A Brief History of the Thakali of Nepal
The Thakali are an ethnic group found in Nepal who have been of great interest to historians and anthropologists as they are a people who have readily adapted to changes in their social, religious, economic and political environment.
There are several different ethnic groups in Nepal and the Thakali are one of the best documented of these. They are an agro-pastoral and trading people of the upper Kali Gandaki River region of west central Nepal, also known as THak Khola. According to government censes, there are around 12,000 Thakali spread out throughout the country due to their trading culture. The southernmost boundary of Thak Khola is the village of Ghasa.
“Thak Khola is divided into three sociologically distinct sub-regions which are known as Thak-Sat-Sae, Panchgaun, and Baragaun. The most southerly is Thak-Sat-Sae (“Seven Hundred Thak” households). It is home to a people whom outsiders call Thakali but who call themselves Tamhaang. Thak-Sat-Sae is bounded at the south by Ghasa village, and on the north by the trading town of Tukche”. There are three different cultural groups here. Although they do not intermarry, they do share similar characteristics.
It is believed that the Thakali migrated to this area centuries ago, most probably from Humla in North West Nepal. Their own dialect language is from the Tibeto-Burman language family and is distantly related to Tibetan and Gerung, a language spoken by inhabitants of southern Nepal.
There are many different origin theories, but the one generally accepted is that the “Thakali were settled in Panchgaun and Thak-Sat-Sae at least by the late 13th century A.D., and con-ceivably much earlier. Some early Tibetan writers describe a Mon-pa people (non-Tibetan and presumably non-Buddhist) who seem to have been the Thakali and whom they called the Tamhaang-Se Mon of Se-rib. Se-rib was an ancient kingdom in upper Thak Khola”.
Thakali history only really begins in 1869 CE, at the beginning of the so-called Subba period, in 1869 A.D., with the rise of a powerful Tamhaang Thakali lineage which came to be known by the name Subba. They were the leaders of the Sherchan clan who initially gained prominence in Nepalese-Tibetan military affairs, who were able to establish themselves as powerful economic middlemen in the trans-Himalayan trade. This is what has led sociologists and anthropologists to become so interested in them.
Throughout the 19thcentury, the Takali rose to great heights in their role of trade and long distance commerce to Tibet. In addition to this, the leaders were given political positions and they played important roles in the plans for an autonomous state independent of Kathmandu in the 1920s.
“For the Thakali, the closing of the Nepal/China border in the early 1960s, curtailment of trans-Himalayan trade through their homeland, and a social and religious orientation away from Tibetan Buddhism at their north towards Nepalese Hinduism at their south, have all created new and challenging circumstances for the maintenance of ethnic cultural identity”.
The Thakali are a people who are not as well known as some of the other ethnic groups in Asia (as the Chinese Han, Zhuang, Manchus, the Vietnamese Karen etc), but they are as fascinating as the country they live in.
Messerschmidt, Donald A. (1982) The Thakali of Nepal: Historical Continuity and Socio-Cultural Change, Ethnohistory, Duke University Press.