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… avec les écrits de Philippe Sagant

Dasaĩ and dual power among the Yakthumba

Dasaĩ et le double pouvoir chez les Yakthumba
Philippe Sagant
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham


Dasaῖ chez les Yakthumba est une fête populaire. Le culte de Durgā rend légitime l’autorité de chefs politiques appelés subbā qui sont apparus après la conquête gurkha : ayant reçu délégation des pouvoirs du roi du Népal, ils auraient pris la succession d’anciens « rois » appelés hang. Ces hang étaient en fait des chefs de maison (tumyang) comme les autres. Mais par la faveur de Nahangma, divinité de la montagne yakthumba, ils étaient reconnus les premiers parmi leurs pairs (tum tumyang) et portés au pouvoir. Nahangma n’est pas présente à Dasaῖ, remplacée par une autre déité appelée Yuma (la Grand-Mère) avec laquelle elle fut toujours en guerre. Mais elle n’en continue pas moins d’être célébrée dans chaque maison, à des dates qui lui sont propres. Et de la même façon que Durgā et Yuma rendent légitime ce même pouvoir, Nahangma légitime ce même pouvoir pour chaque chef de maison qui dépend du subbā : il y a contradiction.
On se trouve donc chez les Yakthumba dans une situation de double pouvoir antagoniste des dieux (Durgā et Nahangma) qui fonde le double pouvoir antagoniste des hommes (subbā et tumyang). Si cette hypothèse est fondée, alors le hang d’autrefois, chef de maison lui aussi, n’a pas disparu. C’est ce que montre l’auteur.

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Notes de la rédaction

First published in French in 1996 under the title “Dasaĩ et le double pouvoir chez les Yakthumba”, in G. Krauskopff and M. Lecomte-Tilouine (eds), Célébrer le pouvoir: Dasaĩ, une fête royale au Népal (Paris, Éditions du CNRS/Éditions de la MSH): 283–314. Translated thanks to support from the CEH (UPR299-CNRS), which we thank.

Texte intégral

fig. 1 – The swing wheel set up during Dasaĩ

fig. 1 – The swing wheel set up during Dasaĩ

Photo Philippe Sagant, 17 November 1966; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.7, film 16.5

  • 1 On the subbā, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1965: 81; Sagant, 1978, 1981.
  • 2 On hang, cf. Hamilton, [1819] 1971: 118, 133–136, 146, etc.; Campbell, 1840: 515, 536–597, 606, 610 (...)

1Among the Yakthumba, Dasaĩ is a folk festival, as it is elsewhere in Nepal: the worship of Durgā gives legitimacy to the political authority of headmen called sub,1 who appeared after the Gurkha conquest (1774). Having been delegated the powers of the king of Nepal, they assumed the mantle of the ancient “kings” known as hang,2 who existed in the earliest days of the ethnic group, and still existed under the rule of the Sen kings.

  • 3 On Yuma, cf. Caplan (1970: 155); Chemjong (1966, II: 16, 21-23, I: 95); Hitchcock and Jones (1976: (...)

2In the context of the Hindu Dasaĩ ritual, the ethnic community’s ancient gods are present, and as is only proper, they participate in the festival under the aegis of Durgā. Among the Yakthumba, a divinity called Yuma3 (the grandmother) is honoured as tutelary deity on the seventh day of worship.

3However, one point merits mention: within the ethnic group, the grandmother Yuma, ever since coming into being, has been in conflict with another Yakthumba divinity named Nahangma, linked to the worship of a local mountain.

  • 4 On Nahangma, cf. Cambpell (1840: 600), Chemjong (1966, I: 2, II: 150), Caplan (1970: 156), Jones an (...)
  • 5 On tumyang, cf. Risley, 1892: 31; Senior, [1908] 1977: 44; Chemjong, 1966, I: 66; etc.

4Nahangma4 has no presence in Dasaĩ. But she nonetheless continues to be celebrated in all homes on dates reserved for her outside the Hindu calendar. And just as Durgā legitimises the power of the subbā, Nahangma continues to legitimise the power of each house-headman (tumyang).5

5In this connection, it is worth noting that what is at stake in both rituals is the same: enabling man to regain a “wild force” primarily manifested in the violence of sword-fighting.

6The coexistence of the worship of Nahangma and Durgā within the same population is actually a total contradiction. On the one hand, Nahangma legitimises the use of arms by each of the house-headmen whose authority depends on a subbā. And on the other hand, Durgā gives the subbā an exclusive monopoly over the use of arms.

7Hence my idea that among the Yakthumba, there exists a dual, antagonistic power of the gods, and that among men it seems to establish a dual power, in the Marxist sense of the term. House-headmen cannot accept that the subbā on whom they depend should have a sole monopoly over this wild force that enables them to wield the sword. And reciprocally, the subbā, who has been delegated the powers of the King of Nepal, cannot tolerate seeing this monopoly challenged by the house-headmen in his ward.

  • 6 On tum tumyang and hang, cf. Chemjong (1961: 110), Senior ([1908] 1977: 45); D.R. Regmi (1961: 30, (...)

8At a larger scale, these elements have a direct link to a contemporary question. We know that “kings” (hang) once existed among the Yakthumba. They were present when the ethnic group came into being, and they still existed in the time of the Sen kings. Furthermore, we know that the Yakthumba “king” was a house-headman (tumyang) like the others. But because of the very special favour he was shown by Nahangma, he was sometimes recognised as being above his peers, as the “head house-headman” (tum tumyang), at the level of the valley, or even of all of the Yakthumba country.6

  • 7 On the disappearance of the hang, opinions diverge. For Hodgson (1858: 449), they had vanished five (...)

9But when it comes to these kings (hang), all authors agree that they have vanished, replaced by subbā after the Gurkha conquest.7

10In other words, the matter raised in this article is simple. Assuming—as I do—that to this day, Nahangma worship still underpins the legitimacy of house-headmen’s power, then it would seem logical that the head house-headman still exists. Despite many assertions to the contrary, the hang survived the Gurkha conquest. They are still present today.

11In an attempt to confirm this hypothesis, three questions will be considered: first, the Nahangma ritual and the legitimacy of the house-headman’s power; then Dasaĩ worship and the legitimacy of the subbā; and finally, the dual power among men and the survival of the hang down to the present day.

12Thus Dasaĩ worship has partially broken down among the Yakthumba. And political integration in the kingdom of Nepal was not complete in the 1960s on the eve of the establishment of “village councils”.

The Nahangma ritual and the legitimacy of the house-headman (tumyang)

  • 8 On the relationship between mountain worship and honour, cf. Sagant (1981: 149–179) and, for compar (...)
  • 9 On hierarchy and rank, cf. Sagant (1973a) and, for comparison, Karmay and Sagant (1987) among the S (...)

13The term “house-headman” literally translates as him tangba (Senior, [1908] 1977: 32). The notion is linked to ideas of alliance, filiation, land rights, arms use and authority. However, the power of the house-headman results solely from the favour of the god of the local mountain, who transforms him into an aristocrat (tumyang) who walks with his “head high”, and in his body carries a force from the beyond (Nahangma):8 the people in his house owe their health to it, as do the fields their prosperity. This force gives legitimacy to his power over people. However, all of them are not equally favoured by the gods. And the force of each of them varies from one house to another. At any given moment, it is decisive for establishing the hierarchy between households.9 Mountain worship is the foundation of Yakthumba civilisation.

14These notions are the result of contemporary observations. They seem to go far back in time, and were still alive a few years ago. However, they do present certain problems, because although in the distant past, the Yakthumba aristocrat was able to obtain the gods’ favour without anyone else’s help, this is no longer the case in our times. Something changed at a certain point in history, though I am unable to give the reasons or specify the time period. But ever since that change, to obtain power from the beyond, the house headman must pass through a mediator who has been imposed between him and the sacred mountain. This ritual officiant is called the “sword-master” (phe-dangma)” (Sagant, 1973a). His role is not unlike that of the Brahman in his relationship with the Hindu king.

  • 10 On the “domestic” slave yog, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1971: 117.

15First a word about the type of household that recognises the authority of the Yakthumba house-headman. Today, under the influence of Nepalese legislation, a house tends to be inhabited by a nuclear family. In the 1920s, however, some powerful households were home to at least forty people, assembling an entire lineage, not to mention dependents and slaves (yog).10 It is possible that the Yakthumba house was once a “big house” comparable to that of certain populations of Arunachal Pradesh. It seems that the house-headman’s authority has only been diminishing over time, in line with the evolution of the households themselves, in which the number of inhabitants has continued to decrease.

  • 11 On yok thokwa, cf. Chemjong, 1961: 240.
  • 12 On the maternal uncle, yarhung, cf. Tucci, 1955.

