TIBETAN-NEPALESE (BHOTE GROUP)
The Tibeto-Nepalese are of Tibeto-Mongol (Tibeto-Burman) origin. They have Tibetan, more Asian, features and speak Tibeto-Burmese languages. These groups have settled higher valleys and mountainous areas and are associated most with the Himalayas. The Bhotes, of Tibetan origin, are the main inhabitants of northern Nepal. The Bhote or Bhotia groups inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas — among whom the Sherpas have attracted the most attention in the mountaineering world — have developed regional distinctions among themselves, although clearly related physically as well as culturally to the Tibetans. The term Bhote literally means inhabitant of Bhot, a Sanskrit term for the trans-Himalayan region of Nepal, or the Tibetan region. However, Bhote is also a generic term, often applied to people of Tibetan culture or Mongoloid phenotype. As used by the Paharis and the Newars, it often had a pejorative connotation and could be applied to any non-Hindu of Mongoloid appearance. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Most of the Tibeto-Nepalese groups traditionally could be considered agro-pastoralists. Because their physical environment offered only limited land and agricultural possibilities, the Tibeto-Nepalese groups who occupied the high mountainous areas, such as the Bhote and particularly the Sherpa, were almost forced to rely more on herding and pastoral activities than on crop farming. They also participated in seasonal trading activity to supplement their income and food supply. *
Tibetan-speaking groups of the northern region of the Himalayas include the Sherpas, Dolpa-pas, Lopas, Baragaonlis and Manangis. The Sherpas are mainly found in the east, Solu and Khumbu region; the Baragaonlis and Lopas live in the semi-desert areas of Upper and Lower Mustang in the Tibetan rain-shadow area; the Manangis live in Manang district area; while the Dolpa-pas live in Dolpa district of west Nepal. [Source: Nepal Tourism Board welcomenepal.com ]
Lifestyle of Himalayan Tibetan People (Bhotes)
Many groups like the Sherpas and the people that live in Dolpo and Mustang are of Tibetan origin. They are mostly Tibetan Buddhists and their culture is basically Tibetan. They look more like Tibetans and have lived in the high mountain valleys and have traditionally been looked down on by the Indian-looking Hindus that dominate the Kathmandu Valley and the middle hills region. The Tibetan Himalaya people and their language is sometimes referred to as Bhote, which has traditionally been a derogatory term meaning “bumpkin” used by Nepalis to describe them.
The Himalayan people generally practice a mix of Tibetan Buddhism and traditional Tibetan Bon religion. They often rely equally on shaman and lamas. They raise barley, potatos and buckwheat and herd yaks that provide them with milk and butter. Tea mixed with yak butter is their staple drink. Tsampa (smashed barley) is their staple food.
The women in the Himalayan region have a reputation for being very independent and feisty. It is not unusual for them to shout ribald jokes at men who walk past them in the fields where they are working. Many run businesses such as guesthouses while their husbands are away trading or portering.
In the homes of Tibetan people the hearth and cooking area is often a gathering place. This contrasts sharply with Hindu homes, were the kitchen is strictly off limit for caste and pollution reasons.
High Himalayan People of Nepal
Sherpas are the most famous Himalayan and Tibetan group in Nepal. Sherpa literally means “People of the East” in the Tibetan language. Originally from Tibet, first arriving about 500 years ago, they have a close affinity with Tibetans and their language, culture and religion. The main Sherpa occupations are agriculture, animal husbandry, trade and portering. They are famous for their mountaineering and Mt. Everest climbing skills. Many make a living in the trekking and mountaineering businesses. They follow Tibetan Buddhism. [Source: visitnepal.com ]
Dolpa People live in high Himalayas of western Nepal. They are considered the highest-living ethnic group in the world and operate regular caravans over 5,000-meter passes to Tibet. The Dolpo are mainly associated with the mountainous area, west of the Kali Gandaki river valley. They practice Tibetan Buddhist incorporating shamanism, animism and the Tibetan Bonpo religion and have some unusual customs tied to these beliefs.
Larke and Siar People live in Larke, the northern most part of Nepal's Gorkha district, and Siar, the northern part of the Dhading district. These people mainly speak the Tibetan and Gurung languages and have ethnic affinity with Gurungs.
Manang Bas are the people of Manang. Also called the Manangis, They are known as traders and businessmen. They have their own language and scripts and maintain their own local religious practice, centered in 12 villages called Bara Gaule-Baragaun. The famous pilgrimage spot on the Annanpurna Circuit, Muktinath, lies in their area. Although Buddhism is part religion, they follow Bonpo which pre-dates Buddhism in Tibet.
Lo Pas live in Mustang, particularly the Lo area. They carry on trade between Nepal and Tibet in the Upper and Lower Mustang areas. They practice Tibetan Buddhism. They have their own local language and engage festivals that are somewhat different from those of other Buddhist groups.
Olangchung are the inhabitants of Olanchung Gola, the main trading route along Eastern Nepal. Besides Buddhism, they have their own customs and practices. Thudam, Topke Gola and Lhomis are other ethnic groups within Nepal's alpine region.
