THE GURUNGS OF NEPAL -Dr. Om Gurung
The Gurungs, one of the major ethnic groups of Nepal, have historically occupied the southern slopes of Annapurna and Machhapuchre Himalayas in central west Nepal. Like the neighbouring Magars, Tamangs and thakalis, they live at the interstatices between two great cultural and social traditions – Indian Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism and between two ecological zones – the low subtropical valleys and the alpine highlands. At the present time, their life and culture and poised between a long and steady tradition and changes that accompany modernity (Messerschmidt 1976; 1). According to the official census of 1981, the numerical strength of the gurungs is 174,464 (approximately 1.16 percent of the enrire Nipali popylation of nearly 17 million). Their population is distributed mainly in the Kaski, Lanjung, Syangja, Tanahu, Gorkha, Parbat and Manang districts of the Gandaki zone. However, migration to ther parts of the country, particularly eastern Nepal, dates as far back as the gorkha conquest and the related events of the 18th and the early 19th centuries(ibid).
There are no reliable sources of origin of hill ethnic groups of Nepal, and many ethno-historians illustrate that the origin of many ethnic groups, such as the Gurungs and Tamangs by their specific names is a result of state formation (Holmberg, 1988;12). The genealogy of the Gurungs prepared by the Hindu Brahmans called Gurung ko Vamsavli tells us that the Gurungs were descended from a Chhetri prince and a Brahman priest, both of whom lost their caste standing through an unfortunate incident, involving the ingestion of alcohol, that led to their ritual pollution. This account is accepted by many ethno-historians, including some Gurungs(cf. Gurung, Subedi, and Yogi Narahari Nath).
These writers have invariably attempted to establish ancestral relations of the Gurungs with the Chhetri princes on the basis of mythological events. These accounts, however, have never been useful in reconstructing the actual history of the Gurungs. Rather these mythic accounts which overlay and reinterpret earlier ones, reflects a history of state formation under the domination of Brahmans and Chhetris. Also these mythic accounts have contributed to the creation of social discrimination among the Gurungs. Confirming caste hierarchies between two major groups Charjat and Sorajat, as consisting ofhigh and low social status respectively. But at present, Gurungs do not believe in mythic accounts. The social distinction created by the Hindu people is considered rather an illusion.
Gurung is a Nepali term given by the Hindu people after the 18th century, though some of the writers(Doherty: 1975) suggest that Gurung is a derivative of Tibetan word grong meaning the agriculturist. In Gurung language, tamuqwl, gurungs are called Tamu , which is a cognate of a Tibetan word. Etymalogically, tamu means horse-riser, if not horse-herder. These cognates have been accepted as indication that the Gurungs are the descendents of Tibetan ancestors who migrated to central Nepal many years ago for better socio-economic possibilities. While describing a hypothetical accoint about the Gurungs, Imang Sing Chemjong, a well-known Limbu ethno-historian (1967) writes that the Gurungs migrated to Nepal in the 7th century A.D. as a cavalry, when Tibet first historical king, Srongtsen Gampo, occupied Nepal. Their affinities with the Tibetans are recognized on various socio-cultural, linguistic and biological grounds. Their modern ethnic identity as Gurungs in Nepal, therefore, has been the result of changing historical and geographic circumstances from the 7th century onwards.
Social Organization: Clan,
lineqage, Family and Kinship:
Village society is characterized further by a predominance of joint families, with the father as the head of the household. The family consists of tather, mother, married sons and their children. Residence after marriage is patrilocal. In such families, women have a relatively subordinate position though not to the extent of Hindu high castes. All family members in their activities are guided by the family head. Marriage in such family is governed by the rules of kinship rather than courtship, and is considered a matter of inter-familial and impersonal concern. The family is also a unit of economic, cultural, religious, and political activities. The average size of the family ranges from 6 to 10, and sometimes even more.
Gurungs follow the clan exogamous and jat endogamous rule of marriage. There is a bit controversy about their marriage system. Pignede(1966), and Macfarlane (1976) suggest a priority of materilateral cross-cousin marriage, whereas Morris (1933), Doherty (1975) and Oppitz (1982) a priority of patrilateral to a lesser degree. However, in practice Gurungs seem do prefer a matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, andthes has b een observed in western Nepal during my field visits. One hypothesis is that Gurungs practiced both types of marriage many years ago, but at present patrilateral cross-cousin marriage is not common, and this may be due to influence of neighbouring Hindu groups who treat father’s sister’s daughter like their own daughter and sister on religious ground (for controversy) please see Oppitz, 1982:IX: 4 pp 408-4119). As a rule marriage is monogamous, but polygamy is accepted if the first wife is sterile. Polygamy is also considered as a symbol of economic prosperity. However, there is no polyandry system in the Gurung societies. Divorce, and dissertion are common. Divorcees and widows are permitted to remarry. The practice of levirate does not exist, but sororate is common. Marriage are of two types which Messerschmidt (1976) calls, “the principal marriage and subsidiary marriage”. These systems have been recognized by the Gurung society for conjugal union. The principal marriage follows the rule of clan exogamy, and it is usually initiated by the parents through arrangement. The subsidiary marriage, however, may not follow the rule of clan exogamy, and it occurs mostly when principal marriage fails on certain grounds.
