The Bantars of Nepal

By Mahesh Paudyal

Scattered over the Tarai region of Nepal, right from the easternmost district of Jhapa to Chitwan in the mid country, the Bantars form a different community, about which few people have cared to explore so far. The Bantars form an ethnic group identified by their own language and culture. They are usually dark, and love to occupy regions around the forest.

The story of their descent says that the Bantars in ancient days lived in the forest. They were originally called the Banataras, ‘Bana’ meaning jungle and ‘Tar’ the sage. Later the word ‘Banatar’ changed into ‘Bantar’. Because of their settlement in and around the forest, they have continued to be farmers and  labours and less are found involved in official jobs as doctors, teachers, bankers etc.

The Bantars have various internal divisions into castes and sub-castes. For example, those who have continued living in the forests and worship monkey god  Bandar, choose to call themselves  Bantar. Others, who developed as doorkeepers came to be called  the Dhokes. Similarly, a few, appointed as leaders of the group, took up the title Sardar. A few work as sorcerers and medicine men,  and have retained  the title Dhami. In the past, some were chosen by the Rana rulers as their hosts during their occasional visits to the Tarai for collecting revenues. Those Bantars came to be called the Rajbantars – blessed by royal favour. The few engaged in fishing bear the title ‘Majhi’.

Rajbantar or Rajdhami think themselves to be superior to other Bantars. The Dhokes form the oldest known group among the Bantars.

During the Rana regime, the high officials had to collect revenue. But due to the lack of transportation, those revenues had to be brought to Kathmandu on shoulders or horses. Those officials didn’t believe in all the communities living in the Tarai. But the simple-minded and gullible Bantars were considered highly trustworthy. So they were given the responsibility to carry Tora the revenue, to Kathmandu. On their way they had to face a lot of challenges. Loots used to attack them and attempt to  take way the money. But the Bantars would fight and bring those revenues to Kathmandu with full honesty in about a month. They were not allowed to go back home Immediately. They were imprisoned at Hanumandhoka jail, so that they could not run away. Only after six to eight months the money used to be counted. Till then they had to stay in jail.

During the stay in Hanumandhoka, some used to be kept inside the jail or dhoka. Those who were kept inside called Dhokewal Bantars and who stayed outside were called Sodewal Bantars.

In the Bantar community, When a child is born, it is  made holy by a purification ritual. The woman after delivery is not allowed to go out. She is made to stay in a dark room with the newborn. Things like pieces of net, and the thorns of the wild berry are kept to ward off evil spirits. Similarly, right since the time of delivery, a weapon is kept near the mother and the child, symbolising security.

After six days of the birth of baby the mother comes out from the room and takes bath, cleans her body and wears new and fresh clothes. The newborn baby is also given a bath. Then the nails of the mother and the child are cut well. The mother wears new clothes, puts oil on her hair and goes to the well or tube well to pray with flowers, vermillion and other materials.

The newborn is given a name on the  6th day by the elders. Usually a child is named according to the day it was born on. For example, a child born on Tuesday is called Mangalu or Mangali, and on Wednesday Budhan or Budhani.

Arrange marriage and love or self-marriage are the main types of marriages in this community. The Bantars usually marry from their own caste. Usually the girls are selected in the bazaar or in the social functions. The selection of the girl is usually done by the close relatives or neighbours. The person who plays the role of mediator between the families of the boy and the girl is called Laaran.

When a Bantar dies, some the dead body is buried or burnt according to their custom. All  the relatives of the dead one, and  the villagers assemble. If the dead body is that of a married woman, it is decorated with bangles, and vermillion. Three days after the day of cremation, the relatives of the dead   visit the spot once again.  The remnant of the ash is collected and made into a small pile. A crater is made on the top, and milk is poured into it. If the milk turns red it is taken as the sign of love. After six days, the close relatives of the dead go to the nearest river or pond and offer mustard in the name of the dead. On twelfth day the final rites are performed. The nephew of the dead one is usually made the priest.