The Subcontinent's original people live on in Nepal

Tracing the origin and influence of Nepal's Uranw people who speak the country's only Dravidian language

Photo: BECHAN URANW

They are nature worshippers and do not have temples. They divide their clans by totems named after animals, plants, or flowers, none of which they harm. They are the Uranw aboriginal people of southeast Nepal and theirs is the only Dravidian language in the country.

The Uranw now number just 40,000, and most are landless. Though living on the margins of mainstream Nepali society, their unique culture and language is not just surviving, but thriving.

Their tenacious existence in the face of modernity is a consistent feature of their millennia old folklore and mythology in the Subcontinent. So is their sense of loss of land, status, and privilege.

Girl: You are going to chop the branches of the Karam tree

You are running inside crabs' holes

Boy: You are going to collect the Kakodo flower

You are travelling inside crabs' holes

Sung during an important process of the Karam Puja, this is the origin story of the Uranw who believe they were born from crab holes. Their supreme being is Dharmesh who created the world, the earth, water, land, animals, plants, and all living beings. 

One day, Pachho, the goddess of nature, said to Dharmesh, let us go to the earth and take a look. They came upon a place called Sirasita Nale, which is believed to be the Saraswati River on the banks of which the Indus Valley civilisation once flourished. 

Uranw in Nepal
The community with the statues of Dharmesh, Pacho, and the two first Oraon children.

Dharmesh spotted two crabs inside a hole, a brother and sister. Dharmesh brought them out, and taught them how to live in harmony with nature. The two created and multiplied, and the Uranw are descended from them. The myth links the Uranw to the Indus Valley, a Dravidian civilisation.

“It is accepted that the Uranw ruled in Rohtasgadh of Bihar until the sixth century. Then the Mughals came and finally prevailed,” explains Bechan Uranw of the Uranw Adivasi Pratisthan.

In their book Oraon of Nepal Janak Rai and Bechan Uranw write that neighbouring kingdoms envied the prosperity of the Uranw nation. They found a vulnerability: the festival to commemorate ancestors during which the men would be inebriated on rice beer. 

‘Uranw men and women kept long hair back then. So, it was hard to tell men and women apart,’ the authors write. ‘But the women gathered and routed the invaders. The Uranw fighters led by their princesses Singi Dae and Kaile Dae defeated the Mughals twice.’

The Mughal commanders could not believe that they were defeated by women, and brought in reinforcements and killed everyone with long hair: men and women. Today, Singi Dae and Kaili Dae are worshipped as clan deities.

Until the 16th century, the Uranw had a prosperous and powerful kingdom with a king named Uraongan Thakur. After the Mogul defeat, they scattered to Bengal, Assam, and some followed the Kosi River upstream into Nepal, where they have been living since the beginning of the 1700s.

The Unranw were immune from malaria and could live in the Tarai jungles, and had a free run of the place. The Shah kings needed the Uranw not just to clear the forest and make the Tarai habitable and fertile, but also to support them. 

From the Rana regime through to the reign of King Mahendra, hunting brought the Uranw close to the royalty, and also gave them high status, including exemption from the state land tax. 

The Uranw were also awarded a medal in 1956 on King Mahendra’s birthday, and a postage stamp (pictured) was issued in 1976 depicting them dancing with the caption 'Jhangad Nach'.

Uranw in Nepal

But hunting and foraging based lifestyle was slowly vanishing across the Tarai, to be replaced by farming. The Uranw did not own the land, so could not prosper. 

Bechan Uranw and Janak Rai write in their book that settlers from the hills who had access to political power began to appropriate Uranw land through trickery, manipulation or force, relegating the Uranw to be sharecroppers in their own land.

Lack of education was a factor in the Urawn not having land titles. “In the past, the Uranw did not want to educate their children. What is the point of education, people asked,” Bechan explains.

