course I am, I’m with my family”.

The inner workings
The Tharu family works on quite a formatted principle. The family-head makes the major decisions and acts as the family accountant. Every rupee earned is given to him. Every rupee spent, comes from him. If even an egg is bought, it is entered into a ledger book maintained with records of every single purchase and earning. Crazy you may think, but it makes sense as nobody actually wants for anything and nothing is wasted. The family-head is open to being replaced or can resign if he so desires. When someone wants to leave the family, what he or she is owed and entitled to is 100% understood, right down to the last rupee and length of timber invested.

If a wife wishes to leave her husband for another, there is no problem as long as outstanding debts, if any, are paid to the rupee with little or no animosity afterwards. If a husband dies, the wife will be offered a family member as a new husband, but she has the right to refuse. If she fancies another man outside of the family, that is also fine. Even more astonishingly, the family-head and a delegation will approach the fancied man and ask if he is interested. If he is, he is welcomed into the family, taking the place of he who is gone. As long as ‘the books are balanced’, one is basically free to do as they wish.

It is believed that in modern times, up to 90% of all Tharu marriages are “love” marriages. Animosity is not in their nature. The wedding itself is seen as an agreement – not just a promise. The wedding ceremony is solemnized by tying the bride and groom’s umbilical cords, kept since their births, together.

Not so many
In the Bardia region of south-western Nepal, it is hard not to meet a Tharu. Around the National Park, the Tharu population is assumed to be around 52%. A true jungle tribe, their history and lineage is uncertain. Some say they are a pure ethnic Nepali tribe, while others say they are a mix of Rajputs who fled from the Mongol hordes with their Nepali servants. Regardless, they are an integral and a unique part of Nepal’s social fabric.

Long before the anti-malaria formula DEET was invented and sprayed, taming large swathes of Terai jungle, the Tharus were down here, sticking it out; so much so that these people have evolved their own natural immunity to malaria. The Tharus were a hunter/gatherer society, living off the bounty of the jungles. Today, in the early mornings and evenings, groups of women and girls can be seen going to the rivers to fish, spanning the whole width of some with their nets, providing a little taste of what was before.

There are three tribes of Tharu in the country: the Dagaura Tharu in Bardia, Rana Tharu to the west and Desauri Tharu to the east. Tharus have their own dialect, differing between each tribe. There is no written script, the reason why so little is known about the history of these people. Their religion is predominantly Hindu, but with a few ‘jungle twists’. For example, Vishnu or Ram is referred to as Thakurbaba, or Tharu father. In the home, there is always an ancestral room. Within is offered food, water, incense and other daily items to one’s ancestors. Clay-baked animal motifs like tigers and rhinos are used in place of godly images.

Sadly, times change. Many of the families are starting to build modern brick homes, or go in search of work and better living conditions outside, away from the jungles of their ancestors that are no longer solely theirs. Since the 1970s, many settlers have come down from the hills. More and more families are splitting up and homes dividing. I wonder as I look at Rita Chaudari if her children and great-grandchildren will be raised in the same fashion. But for those who remain, they find great comfort in the unity of their homes and families.

“By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart.”
Confucius 551-479BC

Pat Kauba is a freelance writer and photographer with a love for the human spirit and its identities. He can be contacted at

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Coping with DDT

The dreaded three words DDT, an acronym for Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane, has not only been synonymous with the malaria eradication in different parts of the world, but has also been linked with the environmental degradation and cause of diseases which maraud more than malaria. The pesticide has been banned all over the world seeing its negative impacts in the environment and people’s health.

The damage is done
In Nepal and many different places in the world, when DDT was sprayed in the dense jungles, it was welcomed wholeheartedly by the communities. In the 1950s, with the help of WHO/USAID, the Government of Nepal sprayed the DDT all over the dense jungles of Terai, once home to indigenous peoples like Meche, Koche, Jhangar, Darai, Bote, Majhi, Tharus and other tribal groups. Tharus had settled in the malaria infested lands from east to west of Terai and no other people from other parts of Nepal dared to settle in that area.

After the malaria eradication, the ethnic extermination started. The new settlers both from the north and south started flocking in the new land, felling the trees and turning the forests to arable lands. The agrarian Tharus who are known for their honesty and humbleness could not fit in the new process of assimilation.

Assimilation gone wrong
As the migrants from hills and south started pouring in the fertile land, the first and foremost thing they did was to make friends with the old settlers, the Tharus, who had been in that land for thousands of years. Then started the buying, snatching, looting, plundering and marauding of land, whichever synonym you use, it turned the owners of land into slaves at the hands of new settlers. Once rich and prosperous Tharus were turned into bonded labourers in their own land, especially in the far-western region.

The settlement of newcomers could not take the form of “melting pot” model but instead turned into ethnic extermination and cultural destruction. One simplest fact, the current population ratio of the Tharus in Chitwan shows the mass extermination. Prior to the DDT spray, the population of Tharus in the Chitwan was 90 per cent in comparison to other inhabitants. However, today the situation is just the reverse – the Tharu population is less than 10 per cent of the total population. This clearly shows how once a dominant voice turned to a whimper.

Then took place the cultural destruction – the language saw influence of invading languages, the food habits changed, original Tharu traditional dances started disappearing, the folk songs were replaced by Nepali and Hindi songs and the celebrations during festivals saw a huge leap of modernisation for wrong reasons. It was not a leap towards modernisation but towards destruction in true sense. Now the same new settlers claim that Tharus don’t have their own language and culture, they have borrowed and followed their (new settlers’) languages and cultures. How can one tribe sustain and survive without language and culture for thousands of years?

Dangerous Dose to Tharus
Once in a seminar, I heard the famous activist and researcher Dr. Krishna Bhattachan saying, “DDT is not the Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane but a Dangerous Dose to Tharus.” He says only mosquitoes and Tharus lived in the dense Terai jungles before the DDT spraying. As a result of DDT spraying, the mosquitoes were gone and so were the Tharus. Tharu activists love this connotation and many are seen using it in their speeches.

The lack of awareness towards their rights and lack of unity among themselves have costed the Tharus their homeland. The malaria immune Tharus now have realised how they have turned foreigners in their own land and how people are claiming their (Tharus’) land as their (new settlers’) own. DDT is just one of the perpetrators of the Tharu exodus.

State monopoly and ILO 169
The state is to blame to a large extent. The planned resettlement of hill farmers went awry in many places leading to misbehaviour, nepotism and patronage. The settlement was just a socio-political strategy to relocate the discontented elements. A Burmese of Nepali origin who is settled in Nawalparasi district says, “People migrate due to mainly three reasons – when they face difficulties, when they are displaced by natural calamities and when they are termed as anti-social elements.” The state wanted to mainly address the three categories of people as described by the Burmese man. It was not meant for easing the population in the hills, creating a regional balance in distribution of population and resources and promoting the agragrian development strategy as mentioned in the documents. It was a one-sided, state sponsored looting of the natural resources from the hands of original inhabitants. The local people were never asked before implementing any of the relocation plans and so-called development strategies.

It is against the spirit of the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (No. 169) that was ratified by the Nepalese Parliament on 22 August 2007. The Convention No. 169 supports the principle of self-management and guarantees the right of the indigenous people to consultation and participation in issues relating to their own development. It guarantees their right to equal treatment and access to services and also includes land specific provisions for protecting and promoting indigenous and tribal peoples’ culture and communities. Among other aspects, it protects the right to practice traditional economies, to traditional land and resources and to use indigenous language in education.

