For too long, the lowlanders of Nepal have neglected and denigrated them as unkempt “Bhoteys”. The cultural and economic distress of Humla’s Tibetan-speakers is fed by the ignorance and disinterest in Kathmandu.
Other than the Drukpas of Bhutan, the Tibetan-speaking inhabitants of the High Himalaya comprise ethnic minorities which are invariably persecuted within their respective countries. In Nepal, there is overt prejudice against the “Bhotey“, inhabitants of the Himalayan rimland. They have always been treated as second-class citizens by the Rongba (or Monba), the low hill people who are closer to the epicentre of power.
Fleeing political and religious persecution in Tibet during different periods of history, the ancestors of the Nepali Tibetan-speakers found refuge in Himalayan sanctuaries. These historical migrants brought their lamas, religion and customs with them. Isolated from South Asian cultural influence by rugged geography, from Olangchung Gola in eastern Nepal to Dolpo, Mugu and Humla in the west, they tenaciously held on to traditions and lifestyles, which have remained practically intact to the present day.
This cultural resilience of Nepal’s Tibetan-speakers, however, is now being affected by economic and geo-political forces beyond their grasp. They are now more exposed to the push and pull of external interests than before. Over the last couple of years, due to the opening up of remote areas, their valleys have suddenly gained a high touristic profile. But Kathmandu’s policy-makers seem not to know that most of the northern peoples have historically survived on trade and transhumance. On both counts, this ignorance has hit the Nepali Tibetan-speakers hard.
The Tibetan-speakers’ low profile may be explained by the confusion regarding their identity vis-a-vis the other hill ethnic groups of Nepal. Besides, there is enormous diversity among the Tibetan-speakers themselves, even though they might share the same root language, religious beliefs and cultural traditions.
In order to do away with the prevailing confusion and to clarify the status of the Tibetan-speakers within Nepal, it is important to categorise the population groups of the High Himalaya. One clear distinction that can be made is between those who arrived after the advent in Tibet of the sage Padmasambhava (who led the movement away from Bon and towards Lamaism), and those that migrated prior to him (see chart on page 18).
The pre-Padmasambhava migrants make up today’s Tibeto-Burman groups such as the Rai, Limbu, Magar, Byanspa (Byansi), and so on. Each of these groups have distinct cultural heritage and rituals, which are based more on the indigenous Bon and shamanistic beliefs rarely found within Tibet proper today. The Gurung and Tamang may also be brought under this category although they practise Bonism as well as Lamaism.
Those who arrived post-Padmasambhava may be divided into one category which uses Tibetan dialects and follows Lamaism and reformed Bon, and another category of ‘full Tibetan-speakers’, which practices ‘pure’ Tibetan Buddhism. Both these categories may be referred to as ‘Tibetan-speakers’.
As is the case with the Tibeto-Burman groups, there developed a great diversity among the Tibetan-speakers due to the extremes of geography. The tiny population of Manang alone has three groups, the Nishyang Tshosum, GyalSum Tag, and Narphu. Humla has five distinct communities of Tibetan-speakers: the Nyinba, Tsangba, Tukchualungpa, Yultshodunpa and Limya. There are also the Mugumpa and Karmapa of Mugu District, the Dolpowa and Tishirongpa of Dolpa, the Loba of Mustang, the Chumba and Nubri of Gorkha, the Sherpa of Khumbu and Rolwaling, the Holungpa from Olangchung Gola, and so on.
There are numerous cultural and ritualistic distinctions between the various groups, and more pronounced differences between the dialect-speakers and Tibetan language-speakers. Even within one area, there may be many identities based on geography and culture. The phuru is a wooden tea-bowl whose use often indicates kinship and status. The Tibetan dialect-speakers tend to be stricter than the Tibetan language-speakers when it conies to sharing the phuru with diose who are not part of a kinship group. The saying Bhod kha chig, Mon lui chig (“The Tibetan does not mind sharing a cup, whereas the Khasa do not mind sharing clothes”) emanates from the northern-most regions of Nepal, where the Tibetan language-speakers dominate.
“Tshewang” to “Chhakka”
In order to distinguish between the Tibetans of Tibet and the Tibetan-speaking people of Nepal, Jang Bahadur Rana conferred the caste of ‘Tamang’ to all Nepali Tibetan-speakers, even though they had little in common with the Tamang ethnic group that inhabits Central Nepal. This was how the Tibetan-speakers were brought under Hindu definitions — and became members of the ‘Lama caste’.
The Tibetan-speakers were prohibited from eating buff or beef, under pain of being declared untouchable. While the isolated hamlets were left untouched, many groups which were exposed to southern influence slowly gave up their mother tongue, considered the language of the cow-eater. Many Tibetan-speakers that inhabited the lower hills gave up their cultural heritage and took up the Hindu way of life.
In Humla District, the people from the villages of Barain, Buwa, Kallasa, Kuti, Puma and Nepka have given up their Tibetan culture. Other than the Nepka, who write their ethnicity as Tamang, all the others assert that they are Budha, or Matwali Chhetris (alcohol drinking Chhetris). Up to three or four generations ago, these people spoke Tibetan. Like the original Matwali Chhetris, they now practise a faith which is an amalgam of shamanistic beliefs and Hinduism.
