Southern Nepal is dominated by the Terai (or tarai), a region of swamps, grasslands and forests that extends for 900 kilometers (550 miles) across the southern part of the country. The region remained isolated for a long time and few people lived there because it was infested by malaria mosquitos. After the 1950s when the threat of malaria was reduced by the introduction of DDT, many people moved there and now large agricultural areas. Up until the mid 20th century the Terai was a perfect habitat for tigers, buffalo and rhino. Since the eradication of malaria, the landscape of the Terai has been dramatically changed by agriculture (the alluvial soil is fertile and easy to clear and plow). In many places the forests and grasslands are gone and swamps have been drained. The elephants, one horned rhinos and tigers that once roamed the entire area now live primarily in the national parks.

The inhabitants of the Terai consist mainly of two types of people: 1) migrants, most of them Indo-Nepalese; and 2) indigenous groups that lived there before migrants arrived. Many of these people are related to people that live across the border in India. Many of mirgants re encouraged by the government of Nepal or its agents to move into the Terai for settlement during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early 1990s, this group mostly consisted of landless tenants and peasants from northern India's border states of Bihar and Bengal. Some of these Indian migrants later became large landowners. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Eradication of malaria, construction of the Mahendra Highway, or East-West Highway, along the southern foot of the hills, and land settlement programs contributed to a massive movement of population from the hills into the Terai, resulting in a large increase in the area devoted to agriculture. The migrations caused friction between the ethnic groups that were traditional residents of these areas, who in many cases were cheated out their land, and new settlers.

A century ago, the Tharu controlled the fertile plains near the Indian border, in part because of a natural resistance to malaria that higher castes lacked. After malaria's eradication in the area around 1960, higher-caste people streamed down from the mountains. High caste Brahmans were able to appropriate much of the Thaur’s land. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Maoist rebels were able to recruit a number of fighters from minority groups such as the Tharu, who claimed they were discriminated against by the Nepali-speaking majority and were cheated out of their land by them.

Ethnic Groups in the Terai

The main ethnic groups in Terai are Tharus, Darai, Kumhal and Majhi. There are other groups too. They speak north Indian dialects like Maithili and Bhojpuri. Owing to the fertile plains of Terai, most inhabitants live on agriculture. There are, however, some occupational castes like Majhi (fisherman), Kumhal (potter) and Danuwar (cart driver). Rahman and Rajputs are similar to Bramin and Chhetris of the middle hills. Their major difference being a high degree of influence from the neighbouring North Indian people. [Source: visitnepal.com ]

Tharus are the largest and oldest ethnic group of the Terai. They have traditionally lived close to densely forested regions. They have a dark complexion and slim, taunt bodies. They follow Hinduism and their customs and religion are based on Hinduism. Farming and business are their main occupations. Danwars, Majhis and Darais are very similar to Tharus, physically and culturally. Nevertheless, they speak their own languages which are of Sanskrit origin.

Rajbansis are the dominant ethnic group of the far eastern Terai areas of Jhapa and Morang. Although they follow both Hinduism and Islam, they have their own local practices and beliefs. Farming is their major occupation. Satars are similar to Santhals of Bihar, India. They are very much like Tharus and their social life is organised and disiplined. They believe in Hinduism. Dimals, Bodos, Dhangars are Hindu agriculturist Hindus. Bodos are settled in an area know as the Mechi Zone and are more known as Mechain people. Dhangars, who live in one part of eastern Terai, originate from Madhya Pradesh, India. Dhimals are the Terain counterparts of the Limbus. They live in eastern Terai, mainly in Jhapa. Musalmans are Muslims who migrated from Northern India. They speak Urdu and their social practices correspond with other Muslims.


The Tharus are the largest and most important of the various ethnic groups that live the Terai. They are said to have descended from upper-caste Rajput women who fled Rajasthan in the 16th century while their husband remained to fight a Muslim king. When word reached that their men had been killed, the women married their slaves. [Source: Debra Kellner, National Geographic, September 2000]

Tharu are the fourth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 6.6 percent of the population of Nepal and made up the same percentage of the population in 2001. In 1985 the Tharus numbered about a half million in Nepal, with a considerably smaller population in Uttar Pradesh, India (68,000 in 1971).

The Tharus remained isolated for centuries because the area they lived was infested by malaria mosquitos. Although the Tharus weren't immune to the disease they had a resistance to it. They didn't really have contact with the outside world until the 1950s when the threat of malaria was reduced in the Terai by the introduction of DDT. Since then they have been deluged with outsiders.

