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among the Rana Tharu
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By Debra KellnerPhotographs by Eric Valli & Debra Kellner

When warfare left them widows, legend says, these women who had fled to the forest of southern Nepal founded a society that has endured for 400 years.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The older children asleep, Ram Puti, a baby at her breast, sits with a few of her extended family near the evening fire in her small wooden house. Some of the women smoke, and two men repair fishnets in the corner.

A debate arises about an arranged marriage that has turned sour. When it comes to matters of the heart, the lazy laughter of the women transforms into a spiral of opinion that rises with the smoke. One legend says it was a matter of the heart that brought the Tharu people to their isolated homeland in southern Nepal.

The lives of the Tharus have remained simple for four centuries. Except for a few bicycles, tools, and tractors, I see little around them that they have not made with their hands. The walls of their homes are plastered inside and out with mud and cow dung, so smooth they look and feel like skin. Their clay containers, their embroidered garments, the fishnets they weave—all the things they touch—are works of art.

They do not see their world as small or their forest as a dissolving membrane between them and the rest of the world. But when the forest and the culture it nourishes are gone, as is likely one day, something immeasurable will be lost. The day I drive away I peer back through the dusty window of my Jeep and see them waving. The Rana Tharus are like flowers in a time capsule, like grace itself.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

What fate awaits the women of the Rana Tharu? Join the discussion.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Women probably once ruled the Rana Tharus. Anthropologists believe that such rights as spurning a suitor or annulling a marriage—unheard of in the rest of the region—are vestiges of a matriarchal society.

Although the tarai covers less than 20 percent of Nepal’s area, it is considered the country’s breadbasket.

The Tharu of the Tarai
This website of the Asian Art Journal provides a history of the Tharus and color photographs of their artistry.

Looking Back: A Foundation for Growth
An overview of development projects initiated by theU.S. and Nepal governments, including a brief discussion of malaria eradication in the tarai.

An Indigenous People: Tharu of Nepal
This reference article offers a brief introduction to the Tharus of the tarai.

Maithi, S. “Changing Status of the Tharu Women,” Eastern Anthropologist, Vol. 52, No. 1, 1999.

Skar, S. et al. Nepal: Tharu & Tarai Neighbors. State Mutual Book & Periodical Service, Ltd., 1999.

Srivastava, S. The Tharus: A Study in Culture Dynamics. New Order Book Co., 1958.

Coburn, Broughton. Triumph on Everest: A Photobiography of Sir Edmund Hillary. National Geographic Books, 2000.

“Surviving Everest: The Collector’s Edition.” National Geographic Video, 1999.

Valli, Eric. “Golden Harvest of the Raji.” National Geographic, June 1998, 84-105.

Breashears, David F. “The Siren Song of Everest.” National Geographic, Sept. 1997, 124-135.

Caputo, Robert. “Mustang, Nepal’s Forgotten Corner.” National Geographic, Nov. 1997, 112-129.

Carrier, Jim. “Gatekeepers of the Himalaya.” National Geographic, Dec.1992, 70-89.

Chadwick, Douglas. “At the Crossroads of Kathmandu.” National Geographic, July 1987, 32-65.


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