Tharu people

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Tharu people
Tharu Mahila.jpg
Tharu woman
Regions with significant populations
Uttar Pradesh105,291
Tharu languages, Nepali language
Hinduism, Buddhism, traditional beliefs
Related ethnic groups

The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Terai in southern Nepal and northern India.[3][4][5][6] They are recognized as an official nationality by the Government of Nepal.[7]

In the Indian Terai, they live foremost in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Government of India recognizes the Tharu people as a scheduled tribe.[8][9]

The word थारू thāru[10] is thought to be derived from sthavir meaning follower of Theravada Buddhism.[11]


Map showing area inhabited by Tharu people in dark green

As of 2011, the Tharu population of Nepal was censused at 1,737,470 people, or 6.6% of the total population.[1] In 2009, the majority of Tharu people were estimated to live in Nepal.[12] There are several endogamous sub-groups of Tharu that are scattered over most of the Terai:[5][13]

Smaller numbers of Tharu people reside in the adjacent Indian districts Champaran of Bihar, Gorakhpur, Basti and Gonda districts in Uttar Pradesh and Udham Singh Nagar in Uttarakhand.[4] 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.[20] In the same year, they constituted 77.4% of the total tribal population of Uttar Pradesh with a population of 83,544.[21]


Genetic studies on Y-DNA of Tharu people from two villages in Chitwan district and one in Morang district revealed a high presence of Haplogroup O-M117 (33.3%) followed by Haplogroup H (Y-DNA) (25.7%), Haplogroup J-M172 (9.9%), Haplogroup R1a (8.8%), Haplogroup R2 (4.7%), haplogroup J-M172 (4.1%), haplogroup D-M174 (3.5%), Haplogroup L-M20 (2.3%), haplogroup O-K18 (2.3%), haplogroup E-M35 (1.8%), haplogroup O-M122 (1.2%), haplogroup Q-M242 (1.2%), Haplogroup C-M130 (0.6%), and haplogroup K-M9 (0.6%). Genetic studies on mtDNA of various Tharus shows South Asian maternal mtDNA haplogroups reaches from 34.2% to 67.5% in the Tharu while for East Asian it reaches from 32.5% to 68.4%, depending on the Tharu's group studied.[22]

Resistance to malaria[edit]

The Tharu are famous for their ability to survive in the malarial parts of the Terai that were deadly to outsiders.[6] Contemporary medical research comparing Tharu with other ethnic groups living nearby found an incidence of malaria nearly seven times lower among Tharu.[23] The researchers believed such a large difference pointed to genetic factors rather than behavioural or dietary differences. This was confirmed by follow-up investigation finding genes for thalassemia in nearly all Tharu studied.[24][25]


The origin of the Tharu people is not clear but surrounded by myths and oral tradition. The Rana Tharus claim to be of Rajput origin and to have migrated from the Thar Desert to Nepal's Far Western Terai region. Tharu people farther east claim to be descendants of the Śākya and Koliya peoples living in Kapilvastu.[11] According to Alberuni, Tharu people have been living in the eastern Terai since at least the 10th century.[5]

Modern history (1700–1990)[edit]

Following the unification of Nepal in the late 18th century, members of the ruling families received land grants in the Terai and were entitled to collect revenue from those who cultivated the land. Tharu people became bonded labourers, a system also known as Kamaiya.[26] In 1854, Jung Bahadur Rana enforced the so-called Muluki Ain, a General Code, in which both Hindu and non-Hindu castes were classified based on their habits of food and drink.[27] Tharu people were categorized as "Paani Chalne Masinya Matwali" (touchable enslavable alcohol drinking group) together with several other ethnic minorities.[28][29]

In the late 1950s, the World Health Organization supported the Nepalese government in eradicating malaria in the forests of the central Terai.[30] Following the malaria eradication program using DDT in the 1960s, a large and heterogeneous non-Tharu population from the Nepali hills, Bhutan, Sikkim and India settled in the region.[31] In the western Terai, many Tharu families lost the land, which they used to cultivate, to these immigrants and were forced to work as Kamaiya.[6]

When the first protected areas were established in Chitwan, Tharu communities were forced to relocate from their traditional lands. They were denied any right to own land and thus forced into a situation of landlessness and poverty. When the Chitwan National Park was designated, Nepalese soldiers destroyed the villages located inside the national park, burned down houses, and beat the people who tried to plough their fields. Some threatened Tharu people at gun point to leave.[13]

Recent history (1990–present)[edit]

After the overthrow of the Panchayat system in Nepal in 1990, the Tharu ethnic association Tharu Kalyankari Sabha joined the umbrella organisation of ethnic groups, a predecessor of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities.[11]

