Indigenous Magar people of Nepal
Govind Prasad Thapa Magar, PhD, MA, BL, MPA, BA
Nepal is a melting pot of many races and tribes. There are 126 castes and ethnic groups in Nepal. The prehistory and the early history of Nepal are largely unknown. The ancient origin and history of Magar people is shrouded in speculations. Despite several literary sources on Magars, the origin and history are replete with compounded speculations and inexplicit details. Information on Magars is speckled here and there. Some of these are incomplete, contradict each other, controversial, and quite often there are missing links in between the periods of history. This is so due to the dearth of substantial pieces of evidence, accurate, and chronological documents.
The Magars, the largest among the ethnic groups, is also the third-largest group in Nepal. At the time of the Nepal Census, 2011, the population of Magars was 1,887,733 (7.1% of the population of Nepal). They inhabit throughout the country with the highest population in the western part of the country—nicknamed as ‘Bahra Magarat’ ‘twelve land of Magars’ (821530), followed by the mid-western (484771) and central region (324869) of the country.
The Magars, the aboriginal stock of Nepal, are most undoubtedly Mongolian. From a linguistic point of view, there are three types of Magars living in Nepal. Kaike Magars living in Dolpa district who speak Kaike; Kham Magars who live in Atharha Magarat region and speak Kham; and the Magars who live in Bahra Magarat and speak Dhut Magar dialects. Many foreign anthropologists and sociologists have accomplished their studies or written books on all these three types of Magars. These Magars speak Tibeto-Burman dialect. Even within this Tibeto-Burman family Kham dialect is spoken by Magars in the Mid-Western region, Tarali or Kaike in Dolpa district of North-Western region, and Dhut, mostly in the West and Central part of Nepal. The population of Magars speaking these three Magar language is 2.98% of the total population of Nepal (2011 Census). Other remaining Magars speak Khas and Nepali. The Magar tongue-speaking population in 1952/54, 1991, 2001, and 2011 were 273780, 430264, and 770116, and 788,530 respectively. According to the number of people speaking a language, the Magar language is ranked as the seventh most widely spoken language in Nepal.
The study of languages has sometimes been useful in determining the historical settlements of the people in Nepal. As Witzel explains that the Magarat “extends from the Bheri in the west to Burhi Gandaki in the east and is fairly uniform in its nomenclature: river names invariantly end in –ri or –di. The names in –ri are found in the western part, that is in Kham territory, the names in –di in the eastern part. The River Ba-bai, to the south of the Bheri, may have a Magar name as well: bəy, bəyh is a Kham Magar word for ‘river’.”[i]
Magars as warriors
In the 1750s, Prithibi Narayan Shah, the “father of modern Nepal,” was consolidating the many petty kingdoms scattered across the land. For this task, he counted heavily upon his Magar soldiers. The outside world, however, came to know of the Magar only after the British began recruiting soldiers in Nepal for Gurkha regiments. The British quickly came to appreciate the Magars’ qualities and they became a major part of their Nepal (Gurkha) contingent.
