Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the shadow of other anthropologists: Ashok Tharu

Republished from Tori's blog Field Notes

I’ve begun a series of interviews with scholars and anthropologists who have also conducted research in Dangaura Tharu communities. I ask them about their own research experiences, and about observations or opinions about Tharu culture. This was an idea I had before beginning fieldwork, inspired by David Shorter’s analysis on the role that anthropologists have played in constructing Yoeme identity—a Native American group found along the border of southwestern US and Mexico. I was unsure of the possibility of doing this, but as I will demonstrate in these summaries, circumstances have both compelled and allowed me to conduct these interviews. These blog posts are not transcriptions of these interviews, but rather summaries of them, augmented with information from other interactions with these scholars. 

In the course of interviewing Man Pari Chaudhary—an elderly Dangaura Tharu woman of Banke district who had taught a particular oral epic for years—she off-handedly commented to me that Ashok Tharu had come and asked her about this same song years ago. Only she had been able to talk to him in her own Dangaura Tharu language (she was speaking to me in Nepali—a second language for her) and that had been so much easier for her.

While Ashok Tharu would be called a folklorist or cultural activist in academic circles in the States, Ashok once described his work to me as that of a cultural mason or carpenter (loksanskritik karmi). In his sixties, he has spent years researching various aspects of his own Dangaura Tharu culture, with a special attention to oral texts such as folk stories and epic songs. Ashok is the son of a jimindar, or Tharu landlord, and educated in India near Lucknow, thus could be considered part of a Dangaura Tharu elite. Yet he describes himself as being part of an indigenous group that has been oppressed and exploited by more dominant groups in Nepal.

I had been wanting to interview Ashok for a while, but decided to hold off until I got to know him and his work a little better. We had traveled in Banke and Bardiya together in November, where he introduced me to a number of musicians (and I became overwhelmed in the course of the week on the diversity of Dangaura Tharu performing arts), and he had recently helped me with a focus group interview in Dang.

I finally put together a series of questions to ask him. My questions consisted of his own research work—especially for his book on oral epics, which he refers to as “folk literature”—as well as his opinions and ideas concerning culture. For this interview, he took me to a hotel/restaurant owned by a friend of his in the town of Gorahi, the district headquarters of Dang. There, we appropriated one of the larger private dining rooms for the interview. With the door ajar, and the windows open, noise from hotel and restaurant clientele were still picked up on my recorder, but they weren’t distracting.

The desire to work with local culture was sparked in Ashok about twenty-five years ago, after he read a poem the Nepali historian Narendranath Yogi. He was part of a cultural discussion group when Giselle Krauskopff came to Dang to research the Dangaura Tharu (this would have been in the early 1980s). A teacher at the local school at the time, he found her research in Dangaura Tharu social structures through the lens of guruwas—shamans or traditional healers—to be so interesting that he left his teaching job at the local school to work with her full-time. Here, he did not describe himself as a “research assistant” but rather as a “collaborator”—asserting himself as a researcher in his own right. Since then, he has been associated with a variety of groups and organizations—including Nepal Folklore Society, and (formerly Royal) Nepal Academy—through which he has conducted research and cultural work.

I specifically asked about his book, Tharu Loksahityama Itihas, Kalaa, ra Darshan (Philosophy in Tharu Folk Literature, Art and History). I asked why he wanted to write such a book and when he started the research for this work. Ashok said that the idea’s genesis took place in 1989, and it came because, in his view, folk knowledge was not being transferred from the older generation to the younger generation, thus this knowledge was being lost. He found that many people could sing Tharu epics, but not everyone understood or knew what the meanings were. He hoped that, after reading the book, the new generation could understand these things again. This would be one way to transfer “intangible heritage” and “wisdom” (Ashok used these English terms) from the older to the newer generation.

It took Ashok five or six years to do the collection work (I could feel my stomach flip and sink as he said that—how would I ever collect the data I needed to write a dissertation in just twelve months?), and then another five to do the analysis (and my stomach sunk still lower). He not only conducted research in Dang district—his home district, and the district of origin for the Dangaura Tharu—but traveled to Kailali as well to talk to Dangaura Tharu living there. He commented that, after King Mahendra’s land reforms in 2022 VS/1962 AD, many Tharu from Dang moved to the districts of Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Surkhet. This he described not just as a physical migration, but a migration of “intangible heritage” as well.

I asked him how did he collect these songs? He didn’t have an audio recording device, so he would often transcribe the lyrics as the person sang or dictated the words to him. He said the biggest challenge to doing this work was, he would sometimes travel very far, only to have the person he had come to meet refuse to talk to him because they didn’t know him. So, he would have to travel back without having collected any information. Also, during the majority of his time of research, he was unemployed; often, friends would pay his transportation fees. (After hearing that people sometimes refused to talk to Ashok, someone from their own ethnic group, I felt better about my own challenge as a faceless, white, female researcher trying to arrange interviews with some members of Tharu community in which I as residing). 

