Phulvati shyly extended a small intricately woven basket full of semi puffed rice, anandi, urging me to eat more. It was a splendid meal – replete with fresh sugarcane juice, thick curd and a dash of garlic-amla-chilli paste that was so exquisite that I couldn’t stop myself from asking for several helpings. Washing my fingers near the motif laden door I marvelled at the ingenuity of the Tharu people living within the deep jungles of the alleged Mao-infested Valmiki Tiger Reserve, West Champaran in Bihar. With land holdings ranging from mere 1 to 2 katthas, these people’s hand to mouth existence is evident. Yet the upkeep of their mud baked houses, well-oiled hair, clean clothes and general appearance speak of higher cultural endowment. Hospitality aside, the Tharu of the Naurangia village of Don are a quiet lot with almost every question being thwarted with a pretty smile or a counter question. Unlike their tribal cousins some 25 odd kilometers away in the so-called capital of Tharuvat at Harnatand, the Tharu of Samrahni and Naurangia in Don are tight lipped about most issues.
Tharu tribe, as folklore tells us, apparently has its roots in Rajasthan. It is said that some 400 years ago a noble lady eloped with her trusted servant leaving the desert sands to colonise the mosquito infested terai. The myth justifies the higher social position of women within the Tharu, resulting in their greater autonomy in decision making, higher literacy as compared to their Bihari counterparts, and general wellbeing. Interestingly, they pursue education and attend regular classes even after marriage – completely unheard of among non Tharu women in the vicinity.
Phulvati’s husband is a Nepalese and unlike a Tharu male – hardworking, returning home to his toddler and wife every evening. As Phulvati’s busy fingers continued to wind loop after loop of coloured sabai grass into a patterned basket, she recounted how she returned to work just the day after her marriage, tending to a near ripe paddy crop and fetching soil, cowdung and water for a fresh coat of motifs on the outer wall of her home. “We are supposed to earn and look after every need of our husbands, quite the opposite of the bajiyan, non Tharu living here. In fact in a traditional chant during our marriage, the bride beseeches the groom atop the roof of their nuptial home to consent for marriage, with a promise that she will work readily to feed and clothe him”, adds Phulvati. Handicraft is her passion she insists, showing me the other items that she has painstakingly woven. Although she believes that marketing their craft would be a viable employment alternative, she finds few takers. As her peers gathered around, Phulvati withdrew into a shell, preferring to answer in monosyllables. Rukmani, a young student returning home from the only girls’ school in the vicinity, fanned the dying conversation with an interesting revelation about paddy cultivation similar to tribal traditions in Jharkhand. Certain proportion of the paddy cultivated is placed in a community granary, dharam bakhar, a reserve from where the villagers can borrow, not for direct marketing or monetary benefits, but for household consumption. The only condition is that borrower has to return the borrowed quantity on an agreed upon date. Women, as is usual among this community, maintains the granary and its records. No Tharu, Rukmani proudly adds, goes hungry.
A religious lot, the Tharu women of Don are more Hindu than tribal, with Shivaratri and Dassera occupying a prominent place. Wearing the orange vermillion mark of marriage, the Tharu women sport accessories almost similar to their non Tharu counterparts. One significant difference in attire is the acceptance of salwar kameez as regular wear post marriage and the beaded neck pieces with silver or gold lockets, reminiscent of Nepali marriage norms. Guffawing heartily, Ramavati, another Don inhabitant, added “I wear such clothes by choice, my husband never objects like the bajiyan men. Also wearing salwar kameez makes it easier to cycle.” Cycling, I came to understand is the lifeline of this area. Every individual and perhaps even the toddlers are expert cyclists. Moving around in bands, the women here adjust their day to day routine in such a manner that they are never alone, out in the wilderness, cycling. Although women emancipation appeared alive and kicking in this region, yet the norm of underage marriages was disquieting. By the time the girls are ten or twelve, marriage proposals are sought and the first child in most cases is born around fifteen.
Bhagmati has six children and most of the women in her age group have around four to eight. Although the figures they claim are falling, but the rise in population to nearly 4000 households in these stressed environs is enough to cause substantive damage to the ecology of the area. The attraction is such that despite lack of medical facilities, schools and markets, Tharu women belonging to these villages prefer to pull in their marriage partners, rather than shift out to live with them. This phenomenon translates into a sharper rise in the population within. In this respect, the non Tharu living within the forest precincts too behave in a similar fashion.
But they have their share of everyday fun too. “Only last night”, gushed Jayavachan, “we had a CD show. More than three hundred people from around the area gathered. Such occasions are like night long festivities.” The CD show I gathered, was a movie and judging by their Bollywood knowledge, such arrangements where the CD player is brought in from beyond the forest boundaries for a night, seemed quite frequent. The crowd she added never turns rowdy, despite the fact that gadla, locally brewed rice liquor, flows freely. A bonus of female domination perhaps!
These revenue villages within the forest area were traditionally rice growing. In recent times the shift is palpable with sugarcane dominating the landscape. A more water intensive option, sugarcane farming the Tharu say provides better remuneration than paddy. Unable to access the only sugar mill in the locality, the Bagaha Sugar Mill, some 40 kms away in a precarious terrain and in retaliation to exploitative mill owner keeping payment pending for two or three years – small illegal gur or jaggery making units have cropped up in an around the villages. As these villages are located near the core forest area, extraction of fuelwood is easy and is used in abundance to process the sugarcane juice to gur. But these small scale units, often produce inferior quality jaggery, which has less market value and poor consumption potential. Instead, it is transported to Nepal and also sold in the Indian market to prepare liquor. While the Tharu of Don replace paddy with sugarcane to earn more from their land, many are now faced with food crisis and have become dependent on either government or village granaries.
As night fell, I left Phulvati’s charming cottage adorned with posters of Lord Krishna alongside Jesus Christ and motifs in English, which read ‘welcome’ and ‘Prem’. Juxtaposed against habitations beyond the forest boundary, such inclusions seemed out of place. Perhaps the linkages of these groups need further exploration.