Changing Life Of A Nepali Village: Story from Nar

By Dinesh Wagle in Nar (Manang)
Wagle Street Journal (Saturday Blog) [Dinesh Wagle has started posting his Nar Phu Diary in Wagle Street Journal]

Encountering the people featured in a 25-year-old book that details the life and time of two of the remotest villages of Nepal All pics by Wagle. More pics will be added tomorrow

Pema Bhutti

Pema Bhutti with the book published 25 years ago that features her on the cover

On a recent afternoon Pema Bhutti, with her husband on the front, was having rice with yak milk on a ceramic plate in a kitchen cum chat room that could be reached via a single and slender wooden ladder that begins from the top of the stony building. Behind her on the wooden furniture, steel utensils and the colorful thermos containing briny tea are placed carefully. The mild fire burning in the ageno between them is preventing the cold that is trying to get intensified at the beginning of October.

“Ghar ma ko chha?” [Is anybody in the house?]

As this reporter entered the cozy abode of the aging couple shouting the aforementioned question, Pema without any response to the unexpected visitor, continued with her meal. But the next question was certain to bring back all her memories. “Ama, yinlai chinnu hunchha? [Mother, do you recognize her?]” When the cover of a thick and shining book published 25 years ago was shown to her with that question, the 66-year-old stopped chewing food. She was constantly looking at the picture. “Of course, it’s me!” Pema had declared after swallowing the food that she chewed longer than average. “Old photo, I don’t have the hat now.”

Pema Bhutti

In her hands, instead of the ceramic plate, now it is a beautiful coffee table book brought out on 1981 by a team of English writer, anthropologists and photographer after researching over a month and half on the fringes of Tibet and highlands of Nepal. A photo of middle aged Pema, with her red cheeks, shines on the cover of the book. For a few seconds, Pema touched and felt the book, tried to turn a few pages and again fixed her eyes on the same photo. Wearing a traditional had made up of sheep skin and wool, Pema is looking somewhere with her eyes partly closed because of the strong reflections of light coming from the snow.

Having her eyes fixed on the cover page, Pema vaguly recalls the day her snap was taken.

Pema with her husband

Pema with her husband

It was 25 years ago, in the month of April, altogether a team of 34 guides, porters and foreigners visited the Nar village situated on the northern side of Pisang peak in Manang district. And their experiences of the Bhotia people grazing their herds of yaks and the photographs taken by the visitors were compiled and then published by Time-Life Books of America. With photographs taken by Nik Wheeler, the book entitled “Cloud Dwellers of the Himalayas: The Bhotia” was written by Windsor Charlton. Along with the descriptions of the spectacular panorama of the place, the book also depicts the way of life of the people back then. Because of the special circumstance created after China attacked Tibet on 1959, Nepal had restricted foreigners to visit the northern bordering villages of Nar and Phu. However, as mentioned in the book, the team was able to visit the place because of a special permission from the late King Birendra who was familiar with the investigations and researches conducted in Nepal by a member of the visiting group- Professor Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf.

Oblivious to the details about the book, Pema vaguely recalls a fair guy taking numerous shots of hers in his cameras. After getting married at the age of 17, Pema traveled as far as India with her husband.

Pema Smiling

After sensing that his wife was too shy to talk about those adventures, Pema’s husband who has lost many of his teeth came forward excitedly to describe the life they lived. “Back then, the world was very beautiful,” said 69 years old Sangma Chesanga Gurung. “Life was quite difficult in village but still we had fun. Today, things have got a lot easier.”

smiling Pema

“How things have got easier, Aama?”

When asked about the changes they’ve witnessed in the past two decades, it was Sangma again excited to talk

“There is electricity and trails have become wider,” again it was Baa, not aama, doing the talk. “The mules carry provisions; we don’t have to carry loads. Everything’s better these days. Food has become better. People have become better.”

Pema Smiling

“Baa, please, how about letting aama do the talk? Aama, what makes you happy?”