The Tharus are centered in the Dang district about 400 kilometers west of Kathmandu. The Tharu lost control of much of the land they traditionally lived on by signing documents they couldn't read which effectively made them tenant farmer for absentee landlords who had never even seen the land. Poor management of the land has aroused some concern about their future. Many Tharus are tenant farmers. Some Tharu joined the Maoist rebels.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Tharus are sometimes described as containing two fairly distinct geographical subgroups, the Bhoksa in the west and the Mechi in the east. From the Perspective of their high-caste Pahari and Newar neighbors, the Tharus are Untouchables, though higher than the official "unclean" Untouchable castes.” [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]

Tharu Life

The Tharus live houses with mud-and-cow-dung walls and thatch or tile roofs. Sometimes their houses are decorated with reliefs of animals. They farm rice and fish in local rivers. They have few modern machines other than some bicycles, tools and tractors. Many lived in large houses with 50 extended family members. The Tharus fish with a nets that look like transparent kites. They are supported by vines and made from woven hemp. Fish are scooped out with buckets made of forest-cut rataan.

The Tharus make many of the things the use. Many are like crafts or works of art. Their bright garments are reminiscent of clothes worn in Africa. Some put flowers and banknotes in holes in their ear lobes. The also wear tikkas and use to have large coin-size nose plugs, and breast plates made of dozens of rupee coins. The Rana Tharu is a subgroup of the Tharu people. They live in the southwest corner of Nepal. Rana Tharu women enjoy smoking bidis and eating chickens and snails. [Source: Debra Kellner, National Geographic, September 2000]

The Tharus have their own religion and there own pantheon of spirits and gods and have their own priests. In areas were large numbers of Hindus live the worship Hindu gods and hire Brahman priests. In the west they bury their dead. In the east they cremate them.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Tharus are mainly wet-rice agriculturalists who live in permanent settlements integrated through kin ties and mutual economic obligations. Each village is governed by a council and a headman who collects taxes for the central government. There is some evidence that permanent settlements and wet-rice agriculture represent a shift from an earlier reliance on shifting horticulture. Traditionally, the Tharus were subdivided into two major groups of unequal Status, each composed of a number of endogamous units called kuri. Today, the high-status group forms a single endogamous unit, while the low-status group continues to have a number of distinct endogamous units. Tharu religion is an amalgam of beliefs involving traditional supernaturals, Hindu deities, and Moslem saints, with the shaman as the central religious figure, calling on the power of supernatural forces from all three belief systems to exorcise evil spirits and cure the sick.” [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Kamlari: Bondage System That Traps Girls

Kamlari is a bondage system practiced by the Tharu that forces young children, particularly girls, to labor for rich landowners and keeps them out of school. Reporting ly from Ghorah in southern Nepal, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The scrubbing, cooking and sweeping started as early as 3 a.m. When the landlord's children awoke hours later, the 9-year-old girl got them ready for a school she could only dream of attending. Afternoons and evenings were spent cutting hay and tending animals. Around 10 p.m., she'd collapse for a few hours before starting again, seven days a week. It must be my fate, she thought, a feeling eventually replaced by anger and bitterness. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2011]

“Every January or February she'd see her family for a week, only to watch her father "sell" her back into another year of drudgery for a mere $25. Although some of her friends spent most of their childhood this way, she was lucky: A civic group persuaded her parents to end the arrangement after three years.

“For generations, ethnic Tharu girls as young as 6 have been handed over to landlords and brokers under a bondage system known as kamlari. The legacy of crushing poverty, caste and intergenerational debt has left many of the young victims scarred by sexual and emotional abuse. "The landlord's son beat me many times," said Bishnu Kumari, 17, who was rescued a few years ago. "I felt dirty, unlucky to be born a girl. I was a slave." "Sometimes the landlords try to hit us," said Manjita Chaudhary, 21, a former indentured servant. "They lie, saying they educate and help the girls. But we usually wear them down."

“In addition to carrying psychological scars, rescued girls have missed many years of schooling. Aid groups fund accelerated training to help them get back into mainstream classes, or in extreme cases, enter school for the first time. A major parental concern is lost income. Although $25 to $50 for a daughter's annual labor may sound piddling to an American, it's huge in these dirt-poor communities.

