Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Gurungs



Introduction:The Gurungs, one of the major ethnic groups of Nepal, have historically occupied the southern slopes of Annapurna and Machhapuchre Himalayas in central west Nepal. Like the neighboring Magars, Tamangs and thakalis, they live at the interstatices between two great cultural and social traditions – Indian Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism and between two ecological zones – the low subtropical valleys and the alpine haighlands. At the present time, their life and culture and poised between a long and steady tradition and changes that accompany modernity (Messerschmidt 1976; 1). According to the official census of 1981, the numerical strength of the gurungs is 174,464 (approximately 1.16 percent of the enrire Nipali popylation of nearly 17 million). Their population is distributed mainly in the Kaski, Lanjung, Syangja, Tanahu, Gorkha, Parbat and Manang districts of the Gandaki zone. However, migration to ther parts of the country, particularly eastern Nepal, dates as far back as the gorkha conquest and the related events of the 18th and the early 19th centuries(ibid).

History of Origin:There are no reliable sources of origin of hill ethnic groups of Nepal, and many ethno-historians illustrate that the origin of many ethnic groups, such as the Gurungs and Tamangs by their specific names is a result of state formation (Holmberg, 1988;12). The genealogy of the Gurungs prepared by the Hindu Brahmans called Gurung ko Vamsavli tells us that the Gurungs were descended from a Chhetri prince and a Brahman priest, both of whom lost their caste standing through an unfortunate incident, involving the ingestion of alcohol, that led to their ritual pollution. This account is accepted by many ethno-historians, including some Gurungs(cf. Gurung, Subedi, and Yogi Narahari Nath).

These writers have invariably attempted to establish ancestral relations of the Gurungs with the Chhetri princes on the basis of mythological events. These accounts, however, have never been useful in reconstructing the actual history of the Gurungs. Rather these mythic accounts which overlay and reinterpret earlier ones, reflects a history of state formation under the domination of Brahmans and Chhetris. Also these mythic accounts have contributed to the creation of social discrimination among the Gurungs. Confirming caste hierarchies between two major groups Charjat and Sorajat, as consisting ofhigh and low social status respectively. But at present, Gurungs do not believe in mythic accounts. The social distinction created by the Hindu people is considered rather an illusion.
Gurung is a Nepali term given by the Hindu people after the 18th century, though some of the writers(Doherty: 1975) suggest that Gurung is a derivative of Tibetan word grong meaning the agriculturist. In Gurung language, tamuqwl, gurungs are called Tamu , which is a cognate of a Tibetan word. Etymalogically, tamu means horse-riser, if not horse-herder. These cognates have been accepted as indication that the Gurungs are the descendents of Tibetan ancestors who migrated to central Nepal many years ago for better socio-economic possibilities. While describing a hypothetical accoint about the Gurungs, Imang Sing Chemjong, a well-known Limbu ethno-historian (1967) writes that the Gurungs migrated to Nepal in the 7th century A.D. as a cavalry, when Tibet first historical king, Srongtsen Gampo, occupied Nepal. Their affinities with the Tibetans are recognized on various socio-cultural, linguistic and biological grounds. Their modern ethnic identity as Gurungs in Nepal, therefore, has been the result of changing historical and geographic circumstances from the 7th century onwards.


Religion, Fair and Festivals:Historically, Gurungs are Buddhist. Early Gurung religion was animistic and shamanic, akin to the pre-buddhist Bon religion of Tibet (Meserschmidt: 1976). They venerate and worship the spirits of their ancestors, the believe that those who have led a good life are reborn as human beings after they die. Their patron deities are phailu (manakal), Lu (nagdevata), and Simu (prakritidevata). These deities are worshipped twice a year. The basic philosophy of Gurung religion is to gain merit. In order to gain merit, they distribute gift to the Lamas, Brahmans, and food and clothes to poor people. They also plant trees and construct rest places, temples, roads and bridges. Contact with Hindu people has brought many changes in the religious beliefs and practices of Gurungs. At present they have incorporated many Hindu elements into their religion and society. Many ritual ceremonies are performed in Brahmanic way even using Braham priests. Besides their own patron deities, gurungs worship Hindu god and goddesses, visit Hindu temples, pilgrimages and holy shrines, and celebrate Hindu festivals. The incorporation of Hinduism has significantly changed the social values of the Gurungs towards the development of caste concept and status hierarchy in the Gurung society.

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