Tharu women worship God Jitmahan in Jitiya Parba. Mothers observe fasting on the Ashtami of Ashwin so their children will live a long, prosperous, and healthy life.
Tharu family is the smallest social unit and primary institution. There is a well-organized family system in the Tharu community. Tharu family comprises parents, unmarried sons and daughters, married sons, and their wives, unmarried children, and grandchildren- all who live under the same roof. It is the basic unit of production, social, cultural, and religious life.
Tharus live in a joint family. They have a simple life. There is a work division among the family members. Men and women have their own tasks. Property and other farm productions are owned and inherited through the male line. Women do not inherit immovable property (land) and cash. They share the property inherited by their husbands. A widow inherits a share of her dead husband. Unlike other caste Hindu girls and women, Tharu ones are not restricted from going into the kitchen, shrine room, or temples when they are on their period.
Gadhuriya as the head of the family plays a role in decision-making. He is responsible for performing household rituals, village meetings, and controlling cash. It is always a male member who has this power. Tharu women have a dominant position in the family compared to other Hindu women. Within the household, there is a hierarchy structured according to seniority or age. In the past, the joint family system was popular, but Tharus is attracted to a nuclear family in modern times. There has been constant change in the structure and function of the Tharu family over the years.
Lifecycle: Birth, Marriage, and Death
Tharus have their own cultural practices from birth to death. Important lifecycle rituals of the Tharus are birth, marriage, and death. They have a series of rituals associated with all the events of the lifecycle. Their rituals like birth, marriage, death, and others establish their distinct heritage and identity. Different Tharu groups maintain their own set of religious rituals, marriage patterns, and family relations. Tharus in Dang and Deukhuri have developed a more settled, cohesive, and sophisticated cultural order.
No rituals are performed during a pregnancy. The birth of a child is usually assisted by the Sorhiniya (traditional midwife). After the birth of a baby, attention is given to whether the Purin (umbilical cord) has come out or not. If it has come out, Sorhiniya takes it and buries it in the south corner of the house. She helps with every necessary service to a newborn baby and the mother and takes care of both. It is considered that the newborn and the mother are polluted and unclean, therefore, other people and family members are not allowed to touch either of them until the purification rituals are performed. The baby and the mother are confined in a Konti. Sorinhiya and those who have to care for the mother and the newborn only enter that room. The fire is lit there to warm up the baby and the mother and drive out the witches far from the baby.
This ceremony is normally held after five or six days in order to purify the mother and the baby from the birth pollution. Ghatwa means the common source of water in the village and Karaina means ‘to do’. Generally, it is observed along with the fall of the naval which takes nearly five days after the birth and the new mother is untouchable till this time. Sorhiniya and other persons who serve the new mother take baths after contact because they are polluted too.
On this day, both the mother and baby take a bath. All the goods of the concerned room are thrown out. The room is plastered with a cow dung. The mother goes to Ghatwa and comes back home with water. Soon pani (water purified with gold) is sprinkled in that room and over mother and baby as a part of purification. After the Ghatwa Karaina ceremony, the mother is freed from confinement.
Nomenclature (Baby Naming Ceremony)
Naming a newborn is one of the essential ceremonies all the communities of Nepal. It is a social need and gives recognition too. There is an interesting tradition of naming the baby in the Tharu community. Tharus do not do any name-giving ceremony. Anyone (member of the family, neighbor, villager, respected man) may help name the newborn. The selected name is used by the family which depends upon the day, time, and other events. For instance, if the baby is born during the absence of the father, the baby is named ‘Pradeshi’ (lit. a foreigner). A proper name is not commonly used as a calling name among the Tharus. They prefer to use the birth hierarchy and the specific position of the family. The oldest is called Barkawa, the second Majhala, the third- Sajhala, the fourth- Khajhala, and the youngest- Chhotkawa and so on.
Chhutaha Bhutla Khauraina or Mur Bhoj (Head Shaving Ceremony)
Both son and daughter go to their maternal uncles to shave their heads for the first time because the first hair-cutting ceremony is usually performed by the maternal uncles. It is performed after the fourth or fifth year. On this day, relatives and neighbors are invited. Liquor is offered to household deities. Pigs, goat,s or sheep are slaughtered for the feast. The child’s maternal uncle shaves the child’s head, gives presents of money, other gifts and new clothes.
The purpose of marriage is reproduction and continuity of the family line. Marriage is interpreted both as a social and economic necessity. All the parents feel that it is their duty to get their sons or daughters married. Tharus have a system of arranged marriage and believe that it is the best. Marriage is called Bhoj or Bhwaj in the Tharu language. They have the tendency to marry nearby villages or within the village and with a house of similar economic status.