16It is also worth noting that the aristocrat’s role depends upon a certain number of conditions relating to marriage payments; the term “nobleman” (tumyang) is in opposition to that of “domestic slave”, which is so common in Himalaya and beyond. Marriage was once viewed as the theft of a woman; a pregnant wife usually gave birth not in her husband’s house, but in her native home. When born, the child was considered a slave, attached to the house of its mother’s brother (kwa): it stayed there until its father made the final marriage payments. This was no simple matter: at the very least, seven or eight years would elapse between the first and last payments. On the occasion of that final payment, known as the “source of wealth” (melung phuma), the married man paid the “slave price” (yog thokwa)11 to his wife’s brother. It was then recognised that the child belonged to his father’s clan and was of noble extraction. He also gained the possibility of someday becoming a house-headman himself. If the payment was not made, he remained a slave in the house of his mother’s brother, and his status was low. He was a man with no clan name and no honour. His “life force” depended on that of his maternal uncle. Thus a prerequisite of nobility was recognition of marriage ties. And after all of the payments had been made, nobility also involved strong political and ritual support from the maternal uncle, something that is evocative of the role of this same maternal uncle in the Tibetan dynasty of the Yarlung kings.12

  • 13 The notion of master of the land corresponds to the Nepali term kipaṭiyā.
  • 14 On the master of the forest (tamphung hangpa), cf. Hodgson, 1858: 450; Dalton, 1872: 103.

17Finally, becoming a house-headman of noble extraction also means being “land-master” (laje-tangba)13 in one’s home, that is to say master of the fields belonging to the house. In the 1960s, land inheritance often took place while an aged father was still alive. But an archaic idea is transmitted along with authority over land; in bygone times, ancestors won their fields in the forest through clearing. Before being house-headmen and land-masters, the ancestors made themselves into forest-masters (tamphung hangpa).14 Their descendants still claim this title today, although the notion is now at variance with Nepalese legislation.

18In fact, the forest-master concept is central to the idea of nobility as it specifically applies to the house-headman: it is directly linked to mountain worship.

  • 15 On the ritual hunt after the Yakthumba arrived from Lhassa, cf. Sagant, 1981: 216.

19It should be noted that this term “nobleman” is probably very old. In the field, I have heard it repeated many times that before the arrival of the Yakthumba of Lhasa, the “eight kings” (yet hang) who dominated in the Yakthumba country at that time were themselves also noblemen. But unlike contemporary Yakthumba, they knew how to make themselves into “forest-masters” and thus occupy land without the mediation of any intercessor. And according to legend, the same went for the first Yakthumba arriving from Tibet after their long migration. They were able to establish themselves in eastern Nepal thanks to the “ritual hunt” institution.15

  • 16 On banishment and “the crossing of the fringes” cf. among others Aris, 1980: 60–82.

20All population migration, like that of the Yakthumba arriving from Lhasa, seems to present a millenarianist character. Where one lives, one remains a “land-master” only with the gods’ support: abandoned by them, one has no choice but to leave the Yakthumba country, like an exile. And this is generally for good reasons: floods, defeat in the face of a surge of newcomers, the collapse of a mountainside are all signs that something is no longer right within, that the law of the land has been transgressed. One is abandoned by the gods, and remains so while setting off on down the path of exile, making the long journey across the forest and through the barbaric fringes.16

  • 17 On the wild force acquired in the forest by the Yakthumba, linked to fire and force, cf. Sagant (19 (...)

21If one succeeds in establishing oneself in a new region, this is conditional upon regaining the support of the gods. The ritual hunt is one of the institutions that can end a protracted exile migration. Paradoxically, it involves a new transgression. Everywhere, wild horned animals are the property of the mountain gods—their flock. When a man kills a stag, wild yak or bharal, it means he has the senseless arrogance to dare to defy the gods. Rare are those who risk that level of audacity. Some of them fail, killed by an avalanche, struck by lightning or slaughtered by the snow leopard. Some of them succeed. It seems that their courage then earns them the gods’ favour. Killing the beast is a sign that they have made themselves into “forest-masters”. They settle, they clear the land, and they become “land-masters”. Having been exiles, they become noblemen thanks to the “wild force” acquired in the forest.17

  • 18 On the rising and descending seasons, thang-mang, ong-mang, among the Yakthumba, cf. Sagant, 1973b. (...)

22But the world is such that everywhere, every year, when the seasons change,18 the gods abandon the people again, and the land is threatened by rising waters, the return of chaos. So even if he has lived in the region for a long time, every nobleman must show fresh proof that he is capable of repeating his ancestor’s feat. Like the exile who was the founder, he too, in a new challenge, plunges into the forest and attempts to slaughter a wild horned animal. If he succeeds, it means that he has regained the force that makes it possible to keep chaos in check.

  • 19 On creative dismemberment, cf. Macdonald, 1987.

23Linked to the notion of “dismemberment”19 of the animal, the ritual hunt still survives among today’s Yakthumba. But it is nothing but a pale staging of the action of the past, and is now controlled by the officiant who has become the mediator between the mountain and the people. Every year it is the officiant himself, the “sword-master”, who plunges into the forest on behalf of the house-headman and goes to the mountain to bring the force back from the beyond.

24This ritual to Nahangma I have described elsewhere (Sagant, 1976: 76–95); here I will only review some aspects that might help us to understand that something has changed in the power of the Yakthumba aristocrats.

25The rite is conducted in each noble house, which the “sword-master” visits one after the other. It takes place twice yearly, on dates unconnected with the date of the Dasaĩ ritual: they are periods spent cut off like the period of exile, when the house-headman, like his ancestor, returns to the chaos of the beginning. Everything has to be created, including the appearance of the first of the “sword-masters”.

26In the house, an altar is raised against the upper wall that faces the ridge crest. On this are placed the house-headman’s sword (phe) and shield (kho), among other things. During the first stage, the officiant recites Nahangma’s myth of origin: at the request of the eight kings (yet hang) who once inhabited the earth, one of the nine celestial gods (pang hang) was sent to the people. On the spot where she landed like lightning, the earth cleaved and started quaking. Then the “lake of the aristocrats” (tumyang dhārā) appeared, followed by a stone called phok lung, the sword, the shield, and that force called Nahangma. This scene played out in the middle of the Yakthumba world, at the heart of the sacred mountain, the Phoktanglungma, one of the summits of the nearby Kumbhakarna chain.

27At the beginning of the second part of the ritual, the officiant stands up and plunges into the “forest”, on the paths of the other world. In his hands he holds the house-headman’s sword and shield; he enumerates every step of the long ritual journey to the sacred mountain. He arrives at the lake of pure water where, as in the beginning, lightning has just struck. He sacrifices a cock in the name of his client. In exchange, he obtains the “force”. Various divinations follow, linked to the house-headman’s fate. They concern the “flower-soul”, his client’s double in the other world, the “stone throw” (lung lepma), etc.

  • 20 On the sign, nisān in Nepali, cf. Turner, 1931: 351. The pheasant feather among the Yakthumba evok (...)

28In the final stage of the ritual, the sword-master returns to the people’s world, along the same path as his outward journey. From the other world, he brings back the sword, the shield and the force. Returning to the house, he “closes” the body of the house-headman, who is standing beside him. He purifies his head and shoulders with water brought back from the lake on the sacred mountain. He gives him back the sword and shield. He wraps a white turban around the man’s head, and the man stamps his feet very hard while shaking the sword: Nahangma’s wild force is said to be in him once again at the top of his head, and to be moving his weapon. Finally, the officiant slides one of the feathers from the sacrificed chicken under the house-headman’s turban: this is the “sign” of the restored force. It is possible that a drum was once used in this ceremony.20

A few remarks comparing the two rituals

  • 21 Pung-mi ba, the Yakthumba, “wild man”, refers to the mi-rgod, bu-rgod of the Tibetans, to the chu-m (...)

29Firstly, there are points in common between the hunter of the past plunging into the forest to slaughter a wild horned animal and the Yakthumba of today summoning the sword-master. At the beginning of the ritual, both are called “wild men” (pung mi-ba):21 they are like exiles, abandoned by the gods, wandering the forest where the social order has disappeared. And the world around them has returned to chaos.

30At the end of the ritual, both have succeeded making themselves into “forest-masters” and the chaos of the world has ceased: their bodies have regained the force, the social order has been restored, the gods have returned, and the mountain once again supports the sky, while also putting weight on the earth and preventing it from quaking. According to the traditional image of encased worlds, the action of the hunter, like that of the sword-master, has effects on the body, on society and on the cosmos.

  • 22 On the relationship between creative dismemberment and stone throw in Tibet, cf. Stein, 1959: 444, (...)

31One could highlight the continuity of a way of thinking, a set of specific themes common to both rituals: both cases feature the theme of “supernatural weapons”, in the form of the hunter’s bow and the house-headman’s sword. Furthermore, we know22 that the dismemberment of the slaughtered animal has the same effects as the sword-master’s “stone throw”; the feather slid under the turban is a “sign” comparable to the head and horns that the hunter claims.

  • 23 Himsingba, the pillar of the yakthumba house, is also the term for the house headman himself, who s (...)

32Above all, the aims of the rituals are the same: the return of the gods and the regaining of the “force”. Civilisation can only be revived through this “wild” force acquired in the chaos of the primordial waters.23

33Finally, in both the ritual hunt and the worship of Nahangma, the centre of the Yakthumba world remains the local mountain.

34It is nonetheless true that there is a profound difference between the hunt and the ritual to Nahangma. It is a shift from one society, in which every year, the house-headman makes personal sacrifices to regain control over the land, to another where it is the “sword-master” who controls the force that comes from the mountain. (But for whose benefit?) Yakthumba society has certainly become more docile. Perhaps there has been a transfer towards a more centralised power.

