BY VISHAKHA NEGI:
The phenomenon of intermarriage between members of the tribes in Nepal and people living in towns in India that line the border reveals much about the historical and present relationships among the peoples of the Himalayas. For thousands of years, marriage has acted as a way to strengthen economic and cultural ties. Despite new geopolitical boundaries, the tradition continues and carries with it a glimpse into the history of family structure and the more fluid/dialectical cultural identity in this region.
Kumaon, the northernmost region of Uttarakhand (a state in India), shines under the Himalayan sun and snow and gushes with water shared with the nation of Nepal. This bond runs thousands of years old, and has only in modern times been obscured by a 225 km border. The traditions of trade and migration – where Kumaoni goods spanned out to Tibet and Central Asia through Nepal, or where Nepalese people dwelling in mountain villages came down to the warmer and more inhabited Kumaon – made the Himalayan range seem less of a geographical barrier and more a home to transnational cultures and incredible religious tolerance.
It is in this region that Malushahi, an epic ballad about the story between two forbidden lovers, was written. In short, Malushahi, a prince from the region now known as Kumaon, fell in love with Rajula, the daughter of a wealthy Shauka couple who often migrated following trade routes. In some versions, it is said that Rajula and Malushahi loved each other against their parents wishes; in others it is said that their parents had them betrothed in childhood, but Rajula’s parents later changed their mind. In either case, Rajula is married to a wealthy Tibetan (huniya, as he is called in the ballad) but she soon escapes her husband’s house to meet with Malushahi. Her words to him are simple: come to the huniya’s place so you can bring me back, like a real man. And, despite many obstacles and with the help of many magical friends, that is exactly what he does.
Sung like a ballad, Malushahi is more of an epic laced together with beautiful prose and verses about the beauty and cultural mosaic that makes the region unique. It sets the tone for the exciting times during which it was written. India and Nepal were only divided into little principalities, so the idea of two distinct geopolitical entities never existed. The existence of many different kingdoms made it easier for these regions to have less stringent abidance to local customs and made them more receptive to view outsiders as people of another kingdom rather than “lesser peoples” or people from a completely alien culture. Trade obviously made cultural diffusion and the existence of fluid boundaries much easier. The result was a land not preoccupied with its differences, but fascinated with stringing all of these commonalities together.
Though the geographical isolation that the Himalayas brought about could have very easily caused distinction between ethnic and cultural groups and raised barriers to cultural diffusion, the economic and social conditions led to greater tolerance of intermarriage. Parents blessed marriages of couples whose origins were often hundreds of kilometers apart. As a result, love marriages, though not so common, were also accepted in this region, where arranged marriages were usually the norm.
In short, intermarriage and cultural diffusion fueled each other across the Indo-Nepalese border. The traditions of both regions, which are neither “purely” from those regions, emphasize this fact. Hindus in Kumaon are less preoccupied with the caste system (though there is still discrimination that exists as a result of this hierarchy.) Buddhists in Nepal retain certain elements of Hinduism that were left with them even as the last of the Kumaoni migrant traders passed by their villages.
However, following British rule in India, the Anglo-Nepalese war, and the creation of geopolitical entities, the 225 km landscape which was once known as an open gate between kingdoms of India and Nepal became an established border. Centuries of open trade and intermarriage became closed off, and those who once lived within an autonomous Kumaon with its own kingdom and culture became, for the first time, to be known as Indians.
Nevertheless, such a border only makes it harder for people to cross through. Not impossible.
Even today, marriages take place across the border, and thus hold together ancient ties between families and different cultural and ethnic groups. For example, Nepalese men leave their homes for Kumaon in search of jobs and even the love of their life. Immigration between Nepal and India has extremely lax regulations – about 18 forms of ID are acceptable for passing through the border. Even if one cannot produce such ID, get permission, or get a fake passport (another common options) many Nepalese can still take advantage of obscure but dangerous pedestrian paths and cross rivers to get to the land that was once bound with theirs.
Once in the Kumaon region, Nepalese migrants usually work menial jobs and, in glaring contrast to their ancestors, are given the short end of the stick in terms of the social hierarchy. Not only are they looked down upon by many modern-day Kumaonis who consider themselves more Indian than Himalayan (though it merits mention that many Kumaonis still venerate the ancient ties with Nepal) but they also face their business often face crushing competitions from larger businesses with backing from Indian financial institutions.
In short, the tie is there, but it is not what it used to be.
This is further emphasized when one looks at the implications of many Indians immigrating freely into Nepal. The Nepalese government has complained time and again about migrant Indians luring Nepalese women into prostitution with empty promises of Bollywood and glamour. In addition, Indian dacoits (robbers or bandits) often take advantage of the porous border and spill into southern and western Nepal.
Culture once flowed as freely between these two nations as the water does from their glaciers. And though elements of that still remain in the open-air bazaars of Kumaon and Nepal as well as in houses of adorable children with Kumaoni and Nepalese features, here are new problems that have yet to be resolved.
Vishakha Negi ’17 is in Morse College. Her blog covers migration and identity in the Himalayas, Japan, North Korea and Eastern Russia. Contact her at email@example.com.