The Tharus could not have hid out in the jungle for aeons waiting to be discovered during the malaria eradication campaign of the 1950s. They must have a history of their own.
Henry Ambrose Oldfield, in his book Sketches from Nepal, describes the Tharu of the Nepal Tarai as “a puny, badly developed and miserable-looking race, and probably belonging to the same original stock as the natives of the adjacent Plains of India.”
Apart from the extreme cultural bias of this description, the belittling terminology was not borne out even in Oldfield’s day, when the robust forest-dwelling Tharus were described by another contemporary book as being “chiefly employed in the difficult and dangerous task of catching wild elephants”. And a population group that haddefied mighty malaria itself could hardly have been “badly developed”.
As for Thant origins, rather than his perfunctory hypothesis, Oldfield might have delved into the possibility that the Tharu have Mongolian blood, but he probably was not interested.
Unfortunately, things have hardly changed since Oldfield’s days, and successive British writers and historians, as well as the subsequent South Asian scholars have, by and large, shown similar weaknesses with regard to the Tharu society and its history. As one of the most disenfranchised groups of the Ganga basin, it is perhaps natural that this should happen to the Tharus.
What were the Tharus doing in the malarial jungles and how did they get there? No social scientist has yet felt a need to study history of the Thant s in depth. They make up an invisible community which makes an appearance only when it suits the interests of the mainstream historians. In the case of Nepal, such a time arrived when malaria eradication finally cleared the jungles and it was imperative to say something about the resilient population of this region.
Even so, the interest of modern historians of Nepal and India seems limited to brief sympathetic mention of Tharus as an exploited population group, and how they hav e resilience against malaria. Some bizarre theories are also propounded as to the Tharu’s origin. When they finally find the time to delve into the Tharus’ past, researchers will find that they have not been faceless in history, and have in fact been active participants in the happenings of the Himalayan region and adjacent plains.
For example, there existmany lalmahars (land grant documents) awarded by the kings of Palpa, Makwanpur and Nepal Valley to Tharus for their bravery, “extraordinary sense of duty”, or other reasons. Such documents can be found from Morang district all the way west to Kanchanpur. There are lalmohars from the kings of Kathmandu and Palpa which grant full enjoyment of Tharus to Tarai lands (except the tithe) if they are able to control the wild animals and the spirits of the jungles.
Mahesh Chandra Regmi, the economic historian, in his book Landownership in Nepal during the Nineteenth Century seeks to prove that the Tarai lands belonged to the Thakuris, Ranas and Bahuns. While this is doubtless partly true, it must be remembered that, at best, the hill people came down for three months in mid-winter, and were gone by the end of February. They did not know what the Tharus produced in their lands, and were content to let the Tharus be the defacto landowners.
Thus, the Tharus were the masters of much of the Tarai lands, but there are numerous lalmohars to prove that they also had de jure title over vast tracts. For instance, one such lalmohar sanctions land in today’s Parsa district south of Kathmandu in favour of the family of Darpnarayan Garwar Tharu, for “gallantry” shown in a war between Makwanpur and southern marauders. There are many such lalmohars available for other parts of the Tarai as well.
The very fact of the linear habitation of Nepal through the length of Nepal’s Tarai tends to prove that they spread out and inhabited this expanse over a long historical period. Unfortunately, we know little about this period. The priests and nobles of India and Nepali have always worked well together When the question at issue does not touch upon their rival claims upon one another. When it comes to the Tharus, therefore, these groups have Sound it mutually convenient to relegate the Tharus to a historical corner, the implication being that these are barbarians with no history.
An attempt to write the social history of the Tharus is problematic, and credit goes to anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista for at least having made a start in People of Nepal (HMG Nepal, 1967). But other historians are satisfied with fanciful notions about Thanu origins that do injustice to the community.
With no evidence to support the contention, some have claimed that the Tharus are descended from those that fled from the Thar Desert in Rajasthan during the attack of Allauddin Khilji in the 12th century and Emperor Akbar in the 16th century. Baburam Acharya, a Nepali historian of stature, has accepted this thesis and stated that many Rajput soldiers were killed by Akbar’s forces and that the women of those soldiers fled to the jungles of Nepal with their servants. The Tharus are supposed to be the progeny of these mistresses and their servants.
Some innocent/crafty modern-day Tharus have taken satisfaction in this explanation, possibly because it links the community to the glorious Rajputs of Rajasthan. The reason the Tharus lost the sacred thread, it is reasoned, is because they gaveup warfare and adopted agriculture. (That perhaps they were not originally Hindus is indicated from an order that was issued to enforce the Muluki Ain (1854) among Tharus who lived between Morang and Dang-Deokhuri. Among other things, the order decrees that Tharus are not to eat pork or drink liquor, and that males are not to marry maternal cousin sisters).
Rajasthan lies to the south and west of Delhi, which was the seat of the Muslim kings and emperors. Why would the bevy of doubtlessly brave Rajput ladies insist on travelling through Mughal territory to end up in the jungles of the lower Himalaya when they could have fled easily southwards to the hills of the Satpura and Vindhya ranges?