Gurungs are closer together and establish strong relationships not only with every one within the village, but also with most of the people in their surrounding villages. Their relations, however, are naturalized and strengthened through marriages. The relatives are classed mainly into three kin groups, asyo (wife giver), moh (wife receiver), and tah (agnates or ego group) each having specific roles, statuses, and obligations on every occasion. Because the Gurungs are characterized by parilineal descent groups, they follow a classificatory kinship system. According to this system, the lineal relatives (as one’s father) are merged with collateral relatives (as one’s father’s brothers). This system equates “father, father’s brothers, and mother’s sister’s husband” all under one term Apa, while distinguishing “mother’s brother and father’s sister’s husband” in other terms of mama and aumoh respectively. Similarly, siblings and parallel cousins of the same gender are usually equated under one term alyon and aghee, whereas cross-cousins are distinguished by the different terms ngyoh-lo and ngyoh-losyo. For father’s sister and mother’s brother’s wife, however have separate kinship terms phane and angyl. Gurungs also follow the age and generation ranking kinship terminological system as a primary identification with a generation and with an age group within it. Eg. Jetha, maila, saila, kancha….(first, second, third, fourth…) for the male and jethi, maili, saili, kanchhi.. for the female. Usually, the status comes with the age and generation (Doherty;1975).
Gurung ethno-history, as best as it can be reconstructed without substantial documentation, indicates a previous pattern of subsistence economy supplemented by herding, hunting, trans- Himalayan trading and swidden cultivation (Macfarlane 1976). At the present time, a number of factors have changed the pattern of their subsistence economy: population increase resulting in natural resource depletion and loss of grazing lands, Chinese subjugation of Tibet, contact with the politically dominant Hindu people and diffusion of their advanced agricultural technology, and recruitment into the British and Indian military services. All these factors have pushed the Gurungs towards a more diversified economy. As a result, the Gurungs no longer depend upon highland herding, hunting and swidden agriculture. Sedentary agriculture supplemented by animal husbandry and mercenary soldering are the main pillars of contemporary Gurung economy. Additionally, hotel and lodges, resulting from an unprecedented number of foreing visitors in the gurung villages, and other businesses represent growing sources of cash income even in the rural villages. The transformation of economic life has concomitantly transformed the socio-cultural life of gurungs.
Dwelling, Food and drinks, Dress and Ornaments and other Material objects
of the Community:
Geographical factors have had a great influence on the settlement patterns, dietary habits and the dress patters. Traditional Gurung villages are found at the height of 2000 to 3000 meters where they have their compact settlements. The houses are constructed in the varying levels on the hill slopes. In any one level, there may be a cluster of houses ranging in number from 20 to 100, and sometimes even more. The Sikles village in Kaski district is one of the many examples of such settlements where more than 600 houses are clustered together. Generally, the houses are made of stone, mud, timber and thatched with fine slates. They consist of two stories with independent courtyard and small windows and doors. The hearth is constructed in the middle of the ground floor, where food is prepared, and the family members huddle during winter.
Since Gurungs live in mountainous highlands, they mainly grow maize, millet, barley, potatoes and legumes as their major food staples. They also grow rice and wheat in variable quantities. The Gurungs eat buff, mutton and chicken, but do not consume pork and beef. They drink liquor commonly known as “pa” which they brew themselves locally. Tea was introduced into gurung society recently by the Gurkha soldiers.
traditional dress of Gurungs consists of kash (white loin cloth), patuka (cloth belt),bhoto (white shirt with four knots, bhangra (handmade gray of hemp), askot (west coat), and a kule (cap) for
a man. A woman wears chola (lack or printed shirt with four knots), guniya (printed sari), ghalek (a printed square gray), tiki (a quadrangle velvet cloth), karmu ( a piece of cloth to cover the
head), and a patuka (a cloth belt slightly longer than the man’s belt). During early days, Gurung men and women rarely used shoes, but they now use them. Gurungs are fond of ornaments. Gurung
women, particularly the young girls, use various types of ornaments at any time, such as nose rings ear rings, necklaces, bracelets made of gold, silver, beads, coral, and turquoise. Gurung women
pierce their nostrils and ears for different ornaments. Young girls usually put a red tika on their foreheads, and they carefully plait their hair, joining it in a longer block or red ribbon and
decking it with flowers. At the present time, Gurung men and women wear modern dress and ornaments brought by relatives who are serving in Gurkha regiments outside Nepal.
