Tag Archives: peoples history of Nepal

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

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