ETHNONYMS: Tamang, Tamu
Identification. Thakali territory is called Thakhola or Thak-Satsae, in Jomson District in central Nepal. Thakola is sandwiched between the pastoral highlands in the north and the agricultural lowlands in the south. It is also the transitional zone between Tibetan Buddhist culture and Hindu culture.
Demography. According to the 1961 census there were 4,130 Thakali-speaking people. Accurate population figures are not available. Some Thakalis claim that their population is close to ten thousand. The majority of the Thakalis used to live in Thakhola until the end of the 1950s, but most of them migrated to cities and towns in the southern lowlands of Nepal after the events of 1959 in Tibet.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Thakalis are Himalayan Mongoloids whose mother tongue is of the Tibeto-Burman Family. It is called Thakali and belongs to the Tamang Group (Including Tamang, Gurung, and Magar).
History and Cultural Relations
The origin of the Thakalis is not clear, although they claim to be the descendants of Hansraj, a Thakuri prince of the Jumla-Sinja dynasty in western Nepal. The Thakalis were agropastoral people who were engaged in local trade until the early nineteenth century like other neighboring Himalayan Peoples. The rise of Thakali power goes back to the mid-nineteenth century. Nepal was at war with Tibet in 1857 and 1858. One of the Thakali leaders cooperated with the Hindu Rana regime and provided the central government in Kathmandu with valuable information about the Himalayan and Tibetan areas. After the Nepalese victory over Tibet, the Hindu Rana rulers allowed the Thakali leader to obtain a license to import rock salt from Tibet and also granted him the magistracy of the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo areas with the traditional and hereditary title of Subba. This prerogative was quite helpful in enabling the Subba and his family to carry on large-scale commerce in the Tibet-Himalayan regions. Thus, the Subba family and its descendants exercised political influence not only among the Thakalis but also over their Neighboring ethnic groups in Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo. But the political influence of the Thakali leaders and their families gradually diminished after the mass migration of Thakali merchants from Thakhola toward the southern lowlands of Nepal following the 1959 Tibetan affair.
Many of the Thakalis have survived well in the cities and towns of southern Nepal as merchants, hotel owners, public servants, professors, teachers, medical doctors, and so forth, thanks to their hard-working efforts and businesslike attitude.
The Thakali merchants live in the valley of the Upper Kali Gandaki, but some of the agropastoral Thakalis inhabit the slopes of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri Himals. Their houses are either rectangular or square and were originally of Tibetan style. The houses of the Thakalis as a whole are large, spacious, and clean. Houses are made of slate stones with flat roofs. But the Thakalis have to build bamboo huts within the Tibetan-style houses during the rainy season in the Comparatively humid area, like Lete and Ghasa villages, in the Southern fringe of Thakhola.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities . In common with the rest of the Nepalese Himalayan region, Thakhola has a summer monsoon season that usually begins in July and ends in September. But as Thakhola is located on the northern side of the main Himalayan ridges, there is less summer precipitation and some snowfall in winter months. Therefore, rain-based farming is practiced only in summer, and the cultivation of winter crops in the upland fields is dependent on irrigation. Buckwheat is the summer crop, and barley and wheat are the winter crops; maize was introduced to Thakhola before World War II. The cultivation of garden vegetables is rather rare in Nepal outside the Kathmandu Valley, but the Thakalis are very fond of gardening, even growing both vegetables and flowers.
At present Thakalis are not so dependent on pastoralism (unlike Tibetan-speaking Bhotes in the northern high plateau) , but it is still an indispensable part of their economy. On the steep slopes of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges, some of the Thakalis raise yaks, sheep, and goats from which they obtain meat, milk, butter, wool, fur, pelts, and hides. They also breed dzo (a hybrid of yak and cow), mules, horses, and donkeys for use as pack animals in their trading operations. It would appear that the Thakalis have certain cultural traits usually associated with the rearing of domesticated animals for trading caravans.
Industrial Arts. The Thakalis are not very active in producing native artifacts for sale or trade, although they have developed a quite refined artistic sense. Some well-to-do Thakalis have started to operate a carpet factory on the outskirts of Kathmandu in recent times.
Trade. The Thakalis are one of the most famous trading communities in Nepal, having engaged in Himalayan trade between Tibet, Nepal, and India for many years. Although they were attracted by the foreign and native merchandise from the south and were interested in the potential market for trade goods, in the past they avoided trading operations in southern Nepal because of their dislike of the heat and humidity there during the summer monsoon season and their fear of the virulent forms of malaria and other tropical diseases prevalent there. Following the pioneer efforts of the group, through trial and error, they started traveling to the south in increasing numbers, where they came into contact with the Hindu inhabitants.
