Reflections on thirty years of change in Thak
Alan Macfarlane (April 2004)
I am honoured to be invited to write a short piece for the Magazine of the Janakalyan Youth Club of Thak and wish all the readers a happy Baisakh Purnima.
My first wife Gill and I came to Thak in December 1968. We stayed for a year and saw a world which was fascinating and intriguing.
The cultural traditions of the village were very strong. The ghato dance was still danced in the village and we attended several dances, and had it performed in front of our house. The young people still had the rodi of a kind, where people met in the evenings to sing and chat. In fact our own house became a sort of rodi where we dispensed horlicks and sang ‘pick a bale of cotton’ and other songs accompanied by myself on the guitar.
The poju priest, Ujesing, was very active and he and his family attended
many rituals. Almost nightly, it seems, there was a ritual, from short ones
to protect a house or divine illness, to very long ones like the moshi tiba,
which lasted a day and a night.
The memorial service for the dead, the pae lava, was often performed with great ceremony and bodies were also carried down to the river for cremation.
People worked quite communally, in nogora and ghola groupings. There was much singing and even dancing in the fields and especially after the harvest.
The diet was reasonable, with a good deal of meat and milk, since there were herds of buffalo and other animals in the forests and many people had stalled animals in their courtyards. There were a number of families who produced enough rice or maize to sell it either in the village or down in Pokhara.
There was quite a lot of money coming into the village from pensions and most of those who retired from the army built houses in the village and retired there, bringing back goods and cash. So the village had a number of widely travelled and experienced men in it.
There were difficulties as well. The path up from Pokhara was very rough and the last climb to the village was a very steep muddy track up a sheer cliff. There were no taxis up the river valley, so one had to walk the whole way to Pokhara. Pokhara itself had almost nothing in it – half a dozen small hotels, half a dozen taxis, no real hospitals, no shops selling anything beyond grain and vegetables. There was no road to Kathmandu. The only way to get there was by plane or by walking.
In the village itself, there was a ‘night school’, but no school. There was no shop and no panchayat office. There was no health post at Taprang. Children had to go down to the school at Melbort every day, however young they were. There were, as I recall, no radios, and certainly no television. The water supply was very bad, as there was no tank above the village. Most people had to wait for an hour or two every day to get water. There were no toilets and the paths through the village were very rough.
To sum it up, it was a rich cultural world, the food supply was adequate, the village felt a sense of self-confidence. No-one went off to live in Pokhara. But the physical conditions were quite simple and difficult.
I returned with my second wife Sarah in 1986, and between then and 2001 we
visited the village for between one and three months almost every year. I followed
up my earlier work, adding video filming and more detailed photography to the
We watched the village changing very rapidly.
My earlier predictions that the village might suffer from severe food shortages due to the growth of population was not borne out. In fact, the population did double, but half of it migrated to Pokhara, Kathmandu and elsewhere. Thak became a dispersed or ‘virtual’ village, with its members all over the world. Many soldiers began to retire to Pokhara and the external income from pensions and other sources declined.
So did the produce of the fields as the land’s fertility was used up. The number of animals also declined so that while the diet became more diverse (with sugar, vegetables, oil and other things from Pokhara), it also became more based on grains rather than meat and milk.
The amenities in the village improved in certain ways. A junior school was built on the hill above the village with a volley-ball pitch. A water tank ensured that the water supply was more constant. The paths up to the village were considerably improved and the roads out of Pokhara began to improve and carry taxis. The health post at Taprang was built and the school there was improved. Pokhara itself became a sophisticated small city with many goods and services. Democracy was installed.
On the other hand, with the migration out of many of the leading families, with the search for work abroad by many of the young people, and for other reasons, the social and cultural life was affected. The ghato and kusun disappeared. The evenings saw less singing and dancing. Ujesing and his family left and the poju rituals became less frequent and the fears of witchcraft declined. Television and the radio replaced older forms of communal entertainment.
My predictions on the basis of my time in 1968-1970 turned out to largely wrong. Famine and deforestation have not occurred. So I am wary about predictions, especially as I have not been back to the village (because of the political problems) since 2001. Nepal is on a knife-edge as everyone knows, and what happens in Thak will depend on wider currents about which it is difficult to be certain.
It could be that the pattern which happened over much of Europe in the 1960’s will be followed. For one generation in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and elsewhere most of the young and active and wealthy left the villages and went to work and live in the towns and abroad. Then, after a generation, as the countries became wealthier and roads and electricity went up into the hills, the hill villages became alive again, partly as holiday homes, partly with people commuting out of them down to the cities. If electricity and roads come to Thak, this might happen.
Or it might be that the difficulty of hill agriculture and the attractions of the easier life in the cities may continue to suck the life out of the villages and they will turn into areas mainly inhabited by the old, poor and non Gurungs.
Only you, the readers of this magazine, will both be able to see what is happening and will be able to shape the outcome. I wish you all success in upholding a village and a community which is my second home and in which I have lived for three years.
Whatever happens, we have documented this fascinating period of change. Thak is probably the best-studied community anywhere in the Himalayas. Gradually we hope to make our materials available in the Gurung museum in Pokhara so that you and your children and children’s children can remember a world which is so rapidly changing.
In a few years you will be able to watch the films and see the photographs and, we hope, have a record of a wonderful people whose courage and energy and cheerfulness have been an inspiration to my wife and I. We also urgently hope that it will not be too long until we can see you all again, even though we are both getting quite elderly.