A narrow strip of flatland extending along the length of Nepal’s southern border, the Terai was originally covered in thick, malarial jungle. In the 1950s, however, the government identified the southern plains as a major growth area to relieve population pressure in the hills, and, with the help of liberal quantities of DDT, brought malaria under control. Since then, the jungle has been methodically cleared and the Terai has emerged as Nepal’s most productive region, accounting for more than fifty percent of its GDP and supporting about half its population.
The jungle barrier that once insulated Nepal from Indian influences as effectively as the Himalayas had guarded the north, making possible the development of a uniquely Nepali culture, has disappeared. An unmistakeable Indian quality now pervades the Terai, as evidenced by the avid mercantilism of the border bazaars, the chewing of betel, the mosques and orthodox Brahmanism, the jute mills and sugar refineries, and the many roads and irrigation projects built with Indian aid.
Fortunately, the government has set aside sizeable chunks of the Western Terai in the form of national parks and reserves, which remain among the finest wildlife and bird havens on the subcontinent. Dense riverine forest provides cover for predators like tigers and leopards; swampy grasslands make the perfect habitat for rhinos; and vast, tall stands of sal, the Terai’s most common tree, shelter huge herds of deer. Of the region’s wildlife parks, the deservedly popular Chitwan is the richest in game and the most accessible, but if you’re willing to invest some extra effort, Bardia and Sukla Phanta further to the west make quieter alternatives. The region’s other claim to fame is historical: the Buddha was born 2500 years ago at Lumbini. Nearby, important archeological discoveries have also been made at Tilaurakot.
Four border crossings in the western Terai are open to foreigners. As it’s on the most direct route between Kathmandu and Varanasi, and fits in well with visits to Lumbini and Chitwan, Sonauli is the most heavily used. Less popular are the crossing points south of Nepalgunj or Dhangadhi. Alternatively, on the far western frontier is Mahendra Nagar, only around twelve hours from Delhi, but an arduous journey to Kathmandu.
The weather in the Terai is at its best from October to January – the days are pleasantly milder during the latter half of this period, though the nights and mornings can be surprisingly chilly and damp. However, wildlife viewing gets much better after the thatch has been cut, from late January, by which time the temperatures are starting to warm up again. It gets really hot in April, May and June. From July to September, the monsoon brings mosquitoes, malaria and leeches, and makes a lot of the more minor, unpaved roads very muddy and difficult to pass, and some rivers burst their banks.Read More
Two great mysteries surround the Terai-dwelling Tharus, Nepal’s second largest ethnic group: where they came from and how they became resistant to malaria. Some anthropologists speculate that they originally migrated from India’s eastern hills, which would account for their Hindu-animist beliefs, but doesn’t fully explain the radically differing dialects, dress and customs of different Tharu groups. Isolated by malarial jungle for thousands of years, bands of migrants certainly could have developed their own cultures, but then why would the name “Tharu” survive with such consistency?
Further confusing the issue are the Rana Tharus of the far west, who claim to be descended from high-caste Rajput women sent north by their husbands during the Muslim invasions – the husbands never came for them, so they ended up marrying their servants. (There is some circumstantial evidence for this: Rana Tharu women are given extraordinary autonomy in marriage and household affairs.)
In terms of the malarial resistance, red blood cells seem to play a part – the fact that Tharus are prone to sickle-cell anaemia may be significant – but little research has been done. At least as significant, Tharus boost their immunity by common-sense precautions, such as building houses with tiny windows to keep smoke in and mosquitoes (and ghosts) out.
Skilled hunter-gatherers, Tharus have in modern times become farmers, and livestock raisers, fishing rivers, clearing patches in the forest and warding off wild animals. Their famed whirling stick dance evokes their uneasy, but respectful, relationship with the forest spirits. Their homes are made of mud and dung plastered over wood-and-reed frames, giving them a distinctive ribbed effect. In the west, half a dozen families or more often still live in the traditional communal longhouses.
The Tharus have fared poorly in recent years, largely reduced to sharecropping. Their distinct culture remains strong in the far west, but in other areas is being drowned out by dominating influences from elsewhere in Nepal and India. Like indigenous people throughout the world, the Tharus’ traditional skills and knowledge of the environment seem to count for little these days.
Cycling through the Terai
Cycling through the Terai
In addition to the Tharu village tours, you can also learn about real Terai village life by hopping on a bike and just getting lost on the back roads to the east and west of Sauraha. Stopping at any village and asking “chiya paunchha?” (where can I get a cup of tea?) will usually attract enough attention to get you introduced to someone.
In November, when the rice is harvested, you’ll be able to watch villagers cutting the stems, tying them into sheaves and threshing them; or, since it’s such a busy time of year, piling them in big stacks to await threshing. January is thatch-gathering time, when huge bundles are put by until a slack time before the monsoon allows time to repair roofs. In early March, the mustard, lentils and wheat that were planted after the rice crop are ready; maize is then planted, to be harvested in July for animal fodder, flour and meal. Rice is seeded in dense starter-plots in March, to be transplanted into separate paddy fields in April.
From Sauraha, the most fertile country for exploration lies to the east: heading towards Tadi along the eastern side of the village, turn right (east) at the intersection marked by a health post and you can follow that road all the way to Parsa, 8km away on the Mahendra Highway, with many side roads to villages en route. Given a full day and a good bike or motorcycle, you could continue eastwards from Parsa along the highway for another 10km, and just before Bhandaara turn left onto a track leading to Baireni, a particularly well-preserved Tharu village. From Lothar, another 10km east of Bhandaara, you can follow a trail upstream to reach the waterfalls on the Lothar Khola, a contemplative spot with a healthy measure of birdlife.
For a short ride west of Sauraha, first head north for 3km and take the first left after the river crossing, which brings you to the authentic Tharu villages of Baghmara and Hardi. If you’re game for a longer journey, pedal to Tadi and west along the Mahendra Highway to Tikauli. From there, the canal road through Bis Hajaar Tal leads about 10km through beautiful forest to Gita Nagar, where you join the Bharatpur–Jagatpur road, with almost unlimited possibilities. A good route is to continue due west from Jagatpur on dirt roads all the way to Meghauli, though you may have to ford a river on the way, impossible on a motorbike from June/July until at least late November. Don’t overlook the possibility of an outing to Devghat, either.