“The poverty fueling the kamlari system was evident in remote Suraikula Narayanpur village, where 12-year-old Asha Chaudhary, who is not related to the other Chaudharys, was recently freed by aid groups after four years of servitude. Her father had leased her out to pay back a loan for fertilizer. The nine-member family lives in a two-room house where several undernourished, half-naked, sore-covered siblings play on the dirt floor as Asha chews on a dirty blue comb.

Combating the Kamlari Bondage System with Music Dramas and Piglets

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In 2000, a related kamaiya system involving adults was outlawed, as were debts passed down for generations, but child servitude wasn't made illegal until 2006. After that, the government promised free housing, retraining and education to dispossessed Tharu, although corruption and government inefficiency have undercut implementation, civic groups said. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2011]

“ These days, former kamlari victims are fighting back with notable success, the result of changing laws, activist pressure and nascent democracy in Nepal. Charity groups” rescued thousands of girls in 2010, “generally during the brief period when the annual agreements are renewed, by convincing parents that the practice is unjust, a daughter's education is worthwhile, and that there are far less exploitative ways to earn family income. Since most deals have traditionally been struck during the winter Maghe Sankranti holiday, rescued girls assisted by aid groups are staging street dramas, anti-exploitation marches and musicals. They also mount rescue missions in which parents and landlords are confronted and embarrassed into releasing the girls during the annual festival and other high-profile events.

“The approach has proved so successful that the U.S.-based Nepal Youth Foundation estimates that just 1,000 Tharu girls remain indentured, most in remote villages or with powerful families in Kathmandu, compared with about 14,000 a decade ago. Former victims Sunita Chaudhary, 17, and Anita Chaudhary, 18, who aren't related, sing, act and write scripts for the street plays put on here in this rural part of south-central Nepal, drawing on their experience of dire poverty, alcoholic fathers, exploitative landlords and low female social status. At the end of the drama about girls forced into bondage, the troupe asks audiences who is to blame and how the play should end, sparking spirited debate. Many villagers are illiterate, have never seen a play and forget that it's not real. "People grab me and threaten to beat me up," said Hom Roka, 23, who plays the landlord. These are complemented by "girls clubs," composed of former victims who urge new kamlari recruits to resist, backed up by adults in the community who have agreed to help fight the practice.

“Although $25 to $50 for a daughter's annual labor may sound piddling to an American, it's huge in these dirt-poor communities. So activists started providing the families of liberated girls with a baby pig or goat, which sells at maturity for a similar amount. "Who'd have thought a piglet could save a girl?" said Som Paneru, the Nepal Youth Foundation's in-country director. Another concern, in a region with widespread alcoholism, is that fathers will drink the money away. "The women told us, under no circumstances give money to the men," said Olga Murray, the charity's founder. So piglets — or goats for some very poor families who lack even table scraps to feed a pig — are explicitly given to the daughters who, once educated and empowered, can better stand up to the men than can their mothers.

“A side effect of these efforts has been to swell the number of public classrooms: A dearth of girls' restrooms can sometimes force female students having their periods to walk more than a mile to find a secluded spot, and civic groups have had to focus on school construction.” But “with the kamlari system now under siege, former victims are daring to dream. "Before I was taken away, my brother once asked me what I wanted to be and I told him, a lawyer," said Anita Chaudhary. "Now that I'm back in school, I'd still like to be a lawyer. So many girls are without rights or hope. I want to help protect them."

Muslims in the Terai

About 95 percent of the Muslims in Nepal live in the western Terai near the Indian border. Reporting from Nepalgunj in that area, Saif Khalid of Associated Press wrote: “More than 500 kilometers away from Kathmandu, in Banke district, which borders India, green flags with Quranic verses adorn Muslim homes to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday — a festival mostly observed by South Asian Muslims. Such public displays are a reflection of the newly recognised religious and cultural rights of Nepal's minorities and indigenous groups. [Source: Saif Khalid, Associated Press, May 21, 2016]

“Banke is located in the southern plains, known as the Terai or Madhes region, which is home to 95 percent of the country's Muslims. Unlike their counterparts in the Kathmandu valley, an overwhelming majority of the Muslims in this area are poor and landless. Their political under-representation and negligible presence within the job market is in keeping with the broader marginalisation of the Madhesi population of which they are a part. The Madhesis, who are culturally close to their neighbours on the other side of the border with India, have long complained that the country is economically and politically dominated by upper-caste Nepalis from the hilly parts of the country.