The Gurkha soldiers have written their own history through bravery, by being the ‘Bravest of the Braves’. Five Magars—Kulbir Thapa Magar, Karna Bahadur Rana Magar, Lal Bahadur Thapa Magar, Tul Bahadur Pun Magar, and Netra Bahadur Thapa Magar have earned covetous Victoria Cross (VC) Medals and Dhan Singh Thapa Magar was awarded Param Vir Chakra (PVC) Medal for the gallantry and bravery. “A shrewd critic of the war” had described the situation in those times in the following words: “Almost wherever there was a theatre of war Gurkhas were to be found, and everywhere they added to their name for high courage. Gurkhas helped to hold the sodden trenches of France in that first terrible winter and during the succeeding summer. Their graves are thick on the Penninsula, on Sinai, and on the plains of Tigris and Euphrates, and even among the wild mountains that border the Caspian Sea. And to those who know, when they see the map of that country of Nepal, there must always recur the thought of what the people of that country have done for us.”[ii]
Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, who had been in Gulmi district of Nepal for her study, also refers to the military bravery of their (Magars) ancestors, claiming that it has not been recognized by the state, whatever high-caste leadership they helped to create. For example, in the history of the unification of Nepal, they picture themselves as heroes who built the country, without considering the possibility that they themselves cut the branch on which they sat by annihilating the power they had in petty kingdoms such as Palpa where they were numerically dominant and closely linked to the royal family. This situation is perhaps due to the fact that the petty kingdom which grew into a nation by swallowing its numerous neighbors was precisely a former Magar territory, where members of this group were numerous and closely related to the royal family through their cults. In a way, the Magars undoubtedly have the feeling that “Gorkha’s victory is also their own.”[iii]
Christoph also relates a similar stance of Magars’ proud record of martial exploits, and Magar officers serving in the armies of the early Gurkha kings as well as in those of the Newar states of the valley. In even earlier times, the Magar chieftains of Western Nepal seem to have faced Thakuri and Chetri chiefs on equal terms, and the same clan-names, such as for instance Thapa and Rana, occur among Magars and Chetris. Gurkha soldiers have earned fame across the globe. There can be no better account of the classic character and bravery of “the best soldiers of Asia”[iv] made by Hodgson. Everywhere Magars found they had also gained a reputation for honesty and hard work.[v]
Origin and History
The yearning to know one’s origin and history is to not only establish one’s identity but also for sentimental attachments for the people and place. Knowing past history is something like backtracking into the primitive stages of society. This knowledge may not turn out payback or profits but it is a delight (or sometimes displeasure?) to know the past.
There is a myth about the Magars. According to this, the first Magar was the youngest of four brothers. The eldest worshipped Kalika and became the ancestor of the Thakuris and the youngest sacrificed a pig to Bhairobi and hence became a Magar.[vi] “We have lived here always” types of claims have to be based on facts, not fictions, anything short of these could give out the prospect to remarks like “Magars’ history is lost in obscurity.”[vii]
Michael Witzel mentions “Magars were apparently known already to the Mahabharata as Maga, to the Puranas under the name of Mangara, and in a Nepalese copper plate inscription of 1100/1 A.D. as Mangvara.”[viii] Even in the heartland of the speakers of Western Nepali (the-gad area) indicate a Magar settlement that must have extended much more towards the west before the immigration of the Nepali-speaking Khasa/Khas in the Middle Ages.[ix] These details go together with the presumption that an original population, probably of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity, lived in Nepal some 2500 years ago.[x]
Many Magars think that they have occupied and used their land for centuries; have changed the very shape of the mountain upon which they live with their terraces; have worn footpaths connecting farmsteads deep into the soil and those stone resting platforms for wayfarers under the great roots of the banyan trees planted long ago to provide shade enclose. They feel they belong where they are, “and indeed they do”, for the people fit the land and the land fits them. And not only do the people live on their land as they feel they always have, but their many ‘godlings’ that control life and the resources upon which life is based are at home there also and must be treated with regular sacrifices of food.[xi] Some writers quote the local Magars that they “have no legends of origin from another place.” Contrary to this, M.S. Thapa Magar is of the opinion that “Magars came from East Pamir of China.”[xii]
Vansittart is of the view that “the aboriginal stock of Nepal is most undoubtedly Mongolian. This fact is inscribed in very plain characters, in their faces, forms, and languages.”[xiii] He is also of the opinion that “the principal seat of the Magars was most of the central and lower parts of the mountains between the Jhingrak (Rapti of Gorakhpur) and Marsiangdi Rivers. That they resided about Palpa from time immemorial is well known.”[xiv]
