Free Roaming

The hunter-gatherers of west Nepal

A Raute woman cradles her child. PHOTOGRAPHS BY KISHOR SHARMA
A Raute woman cradles her child. PHOTOGRAPHS BY KISHOR SHARMA
01 November, 2015

The predominantly settled, farming people of the Himalayan foothills of west Nepal have many bigoted ideas about Rautes: for instance, that they make a human sacrifice every 12 years, or that, if you wander into one of their camps, you will be enchanted and made prisoner. Rautes, roaming hunter-gatherers recognised as a distinct ethnicity by the Nepali government, with their own language, customs and style of dress, are the last nomads in the area. Though there are an estimated 650 of them in Nepal today, only 140 still practise the traditional Raute way of life. They comb through forests for tubers and fruit, and the men hunt small animals, including monkeys, for meat. Suspicious of outsiders—and generally denigrated as “wild” people—they largely shun contact with mainstream society, though they have historically traded with settled folk, making wooden utensils to exchange for grain, and lately for money.Whenever resources run low, or when one of their fellows dies, they pick up and shift camp.

The photographer Kishor Sharma first took an interest in the Rautes in 2011, on a visit to west Nepal from Kathmandu. It took him five days on foot to find the only remaining nomadic camp, following directions from villagers. He finally came upon it, under heavy rain, in Salyan, a hilly district on the verge of the Gangetic plain to the south. The Rautes were reluctant to be photographed, and it took the photographer two more visits—and many gifts of cigarettes, as well as liberal purchases of wooden utensils—before they finally opened up. Even so, Sharma was barred from observing certain parts of their lives; for one, Rautes, as part of their animistic belief system, consider it taboo to let outsiders watch them hunt.

Some researchers believe that, as a society of hunter-gatherers, the Rautes are among the oldest inhabitants of what is now Nepal. But since Rautes do not keep records, and given their cautious distrust and frequent migration, much of the knowledge about their history, language and ways is still speculative. Today, the old Raute lifestyle is under threat. On several occasions, the camp has come into conflict with community groups granted control of local forests by the Nepali state. Many Rautes have refused to register as citizens, and, barring an occasional health camp and small handouts of money, they receive almost no government services or aid. They are finding it ever harder to meet basic needs of food and shelter.

With increasing human encroachment on the forests of west Nepal, the community could soon simply run out of places to go—in which case Sharma’s black-and-white photographs, which are part of this year’s Delhi Photo Festival, could become among the last chronicles of Raute camp life. But for now, the last nomadic Rautes hold out, preferring, in Sharma’s words, “to remain hidden in the shroud of mystery ... perhaps to shield themselves from the influence of outer society.”