5 Myths about the Tharu

One misconception about the Tharu people is that they never got malaria. In fact they did, but less than hill settlers. A US-led insecticide spraying campaign against malaria in Chitwan in the 1950s. Photo: USOM RECORDS, US NATIONAL ARCHIVES, COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND.

The Tharu make up 5% of Nepal’s population. One in every 20 Nepalis is Tharu. They outnumber the Gurung, Limbu, and Newa peoples. And yet, most Nepalis often know very little about Tharu culture and history. There are many things told about the Tharu. Most are wrong.

The first day of the Nepali month of  माघ which this year falls on 14 January is ‘Maaghi’, the Tharu new year. Chitwan Tharu celebrate the day with pwakaa (पोका in Nepali) -- anadi sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves reheated in the coals of a fire. Dangaura Tharu in western Nepal celebrate with feasts and dancing. They also elect new community leaders known as barghar.

Maagh 1 is also the day when tenants would decide whether to continue with their landlords--some of whom were Tharu and some पहाडी hill people-- or move elsewhere. Before the 1950s, because labourers were hard to find to work in the malarious animal infested Tarai, they had more leverage over the terms of their work than in later years.

Several different Tharu groups live across the Tarai, each with its own language: The Kochila in the East, the Chitwan Tharu in the central area, and Dangaura, Deshauria, and Rana Tharu in the western Tarai. One anthropologist wrote a book about Nepal's Tharu called Many Tongues, One People.

The Tharu are the original inhabitants of much of the Tarai, because although they sometimes got malaria, they got it less often and with less severe consequences than hill people and people from the plains.

The malaria eradication project in the 1960s dramatically changed Tharu lives. In Chitwan, for instance, in 1955 the Tharu (and related groups such as the Bote and Darai) formed almost 100% of the region's population of 25,000. By 1970, they had dropped to 14% of the population as 125,000 migrants moved in during those years.

Birendra Mahato, Director of the Chitwan Tharu Culture Museum outside Sauraha, says: "Tourist guides and hotel owners used to spread very inaccurate ideas. They often put us down. Now NTNC (National Trust for Nature Conservation) is giving training to new guides. They now have a much better idea."

Indeed, there are several misunderstandings about Tharu communities. Some of them are:   

Misconception 1: Historically, The Tharu Were Hunters

The Truth: Tharu were farmers who herded cattle and fished but did not hunt.

In The Kings of Nepal & the Tharu of the Tarai, Gisele Krauskopff writes: ‘The hunting practices of the Tharu have been stressed in many hunters’ books and are part of the biased image of ‘the savage forest dwellers.’ But hunting, and especially hunting as a subsistence technique to provide meat, is not central to the Tharu way of life...Their subsistence is based on a close relationship between paddy cultivation and fishing. The Tharu used to live near the forest, but not in it. They were first and foremost forest clearers, which means that the forest had to be pushed back.’ 

Misconception 2: The Tharu Lived in an Ancient Tarai Forest

The Truth: Tharu lived not in the forest but near it, often near grasslands, and over the years the forest grew and fell back.

Krauskopff writes: ‘Because of the relative isolation of the Tarai, a previously malaria-infested land, prejudiced observers of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries created a false image of the Tharu...as savage dwellers of a primeval forest -- which the Tarai is not. Old kingdoms have risen and fallen there for at least 2000 years. The forest retreated when farming expanded under prosperous political conditions; the jungle took over in times of instability and conflict.’

Misconception 3: Tharu Are Uncivilised जंगली

The Truth: The Tharu made many ingenious adaptations to their Tarai environment

According to this derogatory inaccuracy, the Tharu are forest dwellers little smarter than animals. They lack knowledge and skills. They collect forest products but don't use their brains. They do not farm. They are ignorant of the outside world. They are too backward to wear clothes.

"Even now some people in Kathmandu and Pokhara call us uncivilised," says museum director Mahato. "The Tharu live in the jungle, they say. Many hill people don't know about the Tarai."

But in fact, the Tharu have developed many skills useful for their Tarai environment: agriculture, irrigation, house construction, fishing, handicrafts, herbal medicine, forest vegetables, midwifery, wood carving, and animal domestication. All require deep knowledge about the environment.

"If Tharu weren't smart in this environment, they couldn't have survived. They were knowledgeable in irrigation, agriculture, जडीबुटी herbs, and fishing. They were skilled in lots of things. That was civilised."

When outsiders from the hills came to places like Chitwan, they often misunderstood because the Tharu had unfamiliar habits and spoke their own languages. Migrants learned from the Tharu about irrigation, wild animals, and Tarai agriculture. Some learned the Tharu language and respected the Tharu and their traditions. 

Misconception 4: The Tharu Never Got Malaria

The Truth: Tharu got malaria less often than other groups, and died less often than others, but infants often got it, and some died.

