‘Our God is not a foreign God’: Ritual Music Practice and Tharu Ethnicity within Western Nepal’s Christian Community
In Nepal, ethnicity is often constituted through ritual practice. If ritual participation is a key way of exercising membership in an ethnic group, how might Christians—specifically Protestants, who no longer participate in many community rituals—demonstrate their belonging in ethnic communities? In this paper, I argue that re-ritualization, or modifying traditional songs and dances to fit within a church context, is one way that Christian Nepalis continue to exhibit distinct ethnic identities within a multicultural Christian community. I examine two Christian Tharu case studies: performing the huri nac (a Kathariya Tharu song and dance genre) at interchurch events, and arranging an original, Nepali-language hymn as a maghauta nac (a song and dance genre performed during Tharu celebrations of Maghi). The first performance contends that Tharu religion can comprise of more than one religious tradition, challenging essentialist narratives of what Tharu religion should be. The second performance declares that Christian Nepali practice is wide enough to encompass Tharu cultural signifiers. By re-ritualizing these Tharu music genres, Christian Tharus expand the definition of what it means to be Tharu. I draw on my ethnographic research in Tharu communities (Christian and otherwise) in Kailali and Dang districts, which ranged from attending church events, seasonal music competitions and community festivals, to interviewing lay men and women as well as pastors and other church leaders. Discussing the musical choices of these Christian Tharus allows me enter the conversation about indigenization within the anthropology of Christianity. Following the work of Zoe Sherinian (2014), I demonstrate how indigenization is not a top-down, one-time event, but a series of negotiations across generations of Christians.