The way forward
Nepal is notorious in signing the international treaties and shying away from abiding by them. Nepal became the first South Asian country to ratify the ILO convention No. 169 and the second country in whole of Asia to do so. However, in practice, still the state holds the monopoly. Now the time has come to plan meticulously and involve all local inhabitants in the process for the long term sustainable development of the communities and the country. The times have changed and now the local people won’t just look as mere spectators while the state is doing all sorts of unequal treatments.

It is high time to realise the “melting pot” modality where all the communities shall leave in peace and harmony with each other. However, the state should be conscious that while providing certain community with rights and privilege, it should not encroach upon the rights of other communities.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Barghar System and traditional governance among Tharus

The research was conducted by Raja Ram Chaudhary (Courtesy: United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator's Office)

Before the advent of the modern state, communities all over the world developed their indigenous institutions and governance mechanisms. The Tharus in the Tarai region of Nepal call this the barghar system, a local governance institution with a traditional head and staff. This village leadership is selected during the Tharu Maghi (or New Year) festival in Magh (mid-January), when the festival calendar is also decided and development priorities are agreed. The traditional Tharu leader, called a barghar, is either selected by consensus or elected by villagers for a year term. Barghars are also known as mahatawa in Dang and Surkhet and bargharia or bhalmansa in Kailali, Kanchanpur, Bardiya and Banke. A form of mahatawa also exists among Tharu in the eastern and central regions but is less established and adhered to than in the west. The traditional Tharu village leadership comprises the barghar (head), likhandariya (secretary), guruwa (priest), kesauka (assistant priest), and chaukidar or chirakia (a person responsible for assembling people and disseminating information). The barghar also appoints a person responsible for repairing homemade tools who is typically from the lohara - a hill dalit caste. The barghar’s position is voluntary whereas villagers pay paddy to the others to acknowledge their services.

Traditional roles and responsibilities of Barghars
Over the generations, the Tharu community has developed the barghar system and their lives have evolved around it. The traditional roles of barghars include coordinating with community members to identify and prioritise community development needs or activities and to manage community labour (and, to a lesser degree, material) inputs into projects such as road repair or construction of irrigation canals. Priority is given to utilising the labour of the community while seeking other resources, such as financing or materials, from local authorities and NGOs.

Traditionally, barghars also perform the role of adjudicator of community disputes and issue decisions and verdicts, generally with community consultation. According to a barghar in Bardiya district, typical cases and disputes that are resolved by barghars include disputes on the use of natural resources (irrigation channels, forestry products, etc.), disputes between family members or with outsiders, and some forms of domestic violence. However, criminal cases are referred to the formal judicial system. Persons interviewed felt that most Tharu community members viewed the verdicts as fair and acceptable and considered the practice to be efficient as it is free of cost and without the delays of the formal judicial system.

However, local community based and civil society organisations stated that there might be drawbacks within the system with regard to cases brought by women (as the barghar system is traditionally male-dominated), or where the barghar’s own family members were concerned.

Other functions are to determine the festival calendar and perform rituals. They lead the selection of persons with religious responsibilities and coordinate traditional rituals and poojas (worship). They also manage and facilitate Tharu festivals, dances and marriage ceremonies.

Efforts to institutionalise the Barghar System
Barghars started to unite and form networks at different levels to seek recognition of their role. They claim the practice is an example of good governance and self governance, and that it contributes to local development, peace building and the rule of law.

The first national barghar conference was held in Bardiya in December 2010, and issued a manifesto with 19 demands (see box below). In addition, the conference formed a central committee - comprising 31 members - that met on June 2nd, 2011 in Dang and formed the Federation of Barghar, Bhalmansa and Mahatawa. The meeting emphasised that budgets should be allocated for the promotion of Tharu culture and self governance at DDC level and recommended that budgets to develop and promote Tharu culture be incorporated in the Government of Nepal (GoN) national plan (or “Red Book”) under the Ministry of Culture after endorsement by Tharu traditional leaders. It further stipulated that 25% of revenue generated from natural resources be provided to Tharus in districts where they form a majority. The committee decided to continue its symbolic protest program to pressure the government and political parties through activities such as workshops, peaceful protests and mass meetings, but that it will not engage in bandhs, blockades and strikes. This decision is, however, not necessarily shared by other Tharu organisations.

Networks among barghars at district and VDC level have been formed since the conference last December, and barghars have requested the system be acknowledged and their role and participation in government structures be strengthened. This has been stimulated in part by various Tharu leaders and organisations that have sought to engage with the barghar system through, for example, organising dialogues and trainings. Combined, they have intensified the debate on the barghar system through discussion and interactions with government, civil society and political parties. Additionally, with the democratic struggle still evolving to define the rights of individuals and state structures, political and other interest groups are competing to establish their supremacy within the existing political system, in part by trying to co-opt traditional institutions like the barghar system.

In a meeting organised by NEFIN with barghars, NGOs, intellectuals and media in Jhalari VDC, Kanchanpur, in May 2011, one Tharu organisation representative claimed that the barghar system became weak after 1990. Some believe this is a result of government policies such as the Local Self Governance Act (LSGA) that did not acknowledge or provide a role for traditional governance mechanisms. This is often the case throughout the world as indigenous governance systems are increasingly replaced by state institutions.

Barghars and other actors in the community
Barghars stress that they should be consulted for any development, administrative, or justice issues in their communities. However, local authorities do not acknowledge the barghar system as there are no provisions for it under national law. A barghar interviewed in Kailali noted that they are not heard by government authorities and had faced difficulties in having their role acknowledged when dealing with local police, administrators, and VDC secretaries. A person interviewed in Kailali said that some development partners consult barghars to gather villagers, organise meetings, and facilitate their development and humanitarian efforts within Tharu communities.

Most barghars are Tharu, and their roles are well recognised and their leadership widely accepted in the community. However, a NGO staff working on Tharu issues noted that sometimes the decisions risk to be biased, particularly when the issues are related to their family members or relatives.18 The barghar system is an indigenous Tharu tradition and non-Tharu people rarely participate in barghar selection or any traditional planning process. Issues of concern to non-Tharu groups are generally not brought to the attention of barghars. The system has lost influence over the long term as an increasing number of people from other groups (e.g. Pahadi or Madhesi communities) who do not recognise the barghar leadership have settled in the Tarai. However, more recently, some non-Tharu settlers in the Tarai from hill districts have also adopted the barghar system. One study revealed there are some barghars with hill origins in Kailali district, including persons from the hill Dalit community as well as those from higher castes. However, those interviewed in Kailali noted that barghars with hill origins are very few.

The barghar system is considered by many Tharus as integral to their economic, social, and cultural life. The barghar is responsible for village-wide affairs and their role, particularly in mobilising communities to contribute labour for infrastructure development and in mediating local disputes, is well recognised within the community. This mechanism is said to be vital for internal resource mobilisation. Similarly, the barghar selection process and the planning and decision-making processes he or she leads are viewed by many within the Tharu community as quite participatory and democratic.

