• Culture & Tradition
  • 26 January, 2024

Terai – The Other Face of Nepal

Terai – The Other Face of Nepal

When people think of Nepal, the first things that come to mind are the Himalayas with its yaks and snow leopards, or the cultural and historical haven of the Kathmandu Valley. Most travelers find themselves seeking this emblematic image of Nepal, an image of hills and glaciers, narrow trekking paths and endless pastures. While the unparalleled magnificence of the Himalayas and their foothills are the face of Nepal for a good reason, travelers must not ignore that Nepal has another, equally unique, face. Underneath the shadow of the mountains are the vast lowlands, home to indigenous communities and wealthy in flora and fauna, the Terai is the other face of Nepal, less traveled but just as fascinating as the rest of Nepal.

Making up 17% of Nepal’s terrain, stretching seamlessly from far-west to far-east, and starting at the modest elevation of 70 meters above sea level, this belt of land boasts of a sub-tropical climate that fosters such fertility that it has become the agricultural backbone of Nepal. A land where all the Himalayan waters flow through to reach the Indo-Gangetic plain and then the ocean, the fertility of the Terai gives hold to more than just human agriculture.

The wildlife that emerges from the Terai is enough to leave one in awe for a lifetime. From old-growth, sub-tropical jungles to wide river beds and endless grasslands, the Terai is inhabited by fabled animals such as the Bengal Tiger, One-Horned Rhinoceros, crocodiles and tens of bird species. Not only this, but the people who inhabit the Terai still hold onto a way of life that can be rarely seen these days. Untouched by modernity, many indigenous communities live as they did a hundred years ago – hand in hand with the nature surrounding them.

To say that the Terai altogether falls out of the limelight of tourism woudn’t be fair, since its more famous national parks see hundreds of domestic and international tourists every year, but it can be said with some certainty that the Terai is largely untapped given the potential it holds. To understand this potential in a deeper way Inside Himalayas met with Abhishek Subedi, filmmaker from Morang, a Terai town in Eastern Nepal.

As a filmmaker, Mr Subedi has traveled extensively all across Nepal, but his recent works brought him back to the areas surrounding his hometown and beyond. His sensibilities towards ethnic communities, their lifestyles and culture have made him an anthropologist per se, and he hopes to pursue Rural Development academically. Fascinated by the nature, cultures, and people of the Terai, he believes that the Terai should be as much a highlight of the country as the rest of Nepal. He says that “humans are naturally drawn to other humans, no matter how different they may be from each other, and listening to their stories is an activity with no end. The Terai holds many untold stories, unexplored areas and unmet potential.”

Rooted in the belief that the Terai should learn how to show its unique identity to the rest of the world, Mr. Subedi explains why traveling to the Terai should be in your immediate priorities when visiting Nepal.

Cultural and Religious Significance

Mr. Subedi states that “the natural wonders of the Terai are marketed quite well, as a large number of tourist passes through some of the more famous national parks like Chitwan, but I believe that we are failing to market the rich cultural heritage of the Terai, perhaps because all of the attention is on Kathmandu when it comes to this.”

The diversity of the culture across this region is palpable, as it ranges from the birth place of important historical and religious figures such as Sita in Hinduism and Gautam Buddha in Buddhism, to various indigenous settlements, each with their distinct languages, forms of art, music and dance.

Buddhist Heritage

Lumbini, where the Buddha Siddharta Gautama, took his first breath, holds an unassuming charm, marked by a humble plaque and stone beneath the sheltering arms of a bodhi tree. Rediscovered in the 19th century, Lumbini stretches across three miles, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site adorned with monasteries built by various Buddhist nations.

As you wander through Lumbini on foot or opt for a leisurely bicycle tour, the various monasteries showcase a visual panorama of Buddhist architectural styles. From a Burmese-style golden pagoda to a Chinese-style temple reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City, each structure narrates the adaptive journey of Buddhism through East Asia.

