Nepal is characterized by its diversity, encompassing multiple ethnicities, languages, races, and cultures. Each ethnic group within the country holds unique economic, social, religious, and cultural values. Their cultural practices play a significant role in shaping the nation’s culture and contributing to its development. Consequently, it is unfeasible to advance the nation while isolating these ethnic groups from the national stream.
Among the many ethnic groups residing within the nation, the Chepang tribe is one of them. Chepangs are one of the indigenous nationalities of Nepal having a population of 68,000 constituting 0.23% of the total population of Nepal. Over 95% of the Chepang population resides in the hilly villages located in Chitwan, Makwanpur, Dhading, and Gorkha districts (CBS, 2008).
History of Chepang Tribe
The Chepangs were traditionally considered a nomadic tribe until approximately 100-150 years ago, as described in Brian Hodgson’s 1848 article ‘On the Chepang and Kusunda Tribes of Nepal.’ According to Hodgson, they relied primarily on wild fruits and hunting for sustenance (Hodgson, 1874, p. 45). It is believed that agriculture became a more recent activity for them. Nearly a century later, a comprehensive study revealed that while Chepangs still engaged in hunting and gathering to some extent, agriculture had become the primary source of their livelihood, and they practiced Khoriya.
There is a lack of definitive references and compelling written records regarding the origin of the Chepangs and the creation of their world. Additionally, there are differing perspectives between sociologists and anthropologists on this matter. Some suggest that the Chepangs’ original homeland was situated along the Trisuli River, particularly in the middle part of the Trisuli, Rapti, and Narayani Rivers. Others propose that the Chepang migrated from the Okhaldhunga District and Sunathali of Dolakha District. There are numerous hypotheses regarding the historical origins of the Chepang.
Various efforts have been made from an ethnological standpoint to shed light on their history. One theory suggests that ‘Che‘ means ‘dog’ and ‘pang‘ means ‘arrow,’ indicating that the Chepang people were once skilled hunters who used dogs and arrows. Hence, they earned the name “Chepang” (Gurung, 1979). Another perspective is that the Chepang people refer to themselves as “Chepang” because ‘Che‘ means ‘Top of a ‘Hill’ and ‘pang‘ means ‘Stone,’ signifying those who inhabit the rocky hilltops as Chepang. Some Chepang individuals trace their roots back to the eastern Mahabharat hill, with their ancestors later migrating westward. They speak a Tibetan-Burman language, and their language exhibits similarities with the Thami and Tamang languages (Thapalia, 2044).
Furthermore, Chepang tradition holds that their forefathers lived in caves among rocks. In their language, “Wang” means “rock,” and “Chep” means “cave,” leading to the development of the term “Chepang” from these two words.
Chepangs are on the verge of extinction
Nepal is often praised for its conservation efforts, but indigenous communities are often neglected or forcibly displaced from their ancestral territories because of which the Chepang communities are on the verge of extinction. This occurred when the Private Forest Nationalization Act of 1957 classified all forest land as government property. Despite the Chepangs’ longstanding stewardship of these forests for generations, they received neither compensation nor legal safeguards when this law was enacted.
Another prime reason for the extinction of the Chepang is the lack of Education A significant portion of the Chepang population, 75%, lacks literacy skills, and a mere 1% of Chepang women possess the ability to read and write. In remote Chepang communities, access to education is challenging as they typically have only primary schools available. This situation necessitates students to undertake long journeys, often through challenging terrain, to reach secondary schools. Furthermore, parents frequently withdraw their children from school to help with household chores, agricultural activities, and wage labor.
Also Read: Chepang And Their Chiruri
Abusive conservation policies have pushed the Chepang tribe to extinction. Nepal’s Indigenous tribe have endured a series of human rights abuses in the last fifty years due to oppressive conservation policies. The creation of National Parks and other protected zones has led to the coercive and violent displacement of tens of thousands of Indigenous individuals.
