Tharu as tribal, Tharu as caste

Reflections on Colonial Categories along the Indo-Nepal border

  • Arjun Guneratne Macalester College
Keywords: Tharu, Chitwan, tribe, caste, cultural change


The Tharu are a culturally diverse ethnic group that inhabit the Tarai of Nepal, whose culture shifts from being more ‘tribe’-like to being more ‘caste’-like on a west to east continuum. I focus on one district in the Nepal Tarai, Chitwan, to show that this continuum, which indexes certain cultural attributes, can be explained by ecological, geographical, and historical facts that have differentially shaped the relation between different areas of the Tarai to the states that encompassed them. Although Chitwan lies on the border between Nepal and India, the major socio-cultural influences that have shaped it in modern times have come mainly from the Hindu societies of the hills. Before the 1950s’ malaria eradication program, the Chitwan valley was inhabited mainly by Tharu, who had kinfolk across the border in West Champaran, India. Despite these cultural connections, however, and the political fact of an open border in the legal sense, the Indo-Nepal border at Chitwan has constrained cross-border exchanges and flows for ecological reasons. Historically, the Tharu of both Chitwan and Champaran were buffered by those ecological conditions from the caste societies of both the hills and the plains. Although the Chitwan Tharu might once have fit the concept of a tribe, the cultural transformation brought about by close contact with hill Nepali society since the malaria eradication program has transformed them not into a ‘caste’, as might have happened in earlier historical periods, but into an ethnic group in the context of a modern state.

How to Cite
Guneratne, A. (2022). Tharu as tribal, Tharu as caste. HIMALAYA - The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, 41(2), 6-21.
Special Section Research Article