The Hindu Dasaĩ ritual and the emergence of new headmen (subbā)

35In the late 18th century, the Gurkha conquest makes it possible to integrate the Yakthumba country into the kingdom of Nepal by force. Headmen of a new kind are gradually installed. They are called subbā. They too are in origin house-headmen, among others. But now they will receive a hereditary delegation of powers from the king of Nepal to administer the region in his name in accordance with Nepalese legislation, not ancient tradition.

36Just as Nahangma and her worship continue, as in the past, to legitimise the authority of each Yakthumba house-headman, the Hindu Durgā and the Dasaĩ ritual legitimise the new headmen’s authority over the other house-headmen. The “dual power” of men therefore appears: the tumyang on the one hand and the subbā on the other. But this dual power of men is based on a dual power of the gods: on the one hand the Yakthumba tutelary divinity Nahangma, who has remained in place, and on the other hand the Hindu Durgā, who is trying to assert herself. They too—the gods—are in conflict. In other words, the Yakthumba house-headmen, bolstered by Nahangma’s support, tend to oppose the authority of the subbā, who centralise power in the name of Durgā. The contradiction manifests itself in the institutions. In modern times, however, two centuries after the integration of the Yakthumba into the kingdom of Nepal, one would expect to find the subbā, backed by the Nepalese state, to have permanently established their authority over the house-headmen in their ward, and more precisely, Nahangma, as the Yakthumba’s tutelary deity, to be celebrated on the seventh day of the Dasaĩ ritual. This would signal her integration into Hinduism, her allegiance to Durgā, and the permanent recognition of the subbā’s power in wards where they represent the authority of the Nepalese king.

37In fact, this is not the case. At no point in the Dasaĩ ritual does Nahangma appear. And it is another Yakthumba deity, the one called “grandmother” (Yuma), who takes her place in Hindu worship as the population’s tutelary divinity.

38In the north of the country, the apparition of Yuma and her officiant of the same name is problematic. Once again, with her appearance comes a turning point in Yakthumba ways of thinking, comparable to that of the emergence of the “sword-master” and the worship of Nahangma.

39Thus when studying Dasaĩ, the worship of Yuma is of primary interest. Because like the Trojan horse, she introduces the major Hindu myths among the Yakthumba. She prepares the way the advent of Durgā, the authority of the king of Nepal and the legitimacy of the subbā, to whom the king delegates his powers. It is nonetheless true that Nahangma’s resistance to Durgā seems to have been considerable—as considerable as the house-headmen’s resistance to the installation of the subbā. This is no doubt indirectly proved by the evolution of the size of the ward (thum) in which the Dasaĩ ritual is conducted.

  • 24 On the six Yakthumba thum, cf. Risley, 1892: 38; Vansittart, 1915: 104; Morris, [1933] 1985: 88; Ch (...)

40This notion of the “ward” existed well before the Gurkha conquest, in the time of the rule of the Sen kings, as well as during the Sikkim kings’ rule over Yakthumba territory. It dates back as far as that of the authority of the Yakthumba themselves, linked to that of hang. According to legend, there were ten “kings” and ten territories (thum),24 as many as there were Yakthumba ancestors when the ethnic group came into being. And it is very likely that these kings—heading the coalitions of house-headmen on each of these territories—stood up against the Gurkha army in 1774. After being defeated, they were no doubt recognised by the king of Nepal as community leaders with whom one could negotiate: this was the case of the Maiwa ward (thum). At the time of the Gurkha conquest, the size of the territory over which a “king” exercised his authority was measured at the scale of a whole valley. And it was at this scale that the Dasaĩ ritual falling under each of the subbā was gradually introduced. The ward in which Dasaĩ was conducted was also the size of a valley.

41Two centuries later, just before the establishment of the village councils that put an end to the rule of the subbā, the territories of these wards (still called thum) had shrunk because of the increasing number of offices: in the Maiwa valley, there was on average one subbā for twenty houses, half of them Yakthumba and the other half immigrants (Sagant, 1978).

42It was in the context of wards becoming tiny that the major Dasaĩ ritual was performed around 1960. In them, one found a smaller-scale version of everything found in a kingdom: a “fortress”, a “sanctuary”, a banner, an “army”, a court of justice, tax collection and an autonomous territory where the subbā, thanks to Durgā, was delegated the exorbitant privileges of a king who had also become minuscule: he was “master of the cosmos” in an empire of twenty houses. He possessed the power to divert lightning.

43This increase in the number of offices was no doubt encouraged by Nepalese law. But the fragmentation of the old wards that had existed at the time of the Gurkha conquest primarily testified to the vehemence with which house-headmen rejected the hereditary authority of other house-headmen who had succeeded in becoming subbā. And this rejection led them in turn to scheme and obtain a subbā’s office for themselves. These facts show the Yakthumba house-headmen’s attachment to the political authority that the Nahangma ritual gave them.

The first days of Dasaĩ

44Be that as it may, among the Yakthumba, by around 1960, Dasaĩ had become as popular as it was everywhere in Nepal. This was shown by the first days of the festival: Yakthumba migrants returned from Assam and Sikkim and all stayed at home. People had new outfits made from fabric bought at the market. Young people were sent to the river to find red soil that could be used to repair the roughcast on houses; the paths were cleaned. One morning, Dasaĩ erupts with the sound of the tailors’ trumpets: holding a saddlebag, they go from house to house to collect grain, salt and chilli, which they are owed for their yearly payment. It is said that their visit heralds the beginning of the festival: it is the day of the new moon of the bright lunar fortnight during the Nepalese month of Asoj.

45And on that morning, each of the Yakthumba house-headmen and their subbā also prepare barley, corn and wheat seeds, which they will germinate in a dark corner of the house, as well as the goddess Bhagvatī’s pot (kalaś) and rice dish. On the terraces, people discuss the prices of the animals they have come to purchase. The Chetri from the neighbouring village are looking for goats. The Yakthumba pool their resources to buy a buffalo or pig. There are endless sacrifices throughout Dasaĩ. In all of the houses, meat hangs from the ceilings above the fireplaces. Plenty of alcohol is distilled. Lard and butter sizzle on wood fires, filling the air with their smell. Dozens of groups of Yakthumba roam the hamlets. In front of each house, they stop to sing: children are given change and adults get alcohol that is still lukewarm.

  • 25 These dances (ya langma) are accompanied by alternating songs: they are jousts, like the songs of t (...)

46Men armed with ball-bows cross the middle of the fields in hope of killing a pheasant. Others go fishing in the river, where they build enormous dams. From the first days, every evening, the teenagers discreetly disappear from the village: by the thousand, they gather on the mountain, where they spend the whole night singing and dancing. These are the traditional “love courts”. Yes, on the first days of Dasaĩ the Yakthumba also participate in the festival, and the Hindu gods are wholeheartedly celebrated.25

The seventh day of the festival (saptamī)

47The seventh day of Dasaĩ is marked by two events. The first concerns all of the houses of the noblemen (tumyang), and the second only concerns the house of their subbā.

48As elsewhere in Nepal, on that day, the community’s tutelary gods are celebrated—the “local” gods. This is what all of the house-headmen do, including the subbā. However, Nahangma is not the one who is invoked. As I have said, she is set aside in favour of Yuma, the grandmother, to whom every house sacrifices a pig.

  • 26 On the links between the worship of Yuma and the ancestors Uba and Tsangba, cf. Chemjong, 1966, I: (...)

49According to the oral tradition, the worship of Yuma was introduced by two of the Ten Yakthumba who arrived from Tibet. Their names were Tsangba and Uba, and the descendants of one of them was the “king” Mabo Hang.26 And it is true that still today, the clans descended from Tsangba and Uba are present on the two sides of the upper valley of the Tamur, testifying to the historical reality of those mythical characters.

  • 27 The quarrel between Yuma and Nahangma, described in the myth, is located above the current village (...)

50In principle, it is an officiant (himself also called yuma) who officiates in each of the houses. In song, he evokes the origins of the grandmother. He traces her age-old migration path: China, Eastern Tibet, Lhasa. When Yuma reaches the mountain near the small town of Tashirakha in southern Tibet, the flowing of the mountain’s imprisoned waters is evoked; this seems to be directly inspired by the Indian myth. However, as soon as she arrives in Yakthumba country from the north, Yuma gets into a quarrel with Nahangma, the local power.27 And this conflict between the gods brings about war between men. Nahangma wins and Yuma flees to Varanasi, Kathmandu, etc. But her worship was established later in southern Yakthumba country.

51Today however, Yuma has clearly managed to win back lost ground. She has ended up establishing herself throughout the country. And therefore she is the one celebrated on the seventh day of Dasaĩ, even in the homes of her former adversaries, Nahangma’s followers.

  • 28 On the khaḍga nisān, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1965: 122. On the relations of the Yakthumba with the kings (...)

52The other event on the seventh day of Dasaĩ, only concerns the subbā. From his house, he used to take a banner (khaḍga nisān)28 and plant it in the middle of his courtyard. Someone beat a drum (nagarā). All of the house-headman of the ward thus knew they were summoned to the home of the subbā in two days, the ninth day of Dasaĩ.