Pema blushed again; her eyes wandered on the book cover. She was lost in thought for a few seconds and looked up at the “Dalin”.

“That fire,” Aama Peam finally spoke out. “That has brought me immense happiness.” The object of her joy that has brought huge positive change in the lives of the people of Nar was a small fluorescent light which lighted the kitchen. She kept pointing at the “fire” for a long time. Ever since the micro-hydroelectricity project was established in the village some fifteen years ago, Pema no longer needs to light the lamp made up of pine tree branch every night. Traveling for a week through the trails that go via steep ridges for a gallon of kerosene wasn’t practical. “The road makes me happy too” she continued praising the road from the district headquarters to Chame, which was widened in the last ten years making it easier for the mules to journey through it.

smiling Pema

Among her three daughters, the second one lives in Kathmandu. Pema has talked to her using the telephone set up in Nar two years back. The distance of a five-day walk and a day ride on the vehicle from Kathmandu has shrunk to a phone. It has been two decades since Pema and her husband started spending six months in Nar and rest of the year in Kathmandu. “It’s good here in summer,” her outspoken husband clarified. “And there in winter. No leeches can be found here in summer.” Situated at the height of 4,110 meters on the lap of 6 thousand 91 meters tall Pisang Peak, Nar is indeed one of those highest located Nepali villages. As heavy snow starts pouring along with the chilling cold, people of Nar move to a place called Meta, the winter settlement, located at the altitude of 3,500 meters, just below the base camp of Kang Guru peak.

Nar Village

Nar Village on the lap of Pisang Peak

There are 71 houses in Nar with 11 new added in the last 25 years. Two of them are hotels targeted for tourists. Ever since the village was opened up for foreigners three years ago, quite a few tourist, leaving the popular Annapurna trail from near Chame and heading toward north-east, have visited the place. In order to save the cultivable land the dwellers of Nar live in a cluster. No wonder they know each other quite well. Thereby, turning the pages of “Cloud Dwellers” was like unveiling their own family album. On the eighth page of the book is a snapshot of a middle-aged lady holding chin with left hand and her narrow eyes focused on the camera.

Chhiring Yange

Chhiring Yange with the book that displays a full page photo of her taken 25 years ago

And as the reporter inquired “Do you know her, aama?” showing the picture to an old lady who, wearing docha, the traditional shoes, was feeding her horses in the backyard, there came an instant reply: “It’s me!” Her name is Tsering Yangjee. And she has vivid memories of the time the picture was taken. “I was sitting right here and crying,” explained 68 years old Tsering as she started talking sitting at the top of her house. “They came and took my picture.” Her eyes welled up with tears as she continued remembering those days. On that week, 25 years ago, Tsering was mourning the loss of her 10-year-old daughter. Many other children of the area had also died because of smallpox along with the little girl. “I had left my hair loose as I was mourning” she continued.

Chhiring Yanje

In the past years, a lot of snow at the Pisang Peak has melted into the nearby Nar Khola (stream) but sorrow has stayed back in Tsering’s life as a lingering company. Only five weeks ago she lost her 41-year-old middle son. She lost her youngest son some years back while her husband passed away years ago when the children were little. Her eldest daughter is in Hong Kong while the eldest son is in Germany. The eldest son’s wife Pemba Choma is the second daughter of Pema, the cover girl. Pemba Choma’s picture covers an entire page in the book. “I was living with my son. Now that he is gone I feel lonely,” she let out her pain bursting into tears, looking at the pictures that brought back memories of her son and daughter. Having been born in the northern village of Phu and married in Nar, Tsering has lived through the slightest changes in Nar during the last two decades. “Life’s a lot better now,” she said. “We get to eat tasty food. Earlier we couldn’t get any sugar in the village. Now mules arrive with all sorts of goods. You can buy anything with money.”

