In the southern plains of Nepal is living the Tharu tribe, the second largest ethnic community of the country. Two mysteries surround them : where they come from and how they came to be resistant to malaria. Some anthropologists speculate that the tribe migrated from India’s eastern hills, filtering across the Taraï ( the southern plains of Nepal) over the course of millenia. This would account for their mongoloïd features and hindu animists beliefs, but it doesn’t fully explain the radically different dialects, dress and customs of different Tharu groups. Isolated by malarial jungle for thousands of years, bands of migrants certainly could have developed their own cultures. But why, given such linguistic and cultural evolution, would the name “Tharu” survive with such consistency ? Confusing the issue are the Rana Tharus of the far west, who claim to be descended fom high-caste Rajput ( the noble class in western India) women who went sent north by their husbands during the Muslim invasions ( in the mediaeval times) and, when the men never returned for them, married their servants. ( There is some evidence to support this as Rana Tharu women are given extraordinarily autonomy in marriage and household affairs.)
As to the matter of malaria resistance, red blood cells seem to play a role ( the fact that Tharus are prone to sickle-cell anaemia might be significant) but very little research has been done. At least as significant, Tharus boost their natural resistance with a few common-sense precautions, such as building houses with tiny windows to keep smoke in and mosquitoes ( and ghosts) out.
As hunter-gatherers, Tharus are skilled at snaring pigs and other small animals, fishing, and using plants for myriad medicinal and practical purposes. Modern times have forced them to become farmers and livestock raisers, clearing patches in the forest and warding off wild animals from flimsy watchtowers. Their whirling stick dance evokes their uneasy but respectful relationship with the spirits of the forest, as do the raised animal emblems that decorate their doorways. Fishing remain an important activity : it’s a common sight to see fisherwomen wielding hand-held nets between crossed poles or carrying their catch home in wicker boxes.
While clothing varies tremendously by area, Tharu women often wear thick silver bracelets above the elbow, tattooing of the forearms and lower legs is common among older women but falling out of fashion with the younger generation.
The Taraï region has long been viewed as Nepal’s frontier and the Tharus dismissed as primitive tribals. Since the early 20° century ( when, as a preliminary step to abolishing slavery, the Nepal government encouraged slaves to homestead in the Taraï), it’s been seen as a place where a settler can clear the land and start a new life. The government’s malaria-control programme accelerated the process, and several million gung-ho immigrants from the Nepal hills and India ( the border is highly porous) have now cleared, tamed and transformed the Taraï into the breadbasket of Nepal, felling much of the valuable timber in the process. The migration is far from over : the Taraï population is doubling every twenty years. Prosperity has probably peaked, however, and since productivity isn’t keeping up with population, the Taraï’s agricultural surplus is steadily declining.
In one generation, the Tharus have been outflanked, outfarmed and in many cases bought out and reduced to sharecropping. Traditional culture is still strong in the far west but in other areas it’s been all but drowned by a tide of hill, Indian and western tendencies. Like indigenous peoples the world over, Tharus know more about their own environment than anyone, but they’re not being listened to.