The eighth day (aṣṭamī)

53As elsewhere in Nepal, the eighth day of Dasaĩ is marked by buffalo sacrifices here and there. But this act does not have as much importance as it does in other communities. There are few who perform it among the Yakthumba. In 1966, in the village of Tembe in the Maiwa valley, the buffalo was slaughtered with an axe blow that split its skull open. There were a few children on site, but no officiant, no ritual.

fig 2 – Dasaĩ in Tembe: murder of the buffalo

fig 2 – Dasaĩ in Tembe: murder of the buffalo

Photo Philippe Sagant; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.3, vie religieuse

54In Libang (Mewa), the animal is jointly purchased by a few of the wealthiest house-headmen, most of them subbā. Of course, the sacrifice pole (maulo) on the path at the entrance to the village cannot be removed without offending the gods, since it is still associated with the ward of a subbā of the past, encompassing the wards of several of today’s subbā. However, here again, there is no officiant or ritual. The dismemberment of the animal does not in any way strengthen social links or legitimise power. The animal is carved up on the spot. The meat is weighed and sold to villagers. The act does not have the look of the central rite, which elsewhere honours the king. There is no connection with the myths of Durgā and the demon Mahişāsura. The major event is the following day, at the home of the subbā.

The ninth day (navamī)

55On the morning of the ninth day, every house-headman rises early and goes down to the rice fields. He passes through each of them, inspecting the irrigation channels and feeling the ears of rice, which will soon be ripe. Dasaĩ is above all the festival of meat and alcohol. And if the house-headman does not visit the fields, this angers the rice: “Am I the most important, or is it the meat?” The rice has to be shown that it is grander than the meat. Yet does Dasaĩ not ensure the prosperity of whole country and of all of the fields throughout the kingdom? It seems that a doubt lingers among the Yakthumba.

56Later that morning, drums and gunfire start echoing throughout the valley. And in every ward, the Yakthumba house-headmen—only they and their families—head to their subbā’s house. In Tembe (Maiwa), a brahman is present to oversee the construction of the altar. In Libang (Mewa) there is no Brahman. In the courtyard, the trunk of a banana tree is propped against a bamboo fence decorated with flowers; at its foot are placed the subbā’s sword and shield, as are effigies made from a gourd, representing a buffalo and a goat. Upon arrival, each of the house-headmen does what the subbā has also done, setting down the Durgā vase from his own house, the sprouts that have germinated, the raw rice dish and a small lamp, as well as his own sword, his farming tools, and the sharp instruments from his home. A goat is brought and tied to the altar.

57In principle, it is a Yuma priest who officiates, though in the north of the country he is sometimes replaced by the “sword-master”. The previous night (kāl rātri) was a return to the chaos of the beginning. The aim of the ritual is therefore to bring an end to the chaos, to create the world. In accordance with each of the themes of the Indian myth, the officiant’s chant evokes the churning of the ocean of milk, the appearance of the mountain, etc. The creating hero is nevertheless a Yakthumba. He is called Porok Mi-ba, “the great man” (yomba-mi). But he now finds himself nominally equated with Shiva. A war dance around the altar follows: the subbā leads, wearing a turban and holding his sword high, and all of the house-headmen behind him shake their weapons, shouting and jumping up and down, all of them now animated not by Nahangma, but by the force of Yuma, who has become Shiva’s wife, that is to say she is equated with Durgā. The goat is consecrated, then decapitated with a blow of the sword. The carcass is dragged around the altar, enclosing it in a line of blood. The officiant takes the animal and pours a few drops of blood on each of the swords, each of the cereal sprouts, etc. The goat and buffalo effigies are themselves cut through with a stroke of the sword. Finally, the officiant places his bare foot on the ground in the puddle of blood from the decapitated goat. He hops to the entrance of the subbā’s house, grips the veranda doors with both hands and presses his bare foot against the wall, leaving a bloody print above the door. Then the subbā, or sometimes his representative the officiant, places the “mark of the goat” (boka ṭikā)—a bit of blood—on the forehead of each of his ward’s house-headmen, as well as a few grains of raw rice and one or two cereal sprouts. And once this is done, each of them places this same mark on the members of his household in attendance.

fig. 3 – Dasaĩ in Tembe at the home of the subbā: altar of the goat sacrifice

fig. 3 – Dasaĩ in Tembe at the home of the subbā: altar of the goat sacrifice

“As soon as the goat has been killed, the phedaṅgmā moves quickly to soak his feet and dashes into the house to stamp the footprint”

Photos Philippe Sagant, 1966; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.3, vie religieuse

58The house-headmen take back their weapons and tools. To know if the year will be a good one, each of them examines the state of the sprouts (jamarā). The goat is carved up, and the subbā gives his dependants the animal’s roasted entrails (prasād) with a mug of beer. And the whole afternoon is dedicated to chants (samlo), with the elders trying to outdo each other in evoking the exploits of the ancestors, but this time they are Yakthumba ancestors.

  • 29 The notion of śir-ṭuk refers to the rights of the subbā, masters of the products of the forest, (...)

59The slaughtered goat’s head and other parts go to the subbā. It is referred to as a hunting payment (śir-ṭuk),29 as if the animal were wild. On that day, the subbā’s life force is regenerated, the force that manifests itself when he handles the sword. It is said that he has his “head high”. But he owes this revival not to Nahangma, but to Yuma equated with Durgā. And this force is delegated by the king of Nepal, and all of his dependents depend on it in turn.

The tenth day (daśamī)

60As elsewhere in Nepal, the tenth day of Dasaĩ is when all the hierarchies come together within each ward, not only those of the Yakthumba as on the previous day, but also those of all of the caste dependents (raitī) who have received ward lands from the subbā.

61The scene takes place inside the subbā’s house. Each of the dependents brings gifts: the Brahmans—if they are present—bring bread rolls, uncooked rice and bananas; the Chetri, among others, bring a goat haunch (sa-lang); the Yakthumba and Sherpa mainly bring alcohol; the blacksmiths (Kāmī) bring a sickle; and the Tibetans bring as many potatoes as one man can carry, a goat haunch from Tibet (byānglung), around thirty red turnips (turuba labok), and a wild bird, either an Impeyan pheasant (sam dangwa: the ḍā̃phe of the Nepalese) or another smaller pheasant (yamlakwa). And all bring flowers.

62The subbā, surrounded by his family in the middle of his home, is the highest in rank. One at a time, each clan brother or caste tenant approaches: he bows at the feet of the Yakthumba headman and places his gifts on the floor. He receives the same mark on his forehead as on the previous day, but this time it is said to be “complete” (purā ṭikā). The subbā shares alcohol with those who drink. He gives everyone a portion of husked rice, some salt, some chilli, and sometimes meat. And once again, they sing all day. In the evening, after everyone has returned home, each of the house-headmen, whether Yakthumba or not, again gives all of his family members the “mark on the forehead”.

63It is said that in the past, on that tenth day of Dasaĩ, the major phedang thok lung ritual was held, in which the sword-master too renewed his allegiance to the powers of the other world.

64The following day, everywhere, the Yakthumba leave their villages. All of them go visit their wives’ or mothers’ families to renew the hierarchical links of marriage.

65As for the subbā, in the days that follow the ritual, he recognises his allegiance to the Gurkha king by going to the representatives of Nepalese authority in the Yakthumba country and giving them Dasaĩ flowers.

66Thus the Dasaĩ ritual is wholeheartedly celebrated among the Yakthumba. The fact that the ethnic group’s traditional games and performances are incorporated into it (the elders’ epic chants, the youths’ dances and alternating chants) testifies to the fact that the festival has become as popular as elsewhere in Nepal.

67In Dasaĩ, the presence of the worship of Yuma as the ethnic community’s tutelary divinity has made it possible for India’s great myths to be introduced. Porokmiba, the “great man” (Yomba Mi) and Yakthumba founding hero, is now equated with Shiva, as Yuma is with Durgā. In principle, this has resulted in the permanent recognition of Nepalese royalty and of the subbā’s power.

68Nevertheless, Nahangma seems to distance herself from the general jubilation. The myth reminds us that she has been struggling against Yuma since the very first days. Some of the erected stones in the upper valley of the Tamur continue to testify to this. Nahangma stays aloof. She continues to be celebrated, but outside of the Dasaĩ calendar.

69Does Nahangma still have an influence? It seems that the increase in the number of subbā offices and the extreme fragmentation of the wards indirectly testifies to a conflict of legitimacy between the subbā and the house-headmen. This suggests that Nahangma has not disarmed.

The dual power among men (hang and subbā) and the confrontation of the gods

70Assuming that the hypothesis of a dual power of the gods (Nahangma and Durgā) is well-founded, then there is only one way to verify it: to show the dual power among men up to the present day. And show that alongside the subbā, established through the worship of Durgā, the hang were always present, bolstered by Nahangma’s support.

71Of course, this notion was evoked when addressing the structural conflict in the subbā’s tiny ward, between his authority and that of the house-headman. The former draws his legitimacy from Durgā, the latter from Nahangma. The conflict therefore exists powerfully in every ward. And it is visible on the ninth day of Dasaĩ, when occasionally a house-headman will refuse to attend the mār kāṭnu ritual. It is a sign that for one reason or another, he no longer recognises his subbā’s authority. And this is often the beginning of the kind of infighting that leads to the fragmentation of offices and the increase in the number of subbā.

72The same contradiction has appeared in much broader contexts, those of each of the territories in which the Ten Yakthumba Ancestors settled when the ethnic group came into being. As we have seen, these territories are also called thum, like the subbā’s small ward. I will call them “districts” to distinguish the two notions.