As a traditional system it has its adherents, but in many communities in Bardiya and Dang districts other politically driven Tharu organisations and networks are winning over active participation of Tharu youth and seeking to represent the community. This could cause tensions between generations as some youth may be less respectful of barghar leadership or more linked to political or identity based groups. Competing Tharu political groups are also likely to try to strengthen their sway over the community by seeking support from existing barghars, while at the same time maintaining their supremacy in the political arena by establishing their rights to represent the community. Questions also remain about the relationship between barghars and non-Tharu people residing in the same village or community. It is not clear how this system would or does serve people living in the same village who are not Tharus and thus not directly involved in the process.

To some degree and in some areas barghars are participating in and influencing VDC planning and decision making. In recent years, barghars have sought official recognition by the Government as well as a greater role within Government structures. It has been argued that the barghar system is one mechanism that could serve to increase participation among Tharus in democratic processes and thereby increase democratic space during this transition phase in Nepal.

Traditionally, barghars are men
Generally, one barghar is appointed per 20-40 households and performs community leadership, justice and religious roles. Barghars are traditionally male except in a few cases. According to a barghar central committee member, there are currently 4,125barghars across six mostly Tarai districts6 of the Mid and Far Western regions, including 47 females.

Ten years before, only male heads of households participated in selecting barghars and in planning and decision-making processes. However, these days, a significant proportion of women also participate.

The Bhaura Tappa Manifesto 2010
The Barghar National Conference held on 17-19 December 2010 issued a manifesto outlining 19 demands. Key demands include that the new constitution acknowledge the barghar system, including their development coordination and implementation roles. The manifesto seeks to have barghars appointed as ex officio members in DDCs, Municipalities and VDCs based on their population.

The manifesto demands constitutional provisions for affirmative action such as competition for recruitment to be limited to Janjatis (indigenous groups) to ensure easier access to jobs within the security forces, administration, judiciary and education sectors for the marginalised Tharu community and bring them into the mainstream of national development. It also calls for Tharus to have proportional representation in government institutions.

The manifesto demands that a Tharu province be established acknowledging historical and cultural claims. However, the manifesto is mum on any structural framework for the province. It demands the GoN make public the status or whereabouts of Tharu people who went missing during the conflict and to provide compensation, education and employment opportunities to their families.

The manifesto includes demands to end the Kamlari system completely, to implement agreements signed between the GoN and freed Kamaiya regarding their rehabilitation, to allocate budget for the welfare of the Tharu community, and to make constitutional provisions to protect and promote Tharu culture. It calls for implementation of ILO Convention 169. It seeks for work on the Bardiya National Park extension to cease as the Tharus are primary users of the targeted forest land.

Similarly, the demands include to establish a Tharu university, provide free education to freed Kamaiya children up to the higher secondary level and to make provisions for teaching the Tharu language in schools where Tharus form a majority.

The manifesto warns that barghars will be forced to announce a parallel government if their demands are not addressed by the GoN.

A VDC Secretary interviewed in Kailali opined that the barghar system itself is very democratic. The barghar facilitates various events at community level. However, it is not recognised by the Government to date and they are not, therefore, invited officially to meetings or to participate in VDC level planning processes. He also noted that nothing is mentioned in the Local Self Governance Act (LSGA) 1999 regarding such traditional practices. The Secretary was not aware of any barghar demands.

In another case, a Khailad VDC staff member reported that barghars padlocked the VDC office and obstructed the VDC planning process for a week in 2009 demanding representation in the council. Later, the VDC included some of them in council meetings, not as barghars but as community leaders.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Climate change and its impact on women of a marginalised community: a global perspective and Nepal

By Deepika Rana, Matthias Moyersoen Research Apprentice 2009

*The research was funded by Social Inclusion Research Fund (

Climate is changing from generation to generation. But this natural change of climate has been disrupted and altered by the human induced uncontrolled emission of green house gases. This human-induced climate change is modifying patterns of extreme weather, including floods, cyclones and droughts. In many cases, climate change is making these hazards more intense, more frequent, less predictable and/or longer lasting. This magnifies the risk of “disasters” everywhere, but especially in those parts of the world where there are already high levels of human vulnerability (IPCC, 2007).

Though Nepal's population is 0.4 per cent of the world population and responsible for emitting only 0.025 per cent of global share of green house gases, climate change is slowly taking significant toll in the country (CARE-Nepal, 2009). From a study based on data from 1975 to 2005, the mean temperature of the country was found to be increasing at a greater rate of 0.04oC/year.

Though there is no significant trend observed in annual rainfall pattern between the year 1971 to 2005, a significant year to year variation can be observed. Among the many impacts observed due to such variations in temperature, retreating of glacial lakes across Himalayan region of Nepal and high probability of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) is threatening the lives and livelihoods of many people living in the region. Monsoon rainfall pattern is also changing due to the rapid glacier melting which is threatening the critical water cycle around which rice production in particular has evolved. With so many lives, more than 60 per cent of the total population, depending on agriculture and its production, any change will not only have its impact in socio-economic condition but also the health condition particularly the nutritional status of the people.

The vulnerability of people towards climate change depends on their socio-economic and livelihood status. The high level of dependence on physical or natural resources also makes people vulnerable to such change. Globally, women are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to their different social and household roles and status. Similarly, due to their socio-economic status and dependency on the natural resources as a primary source of livelihood, indigenous, poor and marginalised people also fall under the vulnerable category.

A case study was conducted in Sangharshanagar, a Kamaiya (bonded labourer) settlement of Rajapur Village Development Committee (VDC) in Bardiya district to study the impacts of the global phenomenon on local livelihood and food system with possible change on nutritional status in women of a marginalised community.

Sangharshanagar, a freed Kamaiya settlement located in Chhediyafata or ward no.4 of Rajapur VDC, is relatively a new settlement lying near the bank of Karnali River. After the announcement of abolition of the Kamaiya system in the year of 2000, many Kamaiyas working for Jamindaar or local landlord were freed from the bondage. However, as they left their Jamindaar’s house or some also evicted by their own Jamindaar, they became landless and unemployed. For the search of their own land and earn their own living some of the freed Kamaiya in Rajapur VDC came to Chhediyafata, a barren land, in the year 2005 (2062/63 B.S.). They cleared all the bushes and shrubs covering the land and built temporary settlement. During the first year, they had to face difficulties. The local police administration threatened them to move from the place. As the government started identification and land distribution process, the freed Kamaiyas living in Chhediyafata stressed the local government to distribute them the land they were temporarily residing in. Therefore, four to five kathas (1 katha: 338.62 sq. km) of land was distributed each to a freed Kamaiya family depending upon their household condition in 2065 B.S. Both man and wife of a family legally shared the land ownership. Altogether 226 Kamaiyas were identified then and given land ownership certificates while 481 still remained as Sukumbashi or refugees in Sangharshanagar. Majority of Kamaiyas residing in the settlement belonged to the Tharu ethnic group.

Agriculture played an important role in their livelihood. However, due to their inability to invest in fertilisers, irrigation and other inputs on the small piece of land, they were unable to produce to optimum capacity of the land. To add up to their miseries, almost every year they also had to face flood consequences. Since they were living on the flood prone region, flood used to destroy their cultivated and harvested crops, and damaged their homes almost every year. Apart from the flood, different crop diseases also decreased the crops productivity. Though agriculture played a vital role in their livelihood, it was becoming increasingly vulnerable due to the unpredictable climate. The occurrence of flood was an annual event; however, they could not do much to cope with the adverse effects of flooding and the changing climate. The limited crop production used to last from 2 to 5 months only and they had to face difficulties in meeting the household needs rest of the year. Therefore, many men and young boys migrated to different parts of the country and India to work as waged labourer so as to earn extra amount. The migration of the men put extra physical burden to women as they had to handle both their household duties and the works done by their men.

