On ‘Thumcharu’: The Concept of ‘Tradition’ in Byans, Far Western Nepal
In post-1990 Nepal, it seems to be quite easy for an ethnographer to find the local sociocultural situation, within janajati societies among others, in which essentialistic praise of one’s own tradition and culture in the discursive level has coexisted with various attempts of sociocultural reform on the one hand, and easily observable sociocultural transformations on the other. To sort out this complex situation ethnographically, it is necessary to investigate how people have conceptualized what anthropologists have treated as their “culture” and “tradition”, without presupposing such Western concepts as well as their Nepali quasi-equivalents. In this presentation, I deal with this task by scrutinizing usages and connotations of the compound noun “thumcharu”, a Byansi term which has been used among Rangs in Byans, Far Western Nepal and adjacent regions.
Byans is the uppermost valley of the Mahakali (Kali) River that constitutes the western border between India and Nepal. The main inhabitants of the valley, often tagged as Byansi in Nepal and as Bhotia in India, call themselves Rang in their own language. Rangs traditionally live in and around three Himalayan regions, Byans, Chaudans, and Darma. Most of their villages lie in Uttarakhand, India, and only four villages lie within the territory of Nepal. Currently Rang is officially categorized as an adivasi janajati in Nepal, while in Uttarakhand, they have officially constituted a part of a scheduled tribe “Bhotia.”
In 1990s many Rangs in Byans rendered the word thumcharu as “customs and manners” or “tradition” in English and as ritiriwaj or parampara in Nepali. Some even rendered it as “culture”. Whereas the word thum means a particular rule or custom, thumcharu connotes an aggregate of various individual rules, customs, and manners, an essentialized tradition as a whole shared among a group of people. Thus, obviously, Rangs have their own thumcharu. On the other hand, there exist various inner diversities of rules and customs within Rangs, which are regarded as differences of thumcharu. Thus people of Byans, Chaudans, and Darma have their own respective thumcharu, and each village has its own thumcharu. Furthermore, not only Rangs have their thumcharu. For them, each caste and ethnic group, each region, and each nation has its own respective thumcharu.
Many Rangs praise their own thumcharu as the core of Rang-ness transmitted from the ancient past in various occasions, notably in ritual speeches and traditional improvised songs. On the other hand, they straightforwardly admit that their thumcharu has changed a lot in recent past, not necessarily with nostalgic and entropic flavour. Indeed, they have conceptualized thumcharu as something inherited as a whole but can be modified deliberately in part, and have actually modified various parts of it, sometimes drastically.
Based on my own fieldwork from 1993 to the present in far western Nepal, Kathmandu valley and elsewhere, I show in this presentation how this essentialistic but plastic concept has been utilized while they have actually changed their customs, norms.