How had his book been received? He said he had two reactions: for those who were not educated, the book was too philosophical and literary for them, but for those who were educated and academic, they really liked it. He mentioned people like Tulsi Diwas, the renowned Nepali folklorist. I also thought of Sushil Chaudhary, employed by INSEC, a human rights organization. When I asked him a question about the paiya naach, he answered my questions by summarizing a portion of Ashok’s book for me, before commenting that the book was really good—I should read it.

I commented that Ashok had told me numerous times that, for him, these oral epics on which he focused contain a Tharu philosophy of life, the key to a distinct Tharu cultural identity. What did he mean by that? Ashok’s answer was that, these works not only contain folk wisdom, but folk history, folk culture (many epics contained descriptions of material culture, farming techniques, or “cultural actions”) thus provided a distinct Tharu view of the world. However, not all Tharu viewed these epics this way; they just saw music and dance as entertainment, or a way to have fun, rather than “a philosophical thing.” Hence, many Tharu people had left of some performances, because they saw “no utility” in them. His job, as he sees it, is to inform the Tharu people that these cultural performance traditions are “Tharu self-things”—if they leave off performing them, they leave off the thing that make them a distinct people, and gives them an identity. I thought back to the workshops I had seen him conduct, where his arguments hinged on ILO 169, and UNESCO’s “intangible cultural heritage.” He often pointed to my presence, and that of Govinda Acharya—two people not of Tharu origin who saw Tharu culture as worth their time and energy to study.

Ashok Tharu and I at the opening of the exhibit on Astimki art at Nepal Academy of Fine Arts, Naxal, Kathmandu. Usually painted on the inside wall of the village leader's house during the festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, Ashok worked with local artists to reproduce this art form on paper specially for this exhibit. He is currently working on an article concerning Astimki art, funded by the Academy, and these art workshops were part of his research.
Photo courtesy of a bystander, 26 June 2013.

Being a western-educated ethnographer (and a (A)TCK who has experienced the instability of culture in some rather stark ways), I asked Ashok “But doesn’t culture change?” This Ashok did acknowledge. He gave me the metaphor of a river: a river flows for twelve months, but in Asar, Saun, Badau (June, July, August—the monsoon season in Nepal) the river floods. During this time, the river is very dirty, but in Asoj (September), the river becomes clean again—all that dirt that came in the floods goes to the side, and the water is clean again, and goes forward again. The river changes, but the good things continue and the bad things get put aside. Such it is with culture—good things continue and bad things get put aside.

I thought back to another conversation we had where he used this same metaphor, but a little differently. Then, he had said that a river winds through several geographic areas, carrying a variety of things from many places. There were things that were now part of Tharu culture that had not been there before. Take Christianity for an example. There were lots of Tharu congregations now—some villages had more than one—and while this religion had come from another place, many Tharu had adopted it as their own. Another time, he had commented that many Tharu now celebrate bhai tikka—a day during the festival of Tihar where sisters return to their natal home to bless their brothers—but this is a recent adoption. However, this tradition strengthens the relationship between brothers and sisters and reifies the daughter’s relationship to her natal home after getting married; therefore, this was a good adoption of high-caste Hindu culture in Ashok’s opinion.

However, from other conversations we had had, Ashok also seemed to understand that too much change could mean a loss of identity. Take all these performances I was looking at. Younger Tharu could not sing, dance, act or express the way that the older generation could. Some learned more from popular culture than their own traditions, and were better at a Pahadi (hill—the Tharu live in the flat Tarai area of Nepal) style of dancing and singing than a Tharu style. They couldn’t even pronounce their own Tharu words right—according to Ashok, the Tharu language has no dental sounds, only retroflex. But since Tharu children attend Nepali schools from a young age, their mouths become accustomed to making dental sounds and they employ these indiscriminately in pronouncing their own Tharu words. Hence the Tharu language is also becoming “broken.”

Ashok’s cultural activities are not unique. I thought back to the “cultural orientation” during the Fulbright orientation when I first arrived in August of last year, given by a former Nepali Fulbright scholar, centered around structural inequality—a very different orientation of Nepal’s culture than the “ek bhasa, ek desh, ek bhesh [one language, one country, one dress]” that I was used to sitting through. Nepal is a country with significant cultural diversity; one pair of scholars estimates there to be over 100 distinct cultural groups, each with their own language (not just a dialect of the Nepali language). But with a 250+ year of Hindu rule, and an especially intense time of Hindu monarchial hegemony between 1960 and 1990—the country only emerged as a democracy in 1951—this cultural diversity was heavily downplayed in an attempt to create a pan-Nepali identity, based around high-caste Hindu norms. After two people’s movements demanding democratic rights (1990 and 2006) and a ten-year Maoist civil war (1996-2006—where the Maoists were quick to capitalize on the marginalization of various groups, creating ethnic fronts in addition to their People’s Liberation Army), the political climate within Nepal now heavily emphasizes distinct ethnic identities. Many groups are now seeking to regain cultures they believe to have been lost or taken away from them during previous nation-building projects.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ashtimki painting and the Tharus’ version of evolution of life

(c) Ujyaalo Online/ Santosh Dahit
Ashtimki, the painting that adorns the walls on the day of Krishna Janmasthami, the birthday of Lord Krishna, depicts the Tharus’ version of evolution of life. The painting not only represents an art form, but the Tharu folklore, the oral history handed over from generation to generation. 