73Of course, Nahangma’s favour underpins the power of all house-headmen. But this favour is not distributed equally: as I have said, the gods love some more than others. And in the context of the large districts of the past, in accordance with a process that will be analysed elsewhere, at a given time, one of the house-headmen is recognised as greater than all of the others. For reasons well understood by men, he is the one Nahangma is most fond of. That man is called “the head aristocrat” (tum tumyang). And like the ancestor of the past, he is named “king” (hang).

74As we know, these institutions of the hang and tum tumyang are very old, existing since the ethnic group came into being. They still existed in the time of the Sen kings and during the rule of the Sikkim kings. All authors agree that they later disappeared, but they disagree about the dates of this disappearance. However, most of them say that these Yakthumba “kings” called hang gave way to the subbā after the Gurkha conquest.

75In other words, to verify the hypothesis that the dual power of the gods has been constant up to the present day, it is necessary to prove that the Yakthumba hang have continued to exist in modern times despite the presence of the subbā.

  • 30 These large assemblies are most often called cumlung. The last one took place under the Rāṇā regim (...)

76After the 1950–1951 “revolution” that brought about the fall of the Rāā regime and returned the king of Nepal to power, the Yakthumba country was the scene of very large political assemblies (cumlung) that the Rāā had previously prohibited.30

77These assemblies were held outdoors, sometimes on consecrated sites of Yakthumba history. Some of them brought together between four hundred and five hundred people from all of the country’s districts. The goal was to identify the ethnic group’s shared political positions and choose the delegates who would present reform proposals to the king of Nepal in Kathmandu.

78Man Bahadur Pangbohang was one of these delegates several times. He lived in the village of Libang in the valley (the “district”) of Mewa, where I once did most of my work. At that time, he played an important political role. I had often asked him to enlighten me about the movement he was leading. He had got me to take part in events I hardly understood. It was only during my second mission—and not until the moment of my departure in 1971—that he gave me a bundle of papers, in which he said I would find some answers to the questions I had asked him.

  • 31 Thanks to Kishor Upprety for his help in translating this manuscript.

79That bundle contains twenty-one folded sheets of Nepalese paper, bound by cotton string.31 Eleven pages are covered with handwriting on both sides, written in black ink with a fountain pen. The text, in Nepali language, consists of two parts. The first concerns “the advent of democracy”, the democracy that the Yakthumba would like to join. They say that they too are ready to contribute to the construction of the country and the “development of progress”. They call for the establishment of schools, health centres, hospitals, etc. Above all, one sees the Yakthumba’s desire to be recognised as an ethnic and cultural community with its own authorities. An appendix contains a very detailed plan for a boarding school that would house two hundred exclusively Yakthumba students.

80The second part of the document concerns one of the ethnic group’s large assemblies, held where the Mewa and Tamur rivers meet near the hamlet of Dobhan in November 1956, to prepare a delegation to the king of Nepal, who visited on the 28th of that month (M. C. Regmi, 1965: 127). In all essentials, the assembly text is simple: in addition to the reform proposals mentioned above, there is a call to reinstate the decree (lālmohar) of July 1774, in which Pṛithvī Nārāyaṇ recognised the Yakthumba traditional political system, that is to say the authority of the headmen called hang. Accordingly, the 1956 Assembly demanded the abrogation of the legislation implemented by the Rāṇā regime concerning the subbā.

81Furthermore, one of the pages of the bundle lists the members of the delegation to be sent to the king, who were elected by the assembly. It is presented in the form of a table with one row for each delegate, giving his name, clan name, village, “district” (thum) and finally his signature. Unfortunately, this list has a number of gaps. It is authenticated by a session secretary named Nanda Kumar and by Man Bahadur himself, who had it copied, and added his signature confirming that it conforms to the original.

82What interests me on that page are the clues that make it possible to characterise the type of assembly that was held in Dobhan on that day. It seems that it was altogether comparable to the ethnic group’s legendary large assemblies, and that the elected delegates could very well have been “kings” (hang), comparable in every detail to the ten mythical ancestors who founded the ethnic community.

83Of course, these hang of the past are hard to define. When it comes to the original mythical “kings” (those who existed in the time of the Sen kings, in that of the Sikkim kings, and during the Gurkha conquest), sources are often contradictory. However, most of them present a small number of identical elements regardless of whether they number ten, thirteen or seventeen according to the historical period.

84These elements—five in number—are the following:

  1. The hang is the elected representative of a district (thum) before being the elected representative of the whole population.

  2. The hang belongs to a specific clan, which belongs to the territory of his district.

  3. The hang is the elected representative of his district’s own “tribe” (swang), descended from a common ancestor.

  4. The hang is a direct descendent of the ancestor of the district’s own tribe.

  5. The hang as a whole constitute the supreme political authority in the Yakthumba country.

85What I will try to determine is to what extent these five attributes of the hang of the past are found among the delegates of the 1956 assembly.

  • 32 These 29 delegates are not all hang. There is only one hang per district. In view of the strength o (...)

86On the list from Man Badadur’s manuscript, there are twenty-nine assembly delegates from thirteen different districts.32 Aside from one elected representative who does not mention the name of his community, all of them are Kirati, the vast majority Yakthumba, with the exception of three Rāi. None of the other longstanding communities in Yakthumba country is represented (Magar, Gurung, etc.), not even the Indo-Nepalese community. One gets the impression of returning to a state of affairs that existed well before the Gurkha conquest.

87The number of elected representatives varies among the districts. With its eleven delegates, Panchthar has strong representation, probably because they oriented the political debates. And it is true that in the delegation, one finds the striking presence of both Kul Bahadur Angdembe, who became a Nepalese government minister in 1957, and Iman Singh Chemjong, the Yakthumba historian, among others. Panch Majhiya has three delegates (one Yakthumba and two Rāi), all of whom omit their clan name. Four other districts (Athrai, Mewa, Yangrup, Sankhuwā Sabha) have two elected representatives each, including one Rāi for Sabha. Finally, each of the seven other districts (Tamur, Maiwa, Char Khola, Phedap, Chaubise, Chhathar, Mikluk) have only one elected representative.

  • 33 The study of the Yakthumba clans has been a longstanding interest of British officers of the Gurkha (...)

88Thus on this first point, the 1956 assembly conforms to the tradition of the legendary large assemblies as mentioned in the sources. Like the hang of the past, each of the delegates is initially the elected representative of a district and not of the country as a whole. To what extent do the elected representatives of 1956 belong to clans known to have originated in their own district, like the hang of the past?33 In this respect, the clan names mentioned by Man Bahadur Pangbo’s manuscript provide some indications:

  • For the Mewa district and its elected representative, Man Bahadur of the Pangbohang clan and the village of Libang, the facts are clear: Libang, the name of a village, is also that of an old, now-vanished clan from which the Pangbohang clan is descended through segmentation. Both of them appeared in the Mewa valley.

  • Maiwa is represented by two delegates, one each from the Phago and Thangdemba clans. Phago is one of the Maiwa Khola’s (khola ‘river’) oldest clans: it gave rise to some thirty other clans, including the Thangdemba clan.

  • I am unfamiliar with the Putwa clan of the delegate from “Taplejung”, that is to say from the district of Tamar Khola.

  • Ilam, the name of a small town, refers to the Char Khola district, which was long partly under the authority of the Sikkim kings. In 1956, it was represented by a man from the Chemjong clan. In the 17th century, the Yakthumba distanced themselves from Sikkim for political reasons. And today, the Chemjong clan is confirmed to be in the districts of Chaubise, Tamur and Panchthar. But it is possible that the birthplace of the Chemjong clan is actually the district of Char Khola.

  • For the Phedap district, the elected representative belongs to the Thumbangphe clan, whose name means “oldest village” or “first village”. There are many Thumbangphe clans all over the country without any link to one another. However, one of them in Phedap has been shown to be particularly important, to the point of being considered a “sub-tribe”, to which eight other clans are connected.

  • The elected representative of the Chaubise district omitted to specify the name of his clan.

  • Panch Majhiya is represented by three delegates—one Yakthumba and one Rāi. No clan name is specified.

  • Mikluk’s delegate is a man from the Mabo Hang clan, which probably came down from the mountains to settle in the southern lowlands.

  • The Sankhuwā Sabha district has two elected representatives who are Rāi, but no other information is given.

  • Finally, the list of eleven delegates from Panchthar is invaluable. It clarifies some of the information about the representation of the preceding districts. Three elected representatives belong to the Angdembe clan; two are Chobegu; one is Nembang; one is Tamsuhang; one is Swea; one is Maden; one is Lauti; and one is Chemjong. With the exception of the Maden clan, which has too much of a presence everywhere in the country to be attached to one single district, all the other clans are linked to the Panchthar district, and the Angdembe clan is often presented as the name of a “sub-tribe”.

fig. 4 – Approximate boundaries of the ten traditional yakthumba provinces along the Tamur (or Tambar) river

fig. 4 – Approximate boundaries of the ten traditional yakthumba provinces along the Tamur (or Tambar) river

Source: modified from R. L. Jones and S. Kurtz-Jones (1976)

89When this analysis is resituated in the context of British studies and my own material, it partly shows that the political elected representatives of the 1956 assembly—like the hang of the past—belonged to clans that had long been known to be specific to the territory of the district they were representing.

