The Tharu people are indigenous people living in the Surkhet Valley in the west mountain region, Chitwan Valley, Dang Valley,Deukhuri Valley,Sindhuli and Udyapur in Inner Terai Valleys of Nepal and the Terai plains on the border of Nepal and India. The population of Nepal is 28,287,147 (July 2006 est.), of which the Tharu people make up 6.6%. A smaller number of Tharus live in India, mostly in Champaran District of Bihar and in Nainital District of Uttarakhand.
The Tharu are recognised as an official nationality by the Government of Nepal Plains.They were the primary victims of the Kamaiya system outlawed by the government of Nepal on July 17 of 2000. It is now illegal to contract for labor through debt bondage or indenture. Though democracy has been reinstated in the country, the Tharu community has called for a more inclusive democracy as they are fearful of remaining a backward, underprivileged people.
The Tharu is largest and oldest ethnic group of the Terai region, living in villages near dense malaria-infested jungles in regions that were isolated over the millennia, allowing them to develop a unique culture.They work usually as farmers or peddlers. Although physically the Tharu are similar to other peoples in the area, they speak their own Tharu language that originated in Sanskrit and is now recognised officially.
Recent medical evidence supports the common belief that the Tharu people, having lived in the swampy Terai region for centuries, have developed an innate resistance to malaria that is likely based on an unidentified genetic factor.
According to Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh, a series of invasions by the Rajput kings, eroded the influence of the indigenious Tharus. In 1854 Jung Bahadur, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal, developed the Mulki Ain, a codification of Nepal’s indigenous legal system which divided society into a system of castes. The Tharus were placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Their land was taken away, disrupting their community and displacing the people. In the 1950s, World Health Organisation helped the Nepalese government eradicate malaria in the Terai region. This resulted in immigration of people from other areas to claim the fertile land, making the Tharus slaves of the new landowners and developing the kamaiya system of bonding generations of Tharus families to labour.
Some Tharu live in longhouses, which may hold up to 150 people. The longhouses are built of mud with lattice walls They grow barley, wheat, maize, and rice, as well as raise animals such as chickens, ducks, pigs, and goats. In the big rivers, they use large nets to fish.
Because the Tharu lived in isolation in malarial swamps until the recent use of DDT, they developed a style of decorating the walls, rice containers and other objects in their environment. The Tharu women transform outer walls and verandahs of their homes into colorful paintings dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and fertility.
The Tharu are adherents of Hinduism, but also held Islamic, Animist and Buddhist beliefs. Small numbers have converted to Buddhism in the recent years. Such syncretic practices have led Tharu to practice folk Hinduism. With the advent of religious freedom, others have converted to Christianity and there are a variety of congregations active in the various districts where Tharus are found.
Traditional Tharu worship various gods in the form of animals such as dogs, crow, ox and cows. Such gods are seen in Hinduism. Every village has their own deity, commonly known as Bhuinyar. Tharu in East Nepal call their deity Gor-raja.
Most Tharu households own a statue of a traditional god. Family members often offer animal’s blood sacrifices to appease the god. Animals such as pigeons and chickens are used for sacrificial purposes. Milk and silk cloth are also used. Many Tharu would also use the blood of one of the male members in the family for such rituals. Such rituals are conducted through ceremonies, and superficial cuts are made forehead, arms, throat, legs, and/or chest.
The gods are believed to have the ability to heal diseases and sickness. According to traditional legend, gods are given a bhakal, a promise of something, on condition that the sickness is cured, in any events of misfortunes, plagues and horror dreams. A relative’s death is an event of great significance among Tharu, and rituals conducted varies in accordance to regions.
Tharu would approach shamans as doctors, known as Guruba. Such shamans use Buddhist medicines to cure illness. Shamans will also try to appease gods through incantations, beating drums and offering sacrifices. The Tharu believe sickness comes when the gods are displeased, and the demons are at work.
Buddhist converts among the Tharu are found in Saptari, Siraha and Udaipur. Currently it is believed that there are more than one dozen of Buddhist monks and novices among the Tharus. Such practice was possibly based on the fact that they were inspired by the discovery of Lord Buddha as a member of the Tharu tribe.
97.63% of the ethnic Tharu were Hindu according to the 2001 Census of Nepal, where as 1.95% were Boudhists.