Tag Archives: Chepangs

Could Rautes, Kusundas, Chepangs, Rajis or Tharus be the first peoples to colonize the Himalayas 7000 years ago?

Rautes: The last nomads of Nepal

This picture belongs to Kishore K. Sharma, an awesome Nepali photographer. Please do visit his blog by clicking on this picture to view more pictures of the Rautes.

History of Nepal, as taught in academic institutions, starts with Gopalavamshis, the so-called first rulers of Nepal, followed by Mahispalavamshis, Kiratis, Licchavis, Mallas, and Shahs in that order. However it only represents the political history of Nepal at its best. To understand history of Nepal in its completeness, one must learn about the history of the peoples of Nepal.

Human inhabitation of the Himalayan foothills, known as present day Nepal, predates the dawn of civilization and the Gopalavamshis because prehistoric stone tools of “Patu industry,” a non-agricultural Mesothilic culture unique to Nepal were recovered in Central Nepal[1]. Two distinct types of tools, the Patu tools resembling the 10-12 thousand years old Hoabinhian culture and another resembling 10-30 thousand years old culture in India highlight three important points about ancient Nepali history: first, modern day Nepal has been inhabited by humans since the Pleistocene; second, Nepal has been cosmopolitan even in the Mesolithic harboring Indian and South East Asian cultures, and finally, the Patu people had an unique cultural identity by the Mesolithic.

But what happened to the Patu people? It is curious that a few nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes live/until recently lived the Mesolithic lifestyle in central Nepal, where the “Patu industry” once existed. Could they be the descendants of the Mesothilic humans that developed the first Himalayan culture?

Kusundas (aka Myahak, Ban Rajas) and Chepangs (aka Prajas) are one of the highly marginalized tribes in Nepal. Until a few decades ago both these tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers. With forests gone, Kusundas were forced to desert their nomadic life and enter villages, which caused annihilation of their culture, traditions, and languages. Only a few Kusundas today, speak their native language. Like the Kusundas, Chepangs were also nomadic hunters and gatherers in central Nepal. Destruction of forests has forced Chepangs to adopt a semi-nomadic life in the non-yielding slopes of the Mahabharat range.

In addition to their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, linguistic and anthropological evidence suggest that Kusundas and Chepangs have been living in central Nepal since ancient times. Both the Kusundas and the Chepangs were officially first reported by B.H. Hodgson, a British naturalist and ethnologist in mid-nineteenth century, as “broken tribes” living nearly “in a state of nature” and carrying bows and arrows with no relationship with the rest of the “civilized races” of the country[2]. Later CJF Forbes found more plausible relationship between Chepangs and Khyens (Kiiyen) and Kumis of Arakan hills in Burma (Myanmar) and even concluded that Chepangs may have entered Nepal from the east [3]. Unlike Chepang, Kusunda language is difficult to classify as it similarities with various unrelated language groups such as Austro-Asiatic (Munda)[4], Tibeto-Burman, and even Indo-Pacific[5]. It is now widely recognized as a language isolate[6]: a language distinct from all other languages spoken in Nepal.

Although both Chepang and Kusunda languages seem to be unrelated to any other languages in Nepal, they appear to be linguistically closely related to each other (see Figure1). It is plausible that Chepangs and Kusundas have cohabited the Mahabharata hills and centuries of linguistic exchange may have resulted in their language similarities. Furthermore, anthropological evidence seems to corroborate the linguistic antiquity between these tribes, for example, both the Kusundas and the Chepangs have a folk legend according to which the Kusundas are the descendants of Kusa (thus the name Kusunda) and Chepangs are the descendants of Lava, both the sons of Rama and Sita of the Ramayana. Furthermore, interviews with Chepang traditional healers and medicine men revealed hundreds of plants used for diverse purposes and many of them were previously not documented.[7] The tremendous ethno-botanical knowledge of the Chepangs further substantiates their occupation of central Himalayas since ancient times for such knowledge of local flora can only be built with time. Hence, Kusundas and Chepangs, by virtue of their nomadic life styles and lack of linguistic affinities with any other languages of Nepal, may have inhabited the Himalayan foothills long before other ethnicities emigrated.

