In beautiful, monochromatic clarity, stark photographs of women draped in loose saris, make-shift tents and huts, and the steady faces of one of Nepal’s tribal communities emerge from the series Living in the mist—The last nomads of Nepal. As photographer Kishor Sharma ventured into the depths of this community’s lives, his ethnographic series capture these nomadic people in the mid-Western hilly regions of Nepal around the Salyan, Surkhet and Dailekh districts. And in the process, we’re allowed to learn so much more about them.
Dependent on the forest for their survival, the Rautes of Nepal are one of the few nomadic forest tribes left on the planet, known for their staunch belief in age-old traditions, like foraging for wild fruits and vegetables, and hunting monkeys. Their dialect is a Tibeto-Burman language called Khamchi, although Nepali figures into their speech as well, making it easier for them to communicate with other societies. Usually roaming within the same four to five districts, they live between 2000 and 10,000 feet above sea level, moving further up during summer time, and lower down during winter. While there’s no specific or fixed schedule of moving from the 120 remaining members of this tribe, they leave a place immediately if someone from the tribe dies, or their resources start to dry out. While their ways of life are roped in through customs and dictated rituals, their tussle with the government, local villagers and growing urban modernisation leaves them at a loss, making them the slowly fleeting last nomadic community of Nepal.
Appreciating all the gifts of the forest, the most important resource they obtain is wood. Since wood carving and wood craft is their primary source of income, the 1970s concept of community forest poses a threat to this basic Raute tradition, as felling of trees is prohibited. “They still cut trees to make wooden utensils but complain that it is becoming very challenging lately, as most of the forests have been handed over to the communities,” Sharma tells us. Further, their generation-old practice of deforestation for wood has led to clashes with neighbouring villagers and locals, along with stewed Raute resentment for the government. Sharma elaborates, “When I was there for a month last year, I came across a few incidents of clashes between them and the local villagers. Locals look after the community forest, and they were not happy that Rautes cut trees—which is strictly banned by the government. Rautes, on the other hand claim that this has been their way of life and should be allowed to cut the trees they want. They have also been keeping their tools as collateral in locals shops, asking for alcohol and other stuff, which they promise to pay back once they get their allowance.”
Is government interference a good thing?
The allowance he mentions is government aid of one thousand rupees a month that each Raute receives. While this might sound like a fruitful program, it comes with its list of shortcomings. As Sharma relates, “In my observation, it [government intervention] hasn’t been very effective. First, as they [the Rautes] keep moving from one place to another, the health and other services provided by the government has not been very effective. On the other hand, there should have been a comprehensive plan to support the community, as they desperately need it. But, the way the government is focused only on handing out the money seems to only make them dependent.”
The Rautes as a community are known to seek isolation, boycotting the outside world and the ways of modernisation that 21st century civilisation dictates. And in this staunch rejection of the unknown, we couldn’t help but wonder how Sharma, camera in hand, interacted with this community so freely. He explains, “Since Rautes are still carrying on a nomadic lifestyle and prefer to isolate themselves from outer society, it wasn’t very easy at the beginning. But, they have been in touch with other societies for trade and other livelihood activities for so long. Many Nepali people picture them as ban-manche (savage) and have many bizarre stories about them: for instance, that they make a human sacrifice every 12 years, or that, if you wander into their camps, you will be enchanted and made prisoner and so on, but that is not the case. Also, anthropologists, NGOs and journalists have worked with them already so it wasn’t that difficult either. It took some time to build the relationship in the beginning though.”
Where the fascination began
His first encounter with the Raute community was through a news piece in a national newspaper. Members of the community had visited the Prime Minister of Nepal, and a picture of them alongside government officials caught Sharma’s eye, making him curious to know more. As he started following them during a photography master-class with the Danish photographer Mads Nissen in 2011, he researched their way of living and their relationship with other societies. As he yearned to eplore them further, he made his first trip, and his second and third and more just followed. Living in recluse, reserved to secluded corners of Nepal, Sharma faced the initial challenge of locating them, followed by the task of earning their acceptance and trust.
With technological innovation and modernisation being the backbone of the growing urban space in Nepal, the older Rautes automatically reject this new-age living, clinging on to isolated, nomadic tradition. Their established occupation of wood work is threatened by the competitive market, leaving them with food shortages and no other source of income. Ancient Raute customs urge them to oppose citizenship and other forms of official documentation. “They believe citizenship certificates are for landowners only,” said Yagya Raj Bohara, chief district officer of Slayan district, 190 miles west of Kathmandu, as he sent a team to the Raute settlements to register them as voters, only to meet refusal. In this tussle between modernisation and tradition, young Rautes are abandoning their tribe and migrating to the cities for a better life, according to Diwash Rai, a planning officer for the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities.
Sharma observes the slow adoption of more modern ways amongst the Rautes as well, “They are very strict about few things like their language, costume and the way of living in general. But, lately they have been accepting modern medicine, cash and other support given by the government and organisations. Locals say that cash support is somehow making them dependent and they have been using most of it for alcohol, which in return is creating other social problems within the community.” As a photographer, capturing the Rautes was a great learning experience for him. “First, it has allowed me to work with a community that is continuing centuries long hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We can really learn from them that how little we need to survive. While working on this project, I have also got the chance to travel to very remote areas of Nepal and understand the society and country more.”
Inspired by the visual medium of communication that photography allows, and basking in the complex beauty of the Raute community and their unique ways of living, Kishor Sharma’s photographs paint a personal, riveting portrait of these nomads. Scroll on for the honest and captivating visual story of the Rautes through Living in the mist—The last nomads of Nepal.
Words: Rhea Almeida
All images by Kishor Sharma.