“The duniya (the outside world) farms and makes their homes. We enjoy living in the forest,” says Maeen Bahadur Shahi, former mukhiya (headman) of the last Nepali hunter-gatherers, the nomadic Raute tribe.
Currently, there are only 140 Rautes in the western mid-hills of Nepal. Living some 2,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, they move higher during the summer and lower during the winter. Rautes live a nomadic life, moving from place-to-place every few weeks or months. Their only seeming attachment is to the forests, on which they rely to make their living. They also hunt monkeys, which makes them unique among indigenous communities. They are skilled at woodwork and crafting household utensils.
But these days, the Raute way of life is increasingly under threat, caught between tradition and modernity. A government allowance – one thousand rupees (approx. 9.46 USD) a month – might seem helpful, but it is making them dependent on handouts, say some locals.
“Earlier, Rautes believed that counting money is a sin but these days, they ask for money whenever they can,” says an elderly Dailekh local.
The allowance has also meant that Rautes interact more often with other communities. They get drunk with locals, sometimes getting into fights. Furthermore, after community forestry was introduced in the 70s, tensions arose between Rautes and the communities that were stewards of the forests. Used to having free reign of the woods, they were not allowed to cut down trees anymore.
It has also become harder to find space for nomadic traditions. If anyone dies in the community, Rautes immediately leave the place, burying the dead with their personal belongings. They also don’t drink flowing water and standing water that is easily accessible can be difficult to find.
For elders like Maeen Shahi of the last nomads of Nepal, these experiences are difficult but he accepts them as something eventual with the changing of times. “This has been the way for long. It will continue for as long we can,” he says.
All photographs ©2015, Kishor Sharma, all rights reserved.