“Community leaders believe Muslims are a distinct group. “Though Muslims live in Madhes their culture is different from other groups," says Athar Hussain Faruqi, a local leader of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). “Our identity should be different on the basis of culture, language, economic activity," Faruqi adds.

“Many Muslims are feeling positive about what the future may hold. Nepalgunj, which has the largest Muslim population of any of Nepal's cities, boasts a Muslim community radio station, schools and charitable organisations all run by the minority community. Faruqi is upbeat about the prospects of Muslims in Nepal. “Eid has been declared holiday, [the] Muslim Commission and [the] madrasa board have been formed," says Faruqi, adding that his party, which is part of the current coalition government, will continue to fight for greater rights for the Muslims of Nepal.

Alam Khan , 28, is among the few Muslims who have climbed the economic ladder. Khan is a resident of Nepalgunj in Banke. Despite opposition from his family, he has married a non-Muslim, ethnic Magar woman. “When I was in police custody she stood behind me," he explains. "I decided that I had to marry her." Khan says his family has since come to accept his wife, who is now studying to become a nurse. In a country where interfaith and inter-caste marriages are rare, Khan has broken many societal norms and continues to challenge them.

Muslims in Nepal

Muslims are the eighth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 4.4 percent of the population of Nepal. Muslims made up 4.2 percent of the population in 2001. In the 1980s it was estimated that make up about three percent of Nepal’s population. Musalmans are Muslims who migrated from Northern India into the Terai. They speak Urdu and their social practices correspond with other Muslims.

Muslims live primarily in the western Terai near the Indian border. Some work as traders and merchants in Nepal towns. Many used to specialize in selling glass bracelets call “churate”. In Kathmandu, there is a community of Muslims of Kashmiri descent that arrived centuries ago at the invitation of the Malla kings. Most are Sunnis and many speak Urdu as the first language. Many are descendants of Indian immigrants that began arriving in Nepal after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 and, like their counterparts in India, have been incorporated into the caste system.

Reporting from Kathmandu, Saif Khalid of Associated Press wrote: In one corner of Kathmandu's Jame Masjid, a stone's throw from the former-royal-palace-turned-museum, lies the tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal — forlorn and shorn of its past grandeur. Mahal was the queen of Awadh, a princely state in neighbouring India, and the face of the 1857 rebellion against the British. She fled the Indian city of Lucknow after the revolt was crushed, and the then ruler of Nepal, Jung Bahadur Thapa, who had taken his army to help the British quell the rebellion and plunder the city, offered her asylum. M Hussain, the secretary of Jame Masjid, says that many of Mahal's supporters followed her to Nepal. [Source: Saif Khalid, Associated Press, May 21, 2016]

“But Islam had, in fact, been introduced to Nepal long before that. Kashmiri traders first arrived in Kathmandu in the 15th century on their way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Many of them settled in what was then known as Kantipur and now as Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur during the rule of King Ratna Malla The 500-year-old Kashmiri Takiya mosque, a few hundred yards from the palace in Kathmandu, is a testimony to this history. “Muslims lived as a silent minority for centuries at the goodwill of the Nepali state," explains Hussain.

“But, in recent years — inspired by the Maoist rebellion that lasted from 1996 until 2006 — they have become more vocal and visible. “The Maoist rebellion paved the way for their [Muslims] political and cultural rights," Hussain says, sitting in his small office in the mosque premises. Muslim festivals were declared public holidays for the first time in 2008 — the year the monarchy was abolished and a democratically elected government led by Maoists took office.

“The country's new constitution, which came into effect in 2015, includes Muslims for the first time, adding them to a list of marginalised groups. The constitution also ensures a job quota for Muslims, who currently fill less than 1 percent of civil service positions.