Beyond Lumbini, you can explore the remnants of Siddhartha’s palace in Kapilavastu, a place where the prince commenced his transformative journey. Nearby archaeological sites, marked by pillars erected by Ashoka and three stupas in Kundan, offer glimpses into the life and teachings of the Buddha.

For those drawn to this spiritual sanctuary, consider visiting during the cooler months from November to March. Lumbini, situated in the Terai, reveals its most inviting aspect during this time. Given the limited accommodations, prudent travelers secure reservations in advance. Accessible by a five-hour drive from Pokhara or a short flight from Kathmandu to Bhairahawa followed by a brief drive, Lumbini stands near the Indian border, offering a seamless continuation for those exploring the Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India.

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddharta Gautam.

Mithila Heritage

In the heart of the Terai region lies Janakpur, a city that evolves as a captivating tale of history and spirituality. Mithila paintings, crafted by the skilled hands of Maithili women, puts Janakpur on the global map of artistic expression. At its centre, the grand Janaki Temple, also known as Nau Lakha Mandir, becomes a significant pilgrimage site for Hindus, as it plays a pivotal role in the epic tale of Ramayana. Legend whispers that Goddess Sita, the Mithila princess of Janakpur, chose Prince Ram as her husband, and their sacred union was celebrated in the Vivaha Mandap. This is more than just a legend, though, as the Goddess was the daughter of the King of Janakpur, and they are both historical figures who have truly lived.

Beyond its temples, Janakpur stands as a cultural hub, nurturing a rich history of arts, language, and literature. As the heartland of the Mithila civilization, it becomes a melting pot of cultures and religions. The annual Vivah Panchami festival, held in November and December, transforms the temple surroundings into a spirited and spiritual haven.

Likewise, Ram Mandir, built by Amar Singh Thapa, pays homage to Prince Ram of Ayodhya, complementing Janakpur’s spiritual ambiance. Gangasagar, a holy pond near Ram Mandir, adds to the city’s spiritual allure, believed to be connected to the Ganga. During the Chhath festival, the pond transforms into a magical spectacle, inviting peaceful boat rides.

Swargdwar, on the west bank of Gangasagar, earns its name as the “gate to heaven” for the departed, adding a touch of the divine to Janakpur’s spiritual story. With that being said, the ideal time to explore Janakpur’s charm is during May, July, and August when the city dons pleasant weather and festivals. 

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
A crowd of devotees in front of Janaki Mandir in Janakpur, home to Mithila culture.

Tharu Heritage 

Primarily in the outskirts of Chitwan, Morang, and Sunsari the Tharu community is the largest ethnic group in the Terai region, deeply rooted in time as the probable original inhabitants of the Terai. With features reflecting their Mongoloid heritage and a warm, dark-brown complexion, the Tharu community holds within its diversity the proud lineage of Rana-Tharu, claiming an ancestry tied to the Rajputs in the western Terai.

To fully immerse yourself in the Tharu culture, plan your visit during the months when their festivals come to life, especially during the Maghe Sankranti, their New Year. It mostly falls in mid-January. However, if you travel to Chitwan, explore the Tharu culture as well, no matter what month it is. 

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
Tharu women welcoming visitors into a community lodge.

Cuisine from the Terai

The people of the Terai region boast of a cuisine that is in stark difference from the rest of Nepal. With the use of unique ingredients and flavor, they expand the idea one has of Nepali cuisine.

Rajbanshi Cuisine

Bhakka is a winter delight originating from the culinary traditions of the Rajbanshi community in the Jhapa and Morang districts. Made from fresh rice flour, it is traditionally consumed after the harvest season but has become a breakfast staple all over the country. 

Maithili Cuisine 

A plate on Mithila showcases a medley of rice, wheat, fish, and sweet dishes. Infused with spices, herbs, and natural edibles, each recipe is a culinary masterpiece tailored to specific events. The mantra, “Maachh, Paan aur Makhaan e teen ta aichh Mithila ke jaan” (Fish, Betel, and water-lily seed are the soul of Mithila), resonates through the heart of Maithili gastronomy.

