“We are from Tistung,” says Mina Maharjan, chairper son of the Makwanpur Ethnological Studies Group. Her office is in Bajrabarahi of Tistung and presently they are focusing on a study of the Gopalis. Hey wait a minute, you might say, what’s all this about: Tistung and Gopalis? Where’s Tistung anyway? And, never heard of Gopalis either.
‘Tistung’ (also known as Tistung Deurali – the adjunctive meaning a ‘resting place’) sounds a bit strange now, but at the same time somewhat familiar as well. Could it be the same place that I and thousands of others used to eat our piping hot dal-bhat once upon a time on the way to Kathmandu? Long forgotten memories come flooding back – memories of riding atop a crowded bus with the chilled and refreshing air keeping senses alive while the old fashioned vehicle lumbered its way up the narrow, steep and winding roads. Passing Palung, Daman, Simbhanjyang on the way – pretty familiar names at the time – then gliding down into a beautiful verdant valley called Tistung. It used to be one of the villages where we stopped to have lunch and rejuvenate ourselves for still more adventures ahead on the old road from Hetauda to the capital. The ride then was a romantic one, and without doubt, adventurous. But in 1974 the more efficient Prithvi Highway was completed and the old warhorse, the Tribhuvan Rajpath (until then the only road to Kathmandu) became abruptly redundant. Along with it, Tistung and its sister villages lost their sparkle.
But not for long. The villages, while losing much of their march towards urbanity, began instead to regain their lost vitality. In a sense, it was not a lost cause, but rather a welcome outcome. And Tistung as it stands today, an idyllic village of brick houses with sloping tiled roofs nestled in a lush green valley and surrounded on all sides by fertile fields, is indeed a most favorable outcome. Situated just 50 km from the capital, the drive to Tistung is a delight: undeniably scenic, certainly dramatic. And, if the journey can be as exciting as the destination, Tistung doesn’t disappoint.
How to get there
The historical Tribhuvan Highway starts from Kalanki in Kathmandu, and it is only in Naubise, 27 km down the line, that another road, the Prthivi Highway, goes west towards Mugling, then on to Pokhara or south to Narayanghat, and so on. The old Tribhuvan Highway, in the meanwhile, carries onwards and upwards through dipping valleys and high hills to Tistung and her sister villages, before sloping down gently from Lamidanda to Bhainse and Hetauda, a distance of 132 km from Kathmandu. On the way, one notices alterations in the botanical landscape; along with the changes in altitude, pine trees giving way to rhododendron forest, jungle, and terraced fields. It is a wonderful route for the adventurous to try out their road riding skills (bike, cycle, car, bus) and of course, their courage and stamina. The ‘nau ghumti’, a spiraling series of nine hairpin bends some one hour and a half before reaching Tistung, can challenge even the bravest and the ablest.
But no matter what mode one uses to travel on this spectacular highway, the first sight of lovely Tistung will be enough to gladden the most fatigued heart and rejuvenate the weariest body. It is often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but as a writer I’ve never given it much weight. The beauty of Tistung, however, forces me to look at the axiom in a new light. Words alone at times are not adequate to describe some things; in this instance, the promise of absolute serenity that a lovely village like Tistung imparts. The rich green fields, the gently sloping hills, the harmonious symmetry of the traditionally designed houses and the pleasant weather all year round makes Tistung something of an Eden. For these attributes alone, it is a worthy destination to visit and spend some time in. But, as they say, a place is either made or broken by the nature of its inhabitants. In this too, Tistung excels. And how!
The village, like other Nepalese villages, has nine wards; nothing extraordinary in that. What is unusual, and perhaps unique, is that three of the wards (2, 6 and 7) are, according to Pramod Joshi, Vice Chairman of Tistung Bajrabarahi Tourism Development Promotion Committee, populated almost completely by Gopalis. They are also found in good numbers in the nearby villages of Bajrabarahi, Chitlang and Palung, all in Makwanpur District. Which brings us back to the original question: who are the Gopalis? To cut a long story short, the first rulers of Nepal (in those days, Kathmandu Valley and thereabouts) are believed to have been from the GopaIi Dynasty. Pashupati Neupane, a lecturer in the Department of Nepalese History, Culture and Archaeology of Tribhuvan University, is a bit ambiguous on this point, “Nepal’s earliest recorded history begins only from the Kirat period (800 BC to 300 AD) so one cannot be sure. As far as this village is concerned, ‘Tistung’ itself is a Kirati name, so it is possible that it was named by them.” Other historians, however, are convinced and cite historical evidence to show that indeed, the Gopalis were the first rulers of the country. Some have also theorized that Nepal could have been named after the earlier name (Nep) of this ethnic group.
