Thakali - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Thakali religion represents a syncretism of Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and a native belief called Dhom, a type of shamanistic animism common in all the Himalayan regions and Tibet. These three religions—Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Dhom—coexist not only in the villages but also in the minds of the Thakalis. The core of the Thakalis' animism is the worship of their ancestors, called dhu-tin-gya. In recent times cultural change among the Thakalis indicates a tendency toward Hinduism rather than Tibetan Buddhism, though the latter was more influential in the old days. Although the Thakalis started to style themselves Hindus in the mid-nineteenth century when the Thakali leader began to associate with the Hindu Rana regime in Kathmandu, there was not a single Hindu temple in Thakhola before the mass migration of Thakali merchants from Thakhola to the urban centers of southern Nepal in the 1960s. The reduction of Tibetan influence and increasing Hinduization of the Thakalis in Thakhola, which began even before the 1960s, is summarized as follows. (1) Changes in the Thakali way of life have been instituted, such as avoidance of eating yak meat (beef) and of drinking Tibetan beer. (2) Some of the Thakali leaders have discouraged the members of the community from wearing bakus (Tibetan robes) and have encouraged them to wear Nepalese or Western dress instead. But many women still prefer to wear Himalayan-style costumes, partly because of cold weather in Thakhola and partly for convenience while working. (3) The people have been discouraged from using the Thakali language, a Tibeto-Burman dialect, in the presence of others. But in trading transactions, it may be usefully spoken as an argot among themselves while dealing with other ethnic groups. (4) Since the Thakalis have started claiming to be Hindus, nearly all of the pantheon in Tibetan Buddhism has been reshuffled. Now the old deities having Tibeto-Himalayan names are claimed to be the avatars (incarnations) of Hindu deities. (5) The Hinduization tendency has encouraged the claim of their Thakur (the caste of the present royal family of Nepal) origin in the Jumla-Sinja area of western Nepal. This trend parallels claims of Rajput origin among some of the castes in India.

The process of Hinduization and de-Tibetanization among the Thakalis has also been accelerated by the seasonal migration of Thakalis for trade and through frequent association with their relatives and friends already settled in Pokhara, Sasadhara, Butwal, and Bhairawa. The mass migration of influential merchants after the 1960s was vital in the process of cultural change. The declining salt trade in the Himalayan regions has also played an important role in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing the culture of the Thakalis. It goes without saying that the flexibility of Thakali culture is also responsible for this rapid cultural change. In this connection the upper stratum of the Thakali community as a whole has played a vital part in Hinduizing and de-Tibetanizing their culture, whereas the lower stratum has been somewhat more passive in these processes. It is also noteworthy that the tendency to revive native animism (Dhom) can be observed in urban areas such as Kathmandu, where the Thakalis seem to have suffered an identity crisis and anxiety because of the rapid urbanization of their culture. The Thakalis have been shamanistic animists, and the dhoms (shamans) have played important roles in treating and counseling patients.

Ceremonies. The native animism called Dhom has been influential in many aspects of Thakali life. Tibetan Buddhism once played an important part in rites of passage, but Hinduism has gradually replaced it in recent years.

Arts. The Thakalis are quite artistic people, loving not only the arts but also natural beauty such as the landscape and flowers. It is, however, very interesting that they show their artistic abilities more in secular aspects of life, such as commerce, cooking, interior designing, and so forth, rather than in the arts themselves.

Medicine. Due to the pragmatic tendency of Thakali Culture, scientific medicines have been well accepted among them for many years. At the same time, they have also been utilizing Tibetan as well as Ayurvedic medicines and herbs.

Death and Afterlife. The influence of the Indic folk philosophy represented in Buddhism and Hinduism has been prominent among the Thakalis and so they believe in reincarnation. Traditionally, funeral ceremonies were performed in the Dhom style among the commoners in Thakhola, except for a few wealthy subba families who preferred Buddhist Ceremonies and invited lamas from the monasteries to perform them. Many of the Thakalis, however, have started to hold funeral ceremonies in a Hindu style since they migrated to the south. Some revival of native shamanism is also observed in the funeral ceremonies of urban Thakalis.

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