A few days ago I was invited to attend a special celebration with the husband of the family I share my house with. The husband, Surendra, has a close friend whose son just turned 6 months old. When a child reaches 6 months (provided that it does not fall during an unlucky month of the Nepali calendar) the parents usually organize a large celebration to commemorate the first time they feed real food to their child (typically rice.)
We rode the bus out to Surendra ‘s village, disembarking on a seemingly remote stretch of the highway. We then walked several kilometers until we came upon a collection of thatch-roof huts. While Surendra is Pahari (and a high caste Brahmin at that) the majority of the people in his village are Tharu.
Upon arrival, a crowd of children gathered to gawk at me while I fielded questions about the cost of living in America, what I thought of George Bush, and if I could hook anyone up with visas. (high, dangerous, probably not.)
Later I was compelled (probably against my better judgment) to feast on raw goat and drink as little raksi (village moonshine) as I could without offending anyone. After a quick detour to visit some of Surendra’s friends in Atariya (a nearby town that serves as the junction between the east-west highway and the north-south road leading into the hills and to India respectively) we returned for a few more hours of feasting (cooked goat this time) before we eventually hitched a ride back to the highway (with a gang of children in tow.)
I was struck by the hospitality the Tharus showed me, as well as the obvious poverty they stoically endure. While they are the original inhabitants of this land (and as I believe I mentioned in my first blog, they are even immune to malaria) the clearing of the malarial jungle saw an influx of Paharis from the hills. These Paharis gained ownership of the land, and many Tharus were forced to till their land in a system of indebted labor (which basically amounted to a form of slavery) known as kamaiya. Under the kamaiya system Tharu people (especially children) were taken as serfs subject to renewal each year. Forced to till the land and do household work for little or no compensation, their human rights were systematically violated.
In 2000, government legislation freed the Kamaiyas on paper but the reality is that most ex-Kamaiyas are unemployed and landless. In many towns in the Western Terai you can see squatter settlements of former Kamaiyas, and many (who do manage to find jobs) continue to work under exploitative conditions. In my own household there is a young Tharu girl who does all of the housework. Still, her situation could be worse.
Young Tharu women are at great risk for sexual exploitation and trafficking (it is believed that at least 7,000 Nepali women are sold or trafficked into brothels each year, with an estimated 100,000 Nepali commercial sex workers in India)
The current sad situation of the Tharu people belies their rich and noble history. While there are several accounts of their origin, the story Usha told me is that Tharus are believed to be the descendents of a group of Rajput princesses and children who fled from Rajasthan in the 16th century after their men were killed by Mughal invaders and their kingdom destroyed. Rather than face assimilation or exploitation, they fled to the Terai and intermixed with their servants.
Perhaps as a result of this history, up until recently (and quite unique in a region where gender discrimination is the norm) Tharu society was matriarchal with women holding a higher status level than males. One indication of their higher status is that traditionally while serving food Tharu women touch the plate with their feet. Due to the influence of Pahari culture (or social assimilation) such actions have fallen out of practice, and women have now lost their traditional power. Indeed domestic violence is on the rise, and Tharu women are becoming second-class citizens (just as in neighboring groups.)
Whatever the true origins of the Tharu may actually be, ex-Kamaiyas are one of the most vulnerable populations in the Terai. While they are the target group of several NGO sponsored interventions, their plight continues to be overlooked by INGOs and Nepali society at large.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Jun 26th, 2007