Recently, genomics has been used to infer the demographic histories of human populations throughout the world. Analysis of Kusunda genome in a recent issue of Science[8] supports some of the linguistic evidence and indicates that Kusundas are related to Tibeto-Burman speaking North East-Asian populations such as Hezhens, Oroqens and Mongolians but are not related to the Australian or Papuan Aborigines and virtually unrelated to any of the human populations from East or South Asia. Remarkably, a Kusunda specific genetic component is evident; however, without further analysis it is difficult to determine whether this component is due to long period of population isolation or due to ancient age of the population.

Genetic and linguistic evidence argues that Kusundas are possibly the most ancient of Nepali populations. They , may have come into contact with Mundas and Burmese in Eastern Himalayan foothills in ancient times. Words burrowed from these languages may have remained in Kusunda language to date. However, more work is needed to determine whether the Kusunda specific genetic components are a result of recent inbreeding due to population isolation or whether they are archaic genome components due to Kusundas’ antiquity in the Himalayan foothills.

Although it is tempting to crown Kusundas as the eldest peoples of Nepal, other nomadic/semi-nomadic tribes of central Nepal cannot be ignored. Genetic analysis of Chepangs may show that they have also cohabited the Mahabharata hills for centuries. It is also noteworthy that many other tribes along with Kusundas and Chepangs may have inhabited central Nepal since ancient times. For example, the Tharus may be descendants of inhabitants of the Terai since the Paleolithic. Tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity within Tharus that spread throughout the Terai region attest their occupation of the land for centuries. However, it is interesting that there is little linguistic similarity between the Tharus and the hunter-gatherers of central Nepal suggesting that there may have been very little interactions between the populations of the hills and that of the plains. Furthermore, Rautes that are still nomadic and Rajis that recently gave up nomadic lifestyle may have resided in central Nepal before the advent of agriculture. Many more ethnicities of Nepal may have inhabited the Himalayan foothills since ancient times but little is known about them. Hence, it is really important to investigate the history of all the peoples of Nepal for accurate presentation of Nepali history and their origins as such studies are also interesting from the perspectives of human evolution. Himalayas are believed to have acted as a barrier for gene flow between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. However, the fertile Himalayan foothills with diverse flora and fauna may have been a Mesolithic melting pot for migrants from both the sides of the Himalayas since Mesolithic times. Understanding the origins and demographic histories of present tribes of Nepal may reveal novel aspects of ancient human dynamics in Asia.

In summary, there is abundant evidence that present day Nepal was inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic and a culture unique to Nepal existed by Mesolithic. It is possible that hunter-gatherer populations currently residing in central Nepal, such as Kusundas, Chepangs, Rautes, and Rajis may be the descendents of the Patu people that developed the first culture of Nepal some 7000 years ago. There is a dire need for additional archeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genomic studies to understand the ancient history of Nepal accurately.

[2] Hodgson, B. H. (1848) J. Asiat. Soc. Bengal 17 , 73–78

[3] Forbes, C. J. F. (1877) Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9,No. 2,  pp. 421-424

[4] Reinhard, J. & Toba, T. (1970) A Preliminary Linguistic Analysis and Vocabulary of the Kusunda Language (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Kirtipur, Nepal).

[5] Whitehouse et al. (2004) Kusunda: An Indo-Pacific language in Nepal. PNAS Vol. 101,No. 15, pp. 5692-5695

[6] Watters, D. (2005) Notes on Kusunda grammar (a language isolate of Nepal). Kathmandu: National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities.

[7] Rijal A. 2011. Surviving on knowledge: ethnobotany of Chepang community from midhills of Nepal. Ethnobotany Res Appl 9:181-215.

