A mine of stories from GurjaThis hidden village in the shadow of Mt Dhaulagiri is a microcosm of rural Nepal
In October 2018, Gurja Himal in one of the most inaccessible parts of Nepal came to sudden world attention. A Korean expedition attempting to climb the sheer south face of this magnificent peak in the Dhaulagiri massif was hit by an avalanche. The entire Base Camp at 3,500m was blown away by the air blast, killing five Korean and four Nepali climbers.
Even so, very few know about Gurja Khani, a former copper mining village at the foot of 7,193m Gurja Himal. The nearest village of Lulang lies a full day’s walk to the south across steep ridges and deep gorges, and from there it is another few days walk to the road from Beni.
The shortest and easiest trail to the village is across the 3,250m high Gurja Deorali pass, writes social researcher Joy Stephens in the first few pages of her new photo book Gurja Khani: Hidden village of the Himalaya. She adds, ‘Such isolation has slowed the pace of change and built a community of resilient mountain people.’
It was the search for mineral ore that first drew Chhantyal miners to the Dhaulagiri area, and Gurja Khani owes its existence to the discovery of copper lodes in the mountains. After the indigenous Chhantyals came the Biswakarma metal-workers, forging a unique copper extraction partnership between the two.
Before long, mining ceased due to the high taxes and cheap Indian aluminium utensils. Villagers turned to subsistence farming and wage labour but increasingly, youth from this village of 260 households are migrating to the cities or abroad.
Stephens divides Gurja Khani into the lives of women, men, children and the elderly, and is an intimate look at a forgotten people from a forgotten part of the country.
In one chapter, Belmoti Pariyar of Road of Life Homestay recites from her daughter’s poem: ‘Life is like a trek in Nepal, up and down, up and down.’ This is in essence life in Gurja Khani, beautiful but difficult.
When Belsara Biswokarma, 22, went into labour she bled profusely, passing in and out of consciousness. A junior paramedic in attendance could only do so much. Villagers then put her in a cloth sling between two poles to carry her to a health post in Lulang.
‘They ran down the treacherous zig-zag steps to the river, and I was swinging from side to side. I was terrified they were going to stumble and fling me into the gorge,’ Belsara tells Stephens. ‘But we crossed the river and halfway up the mountain, I felt these enormous contractions. I could feel the baby’s head between my legs.’
Amrita Biswakarma was abducted by her husband when she was 16, as per the common practice of ‘kidnap marriage’ which Stephens is not so judgemental about. ‘Even though they are traumatised at the time, it appears that once married they are well-treated by their husbands, and love or happiness grows with time,’ she writes.
After 13 years of marriage, Amrita is happy with three children, but is sad that her husband is once again leaving to work in Qatar. Many men even from these remotest regions of Nepal migrate to India or the Gulf for work.
Children attend the local public school but most drop out. From an early age, they have to help parents with household chores, herding and fieldwork. Baby-sitting is an after-school activity.
Ward chair Jhak Bahadur Chhantyal is ever occupied, pleading and cajoling people in his effort to improve life in the village. He ran as the Maoist party candidate in recent elections and says he joined the Maoists because they represented change.
‘But I don’t believe we can realise our vision by force. First, we must win the minds of the people. In hindsight, the People’s War was not right,’ he tells Stephens. Jhak Bahadur once tried to go abroad for work, but a recruiter absconded with his borrowed Rs800,000 down payment. Besides being an elected official, he is a teacher in Gurja Khani.
The last few pages of the book are dedicated to the Chhantyal’s reverence for nature and ancestor spirits, and faith in Shamanism. They consider the 2018 Gurja Himal tragedy as the wrath of the mountain deity for humans defiling nature.
Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.