Westerners’ Views on the Religion, Culture, and Language of Magars
Dr. Govind Prasad Thapa
Nepal has been a home of many different types of ethnic groups with their own religion, culture, and language. In other words, Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual nation with more than a hundred types of ethnic groups. For a small country like Nepal, it is a matter of profound pride to have such a vast diversity of ethnicity, religion, culture, and language. We accept this characteristic fact as a boon and opportunity for mutual understanding, cooperation, and development.
Magar is the third-largest group, after Chhetri and Bahun, and largest among the indigenous group of people in terms of its population, which is 7.14% of the total national population. In spite of all the inter-caste cultural transformations that have undergone since time unfathomable, Magars have retained the heritage of its own original identity and philosophy of culture and language. Magars, among themselves, speak three languages—Dhut, Kham, and Kaike.
Religion, Culture, and Society
The present culture of Magars is the result of many influences and long history. Owing to the absence of any written history and that, Magars had left their place of origin so long ago that the traces, though surely present, are not yet as easy to pin down. Therefore, it is difficult now to unravel many of the specific aspects of their history.
Both, Daniel and Hodgson, consider Magars and Gurungs as Hindus “but of low caste”and “only because it is the fashion.” However, Hitchcock, who spent a few years with Magars, as illustrated in detail about their culture. The Magars worship nature, idols, spirits, and supernatural beings. This actually points out the belief in the natural phenomenon. In the rural parts of Nepal, even today, we come across a then (shrine)–little rectangular pieces of gobar or cow dung, on a platform, with a varying number of evenly spaced depressions in the top, such as might be made with the tip of finger inside the house–besides a path track, beneath a tree, under a large stone, beside a water spring, or in the corner of irrigated fields. Sometimes these platforms are uncovered, resting on a patch of earth that has been hardened and made smooth with a mixture of mud, cow dung, and water. Most of them are inside little “rooms” that are open in front and have been made with flat stones. On occasions, too, one sees a small pavilion with a conical thatched roof made of straw, about the height of a man.
These than are some of the places where one can make contact with supernatural beings of a particular kind—Gham(sun), Jun(full moon), Pani(water), Bayu(wind), Kuldevata(family god), Sim Bai(devi), Nag (serpent), Jhankari (hunter), Bhoot-pret-masan(ghost, spirit), Boskshi(witch), Bandevi(forest goddess)– the beings who mean most to the majority of people because they are the ones who are effective in their lives and really make a difference. Coming to terms with these beings is part of their lives. These are beings of the land and the forces controlling health, growth, and reproduction. These beings, which may be either male, devta, or female, devi, are referred to as deities who eat bhog or food–mostly the newly spilled blood of a sacrificial animal – mostly the Bhale(a rooster), and quite often the Boka(he-goat), and Pada(young male buffalo), and Sungur(pig). On many occasions, people offer Panchbali—the sacrifice of five animals at a time.
The Puja (sacrifices) are made at places where it is believed that the godling lives. The sacrifices almost always are made by a young kumar(unmarried) boy, called pujari, who bathes and puts on a clean loincloth. After cleaning the ground with cow dung and water, thus setting it apart and making it acceptable for a holy purpose, he winds dhaja(kerchiefs) around a stone and sets it upright to represent the godling being honored. The dhaja (kerchiefs) represents the godling’s new clothing. The basic rationale throughout the puja is doing things for the godlings that will be pleasing: clothing him, feeding him, and surrounding him with pleasant things like dhoop (incense) and flowers. It is important to do these things in a properly sanctified place, with rituals conducted by a person who has prepared himself by bathing and who has not yet lost the extra purity believed to belong to the unmarried. This latter quality is especially important to female godlings but is appreciated by the males as well.
After making a cow dung platform for food offerings and setting it before the stone, the pujari decorates the tham(shrine) with turmeric, rice flour, bits of colored cloth, and flowers. Offerings that are then placed in the holes of the cow dung platform include rice flour fried in butter, puffed rice, rice mixed with water and sage and cow’s milk. The godling also is honored by offerings of flowers and by the presence of fire in the form of a mustard oil lamp in a copper container-diyo.
Just before the sacrifice, the pujari makes an incense of butter and sage and prays for whatever boon he wishes, pointing out that he is about to offer a sacrifice. The animal to be offered is sanctified by putting water, rice, and sage on the head, the animal then shakes its head or body which is taken as a sign that the animal has given its consent to be sacrificed. Then only it is beheaded. The head is placed before the stone and the blood is spurted in the than(shrine). After this, the pujari prepares tika by mixing blood of the sacrificed animal with some rice and places this onto the foreheads of those present. He also receives tika by having one of the worshippers do the same for him. As a gift for the pujari’s services, he gets the head of the sacrificed animal and whatever food has been brought as an offering. The final act of puja is cooking and eating the sacrificed animal that now has been shared with the godling.