Gurungs value different types of material objects, such as pots and jars, not only for cooking and eating purposes, but also for decoration and furnishing the houses. Usually, large copper and brass containers are exhibited in the kitchen rooms as symbols of economic prosperity and status.
Historically, Gurungs are Buddhist. Early Gurung religion was animistic and shamanic, akin to the pre-buddhist Bon religion of Tibet (Meserschmidt: 1976). They venerate and worship the spirits of their ancestors, the believe that those who have led a good life are reborn as human beings after they die. Their patron deities are phailu (manakal), Lu (nagdevata), and Simu (prakritidevata). These deities are worshipped twice a year. The basic philosophy of Gurung religion is to gain merit. In order to gain merit, they distribute gift to the Lamas, Brahmans, and food and clothes to poor people. They also plant trees and construct rest places, temples, roads and bridges. Contact with Hindu people has brought many changes in the religious beliefs and practices of Gurungs. At present they have incorporated many Hindu elements into their religion and society. Many ritual ceremonies are performed in Brahmanic way even using Braham priests. Besides their own patron deities, gurungs worship Hindu god and goddesses, visit Hindu temples, pilgrimages and holy shrines, and celebrate Hindu festivals. The incorporation of Hinduism has significantly changed the social values of the Gurungs towards the development of caste concept and status hierarchy in the Gurung society.
Language and Literature:
Though the impact of Hindu rulers over the last few centuries has led to progressive sanskritlization and change to Indo-European Nepali as the lingua-franca of the kingdom, Gurungs have their language known as tamuqwl. Many scholars (cf. Hodgson: 1874, Grierson: 1909, and Glover: 1974) suggest that the Gurung language belongs to Tibeto-Burman groups, as the phonetical system between the Gurung language and Tibeto-Burman dialect is mainly the same.
Gurungs have large collection of folklore and folk songs, which are recalled on festive occasions. However, their folklore and folk songs are not documented kin written form due to lack klof their own script. The text of lamamantras are written in Tibetan script. Some of the Gurungs claim Tibetan script as their own.
Nepali histories establish that Gurungs once had their own political suzerainty in Lamjung until it was taken over by the Shah king (the ancestor of present ruling dynasty) during the 16th century. In the local society, however,Gurungs still maintain their own political organization. Their political organization reflects the paradoxical situation, where both hierarchical and democratic principles co-exist. The head of the village called kroh or mukhiya (chief), is hereditary ruler. But he is not permitted to be an autocrat, for he is assisted by the village council in his decisions (Pignede: 1966). The members of the village council are selected either by the kroh or vllage council or a combination of two from among the villagers. The main function of the kroh is to preside over the village council meeting. Although recent political development has brought changes in the lical functions of the kroh, he still plays a vital role in all social and ritual activities of the village.
Cycle Ceremonies: Birth, Marriage
The birth of a child in a family is considered as the gift of nature, and as such welcomed by the Gurungs. The physiological significance of marriage and its consequent conception is known to them. The cessation of menstrual flow in a woman after marriage, therefore, is considered as the beginning of preganancy. Abortion is not approved at by Gurungs.
of ceremonies are held after the birth of a child. The naming ceremony is held on 3rd day. A ceremony named chhaithi is held on the 6th day. A purification ceremony is held on the 11th day in the
case of a boy and 9th day in the case of a girl. The purification ceremony cleanses the birth pollution of both mother and baby. A wearing ceremony is held in the 6th month. At the of two years,
another ceremony called putpute is held in the case of a first son. A hair sheering ceremony of a child is held at the age of 5 for a boy, and at the of 12 or 13, a girl receives a pair of new
clothes consisting of guniya-cholo. Each ceremony has its ritual meaning, and in each ceremony all types o kinsmen are involved with their specific rights and obligations. An astrologer is
consulted for the auspicious day and date for the ceremony. Usually, a big feast is organized for relatives and invited guests during the ceremonies.
Gurung marriage is completed usually in three stages. The initial stage of initiation is taken by kthe parents of a boy. If the parents of the girl accept the magani, they compare the horoscopes of the bride and groom in constitution with the lam a or astrologer. If the horoscopes of the boy and girl tally, them starts the second stage of phresyo rhinab bethrothal. Bethrothal includes a gift of breads and locally prepared liquor. Finally, the janti , marriage procession goes and brings the bride to the groom’s house. A great feast is organized for the relatives and guests.