The canvas and colours
The Ashtmiki is painted on the walls, especially at the house of a Tharu elder called Mahatawa. It is painted by male artists with support from their female counterparts. The girls and women are also learning to paint these days in order to keep the tradition alive. The colours used in the painting are sourced naturally: the red clay, bean leaves, burnt wild grass are used as red, green and black respectively.   

The painting components and depiction of evolution
The Ashtimki is painted in three stages. The artist starts painting from the bottom. Firstly, a water source is drawn and fish are added to it. Then a boat is drawn with the creator Gurbaba and his disciples. It is believed that during apocalypse, the Gurbaba along with his disciples and books sails to a safer haven and creates a new world. Then the artist adds crab, tortoise, crocodile and other water creatures to the water source. According to Tharu folklore, fish evolved first. In the folk epic Gurbabak Jarmauti, the fish is named Raini machharya. According to the epic, the Gurbaba with the help of a crab and earthworm brought Amarmati (clay) from the netherworld and created this world. 

A kadam tree takes the centre stage on the second part of the painting. On the tree, Lord Krishna is shown playing flute. Kadam is the favourite tree of Krishna, as believed by Tharus. Along with Him, monkeys share the tree. According to Gurbabak Jarmauti, the children of Sidhhapurush resembled monkeys. 

On the right and top of the water resource, a lily leaf is drawn and near it Baramurwa (twelve headed demon, the Raavana) is added representing the bad and devil. In the middle a palanquin called doli, used during the marriage ceremonies, is sketched. Two palanquin carriers are shown carrying Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas in the doli.  Above it five Draupadis are added, in a line. Some Tharus say that the doli represents the marriage of Ram and Sita.  And the characters above the doli are Kauravas, the sons of King Dhritarashtra.  

The third and topmost part of the painting has five Pandavas just above the five Draupadis (or Kauravas). Then sun is added on the top right corner and moon on the top left corner.
Beautiful triangular shapes border the rectangular painting. Even elephant, horse, camel, peacock, chicken and trees are added to the painting.   

The rituals related to Ashtimki
The painter fasts till the drawing is complete, while the females worship the painting starting with the Mahatawa’s (Tharu elder) wife. All the characters in the painting are worshipped and a tika, vermillion is applied to them, except the Baramurwa representing the bad and evil. After the worship, they break the fast and eat fruits. Gathering at the Mahatawa’s house, they sing Ahtimkia, the song talking about creation and different religious events, the whole night.

In the morning, all the worshipping materials including the oil lamps are submerged in a nearby river. The worshippers wish the end of disease and wounds inflicting them, to be washed away by the water, along with the submerged materials. They then bathe in the river, return to their homes and offer the rice and vegetable curries prepared to fire as prasad, the offering.

Need to popularise the Ashtimki
The Ashtimki painting has the potential to compete with Mithila painting, Thanka and Mandala art forms.  The stories associated with the painting make it more valuable and sellable in the national and international markets. More research is needed to find further facts about the tradition. Promotion at different events through different media is necessary to popularise the art that talks about the Tharus’ version of evolution of life on earth. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

थारु अष्टिम्कीको महत्व

सरिता चौधरी

(c) Ujyaalo Online/Santosh Dahit
लोकसाहित्यमा रहेको इतिहासको महत्वपूर्ण अध्याय मध्य एक हो थारु अष्टिम्की जसबाट थारु जीवन, जीवनपद्धति र चिन्तन शैलीका बारेमा पनि धेरै कुरा बुझ्न सकिन्छ । थारु लोकसाहित्य लोककलामा थारुहरूको इतिहास ब्याप्त रहेको हुन्छ । थारु जातिमा रहेको लोककला, लोकसाहित्य र लोकदर्पणले मानव सभ्यताको संरक्षण, सम्बर्धन र जातीय अस्तित्वको बोध गर्दछ । त्यसमा पनि अष्टिम्की चित्रकला त्यसभित्रको लोकदर्शणले मानिसलाई धर्मप्रति आस्थावान् गराइदिएको छ जसले थारु संस्कृतिको इतिहासलाई गति प्रदान गरेको छ । 

भाद्र कृष्णाष्टमीको दिन (कान्हाको जन्मदिवसको रुपमा दंगौरा थारु यूवतीहरूद्वारा पूजन गरिने अष्टिम्की अति नै महत्वपूर्ण मानिन्छ) अष्टिम्की पूजन गरिने भगवानको विराट स्वरुपलाई माटाको डेहरीरूपी क्यानभाषमा चित्राङ्कण गरिन्छ । यूवतीहरू कान्हासँग आवद्ध हुन आफ्नो मनमष्तिस्कलाई अष्टिम्की पूजनद्वारा समर्पित गर्ने गर्छन् । थारु लाकसाहित्यमा रहेको अनुपम ज्ञानको स्रोत अष्टिम्की कृष्ण जन्माष्टमीको दिन पूजन गरिने भित्ते चित्रले सृष्टिको कालखण्डलाई मूर्तरुप दिन खोजेको छ । अष्टिम्की कुनै नविनतम् नभएर यूगौंयुगान्तर चली आएको संस्कृति हो । मटावाँको घरमा भाद्र कृणाअष्टमीको दिन अष्टिम्की पूजनको लागि अष्टिम्की भित्ते चित्र कोर्ने गरिन्छ । जुन थारु यूवतीहरूद्वारा पूजन गरिन्छ ।