  • 34 On the notion of tribe (swang), cf. among others Risley, 1892: 89; Vansittart, 1915: 103–104 and pa (...)

90Can one go further and assert that the hang represented one tribe, which was linked to the district’s territory, and whose clans were descended from a common ancestor?34

91What do sources in the literature say about this ancestor, just in relation to the Mewa district, the one I am most familiar with?

  • 35 In addition to the British work on the Ambepo Jokma meeting, cf. Chemjong (1966, I: 58–60, II: 56) (...)

92This is the information provided by some of the authors:35

Name of the ancestor

District (Thum)

Fortress (yok)


Sosiane Sering Hang



Vansittart (1915: 104 )

Sesiane Sering Hang



Morris ([1933] 1985: 88, 89)

Sisiyen Sering Hang

Mewa and Maiwa


D. R. Regmi (1961: 37–39)

Sisiyen Sering Hang

Mewa and Maiwa


I. S. Chemjong (1966, I: 60)

93To what extent do the materials collected in the field confirm this information and enable it to be interpreted?

94In the years 1956–1971, these five pieces of information, with only two tiny variations, were constantly mentioned by many informants living in the Mewa valley. The reason is simple: they lie at the heart of the ritual called Mangenna, which is performed in every house twice yearly, at the same time as the worship of Nahangma. And in many cases, this ritual establishes a relationship of filiation between the house-headman’s clan and that of the mythical ancestor.

95In the first phase of worship, the officiant (the sword-master), recounts the stages of the district ancestor’s migration, evoking the Kathmandu Valley, Benares and Assam, then Lhasa, China and Kham. In Lhasa, the ancestors long lived on hunting. A ridge named Sering is evoked, where they lived in cave dwellings under the rule of a “king” named Sering Song Hang. Then various towns of Tsang in southern Tibet are mentioned, and finally the banks of a lake near the Tibetan village of Tashirakha, where the Yakthumba of “Lhasa Gotra” separate and take different paths to the low Himalayan valleys they inhabit today. Mewa’s ancestor was then named Sandunghe. He was accompanied by his younger brother Mundunghe. Together they reached the sources of the Mewa, and then arrived at what is today the Tibetan hamlet of Tokpe Gola. They separated near the hamlet of Lamsang after having slaughtered and shared a wild horned animal. Sandunghe settled on the right side of the valley. For the first time, he performed a ritual to Mangenna, taking the name Sejiri Sering Hang. For his part, Mundunghe settled on the left side and took the name Liliri Libang Hang.

96When the house-headman belongs to a clan descended from one of the two ancestors, the second phase of worship consists in the “sword-master” making a ritual journey, taking a bloody offering to the “fortress” (yok) where the ancestor settled upon arriving in the valley.

97In light of these facts drawn from contemporary rites, let us review each of the five pieces of information concerning the large assemblies of the past, and let us risk comparing the two: are all of the inhabitants of Mewa descended from a common ancestor?

98First, the ancestor’s name: he too is characterised as a hang. But the first word of the name as given in the field includes a variation relative to the one from the old assemblies given in sources: they do not call him Sosianne or Sisiyen, but rather Sejiri.

99The second word, Sering, is the same in all sources and in the ritual. In the field, however, its meaning is different depending on the context. First, it is said to be part of the name of the first ancestor to settle in the valley. But it is also said to be a component of the name of the most distant ancestor, who led the community when it lived in cave dwellings in Tibet on the ridge or on the mountain, which was also called Sering. It is also the name of a clan, confirmed to exist in modern times on the right side of the Mewa valley. Many of the valley’s other clans are descended from that Sering clan, at least on the right side. Let us now turn to the term Meringden: in all sources, it designates the fortress (yok) where Sejiri Sering Hang reigned, the ancestor of the Mewa valley.

100To contemporary informants, the name is well-known. It appears in the ritual. It literally means the place (den) of lamentations (mering). It is said to be where the ancestor died. Today it is still the name of an area in the hamlet of Masering. It is located on the ridge above the village of Thukima, where the Mungwa and Samtingwa streams meet. In the ritual, it is the name of the fortress (yok) where the ancestor himself performed the Mangenna ritual for the first time. Today, the fortress has vanished. But there remains a standing stone called Tho-su Yok where the ritual bloody offering is taken by all of the clans of the right side of the valley descended from the Sering clan, as well by the Sering clan itself: thus they recognise their common origins going back to Sejiri Sering Hang, whom sources also say is the “king” (hang) who was elected for the Mewa district during the inaugural large assembly of Ambepo Jokma.

fig. 5 – “Standing stones in Syamba, probably graves”, Mewa khola

fig. 5 – “Standing stones in Syamba, probably graves”, Mewa khola

Photo Philippe Sagant, 1966-1967; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.8, film 14.29

101On the left side of the valley, the facts are a bit different. The Sering clan is not present. Its equivalent, as proto-clan, is the Libang clan, from which many of the clans that still exist today are descended: they all take the ritual bloody offering to the place called Sa Thok Nemba (also marked by a standing stone), near the hamlet of Chinabung, within the territory of today’s village of Libang, where the ancestor once settled. As we have seen, this ancestor Liliri Libang Hang (also called Mundunghe) was the “brother” of Sejiri Sering Hang (also called Sandunghe). According to the myth recited during the Mangenna ritual, both of them arrived from Tibet during the same migration. And the Libang clan, which has vanished today, was itself descended from the Sering clan that existed in Tibet. Thus all of the house-headmen on the left side of the valley who take the bloody offering of the Mangenna ritual to the standing stone Sa-Thok-Nemba recognise their link of filiation to Liliri Libang Hang, as well as to the ancestor of the Sering ridge in Tibet.

102But does this mean that all clans present in the Mewa valley are descended from the same ancestor? This is no longer the case in modern times.

103Firstly, when the two ancestors descended from the Sering clan arrived, there were other populations living in the valley. They had their own headmen, memory of whom persists, descended from clans that are still present today (Khokling, Samyangkhamma, etc.). Over time, these clans were integrated into those from the Tibetan migration from Sering. And depending on whether they live on the right or left side of the valley, they too take the bloody offering of Mangenna to the standing stone Tho-Su Yok or Sa thok Nemba.

104Likewise, other migrations arrived from the south, from “Benares” and not from “Lhasa”. For various reasons, sanctioned by ritual hunts, these clans from the south obtained the same status as those who came from the north. They founded a lineage in the valley. This is particularly the case of the twelve clans of the village of Syamba. They are themselves also recognised as “noblemen” (tumyang), and they give an offering to their common ancestor Saratapa at the fortress called Ling Thang Yokma, which is also marked by a standing stone, unrelated to the stone of the Tibetan migrants.

105Finally, other clans arrived on various dates of the valley’s history, summoned by local headmen in difficulties, and these clans are now well-established. They obtained land as a reward for their support during wars. They nevertheless continue to recognise their filiation to the ancestors of their place of origin in the neighbouring valley of the Tamur: they take their ritual offering to the standing stone of Akwajongu Yok.

106Thus, a large proportion of the clans of the Mewa valley are descended from a common ancestor. However, they no longer make up a tribe (swang) in the very precise sense in which Senior understood this term. Mewa nevertheless has its own history. And although the clans are not all related by filiation, they have become related through marriage.

107When all is said and done, to a large extent, the British were right: the Mewa district, at least, has a quite broadly homogeneous population. The hang is the representative of several groups of specific clans, the largest of which recognise a common ancestor.

108Let us turn to the final point suggested by sources: that a district had a unified political organisation; that Mewa’s ancestor Sejiri Sering exerted power over the whole valley in his time, because an assembly (that of Ambepo Jokma) recognised him as “king” (hang).

109On this point, the sources seem to totally contradict the materials collected in the field. Of course, in the clans’ oral tradition, the notion of the hang dates back to the dawn of time: it existed before the arrival of the “Ten Yakthumba”. It survived under the Sen kings and the Sikkim kings. And the hang were present in the face of the Gurkha forces. But what this tradition asserts is the plurality of the hang and their constant confrontation within each valley. The oral tradition would appear to deny that there was political unity in the district.

110To take only one example concerning the Mewa, it is reported that before the Gurkha conquest, there were several small “kingdoms” in the valley, in almost every village—in Santakra, Libang, Lingtep and Syamba. The hang who led them constantly fought against each other. And each of these small potentates strongly resembled those evoked by Campbell in 1840: he had his own “fortress”, an eyrie that was difficult to access, in which he lived with his family. If he had a quarrel with a neighbour or disagreement with a superior, his companions in arms came to join him there: they entrenched themselves to defend him. These data present a problem: how can it be that during the Assembly of the Ten Yakthumba, one of the hang could have become the elected representative of a whole valley, when the oral tradition shows that at best, they led a few villages and were tearing each other apart? And at what times did those assemblies meet?

  • 36 For Hodgson (1858), the hang had disappeared when the Yakthumba recognized the tutelage of the Sen (...)
  • 37 For Risley (1892), whose ideas have been most often repeated, the hang disappeared with the Gurkha (...)