For Gary, the Magars were a Mongolian people who had migrated into Nepal in the predawn of history. Many of the other ethnic groups had legends that told how they had come to Nepal from Tibet or some other places, but not the Magars, for them, at least, history simply began and ended in Nepal. Nevertheless, who were the real Magars—the original ones? Gary found that most likely it was the Magar community which was to be found in Central Nepal in Palpa, Syangja, and Tanahu district.[xv]
Hodgson is also of the opinion that the original seat of the Magars in the Bara Mangranth, or Satahung, Payung, Bhirkot, Dhor, Garahung, Rising, Ghiring, Galmai, Argha, Khachi, Musikot, and Isma; in other words, most of the central and lower parts of the mountains, between the Bheri and Marsyandi Rivers. As is reflected by Landon, Magars seem to have spread widely, both east and west, after surrendering Palpa to invaders.[xvi] Modern events have spread the Magars and Gurungs over most parts of the present kingdom of Nepal.[xvii]
Hitchcock is of the view that “the tribe seems to have been part of a very ancient influx of Mongoloid, Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples into Nepal, probably from the north and east. It also seems probable, in view of differences between its northern and southern halves, that the tribe represents two different streams of migration.”[xviii] He finds differences “especially on each side of a line that divides their homeland roughly into northern and southern halves. The Magar tribe is split into a number of subtribes. In the southern half of the region, the sub-tribes that predominate almost to the exclusion of any others are the Ale, Rana, Thapa, and Burathoki Magars in the northern half of the area belong to different groups of sub tribes, Bura, Gharti, Pun, and Rokha.”[xix]
Pandit Sarat Chandra relates an incident that could have significant importance in this connection: “It was told of the upper Kangpa-chan valley that it was first peopled by Tibetans called Sharpa (Easterners), whose original home was in the mountains of Shar Khambu, or Eastern Kirata. Lower down the valley lived the Magar tribe from Nepal, whose chief extended his sway over the Sharpa, and exacted such oppressive taxes from them that they decided to avenge themselves. The Magar chief, going to the village of Kangpa-chan, he and his followers were murdered, and their bodies buried…Kangpa-chan people, who drank deeply, and fell asleep to awake no more. Nearly a thousand people were in this way done to death, and the babies were carried away by the queen’s followers. The place where this foul deed was done became known as Tongshong Phug, ‘the place which witnessed a thousand murders.’ ……The Tibetans finally expelled the Magars from the Kangpa-chan and Tambur valleys, and restored them to their former possessors.”[xx] Similarly, Iman Singh Chemjong also argues that “Magars are a composite group of Kirant and Monkhu and later on became Mangar.”[xxi] The references made by Sharad Chandra and Iman Singh Chemjong suggest to us the possibility of the existence of Monguor people in the Gansu province of China could also have a relationship with Magars of Nepal.
The origins of Kaike Magars end up with the mystical tales told and retold by local people. According to one of these stories, Kaike Magars were the sons of a woman who had fled from an unspecified village of Kalyal kingdom. She subsequently gave birth to her child, a son. The boy, when he grew up, captured an angel while she was bathing with her friends. As time went by, the son and his angel bride had three sons. These were the ancestors of the Budha, Rokaya, and Gharti clan. The origin of the fourth major clan is different. One of the three sons was a shepherd who kept losing the same female goat every day, so one day he followed her when she wandered away from the rest of the herd. He discovered that she was giving her milk to a baby boy living in the hollow part of a bamboo tree. He brought the baby home. This boy grew up and became the ancestor of the Jhankri clan.[xxii]
Much strikingly, Michael Oppitz also has a similar type of story about the origin of the Northern Magar-Kham- of Rukum district. He relates the three stories of the origin of Magars expressed in different media—one in the written document, the second original story is oral but seemingly fixed wordings and the third version recounted in ad-hoc oral rendering by one Magar of Taka. The three versions agree about the divine or semi-divine origin of the present-day clans or tribal sub-groups of the Northern Magar. The common themes of the three versions differently told and yet the same, rotate around the origin of the first ancestors, their first alliances, the primeval migration movements in their homeland, the origins of agriculture, and of hunting.[xxiii]
Anne de Sales also relates something similar on the origin of Kham Magars. She recounts that the “members of the same clan believe that they share a common ancestor and common geographical origin, which, determines clan exogamy. Each of the four Kham Magar clans-Pun, Gharti, Bura, Rokka-it was known by a second geographical designation, which locates its ancient site of residence.[xxiv]
Though all of this information could serve to establish the origin and history, however, the mystic tales of these kinds can appease neither the anthropologists nor Magars themselves. Owing to the absence of any written history and that, Magars had left their place of origin so long ago that the traces, though surely present, are not yet as easy to pin down. Therefore, it is difficult now to unravel many of the specific aspects of their history.
