The extraction of the Tharu is veiled in the haze of undocumented history. It is true that life is not permanent and history is not destiny, but it is nevertheless useful to ask, Who are the Tharu?
Once upon a time in the remote past when the king of these parts was defeated by the forces of an invader, the women of the royal palace, rather than fall into the hands of foe, fled into the jungles with the Saises and Chamars belonging to the palace. From these sprang the Tharus. R.H. Neville, 1904.
This is the real story of the Tharu: “…four sons and five daughters of King Okamukha of Banares left the kingdom in a huff and moved to Kapil’s Ashram. Kapil allowed them to clear the land and settle there on the condition that the new state be named after him, ‘Kapilvastu’ . The Tharu are their descendants and have spread over the entire length of the Tarai.” Ramanand Prasad Singh, 1982.
People everywhere have an insatiable desire to identify their roots, and the Tharu are no exceptions. They, too,want to know about their tribe’s past travails and triumphs. In response, many theories have come up to shed light on the early history of Tharus. It has, however, been a difficult task, for semi-nomadic peoples leave few tracks behind: maybe some coins, some pottery shards.
When studying the history of great civilisations, we can fall back upon written texts and contemporary writings. Unfortunately, it is not so with the Tharu, in whose case we have had to remain content with analysing tidbits of information located at random. Archaeologists have a hard time looking for clues: thatch-covered bamboo and mud structures leave no trace when abandoned. They literally revert back to earth.
Some of the theories that are put forth are based on word-of-mouth recitals by old tribesmen, a type of oral history which certainly cannot be overlooked and needs to find its proper place in search of Tharu history. Other sources can be found in the early writings, often by British explorers or civil servants. Some are of recent origin, based on more current evaluations by scholars.
Besides R.H. Neville and Ramanand Prasad Singh, many more legends can be found in references by others. In the Census of India (1961), R.C. Sharma quotes Tharus in the village of Rajderwa (northeast of Lucknow, just by the Nepal border) claiming to be Rajputs who had migrated from Dang, “but their features are Mongoloid”. Writes Sharma, “The Tharu are a jungle tribe. According to some, the word Tharu is derived from the Hindi word ‘Thahrey’, halted, because they are said to have halted after the alleged flight into the forest… The origin is also traced to the Hindi word ‘tarhua’, wet, an allusion to the swampy land they live in…Some say the name simply means ‘resident of the tarai”‘.
J.C. Nesfield wrote in the Calcutta Review (1885): “The origin is the word ‘thar’, which in the lowest colloquial language (but not in books) signifies ‘a man of the forest’, a name which correctly describes the status of the tribe, considering the name as sprung from the language of the tribe itself, which is now for the most part obsolete. An aboriginal name derived from Sanskrit is the fit appellative of an aboriginal, casteless, un-Brahmanized tribe whose customs have been only slightly modified by contact with those of the Aryan invaders.”
Nesfield continues, “Another tradition is that after the fall of the Buddhist dynasty of Kannauj, the Tharu descended from the hills and occupied Ayodhya (only to be driven out by Raja Sri Chandra from Srinagar).”
In his book Eastern India, Buchnan refuted the often-heard claim that Tharus are descendants of Rajputs who were evicted from Rajasthan by Moslem invaders. “No Moslem historian has made the slightest allusion to the Tharus in connection with these events (expulsion by Moslems). The fiction of having migrated from Rajputana into the Tarai, therefore, must have been invented by some of the clans merely to raise themselves in their own and their neighbour’s estimation.”
An analysis, titled “The Tharus and Their Blood Group”, is found in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal (1942). The writer, D.N. Majumdar, found that the Tharu are definitely a Mongoloid tribe. “They cannot be placed in any other constellation of tribes and castes of the Province, Indo-Aryan or Australoid. Also the Rajput origin is not supported on the basis of serology. Thus it is concluded, on the basis of the evidence, that the Tharus are a Mongoloid people, or predominantly so, who have successfully assimilated non-Mongoloid physical features as well.”
As we wish, therefore, we can accept that the Tharu are a Mongoloid tribe which has assimilated non-Mongoloid features—or that they are of Aryan background and have incorporated Mongoloid features. Incidentally, Majumdar is the only researcher who begins to use scientific tools to answer our question, tools available in 1942. Today, far more advanced techniques are available, such as research based on comparative DNA studies.
