- The Uttar Pradesh government has recently embarked upon a scheme to take the unique culture of its ethnic Tharu tribe across the world. The intention is to put Tharu villages on the tourism map, and to create jobs and bring economic independence to the tribal population.
Who exactly are the Tharu people?
- The community belongs to the Terai lowlands, amid the Shivaliks or lower Himalayas. Most of them are forest dwellers, and some practice agriculture.
- The Tharus live in both India and Nepal. In the Indian terai, they live mostly in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Tribe population in Uttar Pradesh was more than 11 lakh; this number is estimated to have crossed 20 lakh now.
- The biggest chunk of this tribal population is made up of Tharus. Members of the tribe survive on wheat, corn and vegetables grown close to their homes. A majority still lives off the forest.
- 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.
- The word थारू thāru is thought to be derived from sthavir meaning follower of Theravada Buddhism.
- There are several endogamous sub-groups of Tharu that are scattered over most of the Terai.
- They have their own gods and follow a Bharra (shaman). Besides the Bharra, who treat their diseases, the village headman, bhalamansa, and the Desi-Mahajan – an Indian moneylender – are important people within the village.
- They are becoming more aware of outside issues and fireside chat in the evenings is becoming more outward focused, reflecting changes in their culture.
Resistance to malaria
- The Tharu are famous for their ability to survive in the malarial parts of the Terai that were deadly to outsiders. Contemporary medical research comparing Tharu with other ethnic groups living nearby found an incidence of malaria nearly seven times lower among Tharu. 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 studies.
What is unusual about the Tharu language, food, and culture?
- They speak various dialects of Tharu, a language of the Indo-Aryan subgroup, and variants of Hindi, Urdu, and Awadhi. In central Nepal, they speak a variant of Bhojpuri, while in eastern Nepal, they speak a variant of Maithili.
- Tharus worship Lord Shiva as Mahadev, and call their supreme being “Narayan”, who they believe is the provider of sunshine, rain, and harvests. Tharu women have stronger property rights than is allowed to women in mainstream North Indian Hindu custom.
- Most Tharu tribals consume alcoholic beverages, and some eat beef. Standard items on the Tharu plate are bagiya or dhikri – which is a steamed dish of rice flour that is eaten with chutney or curry – and ghonghi, an edible snail that is cooked in a curry made of coriander, chili, garlic, and onion.
- The state government is working to connect Tharu villages in the districts of Balrampur, Bahraich, Lakhimpur and Pilibhit bordering Nepal, with the home stay scheme of the UP Forest Department.
- The idea is to offer tourists an experience of living in the natural Tharu habitat, in traditional huts made of grass collected mainly from the forests.
- The Uttar Pradesh Forest Corporation will train the Tharu people to communicate effectively with visitors, and encourage villagers to acquaint them with aspects of safety and cleanliness, and with the rules of the forest.
- Tharu homeowners will be able to charge tourists directly for the accommodation and home-cooked meals. The UP government expects both domestic and international tourists to avail of the opportunity to obtain a taste of the special Tharu culture by staying with them, observing their lifestyle, food habits, and attire.
- The homestay scheme will be expanded to include the Tharu villages in a few weeks’ time.