The Manangis live in Manang, a valley cut off from most rain by the enormous Annapurna massif. Because the semi-arid wasteland they inhabit has little fodder for sheep or yaks and produces only minimal amounts of potatoes, barley and buck wheat, the Manangis traditionally made a living through long-distance trade and are recognized throughout Nepal as traders with good business acumen and an eye for profit.
Also called Manang Bas, the Manangis have their own language and scripts and maintain their own local religious practice, centered in 12 villages called Bara Gaule-Baragaun. The famous pilgrimage spot on the Annanpurna Circuit, Muktinath, lies in their area. Although Buddhism is part religion, they follow Bonpo which pre-dates Buddhism in Tibet.
Two centuries ago the King of Nepal gave the Manangis special trading and business privileges. The Managis and people that allied themselves with them took advantage of this and Manang became a major smuggling center between Nepal, India and China. Gold, drugs and art were among the items that were smuggled. Some Manangis live in huge mansions in Kathmandu. Others are Interpol lists. Those that remain in Manang struggle to eke out a living.
Manangi physically resemble Tibetans and follow Tibetan Buddhism but take pride in and believe themselves akin to the Gurungs who live in the middle hills and valleys of Nepal. The Manangi inhabit the upper reaches of the Marsyangdi river. Manang district is enclosed by three distinct areas — Neshyang, Nar and Gyasumdo — all of which are culturally interrelated. The harsh and cold climate limits agriculture to buckwheat, barley, wheat, maize, potatoes and radishes. They also breed sheep and other cattles. [Source: manang.com]
The Manangi are divided into different exogamus clans. Like the Gurungs in the lower hills, they are divided into Char jat and Sor jat ( group of four and sixteen clans respectively). They practice polyandry (the tradition of two or more brothers marrying one common wife). This tradition , similar to that of other northern Himalayan people, is is not practiced by the Gurungs. The Manangi like feasting, singing and dancing at their weddings. The dead are either cremated, thrown into a river or cut the flesh into pieces and fed to the vultures (Tibetan sky burial) under the direction of a lama. Losar, Tibetan New Year's, in February, is their main celebration. Archery competitions are held in April- May.
The Nyinda are a small Tibetan ethnic group that lives in Humal Karnali, a rugged area between 2,850 and 3,300 meters in elevation in Nepal near the Tibetan border. There are only a few thousand of them. They have traditionally raised high elevation crops like buckwheat and millet and were involved in the Tibetan salt trade. They are also known as Barthapalya (in Nepali), Bhotia, Bhutia and Tamang.
What is significant about the Nyinda is their widespread adoption if polyandry (a wife with multiple husbands). Traditionally, all Nyinda brothers married the same woman. Over time some of the marriages became monogamous as brothers died and occasionally divorced.. A survey in the 1980s found that 70 percent of all marriage began as polyandrous but only half remained that way. Tensions between brother is minimized by granting them equal sexual access to the common wife and the designation of paternity, which give all brothers a chance to be a father, Divorce is rare. Some marriage are both polygynous and polyandrous. Sometimes brothers jointly marry sisters. Men whose wives are childless are encouraged to take second wives. Unions are sometimes shaped depending on whether individuals are descendants of slaves or slaveowners.
Nancy E. Levine wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Nyinba are one of many small, largely endogamous groups positioned along the northern border-lands of Nepal that can be identified as ethnically Tibetan by their language, by the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and other features of culture and social structure. The Nyinba live in Humla, a district of the Karnali Zone in far northwestern Nepal. Tibetan speakers in this region call their territory "Nyin Yul Tshan Zhi," literally, "the four villages on a southfacing [sunny] slope." Nepali speakers call the community "Barthapale," thapale referring to its high valley location. Government documents originally identified these people as "Bhotia," meaning Tibetan. Later, to affirm their Nepali nationality, they became classified as "Tamang," the ethnonym of Tibeto-Burman-speaking hill people from central Nepal. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Nyinba villages are located at approximately 30° N and 81°51 E, in a valley carved out by the Humla Karnali and Dozam rivers. The terrain in this region is rugged and the arable land limited, creating strong competition for land. Nyinba control a narrow band of territory beginning at 2,550 meters and extending to the valley summit, with the villages located between 2,850 and 3,300 meters. This elevation is associated with a temperate climate. Much of the force of the summer monsoon is spent on mountains to the east and south, limiting annual rainfall. A second, western monsoon brings heavy snowfalls in winter. In 1983, the Nyinba included 1,332 Individuals, 716 males and 616 females. The high sex ratio, 116 males for every 100 females, can be attributed to a pattern of preferential treatment of male infants. Almost 35 percent of the population is less than age 15, and the intrinsic rate of natural increase appears to be relatively low: between 1 and 1.5 percent per year. |~|
“The Nyinba are known for their finely made, beautifully executed textiles, including woven carpets, tie-dyed shawls, and embroidered boots. Religious artifacts used in their temples, such as drums, bells, statues, and paintings, are produced by artisans from Tibet. |~|
Nyinba Language and History