The fate of the Uranw is similar to many of Nepal’s indigenous communities that lived in the malaria-infested Tarai before outside settlers arrived, and have now been relegated to the margins.

In her Master’s thesis, Bina Bhattarai writes that landlessness has driven most Uranw to become day labourers pulling rickshaws or rearing livestock. 

Adaptation to the dominant community changed Uranw culture, on the one hand acculturating them to new things, and on the other hand, marginalising them. 

Sundi Mundi is an important part of the Tihar festival for the Uranw of Nepal, and they share their festival songs with the Mundas. While some of them are in the Dravidian tongue of Kudukh, many of them are in Sadri, an Indo-European language. 

The Kudukh is the northernmost of the Dravidian languages, and differs from how they are spoken in southern India. Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have long, documented histories, with Tamil considered India's second oldest language. Their well-developed script and rich literature rival any ancient language in the world.

But the Kudukh of the Uranw does not even have a script, let alone written literature or documented history. 

In areas dominated by Indo-European languages, most Uranws began speaking whatever language community they lived close to – those in Bengal speaking Bengali, those in Assam taking up Assamese, and those in Nepal speaking Nepali. To communicate between and among these languages, they relied on Sadri.

“Living with dominant communities naturally impacts language as well, and many of our songs are in Sadri language, or close to Hindi. Constant migration meant that we had to learn other languages along the way,” says Sangeeta Uranw (pictured), a theatre artist.

Uranw in Nepal
Sangeets Uranw

Sadri is close to Bhojpuri and has become the language of the Uranw too. In losing the influence of their language, the Kudukh speakers have also lost the name of their language, and are called Dhangad or Jhangad, as in the 1976 Nepali postage stamp.

“Dhangad or Jhangad means a servant who works in rice fields. In Nepal, the name was associated with people who cleared forests (jhadi). It is a disrespectful term given to us by outsiders, so we do not use it,” says Bechan. “Even the name Uranw was given by other communities, but it means 'man’, so we have accepted it. But we continue to call ourselves Kudukh.”

Today, the Uranw are striving to improve their lot through education, identity groups like the Uranw Adivasi Janjati Pratisthan, and national and international alliances. In Oraon of Nepal, Janak Rai and Bechan Uranw document another story full of their sense of loss. It also portrays their dreams of a revival of all that they had.

The Karam Puja is a major festival of the Uranw community that venerates nature and human connections without any deity, idol, or temple.

As with most agrarian communities, the festival is linked to the agricultural cycle and the Karam Puja follows the planting of rice. The Karam tree (Nauclea parvifolia) is central to the festival. Community members plant seeds which will sprout, and on the day of festival branches of the marked Karam tree are brought together with crab flowers. They store them all on the roof of a community leader called Neg.

On the evening of the puja, the community members all go to an open ground with offerings of food. “When everyone walks to the same place with lamps in hand, the whole village shines,” says Sangeeta Uranw.

The Karam branch is brought down from the Neg's house and installed in the middle. It is worshipped with all the offerings, and the people then proceed to sing and dance around the branch through the night. 

“The Karam Puja contains the Uranw philosophy that work and worship (karma and dharma) must go together,” says Bechan Uranw. 

The men line up in one row and the women line up in another and dance in sync, changing steps every few minutes to the note of a whistle. Many of these dance steps have found their way into Nepali films, some of them becoming iconic 'folk dance' moves.

Men and women of all ages, and relationships participate enthusiastically, and the dance goes on all night, and all next day.

“It's so much fun, you don't get tired,” says Sangeeta Uranw. “People come from different villages, boys and girls are smiling at each other and flirting, and maybe your crush is there too, dancing in the group.”

The morning after, one group takes the Karam branch and goes from house to house, where people give them food and other offerings they may have. The rest of the people continue to dance until evening. Finally, the Karam branches are let afloat in a nearby river, ending the festival. 

Sewa Bhattarai’s series, On The Margins, focuses on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's marginalised communities.

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