On the other hand historically the Tarangpur (Dolpa) Magars – neither a full-fledged Hindu caste nor unalloyed Tibetan Buddhists, but always at the mercy of outsiders, who were one or the other had to defer, serially or simultaneously, to both Hindu and Buddhist sources of power, prestige, and influence.” For Fisher, “Buddhism and Hinduism are historical accretions. The Magars and other Tibeto-Burman groups were apparently neither Buddhist nor Hindu originally.” Like tribes elsewhere in South Asia, the Magars of Tarangpur “live on the fringes of Hindu society, but unlike most of these other tribal peoples, they also live on the fringes of Buddhist society. Tarangpur is culturally convoluted, geographically isolated, and socially ingrown.”
The preference in Tarangpur of Dolpa district, according to Fisher, is not of one religion over another but a preference for politics over religion, because politics is inextricably bound up with the core of Tarangpur life, namely, the pursuit of power, status and wealth. The key to securing these lies in the hands of the Hindu modernists the national elite in Kathmandu and their functionaries in the outlying area, who are directly and explicitly attempting to integrate Tarangpur into modernist Hindu political and economic structures. There is no comparable pull from the north. Ironically, the mountaineers of Tarangpur look up to the lowlanders. Rather than either ‘Sanskritization’ or ‘Tibetanization,’ a process of religious triangulation is underway. For the descendants of the few high caste Thakuri families who settled, intermarried, and were hence ‘Magarized,’ the process is even more complex. The indigenous cult, centered on local mountain deities, has been overlaid with Tibetan Buddhism, and Hinduism, in turn, has challenged this.
Most of Magar families consist of grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, and unmarried children. The marriages are usually arranged by parents. The parents of the groom propose the hand of a bride to her parents. Wedding ceremonies usually take place at the bride’s house. Mostly the engagements are solemnized before weddings. Sometimes the girl may elope with the boy without the consent of parents or the boy may abduct or capture the girl and take her to his home. Such marriages are also accepted and recognized later on after the accomplishment of some rituals. In such situations, the groom brings a Theki —gift of food and drinks to the bride’s family for Dhogbhet – recognition, and formalization of the marriage. If the wife happens to be already married to another person, then the new husband must pay Jari – compensation to the former husband. The amount of Jari was usually set as Rupees sixty and Rupees thirty for Sari wife – a woman remarrying for the third time. If a Sari wife runs away, the husband can not claim any compensation. However, such practices have now been obsolete and usually, these cases end up in the courts.
Dr. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine who was in Gulmi, Nepal for her research, relates her experiences with Magars. According to her, “The relations that the Magars maintain with their high caste neighbors in this village of Northern Gulmi, I had the feeling that the same phenomenon was operating at the level of the collective identity between these two communities. Let us take an example. In this region, the Magars employ either a Brahman or a bhanja (uterine nephew) as their domestic priest and several Magars explained to me that in employing their bhanja for this role, they were acting as the Brahmans, saying: « the bahun of the Bahuns is their bhanja » (or “the priest of the Brahmans is their uterine nephew”). At the same time, they used to say that there was a difference between the Magar and the Brahman attitude towards their bhanja: the latter would salute their bhanja, while among themselves, it is the contrary. They were thus raising their global similarities while noticing a kind of anomaly, about which no one ever made any further development. Through this tiny detail, however, they were pinpointing a fundamental difference between the two groups. Among the Brahmans in effect, the wife-receivers are seen as superior and hence the bhanja is saluted first by his maternal uncle. Even if the bhanja never becomes a son-in-law among the Brahmans, he is a member of the lineage of the wife-receivers, being the sister’s son. Among the Magars, the wife-receivers are inferiors. They say, « as we have taken a spouse from them, we have to make ourselves small ». Besides, the bhanja is a double wife-receiver since he is ideally the son-in-law in his turn. For this reason, he is usually expected to render a lot of services to his in-laws in return for his wife.”
She further elaborates, “The Magar inversion of the Hindu hierarchy and the fact that depending on the situation and the lineages, either the Brahman or the bhanja may be used by them for the same function, show that priesthood is not correlated with a superior status for the Magar, but rather with the notion of service, seva. Despite their cultural domination and their apparent adoption of Hindu principles, the Magars of Gulmi thus introduced an important shift regarding the Hindu notion of the priesthood (and the position of the Brahman). But this was not openly claimed as a sign of their autonomy, for the simple reason that it was not clearly formulated as a diversion. A typical example of these meaningful differences assigned to group identity was formulated by a Magar lady when discussing wedding rituals. She told me that there was one thing she did not like about the Bahun-Chetri’s practices…..At any rate, within a global Hindu universe, the Magars had managed to preserve enough specificity to anchor their feeling of difference.”
