In early September 2018 I ventured to the eastern Himalayan region of Nepal to learn about the various ethnic groups that call it home. Trekking in this region really pushed my limits. I always knew it would be challenging for me, but I didn’t realise it would also be so rewarding. The trail was intense, and trekking in a dense forest by yourself for seven hours a day with very little interaction with anyone but a few shepherds was mentally challenging.
Few other travelers venture this far east, due to its remoteness. The only interaction I had was in the evenings, when I would reach a village or be taken in by a farmer or shepherd. It was in a village called Kulung where I had the opportunity to meet with and learn about the indigenous people who identify as Kulung Rai.
It wasn’t easy to get to Kulung. I took a flight to Bhadrapur, then drove past Ilam, and after a two-day Jeep ride reached a place called Philim, from where I walked for three days before arriving in Kulung. A kid from the village showed me the last leg of the way, a steep two-hour climb. I struggled to convince my legs to keep going, but the boy hopped his way uphill.
Upon getting closer to the village, I met a group of people who were talking about how important it is to remember their roots. After I explained to them why I was there, they were more than happy to share what they knew about their culture and origins. They were concerned that in time, this beautiful culture will cease to exist and they will be forgotten. As is the case with most tribes in Nepal, the Kulung Rai do not have any written history. However, that doesn’t mean they lack history.
The community is rich in cultural heritage and take pride in preserving their culture. Kulungs are lovers of nature, one of the reasons they stay up in the high Himalaya. Most are dependent on traditional agriculture, and cultivate millet and maize. They are also hunters and fisherfolk. These days, due to unproductive land, they are unable to produce adequate food on their farms, compelling them to migrate in search of a better life. The geography of their land makes it difficult for those who remain to access basic services. Navigable roads, electricity, clean drinking water, communication, and health services are lacking. On the bright side, there have been recent developments in education.
One of the men from the village was happy to share the oral history of the Kulung Rais with me, which had been passed down to him from his grandfathers and great-grandfathers, from generation to generation.
In the beginning there was Paruwan, who created the earth. In the Nepali language Paruwan is known as Shivaji, or Kiranteshwar Mahadev. At first there was just water, before bamboo, jungle nut, and other plants were created. It is essential for every Kulung Rai household to have these plants in their homes, which are used for rituals even to this day.
After the plants, Paruwan created birds. Geese, spiny babblers, and pelicans were some of the first. After birds, he finally created humans. The first human to roam the earth was called Ninamridung, who was very beautiful. Shamans still use her name in their chants.
One day Ninamridung got sick, and she asked the birds to look for a shaman who could help her. People in this community still go to the shaman first, before they see a doctor. The birds searched everywhere on earth, but with no luck. Then they flew towards the sky, and there met an old man who was cutting a bamboo plant. He was wearing a jacket made out of sting leaves, called phenga. Kulung Rais continue to make and wear phenga.
The birds explained the situation to the man. He cut some leaves off a sweet chestnut plant and mixed them with some grains. He told the birds to give this poultice to Ninamridung. They took it back to her, after she took some, she started to feel better. She inquired about this old man who had made her well, as she wanted to marry him.
The birds tried to tell her that he was an old man and that she probably wouldn’t be interested in him after seeing him, but she wasn’t swayed. The birds flew back to the old man and brought him to her, carrying him on their wings. But indeed, when Ninamridung saw he was an old man with wrinkles, the idea of marrying him vanished, and she sent him back to where he came from.
The old man was actually Paruwan in human form, and felt insulted. He dried up all the water on earth to teach Ninamridung a lesson. She searched the whole earth for water but there was none to be found. The birds helped by bringing her drops of water from the leaves of trees, but before long they too were gone.
Ninamridung was very thirsty and started to get sick again, so the birds flew to the man in the sky hoping he could help. The old man masturbated and gave his semen to the birds, which they took to Ninamridung. Soon after she consumed it, she became pregnant. She did not know whose child she was carrying, so asked for the shaman again, hoping he could provide her with some answers. She was desperate to know how she had gotten pregnant, and whose child it was.
The shaman chose not to give her the answers she sought, instead telling her that she would bear five children, from which the entire earth would be populated. The eldest son born to her was named Khambuwan, and the Kulung Rai believe that all Kulung Rais are his descendants. Every child in the community grows up hearing this creation story, and as long as their culture perseveres, this story will continue to be told for many more years.
Article by Sudin KC