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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY
The Nature-centric Culture of the Nepalese
D. S. Rasaily and R. P. Lama
Darjeeling, known as the queen of hill stations, was gifted to the East India Company by the Maharaja of Sikkim in 1835. History reveals that during the 160 years of its lifetime, the Darjeeling hill area, though ethnically and culturally varied, its people both tribals and non-tribals, has contributed to a large extent to the progress and promotion of a sense of coexistence and assimilation.
The panoramic scenario of the lofty Himalayas, its guardian deities, beautiful landscapes, lush green valleys and soothing climatic conditions have always been the source of inspiration to the hard-working but ever-smiling people of these hills. Numerous traditional dances, folk songs, much folklore, folk music and folk forms of theatres and oral tradition of the Nepalese and other tribals residing in different regions, mostly in the north and the north-eastern parts, have made significant contributions to the enrichment of the cultural heritage of our country. In fact these simple folk dances and joyful, rhythmic and lilting folk songs and music have helped cement deeper bonds of emotional understanding, feeling and goodwill and have strengthened the mainstream of our national life.
However, with the passage of time and changing needs and circumstances, sizeable populations of Nepalese have spread all over the plains, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Arunachal Pradesh to Saurashtra. In these areas Nepalese are found engaged in different occupations and professions ranging from agriculture to army service and from factories to forestry. The Nepalese are also known all over the world as one of the best military forces. Loyalty, devotion to duty, honesty, amiable disposition and hard work are some of the inborn qualities of the Nepalese.
Once the Darjeeling hills, the nerve centre of Nepali social and cultural life were famous for three T’s — tea, tourism and timber. Although tea and tourism are still the main sources of livelihood of the local people, timber has been relegated to the background. The massive deforestation and indiscriminate felling of rich forest wealth in the hills over the last few decades are the main factors for the degeneration of the environment and ecological degradation of the hills. The massive tree felling by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation and the local timber merchants have depleted the local forest wealth to a large extent.
Nature, mother earth and the environment have also had an influence on our literature and culture from the ancient period. Nepali language and culture drew their inspiration from the Vedas, Gita and other sacred Hindu books. The famous English poet Wordsworth once said that the world was poisoned at the root. Design with nature must replace design against nature.
Similarly, the famous Nepali poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota, in his epic Sakuntal, said: ‘sad jnan chhan prakritika hariya kunama’, i.e., real wisdom lies or exists with the greenery of Nature.
Man can make and unmake, man can create and destroy. This selfish motive of man on earth has been depicted by another famous Nepali poet, Lekhnath Paudyal:
The Nepali population is made up of different races professing various religions, castes, creeds and culture. The majority are Hindus whose language and literature have their roots in Sanskrit in the Devanagari script. Their sacred scriptures are the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas and Gita. These sacred books were translated into Nepali long back. The translation of the Ramayana into Nepali was done by the poet Bhanubhakta Acharya, who is considered the architect of the modern Nepali language. The Mahabharata was translated around 1901, and the Gita in 1935 by Pandit Dharnidhar Sharma and published by the Nepali Sahitya Sammelan, Darjeeling. Nepali culture is a treasure house of varied and colourful folk dances, folk songs and folklore. Most of the songs, dances and folklore are linked with the nature and its gods. Epics and other sacred scriptures have a deep impact on the hill culture and social life which has flowed in the history of mankind from generation to generation, mostly in the form of oral tradition. Only recently have the folk songs, folklore and other musical forms been made available in printed form. Folk instruments, costumes, ornaments and household materials have been sidetracked because of the onslaught of modern musical trends. Decadent culture has infiltrated social and cultural life. But in spite of this, the folk culture in its traditional style has survived.
In support of the above, a few examples are given here. Beliefs and behaviour in social life have been amply reflected in folk songs and folklore. The Nepali Tamang’s folklore based on the episode of Himalayan munal (tragopan pheasant) of the hills and the mayur (peacock) of the plains represents deeper bonds of friendship and brotherhood between mankind and the earth. This folklore, very popular among the Nepali community, is an outstanding example of cultural links with the wildlife and its protector, nature. Similarly, the flora and fauna of the hills have equally found their place in the love songs of Nepali Tamangs. The English rendering of the song, in which the boy says to his beloved, is:
No religious ceremony is complete without invocation and offerings to the goddess nature. After a harvest, the first grain is offered to the gods and goddesses of nature, and in some cases to the souls of dead forefathers.
Animals and birds have a very significant role in festivals and ceremonies. During Diwali, the festival of light, every family in Nepali society offers puja and worships cows, dogs and crows. Garlands are offered to these animals on particular days and sumptuous food is made available to them.
Kirats, who form formidable soldiers in the army, are also nature’s worshippers similar to other tribes in Nepali society. Their culture, specially rituals and ways of worshipping nature, are quite different.
Nepalese occult art in the form of jhankris (witch doctors or ghost-busters) also have a close link with the forest and nature. The ghost-busters, popularly known as jhankris, are used in most cases to ward off evil spirits from the house. These jhankris owe their spiritual strength to Ban Devis like Lati Bureni and Chamki Bureni. The strange feature of the occult art in the Nepali community is the existence and belief in the cult of ban jhankris (witch doctors of the forest). In spite of the fruits of science and technology penetrating deep into society and the day-to-day life of the people, this cult has thrived and forms a part of religious. Ban jhankris, dwarves with long hair and reversed footsteps, roam about in the thick forest by the side of pure natural streams. But due to environmental degradation and the cutting down of the thick forests in the countryside, they have started disappearing from the forests. But the village folk still believe that in a dark and lonely night, the drumming and jingling of the bells of ban jhankris are heard.
The traditions and customs of the Newars in the Nepali community are more interesting, rarely to be found in other Indian societies. Daughters of teen age are married to the bel (Aegle marmelos), a fruit found in the plains, with customary rituals. Even after the death of her real husband, a woman is not considered a widow so long as the bel is not broken or destroyed.
Women are regarded with high esteem and respect in Nepali society. No dowry system exists. In fact the father of the daughter dictates the terms of marriage to the other side. Buhari jhhaar (Minosa pudica), a small bushy plant found in the hills, is symbolic of the social traditions of the Nepali community. The plant when touched closes its leaves and bows down as if in veneration to the elders of the society, which is reciprocated with blessings from the elders.
For ages, tribal groups such as Bhotias, Lepchas, Sherpas and Yolmos have had a close relation with the Nepalese; in fact, the assimilation of these tribal cultures and traditions has taken place. Among the tribals, the Lepchas are considered rich in cultural heritage. Lilting folk songs, dances, folklore and colourful costumes form parts of their traditional style of living. Although the tribal groups have their own scripts and languages, Nepali is the lingua franca for all of them. Tribal boys and girls are given education with the Nepali language as the medium of instruction not only in schools and colleges but also at the University level.
It may be mentioned here that with the recognition of the Nepali language in the 8th Schedule of our Constitution, it has gathered momentum and importance in our national life. The recognition has offered an opportunity to the Nepali-speaking people in India to be a part of the mainstream of our national life.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi