Nepal // The Western Hills //

Gurungs and Magars

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Once active trans-Himalayan traders – the Chinese occupation of Tibet put paid to that – Gurungs are a common sight around Gorkha and Pokhara, where many have invested their Gurkha pensions in guesthouses and retirement homes. The majority of Gurungs who don’t serve in the military keep sheep for their wool, driving them to pastures high on the flanks of the Himalayas, and raise wheat, maize, millet and potatoes.

Traditional pursuits such as hunting and honey-gathering are being encroached upon by overpopulation, while the Gurung form of shamanism is coming under pressure from the advance of Hinduism and Buddhism. Gurungs employ shamans to appease ghosts, reclaim possessed souls from the underworld, and guide dead souls to the land of their ancestors – rituals that contain clear echoes of “classic” Siberian shamanism and are believed to resemble those of pre-Buddhist Tibet.

A somewhat less cohesive group, Magars are scattered throughout the lower elevations of the Western Hills and in some parts of the east. A network of Magar kingdoms once controlled the entire region, but the arrival of Hindus in the fifteenth century brought swift political decline and steady cultural assimilation. After centuries of coexistence with Hindu castes, most Magars employ Baahun priests and worship Hindu gods just like their Chhetri neighbours, differing only in that they’re not allowed to wear the sacred thread of the “twice-born” castes. Despite the lack of unifying traits, group identity is still strong, and will probably remain so as long as Magars keep marrying only within the clan.

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