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Introduction to Ethnic Groups- The TAMANGS: The unknown Mt Everest Climbers

Tamangs, the unknown Mt Everest climbers continue to Summit Mt Everest but are mainly unknown to the western world. From their role on Sir Edmund Hillary's 1953 Everest expedition to Sambhu Tamang, who in 1973 became the youngest climber in the world to Summit Mount  Everest at the time, the Tamangs climbers are unknown to the western world. EverestNews.com plans a look into the Tamangs, their culture and their climbers throughout the month of December.

This is part one: Introduction to Ethnic Groups- The TAMANGS, submitted by Saila Tamang and Peter Paul Tamang. Some of it might shock you, but some of America's culture would surely shock them...

The Tamangs live in the high hills east, north, south and west of Kathmandu valley. They are commonly seen on the streets of the capital city carrying large basket loads of goods by headstraps, the men and boys dressed in loincloths and long, usually lack, tunics and in winter wearing short-sleeved sheep wool jackets, always with a Khukuri knife stuck in the waistband. Women, seen in lesser numbers, wear a simple cotton sari and blouse adorned with a few ornaments.

Tamangs form one of the major Tibeto-Burman speaking communities in Nepal and maintain a belief that they originally came from Tibet. No on seems to have any idea how long they have resided on the south slopes of the Himalayas. It is said that originally they were collectively called “Bhote”, meaning Tibetan and that later on the term “Tamang” was attached to them because they were horse traders. “Ta” in Tibetan means “horse” man means “trader.” “Tamang” has remained and it is all the better because the term “Bhote” has come to be a highly objectionable and derogatory term to most Nepalis.

In the east the majority of Tamang settlements are found in the Bagmati Zone, just outside of the hill surrounding Kathmandu valley and in the hilly regions of both Janakpur and Narayani Zones. Some scattered settlements are found even as far east as west Bengal in the Darjeeling area. In these distant and traditionally non-Tamang areas they have been living close by various other peoples such as Magars, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Brahmans, Chhetris and Newars.

Two groups of people known as Thami and Pahari live in traditional Tamang areas of the eastern hills. They number only a few thousand and practice similar social, religious and economic customs to the Tamangs. Thamis have settled higher than the Tamangs in the upper Tama Kosi river valley.

In Tamang territory a strict kipat land system was maintained through the various clans divisions over many generations and it has only recently been abolished. In the kipat system a clan had exclusive and inalienable communal rights over a large defined settlement and cultivation area. Only members of the particular clan could hold land or reclaim the uncultivated land within the kipat jurisdiction, which included the streams and forests. At the time that kipats were abolished, however there were in fact several clans represented in many single kipats due to the great dispersion of clan members in the past. Today, the only kipat system legally intact in Nepal is found among the Limbu people. Tamang ex-kipat land today is actually owned and farmed by the same people who had held kipats, but with slightly change land tenure and taxing arrangements.

The headman of a Tamang village is called talugdar and acts as an agent of the government for collection land revenues. Formerly, under the kipat system, each kipatiya paid five rupees yearly irrespective of the size of his land holdings. But now that the kipat system has been abolished, each farmer pays according to the size of his holdings. The current rate of payments is not high.

Tamangs prefer the higher, dryer elevations for living and farming generally between 5,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. In some cases they live even higher, but they are also found out of their traditional high habitat in the low Terai plains or in the Rapti valley.

The old Tamang villages are compactly built and the streets are usually paved with stones. The houses are well built with cut stone walls and wooden shingle roofs. In a few cases there are even slate roofs. Most of the houses have two stories; the upper storey is generally used for storage of grain and other household possessions, while the ground floor is used as a kitchen, dining place and bedroom. There is usually a balcony on the first floor and a verandah beneath it in front of the main entrance. The verandah is used as a living room.

Most Tamangs living in the compact traditional settlements are self-sufficient as far as food is concerned, although many of them need to borrow money at times. Almost all are the owner-cultivators of their land. In one village of Sindhu-Palchok District of Bagmati zone we learned that approximately 50 per cent of the people borrowed money occasionally. But none of these people were perpetually in debt. This was a village of about 200 houses. Perhaps 20 of the Tamang families in the village loaned money on a short-term basis with an interest rate of about twenty per cent. They did not collect the interest in cash but always in grain.