Many outsiders, and even some Tharu themselves, think that the Tharu never got malaria. They say Tharu did not get malaria because they ate snails, rice liquor, and spicy chilies. This is wrong. Elderly Tharu will tell you about malaria fever and shivers.

Tharu got malaria and sometimes died from it. ‘It should be remembered that resistance to malaria is acquired after a certain time and that even in a generally resistant population,’ writes Giselle Krauskopff. ‘Tharu children died of malarial fever.’

Compared to hill Nepalis, the Tharu acquired malaria less often and with fewer consequences. They had genetic immunities-- high rates of alpha-thalassemia, a genetic pattern common in populations who have lived in malarial areas for generations that reduces both vivax and falciparum malaria, decreasing morbidity by up to tenfold. They also acquired immunities: Those who survived one or two malarial fevers often developed an ability to fight off later attacks.

These immunities meant that malaria posed less of a threat to those who survived infancy. But there was a high infant death rate. A visiting journalist noted in 1962: ‘In hundreds of villages, the child population was destined for malaria in their first year of life as surely as if the mosquitoes flew in with a list of names of the newly-born.’

Mahato says, "Sometimes outsiders, and even the Tharu themselves, say the Tharu never got malaria. Both are wrong. Sometimes I get into arguments with Tharu people who say this. They say to me “नचाहिने कुरा किन गर्छस?” Many are politicised. Older Tharus tell me that they got it."

To say the Tharu sometimes got malaria should not undercut the argument that the malaria and resettlement programs of the 1950s and 1960s often misunderstood, overlooked, and pushed aside Tharu interests.

Misconception 5: Tharu Society Was Disconnected from Nepali Society

The Truth: Tharu groups before the 1960s had many interactions with other Nepalis and the Kathmandu government. 

Tourist brochures often describe Tharu society with phrases such as ‘untouched by civilization’, ‘timeless’, ‘in total isolation’, ‘living in another time’, and ‘forgotten by civilisation’.

That is hardly the case. Even during malaria days, the Tharu had regular contact with groups from both the north and the south. Traders from the north would come every winter. In many places, Tharu tenants worked for hill landlords. The Tharu worked for the Nepal's rulers as land clearers and tax collectors. In some places, Rana and other elite visited Tharu areas for huge hunting expeditions. They relied upon Tharu workers to build roads, provide supplies, drive elephants, and find tigers.

That said, it is true that the Tarai's malaria limited the interactions of the Tharu with outside groups, and gave them limited autonomy.

To learn more about the richness and complexity of Tharu life, please read any of the books cited here or visit the Chitwan Tharu Culture museum near Sauraha, Chitwan. Happy New Year.


Americans deride Tharu knowledge, 1959

These official US photos compare traditional Tharu agriculture and modern 'scientific' agriculture. The images appeared on facing pages of a book produced in 1959 by the US government to celebrate its assistance to Chitwan and Nepal. At the time, the US ran a large resettlement program in Chitwan. American officials often wrongly saw the Chitwan Tharu as part of an outdated past. According to the implied narrative in the photos, the Chitwan valley was evolving from unproductive 'backward' traditions to super-productive, science-based civilisation along the lines of the American Midwest. The photos suggested that the Tharu had little to offer this new Nepal. That was wrong. Tharu taught migrants many things. Some of the new methods succeeded, but some often failed or brought environmental problems.

Rescuing Tharu history from the shadows

Rana hunting expeditions couldn't have happened without expert Tharu mahouts, as this 1913 photo (above) from a hunt connected to Tribhuvan's coronation shows. But Tharus themselves rarely hunted. Instead they farmed, grazed cattle and buffalo, fished, trapped small animals, and gathered herbs and other resources from the grasslands and forests.


Writings on Recent Tharu History

Dr. Gisele Krauskopff. ‘From Jungles to Farms: A Look at Tharu History’ in The Kings of Nepal & the Tharu of the Tarai, ed. Pamela Meyer (Los Angeles: Rusca Press, 2000).

Dr. Arjun Guneratne. ‘The Tharu of Chitwan, Nepal’. In Disappearing Peoples?: Indigenous Groups and Ethnic Minorities in South and Central Asia, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston and Barbara Brower (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 91–106.

Guneratne, Arjun. Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Muller-Boker, Ulrike. The Chitwan Tharus in Southern Nepal: An Ethnoecological Approach. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.

Thomas Robertson. ‘DDT and the Cold War Jungle: American Environmental and Social Engineering in the Rapti Valley of Nepal’. Journal of American History 104, no. 4 (March 1, 2018): 904–30.

Locke, Piers. “The Tharu, the Tarai and the History of the Nepali Hattisar.” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research. 38 (2011): 61–82.

Read also:

How Chitwan was Opened by Tom Robertson

The Insect that Changed Nepal's History by Tom Robertson

Tom Robertson, PhD is a historian and creator of the मिठो लेखाई videos on writing technique. He has been researching malaria and Tharu history since 2007, and is an adviser to the Chitwan Tharu Culture Museum.

Tom Robertson


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