Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Terai in southern Nepal and northern India. 

The word Tharu is said to have originated from followers of Theravada Buddhism. The Tharu people in the central Nepali Terai see themselves as the original people of the land and descendants of Gautama Buddha. Rana Tharu people of western Nepal connect the name to the Thar Desert and understand themselves as descendants of Rajputs who migrated to the forests in the 16th century running from Muslim invasion. It is also possible that the name is derived from the classical Tibetan words mtha’-ru’i brgyud, meaning the ‘country at the border’, which the Tibetan scholar Taranatha used in the 16th century in his book on the history of Buddhism.

Tharu 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Tharu claim their origins from him

Origins of Tharu:

According to Islamic Persian Polymath Al-Biruni, Tharu people have lived in the eastern Terai since at least the 10th century. They have claimed descent from the Sakya (not the Newar Shakya) and Koliya peoples who lived in the ancient city of Kapilvastu. The Rana Tharus in western Nepal claims to be of Rajput origin and to have migrated from the Thar Desert in Rajasthan to Nepal’s Far Western Terai region after the defeat of Maharana Pratap against a Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century. However, most scholars refute this claim.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Emperor Akbar and Maharana Pratap

History of Tharu’s in Nepal:

Following the unification of Nepal in the late 18th century, members of the ruling families received land grants in the Terai and they were entitled to collect revenue from those who cultivated the land. It had bad consequences for them since they became bonded laborers in a system also known as Kamaiya.

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Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Prithvi Narayan Shah briefing his warriors

In 1854, Jung Bahadur Rana enforced the so-called Muluki Ain, in which both Hindu and non-Hindu castes were classified based on their habits of food and drink. Tharu people were categorized as “Paani Chalne Masinya Matwali” (touchable enslavable alcohol drinking group) together with several other ethnic minorities.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Jung Bahadur Rana

Present Day Situation of Tharu’s:

Since they were condemned to be bonded laborers on their own land the situation for them has not improved much despite their being much more politically active today their situation hasn’t improved much. Following the malaria eradication program using DDT in the 1960s, a large and heterogeneous non-Tharu population from the Nepali hills settled in the region. In the western Terai, many families lost the land, which they used to cultivate, to these immigrants and were forced to work as Kamaiya.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Kamaiya Family after liberation

After the overthrow of the Panchayat system in Nepal in 1990, the Tharu’s formed ethnic association Tharu Kalyankari Sabha joined the umbrella organization of ethnic groups, a predecessor of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities. In July 2000, the Government of Nepal abolished the practice of bonded labor prevalent under the Kamaiya system and declared loan papers illegal. Kamaiya families were thus enfranchised from debts supposedly incurred but were also rendered homeless and jobless. Bonded labor shifted to children who worked in other households as Kamlari.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Tharu Kalyankari Sabha embelem

During the Nepalese Civil War, they experienced an intense period of violence, and were recruited by and coerced to help the Maoists, especially in western Nepal; several leaders were assassinated and the infrastructure of the Tharu organization Backward Society Education was destroyed. After the Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed in 2006, organizations demanded an autonomous state within a federal Nepal, emphasizing the equality of opportunity and equal distribution of land and resources. In 2009, they protested across the Nepal Terai against the government’s attempt to categorize them as Madheshi people.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
A common image during Nepalese Civil War (Image Source: Aljazeera)

Culture of Tharu People:

They comprise several groups who speak different languages and wear traditional dress, customs, rituals, and social organization. They consider themselves as a people of the forest. In Chitwan, they have lived in the forests for hundreds of years practicing short fallow shifting cultivation. They plant rice, wheat, mustard, maize, and lentils, but also collect forest products such as wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, and materials to build their houses; hunt deer, rabbit, and wild boar, and go fishing in the rivers and oxbow lakes.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Tharu Women in their traditional dress (Image Source: The Kathmandu Post)

Communities in different parts of Nepal and India do not share the same language. Several speak various endemic Tharu languages. In western Nepal and adjacent parts of India, they speak variants of Hindi, Urdu, and Awadhi. In and near central Nepal, they speak a variant of Bhojpuri. In eastern Nepal, they speak a variant of Maithili.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Tharu Cultural Program

Religion and Marriage System of Tharu’s:

The spiritual beliefs and moral values of these people are closely linked to the natural environment. The pantheon of their gods comprises a large number of deities that live in the forest. They are asked for support before entering the forest. They have been influenced by Hinduism for several centuries. However, since the 1990s, some of their groups in the Nepal Terai converted to Buddhism in the wake of ethnic movements for social inclusion and against the religious hierarchy imposed by the Hindu State.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Westerners getting married in the Tharu tradition

Traditionally, they practice arranged marriages, which parents often arrange already during the couple’s childhood. The wedding ceremony is held when the bride and groom reach their marriable age. The ceremony lasts several days and involves all the relatives of the two families.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Traditional Tharu Wedding

Superpower to resist Malaria:

Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite. The parasite is spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. Terai regions of Nepal are infamous for this disease and Tharus are famous for resisting it. They are famous for their ability to survive in the malarial parts of the Terai that were deadly to outsiders. Contemporary medical research comparing them with other ethnic groups living nearby found an incidence of malaria nearly seven times lower among them. The researchers believed such a large difference pointed to genetic factors rather than behavioral or dietary differences.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal
Malarial Parasite (Image Source: Wikipedia)

However, it was confirmed by a follow-up investigation finding genes for thalassemia in nearly all studies done afterward.

Demographics of Tharu’s:

As of 2011, the Tharu population of Nepal was censused at 17,37,470 people or 6.6% of the total population. In 2009, the majority of Tharu people were estimated to live in Nepal. There are several endogamous sub-groups of Tharu that are scattered over most of the Terai.

Tharu: 4th Largest Ethnic Group in Nepal

Smaller numbers of Tharu people reside in the adjacent Indian districts Champaran in Bihar, Gorakhpur, Basti, and Gonda districts in Uttar Pradesh and Khatima in Uttarakhand. In 2001, they were the largest of five scheduled tribes in Uttarakhand, with a population of 2,56,129 accounting for 33.4% of all scheduled tribes. In the same year, they constituted 77.4% of the total tribal population of Uttar Pradesh with a population of 83,544.

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