The Vanishing Queens

Posted on February 5, 2016 in Culture-Vulture

By Sukhman Dhillon

The Tharu people, literally translated to people of the forest, are an ethnic group indigenous to the southern foothills of the Himalayas or the Terai region as it is generally known. Until the 1950’s, they lived in complete isolation from the modern world and relied on primitive methods for sustenance. With no written history, their sociological records have been hard to keep although they do have an oral tradition of storytelling. Until fifteen years ago, it was a matriarchal tribe and women occupied the center of the household. Most Tharu women introduce themselves as descendants of Rajasthani queens who fled to the Terai in times of war, and their men as servants of the royal household. As years passed, due to conservation and eco-tourism most forests were made into national parks. Even though the Tharus were given land outside the forest, they were in constant conflict with the authorities for extraction of firewood, fish, fruits and herbs. This, more than anything, was a huge cultural loss. Special medicines, food and drinks which could only be prepared using ingredients from the wild were now suddenly inaccessible.

They also found themselves in a social construct which was not only new but also intimidating. Factors such as displacement, assimilation and poverty led to rapid erosion of their ancient pagan culture. Over the years, their dialect mixed up with the vernacular, festivals lost their meaning and cultural ceremonies stopped. The most prominent was the loss of the traditional dress and ornaments of the Tharu women which were a treasured and proud aspect of their existence. This was largely because men from other communities were unable to handle their empowered existence. Their traditions were ridiculed and their clothes were termed vulgar and too sexy, which lead to mass exploitation in the form of rape, bonded labour and abduction.

Though modernisation has provided education, employment, better health care and a new lifestyle to Tharu women, these benefits have come at a dear cost. At a time when women are getting empowered every day, the tribe has let down its women by weakening their position, both at the home and in the world. In order to adjust to the economic and social realities, they have no real choice except to adapt to modern times.

A Tharu woman in her traditional attire.
A woman fishes in the jungle after paying the forest guards.
The culture of Paganism has been replaced by Hinduism to avoid ridicule.
A woman prepares fodder for her livestock.
A Tharu woman who has completely done away with her exotic identity for social acceptance.
In the matriarchal days, the men were served food outside the house. A practice that is dying out because of the changing family structures where men now play a central role in the household.
Only elder women still wear their traditional dress anymore.
The men of the tribe are not hard-workers and spend their days idle.
Tattooed arms indicate a superiority of birth. There is a rigid class hierarchy in the tribe.
It is the women who still do majority of the work and bring home the bread.
A woman dressed in a sari still keeps some of her culture alive through her vibrant head gear.
A woman smokes and reflects on her life. She is angry that their culture is slowly dying.
Rice wine being prepared. Known locally as jand, the wine is made of rice cakes that are left to ferment with herbs found only in the jungle.
The men take great pride in doing the only work expected from them – fishing. Here they untangle the nets for another day of work.
A woman uses broom sticks tied together to brush her hair the traditional way.
“You can rob me of my culture. But that will not diminish the queen in me.”

This article was originally published here on sbcltr.