Likewise, in the heart of Maithili non-vegetarian delights, where fish, cooked in mustard oil with a blend of local spices, takes centre stage. From Rohu fish curry to mutton and a variety of fowl, Maithili cuisine elevates aquatic and terrestrial delights into cultural symbols. Vegetables claim their own space in the Maithili plate, with dishes like baigan adauri, arikanchan tarkari, and kadhi-bari offering a tantalizing array of flavours. The art of tempering, the use of spices like panch forna and hing, and the crafting of sun-dried and preserved vegetables showcase the intricacies of Mithila’s culinary expertise.

The culinary journey extends to a symphony of sweets and desserts like anarsa, thekua, pidikiya, and the revered dahi-cheeni, considered the king of desserts in Mithila. In Mithila, food isn’t just sustenance; it’s a narrative, a cultural expression that speaks volumes about the people, the place, and the timeless traditions that define this enchanting region.

Tharu Cuisine

Tharu Cuisine revolves around the abundance of marshlands and rivers, featuring freshwater delights like fish, crabs, snails, and mussels. Ghonghi, a popular dish, comprises mud-water snails mixed with local spices, providing a tangy and spicy flavour. Pakuwa, a BBQ meat dish of pork and wild boar, stands out with its well-marinated spices. Gengta chutney, made from clean and cooked carp, serves as a versatile snack or accompaniment to other dishes. Chichar (Anadi rice) steamed during special occasions, showcases the sticky rice cultivated in the western plains. Sipi, a dish made from boiled freshwater mussels, offers a unique taste experience. Jhingiya machhari features freshwater shrimp cooked with local spices, while parewak sikar highlights pigeon meat in various preparations. Dhikri, a western Tharu cuisine made from rice flour, is steamed and shaped and often served during festivals. Bagiya, another dish made from rice flour, is flat and stuffed with lentils, spices, and boiled potatoes. Khariya, a popular and tasty dish, consists of rice, legumes, and spices wrapped in colocasia leaves and deep-fried. Sidhara, made from ground Sidhra fish, taro, colocasia steam, and spices, is shaped into cakes and sun-dried, often served as soup or curry. All in all, Tharu Cuisine offers a diverse and flavorful culinary experience in the Terai region, providing a unique taste of the local culture.

The Natural Wonders of The Terai

When appreciating indigenous communities like the Tharu people, one can’t separate them from the nature and wildlife they have been intrinsically connected to for generations. To understand these indigenous cultures, one must be in close contact with the flora and fauna that is interconnected with them. The Terai region is home to most of the natural parks and protected forests of Nepal. Most travelers go to Chitwan and partake in nature-based adventure activities, but an astute traveler should not dismiss the many equally thrilling areas.

Sahalesh Fulbari – Siraha

In the south of the Siraha district lies Salahesh Fulbari, a sanctuary where cultural sagas intertwine with a natural miracle. At the heart of this garden resides a delicate flower, a rare orchid known to unfurl its petals solely on the eve and the first day of the Nepali New Year, Baishakh. As you explore the expansive 14-acre space, the air carries the soft aroma of this unique blossom—a fragrant embodiment of the affection shared between Salahesh, a local deity, and his cherished Malini. To truly experience the miraculous phenomenon, align your visit with the New Year’s Eve celebration in Baishakh. 

Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve 

Established in 1976, the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is a 176 sq.km sanctuary that guards the last remaining population of wild buffalo, known as Arna (Bubalus arnee). Koshi Tappu’s charm lies in the Sapta Koshi, a key tributary of the Ganges, whose dynamic flooding during the monsoon is tamed by adjacent embankments. 

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
An Arna wild Buffalo. Photo Credit: Parsa National Park

The sanctuary is home to great biodiversity, with tall grasslands dominating the landscape. Local villagers benefit from these grasslands, collecting thatch grass for various purposes. Alongside sheltering the last 159 Arnas, this reserve is also home to Hog deer, Wild boar, Spotted deer, Blue bull, and Rock Python.

