Chhantyals: The Forgotton Miners of Nepal



Nepal was believed to be a common garden of four varnas and thirty six jaatis (ethnicities). Anthropologists and linguists have identified more than sixty eight ethnicities and seventy plus languages in Nepal. One of these ethnicities is Chhantyals who reside in the mountains and valleys of Myagdi, Baglung, Lumbini, and Mustang districts (Dhawalagiri Zone in the Western Developmental Region of Nepal). Chhantyals have their own culture, rituals, religion, traditions, and language. Although some anthropological research has been able to incorporate the Chhantyals, their origin is still a mystery. The population of Chhantyals is estimated to be around 15,000.

Although Chhantyals look ‘Mongoloid’ and speak Tibeto-Burman language, some believe that they are of Indo-European origins. However, it is possible that they had ancestors of both lineages. According to some anthropologists the Chhantyals came to the Himalayas of Nepal from Tibet about 1500 years ago. In the past Chhantyals (Chhanthyals) have been  miners of copper and once spread from Far-Western Developmental Region to the Western Developmental Region of Nepal.

There are not any scientific studies to suggest either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman origins of the Chhantyals; however, there are ample stories and folktales to tell their tale. According to one of them, Chhantyals used to live in the valley of Sinja (Jumla district of Karnali Zone in the Mid-Western Development Region of Nepal). There have been various official papers discovered indicating the existence of the Chhantyals in Myagdi since V.S. 1654 (1598 A.D.). Also, ancient coins, weapons, and metric tools indicate that Chhantyals were socially sophisticated people. The traditional potteries discovered in various villages indicate they were amateur potters as well. To quote the author regarding the glorious past of the Chhantyals:

Chhantyal nation was in existence before the Unification Campaign of His Majesty the great Prithivi Narayan Shah. As a separate principality they had reigned too. Three swords and a shield found at Kuine Khani Village, Myagdi vouch that Chhantyal was a Marshal Race.

Historically, Nepal consisted of various minute states and they used to battle against each other routinely. It is probable that Chhantyals once had their own kingdom. Various lost battles with other kings might have forced Chhantyals, the indigenous peoples of the Dhawalagiri Zone to move east. Those who reached Chhyantsu in Dhorpatan valley (Baglung Zone) became known as the Chhan Styal and later this name deteriorated to become Chhantyal.

Even though the folktales and stories give us a glimpse of the Chhanthyal history, they still do not indicate either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman link. According to NEFIN.org, “as inhabitants of the Magrant region, the Chhantyal culture and habits resemble those of the Magars.” However, Mr. DB Gharabja Chhantyal indicate no association of Chhantylas to Magars. Sometimes scientists use domesticated plants and animals to track people’s ancient history. For example, a Polynesian scientist in Australia was trying to figure out where her ancestors came from using rats because the only way rats could have come to the islands was via the boats that brought her ancestors to the islands.

Unfortunately alternate ways of finding a clue about their past is to no avail because Chhantyals were nomadic and took farming only about half a century ago. Chhantyals were miners; since the twelfth century the Chhantyals have been mining copper ore and paying taxes to the Nepali government. Interestingly, they used no tools while mining; they would survey the area, taste the soil and rocks to pinpoint the exact location of the mine! Being miners they lived around the mines. Thus, the traditional Chhantyal villages in Myagdi and Baglung still have a suffix-“khani” meaning ‘mine’ in Nepali. Although traditional miners, they did not have the ownership of the mines but they were mere workers. The hard working Chhantyals used to mine for seven months per year beginning on the full moon day in Mangshir (November-December) and ending on full moon day of Jestha (May-June). There were a total of 44 mines in Baglung and Myagdi which were mined by the Chhantyals and Magars as well.

Extensive mining and the Nepal-East India war changed the lives of the Chhantyals. The war began in V.S. 1872 (1816 A.D.) and every household was required to send at least one person to be in the military. However, the Chhantyals were excused for mining purposes. They could voluntarily apply for the army but it was not mandatory. Also in V.S.1970 (1914 A.D.) the Rana Regime imposed land tax on Chhantyals who were only required to pay taxes on copper. By then, most of the copper from the mines had been extracted and the mines were not very productive. In addition to the taxes on little copper they could mine, the land taxes laws imposed by the government pushed the Chhantyals into desperate poverty in no time. Although they were excused of the copper tax by the Rana Regime in V.S. 1981 (1925 A.D.), their conditions did not change much.