Nancy E. Levine wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Nyinba speak a dialect of Tibetan similar to the dialects of other ethnic Tibetan groups in west Nepal. These seem most closely related to dialects spoken by western Tibetan agriculturalists. The Tibetan Language is related to Burmese, with these two languages considered a branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Phylum. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Nyinba believe that their ancestors are an amalgam of Peoples mostly from western Tibet and also from elsewhere in Tibet, ethnic Tibetan regions in Nepal, and Byansi villages ("Byansi" refers to groups of Tibeto-Burman speakers found farther west in Nepal and India). Villagers state that their ancestors settled the region during the fifteenth century, thus after the collapse of the Malla Kingdom, which united Western Tibet, western Nepal, and possibly Ladakh. Although the Mallas supported both Buddhism and Hinduism, their successors were high-caste Hindus hostile to Buddhist peoples. These rulers formed a feudal confederacy, which was conquered by and annexed to the kingdom of Nepal in 1789. The incorporation into a centralized state had little impact on daily life until recently. It principally affected matters of land tenure and taxation, intercaste relations, and serious legal offenses. Beginning in the 1950s, the government established a new district capital not far from where the Nyinba live and introduced a system of democratically elected, local panchayat councils, which are linked to similar regional and national councils. Although Nyinba have long been citizens of Nepal, they also have provided support and had affiliations to Tibetan religious institutions. These relationships ended in 1959, with Chinese suppression of the revolt in Tibet. |~|
“Throughout their history, Nyinba have participated in a multiethnic society. Their territory stands at the intersection of the region's three major ethnic groups. To the south lie Villages of high-caste Hindus, to the south and west are villages of Bura, a group of both Buddhists and Hindus citing Byansi antecedents, and to the north are the villages of ethnic Tibetans. Nyinba relationships with these other groups are oriented principally around economic transactions and religion. Nyinba trade extensively. They import commodities from Tibet and other Tibetan border regions into high-caste Nepali and Bura villages to the south and bring the latter's surplus grain back to Tibet. They also sponsor religious festivals with other ethnic Tibetans, send lamas to Buddhist Bura Villages, and participate in regional cults of spirit possession. Otherwise, they are relatively insular and disapprove strongly of community exogamy.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Nyinba are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa school, although people also give credence to Certain cosmological beliefs held to antedate Buddhism and to the deities and ritual practices of their Hindu neighbors. The pantheon follows orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, with the addition of minor deities of local significance. Contrary to Buddhism, village founders become powerful ancestors who are thought to safeguard the village and to whom appeals for agricultural prosperity are addressed. People also fear the power of the evil eye and witchcraft. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Each village includes one or more households of lamas, the most respected of whom trace descent to a hereditary lama lineage. These lamas are not monastics, although many have pursued advanced religious training in the monasteries of Tibet or in refugee centers in India and Nepal. Instead they marry, raise families, and serve the everyday ritual needs of villagers. A few women have become nuns; the esteem in which they are held depends on the rectitude of their lives and their religious accomplishments. Each village also includes several households of hereditary priests known as dangri, who are involved with the cults of local deities. These priests conduct from memory a simple liturgy modeled after Tibetan Buddhist ritual, preparatory to events of spirit possession. Finally there are the spirit mediums, or oracles, who are believed to incarnate local deities when possessed. The office of oracle rarely passes from father to son, but it does recur often among disadvantaged Nyinba, such as slaves and their descendants. |~|
“Lamas celebrate Buddhist rituals at prescribed times in their household temples. In addition, they officiate at privately sponsored rituals, prompted by life-crisis events or the desire to acquire merit, and at public ceremonials. The ritual calendar includes both locally distinctive Ceremonies and those known throughout ethnically Tibetan areas. Among the former are ceremonies held to propitiate clan gods, those seeking the blessings of founder ancestors, and rites associated with the growth and harvesting of the major crops. At these special local ceremonies, both lamas and dangris officiate, and there is public oracular possession. |~|
“Certain lamas practice traditional Tibetan medicine, which relies on empirical and mystical treatments: herbal and animal remedies, moxibustion (cauterization), and the performance of special rituals. Oracles also may be called in to diagnose the mystical cause of illness and to exorcise malignant supernaturals deemed responsible. Nyinba have been exposed to scientific medicine only since the mid-1970s. As more facilities are established and sources of supplies become reliable, reliance on them increases. |~|
“Following death are a series of Ceremonies that culminate in a merit-creating feast for the entire village and close relatives of the deceased. Like other Buddhists, Nyinba believe in reincarnation, and one of the major goals of these ceremonies is to help the deceased attain the best possible rebirth. Funerals also include ceremonies designed to remove death pollution from relatives and those who have come in contact with the corpse. The funeral is accorded great importance, and rich and poor sponsor the same ceremonies, which is not the case for other life-crisis events. |~|
Nyinba Daily Life and Houses
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “All four Nyinba villages include a main settlement at the center of village territory plus one or more small hamlets located nearer its borders. The largest village includes fifty-eight households, the smallest twenty-seven households (the constituent hamlets are two to seven households in size). The settlement pattern is nucleated; the houses are tightly clustered, with adjoining walls and roofs in the larger and older settlements. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“These houses are large and three stories tall; they are solidly built of fashioned stone and timber, often covered with a layer of mud plaster. At ground level is the barn, which is subdivided into compartments for different domestic animals. On the second story is the family's main quarters. This typically consists of a kitchen-cum-living room, a windowless storage room for valuables, another storage room also used for sleeping, and a long outer corridor, where a small, second hearth is placed. On the top story stand a number of storage sheds. The main living rooms have plank floors and carved pillars, while the other rooms have earthen floors and roughly cut pillars. Windows are small and closed by shutters; glass remains exceedingly rare.