When the Tharu youth reach marriageable age, the process of matchmaking initiates. This initiative comes from the boy’s side with the boy’s father or household head to open negotiation. Traditionally this takes the beginning of the month of Maagh (January/February). The parents of the to-be bride and groom consult each other and make the decision for marriage.
On the day of the wedding, the marriage procession from the bridegroom’s march to the bride’s house. The bridegroom’s relatives and friends take part in the marriage procession. When the marriage procession returns to the village, Parchhana (ritual offering) is performed under the supervision of the family Guruwa. Maagar song is sung during the ceremony that lasts for three to four days. Immediately after marriage, the bride starts taking part in all kinds of household chores in and outside of her new house.
The married daughter is invited to her natal home for festivals and special occasions. A girl is not entitled to inherit any property from her parents’ house unless her parents have no male heir. However, parents gift their daughter ornaments, utensils, and animals such as goats, sheep, cows, etc. as dowry.
The descent system is patrilineal. After marriage, the bride loses membership in her natal family and becomes a member of her conjugal family. Her children belong to their father’s clan and married women take their husbands’ clan and last name after marriage, except Bhwaanr paithna bhoj. Marriage is classified into different types on the basis of ceremonial content. They are Braka bhoj and Chhotki bhoj. Barka bhoj refers to greater marriage which is celebrated with the full sequence of ceremony. In the Chhotki bhoj minimum ritual is performed in the groom’s house and it lasts one night.
Marriage is mostly solemnized at night.
In the Tharu community of Dang and Deukhuri, priority is given to the physical energy of the bride because she can do hard labor without a salary. They prefer to get their children married at an early age. Before puberty, the parents of a boy are always in search of an aged bride for their son. The bridegroom is always younger than the bride. The reason for this fact is earnings.
There is no matching of age between bride and bridegroom. Tharus prefer Phaagun (February-March) month for a wedding.
Types of Tharu Marriages
There are different types of marriage in the Tharu community. They are arranged, love or elopement, Jhanga or Damaha, Dorbandhan, Thengaha, Ghardamda, Jarkiya, Sattapatta, remarriage etc.
An arranged marriage is a marriage after an agreement. In an arranged marriage, parents or other relatives of the couple make an agreement for the marriage and the couple usually agree with their parents’ choice. If the girl disagrees with her parent’s choice, she says no. However, her parents persuade her to agree.
Thokthak Khaina (Engagement Ceremony)
The boy with his father and friends goes to the girl’s house where the girl offers the boy tika and a garland and the ceremony is called Thokthak khaina (engagement). After mutual consent, the two families fix marriage ceremony dates.
The clothes worn by a groom and a bride are simple, but special. Tharu considers white an auspicious color. The groom wears Pagiya (turban), Jaama (an upper body shirt), Satki (worn on the shoulder in such a way that it forms a cross at the back), Phaan (tied on the waist), Dhoti (a sarong), and shoes or slippers. Similarly, the bride wears Jhobanda on the head, Kurtha (a blouse), Lehanga (a skirt), and Ghurghut (two meters long white cotton cloth as a veil that covers the face). Relatives, friends, and other guests who come for the wedding wear traditional dresses.
Urhi Bhoj (Love or Elopement)
Arranged marriage is mostly prevalent in the Tharu community. But nowadays, love marriage is also accepted. It is known as Urhi bhoj. There is no particular season for the boy and the girl to elope. This type of marriage usually occurs when a boy and a girl are in love and they move quietly into the house of a friend or relative of the boy and get married.
Jhanga or Damaha Bhoj
This refers to arranged with the payment of bride-price. The term Dam means price. The bride price consists of paddy, salt, mustard oil, clothes, and a sum of money. In addition, a small sum of money is given to the bride’s mother as Dhudhak mol (the price for breastfeeding) and one of the Phendwa (pig’s hinds).
This type of marriage is less practiced nowadays. Dorbandhan marriage is arranged during the pregnancy by two parents. If those two parents give birth to opposite-sex babies, the two babies are supposed to be married when they reach puberty. It is problematic if a boy or girl rejects their fiance or fiancee. However, this custom is disappearing.
There is an arrangement under which the son-in-law comes to live with his wife’s family at her natal home. Under this custom, couples who have no sons but only daughters, invite one of their sons-in-law to live in their house instead of sending the daughter to her husband’s house.
This term refers to the marriage resulting from a woman leaving her husband to take another one. In the case of wife abduction, the new husband must pay a certain amount of money as compensation to the former husband of the woman.
Sattapatta (a Reciprocal marriage)
There is also a practice of reciprocal marriages, Sattapatta, amongst Tharus, wherein the bride is brought from the same house where the daughter is sent provided certain conditions are met. It is a traditional approach when a perfect match for a boy and a girl cannot be found therefore their families make an agreement to exchange a son and a daughter. Exchange marriage also eliminates the problem and complexities associated with the dowry price. This age-old tradition has become less common in recent times though.