Even though the Chhanthals were primarily miners, they were also involved in petty agriculture and gatherers. They gave up mining and took agriculture (and animal husbandry) as their major profession only after V.S. 2018 (1962 A.D.). However, since the limited land they owned was around the mines and was not very fertile, agriculture was also not able to liberate them from poverty. During the Nepal-East India War, the Nepalis demonstrated their bravery and dedication; as a result they were recruited in the British Army after the Sugauli treaty in V.S. 1872 (1816 V.S.). Since the Chhantyals were not one of those who served in the war, they were not recruited by the British. Thus, the Chhanthyal men started changing their surnames names to serve in the British Army. Thus those who got richer and educated ended up discarding their names and those who remain today are only the poor ones in various remote corners of
Nepal (there are a handful educated and high-position Chhantyals).

There have been occasions when scientists have used religion to trace lineage. Like many indigenous peoples, Chhantyals are also traditionally nature worshippers. They worship natural resources such as hills, springs and their ancestors’ spirits. They also offer animal sacrifices to their deities. They also have Jhankris (shamans) who are believed to be very powerful and cure people with their power and local herbs. They later took Hinduism and Buddhism. They are not many studies done on Chhantyal religion but the chances of finding a link to their ancestral population using their religion is minute.

It is unfortunate that the Chhantyals do not have alphabets, therefore, all their history has been orally passed down from their ancestors. They do use Devanagiri script, the same that Nepali uses now. Even though NEFIN.org indicates that Chhantyal language called Chhantyal Kham is related to Thakali, Tamu (Gurung) and Tamang languages, the data provided by Mr. DB Gharabja Chhanthyal shows no association with Magar, Thakali, Tamu (Gurung), Tibetan, Tamang, or Chinese. The similarities in language could be a fact or some words could simply have been borrowed from these languages because these clans live close by. Whereas, some also believe Chhantyal “culture resembles that of Magars,” NEFIN indicates that Chhantyals of Bhalamja clan consider Kusundas as their ancestors. It was not clear to me with the reading materials available whether they are linguistically closer to Tibeto-Burmans or the Indo-Europeans.

At present, Chhantyals are indigenous peoples of Nepal but it is not known where they came from and when. There seems to be a few assumptions regarding their origins but none seem to present undisputable evidence about where their ancestors came from.

(All the materials in this article were taken from a book Khyoma “(Chhantyal Bhjasama Saathiharu)” by Mr. Dil Bahadur Gharabja Chhantyal and other sources such as www.nefin.org were also referred.)

24 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, Nepal

24 responses to “Chhantyals: The Forgotton Miners of Nepal

  1. saroj chhantyal

    the spelling is chhantyal mister.please correct it and put name of us.

  2. I think the pronounciation argues that my spelling is correct…I will get back to you soon…thanks for pointing out.

  3. Raju

    NICE articles but please correct the spelling of chhantyal.

  4. Chhantyal worng spelled please correct it!! Thank you!!

  5. Since I could not find any sources supporting my spelling “Chhanthyals” and due to people’s opinions favoring Chhantyal, I have changed the spelling. I would like to request the Chhantyals who have commented here to elaborate on their cultures and traditions that I may have missed so that the readers can have an even better understanding of the Chhantyals of Nepal. I hope to read more about the Chhantyals.

  6. Namaste Nar bhai. Thanks for taking time to elaborate on your thoughts and also for the link to your blog which has a lot about the Chhantyals. I would recommend the readers to check out the Chhantyal blog listed above.

    First of all, I would like to clarify that my article is just a summary (in English) of “Khyoma: Chhantyal bhasa ma saathiharu,” a book written (in Nepali) by DB Gharabja. It was my small effort to educate the people of Nepal and elsewhere about Chhantyals. Therefore, it is not an academic article with a lot of research done by myself. However, I believe that discussions such as these and inputs and efforts from Chhantyals and experts on Chhntyals would definitely lead us towards a complete history of Chhantyals.

    You mentioned in your response in your blog that Chhantyals were pushed into the hills after losing their lands in battles and there they discovered iron. Thus the mining began much later than 12th century. It would be interesting to know what was the ancient Chhantyal kingdom (or range) and who they were battling against. You also mention that there is a tale about the mining. If you could elaborate on that it would be informative too.

    You also mention that the Chhnatyals mined in Okharbot VDC and those mines once abandoned by Chhantyals were taken by Magars. Are those mines still there? Were there only 44 mines? Were they only in Myagdi? Could there be mines elsewhere than Myagdi where the Chhantyals mined?

    I was wondering if you speak the Chhantyal Bhasa…please eduacte us on what it is called…are there any records of the Chhantyal Bhasa? Is it true that there are about 2000 Chhantyal Bhasa speakers? Lots of Nepali languages are dying and it would be great if the Chhantyal Bhasa can be preserved while there are so many speakers left.