“Villages and hamlets are surrounded by agricultural land, with the hamlets located adjacent to more recently reclaimed lands on the margins of village Territory. Each village has rights to specific forest and grazing lands. Each village also includes its own gompa, the temple and domestic establishment of a noncelibate Buddhist lama. These buildings are set apart from the houses of lay people, typically located above village settlements and in a "pure" place.
Nyinba Marriage and Family
Nancy E. Levine wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “All Nyinba men who have brothers marry jointly in fraternal polyandry. Over time, these marriages may become monogamous, due to deaths of brothers and occasional divorce. Thus household histories show 70 percent of marriages to have been initially polyandrous, although only half the marriages in 1983 remained so. Postmarital residence is ordinarily virilocal. Only when a family lacks sons will a daughter marry uxorilocally. Most uxorilocal unions are monogamous, although sometimes a second sister joins the Marriage, in sororal polygyny. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Men whose wives are childless are encouraged to marry second wives and men extremely unhappy in their polyandrous marriages are sometimes permitted second wives by their families. This creates marriages that are both polygynous and polyandrous (less than 5 percent of extant marriages in 1983). In all such cases, the preference is for sororal polygyny. Polyandry is highly idealized in expressing fraternal unity; it is seen as economically advantageous, and it also confers political advantages in the village. Frictions between brothers seem to be minimized by practices ensuring equal sexual access to the common wife and by the designation of paternity, which gives brothers equal opportunity to father children within the common marriage. Divorce of men is rare, as is the divorce of women who have borne children. |~|
“Households are large and multigenerational, including, on average, 7.7 members and 2.6 generations in 1983. The wealthier households tend to be larger and to include a relatively greater proportion of men than the poorer ones. Membership in households accrues only through marriage or by legitimate birth (due to polyandry and polygyny, the children may have different parents). Polyandry also has the effect of creating low dependency ratios. Household membership presumes cooperation in productive labor and a share in what the household produces, both of which vary with age and gender. |~|
“At the core of Nyinba kinship is the concept of ru — literally, "bone" — which describes hereditary substance transmission through men and provides the basis for a system of patrilineal clanship. Clan Membership is important principally for marking social ranks within the community and for guiding marital choice through rules of exogamy. It has no economic and virtually no religious dimensions and does not generate any effective corporate groups. Although patrilineal descent appears important in several ethnic Tibetan societies in Nepal, it had minimal significance among agriculturalists in Tibet proper. Nyinba maintain that women transmit ru to their offspring through the medium of blood; these blood relationships provide a complementary, or matrifiliative, link to the mother's clan. |~|
“Property is inherited jointly by all sons of the previous property-holding generation. When daughters marry, they receive a dowry of household goods, agricultural tools, and occasionally a domestic animal or rights to a small plot of land for lifelong use. Traditionally, never-wed women had rights to lifelong maintenance; now Nepali law entitles them to lifelong use rights in half the share given a son. In the rare cases of partition among brothers, property is divided according to per stirpes (equally between the branches of a Family) reckoning, a custom that may be due to Hindu Nepali Influence. Any household produced in partition that fails to maintain itself passes to the partitioners' brothers or their successors. |~|
“Boys and girls are raised differently, as are first and later-born sons. Girls, for example, begin productive work at an earlier age and are expected to help care for their younger siblings. First-born sons are encouraged to take a leadership role in the family, to prepare them for later Household headship, and are taught to treat their brothers fairly, which is particularly critical for polyandry.