The daily food consumption pattern was assessed during the field study. It showed that they used to have meal only twice a day with mainly cereal based food as their diet. Fishes were consumed occasionally depending upon the seasons. Although snail is regarded as one of the delicatessen in Tharu community, people in the settlement had reduced its consumption due to the fear of getting infected by diseases. Mushuro, a lentil, produced was mostly sold to buy other food items like rice, flour and oil. Protein based foods like milk, egg, legumes and lentils were consumed rarely or to only limited amount. Eggs were particularly saved to produce chickens. The limited intake of food coupled with frequent suffering from seasonal acute illnesses such as fever, diarrhoea and typhoid was putting effect on their health status. From the measurement of Body Mass Index (BMI) on 40 women respondents also showed undernutrition among 45 per cent of the women. In conclusion, the limited or inadequate food intake and additional workloads of the women were affecting their nutritional status.

The impact of climatic variation on nutritional status of women was felt due to the low livelihood condition of people in the study area. Therefore, this research recommends that through the agriculture diversification, promotion of off-farm activities can uplift the livelihood condition of people in the study area which will help them to develop better coping strategies against changing climate.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Unveiling the Tharu masks

I am a die-hard fan of internet and as I get time no tide can stop me from gluing to my computer monitor. Led by serendipity, I barged into which led to the flurry of pages opening in Flickr, and many more other related pages. The object of fascination was primitive masks.

Tharu masks in internet
I had just come across the masks made by Newars (indigenous people belonging to Kathmandu Valley) which are worn in different jatras and nachs (processions, dances and festivals) in Nepal. The masks of Hindu and Buddhist Gods and Goddesses dominated my imagination all the time. At curio stores I had seen some dark wooden long faced masks and on enquiring knew that they were traditional African masks.

Coming back to the point, the masks that I glanced upon in the internet were of utmost surprise to me. The masks were tagged as Tharu masks. I had never heard of any Tharu masks although had heard that Tharus used to put on masks during some of their almost extinct dances.

Research on Tharu masks
This incident happened almost a year ago. In last February when I was in Dang with Professor Dr Charles W. Norris Brown of Vermont University scouring the views of Tharus on conservation and especially tiger, we met Gisele Krauskopff who along with Pamela Deuel Meyer has edited the book “Kings of Nepal and the Tharu of the Tarai”. She had been in Nepal for the first time almost 30 years ago and since then has developed a strong bond with the people of Terai. This time she was back with a series of photos taken by her guru in Dang in 1969. Among the hordes of photos, was a photo in which two men were posing – one wearing a mask and another one riding a wooden horse and aiming the photographer with a wooden gun. It was an interesting photo and Gisele was in Dang to find out the people who were clicked in the photo in the quest to research on the primitive masks. She had seen the same wooden horse (called kathghori in Tharu language) and similar masks in an exhibition in Paris.

As we roamed around the villages collecting stories on tiger and conservation from the elder Tharus, Gisele was busy locating the people who were still involved in making masks. At the end of the search we came to know that only the word of mouth knowledge on the Tharu masks existed. Once the rich Tharu culture which embraced the use of masks in traditional dances, had nothing left to offer.

High demand of Tharu masks
However, the Tharu masks collected from different parts of Nepal are in high demand among the primitive mask collectors. Not only the masks but the wooden deities worshipped by Tharus have been stolen from the village worship places (Than) and being sold in the Western market at unbelievable prices. The ones involved in the stealing get pennies but the collectors in the West have been paying fortunes to get hold of their precious primitive collection.

Need of conserving mask culture
The demand of Tharu masks have escalated due to the rarity. However, the mask culture among the Tharus needs a revival. The Tharus need to get back to their traditions to save the ancient culture, learning from the vibrant mask culture Newars have preserved till date.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jitiya Pawain - the most revered festival among Tharu women

Bhulai Chaudhary

Jitiya is the most important Pawain of the Tharu women in the eastern and mid Tarai of Nepal. There is a proverb about Jitiya, most commonly used in the community, "Jitiya Pawain Bada Bhari". The proverb means to say that Jitiya is the most valuable festival of the Tharu women. Jitiya is the symbol of jit (victory). It is in the name of Jituwa, a blessing son of the Sun. He is also called God Jitamahan. God Jitamahan is the main deity of Jitiya Pawain to whom a bratalu woman (a woman who is on brata, a devotee) worshipping Jitiya festival. Jituwa or Jitamahan has been blessed by the Sun that a woman who will do this brata in the name of Jituwa honestly in the right time in right way, her son will come out victorious in every difficult moment. He can't be defeated by any one.

Women do this Pawain for the welfare of their children. It is believed that if a woman does this Jitiya Pawain for the first time in right time (kharadin) in a right way, her child becomes very safe, long living, healthy, wealthy and successful in every walk of life. If somebody is escaped, sometimes, from a deadly event, it automatically comes in the mouth of the people that your mother started Jitiya Pawain in a kharadin (very sacred moment). That is why s/he is saved; otherwise s/he had no chance to be saved.

Other importance of this festival is a woman gets a chance to see her parents, friends and to spend relaxed life at her Laihara/maternal place. Children are also impatiently waiting this festival. Because they get chance to visit maternal uncle and to have new clothes from him. They get very delicious food there in course of Jitiya. So the women and their children both become happy at a time during Jitiya.

Women from other communities rather than Tharus also celebrate this Jitiya festival in the eastern and mid Tarai of Nepal and the adjoining community of India. But, the way the Tharu women celebrate Jitiya differs from other communities. Tharu women generally celebrate this festival at their maternal place (Laihara). A lady who is married can do this Jitiya Pawain. In Tharu community young as well as old all women can do this brata. There is no restriction. But in other communities generally old women take this brata at her home. There is no tradition to celebrate it at her Laihara. But in the Tharu community all young married ladies at their Sausara are impatiently waiting their brothers who come to call their sisters from Sausara to Laihara on the auspicious occasion of this Jitiya brata.

The story behind Jitiya festival
In the days of yore, in the northern plain, there was a king named Saribahan. He was very pious. He used to devote most of his time on religious activities. He had one daughter named Masabashi. She was very dear and lovely to her father. She was as pious as her father. She also used to devote most of her time on religious activities and worshipping God. As time advanced she grew up into a quite young princess. The king started to find out a suitable prince for his lovely daughter Masbashi. Masbashi also came to know this fact and finally she told to her father that she was not in favor of any marriage. She expressed her interest that she wanted to be a saint/hermit and wanted to devote her all time in worshipping God. She expressed that she wanted to live and pass her all time in a hermitage rather than royal palace. The king was shocked to know her interest. He tried his best to convince her to forget her current ideas, but Masbashi did not hear of him. Lastly, the king asked his ministers to build a hermitage outside of the palace on the bank of the river according to the interest of his daughter/Masabashi. Masabashi started to spend a hermit life in the hermitage in the guise of a saint. Everyday in the early morning before the Sun she used to go to the river for bathing and after bathing she used to devote her full time in worshipping. She did neither use to see a male nor the sunshine. Whole day she was inside the house busy in spiritual activities. It was her daily life. Sometime passed like this way. Once ill luck would have it with her. She was late to get up in the morning. When she got up, she hurriedly went to the river for bathing but while she was returning from the river the Sun was already shining on the sky. Due to sunshine's effect Masabashi got pregnant. After sometime, Masabashi noticed this unnatural change with her. She was lost to notice it. She was quite ashamed of it. She tried her best to get ride of this unnatural event but it did not work. This news broke out rapidly in the city. The king was also lost to get this news. He was quite ashamed of it.