    Since you are a Chhantyal you probably are in touch with many older Chhantyals in Nepal. Do Baglung Chhantyals and Myagdi Chhantyals identify them differently even today? What would be great is if you could ask them about traditional stories and tales that may have been passed down from generations and also using Google maps if you could start mapping the Chhantyal territory of ancient times and their locations in modern days.

    Let me know if I can help in any possible means. And yes the discussions should continue…

  7. Thanks for ur wonderful responce and some wonderful questions. I ll come back to you.

  8. Lekali Chhantyal

    Thankx for your concernig to ‘The Chhantyal’ an ethnic group of himalaya who love to worship and devote to nature.I hope that, you must be a good observer and sharing to the world your feeling, experience and thought and we are glad to read your expression here.You asked question about a mine in Okharbot of course that mine still same place and pointing to everybody where the chhantyal’s history was ending with their profession.you will get soon the picture of the mine.

  9. Dear Brother Nepaliaashis,
    Greetings!
    I am Jagendra Chhantyal.I come from Lammela Nepal.Now I am based in Seoul city,South Korea in persuit of my Doctoral Course in linguistics.Thank you very much for producing and publishing the English version of the sources expressed in the somwhat debated book Khyouma.Much of the contents of Khyuma have been out of my memory though I was the prncipal editor of the book that was originally a clumsy bulk of thousands of repetitions by its author.
    I want to thank you very much and further encourage you to keep on writing on linguistics/history/literature and journalism that relate our nation Chhantyal’s every emotion,aspiration and glory achieved in the bygone times.My motion is that like other adjacent neighboring ethnic nations,Chhantyalwas composed of two groups -rank and files.Our chieftains called in honor as Mukhiyas were the ranks in every clan who had atleast some fresh oral knowledge on the histority of Chhantyal.Majority of the remaining population of the Chhantyal was an obedient subject of these Fathers.Their word was their law to govern a particular region.Emphasis should go onto digging their oral traditions if we are to reveal the hidden history.
    So our nation was public cum marshal race in modern term.When the Chieftins decided to wage a war against any neighboring tribe it was mandatory for every men to pick up their bow and quiver and sword and poison cup made of clay.The evidences are accumulated at a mound in Machhim village with the accumulated swords and the remaining materials.When I paid a visit to the village in 1999 I saw all these.Some of the Chhantyal words are from ancient Hebrew lannguage as well.For example Zur for big stone.Zur pronounced as (jur) is mentioned in the book of Numbers in the Bible.As a Bible and Middle East scholar I have spent many years in the study of the archaic Hebrew language.
    In my China visit in 2006 I saw many Chhans in the land of Southern China.That province is Younnan.Indeed,there I saw many undeclared Chhantyals ;people very identical to the Bhalunja Chhantyals and many other clans speaking Mandarin with us.Due to my brief stay,poor Chinese and lack of guide facility kept me from asking why they are Chhans?I am lured with their cultural richness and their Lunar Festival(Maghe Sankranti).My maternal grandfather in portfolio was in Lammela some 25 years before now.He had told us that we had entered Nepal through Chin De Ghat.The geographic location is now in Southern Yunnan along the coast of Brahmaputra River that enters Burma and vio India cedes into Baby of Bengal.That very place is Chin De Gad or (the crossing point of The Chhins).In the Burmese parts they are Chhin while in the Chinese parts they are Chhan.
    Another proposition is that Chhan the people of God owing Hebrew suffix el to denominate God.We are godly people,striken by prosperity and poverty equal in course of time and now we seem to recover from the dark periods to a periond of prosperity.
    I can be reached at 82-010-2396-1970
    Thank you for the article

    • Awesome comment! I am so glad that you found my page. I am glad to read that you are pursuing your PhD in linguistics. I am just curious whether you are familiar with the works of Professor Michael Noonan (http://www.uwm.edu/~noonan/Chantyal.html). Prof. Noonan has been working with Chhantyals in Nepal for over two decades. I am delighted to read your opinions about the origins of Chhantyals. It could be very much possible that Chhantyals, a Tibeto-Burman speaking group may have come from Younnan through India (Chandigadh??). According to Prof.Noonan, Chhantyal language is a member of Tamangic group however, Chhantyal

      “is in many respects the most deviant member of the group, lacking
      a tone system and having borrowed a large portion of its lexicon from Nepali. In addition,
      there appears to be a layer of Tibeto-Burman vocabulary that is not Tamangic.”