The trading center of the Thakalis was Tukuche, which is the largest "town" in the territory. Until the revolt in Tibet in 1959, the Thakali merchants had imported sheep, goats, yaks, dzo, hides, fur, pelts, butter, and cheese, as well as rock salt from the northern high plateau and Tibet, in exchange for Nepalese and Indian commodities such as rice, wheat, barley, maize, dhal (pulses), buckwheat, oil, tea, chilies, spices, Nepali paper, cotton, cotton cloth, metal utensils, guns, gunpowder, and some other commodities.
Frequently Thakali merchants organized caravans themselves, but they also functioned as intermediaries. Many Tibetan-speaking traders came to Tukuche from Dolpo, Lo, and Tibet, and Hindu lowlanders from southern Nepal. Cash was sometimes used in trading transactions but barter was more common until the end of 1950s. The barter was, in many cases, based on Tibetan rock salt and rice from the southern lowlands.
Since the 1950-1951 "democratic" revolution, Nepal has opened her doors to the outside world and thus more Foreign goods, mainly Indian-made, have flowed into the Kingdom. Among them the cheap salt from India dealt a blow to the Thakali economy. The price of salt declined by approximately 25 percent in Himalayan areas during a comparatively short period.
Another big blow hit the Thakali merchants in 1962 when the People's Republic of China closed the Himalayan border, owing to political unrest generated by Tibetan guerrillas sponsored by foreign countries. Many of the Thakali merchants had to leave Thakhola as the traditional trade of the Himalayan region was almost terminated by bad relations Between China and Tibet.
Except for some rich Subba families, most of the middle-class and poor Thakalis migrated to the south and moved to smaller towns where they opened small shops and wayside inns. They were unable to survive well in a big city like Kathmandu. Thanks to their business acumen and industriousness, however, some of them have started their own profitable businesses and are forming a new class.
As for the trading activities of the Thakalis, a sort of financial cooperative called dhikur (Tibetan dri-kor, or "rice rotation") was a very meaningful system for many Thakali merchants in Thakhola. But the system also seems to be changing in the urban settings by involving other castes and ethnic groups.
Division of Labor. Not only the adults but also the children work hard. The Thakalis in Tukuche have not developed a division of labor, except for work such as the caravan trade for males and housekeeping for females. However, the Thakalis living in the Hindu lowlands of Nepal have in recent times emulated the behavior of Hindu high castes and have secluded women from outside labor.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Thakali community is endogamous and is composed of four exogamous patrilineages: Timtsen (Sherchan), Choeki (Gauchan), Burki (Bhattachan), and Salki (Tulachan). The four patrilineages are again subdivided into a number of family groups called ghyupa. Each of the four patrilineages has its own clan deities: the Lion for Timtsen, the Dragon for Choeki, the Yak for Burki, and the Elephant for Salki. Each respective patrilineage has its own "clan grave" called khimj in which a throat bone is placed on the death of a patrilineage member. In spite of the high mobility of Thakali merchants, the ethnic identity has been well maintained thanks to the elaborate ritual activities based on family, patrilineage, and tribe levels.
Marriage. Marriage was traditionally initiated by capturing a bride with her informal consent, like the custom among some of the Himalayan groups. It is, however, the Contemporary tendency for young Thakalis to prefer arranged marriages in the Hindu style. The rule of postmarital residence is Generally patrilocal, and the youngest son tends to stay with the parents even after his marriage. In many cases, the elder sons go out and set up new families after their marriages (neolocal residence). Traditionally, divorce and remarriage were not encouraged but also not prohibited; today, however, the remarriage of widows is becoming somewhat unpopular among the Thakalis who have been brought up in the Hindu lowlands of Nepal.
Domestic Unit. The younger sons are apt to form extended families with their parents, but elder sons generally set up nuclear families in new localities after their marriages.
Inheritance. The property of the parents is inherited by the sons, but the younger sons obtain most of it.
Socialization. Traditionally, the socialization of the Thakali children was quite well balanced by a laissez-faire attitude and hard training systems in Thakhola. The shoben lava initiation ceremony used to be performed in Thakhola. A similar rite is also performed in the Hindu lowlands in a modified fashion under the Hindu name of a kumar jatra. As for the modern education of Thakali children, the parents have been very active not only in urban settings but even in Tukuche. Formerly, only the affluent families could afford to send their children to the elite schools in urban centers, but many families have now started to send their children to such schools both in Nepal and foreign countries.
Social Organization. The Thakalis claim that their society is egalitarian within the ethnic group. As a whole, intensive social stratification cannot be observed except for a certain kind of socioritual ranking.
Political Organization. The leadership of the Subba Families was established in the mid-nineteenth century after the Nepal-Tibet wars. Under their leadership, the Thakali Community had enjoyed semiautonomy within and without the group in the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring areas, like Panchgaon, Baragaon, Lo, and Dolpo. It lasted almost until the end of the 1950s, when the majority of the Influential Thakali merchants started their migration toward the south. The new leadership, however, has not been set up within the Thakali community yet in the urban areas nor even in Thakhola. Under a main Subba who administered Thakhola, there were thirteen mukhiyas, or village heads, who formed a "tribal" council and the village councils in thirteen Thakali villages of Thakhola.
