The tarai people are not one faceless group; they are diverse and differentiated.
Much of the tarai society has today become a unique amalgam of hill people and plains people. As in the hills, so too in the plains, there is a great diversity of culture and heritage among the people.
The Maithili Brahmans, Bhumihar Brahmans, the Rajputs and the Kayasthas wear the janai (sacred thread). Their numbers are comparatively small, but they enjoy high status because of their ranking in the Hindu caste system, their education and their property.
The Maithili Brahmans are priests whose lives are filled with rites and rituals. They still engage in their occupation as priests. The Bhumihar Brahmans, in contrast, generally live off the land, though they do not actually till. The Rajputs of the tarai are “Kshetriyas” who wear the janai. The Kayasthas formerly looked after the financial aspects of principalities and estates, but are now found mostly in government service and in professions such as teaching.
The commercial class comes next. In the tarai, they are, among others, the Suni, Teli, Kanoo, Kalwar, Rauniyar, Sonar, Rastogi and Kathbahniya. Though attitudes are changing, many upper caste Brahmans still will not eat with nor touch food “contaminated” by these castes.
Next in the caste hierarchy are the Yadays, Kurmis, Amatyas, Dhanuks, Kewats, Koeerees, and others, who were traditionally farmers, though many are landless labourers now. (The Hindu caste hierarchy is being used purely for descriptive purposes – editors.) The Yadays are the only group found in all the districts, and constitute the single largest group in the region.
The other farmer castes tend to be poor, with many of their women and children working menial jobs. Below them are the skilled occupational castes, such as the Hajam (barber), Lohar (iron monger), Badhaee (carpenter), Mehtat (scavenger), Tatama, Barahee (betel sellers), Mashar (farmer), Dhobi (washer folk), Mallaha (seller of fish), Doli (coolies), Chamar (tanner), Dom (cremators), and others.
Also found in the tarai are castes such as the Marwaris, Agarwals and Khatris — affluent commercial groups who migrated to Nepal from Rajasthan. They are often lumped together descriptively as “Marwaris”. They typically used to sell textile goods, but have recently set up factories on a large scale and own a sizeable share of industry in Nepal.
There is also a significant Muslim population, belonging to groups such as Seikhas, Sunnis, Dhuniaas, Hajams, Dhobis, Pathan and Julahas. Although Islam has no castes, there are differentiations that resemble castes. Untouchability, however, is non-existent and all Muslims worship at the mosque together. Most are poor, with little education, and eke out a living as tailors, masons or butchers.
The Tharus have been recognised as the original tribe of the tarai. There are also other indigenous peoples such as Rajbansi, Danuwar, Bantar and Sautaar, many of whom still live in the forest. Tharus speak dialects related to Maithili, Bhopuri and Aradhi. They are found in all 20 tarai districts. They are not influential or wealthy. They work in the fields, are usually not well-educated and often fall victims to exploitative landlords.
Prasad writes for several Indian publications, including the fortnightly newsmagazine Dinmaan.