After the Gorkhas were deployed in Thak Khola, the locals came into contact with the military authorities and developed close relations with them. The Thakalis were cooperative and instrumental in the victory of the war that followed
The ancient history of "Nepaulians, like that of all other nations, is clouded by mythological fables." Col. W. Kirkpatrick (1811)
Culturally rich, economically prosperous, socially well adjusted, occupying a small part of the country, and fairly educated, Thakalis today are spread throughout the mid-western part of the nation. Demographically a micro-minority, but well-known as business entrepreneurs, and play a unique role in the nation's economy.
Who are the Thakalis? What is their origin? What religion and tradition do they belong to and follow? These are queries that remain unsettled, because the problem of their identity has been debated for long. Some section of the society believes that Thakalis are the descendants of the Shahi Thakuri clan from Sinja of Jumla, and claim Hansa Raja, the son of Jashu Shahi, came to visit Mukti Nath, married the daughter of a local Nhima Rani and settled in Thak Khola and, therefore, Thakalis are his descendants.
Such a claim does not hold much water.
Before the Gurkhas annexed Mustang, there were tiny states like Lo, Serib, Thini and Gunthang in Mustang. Hansa Raja appears nowhere in these states as a king. The 'History of Sinjapati' casts doubt on his existence as the ruler of Sinja. The surname of Thakalis could have been "Shahi", not the Tibetan Choki, Salgi, Burgi and Dimchan, had they been the descendants of Hansa Raja. His name is nowhere mentioned in the history of Nepal. So, the belief about Hansa Raja could be a part of fables.
Foreign scholars have generally been dismissive of the idea of using the story of Hansa Raja to link the Thakalis to a Thakuri-related past and downplay the importance of the clan Rhub as a historical document.
Scarcity of sources and scholarship has bred a great deal of speculation about their ethnic origin and identity.
The traditional attire of the Thakalis has also become a matter of controversy lately. The kind of costumes people wear is usually determined by the climatic condition and weather. The habitat occupied by the Thakalis lies 7,000 feet above sea level.
Geographically and culturally, Mustang is part of the Tibetan plateau, and the people residing there are of Tibetan origin, no matter who controls it politically.
The foreign and domestic scholars who visited Thak Khola in the early fifties found the people there wearing a heavy Tibetan coat, Bakkhu, and hats.
The Italian scholar, Giueppe Tucci, who visited Thak Khola in 1952, comments thus on Tukuche: "The people are Thakalis, but they speak Tibetan; they wear heavy Tibetan coat and hats; they walk with the Tibetan slouch; above all, they smile like Tibetans".
Some Thakalis claim the Panchayati national dress 'Daura and Suruwal' is a Thakali attire. But this claim has no historical evidence.
The Daura and Suruwal, in fact, has a long history. It existed before the Thakalis appeared in the present form in the 20th century. The Malla kings of the Kathmandu Valley in the 12th century wore Daura and Suruwal. The Mughal Emperors of Delhi, Babur Khan, Akbar, and Bahadur Shah, the last emperor, all wore Daura and Suruwal. Even Dravya Shah wore it in 1359. Earlier, Jung Bahadur, too, put it on, but without a coat. Queen Victoria of England presented him a coat during his visit in 1850, and the coat became a part of the national dress onward. Bakkhu, a heavy Tibetan coat, with hat and 'Docha', a heavy boot, seem to constitute the Thakali traditional dress. Thakalis were Buddhists, who followed the Bon culture. Before the arrival of King Prithvi Narayan Shah, the country was ruled by Magars in the west, Tamangs in the central region, such as Nuwakot and Rasuwa, the valley of Kathmandu by the Malla kings, and the eastern region by Limbus. They spoke different languages, practised Buddhism and Mundhum. They were all Mongols.
Modern technology has come as a great help to identify the origin of the human race, community, and descendants, of clans and sub-clans. A DNA test of Thakalis in Japan indicates Thakalis are 95 per cent Mongolian in origin.
The Nepal-Tibet war changed all that, bringing them close to political power and prosperity. After the Gorkhas were deployed in Thak Khola, the locals came into contact with the military authorities and developed close relations with them. The Thakalis were cooperative and instrumental in the victory of the war that followed.
Pleased by the help and cooperation, the authorities awarded business opportunities to the Thakalis.
Contracts on the salt trade in Mustang, and for copper, iron and lead mining in Baglung, Gulmi and Myagdi were also awarded to them. Balbir Thakali, a dynamic young man, was recruited as an interpreter.
After the war, on the recommendation of Capt.
Amar Dhoj Kunwar, Balbir was also awarded the title of 'Subba'. As a result, they became financially prosperous and politically powerful and also got upgraded socially. The other people in Mustang were left behind.
But with their new found identity, Thakalis were attracted to Hinduism as their faith. They, however, were not alone in this matter. Other communities also changed their identity, adopting Hinduism. One strong factor here was the pressure put by the ruling class in Kathmandu to enforce Hinduism nationwide in the territories gaine. King Prithvi Narayan Shah was trying to promote both Hinduism and a fundamental version of "Asali Hindustan". It was an attempt to save and preserve Hinduism as it was declining in India following the Muslim aggression and British drive to colonise it.
The Hindu sacred thread "Janeu" too was offered to the indigenous people, many of whom rejected it and stuck to their own faith. So did the Thakalis of Thak Khola when the offer came. This shows Thakalis are Mongols, not Aryans in origin, and are followers of Buddhism.
They do not need to shake off their real identity, but can take pride in their culture and heritage.
The Nepal-Tibet war brought the Thakalis close to political power and prosperity.
A version of this article appears in the print on August 12 2021, of The Himalayan Times.