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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thakalis: A Brief Introduction

Thakalis are an ethnic group in Nepal originally from Thak Khola on the banks of River Kaligandaki in Mustang District. They are now spread all over Nepal and beyond. Numerically, it is a very small group. According to the 2001 Census, total population of Thakalis in Nepal was only 12,973 (or 0.06% of the total). If their population grew at the same rate as Nepal's (1.12x), then by 2009 Thakalis would number around 14,500.

The ancestral home of Thakalis is Thaksatse in Thak Khola. It consists of 13 villages (tehra gaun): Tukuche, Khanti, Kobang, Larjung, Bhurjungkot, Nakhung, Naprungkhung, Titi, Dhumpu, Taglung, Kunjo, Lete and Ghasa. The most important among them is Tukuche.

Thakalis are divided into four clans: Bhurki, Choki, Dinjen and Salki. These indigenous names were Nepalicized into Bhattachan (Bhurki), Gauchan (Choki), Sherchan (Dinjen) and Tulachan (Salgi) in the early 1920s, probably to facilitate the group's assimilation into larger Nepali state. The common last syllable "chan" probably came from "Chand", the ruling clans of western Himalaya and was probably incorporated to associate Thakalis with a higher caste group. In numerical terms, Sherchan is the most numerous and Tulachan the least.

The principal function of the division into clans is to organize the group's marriage customs. Thakalis as a rule cannot marry within the same clan. The clans are further divided into sub-clans called phobe/gyuba/gyu which is based on patriarchal lineage. There are no hard and fast rules governing the formation of gyu, but generally speaking, once a particular gyu becomes too large it fragments. Currently, there are 39 ghu (Bhattachan 9, Gauchan 11, Sherchan 13 and Tulachan 6). Within each phobe/gyu there are number of groups around a common baje (translates to "grandfather" but it means "a common acestor") that share a ossuary (khimi).

History of Thakalis
"Thak" in Tibetan means a "distant country" and that term may have been coined because historically Thak region was at the edge of Tibetan influence. For most of the period until the mid-eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Tibetan Kingdom of Lo. In circa 1764, Kingdom of Jumla conquered Lo and made it a vassal state. During that century, Lo was divided into northern Lo centered around its historical capital Monthang and Southern Lo ruled by decedents of Jampa Thobgyal. In 1786 the Lo Kingdoms came under Gurkha rule, and in 1789 they helped Gurkhas conquer the formidable Kingdom of Jumla. For their aid, Lo Kings retained their positions with provisions that they pay tributary to rulers in Kathmandu.

Thakalis do not have a written history. They have preserved their oral history, a mixture of historical facts and mythical stories in their religious textbook, cyogi rhab, written in Tibetan script. Obviously, there is no reference to dates. Each clan has its own rhab which describes the journey of its ancestor. The most interesting rhab belong to Gauchan and Tulachan.

According to Gauchan legend, (Choki rhab), Ani Airam the ancestor of Gauchan clan left western Tibet for Sinja, the capital of Jumla. At Sinja, Ani Airam met Samledhen Samlecyang, the ancestor of Tulachan clan and Dhakpa Ghyalsang, the patriarch of Sherchan clan who himself came from Ladhak area. All three headed to Kathmandu valley, then called Nepal. They passed through Phalla, west of Kagbeni and then down the Kaligandaki to Thini. In Ghyatobra, opposite to present-day Tukuche, they met Paw Kuti, the ancestor of Bhattachan clan. They continued on to Ghorepani. At Phallante they lost their way. They turned back and decided to settle in present day Thak Khola.

According to Tulachan legend (Salgi rhab), Tulachan clan was the most powerful and others were jealous of its power. They conspired to kill them all - all eighteen of them. Tulachan brothers were invited to a lha chuwa ritual and given poisoned food. The brothers had been forewarned by their grandmother, Lhasarphi. So before eating they fed a dog which died, and thus avoiding the poisoned food. Tulachan brothers were again invited to help others cut a wooden log. Lhasarphi pleaded them not to go because she suspected conspiracy but the brothers went anyway because they felt invincible. At the site, the brothers were asked to put their hands in the cleft of a half-cut log. When they did, the wedge was closed trapping their hands. The log was rolled down the hill killing all. After hearing the news, Lhasarphi and her grandson Bhum fled. The other Thakalis wanted to find out the reason for the clan's power and they found Lha Chyurin Galmo, the Tulachan's deity. Unable to destroy it, they threw it into Kaligandaki. At a gorge near Ghasa, it blocked the river and lake started to form. This caused a panic. A lama told Thakalis that Lha Chyurin Galmo was blocking the river and only Tulachan clan's prayer would make him undo it. Discovering that Lhasarphi was still alive, they selected Khe Pau Kuti to search for her. He found a fireplace in a nearby forest and looked around for her. Lhasarphi suspecting that Khe Pau Kuti was there kill them hid with her grandson inside a tree trunk. When Khe Pau Kuti put his hand in that tree trunk to check it out, tears from Lhasarphi fell on it. She refused to come out but eventually Khe Pau Kuti convinced her that he was not there to kill her but to seek her help. He asked her to pray. As per his request, Lhasarphi prayed with her hand holding an open shawl. Lha Chyurin Galmo came flying onto her shawl and Kaligandaki river was un-blocked.