[8] Rasmussen, M. et al. (2011) An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia. Science Vol. 334, No. 6052, pp.94-98


Filed under Anthropology, Evolution, Human Evolution, My Life My Thoughts, Nepal

Difficulties for Nepalis in obtaining Nepali Citizenships

Sushma Joshi

Nation Weekly Magazine, Sunday November, 7 2004
Hetauda is a one-day trip for Harimaya Praja. The only path to get down to the town is by walking next to the river edge, and the narrow mountain trail is often washed away in places by the rain. Holding her year and a half old son Sanubabu Praja, Harimaya fords raging monsoon waters and emerges soaking wet in her only set of clothes before reaching Manohari, where she pays twenty-five rupees as busfare to get to the district headquarters in Hetauda. Although she has come down three times, March, May and again in October, she has been unable to fulfill her mission – to get her citizenship papers.

Nepali citizenship papers are remarkable difficult to get for bona fide citizens, especially for indigenous groups far away from state bureaucracy. Eighty-five percent of Prajas (the Chepang ethnic group) do not have citizenship. Chepangs have been publicized as a “backward” group. A highly organized national Chepang conference was held in early October in Hetauda, disproving urban myths about Chepang backwardness. Like other ethnic groups, the upper strata of Chepang society have been caught up in the uneven flow of democratization and are informed of contemporary issues. But for many people eking out a living in the hills, information and access to state agencies is still out of reach.

The first hurdle is the requirements – in order to get the certificate, a person needs to prove that a male relative (father, husband etc) had Nepali citizenship. Failing this, a letter from the ward chairman is often taken as proof of residence when the application is registered at the CDO’s office. But women and children living in marginalized communities often have difficulty getting these letters.

Harimaya’s husband, a dhami (shaman) died after a three day illness, vomiting blood. None of her male relatives are alive. The V.D.C chairman has been helpful, but ineffective, in helping her with her citizenship quest.On her first trip, Harimaya was merely given a second date to come into town. On her second appointment, the V.D.C chairman told her he was working hard on her case, but he could not really do anything to help her at that moment, but that she should come again. On her third visit, Harimaya met with some people from local NGOs who could potentially advocate for her case. Many of the suggestions they give her are unfamiliar to her.

With seven children in the house, however, Harimaya cannot stay in town even for one night – she is soon back on the road to get back home so that her thirteen year old daughter, who has been left to cook for her siblings, will not have to do all the work herself. Krishnaprasad Koirala, a neighbour who accompanied Harimaya on her trip, says: “State teams would come to give citizenship certificates until 1998. They no longer come anymore.” The police post in the area has been withdrawn, leaving the area to the Maoists.

The Maoists, upto forty of them, come and demand food from relatively wealthy households, putting people in financial difficulty. Harimaya is poor, and the Maoists do not ask her to feed them, but she is affected by their presence in other ways. There is a Maoist ban on cutting big trees, and Harimaya has left her leaky roof unrepaired for fear of reprisals.

Rumors of a Maoist draft which would take a man from each household prompted Harimaya’s eldest son to go to Kathmandu to find work. The twenty-two year old was stopped at the checkpoint in Thangkot, and asked for “proof.” Unable to show his nagarikta (citizenship certificate) , he was not allowed to enter Kathmandu. Wealthier families, however, do have sons working in construction jobs in Kathmandu. Caught in-between two malevolent forces, young Chepang men await the time when they can escape the land that has become their prison.

Harimaya, because she does not have citizenship papers, is unable to register her land, buy and sell property, and pass on her nationality to her children. “Citizenship creates many rights,” says Sapana Malla of the Forum for Women, Law and Development. “But citizenship is difficult to get for both urban and rural, literate and illiterate people.” Citizenship in Nepal is handed down through a patrilineal line of descent. Unlike men, women are not recognized as kin and they cannot pass on their nationality to their children.