Nyinba Society and Political Organization
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Nyinba are socially stratified, with the major distinction between a class of slaveowners and the descendants of their slaves, freed in 1926. Slaves traditionally married monogamously and uxorilocally and lived in nuclear-family households. This family structure dovetailed with and augmented the polyandrous households of their masters, many of whom suffered chronic shortages of female labor. Today the poorer slave descendants serve as a dependent labor force, supplemented by hired laborers from ethnic Nepali villages. There also are minor status distinctions within the former slaveowner stratum: the older, village-founding clans have greater status than members of more recently arrived clans. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“In the past, the Nyinba were ruled by petty Hindu chieftains of high caste, whose descendants remain politically influential today. In 1789, they became subjects of the Nepalese state, which interfered little in the area, beyond regulating land usage and taxation, until the 1950s. The effect of these regimes has been to undermine Nyinba unity and indigenous institutions of leadership. The fact that villages successfully coordinate economic activities and religious ceremonials is due to a traditional system of village organization. This is based upon cooperative action between households related by past partitions and by the rotation of offices holding responsibility for collective events. |~|
“Today villages are highly factionalized, and prominent Nyinba anchor their power by affiliations with the descendants of their former rulers, who now participate in the national political arena. Although in law, Nepalese of all castes and classes now have equal Political and legal rights, some elements of past inequality linger on. Thus slave descendants remain less powerful (as well as poorer) locally. |~|
Nyinba Economic Activity
Nancy E. Levine wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Nyinba have a diversified economy and engage in agriculture, trade, and animal husbandry, in that order of importance. Agriculture is central, economically and symbolically. Nyinba villagers employ low-caste Nepali speakers for metalwork and sewing cotton clothing. They employ Tibetan refugees for large carpentry jobs and for religious artwork. Woolen clothes, shoes, and coats are produced at home from their own or imported wool and sheepskins. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“People rely on trade to cushion the inevitable fluctuations in agricultural productivity. This involves exchanging Tibetan and Indian salt for surplus grain produced in the Nepalese midlands. These goods are transported mostly on the backs of agile goats and sheep. Nyinba also trade in yakcow crossbreeds and import high-pasture sheep and wool from Tibet and manufactured goods from India for their own consumption. Trade occupies nearly the entire year, taking its participants from the Tibetan plains through the Nepalese midlands to Indian border towns. In 1982 this trade resulted, on average, in take-home profits of 34 bushels of husked grain, 5 bushels of salt, and diverse commodities for each household with adequate manpower to engage in it. |~|
Some tasks, most notably plowing, are performed exclusively by men; others, particularly weeding, are performed exclusively by women. Nevertheless, many other subsistence tasks may be performed by either sex. This is quite practical in a society where the number of male and female household members varies widely. To generalize, women engage in a range of agricultural tasks over protracted periods of time, while men's contributions to agriculture are sporadic but very intense. Men are exclusively responsible for trade, while the relatively undemanding task of cattle herding may be entrusted to a child or elderly person of either sex. Women hold the major responsibility for domestic work, Including child care. |~|
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Due to the difficult terrain and the high elevation, however, it is both physically demanding and relatively unproductive. Villagers may double-crop their lowest-level fields with winter barley and buckwheat or plant a single crop of millet, amaranth, and beans. At middle elevations wheat and buckwheat are grown, whereas the highest fields are planted only with buckwheat. People grow vegetables — daikons (radishes), turnips, potatoes, peas, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, and cabbages — in small kitchen gardens. [Source: Nancy E. Levine, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Households also own fruit and nut trees: apricot, walnut, apple, and the rare peach tree. On average, households produced approximately 84 bushels of unhusked grain in 1982, a disastrous agricultural year; in a year of good harvests, they expect to produce about 50 percent more. That yield was supplemented by the proceeds of trade and cattle herding. Nyinba do not have access to extensive grasslands, so that cattle herding is limited and continues to contract, as high lands are being converted into farmland. Nonetheless, households keep some cattle, for their milk products and manure.
Individual households have rights over farmland, while villages control forests and grazing lands. All Nyinba own some land, though the richer households have vastly more than the poorer ones. The state has ultimate rights over all this land, although they are realized in little more than the right to taxation. Nyinba buy and sell land rarely; it is in short supply and very expensive. In the past, when wastelands were reclaimed, each village household received an equivalent share. |~|
The Thakali is an ethnic group that lives in the Jomson area near Annapurna, a major trekking area. Occupying a fairly inhospitable area between the Tibetan highlands and the Hindu lowlands, they number around 13,000 to 14,000 and have been powerful merchants since the 1850s when they provided the Nepalese rulers with vital intelligence during a war with Tibet and was rewarded with a monopoly on the lucrative salt trading routes with Tibet. The Thakali have traditionally lived in Thak-Khola Valley, which lies on an ancient and relatively easy trade route through the high Himalaya.
When China closed the border with Tibet they turned to other businesses. They own many of the guest houses and hotels and restaurants for foreign travelers along the Annapurna trekking route and also run hotels and restaurants for Nepalese along the major trucking routes. They are also active in business in Mustang. The Thakali form unique private financing group with around 25 members. On a rotating basis, each member of the group are allowed to use the money pooled by the group to finance a business,
Also known as Tamang and Tamu the Thakali have traditionally practiced Buddhism but also have incorporated elements of traditional Bon religion and Hinduism into their religious scheme. The Thakali are divided into four clans, each with its own god: the lion, the yak, the dragon and the elephant. Thakali territory is called Thakhola or Thak-Satsae, in Jomson District in central Nepal. According to the 1961 census there were 4,130 Thakali-speaking people. By the 1990s there were around 10,000 of them. The majority of the Thakalis lived in Thakhola until the late 1950s, when China invaded Tibet and most Thakalis migrated to cities and towns in the southern lowlands of Nepal. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|] |~|
“In common with the rest of the Nepalese Himalayan region, Thakhola has a summer monsoon season that usually begins in July and ends in September. But as Thakhola is located on the northern side of the main Himalayan ridges, there is less summer precipitation and some snowfall in winter months. Therefore, rain-based farming is practiced only in summer, and the cultivation of winter crops in the upland fields is dependent on irrigation. Buckwheat is the summer crop, and barley and wheat are the winter crops; maize was introduced to Thakhola before World War II. The cultivation of garden vegetables is rather rare in Nepal outside the Kathmandu Valley, but the Thakalis are very fond of gardening, even growing both vegetables and flowers.”