Likewise, Koshi Tappu is a haven for bird enthusiasts, boasting around 441 bird species, including 14 found nowhere else inthe world. The Koshi Barrage becomes a resting place for migratory birds, welcoming 87 winter and trans-Himalayan species. The Koshi River adds to the diversity with 80 fish and reptile species, including the endangered Gharial crocodile and Gangetic dolphin.

Journeying to Koshi Tappu is straightforward, with daily bus services from Kathmandu to Kakarbhitta and Biratnagar. However, travelling there from March to October can be the ideal time because, during these months, one can witness the migratory birds.  

Parsa National Park

In the south-central lowlands of Terai, Nepal, Parsa National Park covers a vast 637.37 sq. km. This untouched sub-tropical jungle reflects the history of yesteryears, once a cherished retreat for the Rana Rulers. Inscribed as a wildlife reserve in 1984, and elevated to National Park status in 2017, Parsa National Park is aligned with the esteemed Chitwan National Park to the west and unfurls a distinctive diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.

Within the park, a flourishing flora and fauna find sanctuary. Sal forests dominate the landscape, riverine forests along the riverbanks shelter Khair and Silk cotton trees, and endangered species like the wild Asian elephant and Royal Bengal tiger roam freely. The avian population, numbering over 500 species, graces the skies with the White-Breasted Kingfisher, Paradise Flycatcher, and the endangered Giant Hornbill.

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal

Autumn and winter can be the best time to explore the Parsa National Park. Although open during every season, spring and summer can be tiring due to the extremely hot temperatures. 

Chitwan National Park

Nestled in the subtropical region of inner Terai, Chitwan National Park unveils itself across a vast 952.63 sq. km. Established in 1973, it achieved the distinguished status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, marking its profound importance in the world of conservation.

Chitwan National Park reveals varied diversity, from the slopes of the Churia hills to the flood plains of the Rapti, Reu, and Narayani Rivers. Seventy per cent of the park is embraced by Sal forests, while lush grasslands cloak another 20 per cent. This abundant habitat becomes a haven for a stunning array of wildlife—over 50 mammal species, more than 525 bird species, and a multitude of amphibians and reptiles find sanctuary here. The park stands tall as a sanctuary for endangered beings like the One-Horned Rhinoceros, Royal Bengal Tiger, wild elephant, and the elusive Bengal Florican.

For an optimal Chitwan National Park experience, late January becomes a window of opportunity as local villagers cut thatch grasses, enhancing wildlife viewing. Whether absorbing the informative displays at the visitor centre, exploring handicrafts at the women’s user groups’ souvenir shop, or engaging in wildlife activities from the park’s resorts, Chitwan National Park promises an enriching and unforgettable experience.

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
A wild elephant bathing in Chitwan National Park. Photo credit: Royal Mountain Travel.

Banke – Baridya Complex 

The Banke – Bardiya Complex is the collective name for two national parks in Banke and Bardiya. 

Banke National Park

Banke National Park covers 550 square kilometres and unveils diverse ecosystems, from Sal forests to Riverine forests and sprawling grasslands. It’s home to various life forms, hosting 124 plant species, 34 mammals, over 300 birds, and many more. Protected species like the Royal Bengal Tiger and Asiatic Wild Elephant find refuge in its core. For those eager to explore this natural sanctuary, the best time is during the dry season, from October to April. 

Bardiya National Park 

Bardiya National Park is spread across 968 sq. km—the largest in this lowland region. A gem in Western Terai, its roots trace back to the humble Karnali Wildlife Reserve in 1976, evolving into the cherished Bardiya National Park we encounter today. Envisioned to protect diverse ecosystems and the habitats of the mighty tiger and its prey, this park epitomizes nature’s resilience. The Karnali River, coursing through the park, hosts the rare Gangetic dolphin, adding an ethereal touch to this natural haven.

For enthusiasts of wildlife, the Babai Valley within the park is a haven of biodiversity with wooded grasslands and riverine forests. Here, flagship species like Rhinos, tigers, and elephants roam freely in their natural domain. The valley also cradles the endangered gharial crocodile, marsh mugger, and the elusive Gangetic dolphin. Over 230 bird species, including the Bengal florican, lesser florican, and sarus crane, fly above the park.