Religion and culture
The Magars worship nature, idols, spirits, and supernatural beings. This actually points out the belief in the natural phenomenon. In the rural parts of Nepal, even today, we come across a Than (shrine)–little rectangular pieces of gobar or cow dung, on a platform, with a varying number of evenly spaced depressions in the top, such as might be made with the tip of a finger inside the house–besides a path track, beneath a tree, under a large stone, beside a water spring, or in the corner of irrigated fields. Sometimes these platforms are uncovered, resting on a patch of earth that has been hardened and made smooth with a mixture of mud, cow dung, and water. Most of them are inside little “rooms” that are open in front and have been made with flat stones. On occasions, too, one sees a small pavilion with a conical thatched roof made of straw, about the height of a man.
These Than are some of the places where one can make contact with supernatural beings of a particular kind—Gham(sun), Jun(full moon), Pani(water), Bayu(wind), Kuldevata(family god), Sim Bai(devi), Nag (serpent), Jhankari (hunter), Bhoot-Pret-Masan(ghost, spirit), Boskshi(witch), Bandevi(forest goddess)– the beings who mean most to the majority of people because they are the ones who are effective in their lives and really make a difference. Coming to terms with these beings is part of their lives. These are beings of the land and the forces controlling health, growth, and reproduction. These beings, which may be either male, Devta, or female, Devi, are referred to as deities who eat bhog or food–mostly the newly spilled blood of a sacrificial animal – mostly the bhale(a rooster), and quite often the boka(he-goat), and pada(young male buffalo), and Sungur(pig). On many occasions, people offer panchbali—the sacrifice of five animals at a time.
The Puja (prayers) are made at places where it is believed that the godling lives. The sacrifices almost always are made by a young kumar(unmarried) boy, called pujari, who bathes and puts on a clean loincloth. After cleaning the ground with cow dung and water, thus setting it apart and making it acceptable for a holy purpose, he winds dhaja (kerchiefs) around a stone and sets it upright to represent the godling being honored. The dhaja represent the godling’s new clothing. The basic rationale throughout the puja is doing things for the godlings that will be pleasing: clothing him, feeding him, and surrounding him with pleasant things like dhoop (incense) and flowers. It is important to do these things in a properly sanctified place, with rituals conducted by a person who has prepared himself by bathing and who has not yet lost the extra purity believed to belong to the unmarried. This latter quality is especially important to female godlings but is appreciated by the males as well.
After making a cow dung platform for food offerings and setting it before the stone, the pujari decorates the Than(shrine) with turmeric, rice flour, bits of colored cloth, and flowers. Offerings that are then placed in the holes of the cow dung platform include rice flour fried in butter, puffed rice, rice mixed with water and sage, and cow’s milk. The godling also is honored by offerings of flowers and by the presence of fire in the form of a mustard oil lamp in a copper container-diyo (oil lamp.)
Just before the sacrifice, the pujari makes an incense of butter and sage and prays for whatever boon he wishes, pointing out that he is about to offer a sacrifice. The animal to be offered is sanctified by putting water, rice, and sage on the head, the animal then shakes it head or body which is taken as a sign that the animal has given its consent to be sacrificed. Then only it is beheaded. The head is placed before the stone and the blood is spurted in the Than(shrine). After this, the pujari prepares tika by mixing the blood of the sacrificed animal with some rice and places this onto the foreheads of those present. He also receives tika by having one of the worshippers do the same for him. As a gift for the pujari’s services, he gets the head of the sacrificed animal and whatever food has been brought as an offering. The final act of puja is cooking and eating the sacrificed animal that now has been shared with the godling.