Discrimination Against Muslims in the Terai

Alam Khan travels to remote parts of Nepal to document extra-judicial killings and illegal detentions. Saif Khalid of Associated Press wrote: He “works for the non-government organisation THRD Alliance, which campaigns against extra-judicial killings, torture and illegal arrests in the Madhes region. “Everyone should get rights and [live with] dignity," Alam says in his tiny office in Nepalgunj's Rani Talau area. Alam Khan was detained by the police for 17 days in 2007 when Madhesis began protesting against the discrimination they experienced. “I was charged with murder and sedition for interviewing an underground Madhesi leader," explains Khan, who worked as a journalist before joining THRD Alliance. “They could not prove anything," he adds. It was, he says, an "escape from death". [Source: Saif Khalid, Associated Press, May 21, 2016]

“Muslims are one of the country's most disadvantaged groups, and Muslim women are particularly hard hit. Only 26 percent of Muslim women in Nepal are literate — the national average for women is 55 percent — while just 12 percent of Muslim girls complete secondary school. Abdul Rahman, the former chairman of the Nepalgunj Jame Masjid, attributes this, in part, to a perceived incompatibility between some Islamic values and the public school system. "Muslim girls who observe purdah [wearing hijab or niqab] attract attention," he says. "They [are looked at as though they are] aliens. It's a mental torture."

“There were fewer than 5,000 Muslim graduates and postgraduates in 2011, according to that year's census. The post-revolutionary democratic governments have acknowledged the concerns of the community, and identified madrasas as a possible tool for improving access to education among Muslims.

Efforts to Help Muslims in Nepal

Saif Khalid of Associated Press wrote: Abdul Rahman “says the government should either give a "special package [scholarships or financial assistance] to Muslims for their education or give us freedom to educate our kids according to Islamic values". The madrasa board was formed in 2007 and, for the first time, courses were also made available in Urdu, which is spoken by many of the country's Muslims.

“The government promised financial aid to registered madrasas on the condition that they would teach science, mathematics, English and Nepali. The languages spoken by other ethnic groups, such as the Magars and Tamangs, were also recognised. It was in sharp contrast to the time of the monarchy, when only the Nepali language was promoted.

“But nearly a decade after the policy was announced, more than half of the 2,000 madrasas in Nepal have yet to be registered, and those that are complain of inadequate help. Badre Alam Khan, who runs Aisha Banat, an English medium madrasa for girls, says government aid has been insufficient.

“The madrasa, which opened with six students in 2006, now teaches 406 girls. Others want to join but a lack of infrastructure and teachers means the school cannot accept any more students, says Khan. “We started this madrasa which allows girls to observe purdah. We are imparting modern education along with Islamic education," explains Talat Parveen, the school's principal.

“Parveen, who is from the Indian city of Gorakhpur but whose husband is from Nepal, believes poverty stops many of the country's Muslims from pursuing a higher education. “There is a need for more colleges and schools with quality education," says the 28-year-old. “Purdah does not stop you from anything. I [have a] Masters in English literature and [the] niqab did not come in my way." Abdul Qawi, a 36-year-old social worker, believes special programmes such as free education, hostels and scholarships are needed to lift Muslims out of poverty. "But this is not being done," he says.

Tribal Groups in the Terai

Dimals, Bodos, Dhangars are Hindu agriculturist Hindus. Dhangars, who live in one part of eastern Terai, originated from Madhya Pradesh, India, where they are known as the Oraon and the Kurukh. They speak a Dravidian languages andare mainly settled cultivators but also work as wage labourers and industrial workers. Their food is rice. Both men and women consume alcohol and prepare rice beer at home. Generally men chew tobacco and women smoke the Hookah. Village-level community council are led by a chief called a “mahto”. Their main deity is Dharmes. They also believe in numerous spirits. Priests preside over life cycle rituals. An Ojiha or mati is called in to cure diseases by appeasing evil spirits. [Source: Joshua Project]

Dhimals are the Teraian counterparts of the Limbus. They live in eastern Terai, mainly in Jhapa and Morang districts. They speak a Sino-Tibetan language and can be found in the Darjeeling area of India. They are said to have a quick temper and aggressive attitude like the Limbu and have similarities with Koch Rajbanshi and Kirati people but have their own language, culture and customs. Their animistic religion is close to that of the Kiranti. It is very different from Hinduism in that there are no temples nor idols. Dhimal women are good at weaving and wear a unique dress. The 2011 census in Nepal counted 12,000 Dhimal.They reside in 16 villages in Darjeeling district, West Bengal, India.. [Source: Wikipedia]

Bodos are settled in an area know as the Mechi Zone and are known as a Mechain people. The Mech originated in northern China and settled centuries ago in the sub-Himalayan regions of Assam and West Bengal. Most eventually migrated into Burma and Indonesia, but a branch of the tribe remained in India, a from their migrated to Nepal. There are about 4,200 Bodos-Mech in India and Nepal. They speak a the Sino-Tibetan language family and were once headhunters. While living under Hindu influence, the Mech embraced Hinduism and took Hindu surnames. An ancient tradition claims they are descendants of Shiva. The Mech marry within their own tribe and within any of their septs (classdivisions). Women are forbidden to engage in premarital sex and sexual offenses are harshly punished. Husbands generally have great respect for their wives, who have absolute control over the household affairs and are consulted in all family and social matters. [Source: Joshua Project].


