Chitwan’s Bote people in a changing world

Little known fishing community clings to life at the edge of the jungle

All photos: Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar

A tourist trip to Chitwan National Park usually includes interaction with the Tharu community. But most visitors do not get to see the region’s lesser known indigenous people, the Bote.

The Tharu are known for their unique culture and artistic decorations manifested on walls, verandahs and household items. And while the Tharu are known as the people of the forest, the Bote are the river people.

They mostly live along the East Rapti and Narayani rivers bordering Chitwan National Park, although there are some Bote settlements in Gorkha, Tanahu and Lamjung. The Bote are one of the least known and dwindling indigenous groups in Nepal. According to the 2011 census, there are only 2,830 speaking the Bot language as a mother tongue.

Whereas transmigration of mountain settlers in the 1960s cleared the forests and displaced the Tharu, the expansion of Chitwan’s highway towns and a tourism boom encroached on the habitation of the Bote along the riverbanks. When traditional fishing and foraging of the Bote was restricted after the Chitwan National Park was established, the community moved to agriculture.

Lately, they have also adapted to other trades like carpentry, motorcycle repairs and even auto rickshaw driving. However, in a Bote village near Sauraha three or four households still fish among the rhinos and crocodiles at the edge of the Chitwan National Park.

Dusk settles stealthily on the banks of the meandering East Rapti which marks the boundary between the Chitwan National Park and the tourist village of Sauraha, semi-deserted these days because of the pandemic.

Asian Pied-Hornbills, spotted doves and kingfishers flit from one branch to another of tall sal trees surrounding the tiny village. A group of men loiters around the thatched mud hut of Rishiram Bote (right).

Rishiram’s wife and daughters go about the household chores of feeding their pet dogs, hen and goats, sweeping mud floors and washing utensils at the tube well. The boys play football. In between all the activities, everyone keeps looking towards the river expectantly.

The sun is now low in the hazy sky, and in the golden light two small dugouts carved out of simal logs pull up at the bank. Unlike the longer canoes that ferry tourists and forest department personnel, these boats accommodate only two people.

The women and children run towards the canoes with plastic basins and sharp machetes. Rishiram and three fishermen jump off the boats with small handheld fishing nets that are brimming with bighead carps, silver carps, rohu, naini, mrigal, silver fish, catfish and eels.

There are 120 species of fish found in the cool, slow-moving waters of the Rapti. Some of them are big, and there have been catches of up to 10kg. The licensed Bote fishermen are not allowed by the national park to use longer nets which would entangle crocodiles, and also make fishing unsustainable. The Bote fish for their own community, and have to be satisfied with whatever they can haul in their smaller nets.

The women unload the fish, weigh and sell them to the men who have gathered to inspect the evening catch. They are regular customers, mostly hotel and restaurant owners from Sauraha who wait around for the boats to return. They can resell the fish at triple the cost price in town. Within minutes, the entire lot is gone. It has been a good day.

On other days when there are some unsold, the Bote dry the fish and consume it themselves. The catch varies from day to day, with fewer fish in winter. Rishiram leaves at 6AM when it is still dark, paddling into the thick fog of the Rapti and returning late. The national park rules do not allow them to fish at night, and the Bote existence is hand-to-mouth.

Living on the edge

The Bote literally live on the edge – the edge of jungle, and the edge of the rapidly urbanising inner plains of Chitwan Valley. Modernisation has pushed them to adapt to a monetised, mostly tourism dependent economy of the district. And the national park, with its endangered and protected animals, keeps them out. This is life along the periphery of human habitation, and at the fringes of a protected nature reserve.

It can be dangerous floating along these crocodile infested waters and the tall grass of the Rapti floodplain which is the favourite habitat of tigers and rhinos. Sometimes, fish-eating gharial crocodiles get entangled in the nets, and although setting them free can be dangerous, the Bote are forbidden from harming the rare reptiles.

Gharials, with their long snouts and razor sharp teeth have to be disentangled with great care, and there are always park rangers watching through binoculars from sentry towers along the river. The Park warden has trained them to follow instructions on fishing, the do’s and dont’s. For example, after disentangling them, the gharials have to be taken to the breeding centre at Kasara.

The larger mugger crocodiles are even more dangerous, and the Bote have lost friends and family to them. A few months ago, Rishiram’s friend’s body was found 50km downstream from where he was last seen. During the monsoon, the Rapti’s waters rise and the crocodiles come right up to the huts. They are shooed away with sticks, sometimes unsuccessfully.

