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About Magar

Magar People: Magar is a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group of Nepal and northern India whose homeland extends from the western and southern edges of the Dhaulagiri section of the high Himalayas range south to the prominent Mahabharat foothill range and eastward into the Gandaki basin. According to Nepal’s 2001 census, 1,622,421 people identified themselves as belonging to the Magar ethnolinguistic group, representing 7.14% of Nepal’s population and making them the largest indigenous ethnic group in the country. According to the census figure, almost all of Magar are Buddhists whereas only a handful are considered to be non Buddhist Hindu.

Magars’ Mongoloid physical type and their Sino-Tibetan Languages suggest they entered Nepal from the north, through Tibet or southern China. The Magarkura speakers occupy the lower, warmer, and more desirable agri- cultural area and are known to have been there since at least the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, so it is likely that they preceded the Khamkura speakers, who generally live in the higher, colder locations to the north.

Identification: People calling themselves Magar are concentrated in the middle Himalayas of west-central Nepal The middle Himalayas are defined by the Mahabharat and Siwalik ranges to the south and the southern slopes of the highest Himalaya to the north. Small Magar settlements and Individual farmsteads are also found elsewhere in Nepal, as well as in Sikkim and even in north India. This pattern of distribution in part reflects the excellence of Magar men as infantrymen. In the late eighteenth century Magars formed an important component in the armies raised by Prithivi Narayan Shah and his successors who created the modern nation of Nepal and for a time extended it well beyond its present borders both to the east and to the west. A number of families now living outside the area of Magar concentration occupy land given a forebear as a reward for his military service during these campaigns. Under the British Raj, when Magars served as mercenaries in the Gurkha Brigade, a few families settled Permanently in north India around the cantonment areas. Magars in need of land have also been moving south to the low malarial Terai of Nepal, since it has been made more habitable by a mosquito eradication program.

Magars usually identify themselves as belonging through patrilineal inheritance to a named section or “tribe,” which in the traditional Nepali system is also a caste. Some of these are Pun, Gharti, Rana, Thapa, Ale, Rokha(ya), Budha, Burathoki, and Jhankri.

Sections are subdivided into named subsections or clans. For example, one of the subsections of the Thapa section is the Sinjali clan. However, because some clans, such as the Ramjali, are widespread and found in more than one section, a person’s identity might then be given as Ramjali Pun or Ramjali Gharti. Alternatively a Magar may choose to stress locality, saying “I am a Masali Gharti,” with Masali referring to the specific small settlement in which he or she lives.

Location: Magar concentration in the middle Himalayas is roughly bounded on east and west by the drainage of the Kali Gandaki River at approximately the latitude of Pokhara up to and including the Bnuri Gandaki. It also includes much of the area drained by the Bheri River and its tributaries, notably the Uttar Ganga, Sano Bheri, and Thulo Bheri.

Demography: In the census of 1952-1954, the first after the restoration of the present ruling Shah family, the number of those identifying themselves as Magar was 273,800, or 3 percent of the total population of Nepal. Later censuses were based on mother tongue, and the census of 1981 gave the Magar population as 212,681, an underestimate that ignored Magars whose mother tongue was Nepali. The total projected population for all of Nepal in 1991 is 19,370,300. If we take Magars as 3 percent of the population, we can estimate their population at 500,000.

History: The Kham Magar who live in the rugged highlands of Rukum, Salyan, Rolpa and Pyuthan districts in Rapti Zone are thought to have migrated from Siberia. This southward migration is evident in various shamanistic practices and other cultural features. They claim to occupy the original Magar homeland in Nepal from whence migration to the south and east proceeded. Until the rise of Shah dynasty Magar were the ruling class in whole of Nepal. Some historians even believe that Shah dynasty are the direct descendants of Magar. Other histororians, however, believe this to be a total fabrication of history and wishful thinking to elevate the community’s collective ego. Just like any other Nepali, some members of the Magar community fought in the Nepalese Civil War.

Language: Of the 1,622,421 Magar people in Nepal, 770,116 speak a Magar language as their mother tongue. The Kham Magar of Rapti Zone speak Kham language. In Dolpa District, the Magar speak Tarali or Kaike language. The Magar languages are rooted in the Bodic branch of the Tibeto-Burman family.

Religion: In addition to shamanistic practices possibly brought from Siberia, the northern Magar practice Tibetan Buddhism in which their priest is known as Bhusal. The social process of Sanskritization has drawn only small numbers of southern Magar populations to develop a syncretic form of Hinduism that combines animist and Buddhist rituals.

Generally speaking, Buddhist and Hindu practices are best developed among Magars living in contact with Tibetan Buddhists and Indo-Aryan Hindus respectively. They are less evident in Kham hinterlands particularly in rugged 3-4,000 meter ranges along the boundary between Rukum and Pyuthan-Rolpa districts. These hinterlands are geographically and therefore culturally isolated from the beaten tracks of transhimalayan trade routes and from rice-growing lowlands colonized by Hindu Indo-Aryans.

