Once upon a time, some present-day VDCs were kingdoms of their own. In Saathi-ghar in Kavre, a two-hour drive outside Kathmandu, the Paharis once ruled. Locals tell how these people of Terai origin had migrated up along the rivers long ago and finally settled in the forests on the ridge. Down below lay the fertile river valley – the one they had followed – and up on the higher ground, the Pahari king built his palace. Next to it, of course, his tribal priests built a temple.
The only problem from the outset was that farther away, on the other side of a gorge that created a natural boundary on the ridge, lived the Chhetris – and the Chhetri king was not happy with the arrival of his new neighbours. Nor were his priests – and so hostility soon broke out. The actual cause, though, is not clear. Maybe the Chhetri king was used to hunting the forests where the Pahari tribe had settled. Or perhaps he owned that part of the ridge and now strangers of a different culture had imposed. In any case, the conflict intensified and one day it came to war.
The war began down at the gorge. The Chhetri king brought his men to the border between the two kingdoms and they began taking shots with bow and arrow at the Paharis. It could also be that the Paharis had started the battle. Nobody alive today knows for sure. But the outcome of the war between the two tribes is well-known by the elders in Saathi-ghar who were told this local history by their elders – many years ago. The Paharis suffered a great defeat. Casualty numbers are long since forgotten but how the war culminated is not.
The war lasted just a day and ended as the Chhetris pushed forward to the palace and a Chhetri archer hit the Pahari queen with several arrows. This loss completely robbed the Pahari king and his men of their last remaining fighting spirit. In a hail of arrows the defeated tribe fled into the forest while the Chhetris began looting the palace and temple, taking everything the Pahari rulers and their people had owned. It should take many years before anyone saw the Pahari tribe again. Even at the time when the oldest people in Saathi-ghar were kids, they were warned by their elders never to walk too far into the forest or the “Paharis will take you!” A rare glimpse was all most people had.
The Paharis remained an almost mythical tribe until the 1950s when severe lumber activity began around Saathi-ghar – severe from the point of view of those who love the forest. The once dense canopy fell to the ground and the lush grounds were laid bare. Of course, it didn’t take more than a couple of decades before deforestation began to show its side-effects. Water ponds evaporated, springs stopped running with fresh drinking water, and the soil dried out. But those who should suffer the worst from this change in the local environment were the Paharis. As it turned out, and as some locals, of course, knew already, it was only a mile or so out to the community where they lived.
Out there, water had never been the most plentiful. But it had been enough to sustain them. After their gruesome defeat to the Chhetri tribe, the Paharis had settled in the least attractive parts of the territory from an agricultural point of view – the only tract of land where they were left alone by their conquerors – and here they tilled millet, collected roots, and did petty hunting, which kept their tribe alive. The dense forest had protected whatever water sources they had. But with deforestation, the drying out began. Today, access to water for drinking and irrigation remains one of the biggest problems for the Paharis. Once the rulers of a small kingdom, their area is known as ward 6: the poorest ward in Saathi-ghar. Nobody fear going there anymore and few care to either.
The Paharis don’t even own the land they inhabit. The temple owns it – it’s status is “guti land”. It’s not clear for how long that was the status of the Paharis’ territory – some say since the time of the Rana regime – but in any case, the implication for the Paharis is this. They can continue to inhabit and till the land only for rent to the temple. Ever since the Pahari community was exposed with the felling of the forest, every household had to pay a part of their harvest, bring flowers for the ceremony every Saturday, and carry the small but heavy deity worshipped at the temple around Saathi-ghar at Dashain. The Paharis were told to take pride in serving the temple and for a generation or longer, they supposedly did. But young Paharis tell that all this is changing.
History leaves winners and losers behind. It happens on a grand scale when great states collide in bloody wars. But in Nepal, during the times before the many kingdoms were unified, once dotting the valleys and hills, it also happened on a small scale – such as in the otherwise long since forgotten war between the Chhetri and the Pahari king. We can’t be sure that all the details of this tale are correct – none of it was ever written down – so if anyone knows more, do add to it. Or else, post another “local history” if you know one. Big dramas have unfolded in the tiniest of places, and this one will hereby not be forgotten.