The legends end and history begins when Thak Khola becomes part of emerging Nepali state. According to Michael Vinding, Thak Khola's inclusion in the Nepalese state in 1786 meant an end to the wars that ravaged the area in the previous centuries. The Thakalis could now cultivate their fields, raise their animals, and engage in peacetime trade. As there no longer was a need to live in fortified settlements, the Thakalis could establish settlements closer to the water sources, the fields and the caravan route.

In the early years of modern Nepali state, Thakalis suffered through heavy homestead taxes. Until 1802 taxes were collected by the government-appointed non-local contractor (ijaradar), and thereafter, by village heads (mukiya or budhas). Tax burden was significant. By 1811, those contractors were assigned to raise Rs. 13,000 from about 700 households in the region. As a result significant number of Thakalis emigrated out of Thak Khola.

In the nineteenth century Thakalis migrated to Baglung and Myagdi districts partly because of exorbitant taxes in Thak Khola and partly because of better opportunities there. A region called Khani Khuwa (bais khani) centered around Galkot in Baglung district produced high quality copper. Myagdi district had fertile agricultural land along the eponymous river. Copper from Khani Khuwa went into making coins used in Nepal as well as parts of northern India. Thakalis were quite successful businessmen and some even became ijaradar collecting taxes from mines on behalf of the central government. By the late nineteenth century, lack of investment and cheap imports of copper from India led to decline of mining activities, and by 1930s, most of the mines in Khani Khuwa were closed.

Back in Thak Khola, Thakalis prospered facilitating trade in goods from Nepal/India and Tibet. During summer, traders from Tibet ventured south but trails south of Ghasa were dangerous especially during Monsoon. During winter, traders from the south headed north but could not go too far because of snow. Thak Khola at the junction of two climatic zones became a natural entreport to store and exchange goods. Tibetan brought salt, collected from lakes in Western Tibet, wools and animals. Traders from the south brought grains and manufactured goods.

In 1862 a significant change took place in the political economy of Thak region. Hitherto, there was free trade in grains and salt and the government collected revenue/duties through ijara. In 1862, Jang Bahadur Rana government decided to give the monopoly over salt trade to the custom collector in Dana (subba), and that position was auctioned off to the highest bidder. The competition to get the contract was intense because the position came with significant political and economic power. For instance, the contract size in 1876 was Rs. 82,000 and in early twentieth century reached as high as Rs. 150,000 (at Rs. 31 per tola gold in 1911, it amounted to 56 kg of gold). To get the contract, Thakalis competed against each other and against Gurungs. Historical accounts suggest that until the end of salt monopoly in 1928, the custom collectors were mostly Thakalis, specifically Thakalis who were descendents of Balbir Thakali (great-grandfather of famous poet Bhupi Sherchan). In the post-monopoly period, the significance of Tibetan salt declined as cheap Indian imports flooded the market. In 1959 China annexed Tibet and in 1962 India and China went to war. This ended the centuries old trans-Himalayan trade. Thak Khola lost its primal role as an entreport. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Thakalis started to leave the region in significant numbers to other parts of Nepal - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Butwal and Bhairawa.

Fisher, William, 2001. Fluid Boundaries: Forming and Transforming Identity in Nepal

F├╝rer-Haimendorf, Christoph von, 1985. Tribal populations and cultures of the Indian Subcontinent

Ramble, Charles, 2008. The navel of the demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and civil religion in highland Nepal

Schuh, Dieter, 1988. The Political Organisation of Southern Mustang During the 17th and 18th Century

Vinding, Michael, 1998. The Thakali: A Himalayan Ethnography