In the misty winter mornings, the tall, thick elephant grass has rhinoceroses, tigers and sometimes even wild elephants, lurking in them. The fishermen and rhinos frequently cross paths. On one such cold morning, Rishiram’s uncle had gone into the forest with his nets, and he saw the rhino too late. It charged, and gored him.

Encountering tigers and wild elephants can be a risky affair. Especially if it happens to be Ronaldo, a rogue elephant which keeps himself entertained by entering villages and mauling inhabitants every year. Villagers usually ward off the wild elephants that come in search of food with electrified barbed wire fences.

However, the intelligence quotient of elephants is legendary. They know when there is a power cut and listen to the sounds of generators, and vibrations in the wires, to determine when the wires do not carry a current. The villagers then have to resort to lighting fires to keep the animals out, as well as keep themselves warm.

Sidelined existence

The main livelihood of the Bote is fishing, paddling boats, gold-panning, collecting wood, and harvesting elephant grass and edible ferns from the forest. However, since the Chitwan National Park was established, fishing activities have been regulated with strict guidelines. Some now grow crops in their limited land by the river. They also sell chicken, eggs and elephant grass, and buy dal, rice and buffalo meat to supplement their own supply of fish, mutton, chicken and homegrown vegetables.

They now have solar-powered lights, but the homes are still plastered with mud and cow dung. The roofing is made from elephant grass, which is harvested once a year in spring when the Park is open for collection, and have to be rethatched annually. Rishiram and his brothers Parshuram, Dipak and Pardeep are the last few members of the Bote community in Sauraha. There are a few more Botes living down the river in Pathiani. Chitwan is, however, dominated by the better-known Tharu who have cleverly showcased their culture to attract tourists.

Very few people have heard of the Bote, even in Nepal. Being  more under-served than the Tharu, the Bote and Majhi communities of Chitwan are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The Bote language, dress, dances and songs are indigenous, and endangered as the way of life of these people is transformed.

The Bote language is Indo-European but does not have a script, and is distinct from the Tharu and other indigenous languages here. The link language with other communities is therefore Nepali, and as children go to school, they are losing touch with their mother tongue.

Origin and relocation

There are two possible origins of the name ‘Bote’. Besides fishing, the community was known for laying tree trunks or branches across rivers to build makeshift seasonal bridges to allow people to cross. ‘Bot’ means a tree, and it could be that Nepali speakers started calling them Bote.

The other possibility might be that since they did not own land or houses, and took shelter under trees on the waterfront, they  came to be known as Bote, since their existence revolved around the river.

Many members of the community have moved on from Chitwan in search of greener pastures. The traditional livelihoods are being gradually replaced by agriculture and other trading activities that generate better income. The Chitwan National Park, which restricted their fishing tradition, has given some of them auto-rickshaws under an instalment scheme as an alternative to their traditional lifelihood.

But Rishiram’s family has stayed on, and is one of the few that still make a living from fishing. He could not continue his studies as he had to become the provider of the family from a young age. But he encourages his own children to get an education and pursue their dreams.

The four children and Parshuram’s two sons want to continue their studies though they are yet unsure of their professional goals. Their school timings do not allow them to go fishing with their fathers, hence their interest in the traditional occupation of their community has waned. The girls go to school where they learn Nepali, English and Mathematics. They also help in the housework. They speak a smattering of Hindi, thanks to watching popular Hindi movies on television.

The transformation of Bote lives, their adversities and poverty, have not been able to erode their filial bonds. Community ties are still strong. Bote families find dignity in working together, and they approach life with plenty of smiles and pride in who they are.

As with other communities in Nepal, change is rapid and relentless. Literacy and income generation can help Rishiram Bote and others lift themselves from their subsistence lifestyles without erasing too much of their precious culture, heritage. Programs to uplift their socio-economic status involving tourism and conservation could combine their traditions with modernity, and help preserve what is best in the Bote way of life.

Distance from Kathmandu to Chitwan: 175 km

Fly to Chitwan: Daily flights from Pokhra and Kathmandu to Bharatpur airport, Nepal

Flight duration: 20 mins

By road: Prithvi Highway from Kathmandu, turn south at Mugling

Driving time: 4-5 hours

Best time to go: October to March

Wildlife viewing: April-May

Jungle Tours: Half-day, Full-Day Jeep Safaris, Overnight homestays in the jungle, Jungle treks

Bote village: Your local guide can take you (no scheduled tours)

Tharu cultural village tour: 3 hours any day, any season

Sauraha and Pathiani: Auto-rickshaws available on hire

Sravasti Ghosh Dastidar is a photographer, travel and lifestyle journalist. She has a content writing firm Sravasti's and an e-commerce website for eco-friendly greeting cards and pens.