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.

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