Nar Sheep Boy is now man

This man was a kid when the book was published. There are two pics of him. Now he has a son. He was too hesitant to take photo with the book. He barred me from photographing his son.

Nar Sheep Boy is now a man

Though illustrated in the “Cloud Dwellers” as a locale isolated from the rest of Nepal, Nar and Phu have now become more reachable and connected to the other parts of the country. Most of the people have at least been to to cities like Pokhara or Kathmandu, if not abroad. And the ones who can’t afford to send their children to city boarding schools send them to the Gumbas. The young revealed their desire to work in reliable occupations such as government jobs but have accepted farming and grazing yaks on not getting it.

Legs of Nar Folks

Legs of Nar folks: No Dochas any more. People gather in Chhiring Yanje’s house to turn the pages of the book.

Finding Old Nar in the book

Finding Old Nar in the book: Trained as a Lama in Pokhara, Nyima Chhowang, right, was three when the book was published. Now, he has a son of that age. Inside the book is a picture of Nyima’s father, Phhuncho Rangdel (now 51,) clad in docha, cap and a traditional cloth with a tool to flatten the land. (see pic below)

Phunchho Rangdel

“Where can we go? People like us don’t get jobs” said Nyima Chhowang, one among the small crowd that had gathered outside Tsering’s house to see the book. “It would be great if I could get a job abroad. Now I do farming and am also a Lama” he continued. After his elder brother separated from the family Nyima bears the sole responsibility of looking after his parents, his wife and son. Trained as a Lama in Pokhara, Nyima, was three when the book was published. Now, he has a son of that age. Inside the book is a picture of Nyima’s father, Phhuncho Rangdel (now 51) clad in docha, cap and a traditional cloth with a tool to flatten the land.

“We got to see things we had never seen before,” Chhowang exclaimed in surprise and excitement slowly turning the pages of the book. “It was incredible to see the pictures of the dead people and our old traditions,” he added.

The traditional village of Nar, has undergone a world of changes in the last 25 years. The changes in the lifestyle of the people are almost tangible. The stark difference is seen the clothes the villagers wear. The traditional cap worn by Pema in the book-cover has been replaced by Harry Porter scarves bought in Kathmandu and elsewhere. And the docha made up of yak skin and wool has been replaced by Korean shoes, at least in the case of one young man. “So what that I live in Nar village,’ said Dawa Chhiri, clad in a denim jacket, taking off his imported mask worn to prevent himself from dust from thrashing Koru (the only grain to be cultivated in the place).”Look at my shoes. They are imported from Korea. These trousers were also sent by my friend there.”

This story appeared in today’s Kosilee, the Saturday supplement of Kantipur daily. A shorter version of this story appeared in Thursday (Oct 26) edition of City Post, daily supplement of the Kathmandu Post.

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9 thoughts on “Changing Life Of A Nepali Village: Story from Nar”

  1. Hay I love much The laughing picture. how netural ?
    Many neplease can’t succed to laugh like that. By heartcore they tried much more but there are so many brrier whish stop them to laugh like that.
    I love It Dinesh.
    U had done great job.

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  2. Great report, Dineshji.

    I hope your trip to Manang was well. I also hope to go to Muktinath from Manang in one of these days when money/time allows that.

    It is nice to see our own beautiful country. It opens up our eyes and gives a new meaning to that cliche: ‘ground reality’.

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  3. just wondering… how did you manage to track down all these people from the pictures in the books?? didnt they know their pictures had been published?? i was just wondering about what our laws say when it comes to taking pictures of people and simply publishing them. im not saying its a good or bad thing. but even when they do consent to having their pictures taken, arent they supposed to be shown a copy of whatever material their picture is in?? i think it was really sweet of you to show these people the books!!

