The Raute people of west Nepal describe themselves as ban ko raja, which means “kings of the forest.” This nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers lives in a small, closed society comprised of about 150 individuals and survives by hunting monkeys and manufacturing hand-carved tools and products, which they exchange for grain and vegetables with the surrounding villages. Creating such woodcrafts is the only source of income that enables them to sustain their tribal existence in the 21st century.
Throughout the year the Raute move several times, searching for areas of forest with enough monkeys and potential raw wood. They live predominantly far away from other villages in hidden meadows or on riverbanks, and they are well-adapted, migrating through many different ecological conditions — from subtropical lowlands during the winter to mixed highlands in the monsoon season.
Monkey hunting is an essential part of the Raute’s culture and tradition. They are so effective at it, in fact, that farmers in the area support their hunting, as monkeys are known to destroy their rice and corn fields. During the harvest, especially, local farmers cooperate with the Raute hunters to keep monkeys away from their crops. For every monkey killed, the hunters receive a small sack of unhusked natural rice.
But for this nomadic tribe, hunting is not only a necessity; it is also a way to keep their ancient culture alive. Among themselves, the Raute speak a kind of Tibeto-Burman language that has no written form. They pass their nomadic knowledge from generation to generation orally through stories, proverbs, myths, and rituals. Nonetheless, much of their culture has been lost through the ages.
Like many nomadic societies, the Raute have an animistic worldview and believe in nature gods. They do not own land and do not subscribe to the economic principle of physical labor in exchange for wage. Wildlife like langurs, Barbary apes, and various birds make up their basic diet, while they also collect yams, mushrooms, and wild vegetables in the forest. As they don’t practice agriculture, food is often scarce, and they have become dependent on the help of the state and local villagers. Since 2009, the Nepalese government has been providing them with 1000 Nepalese rupees (about $8 USD) per person per month.
The dominant surrounding society has a different opinion of the Raute’s nomadic way of living, not understanding how they can exist in the modern age without having a fixed settlement or agriculture. In fact, the Nepalese government and local human rights organizations are seeking to persuade the tribe to settle. In the past, the Raute have been offered plots and areas of land to build their own settlements, the opportunity to send their children to school free of costs, and the chance to practice agriculture alongside other sedentary farmers in the region. But the tribe has always proudly rejected the offers. There have even been many attempts to integrate them into mainstream society and to make them aware and accustomed to modern civilization, but they all failed, as the Raute prefer to preserve their own culture, traditions, and rituals.
In recent years, climate change has strongly affected the living conditions of the nomadic tribe. As they report, it no longers rains when they expect it to, which means that vegetables and other foods cannot grow as usual in the forest. Furthermore, the monkey population they usually hunt is dwindling, and they believe that soon they are going to disappear completely from the region. Due to the scarcity of food and their dwindling diets, the death rate among Raute babies and toddlers is very high. During my time among the Raute, I witnessed babies born with physical disabilities, many children with bellies swollen from malnutrition, and young mothers who did not survive giving birth. This is not helped by the fact that the Raute believe that the use of medicines is against their way of life.
The nomadic lifestyle of the Raute is trapped between their ancient traditions and a modernized society that is based on Hindu social values and standards. According to the Raute’s mukhiyas (leader), Mahin Bahadur Shahi, his “people say no to settlement, education, and agriculture — we would rather die than give up our nomadic way of life.” What is surprising, however, is that even in the face their recent struggles, and despite inroads made by modernity into the remote regions of Nepal where they live, the Raute have managed to survive and preserve their way of life. They continue their many thousands of migrations, carrying what is left of their nomadic culture with them.
The Raute are one of the world’s many indigenous peoples that practice a way of life outside of modern society. You can read more about who indigenous peoples are and the issues that they currently face here.