Nepali Times
Undrstanding the Kiratase


by T.B. Subba Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1999

Precisely which groups represent the Kirata is still open to debate. Kiratas ruled the Kathmandu valley for over 1000 years, until their overthrow by the Licchavis in the 6th century AD. However, as Subba cautions, "there is serious difficulty in ascertaining whether or not the present Kiratas have a traceable descent from those mentioned in the ancient Aryan literature" (p. 22).

Subba\'s contemporary focus is on the three Tibeto-Burman groups from eastern Nepal that are unquestionably part of the present Kiratas, namely the Limbu, Rai and Yakkha. Using a variety of appropriate research methods, Subba delineates the Kirata world and the growing sense of Kirata identity within it. In-depth field-work in three villages in East Nepal conducted in 1992 and 1993 is supplemented by Subba\'s knowledge of Kirata in Darjeeling and Sikkim, based on previous research and, doubtless, his own experience as a Kirata growing up in Kalimpong (he is now Professor of Anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shiilong).

Rais and Limbus are very much part of the Nepali demographic landscape, but few readers are likely to be acquainted with the numerically smaller Yakkha. Subba performs a useful service in placing this and the other two groups firmly on the Kirata ethnic \'map\'.

Politics of Culture is also a study of nascent \'nationalism\' among a marginalised, pluralist and dispersed cultural group. For Subba, "culture is not an independent or isolated symbol in harmonious equilibrium with another culture but...a system in constant conflict within and with other cultures for better appropriation of the available resources of a state" (p. 4).

Amongst the Kirata in India, for example, despite the social, economic and educational advantages of the region compared to Nepal, "exposure to various ideas and ideologies, greater interdependence with other cultures, lack of grip over one\'s traditional beliefs and customs, and the relatively secular state have all been responsible for the lesser enthusiasm and competence of the people of this region than those of Nepal as regards the politics of culture" (p. 21).
Today, however, throughout the eastern Himalaya we can see "a mushrooming of organisations which seek to preserve and develop their indigenous culture, language and religion" (p. 1). Subba profiles 12 such organisations (three in Darjeeling, four in Sikkim and five in Nepal), which illustrate the different ways Kirata \'nationalism\' has been developing in these settings. "While the Tagadhari category representing the Bahun, Thakuri and Chhetri castes constitutes an objective entity, the essentialised Kirata, Janajati or Mongol identity is yet to evolve fully as its anti-thesis.

The people designated as \'Kiratas\' here are yet to crystallise their ideology and culture. They still seem to vacillate between the relatively single and simple delineations such as the Limbu or Khambu [Rai] and the more compound and complex characterisations like Kirata, Janajati or Mongol" (p. 3).
There are historical and contemporary tensions between Tagadharis and Kiratas, evidenced in the racist comments of the Sikkim-based Taghadari Suraksha Samaj in 1992 that Taghadari alone "have the brain and the brawn to rule; others are meant to be at their feet, ruled for ever because they have emerged from the feet of Brahma" (p. 121).

In this vein, Subba criticises some Nepali scholars for carrying "the burden of legitimising the state and justifying that the migration of the Aryans into the Kirata or other Mongoloid habitats was legitimate and had no negative consequences" (pp. 69-70). From that vantage point they have criticised Western anthropologists for emphasising the differences and conflicts between the two groups and for ignoring their interdependence. This, argues Subba, is an example of how shared elements of culture can become significant when the power of the dominant group is threatened.

The overall theme of the book is that the analysis of culture can never be divorced from the social, political and economic contexts of its production and representation, while proving convincingly the value of in-depth comparative historical and anthropological methods in making such an analysis. Professor Subba is to be congratulated for a cogent and path-breaking contribution to Kirata studies.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)