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.”