Songlines of the rivers and forests

Tharu songs plumb the depths of emotion as Nepal’s indigenous people grapple with modernity

All Photos: Shristi Buddha Magar

The Tharu made up 6.2% of Nepal’s population in the 2021 census in 2021, outnumbering other indigenous communities: the Tamang, Newa, Limbu and Gurung peoples. 

The rest of the country has just begun to learn about the unique history and heritage of the Tharu people, the important role they play in Nepal’s conservation as well as increasing engagement in national politics. But the rich tradition of Tharu songs and music are less well known.

There are songs for every occasion: Maagar songs for auspicious occasions, Barkimar and Sakhiya dances for Dasain, Dhamar and Maghauta for Maghi. 

The Tharu people traditionally live along the malarial jungles along Nepal’s southern plains bordering India. But from east to west there is great diversity among the Tharu people and language, and this is reflected in their songs.

Read also: Bridging the Andes and Himalaya with music, Sewa Bhattarai

Songlines of the rivers and forests NT

With YouTube and social media, some genres of Tharu music are going commercial and gaining popularity. But others languish in obscurity. For instance, Jhumra is a genre of songs sung during Dasain and other fun moments have become popular on the Internet.

It used to be only men who sang and danced the Jhumra. Although the Tharu community does have occasions for women to dance, those are celebrations rather than performances. 

For example, all girls of the village are allowed to sway to group dances like Sakhiya and Barkimar. But, Jhumra is more of a performance where only two people dance for the entertainment of the rest.

“Parents have no problems if girls dance to Sakhiya and Barkimar, because everyone is dancing. But they hesitate to let girls perform the Jhumra,” explains Basanti Chaudhary of Dang, a commercial singer from the community. “Men even used to dress up as women to perform that dance.”

Read also: The last of the Kusunda, Sewa Bhattarai

Songlines of the rivers and forests NT

Chaudhary has recorded many Jhumra songs, and also performs them on stage. It was her maternal grandmother who inspired her to take up music. 

“She was quite advanced for her generation. She used to play the madal and harmonium and make everyone dance. All the other dancers used to be male,” she recalls.

Jhumra is easy to dance to and fits any festive occasion. It is popular on YouTube, in Tharu films, and in music festivals, and many women dance to it. “Jhumra is a colourful world, we sing it when we want to sing and dance and have fun,” says Chaudhary.

An example of the lyrics of a duet by Basanti Chaudhary: 

Man: If a sackful of money is required, so be it

But I will not give up this pretty girl

Woman: I will dance in the yard

But I will only exchange my beauty for money

Read also: Tibetan music in Nepal’s sacred valley, Sewa Bhattarai

Songlines of the rivers and forests NT
Photo: Sewa Bhattarai

Chaudhary is not just a commercial singer, but is also interested in the cultural roots of her community, and tries to preserve songs that reflect Tharu culture. 

Recently, with the help of the music festival 'Echoes in the Valley', she worked with musicians Simma Rai and Hishi Dolma Sherpa to revive Sajana, a popular melody in Tharu culture.

Sajana is sung from Saraswati Puja in December to Hareri Puja in August to invite rains if they are late. Or, women in distress also sing it to communicate with their husband and family.

Chaudhary, Rai and Sherpa learned these songs from a Tharu elder, Nirmala, and then recreated the song with modern music. The song is now on YouTube, and they also performed it at the Echoes in the Valley Festival in March.

Read also: Eastern melodies in Kathmandu, Sewa Bhattarai

Singer Basanti Chaudhary brings us a bhajhan--sung to console people after the death of a beloved one--and a few other Tharu songs from Dang.

We went fishing

In the Rapti river

The angar katuwa insect

Bit my toe

I sat on the shore and cried

The Bhauji takes the Tapiya basket

The Nandi takes the Helaka basket

The Bhauji kills Raini fish

The Nandi nets in tiny shrimp fish

The song depicts the Tharu livelihood of fishing in rivers, and the role of different kinds of equipment and fish in their lives. The songs entertain as well as educate about Tharu culture and are gaining new audiences through the Internet. Songs considered ‘serious’, however, are still confined within the community.

One such solemn song is sung to console relatives after a death in the family, and incorporates belief in rebirth. 

Read also: Still dancing and singing for Nepal revolution, Sewa Bhattarai

Songlines of the rivers and forests NT

O soul, let's go to that country

Where the dear, true Lord lives

O soul, O soul

Where will you make a home now?

You have forgotten the stress of attachments

Half the sinners are gone

And the mortal body is still on the way

“Death is inevitable after birth. If your loved one is dead, how do you console such a person? The body is here, but the soul is gone. Our mortal body is a sinful one. It is here today, and gone tomorrow,” Chaudhary explains. “Tharu bhajan are very touching. We can use them to revive lives devastated by the loss of a loved one.”

The song portrays the mortal body as transient, and the soul as permanent. In essence, this song contains the spirit of the Nirgun philosophy, which holds that death is not the end, but the beginning of a journey to the divine. The song expresses the immortality of the soul, the transitory nature of the material world, the longing for liberation from the cycle of birth and death, and the desire to be one with the divine.

The fact that the song has captured such a vast philosophy in very succinct words is proof that music is not just entertainment, that music can portray the full spectrum of human experiences and plumb the depths of human emotions.

Read also: A gift of music to Nepal's children, Marty Logan

Songlines of the rivers and forests NT

The Nirgun tradition has deep roots in South Asia, it believes that attachment and sensory experiences lead to sorrow, the world is illusory, the body is impermanent and only the soul is permanent. Concepts like these can be found in ancient scriptures like Mahabharata, Bhagawad Gita, in the teachings of the Buddha, and in modern times in Nepal in the Ramayana of Bhanubhakta.

Even though Tharu songs are now going commercial and widely disseminated, spiritual songs still have only limited reach. Other communities in Nepal also have songs to provide solace in difficult times, and open doors to knowledge and philosophy. But many languish in obscurity awaiting younger generations to take notice.

Tharu songs are an example of the increasing market for entertainment and dance numbers in indigenous languages of Nepal, but we may have to wait for the time for more serious lyrics and melodies to gain wider listenership. 

Read also: Ghatu dance of Lamjung, Sewa Bhattarai

Sewa Bhattarai is a freelance journalist. Her series, On The Margins, will focus on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's marginalised communities.

Sewa Bhattarai

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