In Tharu culture, there is no stopping a widow from remarrying, and is socially acceptable. Only half the formal procedures of marriage are performed in remarriages. The process of remarriage begins after the arrival of a bride at the bridegroom’s house in common marriage which is known as Prachhana. The rest of the customs are informally performed. A widow is not allowed to marry her dead husband’s elder brother (senior levirate) but can a younger brother (junior levirate). Remarriage is practiced by both men and women after the death or divorce.
Bhwanr Paithna Bhoj
Bhwanr paithna is one of the forms of marriage in which the man has to live with his wife at her house. Relatives search for a guy who does not have a wife or any properties. In this kind of remarrying custom, a widow awaits the newly adopted outside her house as a male (groom) wearing male attire. The to-be husband arrives wearing the bride wears, covering his head with a scarf or a shawl, wearing certain kinds of bangles, and carrying goods on his head. In this case, the guy not only accepts the widow as a wife but also the children of her former husband. There is equal right to those adopted children and with his own children.
Ghar Baithna bhoj
A banana plant stands a little buried in front of the bride’s door. The groom upon arrival at the door near the Banana plant asks, ‘Who is it?’, ‘Is it your husband?’ The bride replies ‘It is your Jaar (Bride’s former husband)?’ The groom then asks, ‘May I cut it?’ The bride says ‘Yes’.
The bridegroom asks it three times and cuts the banana plant with a knife. This custom is known as Jaar Katna (Killing the former husband) where the banana plant symbolizes the bride’s former husband. Both of them ask for the relation whether he/she agrees to accept or not. Both answer ‘yes’. Then they enter the house and perform other marriage formalities. The wife after marriage lives with the family of her husband.
Divorce and Widowhood
Divorce and widowhood is the bitter event of married life. If there is a misunderstanding between married couples, divorce takes place. It happens from one side, either from the bride or from the groom. If it takes place, children usually stay with their father except very young ones. Divorce usually occurs when the couples are compelled into marriage by the parents, when a husband is too young to meet the woman’s needs, when a wife is mistreated by her husband or the family members, in case of physical disability or prolonged illness, when either or both partners develop romantic feelings outside marriage, etc.
If a girl wants to leave her husband, she needs to agree with her parents and relatives. It is proposed to the relatives of the bridegroom by means of Mahatau. The Mahatau gathers both the groups at the bridegroom’s house. The Jhanga and ornaments are returned to the family of bridegroom which were given at the time of marriage. And the divorce is declared by the Mahatau.
Tharus don’t have restrictions if an old widow wants to live a lonely life and not marry at all. She can spend her life without a husband and with her children. Due to the patriarchal system, there is no any role of a widow in the family as her position weakens with the demise of her husband but the widowed Gardhuriniya (household head woman) continues her role in all the indoor activities of the family. A young widow can always remarry.
Tharus take seven generations into consideration both on the father’s as well as mother’s side. The restriction in marriage between close relatives is very rigidly enforced. Marriage is not allowed between the same clan. Marriage with any person belonging to the same clan (Gotiyar) is considered incest and highly taboo. Marriage with a maternal cousin is forbidden.
Relatives and neighbors are invited on the marriage day. The visitors are fed with delicious meals, pork, mutton, chicken, fish, liquor (Janr and Daru), and they sing and dance. Arranged marriage like in the Hindu society is becoming more common these days. Love, elopement, and inter-caste marriages are preferred by the new generation and occur commonly when a young boy and girl run away without the consent of their parents.
The Sindur (vermillion powder) and Pote (small glass beads necklace) are not the symbols of marriage unlike other Hindu coomunity. These days the bridegroom applies Sindur on the parted hair above the forehead of the bride and the Mangal sutra on the neck. Marriages within the village is to make visiting between two households easier. During the first year after the marriage, she spends much of the time in her natal household. Subsequently, she visits her natal home on the occasion of festivals and major rituals and her visits of frequency gradually diminish as she gets older.
Tharus believe that people, after death, are rewarded or punished on the basis of their deeds in this world. They classify death into two types; natural and unnatural or accidental death. If one dies of old age, it is considered a natural death. Unnatural death happens when a person dies of epidemic disease, natural calamity, accident, drowning, falling from a tree, burning, killed by wild animals, etc. It is believed that such deaths transform souls into ghosts and spirits.
A person who dies unnaturally or unmarried doesn’t receive full funeral rites after his death because funeral rites are performed,
- for the purification of the living who are thought to be polluted by the death of their family members and relatives
- to better the other world’s existence of the dead.
