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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.)


Filed under Anthropology, Nepal