Death rituals in Gurung society are highly significant. They are very lengthy and elaborate and involve all kingroups at one time. There are two parts of death rituals, an initial mortuary rite or disposal of the corpse and a concluding commenorative ceremony pai or arghun. Messerschmidt (1976: 84) notes that:
No other social or ritual occasion or rite of passage is more significant to the gurungs than the funerals and post-funerary celebrations. Funeral ceremonies are lengthy and elaborate affairs, involving all categories of kinsmen. Not only are they important as rites separating the living from the dead, bus as rites of reaffirmation and reconfiguration of statuses and roles among living individuals and bonds between corporate groups.
Like the neighbouring Tamang (Holmberg: 1989), Gurung symbolizes death incident by raising a white flag ala over the roof of deceased’s house. This is done by the sons or agnate brothers of the deceased. The asyo group, the wife giver, provides the shround, the moh, the wife receiver, prepares the pyre and gave, and the tah group, aganates, preferably the sons, if not classificatory sons, carries the corpse to the cemetery. The women do not go to the cemetery, but some married women, usually deceased’s sisters go to the cemetery to put the way-food consisting of maize, barley, wheat, ric, millet, and others, Gurungs practice both burial and cremation depending upon th deceased’s horoscope as figured by a lama or astrologer. Traditionally, death pollution was observed for 13 days but not now. At present, death pollution is observed for 3 days. During the period of death pollution certain foods are tabooed for the mourners. The second morturary rite pai or arghun is observed either on the last day of the death pollution or on the 45th day of the dead, and sometimes more than a year depending upon the ecocomic condition of the family. This rite is observed in order to commemorate the deceased and to let his soul to reach heaven. Great offerings are presented by the relatives to the deceased. It is also a great gift giving and gift receiving ritual. The moh group receives great gifts offered by the tah and the asyo groups. The lamas are the chief officiators of the funeral ceremonies and are assisted by sons, daughters and son-in-laws of the deceased, though the pachu and klibhre locally known as ghapre and jhakri (shamans) also have equally important roles to play during the funeral rites. The last rite pai is also observed individually or collectively depending upon the economic condition of the family.
The Gurungs are a jovial people and make merry on each and every occasion. They have a large collection of folksongs and dances. They believe that singing and dancing make the spirits happy. They sing and dance to the beat of the drum on festibe occasions. Men and women and unmarried girls in particular, take part in the community singing and dancing. The most important dances of Gurungs are sorathi and ghanto, which are based on the stories of historical events of some legendary kings and queens. The sorathi dance is performed during Dashain and Tihar, big Hindu festivals, and at birth and marriage ceremonies, whereas the ghanto is performed during Baishakh purnima (see messerschmidt: 1976 for detail about the ghanto). Gurungs have their own new year day festival called Loshar and it is celebrated on the 15th of Paush (at end of December) with great enthusiasm. Loh is a calender year of Gurungs adopted from Tibetan calendar year. According to the calender, Gurungs divide their time into 12 years cycle each having specific name of different animals. In every 12 year, new Loh or barga is changed , and Gurungs start every auspicious work according to loh. The new yearis celebrated with feasting, traditional singing and dancing. Besides, folksongs and folk dances are performed in slightly modern way in many gurung villages during other festive occasions, and during the visits of new guests. This is one of the many ways they show their hospitality to their guests, and of course one of the easy means of raising funds for the construction of school buildings, temples, roads, bridges, and safe drinking water supplies in their villages, as there are no other alternatives of fund raising, and the government’s funds are always inaccessible to the village level development programme.
Gurungs have had a traditional social institution, popularly known as rodi that has been defined by many outsiders in many ways. However, they invariably share the common idea that the rodi is primarily a recreational institution of the boys and girls (Bista: 1976, Morris, 1933, Pignede, 1966, Macfarlane, 1976, and Messerschmidt, 1976). Either by ignorance or negligence, these researchers have failed to illuminate that rodi, besides being a recreational institution, also serves as a nucleus influencing other aspects of village life within the Gurung society. Andors is probably the only researcher, who(1976) recognizes the various activities of rodi groups throughout the year as an integral part of the village socio-economic and religious life.
