Mahabharat range on the north and Churiya hills on south run parallel east to west at the straight line difference of some 35 km creating beautiful landscape on the earth, Chitwan Valley, also known as inner Terai, lush, green and fertile land once all covered with dense sal forest with plenty of mega mammals.
At times, only aboriginal Tharu people lived in this area who have apparently developed natural resistance to malaria. After malaria-eradication program, Chitwan was declared malaria free in 1960 and the government opened Chitwan for settlement. Accordingly, thousands of hill people ventured down to plain and settled clearing prime forests that obviously had detrimental effect on its environment and wildlife. In 1973, Chitwan National Park was established to protect remaining wildlife and unique ecosystem of the region.
In early history, Chitwan had been important salt trade route as people used to carry salt from Thori (Indo-Nepal border) to supply it in various districts of Nepal: Dhading, Gorkha and Kathmandu. The journey was held during cool, mosquito-free winter months when there was less chance to contact with deadly diseases. People used to carry things on their back using doko (big basket made of bamboo) and namlo (string to wrap around doko and head). As the journey was for many days through dense jungle on the plain and inhospitable terrain in the hills, people travelled in group to support each other, carrying necessary food and stuffs needed during entire journey.
During early 1960s Mahendra Highway (east-west highway) was constructed that sounded a death knell for this traditional salt trade. Long distance trade had been gradually declined but local trade (Thori-Chitwan) continued till late 1970s.
There are few people alive who actively involved in this trade during their youth. They cherish memory of this adventurous and exciting journey. One of them, Hange Chepang (90 years), who lives in Jyandala, shared interesting stories about his past journey and struggle. Excerpt:
I used to live in Hattibang with my parents, brothers and sisters. (Hattibang is some 7 hours uphill walk from Shaktikhor). I started to carry salt from Thori at the age of 27 and continued to involve in this trade for some 15 years. The journey was difficult as we had to pass anything that came in our way: jungles, grassland, quicksand, rivers, hills and villages. As we had to stay overnight in many places, especially on the way back from Thori because of the load on our back, it took us total 8 days to arrive Jogimara, the last destination. Our normal stopovers were Amuwa, Chiurikuna, Thati, Pairiya, Jhawani, Jutpani, Shaktikhor. More than for ourselves, we carried salt or did other works for sahu (Rich and high caste people in the village who lend the money to poor people who have to work for them or provide crops or cattle to pay the debt).
Our plan was to go Thori on Tuesday but when I came back from work (after working for sahu), villagers already left on Sunday. I was very upset and left for Thori alone early in next morning with hope that I would meet someone on the way. (People in the village generally figure out time listening first call of cockerel in the morning i.e. about 4 am and seeing the position of sun throughout the day). I passed through entire valley to arrive in Pairiya, at the base of Churiya hill at around 6 pm and surprisingly I did not meet single person on the way. I decided to spend the night on the madane tree (a kind of big tree species), as it would be dangerous to sleep on the forest floor. I knew that one bhote (mountain people) had been killed by tiger and his tattered cloth had been seen around. Then, magar and gurung of Tanahu and Lamjung (districts) came and asked me about my friends and whereabouts. As they were going to stay overnight in Thati (beyond the Churiya hills), they kindly invited me to join them. I helped them to bring water and firewood, and had dal bhat together. I felt God sent them for me. I usually carried 15 pathi of salt but at that time I brought 7 pathi of salt from Thori. (Pathi is traditional metal container to weigh cereals and other stuffs. One pathi contains some 4.36 liters of water and one pathi of salt weighs some 3.6 kg). On the way back, I met magar man of Syardul, who had also worked as government employee in Upardang Gadi when it was the district center of Chitwan. He was familiar with all the surrounding villages and knew my father as well. He gave me jaad (locally made beer), roti (flattened bread made of wheat flour) and roasted corn. We stayed overnight in Jhawani, from where I directly came home. When I arrived home in 5 days, my father was surprised, "moro, udera aais kya ho?" (Did you fly?)
During these journeys, I came across wild animals on many occasions. On the month of Baisakh (April – May), I was on my way from Khairahani to Shaktikhor through the small trail in the jungle, carrying rice on my back. Near Kayar Khola, I encountered with tiger which was just 5 or 6 meters away from me. I suddenly remembered what my elders had suggested me to gaze straight upon tiger's eyes without blinking your eyes to be safe from them. Making my eyes bigger and fiercer, I directly gazed upon his eyes and said, "talai biralo, malai tarsauna aayeko. tero ma kanfara phutaidinchhu" (Literal translation: You cat, you came to scare me. I will break your head). Though I was scared inside, I had to face this life or death situation. After a while, tiger yawned opening his big mouth, so big that had he devoured me, I would have been to his belly in one gulp, and he disappeared behind the bush. I briskly moved away from the scene and arrived at Shaktikhor in no time, where my bhanji (sister's daughter) gave me dal bhat but I could not eat more than one gaas (one handful of rice) as the vivid memory of his scary mouth was really haunting me. I got back home and told my father, "mero sato bag le khayo, aba ma marchhu" (My soul is eaten by tiger, now I will die). He told me, "nadara, ma herchhu ni." (Don't be scared, I will see). That evening he, himself a jhakri, beat the dhyangro (traditional drum) reciting mantra. (Jhakri is common name for shamans who performed various rituals mainly to exorcize the spirit that is believed to be possessed in human). After an hour of this rituals, he slept but I could not sleep whole night. Next morning, he said, "tero mutu bagh ko bhanda thulo raichha, taile jitis, kehi hudaina." (Your heart is bigger than that of tiger; you won; nothing to be worried about). Then, I felt better.
