Anyone who has gone through Casper J. Miller\'s Faith-Healers of the Himalaya will remember the dancing shamans making their way to the hilltop shrine of Kalinchowk Bhagmati in Dolakha district. What most will not remember is which community they belong to. Not surprising since the faith-healer dhamis are Thamis and who can blame anyone for mixing up dhamis and Thamis.
The example above reflects the anonymity and isolation of this small group of around 40,000 people indigenous to the districts of Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk. That is why an ongoing exhibition of photographs on the Thamis assumes importance in that it attempts to introduce the Thami people to the outside world, not least the Nepalis themselves.
The pictures by Sara Shneiderman, a social anthropologist who is in Nepal on a Fulbright scholarship, depicts the social and cultural aspect of the Thami people from five villages in Dolakha and Sindhupalchowk districts. It is a rare collection not only for their photographic value but also because it represents the first descriptive sociological and anthropological study of the Thami people.
Often misidentified as Tamang, Kami or dhami, the Tibeto-Burman Thamis
(Thangmi, in their own language) have been presented as a Tamang or Rai sub-group in various research works. Suppressed and marginalised by the more visible communities (\'high-caste\' Bahuns derogatorily call them musa, or mouse),
the Thamis have been living a life of their own, despite a rich culture that harks back to ancient myths and legends complete with a shamanistic religious practice. Photographs on display such as "Pensive Guru with his Granddaughter", "Death Ritual Trance", "Abstract: Night Ritual", and "Kalinchowk Trance" display the depth of the Thami\'s cultural heritage.
"Because the Thamis are made to feel inferior to other castes, they often pass themselves off as Tamang, and less frequently as Gurung or Rai," says Shneiderman. "I am optimistic that efforts such as this exhibition will help the Thami gain confidence in their originality and self identity," she says.
"At the moment the Thami people have realised their presence and role in the society and because of some exposure towards the outside world, they are coming on strong about their identity. But, of course, it needs time for them to be able to completely come out from their poor economic and societal situations," says Shneiderman.
Shneiderman and her partner, Mark Turin, an Anglo-Dutch scholar who is working on a dictionary on the Thami language, have found that the Thamis ate spread out in smaller numbers in about 16 other districts apart from Sindhupalchowk and Dolakha. There is also an active Thami community in north-east India, largely concentrated around Darjeeling. The two researchers feel that the Thami deserve to be recognised as a major ethnic population of the central eastern Himalaya.
The detailed captions provided below the photographs make it easier to gain an insight into the community, and they tell a story of a tough life for the Thamis.
"Making a Winnowing Tray" is captioned "Maybe because there are less grains to winnow, the tray is also small". This indicates the fact that most in the community have to earn their livelihood through work like portering and agricultural labour for others. "At the micro-economic level, most Thami households have no reliable source of cash flow. Some farmers with surplus sell vegetables or gram in local market towns, but this is more an exception than the norm," says Shneiderman.
Shneiderman has dedicated the exhibition to late Maili Thami, the mother of her Thami brother who passed away from cancer just days before the exhibition. The photos can be seen at the Bamboo Gallery, Maharajgunj, till Saturday, 24 September, and are for sale. Proceeds will be used to sponsor Thami children in their studies.