By Jan Møller Hansen (Photography) and Puru Shah (Commentary)
It is common to think of Himalayas when one hears about Nepal. However, the reality is that about half of the population of Nepal lives in a region that is flat and most of them have never seen a mountain, let alone the Mount Everest. Most tourists who visit Nepal do not make it to the southern Nepal, known as Madhes or Terai. And when they do, it is mostly to see the famed one-horned rhinoceros in Chitwan National Park, visit Bardiya National Park or Lumbini – Gautam Buddha’s birthplace. But there is so much more to Madhes than these touristy places.
Although Madhes is not well known among international tourists, it is a unique place. Jan Møller Hansen traveled along the Madhes region from East to West a few times. He is a self-taught and an international award-winning photographer, who works with visual storytelling and social documentary. His photographs are often featured in international media and most recently, his photos of Raute people in Nepal were featured in the Guardian, titled “Nepal’s last nomadic tribe – in pictures“.
Here are some of Jan Møller Hansen’s photographs from the Madhes region.
Mithila is the region in southern Nepal constituting of people who speak Maithili language. About 3 million people in Nepal speak Maithili as their mother tongue. Mithila has rich ancient history and traditions, some of which are still practiced today. It is regarded as the birthplace of Hindu Goddess Sita, who is the daughter of King Janak. The modern town of Janakpur lies in the heart of Mithila and derived its name from the kingdom of Janak. The most iconic architecture of Mithila region is Janaki Mandir/Temple.
Mithila kingdom was educated, prosperous, and had a unique form of art – Mithila art. Mithila art is a creative expression of the Mithila women. This traditional art, usually in the form of painting on paper, walls, or pottery reflects the natural environment including animals, people, lifestyle, tradition and culture of the local people.
About 64% of the people in Nepal still use wood for cooking and this percentage is even higher in rural regions. The responsibility to collect firewood or dry leaves for cooking falls primarily on women.
Chitwan National Park is the first national park in Nepal. It attracts thousands of tourists who want to see the one-horned rhinoceros while perched on top of elephants, thereby maintaining a safe distance and simultaneously enjoying the jungle safari ride. It is mostly Tharus, the indigenous people of the region, who work as ‘maute’ to take care of elephants.
About 5 percent of the people in Nepal are Muslims. And 97% of them live in the Terai-Madhes region. Districts with large Muslim population include Sarlahi (9.9%), Rautahat (17.2%), Bara (11.9%), and Parsa (17.3%) in the central Terai, Kapilbastu (16.8%) and Banke (16%) in the western Terai and Siraha (7%) and Sunsari (10%) and Saptari (10%) in the eastern Terai regions.
Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists in Nepal coexist, live peacefully and respect religious tolerance. However, Muslim communities are among the most marginalized groups in Nepal and women even more so.
Only 26 percent of Muslim women in Nepal are literate – the national average for women is 55 percent – while just 12 percent of Muslim girls complete secondary school.
The Tharu people are an ethnic group indigenous to the Terai-Madhes region in Nepal. They constitute about 6.6% of the total population. There are several endogamous sub-groups of Tharu that are scattered over most of the Terai. One of the sub-groups of Tharu is Rana Tharu. They live mostly in the Kailali and Kanchanpur districts of the far western Terai. They claim their origin is Rajput which literally translates to ‘son of a king’.
Although they have Rajput origin, they are the people of the forest. They lead simple lives and most of them are involved in farming. Unlike other communities, many Tharus have chosen to remain in Nepal and continue subsistence farming instead of departing their villages for foreign employment in the Gulf region.
In the western Terai, most Rana Tharus prefer living in Badaghar called longhouses with big families of many generations, sometimes 40-50 people. All household members pool their labor force, contribute their income, share the expenditure and use one kitchen.
The history of Tharus is one of exploitation, similar to the fate of indigenous communities around the world. In his book, “Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal”, Frederick Gaige writes,
Plains tribals such as the Tharus tend to have little sophistication about economic affairs. They are prone to borrow money without understanding the interest terms or the consequences of indebtedness, and thus fall prey to the false dealings of money-lenders and lose control of their land.
As unsophisticated people, Tharus have suffered a lot. Many of them lost their lands to high-caste migrants from hill and plains region and became bonded laborers, known as ‘kamaiyas’. In its modern form, girls and young women are sold by their parents into indentured servitude under contract for periods of one year with richer, higher-caste buyers, generally from outside their villages. This form of modern slavery was abolished only in 2000.
Tharus have rich art, culture, and traditions. Using locally available materials, they decorate rice containers and external walls of their homes. Their ‘lathi naach’ (stick dance) has gained popularity and so, they often perform these traditional dances at resorts to amuse the tourists and earn a living in return. Their traditional dresses are very colorful, unique, and adorned with jewelry.
All of these photographs are copyrighted by Jan Møller Hansen. He captured these during his travel along the Madhes region from East to West a few times. He is a self-taught and international award-winning photographer, who works with visual storytelling and social documentary.