“A Kernel of Karnali”


Livelihood Strategies and Seasonal Rhythms in a Changing Nepal Himalaya

by Barry C. Bishop

The University of Chicago 1990

ISBN 0-89065-135-3

Of the 11 poorest countries listed in the World Development Report 1990, seven include countries with sizable mountain territory. The correlation between mountain terrain and economic marginality is reinforced by the regional economic disparity in Nepal where the mountain regions are the poorest in levels of development. Karnali Zone, the subject of the book being reviewed, confirms this Nepal: Atlas of Economic Development (1980) used 40 variables to measure the level of development of 75 districts. The five districts of Karnali Zone had the following ranking: Kalikot, 75; Mugu, 72; Humla, TO; Dolpo, 64; and Jumla, 53.

Karnali under Stress by Barry C. Bishop is all about a frontier region within poor Nepal. Bishop first provides an exhaustive description of the harsh physical environment of the study area. This is followed by a long discussion on historical-cultural processes that perpetuate poverty through exploitation. The succession of masters include the Khasa Malla, Kalyal feudalism, Gorkhali invaders and Rana oligarchy. Then follows substantive chapters on land, livestock and exchange economies as divergent strategies for survival.

Bishop's research approach is comprehensive and reveals interesting facts. Karnali Zone, with the largest territory among Nepal's 14 zones, has the smallest population, since only 1.1 per cent of the total area is said to be arable. Over a fifth of the land surface exceeds 4500m in elevation. Increase in irrigated land during 1868-1968 was 54.9 per cent as compared to a population increase of 159 per cent. The society is predominantly Hindu, where inequality is manifested in the fact that the Brahman/Thakuri, who constitute 32 per cent of the population, own more than half the irrigated land. The occupational Dum castes constitute one-fifth of the Zone's population but own only 8.3 per cent of such land. The Bhotia own no irrigated land but have the highest average number of animals per household.

The distinctive aspect of the study lies in its grasping the seasonal rhythm, be it principal tasks (Table 10), crop calendar (Table 11), animal movement (Table 17), or trade movement (Table 22). The most important items that have to be imported are cloth/garments (43 per cent of imports) and salt (41 per cent). Long-distance trade is also a pressure-valve which relieves population pressure against degenerating resources. Other salient features highlighted by Bishop are the importance of "aspect" — sunny vs. shady or pahara vs. sinyala, comparable to adret vs ubac of the Alps. The book also deals with the Hinduisation process in Karnali as well as the great importance attached to paddy culture in this temperate environment. Bishop reports on the expansion of the Indian market economy even in this remote land.


The discussion does not fully reveal the differences between Tagadhari Chhetri and the Matwali Chhetri, as Bishop lumps most of the economic data under a broad "Chhetri" category. In point of fact, however, the former occupy the wider valleys which grow paddy and are catered to by Brahmans. The Matwalis, on the other hand, are found in the side valleys growing dry crops. They visit the Dhami priest and conduct masta worship. The native Tagadharis used the term "Pawai" to refer derogatorily to Matwali Chhetris.

Bishop also uses pan-Nepali terms for which native equivalents exist. These are jiulo instead of Met, shako for steep slopes, and langna for bhanjyang. He uses composite words for dwellings, whereas the typical house of Jumla, for example, is divided into the gosh (ground floor), ghar (living quarter), thada (first floor roof), and panda (second floor roof).

Bishop also refers to the introduction of apple and the low survival rate of the saplings. Recent developments, however, indicate an apple glut in Jumla due to lack of transportation, a problem that the Canadian-funded Karnali-Bheri Integrated Rural Development (K-BIRD) project has not been able to resolve.

More careful editing would have eliminated errors such as Kashikot (Kaskikot), jamai (janai), Raski (Kaski), Galikot (Galkot), Gilmikot (Gulmikot), Tara (Dara), Madesh (Madhesh), hule (hale), Kalanga (Khalanga), Tharo (Thada), Katorian (Katarniya) and Dori (Dwari). The 1970 population of Karnali Zone should be 203,000 and not 188,000 as shown in one of the figures.

One of the problems of mountain areas is the slow pace of innovation. The Karnali area is no exception. The first potato planted in the Himalaya was in Bhutan in June 1774 by George Bogle. It reach Kumaon in the mid-1850s. In Chaudabise Dana of Karnali, it was introduced in 1889 by Tej Bikram Rana. It thus took 115 years for the potato to traverse 900 km between Bhutan and Karnali. The potato arrived in Tarakot as late as 1906.

 Perhaps the slow pace of innovation in Karnali also affects all those who study it! There has been consistent delay by scholars in the dissemination of information about the region. This writer trekked for four months in Karnali in 1966, and the output was only four chapters in the publication Vignettes of Nepal (1980). James Fisher was in Tarakot during 1968-70, but his book Trans-Himalayan Traders was published only in 1986. Barry Bishop's field data was also collected in 1968-70, but the present book did not emerge till mid-1990.

Not that any dramatic changes have overtaken remote Karnali. The late publication of Bishop's monograph does not greatly affect its relevance. The book is packed with information, including figures, tables and photographs that expand on the text. Truly, Karnali under Stress captures the core issues, the kernel, of Karnali's problems. All persons interested in human ecology and regional geography of the Himalaya will find Bishop's work useful.

Gurung is a writer and freelance consultant.

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