People-in-Country Profile: The Chepangs
Introduction / History
The Chepang are one of the more isolated tribal groups of Nepal. They live in the Lothar Khola region, east and west of Kandrang Garhi. They also inhabit the valleys washed by the Male Khila River, in the mid-region of the Mahabharat Mountains. The altitude of this region is between 4,000 to 6,500 feet above sea level, producing a cool and pleasant climate in the summer and a chilly climate in the winter. Destruction of the forests and the demands of an increased population have caused vast land erosion, threatening their environment and their unique culture.
The origin of the Chepang is unclear, but there are numerous legends that tell of their relationship to Lav, son of the Hindu god, Rama. Unlike the Brahmans and the Tamangs, the Chepang are quite short in stature and have Mongoloid features.
Although they are no longer a nomadic tribe, the Chepang still maintain their own separate and unique tribal identity.
What are their lives like?
For over a thousand years, the Chepang lived in very poor conditions. In the 20th century, their quality of life began to improve due to the development of progressive agricultural techniques. Before they began to settle in villages, the Chepang led a nomadic life, doing some fishing and hunting. Today, they live in sheds made of tree branches and cultivate crops such as maize and millet. They still have customs akin to nomadic life, such as using traps to catch birds and gathering various forest products.
Their habitat is suitable for raising livestock, but unfortunately, they do not possess enough practical knowledge to be successful. They primarily raise goats, cows, bulls, pigs, and occasionally a few buffalo. For at least half of the year, they eat quite well as a result of their agricultural efforts. However, for the other half of the year, they exist on the products of the forests and remain suspended on the edge of starvation. Some Chepang hire themselves out as laborers in various areas away from their villages.
The Chepang live as extended family units, often with three generations living in the same house. If a family has many sons, or if a son has many wives, the men will live separately with their wives and children. The family structure is patrilineal (line of descent traced through the males) and predominantly patriarchal (male dominated), but the mother plays an important social role.
Marriage among the Chepang is an extremely extravagant affair and more complicated than among other Nepalese hill tribes. When a child is born, the mother is considered polluted; the household must observe cleansing rituals for eight days. On the ninth day, the child is given a name. Twenty-two days after birth, the mother is considered purified and is allowed to resume her participation in any social, religious, or community gatherings.
The Chepang are without a distinct tribal costume, partly as a result of their past nomadic traditions. The men wear loin cloths and vest-like clothes called bhotos, while the women wear saris (wrap-around dresses) and cholos (full sleeved blouses). Bangles made of glass and plastic, along with various hair ornaments, are worn by women to show their marital status.
What are their beliefs?
The Chepang are primarily ethnic religionists. However, they have integrated many beliefs and practices from other religions into their own unique system. Many rituals are performed and a variety of deities are worshipped. An important ritual the Chepang observe is known as the Kulain Puja, which involves the worship of dead ancestors.