Thakali Language and History
Shigeru Iijima wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Thakalis are Himalayan Mongoloids whose mother tongue is of the Tibeto-Burman Family. It is called Thakali and belongs to the Tamang Group (Including Tamang, Gurung, and Magar). The origin of the Thakalis is not clear, although they claim to be the descendants of Hansraj, a Thakuri prince of the Jumla-Sinja dynasty in western Nepal. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The Thakalis were agropastoral people who were engaged in local trade until the early nineteenth century like other neighboring Himalayan Peoples. The rise of Thakali power goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. Nepal was at war with Tibet in 1857 and 1858. One of the Thakali leaders cooperated with the Hindu Rana regime and provided the central government in Kathmandu with valuable information about the Himalayan and Tibetan areas. After the Nepalese victory over Tibet, the Hindu Rana rulers allowed the Thakali leader to obtain a license to import rock salt from Tibet and also granted him the magistracy of the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo areas with the traditional and hereditary title of Subba. This prerogative was quite helpful in enabling the Subba and his family to carry on large-scale commerce in the Tibet-Himalayan regions. Thus, the Subba family and its descendants exercised political influence not only among the Thakalis but also over their Neighboring ethnic groups in Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo.
But the political influence of the Thakali leaders and their families gradually diminished after the mass migration of Thakali merchants from Thakhola toward the southern lowlands of Nepal following the 1959 Tibetan affair. Many of the Thakalis have survived well in the cities and towns of southern Nepal as merchants, hotel owners, public servants, professors, teachers, medical doctors, and so forth, thanks to their hard-working efforts and businesslike attitude. |~|
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Thakali religion represents a syncretism of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and a native belief called Dhom, a type of shamanistic animism common in all the Himalayan regions and Tibet. These three religions — Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Dhom — coexist not only in the villages but also in the minds of the Thakalis. The core of the Thakalis' animism is the worship of their ancestors, called dhu-tin-gya. In recent times cultural change among the Thakalis indicates a tendency toward Hinduism rather than Tibetan Buddhism, though the latter was more influential in the old days. Although the Thakalis started to style themselves Hindus in the mid-nineteenth century when the Thakali leader began to associate with the Hindu Rana regime in Kathmandu, there was not a single Hindu temple in Thakhola before the mass migration of Thakali merchants from Thakhola to the urban centers of southern Nepal in the 1960s. The reduction of Tibetan influence and increasing Hinduization of the Thakalis in Thakhola, which began even before the 1960s, is summarized as follows. (1) Changes in the Thakali way of life have been instituted, such as avoidance of eating yak meat (beef) and of drinking Tibetan beer. (2) Some of the Thakali leaders have discouraged the members of the community from wearing bakus (Tibetan robes) and have encouraged them to wear Nepalese or Western dress instead. But many women still prefer to wear Himalayan-style costumes, partly because of cold weather in Thakhola and partly for convenience while working. (3) The people have been discouraged from using the Thakali language, a Tibeto-Burman dialect, in the presence of others. But in trading transactions, it may be usefully spoken as an argot among themselves while dealing with other ethnic groups. (4) Since the Thakalis have started claiming to be Hindus, nearly all of the pantheon in Tibetan Buddhism has been reshuffled. Now the old deities having Tibeto-Himalayan names are claimed to be the avatars (incarnations) of Hindu deities. (5) The Hinduization tendency has encouraged the claim of their Thakur (the caste of the present royal family of Nepal) origin in the Jumla-Sinja area of western Nepal. This trend parallels claims of Rajput origin among some of the castes in India. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The process of Hinduization and de-Tibetanization among the Thakalis has also been accelerated by the seasonal migration of Thakalis for trade and through frequent association with their relatives and friends already settled in Pokhara, Sasadhara, Butwal, and Bhairawa. The mass migration of influential merchants after the 1960s was vital in the process of cultural change. The declining salt trade in the Himalayan regions has also played an important role in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing the culture of the Thakalis. It goes without saying that the flexibility of Thakali culture is also responsible for this rapid cultural change. In this connection the upper stratum of the Thakali community as a whole has played a vital part in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing their culture, whereas the lower stratum has been somewhat more passive in these processes. It is also noteworthy that the tendency to revive native animism (Dhom) can be observed in urban areas such as Kathmandu, where the Thakalis seem to have suffered an identity crisis and anxiety because of the rapid urbanization of their culture. The Thakalis have been shamanistic animists, and the dhoms (shamans) have played important roles in treating and counseling patients. |~|
Their native animism called Dhom has been influential in many aspects of Thakali life. Tibetan Buddhism once played an important part in rites of passage, but Hinduism has gradually replaced it in recent years. Due to the pragmatic tendency of Thakali Culture, scientific medicines have been well accepted among them for many years. At the same time, they have also been utilizing Tibetan as well as Ayurvedic medicines and herbs. |~|
“The influence of the Indic folk philosophy represented in Buddhism and Hinduism has been prominent among the Thakalis and so they believe in reincarnation. Traditionally, funeral ceremonies were performed in the Dhom style among the commoners in Thakhola, except for a few wealthy subba families who preferred Buddhist Ceremonies and invited lamas from the monasteries to perform them. Many of the Thakalis, however, have started to hold funeral ceremonies in a Hindu style since they migrated to the south. Some revival of native shamanism is also observed in the funeral ceremonies of urban Thakalis.