अष्टिम्कीको दिन बिहानै घर लिपपोत गरी शुद्ध गरिन्छ भने अष्टिम्की चित्रकारद्वारा पनि स्नान गरी निराहार ब्रत बसी माटोको डेहरीमा कान्हाको विराट स्वरुपलाई चित्राङ्कन गरिन्छ । त्यसैगरी ब्रतालु यूवतीहरू नुहाई धुवाई गरी विभिन्न प्राकृतिक वस्तुबाट रङ निर्माण गर्छन् । जस्तै पवैंको रातो रङ, लौकाको खप्ती जलाएर कालो रङ आदि ।

सर्वप्रथम कान्हाको विराट रुपलाई चित्राङ्कन गरी सृष्टिको विकासक्रमलाई अगाडि बढाइन्छ । चित्रलाई तीन खण्डमा बाँडिन्छ । सृष्टिको विकासक्रमलाई चित्रको पिंधबाट अगाडि बढाइन्छ । सर्वप्रथम जलासयको निर्माण गरी त्यसभित्र माछा निर्माण गरिन्छ । जलासयमा डुंगा निर्माण गरिन्छ जसमा प्रथम थारु प्रजापति “गुर्वावा” थारु लोकग्रन्थ सहित आफ्ना प्रेरितहरूसँग डुंगामा आसिन हुन्छन् । थारु लोकग्रन्थ “गुर्वावक जर्मौटी” अनुसार हरेर कल्पमा जब जब यो सृष्टिको जलप्रलय हुन थाल्दछ तब गुर्वावाले आफूरचित ग्रन्थहरू र आफ्ना शिष्यहरूलाई यही डुंगामा आसिन गराएर पुनः नयाँ सृष्टि आरम्भ गर्दछन् । जलासयभित्र गंगटा, माछा, कछुवा, गोही आदि जलचरहरु चित्रित गरिन्छन् ।

यी जलचरहरूले तेस्रो यूग अर्थात अगभग ५८–२८ करोड वर्ष पहिलेको पुराजैवीक यूगको स्मरण गराउँछन् । जुन युगमा उक्त जीवहरूको उत्पत्ति भएको थियो । भूगर्भशास्त्रअनुसार ३९ करोड वर्ष पहिले शुरु भएको पुराजैविक युगमा माछाको उत्पत्ति भएको थियो । थारु लोकग्रन्थ गुर्वावक जर्मौटीमा उक्त माछालाई “रैनी मछर्या” भनिएको छ । यसैकालमा पुराणमा मत्स्य युग मानिएको छ । वैज्ञानिकहरूका अनुसार यस यूगलाई डिमोनियम उपयुग भनिएको छ । गुर्वावक जर्मौटी अनुसार गुर्वावाले गङ्गटा र गँड्यौलाकै सहयोगबाट पाताललोकबाट “अम्मरमाटी” (माटो) मगाएर स्थल मण्डलको निर्माण गरेका हुन् । वैज्ञानिकहरूका अनुसार गङ्गटा र गँड्यौला उत्पत्ति भएको यूगलाई क्याम्ब्रियन र सिलुरियन उपयुग मानिन्छ । यस युगमा विभिन्न जीवजन्तुको उत्पत्ति भएको कारणले महत्वपूर्ण मानिन्छ ।

पिंधको मध्य भागमा कदम्बको वृक्ष चित्रित गरिन्छ जसमा कान्हा आसिन भएर बाँसुरी बजाइरहेको हुन्छन् । थारु लोकका अनुसार कदम्ब कान्हाको प्रिय वृक्ष थियो । सो वृक्षमा कान्हामात्र नभएर बाँदरपनि चित्रित गरिन्छ । थारु लोकग्रन्थ अनुसार गुर्वावक जर्मौटीका अनुसार सिद्धपुरुष र मानसी पुत्रीको  तर्फबाट जन्मेका सन्तान बाँदर स्वरुप थिए । जुन काल ७–१४ करोड वर्ष पहिलेको पाँचौं युग अर्थात् सिनोर्जाइक युग थियो । डार्विनको विकासवादको सिद्धान्तअनुसार मानिसको विकास बाँदरस्वरुपबाट भएको मानिन्छ ।