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  4. That was a mission for me to find the characters in the book! (here is more on this) I thought about doing this as I saw the book that Wanda showed me the book. She was thrilled by the idea but I wasn’t completely sure about meeting all those people. There is a good feature story on the book titled “A day in the life of Tashi Hrita.” My idea was to write a feature titled “A day in the life of Tashi Hrita, 25 years after.” Unfortunately, Tashi Hrita, who was 65 then, had died a few years ago. Wanda and I were showing the book to each and every people from Nar and Phu that we encountered on the trail and asked them if those people in the books were alive. It was quite difficult to confirm the names but that was done. At least two boys whom we met in Koto, a place near Chame, the district headquarter of Manang, said that they had seen the book a few years ago in a travel agency run by one of their relatives in Thamel, Kathmandu. So there were countable people, may be 5, in the village who had seen or heard about the book. One man said that he received his photograph published in the book, years ago in mail.

    Pema, the ‘cover girl’, said that she hadn’t seen the book before. For Chhiring, the sad woman, it was first time looking the photo. It was definitely a first time experience of turning the pages for many other young folks in Nar.

    I am not sure what our laws say about photographing people and publishing them but, as a reporter, I always try to take permission to take certain photographs. For instance, I asked for permission from each and every person that I photographed and revealed them my identity (journalist) and the purpose (to publish in newspaper Kantipur). One man denied permission, as I have mentioned above, to take a photo of his son. And the ‘cover girl’ demanded money! Actually it wasn’t she who insisted to be paid but, seeing a foreigner with me, her daughter thought it was an opportunity to earn some money. I heard them talking in local Nar language (not Tibetan, not Gurung and definitely not Nepali) about asking Rs. 1000. When they finally decided, I learned, she wanted Rs. 200.

    I know paying to the source to in favour of cooperation is unethical but it was totally different context. There is a widespread belief in rural Nepali society that with the flashes of camera, your fortune (saha) goes away. “Pahile pani timiharule photo khicheu, mero saha lageu, aba malai paisa chainchha,” she said. [You guys took my photo before and took away my saha. This time, I want money.” I promised her to pay the amount next morning. We had great interview session in the evening, interaction with family members and her son-in-law knew Kantipur and had some vague idea about journalism. He explained that to Pema Bhutti. But since I had promised to pay her, I gave the money next morning as she was filling water in a tap near her house.

    I am not sure if they paid for photographing for the book but I can guess after hearing from Pema, they didn’t. I felt bad about the fact that there wasn’t a single copy of the book in the village and villagers hadn’t seen the book before. The book is great with quality printing and paper but I would have really appreciated if the publisher or the writer or the photographer had sent a few copies in the village. The book, now out of print, will be very much helpful to promote tourism in Nar Phu area as the government has opened the region three years ago for foreigners.

    It was an emotional experience for many people who saw the book. We met a woman on way to Nar who was kind of shocked to see a full page photo of her husband who died two years ago. In the photo, the man is handsome, strong and appealing. You can’t even think he is no more. But the reality is always different. The woman didn’t tell me at that time but I later knew that he jumped off from a cliff near the village and killed himself.

    As a reporter, that was quite an experience for me and it was challenging to present the story. But when people read that in Kosilee and City Post, my cell was flooded with SMS saying that was a “great” story. More photos from the region and my daily diaries are posted on Wagle Street Journal. And yes that was a great trip.

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  5. Hi. I have never heard about this place until last night when I had a dream. In my dream it was a very remote place, but very near to it seemed to be westernized city with gas stations and grocery stores. I only had to go down a grassy hill and cross a bridge to get back. The people had darker skin just like I see in the pictures. They seemed to be getting ready for a flood that might happen. Only some of the men spoke a little english and one informed me I was in Nar. Their homes seemt to be built of wood, mud and other local materials just like I see in the pictures! I got up this morning and searched and searched and imagine my surprise when I came across this website. Germany was even mentioned in my dream somehow and I see one of the locals children is there. You have any insight on my dream such as the proximity to Germany, any flood info, bridges and close cities. I am totally blowned to have dreamt of this place and its people with such accuracy. Any info you have to share would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

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