The Tharu story by the Tharu

Multimedia exhibition of Nepal's indigenous people told through their own voice


Patan Museum is a repository of Kathmandu Valley heritage, but in its gallery wing is a temporary multimedia exhibition devoted to the indigenous Tharu people of Nepal’s southern plains. 

As the largest ethnic group in the Tarai, and because of their connection to US-funded malaria eradication in the 1960s, trans-migration of mountain dwellers to their forests in the Rapti Valley, as well as the Maoist conflict, the impact on the Tharu has been extensively analysed.

But most of this research has come from non-Tharu academics. Now, the exhibition Daule Daule aims to highlight the history, culture and inter-generational knowledge and skills of the Tharu people by the Tharu themselves.

“Exhibitions about the Tharu community were mostly from other people and sometimes they gave wrong information,” says Birendra Mahato, one of the curators. “We thought it was important to tell our stories on our own.” 

Daule daule

The exhibition starts with a section dedicated to the Tharu women because it is the women who carry forward the culture. Says another curator Lavkant Chaudhary: “When you enter a Tharu village women are the first people you see and even inside the house from cooking to medicine, they are the ones who have the responsibility.”

Indeed, the very first photograph by Vivek Chaudhary is of Tharu women walking on a foggy morning in Dang with firewood balanced on their heads. Other images play with the same theme: women carrying a water pitcher, grass, baskets.

Daule Daule

Tharu women are perceived to be freer and more empowered because they do not face gender restrictions prevalent among Nepal’s other ethnic groups. Researchers have even called Tharu society matriarchal. 

Indu Tharu in her note accompanying the photographs begs to disagree. She writes that Tharu women are not so much free as ‘persistent’. They  women still need a husband's permission to decide matters, and the Tharu are not matriarchal unless matriarchy means ‘leaving parent’s house and staying at the husband's house after marriage … or giving birth to as many babies as the family wishes … or until a son is born’. 

daule daule

Tharu women are often photographed in full traditional regalia of ornaments. But the exhibition has pictures of Tharu women working at home, in fields and participating in political movements from the abolishment of the Kamaiya and Kamlari system to the Tharuhat movement, showing their resistance. 

daule daule

In the corner of the exhibition hangs a painting of a Tharu woman, Parbati Chaudhary with her baby on her back. During the Tikapur riots, Parbati’s husband, who has a disability, was also apprehended by the police. Parbati then joined the movement carrying her baby with her. The photos from the movements and the painting serve as a reminder of the historical injustices in the hands of the state. 

Tharu women are now venturing into fields that were once male-dominated. There are photos of female mahouts bathing elephants, showing the continuity of the human-animal relationship that the Tharus traditionally practiced. 

Daule Daule

Also included in the exhibition are photos of body art that adorns the back, hands and legs of the Tharu women. In the community, tattooing is a skill passed to daughter by their mothers and is not only an art form but is also used as therapy, the belief that it eases pain. 

“Tattoos are not only an important way of sharing inter-generational knowledge but there is also a belief that when one dies, the tattoo travels into the afterlife,” explains Lavkant Chaudhary.

Daule daule

One wall of the gallery is festooned with fishing nets and tools, providing a glimpse of the Tharu lifestyle in forests, grasslands and rivers. With changing times, traditional Tharu fishing areas are protected, threatening a way of life and the skills and knowledge amassed through generations.

Most of Tharu activities are collective, and are sustainable. They do not fish alone, the women go to the forests in groups to collect clay which they beat into pottery. This skill is dying which is why photographic documentation is so important. 

The curatorial team is later planning on taking the exhibition to other parts of Nepal as well. Younger generations of Tharus who grew up in the capital and non-Tharus not able to visit the Tharu museum in Chitwan will learn a lot from this show.

Daule Daule 

Curated by Birendra Mahato, Indu Tharu, Sanjib Chaudhary, Lavkant Chaudhary, Arnab Chaudhary, Maria Bossert and Tom Robertson 

Patan Museum, Until 31 March

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