जलासयमाथि दायाँतर्फ गोलो आकारको पुरैनको पात चित्रण गरिन्छ । पुरैन कमलको सानो रुप हो । सृष्टि पुरैनको पातनेर बरमुर्वा (बार शिरयुक्त रावण) चित्रित गरिन्छ । रावणको यो भयानक रुपलाई भने पूजन गरिदैन । सृष्टिमा सत्य र दयाका पात्रका साथसाथै असत्य निर्दयी हिंसात्मक स्वभाव भएका दानवीय स्वरुपको पनि सृष्टि गरिन्छ जसले असत्य र हिंसाको बाटो त्यागेर सत्यको बाटोतिर लाग्न प्रेरित गरेको देखिन्छ । रावणलाई अष्टिम्की चित्रणमा जोड्नुको औचित्य तीन युग सत्य, त्रेता, द्वापर र कलीमा भगवानका प्रतिद्वन्द्वी असत्यवादका प्रतिमूर्ति कार्यमा रहेको चित्रण गर्दछ ।

मध्यखण्डमा विवाहमा दुलहाको तर्फबाट दुलही अन्माउँदा प्रयोग गरिने थारु परम्परागत डोली चित्रित गरिन्छ जसलाई दुईजना डोल बोक्वाहरूले बोकेका हुन्छन् । त्यस डोलीमा पाण्डवहरूले अन्माउँदा गरेको द्रोपतीको चित्रण गरिन्छ । डोलीमाथिको पंक्तिमा पाँचवटी द्रोपतीहरू र सो माथि पाँच पाण्डवहरू चित्रित गरिन्छ । एउटी द्रोपतीका लागि अलग अलग स्वभावका पाँच पतिहरूसँग समन्वयात्मक वैवाहिक जीवन विताउनु चुनौतिपूर्ण भएको मनोविज्ञानले संकेत गर्दछ अष्टिम्कीले । शीर्षस्थानको दायाँतर्फ सुरुजभरार (सुर्य), बाँयातर्फ जोन्ह्या (चन्द्रमा) चित्रित गरिन्छ । सुरुज भरारलाई थारुलोकले जीवनदाता देवताको रुपमा हरेक प्रकारको गीत गाउँदा समरौटीको मंगलचरणमा स्मरण गरिन्छ ।

अष्टिम्की चित्रण पश्चात् थारु यूवतीहरू स्नान गरी श्रृगारले सु–शोभितभई थालमा पूजन सामग्री चामल, घुन्यासरको फूल, ज्यामिर, पालाको बत्तिलिई मटावाँ (गाउँ प्रमुख) को घरमा अष्टिम्की टिक्न (पूजन गर्न)  घर–घरबाट लामबद्धभई निस्कन्छन् । सर्वप्रथम मटावाँकी पत्नीबाट पूजन आरम्भ हुन्छ । पूजनका लागि फूलपाती र जल राखिन्छ साथै अष्टिम्कीमा सिन्दुरले पूजन गरिन्छ । अष्टिम्की चित्रमा चित्रित सबैलाई सिन्दुरले टिक्ने (पूजा गर्ने) गरिन्छ भने रावण पूजिदैन केवल असत्यको प्रतिक राखिन्छ । जल आचमन गरी थालको प्रसाद चढाइन्छ । सबै थारु पूवतीहरुद्वारा पूजन गरिन्छ । ब्रतालुहरू पूजनपछि घर फर्की फलाहार गरी पुनः मटावाँको घरमा फर्की अष्टिम्कीया गीत गाइन्छ । रातभर जाग्राम बसी ब्रहमाण्डको सृष्टिदेखि कंश बधसम्मको दुई समूहमा विभाजित भई बाद्यवादन रहित गीत गाईन्छ । रातभरि पालाको बत्ति निभ्न दिइदैन ।

बिहान ३/५/७ थरीका तरकारी र प्रसादको रुपमा भात पकाउने गरिन्छ । पुनः श्रंगारले सु–शोभित भई अष्टिम्की पूजन स्थलबाट चामल बाहेक अन्य पूजन सामग्री टपरीमा उठाई स्थानीय जमुनामा सेलाउन लगिन्छ र पुनः जमुनाको किरानामा पूजन सामगी्रमा सिन्दुरले पुजा गरी जल आचमन गरी धुपदिपले पुजा गरी जमुनामा सर्वप्रथम मटावाँकी पत्नीद्वारा सेलाई अन्यले सेलाउने गरिन्छ । सेलाउँदा रोग ब्याधी, घाउ खटिरा पनि पानी सँगसँगै जाओस् भनी कामना गरिन्छ । ब्रतालुहरू नुहाइधुवाई आ–आफ्नो घर फर्की अग्नि देवतालाई प्रसादको रुपमा रहेको भात तरकारी हवन गरिन्छ । जसमा घ्यूको हवन गरी जल आचमन गरिन्छ ।

अष्टिम्कीबारे अन्य लेख

संस्कृतिमा समृद्ध थारु अष्टिम्की त्यसको प्रमाण

थारु महिलाको स्वतन्त्रताको दिन ‘अष्टिम्की’ पर्व

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Maghi and the Tharus

Sesame seeds, puffed rice, jaggery, yam, ghee (clarified butter), sweet potato, fish, meat and homemade liquor constitute the cuisine of Maghi, the festival celebrated on the first day of the tenth month Magh (mid January) of the Hindu calendar. While rest of the populace call it Maghe Sankranti, Tharus call it Maghi, Khichara and Tila Sankarait, and celebrate it as their biggest festival.