      Interesting. If you read Prof. Noonan’s findings, you may discover more about Chhantyal origins. I myself have not had the opportunity to read his works but I plan to when I get some time. I am not a linguist so, I will not be able to much fathom Prof. Noonan’s work. If you have any opinions about it, please do share with us.

    • Soun Chhantyal

      Dear Jhagendra Ji I am so proud to know that someone in our community has achieved the heighest degree in education particularly in a complex major like linguistics. I am glad to read your interpretation of Chhantyals. However, I have some doubt about where they came from. The place you mentioned Yunnan is far away from Nepal. Don’t you think it would take years to move from Yunnan to Myagdi, Nepal? You said those people look like bhalaja Chhantyals. Do you mean that different people of Chhantyal clans migrated from different region?

  10. Dear Brothers and sisters in UK,
    Greetings from South Korea!
    I hope you have read my comment on this brother’s article.
    Today’s discusion topic is “What is to be done?”
    My prime vision for living was to accumulate knowledge about humans and humanity.More or less I have achieved this as you all have achieved while walking in the lands our ancestors never knew.As a matter of honesty,I am a nepalese citizen an more than that I am a Chhantyal.I was born Chhantyal,grew up as a chhantyal and now am getting old as a Chhantyal.We all Chhantyal belong to the ancient kingdom of Chhilly (The land to the East of Mahakali River that extends to the west of Gandaki,to the north himalayas to the South Ridi.In course of time our leadership was nullified as the Shah dynasty has recently been judged in the anveil of history.So now we can not fullfil our urgent goals by just claiming to be of good ancestry or house.In the bygone history we have been repulsed,we have suffered poverty and enjoied prospperity as well.Now we need a program to uplift our fellow brothers who live in the villages.What is to be done?
    We must make a strong banking system within ourselves.The seven thousand Thakalis have 500 buildings in Kathmandu and 10000 plus chhantyals have not even 100 houses.So it is time for you to pioneer the financial salvation program.Unless and until you and I can plant chhantyalmness in every Chhantyal heart we can do nothing.Our personal wealth,our degrees are useless.Time has given you the opportunity to lead our people financially.We now must plant a feeling in every deprived chhantyal heart that there is someone ,there is our Economic Wing to help me!”Nepal Chhantyal Association can give some directives but as of today it can not go further than that limits.Please talk among your friends to make a foundation, a financial Wing among the Chhhantyals to help them redeem from their poverty.Each Chhantyal above 25 must go one of the European countries from each family!We can make such a mechanism.This is what is to be done now.

  11. Dear brother,
    Late Dr.Michael Noonan and Dr. David Waters were the two seniormost professors to have impacted in my life,career and what ever I am doing now.The stupid history,has now carzily,buried both of them in its cruel lap.With the untimely demise of Dr.Noonan who was my distance learning resource and advisor in practicum and that of Dr.Waters ;last year I have been feeling an emptiness in my life itself.Dr.Noonan,according to family resources,passed away due to hammorage in brain while Dr.Waters died after the surgery of cancer was repulsed.
    Last year was really saddest of the years so far I have survived.
    In my evaluation Dr.Noonan was the Messiah for the documentation of our Chhantyal Language wahile Dr.Waters was in the similar position in relation to the Kham Magar language.Dr.Noonan has contributed lots in my life during a brief meeting in a Seminar held in Bangkok 2003 and Dr.Waters was a good email friend of mine.
    Thank you very much for providing the reference webpages I have been entering since 1999 at the eve of my graduation from TU as a junior linguist.
    Yours in Him
    Jagendra Chhantyal
    Achashan,Seoul,South Korea.

    • Ram Bhulanja

      Yogendra ji,

      I came across your posting above. I have known Dr. Noonan for over 20 years. I not only worked with him on Chhantyal language with him for years, he was a great family friend of mine.

  12. बेलायतमा रहनु भएका सम्पूर्ण छन्त्याल बन्धुबान्धवहरुमा नयां वर्ष २०१० ले वित्तिय,चित्तिय र बौद्दिक क्षेत्रमा एकाग्रता कायम राख्न मदत गरोस भनि सुख,शान्ति र सम्रिद्दिको कामना गर्दछु।
    -जगेन्द्र छन्त्याल
    अध्यक्ष,एक्सपेडिसन फर न्यू लाईफ़ मिसन इंक.कोरिया