Instead of innumerable back-biting, Masabashi, finally gave birth to a child. Anyhow the child was growing up everyday. He was of very peculiar characteristics. He was always defeating his colleagues in all activities and coming out victorious. So, his colleagues used to call him Jituwa(a winner). But at the same time, his friends were very tired of his peculiar characteristics and were always in search of an opportunity to take revenge from him. They knew that father of Jituwa was unknown. So they put his hidden name Anerwa (a guy without father) and by this name they wanted to demoralize him.

Jituwa's friends were trying their best to prove Jituwa an Anerwa. In the long run, they designed a simple house with in and out parts in the name of a game. They made a condition that each participant would have to tell two most important and easy names which all knew. Jituwa did not notice before the tricks of his friends and thus he also participated in the game. The first condition of the game was to tell mother's name to enter into the house. All friends told their mother's name and entered into the house. Jituwa also told his mother's name and entered into the house. The second condition was to tell father's name to come out of the house. All friends did the same and came out of the house but Jituwa was not knowing his father's name and so Jituwa became unable to tell his father's name and thus he remained inside the house. Jituwas's friends were criticizing Jituwa that he was Anerwa. So he would remain inside the house. Other friends were going in and coming out of the house. Jituwa was forced to remain inside. Other friends were making a joke to Jituwa, "Why are you not coming out? Are you an Anerwa?"

Later Masabashi came to know that her son was in trap. So she came near to her son and told him his father's name- the Sun. In this way Jituwa also told his father's name and came out of the trap. Then he returned to his house with his mother.

No doubt, Jituwa came out of the game's house but Jituwa's friends were not so much convinced with Jituwa's answer. Jituwa, himself, was not so much convinced with his answer and thus he wanted to find out the true answer.

Jituwa proposed to his mother that he wanted to meet his father. Thus he requested to his mother to organize some necessary materials for him. By knowing the interest of her son, Jituwa's mother got shocked. Because she knew that no one could meet the Sun. He would be burned into ashes which she did not want. She tried as much as to convince him to forget that interest. But Jituwa did not listen to her. At last, Masabashi organized some necessary materials for Jituwa and then Jituwa departed to meet his father- the Sun.

After some days journey of Jituwa when the Sun was convinced that Jituwa could not forget his aim of meeting him then the Sun in guise of an ordinary man came to Jituwa on the way. He asked Jituwa about his aim. Jituwa told him that the Sun was his father and thus I would like to meet him. The man tried his best to convince Jituwa to give up his aim of meeting the Sun but it went in vain. Jituwa could not give up his aim. When the Sun came to know his affirmation and love towards his father then the Sun became very pleased with him and told him, "I am the Sun, your father. I am very happy with you. Now you return to your home". Jituwa politely answered, "I am happy to meet you. I am ready to return home but who will believe that I met you in reality". Then the Sun (God) said, "From now you are not Jituwa only, you are Jitmahan. You go to the earth and tell to the people that from now those married women who will take Jitiya brata in his name, their children will live long, come out victorious out of the trouble and will be healthy, wealthy and wise".

Jituwa asked him the right time and the way to take the brata. Then the Sun told, "It is Aashwin Seventh day of Krishna Pachha (dark moon) Saturday Lai, Sunday Upabas and Monday Paran".

On the first day of the brata, a married woman takes two leaves and four flowers of a spongegourd, some clay and mustard oil cake to the river. Firstly, she takes a bathe and then performs a pooja there to Jitamahan without changing her wet dressings. After the pooja she washes her head with remaining clay and mustard oil cake before her final bathing.

For pooja or offering it to God Jitamahan, she puts at the rate of two pooja of some clay and mustard oil cake on each of the two leaves of sponge-gourd, puts one flower of sponge-gourd on each pooja, pour water over it and then bow to the Lord Jitamahan.

That very day she takes a normal diet as usual without any discrimination. If possible she can eat even fish and bread of finger millet which are prohibited diets for most of the brata and ceremonies. In the last quarter of the coming night, a bratalu woman takes a powerful delicious diet called Otaghan/Dar which helps her next day and night almost 24 hrs to take brata/ Upabas (fasting) or to live without any food and water.

Before an Otaghan a bratalu woman will have to offer some curd, beaten rice, gura, banana, areca nut, four flowers of sponge-gourd on two leaves of sponge-gourd as pooja to a symbolic falcon and jackal. The symbolic falcon and jackal are offered pooja outside the temple. After Otaghan fasting starts for 24 hrs as Upabas/brata on the honor of Jitamahan. During the day a bratalu woman has to hear Jitiya Katha and has to offer pooja on his honor to God Jitamahan.

The second day a bratalu woman first collects a leaf of Bikhaman, a bow made of banana leaf, arrow of siki, banana, betel leaf, areca nut, Achhat, pea-grains, basil leaves, some bags of paddy grains made of kush leaf, some yellow and black flags or kaniya putri, a clay lamp with mustard oil, Kusadi, a glass of water, red powder, white powder made of rice and mustard oil in a basket made of bamboo, a small branch of pippal and bar (banyan) tree, and then digs out a small symbolic pond at a comfortable place and gathers to hear Jitiya katha and offer pooja to God Jitamahan at a water source under a Bar or Pippal tree.

The third day (the ninth day of dark moon) is the day of breaking of brata/Upabas. A bratalu woman breaks her fasting and starts normal diet (food and water). In the early morning she cleans her surrounding; makes everything ready for pooja and to break the brata. She takes a bathe and finishes pooja with banana leaf, Bikhaman pata, Jitiya phool (flower), curd, beaten rice, banana, gura, betel leaf, areca nut, sponge-gourd leaf and flower, achhata, pea-grains, basil leaves, a clay lamp with mustard oil, Dabahi, a glass of water, red powder and dhoop. Lastly, she uses to swallow (without chewing) five grains of each of achhata and pea and by this way her brata comes to an end.

After that, the God disappeared from there and Jituwa in the name of God Jitamahan very happily returned to the earth. He communicated the message of the Sun to the people. People became very happy to know the message. They were very eagerly waiting the time. Time came and the married women gathered at a place and decided to take this Jitiya brata. They organized every required material as instructed above. They went to take a bathe to the Naramada River and took the brata in a proper way. God Sun fulfilled the interests of the women and from that time this brata has still been in practice in the Tharuhat as well as in other adjoining Tarai communities with same spirit, essence and believe.

The Tharu and the Jitiya Festival
The Tharu women celebrate this Jitiya festival from their heart with great pomp and show. Tharu males also accompany them and equally contribute to make this festival happen magnificently. It is not so with the other communities. This festival is like a working calendar of the traditional Tharu community- when a Tharu bride and or Tharu woman comes to Sausara and then Sausara to Laihara, when to sow seeds in the fields and when to harvest the crops. It is tied with the Tharu other ceremonies. This festival makes all these things clear to the Tharus and the Tharus follow it from the very beginning. This festival clearly expresses the love between brothers and sisters. If some sisters don't have their brothers, they feel the needs of the brother at this moment. If some sisters don't have their brothers, it is commonly spoken to a sister in the Tharu community: who will go to call you for the Jitiya Pawain? Because, generally brothers are going to call their sisters for the Jitiya Pawain. At Jitiya time most of the sisters manage pigeon's meat in the honor of their brothers. Secondly, the names like Saribahan, Masabashi, Jituwa used in Jitiya katha most commonly resemble with the Tharu names. The materials to be used in Jitiya pooja like Jitiya Phoola, Dabahi grass, Siki grass, flowers and leaves of sponge-guard, peas, bikhaman are more near to the nature and simple which are rarely used in other Hindu ceremonies. Jitiya is not a new ceremony but as old culture as old the Tharu community. So, most of the Tharus believe that Saribahan should be the Tharu King.

