The Tharu are a people of the forest. They have lived for centuries in the lowlands of southern Nepal and northern India. Often persecuted, they have now been recognised by the Nepali government as an official nationality. But their lives are still not easy.
In the past in Nepal the Tharu were forced to become bonded labourers, living and working on a landowner’s land as quasi slaves. This system was only fully abolished around twenty years ago. They have also been prevented from owning land, or had what land they did own taken from them. When Chitwan National Park was established any villages that lay within its boundaries were demolished. According to Wikipedia:
‘Nepalese soldiers destroyed the villages located inside the national park, burned down houses, and beat the people who tried to plough their fields. Some threatened Tharu people at gun point to leave.’
It seems from what we learned while staying in another national park, Bardia, that the government is at last trying to make reparation. They have, as I said, recognised the Tharu as a separate ethnic group. And they have been given land on which to live and grow crops. But it’s still a tough life for most.
The lodge we stayed at in Bardia, Tiger Tops, was established in 1988 at the request of the then government, to help open up tourism for what was and is still one the poorest regions of the country. They have a range of community projects including supporting education for local children and village clinics, making it just the sort of place we like to stay.
Join me on a walk through a local Tharu village to see something of life in this area, linked to Jo’s Monday Walks of course.
This village is situated not far from the gates of Tiger Tops. We went to visit one afternoon with one of the lodge guides, Vishna. We took a jeep to a turning off the main highway, from where we started our stroll through the village.
Meet the locals
The people here were friendly, though some seemed shy. Many were happy to be photographed when asked, and to demonstrate the work they were doing. One woman was stripping branches for firewood with a rather intimidating machete. Another was using banana leaves to fold into little baskets to be used to hold offerings at the family shrine. And one, whom Vishna clearly knew well, was happy to show off her new t-shirt with a photo of her with her son on the front and with her husband and son on the back.
The children, while obviously used to foreign visitors, still showed genuine curiosity about us, following us and trying out a few words of English: hello, what’s your name?
One little girl from a more remote rural area, who was visiting family in the village, had, we discovered, never seen white people before and was shyly fascinated. I asked if I could take a photo. The family agreed, but made sure her hair was tidied and her face washed beforehand!
At one house we were invited to enjoy a cup of tea. I don’t like tea and was also cautious about the water used to wash the cups so declined, but Chris accepted and came to no harm! The lady was friendly and, via Vishna as translator, told us something about their lifestyle.
This was clearly one of the more affluent homes, solidly built over three stories. But like all houses here they had an external kitchen or rather two; one is for food preparation while the other houses the oven so that its heat is kept separate from where they work. She was slightly horrified at the notion of having a kitchen indoors, with all the attendant smells and heat. To be honest I was similarly horrified that they kept two macaques as pets, chained to small ‘houses’ on the front wall. But I kept quiet; we were guests after all.
Another house looked much grander than most. Vishna explained that the owner worked abroad, earning good money which he sent home to his family. Many poorer Nepali men in particular go abroad to find work. They can make good money but it’s not without its hardships and even risks. A recent BBC news item featured Tharu men who had gone to work on the stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar and suffered life-changing injuries or, in one case, died in an accident there.
The wealth, or lack of it, of each household can easily be determined by the building materials used. Mud and straw for the poorest homes, hand-made bricks for the better-off and concrete for the handful of rich.
Towards the buffer zone
At the far end of the village the houses started to thin. Eventually we turned on to a path through the buffer zone that lies between inhabited areas and the national park. There people are allowed to graze animals and can take fallen trees for firewood. But they can’t fell any trees, cut off branches or cut grass for fodder or roof-making.
The path through the buffer zone was uneven and not very interesting, with no wildlife nor views. I found it hot and tiring and was glad to reach the end where we rejoined the highway. We stopped for a bottle of water at a local shop and Vishna called a tuktuk to take us back to the lodge, which was a fun and cooling way to end the walk.
I visited Betahani in November 2022