The Western Hills are Nepal at its most quintessentially, outstandingly Nepalese. There are roaring gorges, precariously perched villages and terraced fields reaching to improbable heights, and some of the most graceful and accessible peaks of the Himalayas for a backdrop. Yet in this, Nepal’s most populous hill region, people are the dominant feature. Magars and Gurungs, the most visible ethnic groups, live in their own villages or side by side with Tamangs, caste Hindus, Newari merchants and Tibetans. Life is traditional and close to the land, but relatively prosperous: houses are tidy and spacious, and hill women are festooned with the family gold.
The chief destination of the Western Hills is the laidback lakeside resort of Pokhara, Nepal’s major hub for trekking – the Annapurna range lies immediately to the north – plus paragliding, yoga and almost everything else. Many visitors are understandably intent on heading straight for Pokhara, but it’s well worth sidestepping from the road to visit a trio of hilltop sights: the historic fortress of Gorkha, the pilgrimage site of Manakamana and the lofty old bazaar of Bandipur. Continuing on to Pokhara from all of these by public bus along the Prithvi Highway is an experience in itself, and easily bearable given the short distances involved. Beyond Pokhara, on the magnificent Siddhartha Highway to the Indian border, the charming town of Tansen lies at the southern edge of the hills. All of these make excellent bases for day hikes.
Confusingly enough, the Western Hills are actually in the geographic centre of Nepal – these hills are only “western” in relation to Kathmandu. The relatively remote and poor mid-western and far-western regions are covered in Trekking.Read More
Gurungs and Magars
Gurungs and Magars
Once active trans-Himalayan traders – the Chinese occupation of Tibet put paid to that – Gurungs are a common sight around Gorkha and Pokhara, where many have invested their Gurkha pensions in guesthouses and retirement homes. The majority of Gurungs who don’t serve in the military keep sheep for their wool, driving them to pastures high on the flanks of the Himalayas, and raise wheat, maize, millet and potatoes.
Traditional pursuits such as hunting and honey-gathering are being encroached upon by overpopulation, while the Gurung form of shamanism is coming under pressure from the advance of Hinduism and Buddhism. Gurungs employ shamans to appease ghosts, reclaim possessed souls from the underworld, and guide dead souls to the land of their ancestors – rituals that contain clear echoes of “classic” Siberian shamanism and are believed to resemble those of pre-Buddhist Tibet.
A somewhat less cohesive group, Magars are scattered throughout the lower elevations of the Western Hills and in some parts of the east. A network of Magar kingdoms once controlled the entire region, but the arrival of Hindus in the fifteenth century brought swift political decline and steady cultural assimilation. After centuries of coexistence with Hindu castes, most Magars employ Baahun priests and worship Hindu gods just like their Chhetri neighbours, differing only in that they’re not allowed to wear the sacred thread of the “twice-born” castes. Despite the lack of unifying traits, group identity is still strong, and will probably remain so as long as Magars keep marrying only within the clan.