Social Control. Among the Thakalis in Thakhola, social control was predominantly exercised by the Subba families. But it gradually shifted to the administration of the central government by social change among the Thakalis themselves and the nation building of the kingdom.
Conflict. The sources of conflict with other ethnic groups were mainly based on competition in trading transactions and the local political domination in the Upper Kali Gandaki Valley and neighboring areas. The conflicts, however, used to be compromised or solved under the leadership of the Subba families. In recent years, the Thakalis have had to deal with troubles with other ethnic groups on an individual basis and through legal measures. The same is true for conflicts within the Thakali community.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Thakali religion represents a syncretism of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and a native belief called Dhom, a type of shamanistic animism common in all the Himalayan regions and Tibet. These three religions—Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Dhom—coexist not only in the villages but also in the minds of the Thakalis. The core of the Thakalis' animism is the worship of their ancestors, called dhu-tin-gya. In recent times cultural change among the Thakalis indicates a tendency toward Hinduism rather than Tibetan Buddhism, though the latter was more influential in the old days. Although the Thakalis started to style themselves Hindus in the mid-nineteenth century when the Thakali leader began to associate with the Hindu Rana regime in Kathmandu, there was not a single Hindu temple in Thakhola before the mass migration of Thakali merchants from Thakhola to the urban centers of southern Nepal in the 1960s. The reduction of Tibetan influence and increasing Hinduization of the Thakalis in Thakhola, which began even before the 1960s, is summarized as follows. (1) Changes in the Thakali way of life have been instituted, such as avoidance of eating yak meat (beef) and of drinking Tibetan beer. (2) Some of the Thakali leaders have discouraged the members of the community from wearing bakus (Tibetan robes) and have encouraged them to wear Nepalese or Western dress instead. But many women still prefer to wear Himalayan-style costumes, partly because of cold weather in Thakhola and partly for convenience while working. (3) The people have been discouraged from using the Thakali language, a Tibeto-Burman dialect, in the presence of others. But in trading transactions, it may be usefully spoken as an argot among themselves while dealing with other ethnic groups. (4) Since the Thakalis have started claiming to be Hindus, nearly all of the pantheon in Tibetan Buddhism has been reshuffled. Now the old deities having Tibeto-Himalayan names are claimed to be the avatars (incarnations) of Hindu deities. (5) The Hinduization tendency has encouraged the claim of their Thakur (the caste of the present royal family of Nepal) origin in the Jumla-Sinja area of western Nepal. This trend parallels claims of Rajput origin among some of the castes in India.
The process of Hinduization and de-Tibetanization among the Thakalis has also been accelerated by the seasonal migration of Thakalis for trade and through frequent association with their relatives and friends already settled in Pokhara, Sasadhara, Butwal, and Bhairawa. The mass migration of influential merchants after the 1960s was vital in the process of cultural change. The declining salt trade in the Himalayan regions has also played an important role in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing the culture of the Thakalis. It goes without saying that the flexibility of Thakali culture is also responsible for this rapid cultural change. In this connection the upper stratum of the Thakali community as a whole has played a vital part in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing their culture, whereas the lower stratum has been somewhat more passive in these processes. It is also noteworthy that the tendency to revive native animism (Dhom) can be observed in urban areas such as Kathmandu, where the Thakalis seem to have suffered an identity crisis and anxiety because of the rapid urbanization of their culture. The Thakalis have been shamanistic animists, and the dhoms (shamans) have played important roles in treating and counseling patients.
Ceremonies. The native animism called Dhom has been influential in many aspects of Thakali life. Tibetan Buddhism once played an important part in rites of passage, but Hinduism has gradually replaced it in recent years.
Arts. The Thakalis are quite artistic people, loving not only the arts but also natural beauty such as the landscape and flowers. It is, however, very interesting that they show their artistic abilities more in secular aspects of life, such as commerce, cooking, interior designing, and so forth, rather than in the arts themselves.
Medicine. Due to the pragmatic tendency of Thakali Culture, scientific medicines have been well accepted among them for many years. At the same time, they have also been utilizing Tibetan as well as Ayurvedic medicines and herbs.
Death and Afterlife. The influence of the Indic folk philosophy represented in Buddhism and Hinduism has been prominent among the Thakalis and so they believe in reincarnation. Traditionally, funeral ceremonies were performed in the Dhom style among the commoners in Thakhola, except for a few wealthy subba families who preferred Buddhist Ceremonies and invited lamas from the monasteries to perform them. Many of the Thakalis, however, have started to hold funeral ceremonies in a Hindu style since they migrated to the south. Some revival of native shamanism is also observed in the funeral ceremonies of urban Thakalis.
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Iijima, Shigeru (1975). Himalayan Traders. London: John Murray.
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"Thakali." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thakali
"Thakali." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/thakali
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