Chepang and their Chiuri
The cultures of Indigenous peoples across the world have traditionally depended on native plants and animals. It is when these culturally significant species start disappearing that the ways of life of those communities are also threatened — as is happening with Nepal’s semi-nomadic Chepang people.
The Chepang live along the Mahabharat sub-Himalayan belt, and their slash-and-burn lifestyle has always been inextricably linked to the versatile चिउरी Indian Butter Tree. But the accelerated destruction of the chiuri has imperilled Chepang traditions, culture and way of life.
Known by its scientific name Diploknema butyracea, the Indian Butter Tree is the source of food, fuel, pesticide, fertiliser, cosmetic lotions, and is even given as dowry.
Here in the rolling hills of Makwanpur district south of Kathmandu, Ramesh Praja remembers fondly the festive chiuri flowering season in winter, when the entire forest used to hum with bees to the blossoms.
Honey from hives of chiuri bees are especially delicious, and is said to have medicinal properties. Once they had the taste of chiuri honey, Praja remembers townspeople hiking up to Chepang villages to buy more.
By evening, it would be the bats that would fly in to sip the nectar, and pollinate the chiuri flowers. The Chepang also hunted the bats, and it is a tradition in winter for relatives to gather around in the village and feast on tasty barbecued bats, inviting honoured guests.
The trees fruit in spring, and it is another important food item in the Chepang diet. The seeds are ground and turned into butter that used to be taken down to the market in Chitwan, where the Chepang bartered it for salt and clothing.
The hull from seeds are also used as organic pesticides and fertilisers on crops. Powered chiuri husk was also useful to sprinkle on water to drug fish and make them easier to catch.
The chiuri butter had antiseptic properties, and the Chepang rubbed it like a lotion on their chafed hands.
“We grew up with chiuri and in the company of bats,” Praja recalls. “The trees are now disappearing, and the bats too are gone.”
Ramesh Praja has given up his people’s traditional forest life, and now runs a small shop by a new dirt road that has snaked up to the village. His family now cooks in oil bought at the market, and not anymore in chiuri butter.
There are many factors that are depleting the trees: the climate crisis has dried up perennial springs and lowered the water table, chiuri saplings do not take root in the forest as they used to, road construction and expansion of settlements have led to landslides that destroyed the trees that were left. The Chepang themselves have felt that summers are unbearably hot even up in the mountains, and winters are milder. In the Chepang settlement of Silinge in Makwanpur, villagers say they now have never-before-seen mosquitos.
“Our village is almost as hot as Chitwan now,” says Ramesh Praja.
There has been an effort to re-introduce beekeeping, and some Chepang families are in the honey business. But in the absence of the chiuri trees, the bees do not have the special chiuri flowers that gave the honey from here its special taste.
“If we could revive the chiuri forest, the honey would be like gold here,” says Motiram Chepang of Silinge.
With the trees mostly gone, the Chepang of this area pack their hives into pickups and take them down to Chitwan or Hetauda to graze on flowers there. Besides the transport cost, they also have to pay a hefty rent per hive to let their bees out.
Ramesh Praja himself lost about 80 bee hives during the pandemic lockdown when he could not protect his hives that he had taken down to Chitwan from floods. He says, “I lost about Rs800,000. If there had been chiuri trees at home I would not have lost all those hives.”
There was ample potential for the Chepang to promote homestay tourism, but with the trees gone the culture is not as vibrant and there is nothing to attract visitors.
Former ward chair of Raksirang of Makwanpur Singha Lal Chepang says his entire focus now is on protecting the chiuri that are left and to revive the former forests. He recalls that back in the Panchayat-era 50 years ago, the tree was registered as belonging to the Chepang, and people here even had certificates to prove their ownership.
Nepal’s community forestry laws also protect the Chepang’s right to the trees, but the chiuri is still disappearing from the forests of Makwanpur, Gorkha, Chitwan and Dhading, where about 50,000 Chepang people live.
The changing lifestyle of the Chepang has also damaged the chiuri stands. As villagers take to livestock rearing, their goats now graze in the forest and eat up the undergrowth so there are no new trees to replace the old ones when they die.
“There used to be a time when each household could harvest up to 1,800kg of chiuri fruit and sell the butter in bulk,” remembers Sancharaj Praja. “Now the trees are gone, there is no more demand for the butter, and people have stopped even picking the fruits anymore.”
Some development organisations have tried to help revive the chiuri plant, tens of thousands of seedlings were planted to try to conserve Chepang culture, but the attempts have failed so far mainly because the goats have eaten them up.
The trees are not even given as dowry anymore. Says Motiram Chepang: “First off, there are no saplings to give away. But then the children also do not understand the value of their people’s attachment to this tree anymore.”