Song and Dance Groups: Singing is important in Magar life, and many songs are associated with the fieldwork of particular seasons. Some are sung when millet is being planted; others accompany rice planting. The songs, with lines sung by men and women alternately, make this stooping, difficult work go more easily. Other occasions also have their characteristic songs: those sung by boys and girls as they walk Together, those sung by women ex-slaves during a marriage, and those sung by women during the days between Krishna’s birthday and the following festival of Tij. There are also special songs for the day during Tivahar when offerings are made to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and songs for Brother-Worship Day. Many times during the year, especially during festival seasons such as Dasain, boys and girls gather together in the evening at some centrally located sitting place. There are characteristic tunes, and the basic pattern is boy-girl question and answer. The boys’ chosen song leader sings a question that all the boys then repeat three times. The subject matter seldom varies: all the questions and answers have to do with love, marriage, and a bantering sexual antagonism between boys and girls. The singing can go on indefinitely. Besides the secular singing groups that come together on an ad hoc basis, there are two formally constituted singing groups composed of Magars from several hamlets. One tells of episodes in the life of Lord Krishna, the other of episodes drawn from the Ramayana. Each has a leader who tells the story, backed by a chorus, drums, and costumed male dancers, some of whom may be dressed as women. The atmosphere is intensely religious, for Saraswati, goddess of learning and music, is patron of both groups and indicates her presence and approval by causing a member or members of a group to fall into a trance.

Magar’s ‘Maghe Sankranti’: Magars are the largest ethnic group of Nepal accounting for slightly over seven percent of the total population (according to 2001 Census). As indigenous people of the western hills of Nepal, theira settlements stretche over the western and southern edges of the Dhaulagiri range and eastwards to the Gandaki river basin. The homeland of the Magars is divided into two sub-regions: the Athara Magarat (literally, ‘18 Magar Regions’) and Bara Magarat (‘12 Magar Regions’), belonging to the Karnali and Gandaki river regions, respectively.

Although some cultural differences exist that arise from the distinction between these two Magarats, the festivals and rituals celebrated by Magars remain nearly the same. Among them ‘Maghe Sankranti’ is regarded as the most important annual festival. It has been declared the official festival of the Magars by the Ninth General Assembly of the National Magar Association held in 2064 BS (2007 AD). The festival is celebrated on the first of Magh (ninth month of the Nepali calendar, in mid-January) a time that marks the transition from winter to spring. According to the Magar terminology, Maghe Sankranti commemorates the end of udheli (literally ‘down’), which is a period that lasts for six months starting from mid-July, and the initiation of ubheli (‘up’), the period lasting for another six months starting from the mid-January. (The down and up periods probably correspond to the annual cycle of herding livestock up and down from high pastures, an historically important economic activity of the Magars.)

The occasion of Magh Sankranti is celebrated with a host of gatherings and special invitations to chelibetis, one’s daughters and other female members of the family. They organize special songs and dances on that day and put a white tika mark on their foreheads. The tika is made out of rice as blessing; the color white symbolizing the strength of a mountain. Jau or jamara (green barley) is worn on head or ears to denote prosperity with coming of spring, and varieties of food, wine and other delicacies are prepared on the day.

The principle delicacy of Maghe Sankranti is kandamool, the wild yam. The yam is gathered in forests and specially cooked for the occasion. It commemorates the traditional lifestyle of Magars as hunters and gatherers. The Magars of Gandaki region (Bara Magarat) prepare special bread, called bara, from black lentils because of the high yield of lentils there. The lentil is soaked overnight and ground to form a thick paste. It is then mixed with salt, pepper and turmeric and fried in oil. A perfect round shape is given to a bara patty by placing it in the cup of the palm, which also determines its goodness.

Other specialties include sel-roti, a thin, deep fried donut made of rice flour; railwa, a thin bread made of rice grain and cooked in ghee; birmala, a type of red rice grain that is simply boiled; chokya, a chutney made from ground soya, sesame seed, pumpkin seed and sunflower seed; and bhomlya, a special wine made from fermented rice or millet grain. Ngangti or sisnu (nettles) is cooked fresh or served as sukuti, the dried version of the plant, and is used in curry.

Fish is another specialty; so is boiled egg and curd. The use of meat, however, differs according to the Magarat regions. Magars of Bara Magarat consider pork meat to be special, while those of Athara Magarat consume buffalo meat. Due to geographical differences, the food varieties made from jau (barley) are more common in the latter and kodo (millet) items, including dhedo (a gruel), in the former.

Celebration of Maghe Sankranti is not uncommon among other ethnic groups of Nepal, but the festival is regarded as most prominent in Magar culture owing to their ancient practices of shamanism and nature worship.