111Similarly, the other question arises—one that was already evoked—and here again the sources contradict the field materials: during which period did the hang vanish? Hodgson answered, in 1840, that it had happened five centuries ago, probably thinking of the Sen kings’ rule over Yakthumba country.36 Risley and many others asserted that it was after the Gurkha conquest, when the hang gave way to the subbā (no longer elected by the gods and recognised by men, but receiving delegated hereditary powers from the king of Nepal, and legitimacy from the Dasaĩ ritual).37

112In fact, the hang survived the Gurkha conquest: this is what the field teaches us. Of course, their survival was illegal in the eyes of the Nepalese law, but it remained legitimate in accordance with tradition and with Nahangma’s favour. And these facts bring us back to the 1956 assembly and the election of Man Bahadur Pangbohang for the Mewa district.

  • 38 On the headman of Walung and the great Tibetan trade by the valley of the Tamur, cf. Steinmann, 198 (...)

113Up to the 1950s—when the fall of the Ranā led to the reappearance of the large Yakthumba assemblies—Damar Doj Pangbohang, Man Bahadur’s father, dominated Mewa political life. It is said that his authority, in association with his son, partly extended to districts surrounding Mewa and the Tamur. There was even a period when he defied the Tibetan headman of Walungchung (strongly supported by the kingdom of Nepal), from whom he sought to wrest control of the considerable Himalayan commerce passing through the Tamur valley.38

114Many Yakthumba headmen, all of them subbā, suffered from his authority. On the initiative of one of them, and with the support of Indo-Nepalese immigrants, a complaint was lodged against him with the Nepalese tax department in the small town of Terhathum. Though he was a subbā himself (he held four offices), Damar Doj was denounced as the hang of Mewa, leading an illegal coalition that revived a prohibited institution. No doubt the complaint was justified, because the Nepalese army set out from Terhathum for the village of Libang with orders to arrest him.

115At this point in the paper, we need to return to the large assemblies held in the 1950s throughout Yakthumba country, to compare them with the legendary assemblies mentioned in sources. We must particularly return to the one in 1956, during which Man Bahadur Pangbohang was elected a member of the delegation received by the king of Nepal on November 20th of that year.

  • 39 On the thum-thum, assemblies of the whole ethnic community, see among others Risley, 1892: 89; Vans (...)

116The 1956 Dobhan assembly brought together populations from all of the districts in Yakthumba country. In historical terms, it was the assembly of assemblies (thum-thum) identical to the ethnic group’s foundational assembly, or to those held in the time of the Sen kings.39

117In the context of this assembly, like the hang of the past, Man Bahadur Pangbohang, before becoming one of the delegates for the whole country, was a delegate only of the Mewa district, one of the Yakthumba country’s historic valleys.

118Like the hang of the past, Man Bahadur belonged to a clan that had emerged on the territory of the district he represented. This is attested by one of the valley’s standing stones, linked to the appearance of the Pangbohang clan to which Man Bahadur belonged: it was evoked every year in his own house during the Mangenna ritual. Like the hang of the past, Man Bahadur represented all of the clans settled in the Mewa district. Though they no longer constituted a tribe (swang) in Senior’s sense of this term, they were nevertheless still a specific population of the valley’s history.

119Like the hang of the past, Man Bahadur was directly descended from Sering Song Hang, the Tibetan ancestor. This filiation was recalled every year on the occasion of the Mangenna rite.

  • 40 On the same confusion between the force of Nahangma and that of Durga, cf. concerning Kangso Rai, C(...)

120Finally, by electing Man Bahadur in 1956, Mewa’s population recognised him—like the hang of the past—as “the greatest house-headman” (tum tumyang) of the time, the one who, more than any other, showed all of the signs of being particularly favoured by the divinity Nahangma. This is how the hang were elected in the assemblies of the past.40

121Thus it was as a hang that Damar Doj, Man Bahadur’s father, was pursued by the Nepalese soldiers. And likewise, it was as a hang that Man Bahadur, his son, was recognised by the 1956 Yakthumba assembly.

122Therefore, the hang did not vanish in favour of the subbā after the Gurkha conquest. They coexisted until the village councils were established. Though illegal under Nepalese law, they remained legitimate according to Yakthumba tradition.

123And there is no doubt that this dual power of men is related to the dual power of the gods, thus proving that the Yakthumba deity Nahangma did not bow before the Hindu goddess Durgā.

Conclusion: the dual power of the gods

124Concerning Dasaĩ, I have presented some data concerning the history of Yakthumba institutions. What is striking is the coexistence of two contradictory facts. First, there is the conceptual coherence manifested in all three rituals: the hunt, the worship of Nahangma, and Dasaĩ. Then there are the ruptures whose effects on the political organisation are identical, but intensified over time.

125Let us return to Dasaĩ The din of drums and gunfire in the small hours between the eighth and ninth day is an “institution” that grew out of a law that could be called the law of “silence and noise”, which exists throughout Asia and beyond. Loud noise occurs on unpredictable occasions: when a wild animal enters the inner village, when an eclipse looms, when a mountain collapses, and when the primordial waters rise. But at other times, it is repeated regularly on scheduled dates, as it is here during Dasaĩ, during the worship of Nahangma and during the ritual hunt.

126As Granet once said, the world is only in order when closed like a home: then the gods protect it. Conversely, this noise sounds the alarm of an open world when it is no longer protected. These facts stem from conceptions of space, but also conceptions of time: “the age of calamities” rained down on the small community. This is true of Dasaĩ, and also of Nahangma and the ritual hunt. And in each case, man is like an exile, abandoned by the gods; the territory is given over to the “rampancy of the wild fringes”. The cosmos reverts to chaos.

127Later during that ninth day of Dasaĩ, the subbā leads the mār kāṭnu ritual at his home in the presence of all of his clan brothers. The goat is slaughtered, as is the effigy of the buffalo, evoking Durgā’s victory over the demons. At the end of the ritual, the animal’s severed head is called śir tuk: this term is also the name for the subbā’s entitlement to all wild horned animals killed by hunters within the boundaries of his territory, as recognised by Nepalese law. The animal decapitated on that ninth day of Dasaĩ is therefore equated with a wild animal. And the subbā who obtains its head is like his ancestor, the exile, emerging from the forest at the end of the ritual hunt. Likewise, the sharing of the roasted entrails reflects the hunt’s “creative dismemberment”, in the same way that the “stone throw” does during the worship of Nahangma. And we know that these institutions are linked to the victory over primordial chaos, to the return to a closed world in which society is in order, to the golden age of the beginning, when men were not separated from the gods, when their vital power was at its peak.

128Finally, at the end of that ninth day of Dasaĩ the turban (pāga), the banner (khaḍga niśān), the drum (nagarā) and the feather from the chicken sacrificed to Nahangma, or the head of the wild animal killed during the hunt, are all signs (niśān) that the gods are once more present in man, that they are giving him that wild force which animates his weapons.

129Thus, the three rituals share one way of thinking: continuity depends, above all, on the concordance of three essential elements: space, time, and the life force.

130The disruption concerns only the “life force” as it relates to political organisation. With Nahangma, each of the house-headmen walks with his “head held high”, sustained by the presence of the divinity within him: it ensures the legitimacy of his political power, and makes him into a man who can potentially someday be recognised as the head house-headman, the hang of the whole country.

131With Durgā, the facts change. Now the force is monopolised by the subbā, and is also hereditary. And in this system, all of the house-headmen in a ward depend on the subbā’s “prosperity”, his “luck”, and his “force”. Through this monopoly alone, the subbā’s power is legitimate. But this is conditional upon Durgā being stronger than Nahangma, and as we have seen, this has not been the case because of the permanence of the hang up until the 1960s. The gods do indeed confront each other through men: we are in a framework subject to the actions of dual powers, at two levels.

132In other words, this shift from Nahangma to Dasaĩ shows how political centralisation works: by acquiring the exclusive (and moreover hereditary) monopoly over the life force. This force is what is at stake in the rituals. Only control of the life force makes political centralisation possible.

  • 41 On Tromowa, cf. Walsh, 1906; on the Sherpa, cf. Fürer-Haimendorf, [1964] 1980. On Nyishang, cf. Sag (...)

133To what extent are the Yakthumba facts exceptional? They are not exceptional at all. In various forms, the same elements are in play in 1904 among the Tromowa of the Chumbi Valley in Tibet; among the Sherpa of Nepal; in Nyishang, at the foot of the Annapurna; among the ancient Kafirs of the Hindu Kush; and among the Sharwa of Amdo in Tibet.41 They are present wherever the major religions take root, as in Yarlung in Tibet from the 6th to the 9th century: priests became chaplains of the king, giving him a monopoly over the “powerful helmet” and the “force” (mra thang), which had been the most widely shared things in the world.

  • 42 On the Chinese sects of the nineteenth century, cf. Chesneaux, 1965. On the cult of neak-ta in Camb (...)

134Furthermore, it should be noted that these elements underpin a wide range of events: the 19th-century struggle of Taoist Si Wang-mu’s followers against the Confucian emperor; in Cambodia, the control of worship of the land king (neakta) in every small region through Buddist sanctuaries; the contemporary millenarianism of certain Burmese pagodas; the search for the “hidden country” in Tibet. And even the Mafia-like legitimacy of “men of honour”.42

135Finally, these elements, which are still present, are also ancient. In the 5th century BC, the Princes of Salva in India managed to establish a monopoly over the ritual hunts, and this legitimised their power (Przyluski, 1929). And in Sumer in the 3rd millennium BC, Gilgamesh did the same with Enkidu, the “wild man”.