In July 2000, the Government of Nepal outlawed the practice of bonded labour prevalent under the Kamaiya system, prohibiting anyone from employing any person as a bonded labourer, and declared that the act of making one work as a bonded labourer is illegal.[citation needed]

Though democracy has been reinstated in the country, the Tharu community has called for a more inclusive democracy as they are fearful of remaining an underprivileged group.[32]


Tharu village near Bardia National Park
A Tharu man
Wax statues of Tharu people in Tharu Museum, Chitwan

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 plant rice, wheat, mustard, corn and lentils, but also collect forest products such as wild fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants and materials to build their houses; hunt deer, rabbit and wild boar, and go fishing in the rivers and oxbow lakes.[13]

The Tharus never went abroad for employment – a life that kept them isolated in their own localities.[33] 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.[34]


Tharu communities in different parts of Nepal and India do not share the same language. Several speak various endemic Tharu languages. In western Nepal and adjacent parts of India, Tharus speak variants of Hindi, 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.[6]

Household structure[edit]

In the western Terai, Rana Tharu traditionally live in Badaghar called longhouses with big families of up to 31 members from four generations and between one and eight married couples. The household members pool their labour force, contribute their income, share the expenditure and use one kitchen. The eldest male person in charge of Badaghar households and associated land holdings is called Mukhiya. He assigns tasks to family members, is responsible for the family's social activities and has to report income and expenditures annually to the family. When families were forced to resettle, some of these Badaghar households broke up into smaller units of up to six households.[35]

Social structure[edit]

Tharu people in Rajapur, Nepal are either landholders, cultivate land on a sharecropping basis or are landless agricultural labourers.[36]

Tharus from the mid west and far west of Nepal have been practicing the Badghar system, where a Badghar is elected chief of a village or a small group of villages for a year. The election generally takes place in January or February after celebrating the Maghi Festival and after completing major farming activities. In most cases, each household in the village which engages in farming has one voting right for electing a Badghar. Thus the election is based on a count of households count rather than a headcount. The role of the Badghar is to work for the welfare of the village. The Badghar direct the villagers to repair canals or streets when needed. They also oversee and manages the cultural traditions of the villages. They have an authority of punishing those who do not follow their orders or who go against the welfare of the village. Generally the Badghar has a Chaukidar to help him. With the consent of the villagers the Badghar may appoint a "Guruwa" who is the medic and chief priest of the village.[citation needed]

Tharu people are mainly involved in farming, thus irrigating fields is important. Tharus in western Nepal built canals that irrigate thousands of hectares of land. Hundreds of years ago, without using any sophisticated tools, they built hundreds of kilometers of irrigation canals in Nepal's Kailali and Bardiya districts. These canals are used by several villages. Its water and diversion works need to be managed fairly. For this purpose, the Badghars of different villages elect a person for the position of Chaudhary to manage a canal system. When needed, the Chaudhary orders the Badghars to send people to repair or build the canals. In most cases the 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, the community members may also help them in farming for a day free of cost.[citation needed]

Marriage system[edit]

Traditionally, Rana Tharus practice arranged marriages, which parents often arrange already during the couple's childhood. The wedding ceremony is held when the bride and groom reach marriable age. The ceremony lasts several days, involving all the relatives of the two families.[37] It is also a custom to arrange the marriage of a daughter in exchange for getting a bride for a son. Parents give particular attention to the working capacity of the groom and bride, rather than the economic situation of the in-law family. Polygamous marriages are also customary among Tharu people, with rich land holders marrying between two and five women.[36]


The spiritual beliefs and moral values of the Tharu people are closely linked to the natural environment. The pantheon of their gods comprises a large number of deities that live in the forest. They are asked for support before entering the forest.[13]


Tharu people of Nepal have different and special food items like Bagiya[38] or Dhikri and ghonghi, an edible snail collected in water bodies. Dhikri is made of rice flour. The dough from the rice flour is given different shapes – many are stick-like but some are also given the shapes of birds, fish and animals. It is cooked over steam and eaten together with chutney or curry. The ghonghi are left overnight so that all the gooey material inside them comes out. Their tail end is cut so that it is easier to suck out the meat from the shell. They are boiled and later cooked like curry adding spices like coriander, chilies, garlic and onions.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Krauskopff, G. (1989). Maîtres et possédés: Les rites et l'ordre social chez les Tharu (Népal) (in French). Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
  • Meyer, K.; Deuel, P., eds. (1998). The Tharu Barka Naach: a rural folk art version of the Mahabharata. Lalitpur: Himal Books. ISBN 0-9666742-0-0.

External links[edit]