Reading an article on Rana Tharu women in an old edition of the National Geographic Magazine stirred in me a strong desire to meet these women in person. Rana Tharus are a sub group of Tharus, one of the largest ethnic communities in Nepal, who dwell in Far-Western Nepal. I’m sure it will be an amazing experience to have a tête-à-tête with these women and hear their stories. What can be more interesting and enriching than discovering things on one’s own.
In the article entitled “Rana Tharu: Nepal’s Women of Grace” Debra Kellner, author, photographer and cinematographer born in the Canadian Outback, and Eric Valle, maker of the Oscar nominated Caravan or Himalaya (watch the film promo here), express their feelings about meeting these women. As a cover story of the NatGeo magazine, the article, set in September 2000, is a poignant recount of the life of Rana Tharus at the time.
Rana Tharu Dance: A YouTube Video I Watched Before Writing This Post
History of Rana Tharus
Once the proud owners of the forested lands in the Southern belt of Nepal, Rana Tharu women are now forced to live in their own land as tenants. For 400 years they remained aloof from the outside world just as the Kayapo Indians did in Brazil. Malarial jungles made the infiltration from outsiders impossible. With the introduction of DDT and other pesticides malaria was eradicated in 1950s and people started the encroachment of the Tharu lands. Today land is a highly disputed issue among the Tharu community (I do not like to deal with this issue as I’m more interested in knowing about their culture and history).
Anthropological studies on the Rana Tharus state that in the 16thcentury when the Moguls invaded India, Rajputs, members of a high caste in India at that time, were in a “conflict with a Muslim king who wanted to marry a Rajput girl”. The women and children fled to the plains or tarai (now the Nepal-India border) leaving their men behind to fight against the Muslims. Upon hearing that all Rajput men were killed in the tussle, the Tharu women began to marry the slaves who accompanied them during their escape.
Scholars claim that Rana Tharu women have retained their high class status and royal pedigree thus making themselves different from the Tharus.
Debra and Eric on Rana Tharu women
The couple who spent 9 months with the community found the Rana Tharus hospitable who welcomed the two as “part of the family”.
Eric Valle captures the trials and tribulations Rana Tharu women have gone through in his epic pictures. One of the pictures has Chanda, an elderly woman in the community, sporting a red flash on her forehead despite the death of her husband only a few years after their marriage as defiance to desolation.
Debra on the other hand describes the Rana Tharus as “flowers in a time capsule, like grace itself,” she looks at the women from her Jeep waving happily at her upon her departure.
It is sad that the kind of ethnic movement that has been simmering in the country for the last few years, we never know when these Rana Tharu women will be forced to live a life completely strange to them.
Rana Tharus and me
It is said that Rana Tharus was a matriarchal society where women had the power to choose or leave their groom at will. It will be interesting to hear a recount of the ancient tales of courtship and marriage (and also that of divorce or separation) from the elderly women of the community. For some reason elderly people (and children) seem to open up to me better than people of any other age groups.
I am bit of a radical person myself and would like to witness the determination of the Rana Tharu women mentioned in the NatGeo article. What greater evidence of their defiance to the changing times than the grit of these women to stick to their tradition not just in terms of the attire they sport but also in terms of their attitude as captured by Eric and Debra. Fourteen years have passed since the article was written and I worry if the women are still the same or as Debra says they are merely “flowers”. Will they easily wither with time?
That only time will tell.