On the other hand historically the Tarangpur (Dolpa) Magars – neither a full-fledge Hindu caste nor unalloyed Tibetan Buddhists, but always at the mercy of outsiders, who were one or the other had to defer, serially or simultaneously, to both Hindu and Buddhist sources of power, prestige, and influence.”[xxv] For Fisher, “Buddhism and Hinduism are historical accretions. The Magars and other Tibeto-Burman groups were apparently neither Buddhist nor Hindu originally.”[xxvi] Like tribes elsewhere in South Asia, the Magars of Tarangpur “live on the fringes on Hindu society, but unlike most of these other tribal peoples, they also live on the fringes of Buddhist society. Tarangpur is culturally convoluted, geographically isolated, and socially ingrown.”[xxvii]
i Witzel, Michael, “Nepalese Hydronomy,” Harvard University, July 12, 1991, p. 18 http://nipforum.org/nepalese_hydronomy.pdf.
ii Landon, Perceval, Nepal, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1993 (First Published 1928), p. 243
iii Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, “The history of the messianic and rebel king Lakhan Thapa Magar : Utopia and ideology among the Magar”, CNRS, Paris, This is an augmented version of an article published in EBHR 19, 2000. It was complemented by field data gathered in Lakhan Thapa’s village and I wish to express my gratitude to the villagers of this place (Kahule village, in Bungkot vdc, Gorkha district) for their warm welcome and their cooperation.
[iv] Hodgson, Brian H., Essays on the Languages, Literature, and Religion of Nepal and Tibet, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1991 (First Published 1874), Part II, p. 40
4Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, “Chetri caste of Nepal”, in Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, (Ed), Caste & Kin in Nepal, India & Ceylon, Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1978, p. 17
[vi] Christoph, op.cit.
[vii] Hitchcock, op.cit., p.4
[viii] Witzel, op.cit.
[xi] George and Louise Spindler, in John T. Hitchcock, The Magars of Banyan Hill; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, Foreword, pp. vii-viii
[xii] Thapa Magar, M..S., Prachin Magar ra Akkha Lipi, Publisher Shrimati Durgadevi Thapa Magar, Briji Prakashan,(First Publication 2049, Second Publication 2059), p. 3
[xiii] Vansittart, Eden, The Gurkhas, (based upon the ‘Notes on Nepal’, 1895 AD and ‘Notes on Gurkhas’ 1890 AD), Anmol Publications, New Delhi, Re-print 1993, p. 6
[xiv] ibid, p. 184
[xv] Shepherd, Gary, Life with Magars, p. 11
[xvi] Landon, Perceval, Nepal, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1993 (First Published 1928), p. 243
[xvii] Hodgson, Brian H., Essays on the Languages, Literature, and Religion of Nepal and Tibet, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1991 (First Published 1874), Part II, p. 40
[xviii] Hitchcock, John T., The Magars of Banyan Hill; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. 2
[xix] ibid p. 4
[xx] Das, Sarat C. (1902). Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet. John Murray, London, Albemarle Street
[xxi] Chemjong, Iman S. (2003). History and Culture of Kirat People (Fourth Edition). Lalitpur: Kirat Yakthung Chumlung [First edition 1967].
[xxii] Fisher, James F. , Trans-Himalayan Traders: Economy, Society, & Culture in Northwest Nepal, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt, Ltd., New Delhi, India, Reprint 1997, pp. 2-3
[xxiii] Oppitz, Michael, “The Wild Boar and The plough: origin Story of the Northern Magar”, Kailash, Vol X, No. 3-4, Kathmandu, Nepal, 1983, pp. 187
[xxiv] Anne de Sales, “The Kham Magar Country, Nepal: Between Ethnic Claims and Maoism”, (translated by David N. Gellner), European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 19: 41-72, 2000
[xxv] Fisher, James F. , Trans-Himalayan Traders: Economy, Society, & Culture in Northwest Nepal, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt, Ltd., New Delhi, India, Reprint 1997, pp. 2-3
[xxvi] ibid p. 208
[xxvii] ibid p.14