Thursday, February 10, 2011

Secrets that aren’t secrets about Nepal

“Tori, what is the thing about Nepal that most tourists don’t seem to get?” Carly asked me this when she, LeAnna and I visited the Swayambunath stupa--a Tibetan Buddhist temple complex overlooking the Kathmandu Valley--over Christmas break.

“That Nepal is characterized by violence,” I said.

It’s partly Nepal’s fault. They advertise themselves as a Shangri-la, where numerous religions coexist in harmony. But much of this coexistence has caused religious and political friction, which at times has erupted in blood-letting violence. The history of the Shah royal family and the Ranas is one story. While the Kot Massacre of 1846 and the most recent royal massacre in 2001 are perhaps highlighted, the interactions of the families are consistently riddled with intrigue, murder, madness and getting rid of rivals. The recent Maoist civil war, which officially lasted from 1996 to 2006, was another incident. Politically, the country has had constant instability, especially since 1990, which has erupted in riots and fights that have included more than a few injuries and deaths (the Hithrik Roshan riots in early 2001 being perhaps the most bizarre).

But interactions between ethnic groups have also contained a fair amount of friction. The relationship between the Tharu—especially the Dangaura Tharu—and the Parbatiya, or hill-folk who rule the country, is one example. Its one example of internal colonization, where much like in the United States, land was the issue. Once malaria was eradicated in the 1950s and 60s, people from the hills moved in and registered lands formerly inhabited by the Tharu in their own names, making these people their tenants or bonded laborers. Incidents like this culminated in the Tharu—who span the Terai—forming their own ethnic identity, despite the fact that they are a very diverse people, both in language and culture, often not having anything in common other than living in the Terai and becoming bonded laborers.

That’s the other thing short term visitors don’t always see: how complicated and diverse the Nepali people are. There is no one “Nepali” ethnic group. When I go to the Shahi house, I only understand about half the conversations the family has; that’s because half their conversation is in Newari, and half of it is in Nepali. They are Newar both culturally and linguistically, but Nepali has been an integral part of their entire lives as the national language, used everyday in the government, economic, and educational spheres. There’s a family of Tamangs in my congregation; the ladies will often wear their traditional dress to special functions like Christmas or the anniversary celebration. More than once, people in my congregation have greeted me or started conversations with me in their own mother-tongues, just to see me smile and shake my head. I’ve been a part of two songwriting workshops for (culturally) Tibetan congregations. Within them, the languages of Lhomi, Kagate, Sherpa, Lowa, Hyolmo and Tibetan have been used. We will sing songs from each of these groups, but then will usually bookend them with popular Nepali choruses. Interacting with the Tharu on my most recent trip I ate new kinds of food, listened to a new language, and made me feel like I’d arrived back at square one when it came to learning about Nepali culture.

I’m still learning about this wonderfully complicated place called “Nepal”…