Kham Magar

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Kham (Nepali: खाम)
Northern Magar
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Kham language
Nepali language
Related ethnic groups

Kham are descriptive terms invented by academic linguists and anthropologists for a nationality in the Middle Hills of mid-western Nepal inhabiting highlands extending through eastern Rukum and northern Salyan, Rolpa and Pyuthan Districts in Rapti Zone as well as adjacent parts of Dhaulagiri and Bheri Zones. They speak a complex of Tibeto-Burman distinct language called Kham not mutually intelligible with Nepal's Magar or other Tibeto-Burman languages.

The present Kham homeland was extending from the Kaligandaki River west across the basin of the West Rapti to the Bheri and Karnali regions.


Due to their oral mythology and distinctive shamanistic practices, Kham are thought to have originally migrated from Siberia but to have lived in their present location for a long time. Their history differs with that of Magars. Their cultural trarditions too differ from that of Magars, although many scholars continue to claim Khams as one branch of Magars. Magars spkeak Magar language, Khams speak Kham language. However, both Kham speakers and Magar speakers claim that they belong to the same ethnicity. Sociologists and anthropologist are still not decisive about distinct identity of Khams and Magars.

The ancient Kham homeland was located in the Karnali, Dhaulagiri and Rapti highlands, whose people were displaced by Khas people after repeated aggressions from Kumon and Gurwal territories that led to creation of or formation of Khas Rule in Sinja, which led to downfall of Kham kingdom in this far western region and remained limited to Rapti and Dhaulagiri areas. The Kham kingdom was powerful until the arrival of Khas in Middle Ages, after which they defeated Kham kings and established Khas rule in Nepal. Although Kham were defeated by Khas rulers at the inception of Middle Ages, the Kham people never followed the Khas cultures and traditions. However, Khas people adopted many of the Kham cultural traditions which can be seen today in Khas dress and dances, which are similar to those of Kham women and men.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, Khas peoples progressively settled eastward across the smaller Rapti basin into the more productive Gandaki basin, again settling in the lower valleys where rice could be grown, thus displacing the indigenous Kham from the farmland. The Khas formed new confederations called Baise Rajya (twenty-two kingdoms) in the Karnali region and Chaubisi Rajya (twenty-four kingdoms) in the Gandaki region that eclipsed the Kham politically.

In their turn, the Baise and Chaubisi were conquered and unified into Nepal by Chaubisi prince Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha between 1743 AD and the end of the 18th century. Kham and other Magars participated as soldiers under Prithvi Narayan, then in armies of the unified state he founded. After the expansion of this state came into conflict with the British Raj and was defeated, part of the Sugauli Treaty settlement gave the British the right to recruit Magars (along with other martial tribes) as Gurkha mercenaries.

Kham Isolation[edit]

Highlands inhabited by Kham are a rugged knot of ridges reaching 3,000 to 4,000 meters some 50 kilometers south of the Dhaulagiri range, forming a triple divide between the Karnali-Bheri system to the west, the Gandaki system to the east, and the smaller (west) Rapti and Babai river systems that separate the two larger systems south of this point. Since the uppermost tributaries of the Karnali and Gandaki rise beyond the highest Himalaya ranges, trade routes linking India and Tibet developed along these rivers, whereas high ridges along the Rapti's northern watershed and then the Dhaulagiri massif beyond were rigorous obstacles. Similarly, eastward migration of Khas peoples detoured around these highlands by following the Mahabharat Range to the south or Dhorpatan valley to the north which—by Himalayan standards—offers exceptionally easy east-west passage. The Kham highlands may also have been left as a buffer between the easternmost Baise kingdom, Salyan, and the westernmost Chaubisi kingdom, Pyuthan. For the Khas, the intervening highlands, unsuited for rice cultivation, were hardly worth contesting. The movement of political focus eastward to Kathmandu in the 18th century—250 kilometers and more than a week's journey—also contributed to the growing isolation of Kham lands.


Legal hashish shop, Kathmandu, 1973

Kham isolation, official neglect, underdevelopment and poverty essentially continued through the 19th and 20th centuries. The main export was manpower as mercenaries to the British and Indian armies, or whatever other employment opportunities could be found for largely uneducated and unskilled labor. Kham also practice transhumance by grazing cattle, sheep and goats in summer pastures in subalpine and alpine pastures to the north, working their way down to winter pastures in the Dang-Deukhuri valleys, but the carrying capacity of pastures accessible to the Kham is finite. Despite unending toil, food shortages have become a growing problem that still persists. Food deficits were historically addressed by grain imports bought dearly with distant work at low wages.

As economic development brought schools, electricity, motor roads, hospitals and a wider range of consumer goods to surrounding areas, few benefits trickled up into the highlands and contrasts became even more invidious. Development introduced motor transport, which diminished porterage employment. Cultivating hemp and processing it into charas (hashish) lost standing as an income generator after 1976 when international pressure persuaded the national government to outlaw these recreational drugs and close government stores where those so inclined could freely purchase what was illegal in most of the world. Initiatives to replace the indigenous hallucinogen industry with cultivating fruit and produce largely failed after transport infrastructure reaching the Kham highlands proved inadequate to carry perishable goods to market.

Kham participation in Nepalese Civil War[edit]

Despite adversity, Kham people retained a robust oral history and a sense of past greatness, which created grievances and made them receptive to the Maobadi (Maoist) movement that opposed the Shah regime in the 1996-2006 Nepalese Civil War and even the multiparty democracy that the Shahs toyed with. The Rolpa and Rukum districts in the center of the Kham homelands became known as the Maoist heartland and Khams were prominent as footsoldiers of its guerrilla forces.

Kham Festivals[edit]

Bhume Naach / Bal puja is one of the festivals celebrated by the Kham people. The main celebration takes place during the first week of June.