Thakali Marriage, Family
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Thakali community is endogamous and is composed of four exogamous patrilineages: Timtsen (Sherchan), Choeki (Gauchan), Burki (Bhattachan), and Salki (Tulachan). The four patrilineages are again subdivided into a number of family groups called ghyupa. Each of the four patrilineages has its own clan deities: the Lion for Timtsen, the Dragon for Choeki, the Yak for Burki, and the Elephant for Salki. Each respective patrilineage has its own "clan grave" called khimj in which a throat bone is placed on the death of a patrilineage member. In spite of the high mobility of Thakali merchants, the ethnic identity has been well maintained thanks to the elaborate ritual activities based on family, patrilineage, and tribe levels. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Marriage was traditionally initiated by capturing a bride with her informal consent, like the custom among some of the Himalayan groups. It is, however, the Contemporary tendency for young Thakalis to prefer arranged marriages in the Hindu style. The rule of postmarital residence is Generally patrilocal, and the youngest son tends to stay with the parents even after his marriage. In many cases, the elder sons go out and set up new families after their marriages (neolocal residence). Traditionally, divorce and remarriage were not encouraged but also not prohibited; today, however, the remarriage of widows is becoming somewhat unpopular among the Thakalis who have been brought up in the Hindu lowlands of Nepal. |~|
“The younger sons are apt to form extended families with their parents, but elder sons generally set up nuclear families in new localities after their marriages. The property of the parents is inherited by the sons, but the younger sons obtain most of it. |~|
“Traditionally, the socialization of the Thakali children was quite well balanced by a laissez-faire attitude and hard training systems in Thakhola. The shoben lava initiation ceremony used to be performed in Thakhola. A similar rite is also performed in the Hindu lowlands in a modified fashion under the Hindu name of a kumar jatra. As for the modern education of Thakali children, the parents have been very active not only in urban settings but even in Tukuche. Formerly, only the affluent families could afford to send their children to the elite schools in urban centers, but many families have now started to send their children to such schools both in Nepal and foreign countries.
Thakali Daily Life, Villages and Houses
Shigeru Iijima wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Thakali merchants live in the valley of the Upper Kali Gandaki, but some of the agropastoral Thakalis inhabit the slopes of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. Their houses are either rectangular or square and were originally of Tibetan style. The houses of the Thakalis as a whole are large, spacious, and clean. Houses are made of slate stones with flat roofs. But the Thakalis have to build bamboo huts within the Tibetan-style houses during the rainy season in the Comparatively humid area, like Lete and Ghasa villages, in the Southern fringe of Thakhola. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Not only the adults but also the children work hard. The Thakalis in Tukuche have not developed a division of labor, except for work such as the caravan trade for males and housekeeping for females. However, the Thakalis living in the Hindu lowlands of Nepal have in recent times emulated the behavior of Hindu high castes and have secluded women from outside labor.
“The Thakalis are quite artistic people, loving not only the arts but also natural beauty such as the landscape and flowers. It is, however, very interesting that they show their artistic abilities more in secular aspects of life, such as commerce, cooking, interior designing, and so forth, rather than in the arts themselves. |~|
Thakali cuisine is a mix of Himalayan and lowland cuisines. It is served in inns (bhattis) and guest houses used by trekkers run by Thakalis alongside trade routes in Pokhara and Annapurna area. Yak milk is an essential ingredient but few Thakali own their own yaks, so butter made from the yak milk is usually purchased at markets along with other staples like rice, tea, lentils, sugar and spices. From the butter a hard cheese called chhurpi is made with the buttermilk. [Source: Wikipedia]
Thakali cuisine is less vegetarian than cuisine of the Kathmandu Valley. Yak and yak-cow hybrids are consumed by the lower castes. All castes eat sheep meat, either raised locally or imported from Tibet. Meat is sliced into thin slices and dried on thin poles near the cooking fire. Blood sausage is also prepared and dried. Dried meat is added to vegetable curries or sauteed in ghee and dipped into timur-ko-choup which is a mixture of red chili powder, Sichuan pepper, salt and local herbs. This spice mixture also seasons new potatoes, or eggs which may be boiled, fried or made into omelets.