A theory propounded by Iswor Baral, presently the Vice Chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy, seems more plausible than the ‘flight from Rajasthan’ myth. Baral, who grew up among the Tharus and knows the community well, is of the view that the Tharus are descended from a community that was persecuted and banished northwards during the expansion of the Vajjii Republic. According to the Buddhist scholar Ashwagosa, this was a flourishing state during the Sakyamuni’s time. From geographical history, we know that the Vajjii territory incorporated Champaran, Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga districts in present-day Bihar.
This would explain why, as Baral theorises, the Tharus call all non-Tharu population to the south by the name “Vajiya”. This term has now even entered the Nepali language, “bajiya” meaning “uncouth”. This theory must, of course, stand the rigours of academic reasoning, which will probably happen when more scholars take an interest in Tharu history.
Sakya of Lumbini
The Tharus certainly were not a community that hid out in the forest for eons waiting to be discovered during the malaria eradication campaign of the 1960s. Serious work on their antiquity would probably reveal interesting linkages with the main stream of South Asian history. Could it be, for example, that the Sakyamuni Buddha was a Tharu?
The first and foremost principle laid down by the Buddha has been named Theravada. But according to its Pali rendition, it is Theragatha, that is, the story of the Tharu. It is thought by some that the Sakyamuni modelled the organisation of his sangha on a community such as his own. It is significant that the Sakya seem not to have the Varna system, and they were isolated to the extent that they were self-governing and their polity was of a form not envisaged in Brahminical theory.
The fact that the Sakyamuni’s birthplace in Lumbini is still in the midst of a Tharu settled area might be one indication that they are the original inhabitants of this area. A. Fuhrer, who discovered the Lumbini site, was himself of the view that Tharus are the descendants of the Sakyas, though he was unable to prove his case.
Excavations done at Tilaurakot, the site of the palace of the Sakyamuni’s father King Suddhodhana, have brought up some 3rd century artifacts (contemporary to the Vajjii) that deserve further study. Some of the bricks are stamped with the octoradii circle, which is the mark of the “turning of the wheel of the law” throughout the Buddhist world of Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and also in the Ashokan inscriptions. Another stamp bears the mark of the trisul. On the wails of the thatched huts of the Tharus today, one finds frescos that carry identical marks of the octoradii circle and trisul.
As followers of the Buddha, were the Tharus persecuted by the Brahminical forces, and is this why they were forced into the forests, where the 20th century finally found them? As one scholar wrote in 1896, “The clan and the disciples of Buddha were so ruthlessly persecuted that all were either slain, exiled or made to change their faith. There is scarcely a case on record where a religious persecution was so successfully carried out as that by which Buddhism was driven out of its place of birth.”
Taking this line of thought a step further, it is probable that as the Tharus fled persecution they not only entered the Tarai jungle but that some also tied further north to the Valley of Kathmandu. There are several unanswered questions in the history of the Valley that could perhaps be explained if the Tharu element were to be introduced.
Of Manadeva, said to be the founder of the Licchhavi dynasty (464 AD), there is no suggestion that he was a Licchhavi. It was only 126 years later that leis descendant Sivadeva I laid claim to Licchhavi lineage. And it is Sivadeva who had a charter inscribed in stone to the people of Tharu Drang (Tharu Village), which is the present-day village of Chapagaon in Lalitpur District. The inscription, which is to be found in Chapagaon today, reduces the tax to the people of Tharu Drang on different kinds of fish. Tharus, it need hardly be stated, are fish lovers to this day.
Historians Dilli Raman Regmi and Dhana Bajra Bajracharya went to great lengths to try and identify the different kinds of fish that are named in the inscription, such as Kastika, Mukta, Bhukundika and Rajagraba. Despite complicated semantic analysis, they failed to identify these alien names. A Tharu would have told them that Kastika is a fish that can be bought even today in the Indra Chowk market. The standard name of this fish is Gainchi, but in colloquial usage it is sometimes known as Kastika, a term which indicates that the fish does not spoil as easily as other fish.
They were unable to identify a fish named Bhukundika, because, again a Tharu would have told them, Bhukundika is not a fish. It is instead a clam-type slug which is found abundantly in Kathmandu Valley but shunned by the local population. Today, the Tharus who live in Kathmandu savour the slugs as a delicacy, although today they know it as Doka.
And what does the similarities of the Jyapu caste of Kathmandu Valley and the Tharu say of the origins of either group? The Jyapus use the kharpan, balancing two loads on a bamboo pole, as do the Thant, who call their implement the baihinga. No other Valley community uses it but the Jyapu. Both Tharus and Jyapus relish beaten rice (chiura to the Valley dwellers, also to Thaws). Jyapu and Tharu women use the okhal and musalo to beat rice, but this is not the case with the neighbouring communities of the Valley or Tarai. Jyapu women tattoo their upper heels, exactly as the Tharu women do.
Who are the Tharus, where do they come from, and what light can their history shed on the past of the Himalaya and South Asia as a whole? Some historical interest in the Tharus by scholars of today will shed some light on numerous nooks and crannies of the past. We will then gain better understanding about so many issues, from the days of the Sakyamuni, to the spread of populations along the Ganga and Tarai belt of today’s India and Nepal, the populating of the Kathmandu Valley, and the reasons behind the backwardness of Tharus today. And with such understanding, hopefully, there will develop a greater appreciation of Tharu culture, which in turn will finally work to eliminate the social and political discrimination that this community faces in Nepal today.
T.N. Panjiar works in the National Planning Commission of Nepal.