While the Rana period brought them the caste stratification, the bulk of the Tibetan-speaking population remained aloof from the South and in closer contact with cultural centres in Tibet. It was during the Panchayat reign that, in the name of national integration, King Mahendra pushed Hinduism deep into the northern belt. One method was by opening up primary schools, called the “Mahendra Jana Jagriti Pathshala”. The aim was more political than educational, which was why these schools were placed directly under the Zonal Commissioner and the Central District Officer rather than in the hands of die District Education Officer.
These schools were specifically meant for the Tibetan-speaking Nepalis, and in Tibetan educational system, they taught the Khasa Hindu way of life.
Invariably, the Monba teachers re-christened their pupils, discarding their Tibetan names and giving them Nepali ones. I was one of the boys who went to the Mahendra Jana Jagriti Pathsala in my village of Todpa. In the year 1965, my teacher Sita Ram Paudyal changed my own name from the original “Tshewang”, given by the village lama, to “Chhakka Bahadur”.
(Place names of Humla got gradually changed as well: Todpa is now Torpa, Tangshod is Burangse, Bharkhang is Baragaon, and the Nyinba are the Barthapale.)
While national integration is essential and teaching Nepali crucial as a link language, King Mahendra and subsequent rulers have failed to consider the culture and values of the northern ethnic populations. The Hindu-based nationalism that still permeates the mainstream consciousness has been difficult for the ethnic Tibetan peoples to embrace. How is it possible for Tibetan-speakers of the Buddhist and Bon faiths to maintain their sense of identity within the perimeters of a nationalism, which, as one writer in Himal described recently, comprises “the Nepali language, popular hill Hinduism, and the institution of monarchy”?
The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 proved to be a bonanza for some businessmen of Humla and Darchula, whose trade volume increased dramatically. Following the 1962 conflict, the Chinese closed the trading bazaars on the Indian border, one of the biggest of which was Gyanima Mandi, north of Kumaon. Instead, a few centralised marts were developed adjacent to the Nepali border, including one in Taklakot adjacent to Humla.
With the changing world situation, China and India have normalised relations and decided to resume trade from several points in the Western Himalaya. After these high passes are fully opened, it is likely that trade across the Humla border will dwindle down to the carriage of a few foreign readymade goods.
While some traders of Humla might have benefited economically from the Sino-Indian conflict, however, in other spheres the population of Humla as a whole was coming under severe pressure, having to do with changes in legal regimes, environmental stress, and shifting relationships with the low hill population.
During the Rana regime, Himalayan caravans had the right to graze their sheep and goats in the forest of the various areas that they passed through in the course of transhumance. This right was afforded them by sanad. However, the growth of population in the lower hills and the changed forest policies have disrupted this all-important facility that has been historically available to the people of Humla. In recent years, the low hill villages are forcing the caravans to pay grazing tax, something unheard of earlier.
Centralised decision-making in Kathmandu has hurt the Tibetan-speakers in more ways than one. Due to customs policy, which regards Tibet as a third country, the local Tibetan-speakers have lost the benefit of free trade. The Government has imported Indian salt for distribution in the hilly regions, which has deprived the Himalayan traders of a large segment of their trade. There exists a fund for pasture development in the northern belt, but it has been eaten away by corrupt officials and there is little to show for years of work.
The Government has not been able to negotiate a fair deal with the Chinese with regard to traditional pasture lands which fall within Tibet, China argues that Nepal’s borderland peoples can no longer rely on a resource that doesnot lie within their country’s boundaries. The Kathmandu authorities have agreed that the people of Limi, for example, must reduce their livestock by 1000 head per year, until they have no stock left to graze in Tibet after a five-year period.
This has been done in disregard of centuries of traditional use. The Chinese authorities insist that Nepalis must find another form of livelihood for the people in these areas. But this is expecting too much from the authorities of Nepal, who do not have a long term policy with regard to the inhabitants of the northern Himalayan belt. They might be buffeted by economic and social forces, but due to ignorance and lack of sensitivity little is done to provide support.
In India, there are reservations in education and civil service to try and uplift culturally threatened communities. Nothing like this is contemplated in Nepal, which means that the lifestyles and culture of Nepal’s Tibetan speakers are threatened and could ultimately be extinguished.
Some Kathmandu scholars seem to believe that it is important for Nepal’s diverse ethnic groups to maintain their local customs while donning the garb of nationalism. They argue that nothing less than full integration with the national economy will ultimately bind them to the country.
Like their ancestors who arrived seeking refuge in the hidden valleys of the Himalaya, the Tibetan-speakers of Nepal now seek the assistance of the Nepali Government to compassionately act on the problems faced by citizens of the highland districts, throw away outdated concepts of caste and ethnicity, and to embrace the Tibetan-speaking citizens of Nepal as true members of Nepal´s diverse ethnic family.
Tibetans and Tibeto-Burmans of Nepal
|Full Tibetan Speaker||Highlander||Tibetan Buddhism||Limya, Yultshodunpa,
|Tibetan Dialect Speaker (or Old Tibetan)||Semi-Highlander||Lamaism
|Tibeto-Burman||Low Hill People||Shamanism
|Tibeto-Burman||Low Hill People||Shamanism
|Rai, Limbu, Magar,
Lama is a social researcher who is presently member (under the name Chhakka Bahadur Lama) of the Nepali Parliament representing Humla.