Push and Pull
Having travelled the Nepal tarai east to west, from the banks of the Mechi to those of the Mahakali, over the last two years, visiting about 150 Tharu villages, this writer was impressed not only with the richness of Tharu culture, but the extraordinary diversity found amongst all these people who are called ‘Tharu’. Indeed, it is a whole lot easier to see the differences between the various Tharu cultures than it is to find similarities.
This, then, immediately begs the question: are they really one tribe or are they several tribes brought together over a thousands years or more by common fate? Let us set free our memory and let it roam through history and recall in our mind’s eye Tharus as we have encountered them and postulate these thoughts:
The ‘Forest People’ are comprised of more than one tribe and they may well have come from many regions at different times, thus contributing to the diversity of culture, facial features and customs found in today’s population; the environment then moulded them over a very long period of time into a special group of people, the Tharu, a people who, therefore, not surprisingly, are comprised of many sub-groups, such as the Rana, Dangaura, Kochila and others.
And suddenly it all comes together… There are many events in the history of human behaviour which help us understand this set of circumstances. Most indigenous people around the world, when faced with similar circumstances, when in a similar environment, develop parallel lifestyles and cultures. Thus, when the ancestors of the Tharu moved into the forests of the tarai region at different times, coming from different places, this adjustment process began to take place.
Forest dwellers all around the world become skilled hunters and gatherers, and build houses out of available materials such as trees, branches, grass. When living conditions change for the worse, people move to new locations, and when settled in the new environment, they often also adopt some of the ways of their new neighbours, for the sake of social acceptance as well as to add new spiritual powers to their own lives. These new deities just might prevent a repetition of the tragedies that made them migrate in the first place. To assure good karma, they also keep alive many of the mythologies and beliefs that they grew up with, the beliefs of their parents and grand-parents, and of their guthiar clansmen.
This, then, is a straightforward explanation for the differences found in the belief systems and practices among the Tharu across the Nepal tarai. And why did various groups move into the forest in the first place? History the world over shows that people pull up the stakes for many different reasons: the search for fresh fertile land; to escape violence, destruction and war; a prolonged drought; overpopulation…In response to these push and pull factors, some people migrate voluntarily, others involuntarily.
Jungle to Concrete
The Tharu appear to have had a very mobile past, which is also evident in population movements of recent times. Fatehnagar in Bake district is one such example. In 1972, an entire village left the inner tarai valley of Dang to settle under better conditions in the tarai plains. Others moved westward to Kanchanpur, Kailali and Bardiya. There are also movements within the same region, such as in Deukhuri, where a whole village decided that it could only escape from under the yoke of a heavy-handed landlord by moving to virgin territory and rebuilding their village.
Over the course of the last two generations, many Tharu from Saptari moved to Sunsari, Morang and Udayapur. And lately, there has been a mass movement to Kathmandu in response to overpopulation, underemployment in the farm, and economic opportunities in the Valley, particularly in construction. Over the last five years, Tharus have replaced hill people and Indians in 12 of the major construction sites, making up to 50 percent of the workforce in these sites. They are highly valued by supervisors for their diligence and ability to work with their hands.
One more example of mobility in pursuit of a better life—these peoples of the Tarai forests found in Kathmandu’s jungle of concrete, cement and brick.
The Dark People
After the Aryan invasion destroy0 the Indus civilisation, one verse in the Rig Veda states, “Through fear of you the dark people went away, not giving battle, leaving behind their possessions, when, 0 Vaisvanara, burning brightly for Puru, and destroying the cities, you did shine.” And in another context it is written, “The people to whom these ruined sites, lacking posts, formerly belonged, these many settlements widely distributed, they, 0 Vais-vanara, having been expelled by thee, have migrated to another land.”
Did Ashoka’s empire-building affect the corn-position of the people of the tarai, and did it lead to shifting of populations? How much damage did the Huna warlords do when they terrorised western India, and was there a flight towards he east and north? What was the status of the indi¬genous population of the tarai during the rule of the Guptas in Uttar Pradesh, Bihatr and Bengal, circa 400 AD? Likewise, how many Tibetans and the Han moved into Nepal around 700 AD? Did Mongolian tribes indeed enter the tarai around 1200 AD, coming along the southern Himalayan foothills all the way from Assam? And how about the Sultanate of Delhi and Babur, and did they have a role in changing the population mix of the faraway tarai region? What, indeed, of the Dravidians?
So many questions, so much uncertainty, so few records, so many possibilities.
The ‘Forest People’ came from many regions at different times to seek the peace and shelter of the jungle; the environment then moulded them, over a very long period of time, into groups of special people, all of them called the Tharu.