Be that as it may, the remnants of a fortified embankment on a high point, of which one single building still remains standing, points to the presence of a ruler who lived in Tistung in ancient times. Although no real excavations have been done at the site so far, one can discern that a moat must have surrounded the fortifications. According to an observer, “They say that most of the houses here (around 1400 of them) made use of the mass of bricks secured from the site.” Ekaram Singh of the Folklore Society (its office is in Tangal, Kathmandu), is keen about reviving Tistung’s history and Gopali folklore. His enthusiasm has led him to prepare and distribute a visionary drawing model of the fort and its surroundings with a heading that questions, “How will it be if this happens?” Now, whether the fort was occupied by a Gopali king or not is not clear, but the fact that almost 2,000 Gopalis live as a close community in Tistung is proof enough that they must have been the primary dwellers.
Facts, History and Heritage
It has to be stressed here that it is not usual to find someone with the surname ‘Gopali’ around the country. I have traveled throughout and, truth to tell, have never encountered any. So, this concentration of what appears to be an exceptional clan at one place is something that is genuinely extraordinary and a heritage to be proud of. An historical fact that needs to be propagated and showcased to the world. The Gopalis, as their name suggests (at least to those who know something about Hinduism), most likely derived their name from the god Krishna, who is also known as Gopal. They were probably cowherds and according to Pramod Joshi, who lives in Tistung, almost all of them have some livestock including cows and buffaloes, tethered near their homes. They also have some things in common with the people of Bhaktapur. Some of the women can be seen dressed up in the traditional attire of Bhaktapur women, the red and black colored haku patashi. Joshi says, “The Gopali women weave their own clothes and the clan has its own guthi (a body to run communal affairs and cultural activities) with five thakalis (elders) to ensure the continuation of their traditions.” Mina Maharjan and her Makwanpur Ethnological Studies Group certainly have a responsibility to live up to: the proper study of this ancient clan.
Most of the locals are involved in farming and are, for the most part, vegetable farmers. And, going by the rates vegetables are bringing in nowadays, they seem to be on to a good thing. Tistung has around 8,000 inhabitants today and there are a couple of schools as well. In one of the schools, a tablet has been discovered with some ancient Lichavi period inscriptions. This, and another one found somewhere else, are supposed to be from the 6th century AD. Tistung indisputably has an ancient history and one can be thankful that it still remains for all practical purposes, a picturesque and traditional Nepalese village retaining its characteristic historical charms. One of them is its distinctive festivals. The Bajrabarahi (a tantric goddess) festival is held once every three years on a Saturday nearest to Chandi Purnima, the full moon of May (close to Buddha Jayanti, Buddha’s Birthday). A festival known as Bajrabarahi ko Naach (the Dance of Bajrabarahi) is held once every 12 years. Explaining its unique aspect, Pramod Joshi says, “One of the purposes of this event is to prepare a new dhami (shaman). Unlike other dhamis however, his duty will be solely to conduct religious affairs of the village.”
Tistung is among the loveliest among its neighboring sisters, each of which has its own fair attributes. Every winter, people from Kathmandu rush to Simbhanjyang (2450m), 22 kilometers from Tistung, to experience the delights of snowfall. Daman, with its tall view tower, - is ideally placed to gaze at the mighty Himalayan peaks all around -, is 20 km away, and Palung, famous for its nutritious potatoes, is at a distance of just 10 km. There’s a hiking trail from Tistung to Markhu and on to Daman, the two hour trek going along the cool waters of the Kulekhani River and around the Kulekhani Dam reservoir. Tistung is pretty, has beautiful weather, is ensconced in natural beauty, and has a unique culture and heritage not found elsewhere. The adjacent attractions are added incentive. But the proximity to the capital certainly has an influence on the younger lot and this is why the need is being felt to preserve the lovely village against the ills of urbanization. The time has come again for Tistung to regain its lost glory. And this time, it should not be only for their dal-bhat that Tistung should be a stop over. It must be for much more – the beauty of its location, the magnificence of its natural environment, the hospitality of its people, the uniqueness of its culture and its great heritage.