I was very hungry when I arrived Jayamangala and asked for food to Tharu man. He asked his wife, "Pahadia aail badai, bhat badai?" [Pahadia (person who lives in hill) has come. Is there dal bhat?]. There was no dal bhat but gadala (jaad). I drank gadala and water, and I was wobbling off on the way. I saw big rhino walking on the trail ahead of me. I quietly followed him for a while, then he moved to other direction. Then, I came across hundreds of spotted deer that tried to scare me with alarming call. Whirling stick on air, I also threatened them, "aaija ta, ma yahi latthi le hanchhu." (Come near, I will hit you with this stick). On many occasions, I enjoyed observing these beautiful animals around lake, river, grassland and even inside the dense forest when there was no threat of them.
I know very few people in Tandi. One of them is Gole, we used to go to eat khaja (snacks) in his restaurant in Tandi. We used to go at Gunaraj Pathak's rice mill in Tandi. Whenever he saw me, he said, "la Hattibang ko chha-aule aayo" (Here comes chha-aule of Hattibang). [He has six fingers in his right leg and he is referred as chha-aaule means person having six fingers]. Then, he ordered his staffs to give first priority for my work as I had to go long way back home.
Once, I went to Dharke carrying 15 pathi mustard and Newar sahu surprised seeing me carried such enormous load as I was being small figure. He strongly patted on my back as a gesture of appreciation. He gave me 32 rupees for mustard. I bought Nepali topi (cap) at the cost of 12 paisa (100 paisa equivalents to 1 rupee) and coat at 2 rupees. I also bought 12 mana (1 mana is about half liter) rakshi at 50 paisa and drank among 3 friends.
I was good singer as well, and am still good singer. I had been to dohori for many occasions, and sang folk songs for many nights. (Dohori is duel song competition between man and woman. General rule is that if man loses the competition, he has to work in woman's house and if woman loses, she has to get married with her opponent. Sometimes, competition lasts for many days). My heart is as white as milk and as pure as water. I never let girls came closer to me because I could not sing when they came closer or touched me. I had won on many occasions but I shifted the topic deliberately at last minute to avoid getting married with her. Once, a woman termed me as phata (liar).
I had a mole under my right eye. People talked about good sign having mole in that position. But, it got swelled, infected and I had terrible pain. Some people came to village and offered help providing address of eye hospital in Kathmandu. In 2006, I went to Kathmandu with my son and grandson. Doctors checked my eye and they talked about replacing my eye with that of goat. "Old man will get his eye and we will get its meat" one joked. But, other doctor was against this idea, "There is no need of eye at this age, when it can't see". I agreed with him and told them that I would be happy to be relieved of pain. They did the surgery to take my eye. Though I had been tranquilized, there was sharp pain when they cut veins. But, I tried to keep quiet, because I knew that their work would get affected if I told my pain. I stayed in hospital for 24 days and I gradually recovered. I am thankful to them who helped me.
Generally one elder led the difficult journey to teach younger people. I learned a lot from them, and put that knowledge and skill in practice. And, I also learned from nature. When you are in nature, it gives you greater sense of awareness that enhances your confidence and courage. We always worship Bandevi (Goddess of forest), as we believe that she protects us in the difficult time. I had walked or worked without food and water for long, had witnessed near death situation but I always felt protected by God because of my faith to Him.
I had 13 children (8 sons and 5 daughters) but now only 3 children (1 son and 2 daughters) are alive. It was so sad to see them passed away before me. I should have gone first. Well, it is God's will, ke garne? (What we could do?) I always encourage my children to work hard. You have to go the jungle in the morning to get gittha so that have enough time to cook it and feed your children. (Gittha and bhyakur are underground roots, kind of food that Chepang people have during food deficit months). If you are late, your children have to sleep without food.
I mainly worked for sahu in my entire life to pay debt that my forefathers had. We had to give priority for their work and sometime sahu came to order us to work for them while we were working in our own field. For that debt, we should work for them for generations. They took our crops and cattle but they never said that our debt had been paid off as we were uneducated and ignorant and did not know the account. Because of this suffering and humiliation, I never let my children to work for them. My children are now free from slavery and humiliation, as they have their own land to work, own cattle to take care and live their life independently.
I am waiting for my last day since two years. I am wondering if I will be alive to eat the fresh corn this year. My daughter-in-law doesn't treat me well but my son and grandsons take me good care. I am happy to be with them and happy whatever they give me to eat. Villagers also love me and offer me food and drink, but I prefer to stay at my home and eat with my family because they are mine. I hope my children have good life. I wish to die peacefully to begin next journey.