This anachronistic provision in which citizenship is passed only through patrilineal descent exists in few countries, including the most conservative of Muslim countries – Kuwait and Algeria. The fact that women cannot pass on their nationality is a breach of Nepal’s international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“Given the precedence of the Convention over Nepal’s domestic legislation, there is no reason why some very significant steps can not be taken to eliminate that “blatantly discriminatory” legislation against women. Some specific changes can be ensured, even in the absence of Parliament. The citizenship law, in particular, requires serious attention,” Ayse Feride Acar, the Committee Chairperson of CEDAW, said in a closing statement of the meeting in January 2004.

The fact that Nepal did not give the same rights to women nationals of Nepal as it did to its men nationals in passing on citizenship to their offspring “flew in the face” of the Convention, and some urgent action was required, she said. The current discriminatory citizenship law causes difficulties for women who have married foreign citizens, or who are single mothers abandoned by their husbands. This has been an issue especially for women in the Terai who marry Indian citizens across the border. In cases where women have divorced or been abandoned by their husbands, they return to Nepal to find that their children are not eligible for citizenship.

Citizenship is also difficult to acquire for marginalized groups like the Badi, where traditional prostitution makes paternity difficult to establish. The former Kamaiya have also repeatedly asked for easier access to citizenship, without which they cannot process the land that Parliament had allocated for each family. People internally displaced by floods, whose lands have been washed away and who are now squatting on public land, also face special difficulties.

The history of discrimination of citizenship rights in other countries, especially the USA, is an interesting contrast. Women were discriminated against till the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century. Not only were women unable to transmit their U.S. citizenship to children born abroad, they even risked losing their own citizenship when marrying a foreigner. By mid-century, however, legal changes granted equal rights to women. The country’s citizenship laws did not discriminate against women; instead, in one area at least, they discriminated against men.

Operating under the stereotypes that US servicemen were promiscuous with women, the Nationality Act of 1940, for the first time, decreed that unmarried fathers of children born overseas faced prerequisites for transmitting citizenship — prerequisites that women did not encounter. These rules became stricter in later versions of the country’s immigration and naturalization law. The US law’s bias against unmarried fathers means that children born outside of marriage to foreign women are subject to deportation. Indeed, if an American man and a Nepali woman had a child out of wedlock in Nepal, the child would not be eligible for citizenship from either country, and would become stateless.

Nepal’s recent courting of non-resident Nepalis (NRI), in which proposals for dual citizenship was floated, is ironic in light of the discrimination that most residents of the country face in acquiring their citizenship. Activists worry that the Nepali state may soon start distributing citizenship rights to non-residents for their investment capabilities, but exclude its most marginalized citizens. Bribery and corruption is rampant in the process of acquiring citizenship, observers have noted. The process of getting the bureaucracy to move can often be greased with money. And there may lie to clue to why many of Nepal’s poorest citizens remain excluded from their citizenship rights.

The current shut-down of state agencies has left a void in most parts of the country. A peaceful negotiation with Maoists is necessary before state teams start going out and distributing citizenship papers to remote areas. Unsurprisingly, even when the state sent out teams to grant citizenship before 1998, the process was not user-friendly. A child had to be a certain age before they could be registered as citizens. The teams would bump up children’s ages in order to register them, since the state teams was unlikely to visit remote mountainous regions frequently. These problems would still have to be tackled seriously.

A few cosmetic amendments have been made to ease the process of acquiring citizenship, including a clause that allows non-governmental organizations to recommend an individual for citizenship. Legal observers say this right granted to civil society organizations is unprecedented in other parts of the world. While it may work as a short-term remedy, civil organizations cannot permanently take on the responsibilities of the state.Only by changing the Citizenship Act, and the Constitution, will the problem of exclusionary citizenship be completely solved, say legal experts and rights activists. Future changes in the Constitution, of course, are contingent on the restoration of the suspended Parliament.

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