|Regions with significant populations|
|Hinduism, Buddhism, traditional beliefs|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Boksa (tribe) · Bhotiya · Pokhariya · Van Rawats|
The Tharu people (Nepali: थारू, Thārū) are an ethnic group indigenous to the Terai, the southern foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and India. The Tharus are recognized as an official nationality by the Government of Nepal.
As of 2011, the Tharu population of Nepal was censused at 1,737,470 people, or 6.6% of the total population. In 2009, the majority of Tharu people were estimated to live in Nepal. There are several endogamous sub-groups of Tharu:
- Rana Tharu in the Kailali and Kanchanpur districts of the far western Nepal Terai; also in India, in Nainital, Uttarakhand and Kheri Terai, Uttar Pradesh. Rana Tharu claim Rajput origin.
- Kathoriya Tharu mostly in Kailali District and in India.
- Sonha in Surkhet district
- Dangaura Tharu in western Terai: Dang-Deukhuri, Banke and Bardia districts
- Paschuhan (Western) Tharu Rupandehi, Nawalparasi
- Rautar Tharu Rupandehi, Nawalparasi
- Purbaha Tharu Rupandehi, Kapilvastu
- Aarkutwa or Chitwania Tharu in central Terai: Sindhuli, Chitwan and Nawalparasi districts
- Kochila Tharu in eastern Terai:[Saptari] Bara, Parsa, Rautahat, Sarlahi, Mahottari and Udayapur Districts
- Danuwar in eastern Terai: Udayapur, Saptari and Morang districts.
- Lamputchwa Tharu in Morang District
Smaller numbers of Tharu people reside in the adjacent Indian districts Champaran of Bihar state; Gorakhpur, Basti and Gonda of Uttar Pradesh state; and Nainital, Uttarakhand state. In 2001, Tharu people were the largest of five scheduled tribes in Uttarakhand, with a population of 256,129 accounting for 33.4% of all scheduled tribes. In the same year, they constituted 77.4% of the total tribal population of Uttar Pradesh with a population of 83,544.
The Tharu people themselves say that they are a people of the forest. In Chitwan, they have lived in the forests for hundreds of years practicing a short fallow shifting cultivation. They planted rice, mustard, corn and lentils, but also collected forest products such as wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants and materials to build their houses; hunted deer, rabbit and wild boar, and went fishing in the rivers and oxbow lakes.
The Tharus never went abroad for employment – a life that kept them isolated in their own localities. In this isolation they developed a unique culture free from the influence of adjacent India, or from the mountain groups of Nepal. The most striking aspects of their environment are the decorated rice containers, colorfully painted verandahs and outer walls of their homes using only available materials like clay, mud, dung and grass. Much of the rich design is rooted in devotional activities and passed on from one generation to the next, occasionally introducing contemporary elements such as a bus or an airplane.
In the western Terai, most Rana Tharu prefer living in Badaghar called longhouses with big families of many generations, sometimes 40-50 people. All household members pool their labor force, contribute their income, share the expenditure and use one kitchen.
Tharus from mid west and far west of Nepal have been practicing Badghar system, where a Badghar is an elected chief of a village or a small group of villages for a year. The election generally takes place in the month of Magh (January / February), after celebrating Maghi Festival and after completing major farming activities. In most cases, each household in the village, which is engaged in farming has one voting right for electing Badghar. So the election is based on household count rather than head count. The role of Badghar is to work for the welfare of the village. Badghar directs the villagers to repair canals or streets when needed. It also oversees and manages the cultural traditions of the villages. It also has an authority of punishing those who do not follow his order or who go against the welfare of the village. Generally Badghar has a Chaukidar to help him. With the consent of the villagers Badghar may appoint "Guruwa" who is the medic as well as the chief priest of the village.
As Tharus society is mainly involved in farming, irrigation is one of the most important aspect of the community. Tharus in western Nepal have done a tremendous engineering job by building irrigation canals to irrigate thousands of hectares of land. Hundreds of years ago, without using any sophisticated tools, they have built hundreds of kilometers of irrigation canals in Kailali and Bardiya districts of Nepal. An irrigation canal could be used by several villages and its water and diversion works needs to be managed fairly. For this purpose, Badghars of different villages elect a person for the position of Chaudhary to manage a canal system. When needed, Chaudhary orders Badghars to send people for repairing or building canals. In most of the cases Badghars and Chaudharis are unpaid leaders of the community. However, they are exempt from compulsory physical labor for the betterment of the society. As a token of respect, they might also be helped in farming for a day free of cost by the community members.
There is no one Tharu language unifying Tharu communities in different parts of Nepal and India. Several speak various endemic Tharu languages. In western Nepal and adjacent parts of India, Tharus speak variants of Urdu and Awadhi. In and near central Nepal, they speak a variant of Bhojpuri. In eastern Nepal, they speak a variant of Maithili. More standard versions of these dialects are widely spoken by non-Tharu neighbors in the same areas so that there are no important linguistic barriers between Tharus and their neighbors. However, there are linguistic barriers between these dialects standing in the way of communication between Tharus from different regions.
Tharu were already living in the Terai before Indo-Europeans arrived, raising the question what they may have been speaking at the time. The only surviving pre-Indo-European language in the Terai is Kusunda, Santhali further west.
Traditionally, marriages were often arranged during the pregnancies of two women. If they gave birth to opposite sex babies, the two babies were supposed to be married if they grew up as friends. It was problematic if a boy or girl came of age and rejected their assigned fiance(e). Finding a replacement was difficult because most girls and boys were already engaged. However this custom has been disappearing. Most Tharus now practice conventional arranged marriages. They also practice love marriages, inter cast marriage, international marriage, inter world, marriage after courtship and eloping.
87.63% of the ethnic Tharu were Hindu according to the 2001 Census of Nepal, whereas 13.95% were Buddhist.
Resistance to malaria
The Tharu were famous for their ability to survive in the most malarial parts of the Terai that were deadly to outsiders. In 1902, a British observer noted: "Plainsmen and paharis generally die if they sleep in the Terai before November 1 or after June 1." Others thought that the Tharu were not totally immune.
Contemporary medical research comparing Tharu with other ethnic groups living nearby found an incidence of malaria nearly seven times lower among Tharu. The researchers believed such a large difference pointed to genetic factors rather than behavioral or dietary differences. This was confirmed by follow-up investigation finding genes for thalassemia in nearly all Tharu studied.
Modern history (1846-1999)
According to Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh, a series of invasions by the other races, from north India across the border and from hills and mountains of Nepal, eroded the influence of the indigenous Tharus. In 1854 Jung Bahadur, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal, developed the Mulki Ain, a codification of Nepal's indigenous legal system, which divided society into a system of castes. The Tharus were placed at next to the bottom (lowest touchable, above untouchables) of the social hierarchy. Their land was taken away, disrupting their community and displacing the people.
In the 1950s, the World Health Organisation helped the Nepalese government eradicate malaria in the Terai region. This resulted in immigration of people from other areas to claim the fertile land, making many Tharus virtual slaves of the new landowners and developing the Kamaiya system of bonding generations of Tharus families to labour.
Recent history (2000-present)
The Government of Nepal outlawed the practice of bonded labour prevalent under the Kamaiya system on July 17, 2000, which prohibits anyone from employing any person as a bonded labourer, and declared that the act of making one work as a bonded labourer is illegal. Though democracy has been reinstated in the country, the Tharu community has called for a more inclusive democracy as they are fearful of remaining a backward, underprivileged people.
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