Satars are similar to Santhals of Bihar, India. They are like Tharus and their social life is organised and disiplined. They believe in Hinduism. The Santals (also known as the Santhals) are the largest of the tribal populations in South Asia. There are over 10 million of them and they live mostly in Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa. They used to be hunters and gatherers but now are mostly farmers and are employed as farm laborers throughout India. They are believed to be to be related to the same people who founded the Champa Kingdom in Vietnam and Cambodia. Santal rebellions against the British left thousands dead in the 1850s.. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Santals grow wet rice on terraces and sixteen different varieties of millet for consumption and raise cotton, tobacco and mustard for cash crops. They used to practice slash-and burn agriculture but now are mostly settled. Evidence of their hunter-gather past is found in the their vast knowledge of forest plants and their medicinal properties and use of 80 different animal traps. The Santals are also regarded as expert wood carvers.

Santal houses are sometimes decorated with floral designs. The main post at the center of the house is of great ritual importance and the site of sacrifices. Marriages are regarded as means of providing clan members for ancestors spirits. Bride prices are an important element of the marriage process. Grooms who families can’t come up with the money perform a bride service for the bride’s family for some period of time. Extended family households have traditionally been the norm. Grandparents take a lot of the responsibility of socializing children. There have even been reports of grandmothers sexually initiated their grandsons. Girls have traditionally been tattooed at 14 after a first menstruation ceremony. Boys have been initiated at 8 or 10 when fire tribal marks were branded on their forearms.

Satar Religion and Witchcraft

The Santals have animist beliefs which involve idols and evil spirits. The Santal believe in a pantheon of spirits known as bongas, many of which are linked to certain clans. Disease and ill fortune are often blamed on sorcery. Accusations of witchcraft are fairly common. In the old days people accused of witchcraft were often killed. These days they are often forced into a settlement decided by a village council. Healers often use their own blood in healing ceremonies. Cases of human sacrifice were reported in the 19th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Santal religion is one of the most studied tribal religions. According to the 1991 census, however, only 23,645 people listed Santal as their religious belief out of a population estimated at 4.2 million..According to the Santal religion, the supreme deity, who ultimately controls the entire universe, is Thakurji. The weight of belief, however, falls on a court of spirits (bonga ), who handle different aspects of the world and who must be placated with prayers and offerings in order to ward off evil influences. These spirits operate at the village, household, ancestor, and subclan level, along with evil spirits that cause disease, and can inhabit village boundaries, mountains, water, tigers, and the forest. A characteristic feature of the Santal village is a sacred grove on the edge of the settlement where many spirits live and where a series of annual festivals take place. [Source: Library of Congress]

The most important spirit is Maran Buru (Great Mountain), who is invoked whenever offerings are made and who instructed the first Santals in sex and brewing of rice beer. Maran Buru's consort is the benevolent Jaher Era (Lady of the Grove). A yearly round of rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, along with life-cycle rituals for birth, marriage and burial at death, involves petitions to the spirits and offerings that include the sacrifice of animals, usually birds. Religious leaders are male specialists in medical cures who practice divination and witchcraft. Similar beliefs are common among other tribes of northeast and central India such as the Kharia, Munda, and Oraon.

The deceased are cremated. Some of the bones are collected a and kept for a while under the rafters of the house. The bones are washed and regularly ritually fed milk, rice beer and sacred water and given flowers. A year after death the bones are immersed in water and a goat is sacrificed. All this is done to ensure the spirit proceeds through three generations after death and becomes a benevolent bonga.

Raji Ethnic Group

The Raji are one of the last tribal groups that lives as semi-nomads in the forest. They travel for months in family groups following bees as the migrate through the lowlands after blossoming flowers. There are about 4,200 of them. About 95 percent of them are Hindu and 2.4 percent are Christian. Raji is a small Sino-Tibetan language. Some speakers of the language live in Uttarakhand, India.