The writer can be contacted at
photo credit: thegreenpages via photopin cc

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Joorshital - new year celebration in Tharu culture

- Lakshmi Narayan Chaudhary

New year brings with it new hopes.
1. Introduction

Joorshital” a festival of water, blessing, amusement and merrymaking is widely celebrated by Tharus in Nepal. This festival falls in 13th or 14th in the month of April each year (i.e. 1st of Baisakh) depending on the lunar calendar and it marks the arrival of New Year. Throughout the country of Nepal, 1st of Baisakh is acknowledged as the beginning of New Year while for the Tharu community people this period has yet another greater significance in the form of their greatest festival. They also call this festival “Siruwa Pawain” or simply Siruwa, for it comes in the beginning of each year and comes first among all the festivals of the year. “Joorshital” literally means cooling by means of water. Hence, “Joorshital” as the name signifies – is the festival of waters and is celebrated by throwing water on each other. In Nepal, Tharus are the only people who celebrate this festival in the form of their greatest festival. Now a days, some other community people living in Terai have started observing Joorshital as a festival.

It is to be remembered that this Joorshital festival is not limited to Tharu community in Nepal rather it has crossed the international boundaries and reached some parts of south-east Asian Buddhist countries like Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka with different names. In Kingdom of Thailand, it is the greatest national festival celebrated with great joy and splendor by throwing water at each other for 3 to 4 days observing holiday throughout the country. They call it “Maha Songkran” or simply Songkran. It is celebrated in the same way by throwing water at each other in Burma, Cambodia and Laos as well. In Sri Lanka, this is called Sinhalese/Tamil new year and is celebrated both by Sinhalese and Tamil communities observing holidays for 4 to 5 days to ensure good fortune in the coming year. Public calendars are published in Sri Lanka marked with several auspicious days with time during period to celebrate the new year festival.

At this stage, the author is a bit skeptical about the names that may confuse the readers. In fact, it is optional to call this festival as “Joorshital” and or “Songkran”. Very soon, we will find that Joorshital and Songkran are one and the same. Hence, the author will like to call it by both the names as per the context and hopes that the names of the festival should not bring any confusion to the readers.

2. Origin

Joor – Joor is Tharu word which means cool. Naturally, the best cooling affect can be brought about by means of water in one form or the other. It is assumed the word “Joorshital” meaning cool, has been directly transformed from synonymous word like Joor –Joor. Jooralai means also transition of time and occasion to enable one to be lucky. In Thailand, as already mentioned above the festival is called Songkran which is an extract from Sankranti, a Sanskrit word. Joorshital or Songkran means the transition from cold to cool and signifies the entry of Sun into the sign of Aries of Zodiac. Thus, Joorshital is the celebration of Vernal Equinox similar to those of Chinese Ching Ming, Indian Holi festival and the Christian festival of Easter. No specific starting date could be affixed for such festivals.

3. History

In this context, the author would like to first narrate the story of this festival as is told in Tharu community of Nepal followed by the Thai, Burmese and Laos versions of the story and let the readers compare, co-relate, evaluate and judge the same.

There is a very well known story among Tharus about the origin of the Joorshital festival as narrated by the ancestors and carried over from generation to generation. There was once a young prince who was prodigious in learning. He was not only the greatest linguist of his time but could understand even the languages of the animals and birds. This learning excited the jealousy of Kapil – one of the gods in the heavenly realm. He came down to Earth to challenge the young prince and posed him three Sphinx-like riddles with the wager that if the young prince failed to give right answers within seven days, he would loose his head but if he succeeded, then the god himself would give his own head.

Like all the folk tales, the young prince was at his wit’s end to answer such a difficult riddles and he preferred to kill himself rather than face the defeat and loose his reputation. In utter dilemma, he stopped at the foot of a tall tree located on the bank of the river; at the top of which there was an aerie. By chance, the young prince heard the mother eagle comforting her eaglets who were crying for more food. That they would be gratified soon by feasting on the body of the young man (prince) who would fail to solve the riddles. She then narrated the story of the wager between the god and the young prince and in answer to her eaglets’ questions; the mother eagle satisfied them with the right answers to those three riddles.

The young prince availed of this information and walked away slowly as if nothing has happened. On the appointed day, he answered the god with three right answers. The god, according to the tale, lost the wager and in turn cut off his own head. His head was terrible one, for if it touched the Earth there would be universal conflagration and if it fell into the sea, the sea would dry up through the intense heat and mountain would turn to ashes by its enormous heat if kept on the mountain. Hence to avoid all these troubles, the seven daughters of the god Kapil carried his head all the times round the Meru (pivotal wheel) taking turns. This turn would be shifted in one year time and only on this Joorshital day when another sister would take up the responsibility to carry the head till next year.

4. Compatibility

Thailand version of foregoing tales matches substantially with this story. The difference are as follows: The god’s head was deposited in certain cave in the heaven and on every New Year that is on Songkran day one of the god’s seven daughters will carry her father’s head in procession with millions of other gods and goddess circumbulating like the Sun round the Meru, the Buddhists Olympic Mount (central pivotal axis of the Sun). After that, there are feasts among the celestial beings who enjoyed themselves with drinks made from the juices of chamunad creeper or the soma juice and enjoy intoxication. The god’s head is then taken back to the cave after the feast and is taken out again on the Songkran day, next year.

Prof. and historian Phya Anuman Rajdhon in his book “Thailand Culture Series 5, (1950)” has written as follows:

“In Thailand, every year before the advent of this festival, the royal astrologer in Thailand will present his calculations (based on position of planets and stars) to His Majesty the King giving all the traditional information, as predicted by the calculations of the coming year. The artists attached to the court will paint a picture based on the above information showing the Songkran Lady and the celestial procession of the god’s head”.

There is an elaborate description of Songkran in Thai versions which are mostly important for the astrological purposes and need not be described here.

Similarly, the Burmese (Myanmar) version of the foregoing tales agrees quite well. The name of the god who lost his head in the wager was Kabil Maha Phrom in Thai version and Asi Brahma in Burmese one. Kapil in Nepali has become Kabil in Thai version. Instead of depositing into the cave as in Thai version, Burmese say that it was carried all the time by one of the seven daughters and she relieved of her duty only on the New Year’s day when one of her sisters whose turn it was, came to carry her father’s head for the next year and the cycle was repeated thus.

Laos version of story matches with Thai version. According to Prof. Nimal Desilva (University of Moratuwa) no such folk tale exists in Sri Lanka.