Tamangs living outside the traditional Tamang territory are in general very poor. They are not able to grow enough on the marginal land they cultivate and usually are found going out to earn wages as porters, coolies, domestic servants, muleteers, grooms and such in Kathmandu and other towns and villages. As farmers in the area of another ethnic group they are usually tenant farmers and being poor they can afford to live only in low thatched huts. Their staple crops at higher altitudes are maize, millet, wheat, barley and potatoes. Those who have settled in the lower, warmer and wetter regions also raise rice. All of them keep a few cows, buffalos and chickens.

Tamangs eat what they grow on their own lands: wheat and barley during the months may through July; potatoes in August through October; millet, maize and some rice from November to April or May. They will not allow buffalo meat, garlic, nettles or paha the treetoad to the forest in their houses, although there is no prohibition against eating these things if they are cooked outside in the open or in some other house.

Tamangs are in general very skilled at a number of crafts, which they have preserved for ages in their traditional ways. Widespread is the making of woolen jackets of sheep's wool, worn during the winter months. This type of half-sleeved or sleeveless, open fronted thick woolen jacket is made by the Tamang women and found even in the markets of Kathmandu. Also woven are various types of bamboo baskets, receptacles for storing grain and leaf umbrellas for protection against rain. There are carpenters, masons, builders and wooden plough makers among Tamang men. Some Tamang Lamas, the Buddhist priests are well trained in painting Tibetan-type thangkas religious scroll paintings and some others are expert in carving designs in wood.

Tamangs have not preserved Tibetan art, culture or religion intact, but almost all that they have today is Tibetan in origin. Those living outside the traditional area retain very little of their of their original culture, art or religion and usually adopt the cultural patterns of their immediate neighbors.

The entire community of Tamangs is vertically divided into several subgroups known as thars. All of these clans are exogamous, but each clan's members can intermarry with any other clan" s except in the case of the two clans Goley and Dong, who consider themselves to be "brother clans"'.

All the members of one clan are said to be descended from the same ancestor. In the case of brother clans the common ancestors were brothers. But as among so many other people in Nepal these theories are open to all sorts of questions and no one so far has made any attempt to prove common ancestry genealogically if it could indeed be done. Theoretically all the clans are equal in social and ritual status. But the offspring of marriages between Tamangs and non-Tamang women are considered lower and are not allowed to share the common cup with other Tamangs despite the fact that they take the clans name of their Tamang father. In some places the terms barn jat and athara jat are used to describe people of higher and lower status respectively. The terms mean literally "twelve clans" and "eighteen clans". Intermarriage between these two divisions usually does not take place. This is the only horizontal division in the otherwise completely vertically divided exogamous and patrilineal clans of the Tamangs.

A Tamang man can marry any girl from any clan except his own and his brother clan. Preferred marriage is between cross-cousins, that is to one's mother's brother's daughter or father's sister's daughter. Parallel-cousin marriage of a man to his father's daughter or mother’s sister's daughter is not tolerated. Sons and daughters of one's father’s brother belong to the same clan as oneself.

A widow can marry her late husband's younger brother but not the elder brother. Polyandry is absolutely forbidden, but there are a few cases of polygyny found among some rich men. There is no stigma attached to a young man's marrying an elderly widow or to a divorcee or to an unmarried girls becoming pregnant. The love affairs of unmarried girls or boys do not prejudice their future marriages. If the lover of an unmarried pregnant girl refuses to marry her/he can take the baby after it is weaned and pay some compensation to the girl. Then the mother is free to marry anyone she likes. But marriage or sexual relationships between members of the same clan are never tolerated. Offenders are expelled immediately and have no other choice but to go to an entirely new area and settle there.

In cases of wife-abduction the new husband must pay sixty rupees as compensation to the former husband of the women he has taken. Adultery is punishable by fine of 40 rupees, which is given to the aggrieved husband as compensation. The husband can keep the wife him if he so desires after receiving the payment from an adulterer.

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