For visitors, the headquarters offers a museum and a glimpse into the Tharu culture. Likewise, to embrace the wonders of Bardiya National Park, the months from October to early April stand as an ideal time, promising a dry and pleasant climate for an immersive wildlife experience. 

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
Royal Bengal Tigers drinking water by the river bank in Bardiya National Park. Photo credit: Royal Mountain Travel.

Shuklaphanta National Park 

Originally designated a Wildlife Reserve in 1976, Shuklaphanta National Park has grown to cover 305 sq km. Attaining the esteemed status of a National Park in 2016, Shuklaphanta reveals a landscape adorned with grasslands, waterholes, and wetlands shaped by the Mahakali River floodplain. 

Situated in the Kanchanpur district, Shuklaphanta National Park shares its borders with India, extending north to the east-west highway. The Chaudhary River and Mahakali River shape its boundaries, and to the south, it connects with the Indian Tiger Reserve Kisanpur Wildlife Sanctuary.

Diverse vegetation adorns Shuklaphanta National Park, with Sal trees covering 52% of the protected area, wetlands claiming 10%, and vast grasslands spanning 30%. Alongside riverside forests and mixed forests, the park stands as a sanctuary for various species, including swamp deer, Bengal tigers, sloth bears, elephants, Indian leopards, Hispid Hares, and the great One-Horned Rhinoceros. A rich diversity of over 700 plant species contributes to the vibrant ecosystem.

For wildlife enthusiasts, the park hosts a thriving population of swamp deer, reaching 2301 individuals by 2014, along with around 20-25 wild elephants and 16 Bengal tigers, as per the 2018 census. The park’s water bodies harbour 28 fish species, while its skies are painted with 424 bird species, including Bengal floricans, dusky eagle owls, great slaty woodpeckers, chestnut-capped babblers, sarus cranes, and rusty-tailed flycatchers.

For those considering a visit to Shuklaphanta National Park, the ideal time is during the pleasant autumn months of October and November. This period offers agreeable weather, allowing travelers to witness the vibrant wildlife thriving in this flourishing sanctuary.

Terai - The Other Face of Nepal
A herd of deers in Suklaphanta National Park. Photo Credit: Royal Mountain Travel

Terai – Stepping into the Limelight

“Terai is filled with indigenous communities, and what the Tharus have done in Chitwan and Bardiya speaks volumes. Cultural marketing has been centralized in these two places and most tourists think that the Terai is only made up of Chitwan and Bardiya,” says Mr. Subedi.

He believes that “the first step is to create an environment where other, perhaps more disadvantaged, communities like the Rajbhansi in eastern Terai, and the Mithila community in most parts of Madhesh Province, can present their unique personality to the rest of the world.”

indigenous women go fishing in chitwan
Indigenous to Chitwan, Tharu Women going for fishing in their authentic style.

Mr Subedi expressed his disappointment in the way in which the Terai is often overlooked when it comes to developing it as a touristic destination. He is right in stating that “indigenous people can not be blamed for not developing the Terai to its greatest potential.” He continues by saying that “most people belonging to indigenous communities are not in a well-to-do state, and to put the burden of marketing their culture is too heavy on them. However, their hospitable spirit makes them great hosts once they have the resources to welcome visitors.”

In this regard, Community Homestay Network has been working with indigenous communities in the Terai by giving educational workshops on how to create a welcoming space for foreign visitors. Their success can be seen in the many homestays that are now flourishing in the whereabouts of the incredibly lush national parks that make up the flatlands of Nepal.

To know more about the Community Homestays in the Terai and the experiences they offer, please follow these links.

Terai Experiences:

Jeep Safari at Suklaphanta National Park

Explore the outskirts of Chitwan National Park on a Cycle

Mithila Painting Wokshop

Tharu Cultural Program at Bhada

The Art of Tharu Cooking

Chitwan Private Canoe Ride, Barauli

  • Leave a reply

  • Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *