“You are not married! What have you been doing all this time?” Govinder scolds me, as he empties some chewing tobacco into his mouth. Shaking his head, he turns his attention back to the kosi, or wooden bowl, that he is carving with a large, hooked chisel.
Govinder is a Raute, a member of the last nomadic tribe of Nepal—a group believed by researchers to be an Indigenous ethnic group of the country. The Raute speak a unique Tibeto-Burman dialect as well as the country’s official language, Nepali. They roam the rural areas of western Nepal, from the wooded, lower plains in winter, to the jungles of the higher, western Middle Hills in summer. The Raute move their camps at random intervals, moving when forests become low on their usual food sources or following a death in the group.
I first came to Nepal in October 2021, attracted by its open borders for tourists postpandemic—Kathmandu provided a perfect base for trying my hand at writing about the region. Not long after I arrived, several wooden bowls caught my eye at a market in the city; a distinctive pattern of irregular indentations marked their exteriors. I was told they had been made by the Raute, a group known as expert wood-workers, famed for producing durable and stylish wooden products entirely by hand, and were often sold internationally for several hundreds of dollars a-piece. I resolved to meet these skilled craftsmen myself.
Until the last decade, the Raute survived entirely from the jungle; hunting monkeys for meat, foraging for yams, and trading their wooden products with villagers for rice and grains. Hunting monkeys, specifically langurs—a Himalayan species of black-faced, gray monkeys—is central to their identity. The Raute believe monkeys were once humans, who lost cultural features such as speech and marriage rituals over time. They say monkeys are their siblings and that both the Raute and monkeys are children of their god Berh, the sun.
To the Raute, the Nepalese woodlands are a sacred world, full of horhs (spirits)—not just human ones, but animals and trees as well. To them, the sun and moon are deities, the star, clouds, stones, and weather supernatural forces, and plants and animals are all deified beings.
The Raute are notoriously suspicious of outsiders. Johann Reinhard, an American anthropologist who visited the group in the late 1960s, noted that the Raute will kill anyone who enters their camp without permission. The threat of death to visitors since Reinhard’s time has lessened, but I have been warned that the Raute are a wily bunch—hard to meet and even harder to talk to.
Armed with this information, along with updates from local contacts on the group’s ever-changing location, I and a Nepali friend, journey by a torturous local bus route from Kathmandu to the village of rural Jamune Bazaar. Set among the hills of Surkhet, an agricultural region of midwest Nepal, Jamune Bazaar’s one dusty street is filled with concrete buildings housing a variety of half-empty shops. Moving from here north up the valley, I pass villages of slate roofs and traditional pastel-colored walls made from clay and mud. The sky is cloudy, but the Bheri River still dazzles in a magical sky-blue.
I stop and pause on a high outcrop above the river. Below, on a grassy bank, is a settlement of 20 black tents, interwoven with large leaves. I can make out small children racing around naked, jumping in the river, and women clad in bright pinks and reds carrying stacks of metal water pots on their heads. Smoke spirals upward and steady drumming emanates from the camp.
The band of Raute that I’m visiting numbers only 150 people, and this is the last, truly nomadic group left in Nepal. The Raute are under great pressure to conform to societal norms by the government. In fact, many other nomadic peoples, like the Rajis and Banrajis, have settled in permanent homes. The Raute camp now has a constant police guard, following the rape of two Raute girls in 2021. So nowadays, visitors must get permission from the local police chief before approaching the Raute or their settlement. Jamune Bazaar is small enough that the police find me before I look for them, and a policeman is waiting for me when I arrive. He is dressed in plain clothes, as the Raute believe any uniform in their camp will anger Berh.
Today is the second day of a three-day ceremony held to worship their ancestors, hence the drums. The Raute are led by mukhiyas, men who speak with outsiders on behalf of the group. I present two mukhiyas with my offering of a sack of white radishes (I was told by an employee of the Raute Upliftment Foundation, an NGO dedicated to supporting the group, that radishes are their favorite) and they squat in front of me on the grass. As young men crowd round, everyone seems mildly entertained—this is not the hostile welcome I was expecting.
I explain I am here to purchase their kosi, or bowls. “Ah yes, this is our only profession,” Main Bahadur Shahi, the elder mukhiya, replies proudly in Nepali. “We make bowls, plates, ladles, small seats, and boxes, and sometimes even big beds. Before we had a lot of freedom in cutting trees, but now there are more restrictions, so it is more difficult to make these.”
During the second half of the 20th century, the Nepali government took over great swathes of forest, and then, in the late 1980s and ’90s, placed large areas under the stewardship of local communities—but not the Raute. In Surkhet district alone, 146,545 acres of forest were handed over to community forest groups, which were created in the mid-1900s in response to deforestation, to manage.
Though the groups have largely been successful, their regulations have had repercussions for Indigenous groups like the Raute who relied on free access to woodlands—technically, the Raute are not allowed to chop wood in these community forests. However, they don’t always recognize the legitimacy of these policies, an attitude which often creates tension with local communities. On top of this, the market for these wooden products has shrunk, thanks to the import of cheap utensils from China.
Surya Narayan, the second mukhiya, appears with a large bowl, made from a single piece of wood, which, he tells me, took him half a day to make. It has not been oiled yet, but the grooves are intricate and neat. “Before, we used to exchange the bowl for how much rice could fill it,” he says. “But just give what you feel like. We want you to take this bowl to your country and show it to everyone and tell them: This bowl was made by the Raute people of Nepal!”
After a quick barter, I agree to pay 500 rupees (about $4) and our conversation moves to how else their lives have changed, in particular, with their monkey hunting. “We still hunt them,” Main Bahadur explains. “But we are not able to catch as many as we did in the past. Maybe it is because we are changing, maybe it is because we are wearing shoes. Maybe the gods are angry. I don’t know.”
Despite this, the Raute still hunt every day, Main Bahadur says. But they never let anyone outside the group follow them or witness their monkey hunts—another thing they believe angers their god. From sketches made by the Raute for researchers, it is thought that they set up a large net in the undergrowth of the jungle and then stampede wildly around, frightening the monkeys into the net. The net is then gathered up swiftly, and axes are used to kill the trapped animals.
My second morning in the camp, gray clouds deposit a sprinkling of rain over the valley. Surya Narayan invites me into his tent where, inside, his children are crouched next to the fire. An oblong dark wood container with a lid, covered in a similar but more intricate pattern than the bowls, stands beside the entrance to the tent. A relative of Surya tells me it is called a dzhum and is for holding jad, or rice beer. This is mixed and eaten with rice.
Firewood is piled around the walls of the tent, and Surya Narayan makes room on the blanket next to him. They live by three main principles, he tells me: no education, no permanent settlement, and no agriculture.
“In our community, there is no hierarchy apart from the mukhiyas,” he explains. “We are the leaders, and whenever there are some disputes, we solve them. Apart from this we are all equal, and we don’t tell each other how to behave.” This equalitarian structure is a stark contrast to the strict, caste-based social hierarchy of Hinduism, Nepal’s predominant religion.
Today, the Raute receive a monthly cash stipend from the Nepali government to help meet their daily living expenses. The factors of change—reduced access to the forest, a shrinking market for their wooden products, and government funds—are all interrelated. Despite the loss of some of their independence, they still proudly continue their nomadic lifestyle.
I return to the camp after lunch to find Govinder finishing the kosi I have asked for. Govinder chats a little as he works and explains that once a bowl is finished, they traditionally soak it in water or bury it in the ground to seal the wood and stop it warping. Villagers, he says, apply a few layers of vegetable oil instead, and I should do the same.
As my friend and I pass through the camp to leave, many Raute are sitting outside their tents in the afternoon sun. Women are checking the children’s hair for lice; some are hanging strings of gourds, which they will eat in the winter, to dry in the sun. Several groups are sitting inside the tents chanting along with a drum, bowls of jad scattered around. A band of young Raute girls is roaming through the camp, their dark hair flying in the air.
I return to bid farewell to Surya and I ask him if they will ever settle. “Maybe in the future,” he laughs. “But not now. Who knows, we didn’t wear shoes before, and now we wear shoes.” Another Raute reminds him that he has been saying this for many years. Surya laughs and moves on with the conversation. “I would like to learn English, can you teach me?” he jokes before he takes a drink of jad.
If you would like to support the Raute community, consider buying their wooden products.