  13. Kainla gharamja

    Jagendra ji,
    You sure seem to have vast knowledge about chhantyal, however I strongly disagree about kham having any links with Hebrew language. Zur is a purely a coincident.. It may means a rock in hebrew but certainly has more meaning to that word in bible than just a rock…
    Also, I would like to point out that many modern pseudo chhantyal scholar have been twisting lots of things around.. One for example:- Gharamja is written as gharabja now. Since when maghe sangrati became a chhantyal festival?? I recently saw a chhantyal dictionary and found the most rediculous words for counts… I believe we should not make things for something that never existed in the first place.
    Thanks

  14. Gobinda Chhantyal

    Dear Aashish R. Jha,
    Saralho (means Namaste in Chhantyal Language) from Nepal

    I was searching information on about Chhantyal Indigenous Peoples (IPs) of Nepal as being a member of Chhantyal IPs and I came fortunately in your blog. And I got chance to read an article “Chhantyals: The Forgotton Miners of Nepal” named which is translated from KHYOMA book by DB Gharabja Chhantyal and suggestive comments of Chhantyal personalities too. So Thank you very much for it and If you have interest and time I request to do research on Chhantyal IPs of Nepal in depth because you are the student of Human Genetics and it is confusion or illusion academically about ‘the study of heredity and the variation of inherited characteristics and origin history’ So to do this as historical task. we highly will appreciate. I will be waiting your kind response further more.
    Thank you

    • Dear brother Gobinda.
      Saralho.

      Thank you very much for your kind note. Working with the IPs of Nepal is one of my dreams and working with Chhantyals is a possibility in near future. However, there is always an air of controversy working with IPs because they have historically been exploited. While I have a strong interest in working with IPs of Nepal, I also fear that genetics work may raise many controversies. Its tricky and if I ever decide to do genetic analysis of the IPs of Nepal, I would love to do it right. In the past I collaborated with NFDIN members to work with the Kusundas. However, I would like to work with the members of the IPs themselves and may be get a high school student from that IP involved in scientific research…just want to do it the right way🙂

      By the way, I was in Chhanthyal gaun in Dana (Myagdi) this summer. It is beautiful. I was tempted to visit Chhantyal Association in Pokhara but could not due to time limitations. Once again, thanks for the encouraging note. Keep in touch.

      Namaste.

  15. Ram Bhulanja

    Aashish ji,

    I read your writing above on genetics research. I agree that doing genetic research will be tricky for the simple reason of the possibility of any group finding themselves related to a “lower” caste.

    Has there been any such work done already in Nepal whether with IP’s or non-IP’s?

    Dana (Myagdi) is not an original Chhantyal gaun, unless these days there are some Chhantyals living there. The far eatern Chhantyal gaun is Mangale Khani, the village I was born in.

  16. Ram ji Sarlaho!
    I believe that history of Nepal as we know it is incomplete. To know the complete history of Nepal we must know the history of its peoples: Chhanthyals, Rautes, Kusundas, Sherpas, Tharus, all the peoples. The best way of doing this is using genetics. I say that because if we collect 100 individual samples from all ethnic groups in Nepal and look at their genome, we may find some populations are closely related and some are not. We may also find that some are older than others. With the modern tools in genetics we can do this in relatively short time (2-3years).
    As for being related to a lower caste, personally I believe that in this 21st century there is no such thing as lower caste. Hinduization of Nepal introduced the caste system to the IPs of Nepal recently and it is now time to seriously discard these taboos if we want to see unified and progressive Nepal. Personally, I would be proud to know that I have some IP genome in me. But you are correct and everyone may not agree with me. That is where the tricky part comes in. I dont know what would be the best way to go forward without generating too much controversy.
    There are some minor studies where people have looked at a few genes in some IPs of Nepal. For example, Kusunda genome is being investigated. Tharus, Satar(Santhal), and Meches of India have been investigated. There may be virtually no difference between these populations in India and in Nepal.
    However, these studies have only looked at which populations European or Asian are these IPs closely related to. The age of each of these populations have not been estimated. Hope this helps😀

    Namaste

    • Soun Chhantyal

      Its a awsome comment Mr Aashish Jha. Thank you for the article. Is it true that the bhalanja clan of Chhantyal family is closely related to kusundas? How is it possible because the language kusundas speak is totally unique language.
      You said in future you wanna work with IPs of Nepal. What made yo so interested in it?🙂

  17. Sarlaho Soun,
    I read that at the NEFIN site and I am not sure if there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate any relationship between any Chhantyal lineage and te Kusundas. There are many stories and myths about the peoples of Nepal some of them could be true and many are likely false. Why am I interested in IPs of Nepal? Because we have no idea when humans began conquering the Himalayas. There is zero knowledge of population history of IPs in the Himalayan region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s