The Raji are exceptionally poor. Their clothes are in tatters and they often have little eat. There were only about 3,000 of them in the 1990s, living mostly on the marshlands in Terai Region. It seems that most Nepalese who come in contact with the Raji regard them as the scum of the earth. [Source: Eric Valli, National Geographic, June 1998

The forests traditionally occupied by the Raji are now largely agricultural fields. In the 1970s, the government gave them title to the land but many lost their land by racking up debts and were forced to sell it. The Raji also fish and do weaving. When they are on the move they live in shelters made from branches and leaves usually built along rivers partly for protection from tigers.

Raji Honey Hunters

In a 1998 National Geographic article, Eric Valli described honey hunting among silk cotton trees by Raji tribesman, who reside in Nepal along the border with India. The hunter use no ropes. They carve foot and hand holds with an ax. One hunter who walks around with a limp told Valli he fell twice. The first time he fell 40 feet and sank thigh deep in mud and was uninjured. The second time he broke his ankle. Valli said that he was stung on several times while photographing the honey hunters. He said the pain was excruciating. When he climbed the tree with the hunter he was stung 33 times and his face swelled up grotesquely. Attacks by huge masses of bees can kill a man. [Source: Eric Valli, National Geographic, June 1998]

On the first day of the honey season, the Raji honey hunters make an offering of red and white cotton, cloves, rice alcohol and a stone roster. They pray, "There's our share; take this life; leave ours." Women help out by carrying the leaves and vines used to start the fires. The men who don't climb the trees collect the combs when they are dropped down by rope in baskets. The honey is collected by squeezing the combs

Describing the hunter at work, Valli wrote, "The tree was as wide as a bus. At its base, huddled figures fed leaves into a smoldering fires, sending dense columns of smoke up through massive limbs. The smoke, intended to distract the bees, wrapped around two honey hunters 50 feet up. With little to protect them from bees except their turbans, baggy shorts and pants, and swatches of handmade fishing net, they balanced on twisted branches to reach the nests hanging below. The trees held at least 70 nests, with 60,000 or so bees in each one, as the hunters come forward, clouds of furious insects filled the air." Some hunters cut the tree limbs with nests so the honey-laden limbs came crashing down.

Honey harvested on trees on private land is often shared with the landowners. Of the honey the Raji claim for themselves, they keep some to eat themselves. The rest sell for a few dollars a liter along the India border and use the money he earn to buy clothes, nylon fishing line, steel fishhooks and medicine. Beeswax is sold and the pollen is made into a tonic marketed to old people, new mothers and a salve for wounds. The Raji cooks the bee larvae and eat them with salt and red peppers.

Honey Hunters From Cliffs

In the November 1988 Valli and Dianne Summers described honey hunters that harvested nests wedged in cliffs. Dangling from hemp ladders 122 meters (400 feet) above the ground the hunters scooped honey into goatskin baskets with bamboo poles wielded like giant chops sticks. The honey bees, which are the largest in the world, are subdued somewhat with smoke from fires lit below the cliff. To protect themselves from the swarms of angry bees the hunters wrapped burlap bags over their head, but wore no shoes or gloves and only T-shirts. [Source: Eric Valli and Dianne Summers, "Honey Hunters of Nepal", National Geographic, November 1988 ♂]

Before the hunter climbs down the ladder he makes an offering to the forest gods by sprinkling grains of rice in the air. A chicken is often sacrificed and omens are searched for in the animals lungs. One time one hunters didn't perform this ritual and he was attacked and temporary blinded by a swarm of thousands of bees. Before the hunt a small amount of honey is poured on someone's hand. If it tingles that means it may not be safe. Sometimes the bees visit toxic plants and people who eat it collapse, vomit, can't walk, and have impaired vision.♂

About getting stung one senior hunter said, "I am old; my flesh is dry and no longer swells. But the flesh of young men is soft and blows up with the bites of the bees." The nests are sometimes as large as a baby hippopotamus and the honey and wax are divided among the members of the team. Usually only one man hangs from the ladder and digs out the nest. He gets the largest share. The two men who sit at the top of the cliff lowering down equipment get the next largest share followed by the two men who tend the fire. Others get shares for measuring and filtering the honey. Most teams have nine members because nine is a lucky number. Only a small portion of honey is kept. Most is traded for milk or grain. The wax, which is used for casting bronze, is very valuable. A kilogram sells for 15 times as much as an equivalent amount of grain.♂

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

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