5. Science of Astrology

We find the tales of the Joorshital in Nepal or Songkran in Thailand, Laos, Burma (Myanmar) all match together. Both fall in the same time and day each year, carry the same folk tale, same custom of celebrating the festival i.e. by throwing water at each other. Hence we can easily conclude that Joorshital in Nepal and Songkran in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia are one and the same but the names appear different. Although, no folk tale exists in Sri Lanka, however, the date and time are one and the same. Additionally, it is also concluded that the story is nothing but about the Solar System and the god Kapil or Kabil Maha Phrom or Asi head is no other than the Sun himself and seven daughters are the seven days of the week. The names of all the seven days of a week are named after the planets such as Saturday (Saturn), Sunday (Sun), Monday (Moon), Tuesday (Mars), Wednesday (Venus), Thursday (Brihaspat) and Friday (Sukra). Similarly, the change of seasons, the positions of planets and stars and their affects on each and every human beings luck, were distinguished with respect to the movement of the Sun. In fact, that was the period from whence ancient people had started calculation of the movement of the Solar System in greater depth and probably that was the beginning of the Science of Astrology itself!!

6. Three Questions

Before we describe how this festival is celebrated in the aforesaid south and south-east Asian countries and that in Tharu community of Nepal, one will wonder as what were the three riddles like and what were their answers. The three riddles were:
Where does the good luck (vasanawewa-as Sinhalese say) of a man rest?
(i) in the morning (ii) at the noon and (iii) in the night?

The corresponding answers given by the mother eagle were:
(i) on the face (ii) on the body and (iii) at the feet respectively.

7. Custom of Celebration

Now it will be worth to describe how this festival is celebrated by Tharu community in Nepal and that in above mentioned countries. Let us start with the Tharu community.

On the eve of the Joorshital, Tharu people clean their houses and burn all the refuse. This is the spring cleaning done as a duty in the belief that anything bad belonging to the old year will be unlucky to the owner if left and carried over to the coming New Year. On this occasion, they put on new clothes. One day before, they prepare different kinds of foods to be eaten on the following year i.e. on the Joorshital day. This is done in the belief that if one has sufficient good foods cooked on the eve and eaten on the next year day i.e. Joorshital day, the following New Year will be also equally good in terms of foods and clothes.

On this festival day, Tharu people bless and amuse themselves by throwing water at one another. The elderly Tharu people will get up early, take up bath and carry clean water in lota (jug) and will start sprinkling water on the heads of the juniors with some words of blessings while the juniors will put water on the feet of the elders. People of equal ranks, young boys and girls and friends will throw water on the body of each other. This is done in order to get well wishes and blessings from elders and friends and also to lessen the summer heat so that the New Year arrived will be cool, fruitful and beneficial throughout. Even the passersby (strangers) are poured water on their heads or hands depending upon their age and sex. Throwing water on this day is not a mere amusement, but there is a popular belief that it has some connection with the magic of having abundant rain for the coming season for cultivation. If one throws water and soaked one another abundantly on the Joorshital day, it will produce the same result on the actual rains to come on the principle of imitative magic. Furthermore, it is common belief among Tharus that there must be a rainfall on this day because on this day even the gods and goddesses amuse themselves by throwing water on each other. According to popular belief it rains because the Nagas (mythical serpents) sport themselves by spouting water from the celestial ocean. The more the spout the more abundantly the rain will fall.

Thailand observes the longest holidays (4-5 days) during this Songkran festival. In Thailand, early on the day of Songkran day, people both young and old in their new clothing repair the Wats (temples or monastery belonging to their villages or districts) and offer food to the monks there. A long table is erected in the compound of Wat where monks’ alms bowls stand in a row on either side of the table. People put boiled rice in the bowls and fruits and sweetmeats on the covers of the bowls. Such performance can be seen at Wats outside of Bangkok on Songkran day. In the afternoon, bathing ceremony of the Lord Buddha images and also of the abbot takes place. After which the well known “Water Throwing Feast” begins. Similar are the beliefs and customs of celebrating this festival in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

In Sri Lankan both Sinhalese and Tamil people observe this festival. Sinhala people celebrate the new year as one of the greatest festivals with great joy and splendor by offering betel leaves and getting coconut oil on their heads from elders and monks to get blessings. They observe various traditional rituals following the various auspicious time and days during this period. They consider this period as astrological auspicious. During this period houses are spring cleaned, take bath, put on new purl color clothes and newly harvested rice cooked in milk in new pots, observe religious activities, play traditional games and music and invite friends, relatives and passing visitors and to join them to celebrate the festival. They distribute food, new clothes and give donation (dana) to temples and Buddhist monks in Viharas.

8. Beliefs

Each and every festival is rooted to some short of beliefs and so is the case with Songkran festival. Some examples of the belief in rainfall have been quoted as follow:
Sir James in his famous book “The Golden Bough Vol 1 (1958)” has written:

“Certainly the custom of drenching with water a leaf-loaded person who undoubtedly personifies vegetation, is still resorted to in Europe for the express purpose of producing rain. Similarly, the custom of throwing water on the last corn cut at harvest, or on the person who brings it home (a custom observation in Germany and France, and till lately in England and Scotland), is in some places practised with the avid intent to procure rain for the next years’ crops”.

Lung Phadung Kwaen Prachant in his book “Customs of Laos, (1964)” has written:
“Throwing of water at Songkran is an ancient custom. They believe that if the people old and young do not throw water at one another in any year, there will be a dearth of rain in that year. They believe that the playing or throwing water at each other is an imitation of the Nagas serpents sporting themselves in the cool waters of Anodat Lake (Anavatapta Lake of Himalaya Fairy Land). Such being the case, the throwing of water at each other is, therefore, a very popular custom, for it will bring rain in abundance”.

9. Appraisal/Conclusion

From the available literature, it is clear that this festival has travelled along with Buddhism from Nepal-Indian-Sri Lanka to the Indo-Chinese region of the World thousands of years ago. It is to be remembered that the Buddhism along with the new year festival in Thailand has migrated from Sri Lanka. No matter whether we call it as Joorshital or Songkran, it is one and the same, the story is same, the theme is same and vividly represents the similarity in cultures. Although, this festival has undergone several ups and downs in terms of time and space together with politically, socially and culturally, however, the essence of the festival has had remained intact-the same. This testifies the saying, “Culture never dies, it replicates.”

We find the names of seven days of a week all are named after planets and stars globally and all have affects on life of human beings. Thailand follows the names of the twelve months same as the names of horoscopes (rasis) in chronological order. The three questions indicate that the rasi (lagna-Sinhalese say) is a mobile entity with time and hence the good luck of a person. This study has opened an arena to further explore the relationship between cultures and the Science of Astrology.

In Nepal, it is pity to observe that this festival has never been given a place in the national level. It is, in fact an irony that the Tharu community so rich in culture has never ever been explored. Had this festival among Tharus of Nepal been properly explored and preserved, it would not only help to strengthen the cultural relationship between the aforesaid countries rather would change the face of the Himalyan country and it would be then a different Nepal.

