Published in The Kathmandu Post on 2 January 2016

The Chepang people of Chitwan

The Chepang people of Chitwan

The Chepang people of Chitwan and their conversion to Christianity

Once, he walked for eight hours on end along a rivulet that was on its way to meet the Narayani river. He had spent a few days in Martal and Parkhal, talking to villagers about education, cleanliness and community groups. Nights were spent with any family that welcomed him. A vehicle had brought him from Bharatpur and dropped him off at a nondescript, sparsely populated place called Dam. But since his plans were not finalised, he was unable to find transportation for the journey back.

He had returned from the US only some months ago and stumbled into a position at Shanti Griha, an NGO that constructed toilets and school buildings at remote, far-flung Chepang settlements that were accessible only by foot.

He was the first person who told me about the Chepang people of Chitwan and the way that would lead to their villages. There is a highway town called Bhandara, an hour’s drive east of Bharatpur. That was almost two years ago.

Recently, he casually asked me to accompany him to Korak, a Chepang VDC in Chitwan. He was going back with a jeep-full of blankets, clothes and utensils that he intended to store at the school building and distribute to the children on Christmas.

I accepted his proposal to accompany him as I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about the Chepangs, who have always intrigued me. Also, I was tempted by his account of a grand waterfall, hidden and tucked inside unknown hills.

So one winter morning, I packed a bag and jumped into the jeep with him, with Amir Thapa, who has now turned into a good friend. We crossed Bharatpur and reached Bhandara.

At Bhandara, we followed the dusty road that promptly left the plains, gradually rising and folding northwards into the gentle Mahabharata foothills. I always thought Chitwan as a completely flat landscape; I was wrong.

Chepangs are an indigenous Tibeto-Burman group of people from the south-central region of Nepal. Their villages are concentrated within the boundaries of four districts—Gorkha, Dhading, Makwanpur and Chitwan. The Chepang people used to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle until a couple of generations ago. A majority of them worked in other people’s fields and households for their livelihood. The rest relied on fishing, hunting, trapping birds and gathering wild tuber from community forests.

The communal bond was fragile since families lived in sheds that were scattered across the hills, away from each other, instead of compact neighbourhoods.

“It was King Mahendra who told us that we were also his ‘praja’ (political subjects),” a local relayed the folklore to us during our first night at Glakthok, as we sat around a fire. One famous Chepang elder, Jhyapuram, had received an audience with the king during one of his royal visits to the Tarai. It was Jhyapuram who told his people that they were not just servants but also the king’s subjects.

In this way, snippets of folklore and fact got exchanged by the fire that night. The wood was dry. The branches crackled as they fed the flames. The foothills shielded Glakthok from the winter smog that spreads thick and hangs low over most of the Tarai during midwinter. It can be difficult to get a fire going in Sauraha, for instance, where the fog and overnight frost seep into the wood. But Glakthok was relatively drier; the temperature a few degrees higher. That night, I ate rice and rooster soup standing next to the tall flames that raged under a clear moonlit sky. It seemed like only moments ago, the rooster was alive, trapped in human arms. Now I could almost sense its breath and pulse mixed in with the soup’s heat. Someone had mentioned shamans earlier; I remembered the Chepang people’s association with animism. But I turned my attention to the conversation and listened on.

“Since then, many Chepang families have adopted the term ‘praja’ as a surname,” the local, a school principal, told me. “It’s either that or just Chepang.”

“My documents also says praja,” he continued, “but I still call myself Chepang.”

The first school building—“Oh it was just a shed”—was set up in Glakthok only in 2003. Shanti Griha renovated the shed and turned it into a multi-room facility in 2011, recruiting local volunteers who carried cement bags and whiteboards on their backs. Only 46 students, ranging from preschool to third grade, are registered on the school’s record. They come from about 40 different Korak families, as well as from a few families who live in the neighbouring VDC Lothar that borders Makwanpur and Dhading. Glakthok’s National Primary School is registered with the government which provides salaries to its principal and one other teacher.

“But only about 30 kids show up regularly,” the principal filled us in. “Thanks to the play kits donated by Amir sir,” he said of my friend. “This is still a miracle. Hardly anyone showed up at the school back then.”

Over the last decade, there has been increasing awareness among Nepalis regarding the plight of the Chepang people. Simultaneously, there has also been an rise in the number of NGOs working to support and uplift the livelihoods of Chepang communities. Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN), founded in 1989 by a group of graduates from Chitwan’s Institute of Agriculture and Animal Science, is one such organisation. I discovered their work that same night.

In coordination with Nepal Chepang Association and District Education Office, RRN facilitated the publication of a set of Grade One textbooks in Chepang language that was distributed to the Chepang school districts earlier this year. The principal handed the book to me the following morning. High frequency words are printed alongside pictures. Some key words and phrases are translated into Nepali in order to support the children’s emergent reading skills. The book is titled Gniko Kitaab—Our Book.