In my opinion (also some other fellow Gurungs who shared my opinion when I interviewed them several times during my field visit to Annapurna region), Rodi is a uprooted word of Gurung term rhondhin.Etymologically, rhon means thread or wool, and dhin means house. Therefore, the term rhondhin originally meant house or center where Gurung men and women would weave and knit their traditional garments for their household use during off agricultural seasons. Knitting and weaving are still done by the Gurung women in many Gurung villages of Annapurna region. Now-a-days, the term rhondhin is transformed into rodi (ro= sleep, and di= house), and outsiders have misunderstood it in terms of ‘night club’.
The formation of rhondhin is first initiated by the girls and thereafter joined by the boys. The initial formation is informal, it merely involves a voluntary regular gathering. The size of rhondhin ranges from 6 to 15 young people, though in some villages the number might be greater than 16. Membership is determined by sex and age rather than by socio-economic status. Different rhondhin are organized by different sex and age groups. Traditionally, girls and boys join rhondhin after attaining the age of 9 or 10 until their marriage. Membership in rhondhin is not compulsory, but there is strong peer group pressure to join it. The rhondhin girls and boys meet gogether in a house where parents are amicable and compatible. Rhondhin is under the strict supervision of an elder man and woman called chiva Aap, and chiva Aam who maintain law and order inside the rhondhin and supervise the activities of the boys and girls, since the also sleep in the same house.
The main function of rhondhin is premarital socialization to aid the smooth metamorphosis of youths to adulthood and enhance the efficient functioning of village socio-economic and religious life. It is a socially recognized extra-familial unit of premarital socialization. Another important function of rhondhin is economic cooperation. Gurungs enjoy working in groups, and rhondhin serves as a nucleus of labour recruitment. A voluntary labour exchange froups called nyogar are organized by lthe participants of rhondhin, and all agricultural works for the rhondhin member is done by these labour exchange groups in their turn during the agricultural seasons. Additionally, rhondhin also organizes all ritual dances during religious ceremonies and festival occasions. Thus, rhondhin has religious functions as well.
At present , rhondhin is declining in many villages, and in some villages it has been reported to have disappeared. This is partly due to the influence of Hindu culture( caste society, which gives rhondhin a negative value and consider female social activities outside the family as lax and immoral), and partly because of the changing socio-economic base of the Gurung themselves (the occupational changes from agriculture to hotel, lodges and other business resulting from tourism, and ingration in urban and semiurban areas no longer requires group co-operation). In such a situation, rhondhin is ceasing to operate, as its socio-economic and religious functions have become less important (Andors, 1976).
The Gurungs of Nepal have very rich cultural heritage. But their culture has been threatened by many forces. The phenomena of migration, sanskritization and urbanization have significantly affected the traditional cultures of Gurungs. Moreover, the impact of increasing tourism has brought about many changes in the socio-cultural life of the Gurungs. Though these changes are useful for the Gurungs in many respects and the Gurungs have started to look at the world with broader perspectives and greater humanity, the socio-economic cost of the change looks very damaging. The effect of change is readily observable even in the rural society where the young generation has an increasing tendency to simulate the western ways of life. The change is evident in the family structure, food habits, dress patterns , ;anguage sryle, and other aspects of socio-economic life. The traditional attitude and ethos of the Gurungs, particularly of young generation, towards their own community and culture are changing. It has been difficult to reconcile the idea and ideals of young and old generations. The young generation is more and more alienating from their culture and society, and the old generation looks more worried about their future. The individual copetition and conflict have occuoied the position of traditional community efforts and co-operation. The production oriented society is becoming consumption oriented and villages are losing their silf sufficiency depending more and more upon external resources. The social prestige attached to traditional occupations and are wandering around the urban areas doing nothing and living a reckless life. The traditional arts and crafts are slowly disappearing from the society. The traditional form of harmony is disorganizing and ethnic associatios such as nyogar and rhondhin are disappearing. These behavioural and attitudinal changes have seriously threatened the stability and sanity of the gurung culture, society and economy.
However, at present the elite Gurungs, including other ethnic groups, are endeavouring to regenerate and rehabilitate their traditional cultures in Kathmandu. Pokhara, Chitwan, butawal, Bhirahawa and Nipalgunj through their ethnic organizations. These organizations are more concerned about the promotion and preservation of their cultures, languages, and religions. Before the political movement of 1989/90, the situation was not so encouraging for the development of ethnic associations in Nepal, for administrators, bureaucrats, and political leaders feared for communal solidarity that might threaten their power and privileges. They , therefore, charged ethnic associations as pure commuanal that cause national disintegration. As a result , ethnic associations could not make any substantial progress. At present , they are progressing, though some conservative groups of people are still precluding their development. I encourage every ethnic association currently emerging in Nepal be helpful without coming ethnocentric in relation to each other to regenerate our traditional cultures which we once thought very valuable.