The author believes if this festival is properly explored, preserved and integrated, it would definitely help to strengthen the cultural relationship, and understanding along with peace and prosperity among these countries.

photo credit: bsayanthan via photopin cc

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Saamaa-Chakewa Festival

(A heart touching Tharu culture)
Bhulai Chaudhary

Saamaa-Chakewa is the most important festival of the Tharu women of the middle as well as the eastern Tarai of Nepal and adjoining boarder districts of India. Old as well as young women and children participate equally heartily in the Saamaa-Chakewa festival. It is neither a Parb/Pawain/Bhaakal nor Brat/Upabaas. It is, in reality, a kind of ceremony celebrated in the sweet memory of Saamaa, Saamb and Chakrawat each year in the moon-light side (up to full moon day) of the month of Kartik. It is based on the most tragic epic (dardanaak giti kaabya) of the Tharu community. The whole epic is full of very sorrowful songs. The dialogues (in forms of songs) between sister (Saamaa) and brother (Saamb), between wife (Saamaa) and husband (Chakrawat) are all heart touching. It is the immortal story of the genuine love between sister and brother, between wife and husband. At the same time, the songs are full of teachings helpful for the welfare of human beings. It not only provides the entertainment but also teaches the community the most socially-desired behaviors. It also explains Tharu culture and its origin.

Traditionally, it is considered as the social barrier of the Tharu community. There is a common proverb prevailing in the community, "SAAMAA KE MURI DUB, BAR KE MURI UG" means when a married lady used to come to her maternal place on the eve of JITIYA PAWAIN to celebrate it, she returned to her home only after the celebration of Saamaa-Chakewa festival. No husband has the right to call his wife to come home from her maternal place before Saamaa-Chakewa festival. But after Saamaa-Chakewa, it is the turn of the husband to ask his wife to come home and participate in the harvesting of paddy.

There are many beliefs behind this festival where the Tharu community believes that in ancient times (probably 2000 years ago), in the kingdom of Garbh, there was a king named Kishan Bhusan Sen. He was famous for his good name and fame. He was very honest and dear to his people. He had a very ideal wife named Aadambati. He had a very obedient daughter named Saamaa and a son named Saamb. Saamaa and Saamb used to go to school daily. It was their daily life. Both loved each other. Saamaa used to take great care of her brother. It is the burning example of love between brother and sister.

The story further goes on like this: When Saamaa was twelve years old, she was married to a prince named Chakrawat, the first son of the seventh king, Salishuk, of Maurya dynasty of the kingdom of Magadh. In the kingdom of Garbh, there was also a courtyard named Churath. He was very sincere to the king but originally he was of ill character. When Saamaa grew into a damsel (a quite beautiful lady!), Churath started to think ill of her. He wanted to take the benefit of her youth. He wanted to marry Saamaa. Once, Churath found out a favorable moment and he proposed his naked dirty thought to her. But, Saamaa could not accept his dirty proposal. She denied his dirty proposal as she was already married and was very strong in terms of her character.

Churath could not bear with it. He took it as his insult. He was very angry with Saamaa as well as very afraid of the king. He found out a trick and cleverly convinced the king about the ill character of Saamaa. The king became very angry with Saamaa. He lost himself his patience on anger and without any further inquiry he punished his daughter to exile to Brindabon, a dense forest in the north of Garbh Desh. Saamaa found Churath very guilty in this matter. Saamaa was very obedient to her father. She courageously accepted the punishment and went to exile.

Finally, this bad news burst out in the country. Saamaa's mother, brother and her husband became patience less to know this unexpected event with Saamaa. They burst into tears. They began to swim in the sea of sorrows and grief. They found Saamaa very innocent in this regards and Churath very guilty. So, they became very angry with the king and Churath. They quarreled a lot to the king and requested him to take his word back in this regards. Churath was given hard punishment. Saamb and Chakrawat tried to their best to convince Saamaa to return home from the exile. But, Saamaa listened neither to her brother nor her husband. Finally, to make the word at any cost true of her father, she did not return home instead of mountains of sorrows and pain she found in the exile.

The whole story of Saamaa - Chakewa is nothing but it is the story of pain, sorrows, grief and pity. It is the heart touching dialogue between the queen and the king, between Saamaa and brother and between Saamaa and her husband. The king realized his mistake and finally he took this unwanted event to Saamaa as her bad luck. He asked his queen to send required things to her so as to make her life better there. The queen did the same but Saamaa did not accept anything rather she involved herself on hard penance. It is believed that on account of her hard penance she got salvation of the present birth and in the next time according to her wish she got the birth of a bird, Chakewa, so that she could fulfill the interest of her brother as well as her husband at a time.

Even today, Tharu community celebrates this event on her sweet memory each year in the month of Kartik and it is hoped that it will be continued in the future too. During the whole ceremony, every night there is a practice to every sister who wishes best of her brother. This is the immemorial story of brother and sister. The cordial relationship will be remembered as long as the world exists.

The Saamaa-Chakewa festival is celebrated each year in the moonlight of the month of Kartik. The ladies start to build the statues of Saamaa, Chakewa, Satabhainya, Chugala with long mustache, Brindabone badhani, dog, Bhamara, dance party etc. with the clay mostly from just after the Chhaith brat. They color the statues and put them in a new basket made of bamboo. They put a burning lamp on her honor in the basket. They decorate the basket with flowers and paper of different colors as much as they can. Every night they celebrate it with sweet songs. After their dinner all ladies - old, young and children with their decorated baskets with Saamaa gather at a place especially at the place of a village head. Some members carry their basket on the head and some start singing and by that way they move slowly and slowly to the road and then to a house of a festival member. They are highly welcomed there. They are provided some mats there to sit on. They put their baskets on the ground there and pass 2-3 hrs by singing sweet songs. They offer a lot of blessings to their brothers and abuse a lot to wicked. They worship their Saamaa there. After that, they again move back to the first place the same way. They end the procession there formally for that night and return to their home. It continues up to Purnima till they formally end the ceremony for this year. In the night of Purnima (full moon) when they start procession from the first place they do not go to the house of a member instead of they complete a walk to the whole community the same way. It is called DAGAR BULLON. They again return to the first place and formally end the ceremony for that evening.

Next morning is the final closing of this ceremony for this year. It takes place in a showy way. All brothers help their sisters to make a very nice looking temple made of bamboo and colored papers. They carry the temple to the pond or water source. Sisters get up early in the morning, clean their houses; organize essential materials for closing the festival. They again gather at the same place as before and start their procession with sweet songs and their Saamaa towards the pond where they want to end the festival. They reach to the pond, take a bathe and worship their Saamaa and place them to the temple. Sweets are distributed to the people who participates the procession. The brothers place the temple in the centre of the pond which remains there for some time. All people return to their homes and by this way the Saamaa - Chakewa festival ends for this year. The married sisters after the end of this ceremony start to return to their husband home and engage to their business.

Some important Saamaa songs are –
Brother Saamb:
Kathile kaanaichihi he Saamaa baihini, kathile tutalau laihara se aas,
Ghar ghuri chalahu he Saamaa baihani, banti debau aadhaa raj

Sister Saamaa:
Babaa ke sampatiya he bhaiya, bhatijawa ke ho aas
Hama para gotani he bhaiya, moteria ke ho aas

Ghara lauti chalahu he Saamaa baihani, Babaa ke debai ham gyaan
Tuhu jin ghuraba he Saamaa baihani, mohi tejab praan

Jina yehen karahu he Saamb bhaiya, babaa ke hetai bahaut badanaam
Karam ke khonta he ham bhaiya, bidhi moraa bhelai baam

Kaisan ke jibai he Saamaa baihani, kaisan ke pherab swans
Jin tuhu ghurab he Saamaa baihani, Jagat me bhaike hetai bahaut upahaas
Jin hiyaa haara he Saamb bhaiya, jin hebu niraas
Dosar janamuwame he Saamb bhaiya, pheno lebai yeke kokhi abataar.

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