Thakali cuisine uses locally grown buckwheat, barley, millet and dal, as well as rice, maize and dal imported from lower regions to the south. Grain is often ground and boiled into a thick porridge that is eaten with dal. Local dal is made from dried, ground buckwheat leaves. Grain is roasted or popped in hot sand (which is then sieved off) for snacks. Thakalis follow the Tibetan customs making tsampa and tea with butter and salt. Ghee is used in making tea as well as a cooking. Because many Thakali are engaged in trade, they use the vegetables, fruits and eggs they bring in from lower regions to make their local dishes. Among the vegetables they eat are daikon radish and beetroot, which is dried and often prepared with mutton. A soup made with a spinach known as gyang-to is common as are apples, introduced by foreign horticulturists.
Thakali Social, Political and Economic Activity
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Thakalis claim that their society is egalitarian within the ethnic group. As a whole, intensive social stratification cannot be observed except for a certain kind of socioritual ranking. Among the Thakalis in Thakhola, social control was predominantly exercised by the Subba families. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
The leadership of the Subba Families was established in the mid-nineteenth century after the Nepal-Tibet wars. Under their leadership, the Thakali Community had enjoyed semiautonomy within and without the group in the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring areas, like Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo. It lasted almost until the end of the 1950s, when the majority of the Influential Thakali merchants started their migration toward the south. The new leadership, however, has not been set up within the Thakali community yet in the urban areas nor even in Thakhola. Under a main Subba who administered Thakhola, there were thirteen mukhiyas, or village heads, who formed a "tribal" council and the village councils in thirteen Thakali villages of Thakhola. |~|
“The sources of conflict with other ethnic groups were mainly based on competition in trading transactions and the local political domination in the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring areas. The conflicts, however, used to be compromised or solved under the leadership of the Subba families. In recent years, the Thakalis have had to deal with troubles with other ethnic groups on an individual basis and through legal measures. The same is true for conflicts within the Thakali community.
“At present Thakalis are not so dependent on pastoralism (unlike Tibetan-speaking Bhotes in the northern high plateau) , but it is still an indispensable part of their economy. On the steep slopes of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges, some of the Thakalis raise yaks, sheep, and goats from which they obtain meat, milk, butter, wool, fur, pelts, and hides. They also breed dzo (a hybrid of yak and cow), mules, horses, and donkeys for use as pack animals in their trading operations. It would appear that the Thakalis have certain cultural traits usually associated with the rearing of domesticated animals for trading caravans. |~|
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Thakalis are one of the most famous trading communities in Nepal, having engaged in Himalayan trade between Tibet, Nepal, and India for many years. Although they were attracted by the foreign and native merchandise from the south and were interested in the potential market for trade goods, in the past they avoided trading operations in southern Nepal because of their dislike of the heat and humidity there during the summer monsoon season and their fear of the virulent forms of malaria and other tropical diseases prevalent there. Following the pioneer efforts of the group, through trial and error, they started traveling to the south in increasing numbers, where they came into contact with the Hindu inhabitants. [Source: Shigeru Iijima, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The trading center of the Thakalis was Tukuche, which is the largest "town" in the territory. Until the revolt in Tibet in 1959, the Thakali merchants had imported sheep, goats, yaks, dzo, hides, fur, pelts, butter, and cheese, as well as rock salt from the northern high plateau and Tibet, in exchange for Nepalese and Indian commodities such as rice, wheat, barley, maize, dhal (pulses), buckwheat, oil, tea, chilies, spices, Nepali paper, cotton, cotton cloth, metal utensils, guns, gunpowder, and some other commodities. |~|
“Frequently Thakali merchants organized caravans themselves, but they also functioned as intermediaries. Many Tibetan-speaking traders came to Tukuche from Dolpo, Lo, and Tibet, and Hindu lowlanders from southern Nepal. Cash was sometimes used in trading transactions but barter was more common until the end of 1950s. The barter was, in many cases, based on Tibetan rock salt and rice from the southern lowlands. |~|
“Since the 1950-1951 "democratic" revolution, Nepal has opened her doors to the outside world and thus more Foreign goods, mainly Indian-made, have flowed into the Kingdom. Among them the cheap salt from India dealt a blow to the Thakali economy. The price of salt declined by approximately 25 percent in Himalayan areas during a comparatively short period. |~|
“Another big blow hit the Thakali merchants in 1962 when the People's Republic of China closed the Himalayan border, owing to political unrest generated by Tibetan guerrillas sponsored by foreign countries. Many of the Thakali merchants had to leave Thakhola as the traditional trade of the Himalayan region was almost terminated by bad relations Between China and Tibet. |~|
“Except for some rich Subba families, most of the middle-class and poor Thakalis migrated to the south and moved to smaller towns where they opened small shops and wayside inns. They were unable to survive well in a big city like Kathmandu. Thanks to their business acumen and industriousness, however, some of them have started their own profitable businesses and are forming a new class. |~|
“As for the trading activities of the Thakalis, a sort of financial cooperative called dhikur (Tibetan dri-kor, or "rice rotation") was a very meaningful system for many Thakali merchants in Thakhola. But the system also seems to be changing in the urban settings by involving other castes and ethnic groups.” |~|
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022