Over time, the Chepang people have shifted away from their nomadic “slash-and-burn” way of life towards agriculture, cultivating crops such as maize, millet, and bananas in soil that lacks nutrients and is rocky. They supplement their diet by gathering wild foods, hunting for wild game, and fishing in nearby rivers. However, their agricultural yields are limited, and the threat of starvation is constant, exacerbated by droughts and delayed monsoons linked to climate change.
Chepangs and their Tribal Attire
The ancestors of the Chepangs used to wear traditional attire. Men typically wore the Changa, which is white plain clothes, while women wore the Panga, colorful clothes. Chepang men commonly dressed in a “dhoti” (a sarong), “Bhoto” (a vest), “Daura” (a shirt), “Kachhad,” (a knee-length sarong) and a “Pheta” (a turban) fashioned out of the changa fabric. Wome wore “Sari” (a drape), “Cholo” (a blouse), “Patuka” (a sash to hold the sari on the waist), and “Ghalek” (a stole) made from the panga material. Some economically disadvantaged Chepang men did not wear any upper-body clothing and covered only the lower part of their bodies with a loincloth while going barefoot.
A few elderly Chepangs still wear their traditional clothing, but most Chepang individuals have adopted modern attire similar to that of the Brahman and Kshetri communities. This includes shirts, trousers, slippers, shoes, caps, vests, and other modern clothing items. Female Chepangs now commonly wear sarees, blouses, petticoats, bodices, slippers, and maxis, while schoolgirls might wear shirts, dresses, trousers, and ribbons, among other modern clothing.
In contemporary times, the newer generations of Chepang males and females often have clothing styles that are indistinguishable from those of the Brahman and Kshetri communities. This shift in dress patterns is noticeable among Chepangs.
Chepangs and their Chonam Parba
The Chepang people primarily follow their ethnic and religious traditions. Nonetheless, they have incorporated numerous beliefs and customs from other religions into their distinct belief system. They conduct various rituals and venerate a diverse array of deities. One significant Chepang ritual is the Kulain Puja, which involves the worship of deceased ancestors.
The festivals observed by the Chepang are indigenous as well as imported ones. The indigenous festivals are Chonam or Nwaangi, Tongklong, Saunesakranti (Shrawan Sankranti), Maghe Sankranti, Bhumi Puja, Goide Puja etc.
Tonglong is the ancestral worship and they honor their ancestors’ spirits with filial love and intimacy. Nwaagi of Chonam is a day for eating new crops and most of the relatives and villagers get together and enjoy meat and local beer. During Saunesakranti, their female kin are invited and the festivals are observed with feasting.
Chepang’s Chonam Parba
The Chepangs follow a unique practice known as “Nwaangi,” which takes place in early September, starting on the 22nd day of Bhadra according to the Nepali calendar. During this festival, they celebrate the abundance of the newly harvested crops. In this ritual, they consider the Chada (or Chhona), which is a large basket made of bamboo. In this Chada, they place various offerings, including new crops such as rice, millet, maize, finger millet, beans, and pumpkins. It is customary not to consume these freshly harvested foods until the Nwaangi rituals are performed.
The Chada and its contents are taken to the homes of faith healers known as Dhaami (male healers) or Dhamini (female healers). These faith healers play a crucial role in the ceremony. They use a special bamboo container to sort the offerings and bless them. The process involves separating the offerings and distributing them among the participants. The remaining offerings are then returned to the Chada.
The Chepangs hold this festival in high regard, as it ensures the proper blessings and distribution of the newly harvested food. The faith healers play a central role in this practice, and it is considered a significant cultural event within this tribal community.
The items are required for this ritual
- New mat (Chepang: lhaau) made from hay straws.
- Newly harvested ghaaiya rice
- Saandan’s Leaf
- Pukundro plant’s Leaf
- Furwaa (A kind of architecture made from wood)
- A paathi of locally grown new grain
- Yam Root
- Locally grown fruits
- Rudraaksh Garland (Maala)
- Ritthaa Maala
- Ghongraa Maala
- Local alcohol
- Goat/ Pig or Chicken to kill if already promised (Bhaaakal, a promised offering to God)