The Magars, the aboriginal stock of Nepal, are most undoubtedly Mongolian. These Magars speak Tibeto-Burman dialect. Even within this Tibeto-Burman family Kham dialect is spoken by Magars in the Mid-Western region, Tarali or Kaike in Dolpa district of North-Western region, and Dhut, mostly in the West and Central part of Nepal. The population of Magars speaking the various Magar language is 3.39% of the total population of Nepal (2001 census). Other remaining Magars speak Khas and Nepali. The Magar tongue-speaking population in 1952/54, 1991, and 2001 were 273780, 430264, and 770116 respectively. The study of the trend in mother tongue retention shows that the Magar language retention rate has increased from 32.1% in 1991 to 47.7% in the 2001 census. According to the number of people speaking a language, Magar language is ranked as the seventh most widely spoken language in Nepal.
According to Fisher, Kaike is an unwritten Tibeto-Burman language, distantly related to Tibetan and other Tibeto- Burman dialects spoken elsewhere in Nepal.” He further explains the complexity of the language as follows: “Using a list of 100 basic words I found that Kaike shared 49% cognates with the Tibetan dialect spoken in Tichurong 49% with the very closely related Tibetan dialect spoken in what Snellgrove calls ” Inner Dolpo,” 35% with Kham, and 23% with Magar.” He concludes that “In nine of the thirteen villages, Tibetan is spoken; one village (Riwa) is Nepali-speaking; in only three villages (Tarangpur, Tarakot, and Tupa)—and nowhere else in the world–is Kaike spoken.”
David E. Watters has been a known figure in the contribution of the study of Kham language of Magars. According to him, the Kham is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in the upper valleys of the Rukum, Rolpa, and Baglung districts of Mid-Western Nepal by more than 50,000 people. Scattered populations also exist in Jajarkot, Dailekh, Kalikot, Achham, and Doti. The language should not be confused with the Tibetan Khams of eastern Tibet. The majority of Kham speakers are Budhas, Puns, Ghartis, and Rokyas—all classified ethnically as subtribes or clans of the Magar tribe. It should not be assumed apriori, however, that because speakers of Kham are Magars their language too is a dialect of Magars. Kham and Magar are vastly different languages. Thus, to avoid confusion with Tibetan Kham, and to link the language with the ethnicity of its speakers, the language has sometimes been referred to as Kham-Magar.
Watters narrates, “Kham is known to Nepalis of the region as “Khamkura,” which, roughly translated, means Kham-talk or Kham-speech. The word Kham itself is of obscure origins and means simply language in its broad sense and The Language in its strict sense. In Mid-Western Nepal, where Kham is spoken, the Nepali use of the Kham or Khamkura has the more generalized meaning of a local, non-Nepali dialect. Consequently, at least two other languages in the region, Chantyal, and Kaike, have received the Nepali appellation Khamkura.”
The study of languages has sometimes been useful in determining the historical settlements of the people in Nepal. As Witzel explains that the Magarat “extends from the Bheri in the west to Burhi Gandaki in the east and is fairly uniform in its nomenclature: river names invariantly end in –ri or –di. The names in –ri are found in the western part, that is in Kham territory, the names in –di in the eastern part.The River Ba-bai, to the south of the Bheri, may have a Magar name as well: bəy, bəyh is a Kham Magar word for ‘river’.”
 This article is an edited version published in Shodhmala, (A Journal of Magar Studies Center), Vol. 1, No. 1, Magh 2062 BS
 Dr. Thapa is Chairperson of Magar Studies Center, http://www.magarstudieswcenter.com
 Wright, Daniel, History of Nepal-With an Introductory Sketch of the Country and People of Nepal, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1993, First Published in 1877, p. 30
 Hodgson, Brian H., Essays on the Languages, Literature, and Religion of Nepal and Tibet, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, Madras, 1991 (First Published 1874), Part II, p. 40
 Hitchcock, John T., The Magars of Banyan Hill; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, pp.25-34
 Fisher, , James F.,Trans-Himalayan Traders: Economy, Society, & Culture in Northwest Nepal, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt, Ltd., New Delhi, India, Reprint 1997, James F., p. 34-35
 Fisher, James F., op.cit., p. 208
 Ibid, p. 14
 Ibid, p. 14
 Hitchcock, op.cit., pp.35-41
 Dr. Marie Lecomte-Tilouine, “On Magar Identity and Autonomy”, Shodhmala, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 40-41, Magh 2062 BS
 Ibid, p. 40-41
 Fisher, op.cit. p. 21
 Ibid, P.208
 Ibid, p. 23
 Watters, David and Nancy Watters. 1973. An English-Kham, Kham-English Glossary, Kirtipur Nepal: Summer Institute of Linguistics and Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies cited in David E. Watters, A Dictionary of Kham (a Tibeto-Burman language of Nepal), Manuscript, p. 1
 Watters, David E., A Dictionary of Kham (a Tibeto-Burman language of Nepal), Manuscript, p. 1
 Witzel, op.cit., p. 18