I heard him before I saw him—Marpha’s town crier. His voice was low, booming, and it carried his slow articulation through the streets of Marpha until they hit me where I sat in the sunshine. Then I saw him, walking with his hands secured behind his back, yelling as he went. Announcements, someone told me.
Marpha village is tucked into the Himalayas of the Annapurna Conservation Area and, like many villages in this part of Nepal, it’s rapidly modernizing. Yet, customs like delivering news and announcements through a town crier thrust visitors back to much simpler times.
Marpha’s main road is a narrow lane that passes lush farmland to a stretch of flagstone houses with mud-paved roofs, and frames that protect them from the wind that batters Lower Mustang. Beneath the road’s loose-fitted stone runs an irrigation canal, and the sound of running water is a constant in the village: sometimes a trickle, sometimes a roar.
Every afternoon, the baajes (grandfathers) recline in the street opposite the Buddhist temple. They sit on squares of yak fur, cross-legged or completely sprawled out like Venice Beach sunbathers basking in the Himalayan sunshine. As the town crier passes, they look up from their smartphones to yell back at him, usually prompting for clarification. Announcements are made in Thakali, but many villagers only speak Nepali. The town crier must speak both.
Prior to the development of the dirt road that connects Pokhara to Jomsom, Marpha was a main stop for trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit. The road gives Marpha access to resources: businesses can export goods, locals travel more easily, and the community is seeing an influx of Indian and Nepali tourists who couldn’t reach the village before, but many trekkers now skip Marpha entirely. They bypass either in Jomsom or earlier, to avoid the dusty road that has overtaken the trail, and they’re likely to miss encounters with the town crier.
Some aspects of traditional village life have dwindled and disappeared over the years, but Marpha’s town crier, Ammare, is something of a celebrity around here. Everyone knows him, and even when he isn’t working, villagers stop him to ask questions, check in on his family, and invite him for chiya.
As a member of the village council’s Tcho (a group of secretaries), Ammare is responsible for many things, but his greatest duty is town crier. “I feel like when I’m announcing, some people might think I’m crazy, if they don’t know about village life,” he tells me. “But I’m just doing my job.”
Ammare is wearing a red down jacket and a traditional Nepali Dhaka topi on his head when we sit. All the local men wear them. On his feet he’s wearing red rubber thongs, but later, he’ll change into his work shoes: high top camouflage sneakers.
I am here as the Artist in Residence with the Marpha Foundation, an NGO that runs, among other things, a kindergarten for village children. My translator, Nanu Gurung, is a woman from Upper Mustang, the co-director of the kindergarten and one of its teachers. The three of us sit in the shadowed lobby talking about Ammare’s life.
Ammare is 62 years old and was born here in Marpha, a Thakali village, though he is not of the Thakali caste. Thakali people originate from the Thak Khola region of Mustang, and their culture and language are strongly Tibetan Buddhist.
Ammare is Damai, he tells me, from a family of tailors and historically considered low caste. He’s bilingual in Thakali and Nepali, and he and Nanu converse in the latter. “I have always lived among the Thakalis,” he says, shrugging. “Over time, I just picked up the language.” But Ammare is making light. Although many villagers understand Thakali, most who weren’t raised speaking it don’t, especially those like Ammare who never attended school. This is the reason the responsibility of town crier has fallen exclusively to him for the past five years, though traditionally it rotates every year.
It’s hard work. Sometimes he has to shout all day, and his throat gets so sore he can hardly speak. It’s not uncommon for him to announce multiple things at one time. We have a meeting at this place; today is the last day for tax collection, if you don’t pay, you have a fine; there are cows or horses lost in the field, one person from each house must come help. If villagers don’t respond, the penance is always a fine, a fee the Tcho promptly collects.
Six secretaries comprise the Tcho. These jobs rotate through villagers who own property. As a Marpha homeowner, when it’s your turn to work on the village council, either as a headman or Tcho, you cannot decline. It’s a shared responsibility, though lower castes weren’t always allowed.
The Untouchables, they used to call them. Lower castes weren’t permitted to do all kinds of things in the village, such as own property, eat at the same table as high-caste villagers, enter the homes of their Thakali employers or work for the village council. Now, while the council is comprised of both so-called high and low-caste men (women are still not permitted), the roles are segregated. Headmen are Thakali, and Tcho belong to the lower castes, meaning leadership roles go to the higher castes.
But both Ammare and the village’s head headman, Suraj, agree: times are changing. In part, because of people like Ammare.
Ammare’s parents died when he was very young. He doesn’t know at what age. “But maybe like these children here.” He turns and gestures his big hands at the children in the kindergarten below us. They are two and three years old. Ammare lived with his grandparents back then, but money and food were scarce. Some days, he didn’t know if he’d eat.
At twelve, Ammare began doing agricultural work for Thakali families. He earned enough money to eat and pay rent, but he struggled to save. When he turned eighteen, Ammare went to Kathmandu and paid an organization that promised to send him abroad for work. This was a risk. Many were known to scam villagers like Ammare, who have few options, but he was fortunate. While his wife stayed in Marpha with their three children, Ammare went to Qatar where he worked for a garment factory for five years. He returned when he had saved enough money to buy a house and five plots of land in Marpha—one for himself and each child—changing his family’s circumstances forever. Still, Ammare tells me that the biggest change he’s seen in his sixty-plus years in Marpha is between the castes.
“It doesn’t look like a big change,” he says, “but it feels that way.”
Tonight there’s a party for the men who helped build a wall near the river. During these special parties, lower castes are invited to cook, an honor around here that wouldn’t have been allowed in years past. Even so, lower castes aren’t permitted to begin eating until the Thakalis have. If Ammare were to sit down before the Thakalis, he tells me he wouldn’t be fed. At every other community party, the cooking is still done by Thakalis, while those from the lower castes do the cleaning.
“Things are changing slowly,” Ammare clarifies.
Ammare believes in change, though it comes with sacrifice. Years ago, he sent his only son, Dammar, to Malaysia when he was just fourteen years old. He forged paperwork to say he was eighteen, hoping his son could do as he had done—work and save. But it’s been eighteen years now, and Ammare’s son has not returned. He doesn’t want to come home.
“I’m getting old,” Ammare tells me. “I told my son he must return to me, but he hasn’t.”
Stories like this are common in Marpha and the surrounding villages. The woman who owns the shop beside Marpha Foundation has a daughter in Colorado, and the family of Paradise Hotel across the lane have two children who both live in Utah, one is a computer engineer and the other a nurse. The work these young people do away from Marpha has an impact on the village, too.
In Malaysia, Ammare’s son worked with another villager, the son of a Thakali family, and Ammare describes a shift in their relationship. “My son’s friend told me he worked with him side by side, no caste.” This boy treats Ammare better now, he explains. There’s more respect.
As we finish talking, I wonder at the greater impact modernization will have on this village, whether the trekkers will return, or if Marpha will become a point of interest for other tourists. In a place where the boys who walk the cows in the mornings wear Beats by Dr. Dre headphones while they poke their animals with sticks, for how much longer will they need a town crier? But Ammare says he’s not worried about that. He’s negotiating a raise since his language skills are so unique here.
“I have to get back to work,” he says, standing. Then he’s gone.
At the end of the week, I hear Ammare calling late into the night. It’s uncommon for him to make announcements so late, and Nanu springs to the door to listen. “He’s crying about a lost cell phone,” she says excitedly, “There’s a reward of 5,000 rupees!”
Article by Kristina Tate
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