MARK TURIN Cultural Change in North Western Nepal



© Mark Turin, 1995

An undergraduate student of Social Anthropology, I have recently returned from a 3 month stint of field research among the Thakali, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group in the highlands of Nepal. The majority of the population is located along the valley of the Kali Gandaki river in the district of Mustang. They live at a mean altitude of 2,500m, some 4-5 days walk from a road, and are flanked by some of the highest Himalayan peaks - Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. Contrary to the popular image of remote and tribal peoples, the Thakali are an extremely individualistic and vibrant community of Trans-Himalayan salt traders whose business acumen is now legendary in Nepal. Due to their socio-economic dynamism and mobility, they have come to stand for the blending of divergent religious and linguistic trends that is so typical of Nepal. However, on account of the Chinese occupation of Tibet (which ended the salt trade virtually overnight) and the influx of tourists to the Annapurna trekking circuit since 1960, the Thakali have had to radically redefine their livelihood. I went to study the forms and implications of these changes.

I spent a great deal of time conducting interviews with members of the community, most of which were recorded in Nepali. I wanted to discuss the changing identity of the Thakali, which was luckily a popular subject with a decidedly political flavour. As a result, there was no shortage of interviewees. Towards the end of my time there, I complied a word-list of 'Thakali', an unwritten Bodic language of the Sino-Tibetan family. For the linguistic research, I worked closely with a few individual Thakalis who still speak their language fluently. The language itself is unfortunately in decline - it has lost much of its colour and grammatical structure already - giving the whole project a sense of practical utility and urgency. By the time I left, I had collected 2,000 words, primarily from one informant, which still need to be corroborated and accurately transcribed. In the future I would like to publish a dictionary of Thakali-Nepali to be distributed to every Thakali household in Nepal, an idea which received enthusiastic support from the people I spoke to. I am submitting my findings as a dissertation towards my finals this year, but am hoping to continue my research in the form of a Ph.D.