Celebrated since time immemorial
Although there are no written evidences stating the origins of Maghi, the Tharu elders say that it is being celebrated since time immemorial. The festival marks the beginning of a new year and culmination of the hard work in the fields. By the end of Poush (December – January), the month preceding Magh, the farmers are done with their field work and harvesting rice. With very less work to do in the field and chilly winter on the wane, Tharus celebrate the festival with pomp.       

Beginning of the new year and election of leader
Tharus residing in Dang, Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts of western Nepal term Maghi as the beginning of the new year. In the Dang Valley, the festival is celebrated singing and dancing the whole month. In the adjacent Deukhuri Valley, people sing and celebrate the festival.

The day preceding Maghi, pigs are sacrificed. On the day of Maghi, people take dips in nearby water resources, meet and greet the elders and relatives, and eat special foods comprising dhikri (rice flour dumplings), fish, ghonghi (water snails) and homemade rice wine. On the following day they eat khichri (rice porridge) and from the third and fourth days onwards they meet to elect the leader of the community.

Washing of sins and partaking sticky rice
 In Chitwan and Nawalparasi districts, the festival is called Khichara and is celebrated for two days. The first day (the last day of the ninth month Poush) is termed Machhuwari. Tharus collect fish from the nearby water resources which has limited to buying from nearby markets these days. They also buy pork, mutton, sheep meat, chicken and ducks.

At night, fish and chichar (sticky rice/steamed Anadi variety of rice) is eaten and women make poka. To make a poka, handful of chichar is wrapped in the leaves of bhorla/manahan (wide leafed wild creeper) and tied tightly with ropes made from patuha (Saccharaum spp.).

On the second day, they take holy bath in nearby water sources.  People believe that taking dips in the Narayani River and Devghat, the river confluence, early in the morning before the sunrise will wash their sins. After the bath they eat hot poka along with the meat and fish cooked on the previous day. The poka is heated on ghaura, embers of rice husk, hay and straws. It is generally followed by drinking homemade rice wine. The day time meal consists of dal, bhat, tarkari, achar (lentils, rice, curry and pickles), meat and fish.

Gift of sesame seed sweets
In the eastern Nepal, Tharus call the festival Tila Sankarait. Early morning they take bath in the nearby rivers and spend the day eating til khichari (sesame and rice porridge), gud khichri (jaggery and rice porridge), tiluwa laddoo (sweets made of sesame seeds and boiled jaggery), laai (sweets made of puffed rice and boiled jaggery), vegetables, meat and fish.

The married daughters and sisters expect their parents and brothers to send a gift of tiluwa laddoo and laai in this festival. It holds a special place in their hearts.

A nice account of Maghi celebrations posted by Avenues Television.

With inputs from Mr Krishna Raj Sarbahari Chaudhary ( from Dang, Dr Phanindra Kumar Chaudhary ( from Chitwan and Mr Bhulai Chaudhary ( from Saptary.         

Monday, January 13, 2014

Think beyond identity, culture and nature

Satire #2

“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?”

When Bob Dylan scribbled the song, I am sure he must have had a poor fellow in mind. Let’s say he was either a Red Indian or a hard working man belonging to an indigenous, aboriginal, or a tribal group per se. At every step of life he needs to prove that he is a human being and belongs to the same planet.

The need to prove the identity
Now, take the example of Tharus. How many times do they need to prove that they are Nepalis?

It starts right from the moment they are born. Getting registered at the Village Development Committees (some are fortunate enough to be born in municipalities), the first and foremost question faced by the parents is – “For how many years have you been living in this place?”  Give me a break. The officer-in-charge should be slapped in the face with the reply – “Talk about generations, not years”.

Ones who inhabited the place – tilled the soil for ages – are asked about the origins. However, those who migrated to the land only a few decades ago claim to be the sons of the soil. Phew! What an irony.

Same story repeats when they attain an age to receive the citizenship. Again the roots are questioned. To my amazement even silly questions like “Did you come from India?” are posed. Now, let me know, which race evolved from the bottom of this part of the earth? At a time, all the people came here from one or another place. And to be precise most of them came by and large through what is India right now.   

When they land in Kathmandu for higher studies or employment, they are again enquired about the identity. Tharus are still considered Madhesis by the people of hill origin, even though the state has tagged them as Indigenous Peoples. It might be due to their complexion resembling to Madhesis or by intention. Whatsoever be the level of their intellect – whether the person is a mason or a PhD holder by education – they still get the kicks despising their own brothers from the south by terming them “Madise”, an extremely derogatory and heart pinching word for the Madhesis and Tharus. Not to mention, the famous real incident turned diatribe, “Manu makhu marsya kha”, is still alive and kicking in the valley. Meaning, they are not humans but Madhesis.

While the Kathmanduites easily assimilate Indians from Darjeeling, Assam and even the people of Nepalese origin from Burma as their own brothers, they don’t hesitate to raise questions against the rightful citizens from the Terai. That’s a sheer pity. And a hammering blow to the so-called equal and equitable society builders.       