The following morning, children and adults gradually shuffled into the school ground. It was Christmas. Neither of us are Christians; but we wanted to acknowledge the occasion because most of the Chepang people of Glakhok have converted to Christianity. Chepang and Christianity—quite anomalous. Earlier this year, in mid-autumn, when I had been to Gatlang village in Rasuwa to work in a primary school, I had noticed a similar trend there.

As Amir sorted out the blankets that morning, I organised the children by grade level. Each child received a set of clothes and a sweater. Before distributing the blankets, the principal pulled out his register, noting down names of adults and checking off families. Outside, balloons got blown and red Santa hats were given away.

These materials were donated by an international organisation called Rainbow of Magnolia, that Amir is a board member of. He had met one of the founders serendipitously in a Seattle cafe years ago, developed relationships rapidly, and now coordinated the procurement and disbursement of donations to a few schools in Nepal.

Rainbow of Magnolia is not concerned with Christianity or religious conversion. The name comes from a Seattle-based landscaping company owned by one of its founders whose sole mission is to help people in need. They have funded schools and toilet constructions in countries such as Uganda and Kenya. Amir brought these materials to Glakthok only because he had maintained his contact with the locals even after leaving his job at Shanti Griha.

After finishing the distribution, I joined Amir as he chatted casually with the principal.

“You mentioned that you have to visit the District Office regularly,” Amir was saying.

“That’s your time away from the school. How often do you go?”

But as had happened the previous evening, the principal skirted the question and reintroduced his desire to start a honey cultivation business in the village.

“If you can only get us a small fund, we will do the rest of the work,” he said. “This area is famous for its bees.”

The Nepali Butter Tree, locally known as Chiuri, is native to the Mahabharata foothills. Deciduous in nature, it produces cream-coloured flowers during the winter months, attracting swarms of bees. The fruits of this multipurpose tree that ripen in early summer can also be used to extract ghee, pulp and juice.

Chiuri also attracts chameras—the bats. The Chepang people have trapped bats for ages, laying wide nets all over the forest. “You want to go and see the nets?” someone had offered the night before in jest. Even though there was ample moonlight, I had not considered the activity, choosing instead to crawl into a sleeping bag on the classroom floor.

But the following afternoon, I considered a lot of things as we descended from Glakthok, walking over a jholunge bridge again, striding across the same fields, scurrying along narrow trails.

“The three Chas,” someone squatting by the bonfire had mentioned. “Our community is associated with three Chas: Chepang, Chiuri and Chamera.”

But in Kathmandu, I Googled ‘Chepang and Christianity’. The result led me to a website that belongs to the Joshua Project. I browsed through the site casually, switching back and forth between its content and a separate pdf report published by the Joshua Project in 2004. Titled The Chepang of Nepal, the five-page-long report lists statistics on the people’s language and literacy rate. The report also has sections with subheadings such as: Have They Heard the Gospel?, Church Growth, History of Christianity in Group, Religion and Response, and Scripture.

90 percent of the Chepang people had not heard who Jesus was back then, I learned from the report. An anecdote is included in the gospel section: a local man’s daughter gets ill and when taken to the hospital, is told by the nurse to pray to Jesus. The daughter gets better and the man converts his religion to Christianity. This anecdote was documented by certain “translators” who subsequently left the country. Months later, the translators’ friends, who had gone back to the Chepang village and met its first Christian, reported that there were now 70 Chepang Christians.

The Joshua Project calls itself a research initiative that systematically, and in great detail, records information on ethnic groups of the world with the least followers of Christ. The Joshua Project’s mission aligns directly with a section in the Bible that states that Jesus’s Return is linked to the fulfilment of the Great Commission. The Great Commission involves preaching the gospel of the kingdom to the whole world. “There will be some from every tribe, tongue, nation and people before the Throne.”

Missionaries have left their mark in pockets of Nepal; this much I was aware of. When I learnt about Christianity’s contact with the Chepangs of Chitwan and the Tamangs of Rasuwa, ethnic groups that have been severely marginalised in Nepal, a new layer was added to my understanding. I could clearly follow the logic. Ostracised by elites and fed up by the government’s inaction, perhaps these impoverished communities found themselves easily influenced by Christ’s stories relayed by people who brought them food and clothes.

I could not help mulling over the Joshua Project and thinking about Nepali locals. In Gatlang, intending to check on tea, I had entered the school kitchen, which was a separate stone building partly damaged by the quakes. I instantly noticed a cross painted on a far wall in black; so I struck a conversation with the peon as he boiled water on firewood. He told me that the kitchen also served the purpose of a church. He had converted to Christianity recently. Ghosts and spirits ‘had stopped bothering’ him after he became a Christian. Yes, he believed in Christ, he said, adding that his life has been better since.

Remembering that conversation, I brought up the topic with a local leader in Glakthok, curious to learn about his religious transition and his thoughts regarding the matter. But I did not receive much information. He only mumbled a soft response, “I don’t know. I became a Christian only last week,” and started to giggle.

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