W hat if I told you that within the deepest Terai jungles, amongst the inhospitable swarms of mosquitoes and ants, between the tigers and rhinos, live a tribe, a community of people who first appear to have little, but on further inspection, probably have more than the rest of the world could ever dream of?
Sunset at Bardia in south-western Nepal
Who am I talking about?
The Tharus of the Terai – another thread in Nepal’s complicated ethnic lining and patchwork. The natural jungle people of the plains, secluded away for centuries until the jungles were no longer safe from outsiders.
Inside the home is where the Tharu culture is the strongest with the home of Keshu Chaudari a prime example. What you would not guess looking at its wattle and daub walls is that within this “simple” home, 32 people share their lives together. The family spans for generations, from himself, the eldest at 70, to Rita Chaudari, the youngest, his great-granddaughter, still a babe in her mother’s arms.
Keshu has a piercing eagle’s stare, one that cuts you straight through – most likely honed in the dense and wild Bardia jungles of his childhood. I ask how he feels about living with all his family. He says that he could see it as nothing better. Now in his relaxed winter years, his daily task is caring for the family’s 19 buffaloes and three cows, along with the goats and chickens. He handed over responsibility as family-head to his son a few years back.
In We Go
The home (measuring about 30 m long, 8 m high and 11 m wide) sees little sunlight but lots of fresh air – fed through small air holes above ground level, which help to ventilate the home and send cooking smoke outside easily. The first room is large: the full width of the building, and about a fifth of its length. Used as the storeroom for all the family’s rice grown for the year, it is full of colossal mud-built tanks for storage. I turn to the hallway, long, dimly lit, running down the centre of the building. Each side has large rooms, all looking completely bare except for strange bundles hanging from the ceiling. Each family has a room. For example, each of Keshu’s sons has his own room with his wife, children. At night, bundles of bedding are unfolded, and in the morning, they are all rolled back up, keeping the whole place perfectly tidy.
Tharu farmers in Bardia tilling their land
I go back to the hall and, to my astonishment, I notice the walls are actually not walls but compartments for storing more dry goods like lentils, rice and grains for optimal use of space. I enter the last room at the end, about a fifth of the building’s size again, with a small space partitioned to the right behind more storage tanks. The left hand side is where the magic happens... the feeding zone. Here is where one woman is responsible for feeding all the family – three times a day, equaling 96 meals. And, it is all done using just three open fires. I am told of homes further inside the jungle with as many as 90 people living inside them.
The smiles and easy-going nature of the family give a great sense of serenity and togetherness. I ask if they are happy, and the main is response is yes, with lots of, “of course I am, I’m with my family”.
Keshu Chaudari (right) with some of his 32-member family
>The Inner Workings
The Tharu family works on quite a formatted principle. The family-head makes the major decisions and acts as the family accountant. Every rupee earned is given to him. Every rupee spent, comes from him. If even an egg is bought, it is entered into a ledger book maintained with records of every single purchase and earning. Crazy you may think, but it makes sense as nobody actually wants for anything and nothing is wasted. The family-head is open to being replaced or can resign if he so desires. When someone wants to leave the family, what he or she is owed and entitled to is 100% understood, right down to the last rupee and length of timber invested.
If a wife wishes to leave her husband for another, there is no problem as long as outstanding debts, if any, are paid to the rupee with little or no animosity afterwards. If a husband dies, the wife will be offered a family member as a new husband, but she has the right to refuse. If she fancies another man outside of the family, that is also fine. Even more astonishingly, the family-head and a delegation will approach the fancied man and ask if he is interested. If he is, he is welcomed into the family, taking the place of he who is gone. As long as ‘the books are balanced’, one is basically free to do as they wish.
It is believed that in modern times, up to 90% of all Tharu marriages are “love” marriages. Animosity is not in their nature. The wedding itself is seen as an agreement – not just a promise. The wedding ceremony is solemnized by tying the bride and groom’s umbilical cords, kept since their births, together.
Not So Many
In the Bardia region of south-western Nepal, it is hard not to meet a Tharu. Around the National Park, the Tharu population is assumed to be around 52%. A true jungle tribe, their history and lineage is uncertain. Some say they are a pure ethnic Nepali tribe, while others say they are a mix of Rajputs who fled from the Mongol hordes with their Nepali servants. Regardless, they are an integral and a unique part of Nepal’s social fabric.
Long before the anti-malaria formula DEET was invented and sprayed, taming large swathes of Terai jungle, the Tharus were down here, sticking it out; so much so that these people have evolved their own natural immunity to malaria. The Tharus were a hunter/gatherer society, living off the bounty of the jungles. Today, in the early mornings and evenings, groups of women and girls can be seen going to the rivers to fish, spanning the whole width of some with their nets, providing a little taste of what was before.
The kitchen at Keshu Chaudari’s home
There are three tribes of Tharu in the country: the Dagaura Tharu in Bardia, Rana Tharu to the west and Desauri Tharu to the east. Tharus have their own dialect, differing between each tribe. There is no written script, the reason why so little is known about the history of these people. Their religion is predominantly Hindu, but with a few ‘jungle twists’. For example, Vishnu or Ram is referred to as Thakurbaba, or Tharu father. In the home, there is always an ancestral room. Within is offered food, water, incense and other daily items to one’s ancestors. Clay-baked animal motifs like tigers and rhinos are used in place of godly images.
Sadly, times change. Many of the families are starting to build modern brick homes, or go in search of work and better living conditions outside, away from the jungles of their ancestors that are no longer solely theirs. Since the 1970s, many settlers have come down from the hills. More and more families are splitting up and homes dividing. I wonder as I look at Rita Chaudari if her children and great-grandchildren will be raised in the same fashion. But for those who remain, they find great comfort in the unity of their homes and families.
“By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart.”
Pat Kauba is a freelance writer and photographer with a love for the human spirit and its identities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.