The culture and tradition lovers
The other day I was amusing myself with the rest of my team during a cultural performance by a Tharu dance group. My colleagues were clapping to each step of the dance being performed. The reason; it was entertaining and the troupe was doing it with finesse. They had traditional clothing on and the costume design and jewelleries seemed to belong to the medieval days. And to show that they still belong to the jungles, they had adorned themselves with peacock plumes and applied black paint on their faces. 

My question. Are Tharus and other tribals the objects of amusement? Is it necessary to prove that they are indigenous peoples? By dancing and singing?

It’s just like rich countries asking the poor countries to save forests while they plunder the earth, earn billions and return the favour by paying back few thousand dollars. While others study, rise up the self esteem ladder in the society, the Tharus and other indigenous minorities are busy saving their culture. Being mere dancers and gaines, the singers.

The so-called stewards of nature
I don't understand the tactics of conservationists and conservation organisation when they term the aboriginals, tribals and indigenous peoples the custodians of nature. By adorning them with the sobriquet, do they mean to abstain them from the modern day development? Do they want them to stay in the jungle for ever while the rest of the world leapfrogs to a different era?

The conservationists term them as guardians of nature in respect of their contribution to saving the surrounding (jungles) and the animals living in the vicinity. My question is how long will they keep guarding the beasts which are adamant to kill them any time?

Are they the guards meant to keep an eye on the oxygen tank while the rest of the world enjoys freedom, emitting the sins of development? Or, do they still need to prove that they have been protecting the nature till date?

The supper-less food growers
Another point that I don’t understand is the indigenous peoples remaining poor in spite of growing food for the rest of the richer counterparts. Why do they have to live in abject poverty? The rice that they grow in their fields or piece of leased land adding the expensive seeds, fertilisers and irrigation, sells at a mere less that Rs 20 per kg at the time of harvest. However, when they have nothing remaining in their storage, they need to buy the milled rice at more than Rs 50 per kg.

While they provide food to the rich at a price of penny, they end up paying fortunes to buy the same rice, once grown by them. Even providing the proof that they are the food growers, they don’t get any subsidy. Neither from the naive government nor from the merchants who hoard the rice.

For how long?
While others pretend to be mere onlookers I appeal to all Tharus and other indigenous, tribals and aboriginal groups.

So for how long will you people suffer? Come on wake up, rise for your rights. Catch up with the rest of the world. Think out of the box. And you will see there's a different world beyond. Beyond proving yourself at each step of life, amusing the world with your culture and tradition, saving the forest and animals, and growing food for others.

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

(The views are solely personal. Any allusion is sincerely regretted)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tharu Ashtimki painter recognised by Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan

Circa 2010. I was in Dang to collect Tharu fables on tiger along with Dr Charles Norris Brown of Vermont University. Luckily, we met Gisele Krauskopff, the French researcher who is famous for her research work on Tharus. Our point of connection was Ashok Tharu, a researcher on Tharu culture.

Ashok took us to Ram Sharan Chaudhary’s house. He was ill and in spite of his sickness he retold a story of Tharus and tigers. It was an enchanting story, showed the relationship between Tharus and tigers, and reconfirmed why Tharus conserve tigers (I will post the story in this blog later, along with other similar stories collected from different districts of Nepal).

While we were listening to Ram Sharan, his daughter Sarita took pains to prepare food and tea for us.

11 January 2014. I was at Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan in Kathmandu. The chief guest of the programme was H.E. the ambassador of India to Nepal, Mr Ranjit Rae. In the programme, he felicitated a young lady from Dang for her contribution to popularising the Tharu Ashtimki art. She was awarded the Leela Kumari Gurung Lalitkala Puraskar.  And it turned out to be the same Sarita, daughter of Ram Sharan Chaudhary.

I was sad to hear that Ram Sharan Chaudhary had already passed away. He had many stories to tell and a sea of knowledge on Tharu culture and tradition. May his soul rest in peace.

Ashtimki is painted on the interiors of Tharu households by Dangauras (Tharus originally from Dang) to celebrate the birthday of Lord Krishna (I will post a blog on Ashtimki painting soon). 

The Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan also felicitated Hom Nath Chaudhary of Nawalparasi with Radha Krishna Bhashik Puraskar for his social work. He works for Janajati Kalyan Ashram which has five offices throughout Nepal.

Likewise, writer Shanti Chaudhary who hails from Bara received Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan Janajati Puraskar and Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan Nari Puraskar.

Congratulations to the winners and thanks to Bhadra Ghale Sewa Sadan for recognising and felicitating the deserving trio.

Thanks to for pointing out the third winner Shanti Chaudhary.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

22 village deities worshipped by Tharus

Tharus believe in shamanism. Wizardry, witchcraft, spirits, good souls, bad souls, devils and benevolent gods – all make up the daily vocabulary. Tharus still believe in dhami (in east) and gurwa (in west), the shamans who tame the evils and worship the good souls.

