The few nomadic forest tribes left on the planet struggle to protect their traditional way of life, as modernity gradually encroaches upon their spaces—their forests and hills. One such community is the Raute people, the last of the nomads in Nepal, who are mostly found in the mid-Western hilly regions around the Salyan, Surkhet and Dailekh districts. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language called Khamchi that has no written script, but also know Nepali and interact with other settled communities only occasionally in the way of trade. They are unique in several respects – linguistically one of the very few hunting and gathering tribes in Asia who have not lost their own language, the Rautes also exclusively hunt monkeys (rhesus and langur) and are one of the very few hunting-gathering societies known to use nets to hunt land animals.
Kishor Sharma’s interest in the Raute people was first awakened, when a news article about members of the community visiting the Prime Minister of Nepal featuring a picture of them alongside government officials caught his eye. In 2011, he began researching their way of living and their relationship with other societies as part of a photography master-class. As his interest quickened, he began multiple trips to the secluded corners of Nepal that the Rautes are usually found in, attempting to locate them.
“Since Rautes are still carrying on a nomadic lifestyle and prefer to isolate themselves from outer society, it wasn’t very easy at the beginning. But, they have been in touch with other societies for trade and other livelihood activities for so long. Many Nepali people picture them as ban-manche (savage) and have many bizarre stories about them: for instance, that they make a human sacrifice every 12 years, or that, if you wander into their camps, you will be enchanted and made prisoner and so on, but that is not the case. Also, anthropologists, NGOs and journalists have worked with them already so it wasn’t that difficult either. It took some time to build the relationship in the beginning though.”
Living in the Mist: The Last Nomads of Nepal is an expression of the trust and acceptance that Sharma managed to eventually earn. Presenting a portrait of the Rautes as rarely seen before, this series of black and white images, showcases a life outside the modern trappings we are accustomed to. Commendably, Sharma refrains from exoticising or romanticising the Rautes – attempting a more sincere reflection of the deep communal ties and unique hardships that such a nomadic lifestyle makes imperative. His use of a monochromatic palette and the play between light and shadow that he employs lend a singular clarity and intimacy to the images.
Sharma notes that this project was a great learning experience for him: allowing him to work with the Rautes—displaced from the frameworks of modern society—and learning how little we need to really survive, while also deepening his understanding of Nepal as a country and its society through the travel to remote areas it necessitated. Spaced somewhere between anthropology, social documentary and fine art, it moves past a subjective encounter into a learning experience for us, its audience, as well.
LIVING IN THE MIST: THE LAST NOMADS OF NEPAL
“The duniya (the outside world) farms and makes their homes. We enjoy living in the forest,” says Maeen Bahadur Shahi, former mukhiya (headman) of the last Nepali hunter-gatherers, the nomadic Raute tribe.Currently, there are only 140 Rautes in the western mid-hills of Nepal. Living some 2,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, they move higher during the summer and lower during the winter. Rautes live a nomadic life, moving from place-to-place every few weeks or months. Their only seeming attachment is to the forests, on which they rely to make their living. They also hunt monkeys, which makes them unique among indigenous communities. They are skilled at woodwork and crafting household utensils.
But these days, the Raute way of life is increasingly under threat, caught between tradition and modernity. A government allowance – one thousand rupees (approx. 9.46 USD) a month – might seem helpful, but it making them dependent on handouts, say some locals. “Earlier, Rautes believed that counting money is a sin but these days, they ask for money whenever they can,” says an elderly Dailekh local.
The allowance has also meant that Rautes interact more often with other communities. They get drunk with locals, sometimes getting into fights. Furthermore, after community forestry was introduced in the 70s, tensions arose between Rautes and the communities that were stewards of the forests. Used to having free reign of the woods, they were not allowed to cut down trees anymore.
It has also become harder to find space for nomadic traditions. If anyone dies in the community, Rautes immediately leave the place, burying the dead with their personal belongings. They also don’t drink flowing water and standing water that is easily accessible can be difficult to find.
For elders like Maeen Shahi of the last nomads of Nepal, these experiences are difficult but he accepts them as something eventual with the changing of times. “This has been the way for long. It will continue for as long we can,” he says.
Kishor Sharma (b. 1983) is a freelance documentary photographer who teaches at Kathmandu University, CJMC and with photo.circle. In 2013, he completed an advanced visual storytelling course from the Danish School of Media and Journalism. In 2014, he was awarded the Asia Prize at the Photo City Sagamihara Awards, held in Sagamihara, Japan, for his documentary work on Nepali nomads. His works have appeared on many national and international media and exhibited in Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Finland, France, the UK and Japan. He strives to explore human societies through the photography.
You can see more of his work at https://kishorksharma.wordpress.com/