It is believed that those who do not have proper funeral rites may return to haunt the surviving family members.
When a person dies, the clan, relatives, and villagers are informed about it. They gather at the dead person’s house. Mostly elders and adults from each house of the village assemble at the dead person’s house and help to perform the funeral procession. At the same time, they console the dead person’s family. If a person dies in the daytime and if there is sufficient time, they carry him or her to bury or cremate. If a person dies at night, they carry the next morning. The mourning period is 13 days.
Wrapped in a Kaffan (white cloth), the dead body is brought to the Bahari (courtyard) and kept on the mat. The belongings of the dead person are collected. Men help in making the cot to carry the dead body. Meanwhile, one or two handfuls of Satbirhi are collected. Satbirhi is a mixture of seven types of food grains and vegetables. Rice, turmeric, salt, and oil are also collected. Satbirhi, rice, vegetables, salt, and turmeric collectively known as Santh, are taken to cook. Earthern vessels Vokti, Malsi, and Karuwa are also taken to the funeral site. A fistful of thatch from the roof is taken above the door to light a fire on the pyre and cook the food for the dead. The thatch is called Bandiya jhikna. The dead body is carried away by four persons to a burial or cremation place. Women are not allowed to the burial or cremation site. Most of the Tharu do not burn the corpse but some affluents burn the dead.
Only the males take part in the funeral procession. Male lineage members carry the bier on their shoulders and participate in the subsequent rites and villagers also join the procession. Some carry the items needed for burying or cremating the deceased while others walk empty hand. If the dead person is a married man, his wife breaks the bangles and takes all her ornaments off which symbolizes her being a married woman.
Tharus usually bury the dead and in a corner of their land. A cot is used for carrying the dead body from the house to burial ground outside the village. A deep pit is dug in the north-south direction and the dead body is buried in it. The burying position is different for the two genders. If it is male the body is buried face down and face up for the females and the head of the dead is always pointed north. The chief mourner throws a little mud and Satbirahi into the grave and then others throw, raising some height over the ground. The cot is kept in the reverse position where the dead body is buried and the belongings of the dead are put along its head.
Cremation is carried out in the river or stream bed. For the cremation, male cousins of a male line and the clansmen from the village and neighboring villages bring with them one log or a piece of firewood. Gotiyar participates in offering firewood for the funeral pyre of the deceased Gotiyar. A mound of stone or pebble is formed in the shallow water in the north-south direction. The mound is made appropriate height above the water level to accommodate the pyre to be made for cremating the dead body. The logs brought there are put on the mound in the north-south direction.
While the cremation mound is being created, a long and thin coil of thatching grass is made which is used in the pyre to help the logs burn easily. Before the dead body is put onto the pyre, he/she is stripped of the clothes they are wearing and is covered with Kaffan. His loin string is cut off. Medicines, bangles, slippers, and personal belongings of the dead are thrown away in the river. The dead body is lifted up together by all lineage men and clansmen, they circumambulate the pyre anti-clockwise seven times and rest it on the pyre where his/her head is pointed north. The chief mourner puts one log over the dead body and the others cover the dead body with the remaining logs.
All the persons who participated in the funeral procession must take a bath at a nearby river or stream and wash tools. After the bath, they must sprinkle Soon pani (water touched with gold) on themselves in order to cleansed the pollution from touching the dead. The immediate mourners wear white cotton clothes during the mourning period of 13 days, months, or a year.
It is a common belief among the Tharu that if the last rites of a person have not been performed properly or a person commits suicide, the person will become a ghost. A woman dying during pregnancy or childbirth becomes the Churiniya (a witch).
Death Rites and Ritual
The sons perform the death ritual up to a period of eleven or thirteen days. The chief mourner is enclosed with a net or mat in a corner of the house. He has to stay within that boundary. The mourner shaves his head, beard, and mustache. The mourning is called Kriya baithna. During the period of Kriya baithna, mourners do not touch anyone, nor do they eat meat or alcoholic beverages. The son who performs the ritual as a mourner cooks himself.
On the final day (11th or 13th), the house is cleansed. Family members and the Guruwa take a bath early in the morning. After all the rituals for the dead are done with a feast is given first to the chief mourner, then to other relatives and neighbors. The chief mourner and other deceased family members intake salt in their food from this day on as they were prohibited from it during the mourning days. Pork, fish, chicken, mutton, and liquor are a must for this day. Tharbavana (Tharu priest) and Guruwa help to complete the last funeral rite. He rubs some oil on the palms of the members of the deceased family and on their heads.
The deceased family member is remembered every year on his death anniversary and offered food items, the rite is called Pittar dena. It is offered on the occasion of Dasya. The funeral rites are performed for the purification of the living and to better the world of the dead.