It is the sole responsibility of gurwas to keep all the gods and goddesses happy and save the whole village from catastrophes, disasters and epidemics. They organise mass worship at the maruwa than, the place of worship in each village.

In Eastern Nepal the worship place is called dihabar than and the whole village gathers and worships in Ashadh (June-July). In Western Nepal, westwards from Dang District, the gurwas hold special worship ceremonies at maruwa thans to appease the gods and goddesses.

Krishna Raj Sarbahari, in his book Tharu Shaman and Mantra Techniques, describes in detail the 22 gods and goddesses worshipped in the maruwa thans to keep the village intact from natural calamities and epidemics, and ensure that the crops cultivated yield better.

Tharus worship nature in different forms, naming them as gods and goddesses. The detailed description, translated into English from his book (pages 28-31), enforces the fact.

She is regarded as the most powerful goddess. The worship commences by offering incense and oil lamp to her. Again after worshipping all the gods and goddesses, alcohol is offered to her. It is believed that Daharchandi and Draupadi are sisters. At the worship place, wooden blades buried half on the earth represent the two sisters.

Jhuthru Masan
Jhuthru Masan
protects the praganna (group of villages). However, if the villagers are not able to make him happy, he turns into ghost and troubles the whole village. He is offered vandhoop, a handful of rice mixed with honey, cow ghee (clarified butter) and blood from eight body parts (forehead, tongue, chest, thigh and little fingers of both the feet) of deshbandhya gurwa. Jhuthru Masan is also represented by a wooden blade.

Murha Masan
A log shaped wooden blade is installed in maruwa representing Murha Masan. It is believed that he controls all ghosts and evil spirits. That is why whenever anybody loses any property or is troubled by evil spirits, a nail is hammered to the deity’s head. He is offered blood, alcohol, milk and water.

Bahira Raksa
He is installed in the southern corner of the western part of maruwa. A pointed stone buried halfway represents Bahira Raksa. People worship him when someone gets lost or does not return home, or cattle are lost in jungle while grazing. It is believed that the lost ones return home or are found after performing a pooja (worship) to Bahira Raksa. A rooster or a pig is offered to him before bringing home a newly-wed bride, with a belief that she won’t elope or run away from her new home. To avoid running away of the newly bought cattle from other villages, a rooster is offered to the god.

Chidi Gonga
, Patnahiya and Jagannathiya are three brothers. They are provided a space at the southern part of the maruwa. Their main job is to protect all 6 pragannas of Deukhuri Valley covering the area of 14 kosh (1 kosh = 3 km). They don’t have any symbol.

Bheranwa is also considered as the central pillar (dhori khamba). He is considered as the coordinator and remains at the centre of all gods. He is worshipped to ensure that no gods and goddesses get carried away by others.

Pancho Pando
They are the five Pandavas of the epic Mahabharata. It is believed that they also protect the surrounding area. They are installed on the eastern part of the maruwa. They are offered milk, water, clove and luchui (a kind of bread) cooked in ghee.  

Purvi Bhawani
She is provided a place at the north-eastern corner and doesn’t have any representation. She is supposed to stop epidemics like cholera and other diseases entering the village from east. Like the five Pandavas, she is also not offered blood and alcohol.

Danuwa is situated at the west-northern corner of the maruwa. His responsibility is to play madal (a traditional drum played by beating both the ends) and make Daharchandi. He is offered a wooden madal and sandal.

Her responsibility is to protect cattle. It is believed that she protects the domestic animals from wild animals. She doesn’t have any specific symbol but an earthen tiger and an egg is installed at her place. She sits in between Daharchandi and Danuwa.     

This god remains outside maruwa, in the fields. He is worshipped by digging a hole in the maruwa. He is supposed to protect the crops from pests and calamities.

This god remains outside maruwa, in the southern side of the village. Like Gavariya, he is also provided a space in the maruwa by digging a hole in the western part. He is supposed to protect the villagers from the diseases entering from the south of the village.       

Karaiyakot means dense jungle in Tharu language. He is considered the god of hills. However, he is worshipped in the maruwa itself by digging a hole in the western part, instead of worshipping in the hills. It is believed that he descends to Terai from the hills to meet his friends and relatives. If someone is taken ill in the jungle, it is believed to be due to the ghost of Karaiyakot.

This deity takes care of fire and water. The gurwa offers oil to this god, believing that he will take care of the health of the villagers. It is believed that he doesn’t allow oil and foods affect the health of the eater. The newly-wed bride is taken to maruwa to worship him even before stepping into home, so that she does not suffer in the future.   

Kuiya Pani
This deity is present in the water sources (well and river bank) of the village. It is believed that this deity keeps the water clean and keeps the water-borne diseases at bay. The water resources are worshipped as gods. During the holi (festival of colours) festival, the villagers clean the wells.   

It is a common belief among Tharus that if the gurwas fail to worship any of the 22 deities, they trouble the villagers turning into ghosts and devils. While worshipping, 22 oil lamps are offered to all 22 deities (including two sisters Daharchandi and Draupadi, five Pandavas and three Jagannathia brothers).