Friday, July 22, 2011

Tamang People

Tamang People
A Vanishing Buddhist Community of the Himalayas
With the help from Janet Levine on editing

The Tamang people for centuries were considered as semi untouchables; enslaved and sold like an animal by their masters the ruler caste known as Ranas and some other upper caste groups. This privilege was given to the higher caste people by the first civil code of Nepal which enforced in 1853.  As the result of the state's brutal discrimination one of the largest ethnic groups in Nepal almost lost its identity.  Even in democratic Nepal today, Tamang is one of the more backward communities among more than 60 different ethnic groups of this small Himalayan country. 
An Old Tamang Village (Gatlang Langtang) Photo - Amit Khadka
Tamangs are believed to be one of those ancient people who migrated from Tibet to Nepal in around 7th  century in search of better conditions than those of their dry, cold, deserted homeland.  Researchers have found that they were among the first settlers on the green Himalayan slopes and valleys of Nepal.  In the 8th century Buddhism reached Tibet and the entire Himalayas including the land of the Tamangs.  Along with their northern Tibetan neighbor Tamangs also began to incorporate the newly arrived religious ethics into their traditional Bonpo faith.  During the early evolution of Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal (the present day Kathmandu valley) was ruled by Hindu kings.  Because of the strong influence and presence of Buddhism, in those days the kings were respectful of both religions.  This was the time when the world renowned Buddhist Stupa of Bodhnath was constructed by an ordinary Buddhist woman and her family with the permission of the Hindu King.  
Tamang Kids from Langtang, Photo: Amit
Bodhnath has been the  home of Tamang Buddhists from those ancient times, though the rest of the Kathmandu valley was inhabited by another ethnic group called Newar.  In the 1960s when Tibetans fled from their country as refugees they were settled and assimilated with the Tamangs in the Bodhnath area as they shared the same cultural background.  However  today  Bodhnath is no longer known as a Tamang area.

From 1846 to 1949 Nepal was ruled by Ranas, an autocratic family rule during which period Buddhist activities were discouraged and restricted and Tamangs were forced to abandon their native culture and religion.  During the early Rana regime Nepal fought with Tibet and China.  In those wars Tamangs were never employed in the Nepal Army (Gurkhas), as the ruling group believed they would rather be loyal to their ancient native countries.  Tamangs were forced to work as unpaid labors carrying weapons and other war supplies.  Eventually they were officially prohibited from joining any government services or undertaking any educational activities. This provision existed as late as 1950 when Nepal was freed from the Rana regime.
A Tamang Buddhist Monastery in the Mountain Area of Langtang, Photo: Amit
 After democracy was established in 1950, Tamangs found themselves lagging behind in every aspect of social progress.  There were no special state programs to uplift their standard of living. Tamang religious rites, language and culture were almost extinct and their traditional dresses had disappeared.  Many of the Tamangs could not say whether they were Buddhist or Hindu.  However in remote areas their culture was more successfully preserved and they maintained their religious way of life based on the Ningmapa School of Buddhism.
According to latest census of Nepal (2001), it shows that Tamang is the fourth largest ethnic group comprising about six percent of the total population whereas 11 percent of Nepalese are Buddhists.   Therefore Tamangs are the largest Tibetan Buddhist adherents outside of  Tibet.  The Tamangs of Bodhnath and surrounding areas are born artistic painters and more than eighty percent of Thankas sold as Tibetan paintings in the Kathmandu's tourist market and around the world are painted by them.  These artists are used as labors by Thanka dealers and paid nominal wages for their invaluable art works.  
Sambhu Tamang Who Climbed Mt. Everest at the Age of 18 in 1973 was the First Non-sherpa Nepali Climber to reach the Summit of the Top of the World, Photo

There is neither a firm plan by Nepal's government nor by any Buddhist organizations to preserve or promote Tamang Buddhist culture.  Additionally there are hardly any community monasteries for the Tamang people in Kathmandu where they can perform religious rites and where new monks or nun can be trained.  They do not have adequate religious priests (Lamas) in training because of a lack of systematized monastic educational institutions designed for their community. Some Tamang Lamas are trained in remote village monasteries where there are no adequate opportunities for them to study all aspects of their religion and culture and to relate them to modern education and development.  Distinct and rich ancient heritage of Tamang people is in the state of extinction.  If it's not preserved it will be big loss for the worldwide Buddhist community and lovers of traditional cultures of ethnic people.


  1. Good work, Amber! I hope to see and learn more about the Tamang people in the future. Best wishes!

  2. Thanks for posting this Amber. It helps me to better understand the Tamang. reminds me of the plight of Native Americans here.