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Karmay, Samten and Sagant, Philippe
1987 La place du rang dans la maison sharwa,
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1 On the subbā, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1965: 81; Sagant, 1978, 1981.

2 On hang, cf. Hamilton, [1819] 1971: 118, 133–136, 146, etc.; Campbell, 1840: 515, 536–597, 606, 610; Hooker, 1854: 94; Hodgson, 1858: 449; Risley, 1892: 36–37; Vansittart, 1915: 104; D. R. Regmi, 1961: 36–41; Caplan, 1970: 126, 136, 186–187.

3 On Yuma, cf. Caplan (1970: 155); Chemjong (1966, II: 16, 21-23, I: 95); Hitchcock and Jones (1976: 41); Jones and Jones (1976: 20, 56, 140); Vansittart (1915: 115). Höfer (1981: 17) emphasized the relationship of Tibetan “grandmothers” with the ritual of Dasaĩ; likewise Paul (1982: 51, 56), the relationship between the bon-po myth and a king-grandmother couple. Finally, Tucci and Heissig (1973: 356) evoked the notion of “very old grandmothers” in Mongolia, who are not unrelated to the Yakthumba deity Yuma.

4 On Nahangma, cf. Cambpell (1840: 600), Chemjong (1966, I: 2, II: 150), Caplan (1970: 156), Jones and Jones (1976: 32) where it appears that Yuma took the place of Nahangma (Jones and Jones, 1976: 24; Sagant, 1976: 76–85).

5 On tumyang, cf. Risley, 1892: 31; Senior, [1908] 1977: 44; Chemjong, 1966, I: 66; etc.

6 On tum tumyang and hang, cf. Chemjong (1961: 110), Senior ([1908] 1977: 45); D.R. Regmi (1961: 30, 37, 93): the tum tumyang was the Yakthumba minister (cautariyā) at the court of the Sen kings. Cf. also Hamilton ([1819] 1971: 133–135, 146–148); Campbell (1840: 597); on the cautariyā, cf. Turner (1931: 186).

7 On the disappearance of the hang, opinions diverge. For Hodgson (1858: 449), they had vanished five centuries earlier; for Morris ([1933] 1985: 85), they disappear after the Gurkha conquest at the end of the 18th century.

8 On the relationship between mountain worship and honour, cf. Sagant (1981: 149–179) and, for comparison, Hardman (1981) among the Lohorung Rai.

9 On hierarchy and rank, cf. Sagant (1973a) and, for comparison, Karmay and Sagant (1987) among the Sharwa of Tibetan Amdo.

10 On the “domestic” slave yog, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1971: 117.

11 On yok thokwa, cf. Chemjong, 1961: 240.

12 On the maternal uncle, yarhung, cf. Tucci, 1955.

13 The notion of master of the land corresponds to the Nepali term kipaṭiyā.

14 On the master of the forest (tamphung hangpa), cf. Hodgson, 1858: 450; Dalton, 1872: 103.

15 On the ritual hunt after the Yakthumba arrived from Lhassa, cf. Sagant, 1981: 216.

16 On banishment and “the crossing of the fringes” cf. among others Aris, 1980: 60–82.

17 On the wild force acquired in the forest by the Yakthumba, linked to fire and force, cf. Sagant (1981): it sits on the top of the head and is tied to honour.

18 On the rising and descending seasons, thang-mang, ong-mang, among the Yakthumba, cf. Sagant, 1973b. We find the concept in Nepal, Tibet, China and especially among the Thai.

19 On creative dismemberment, cf. Macdonald, 1987.

20 On the sign, nisān in Nepali, cf. Turner, 1931: 351. The pheasant feather among the Yakthumba evokes the peacock feather among the Chinese, cf. Petech, 1973: 99, 154. On the “sign”, among others, cf. Morgenstierne (1973: 127) for the Kafirs of the Hindukush. On the association of the sign and the drum, see Das, 1904: 3–4.

21 Pung-mi ba, the Yakthumba, “wild man”, refers to the mi-rgod, bu-rgod of the Tibetans, to the chu-mung of the Lepcha, to the yeti of the Sherpa. Concerning the Tibetan notion, cf. A. Macdonald, 1971: 211; Stein, 1959: 515; Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1957: 181.

22 On the relationship between creative dismemberment and stone throw in Tibet, cf. Stein, 1959: 444, 514–517.

23 Himsingba, the pillar of the yakthumba house, is also the term for the house headman himself, who supports the roof and weighs on the ground, as the mountain supports the sky and prevents the earth from shaking.

24 On the six Yakthumba thum, cf. Risley, 1892: 38; Vansittart, 1915: 104; Morris, [1933] 1985: 88; Chemjong, 1966, I: 61–63. For the period of Sen rule, cf. D. R. Regmi, 1961: 38–39.

25 These dances (ya langma) are accompanied by alternating songs: they are jousts, like the songs of the old one (samlo).

26 On the links between the worship of Yuma and the ancestors Uba and Tsangba, cf. Chemjong, 1966, I: 95 and II: 11, 16, 23, 24.

27 The quarrel between Yuma and Nahangma, described in the myth, is located above the current village of Mahapanghe in the upper Tamur Valley, in places marked by erect stones.

28 On the khaḍga nisān, cf. M. C. Regmi, 1965: 122. On the relations of the Yakthumba with the kings of Sikkim, cf. Chemjong, 1966, II: 101; Caplan, 1970: 133.

29 The notion of śir-ṭuk refers to the rights of the subbā, masters of the products of the forest, cf. Sagant, 1978.

30 These large assemblies are most often called cumlung. The last one took place under the Rāṇā regime in 1938, despite the latter’s prohibition of the latter (M. C. Regmi, 1965: 107). At the fall of the Rāṇā, they multiplied: 
– in 1951, near Ilam, cf. C
aplan, 1970: 183; M. C. Regmi, 1965: 12,
– in 1955 near Dobhan, cf. M.C. R
egmi (1965: 120): the Yakthumba then claimed autonomy and the striking of their own currency,
– in 1956, near Dobhan, the one described in this article, cf. M. C. R
egmi, 1965: 125–127,
– in 1963, near Dobhan,
– in 1965, near Terhathum, the discussion focused on the projected land reform; 4000 to 5000 people were present,
– in 1967, near Dobhan: the land reform program was rejected by the assembly.
For the whole, cf. M. C. R
egmi, 1965: 103–132.

31 Thanks to Kishor Upprety for his help in translating this manuscript.

32 These 29 delegates are not all hang. There is only one hang per district. In view of the strength of the Panchthar delegation, we can consider that Angdembe was recognized as the tum tumyang of the entire country.

33 The study of the Yakthumba clans has been a longstanding interest of British officers of the Gurkha regiments. Vansittart (1915) was a major contribution; Morris ([1933] 1985) brought together all the materials collected on the subject.

34 On the notion of tribe (swang), cf. among others Risley, 1892: 89; Vansittart, 1915: 103–104 and passim; Morris, [1933] 1985: 37–39.

35 In addition to the British work on the Ambepo Jokma meeting, cf. Chemjong (1966, I: 58–60, II: 56) and also D. R. Regmi (1961: 37–39) for the time of the Sen Kings.

36 For Hodgson (1858), the hang had disappeared when the Yakthumba recognized the tutelage of the Sen kings.

37 For Risley (1892), whose ideas have been most often repeated, the hang disappeared with the Gurkha conquest in 1774, gradually replaced by subbā and rai.

38 On the headman of Walung and the great Tibetan trade by the valley of the Tamur, cf. Steinmann, 1988.

39 On the thum-thum, assemblies of the whole ethnic community, see among others Risley, 1892: 89; Vansittart, 1915: 116.

40 On the same confusion between the force of Nahangma and that of Durga, cf. concerning Kangso Rai, Chemjong, 1966, II: 150.

41 On Tromowa, cf. Walsh, 1906; on the Sherpa, cf. Fürer-Haimendorf, [1964] 1980. On Nyishang, cf. Sagant, 1990. On the Kafir Kafir, cf. Morgenstierne, 1973. On the Sharwa, cf. Karmay et Sagant, 1987, 1998. On the Yarlung kings, cf. Tucci, 1955.

42 On the Chinese sects of the nineteenth century, cf. Chesneaux, 1965. On the cult of neak-ta in Cambodia, cf. Forest, 1992. On Burmese millenarianism, cf. Mendelson, 1961. On the Tibetan “hidden country”, cf. Bacot, [1912] 1988.

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Table des illustrations

Titre fig. 1 – The swing wheel set up during Dasaĩ
Crédits Photo Philippe Sagant, 17 November 1966; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.7, film 16.5
Fichier image/jpeg, 480k
Titre fig 2 – Dasaĩ in Tembe: murder of the buffalo
Crédits Photo Philippe Sagant; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.3, vie religieuse
Fichier image/jpeg, 810k
Titre fig. 3 – Dasaĩ in Tembe at the home of the subbā: altar of the goat sacrifice
Légende “As soon as the goat has been killed, the phedaṅgmā moves quickly to soak his feet and dashes into the house to stamp the footprint”
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
Titre fig. 4 – Approximate boundaries of the ten traditional yakthumba provinces along the Tamur (or Tambar) river
Crédits Source: modified from R. L. Jones and S. Kurtz-Jones (1976)
Fichier image/jpeg, 82k
Titre fig. 5 – “Standing stones in Syamba, probably graves”, Mewa khola
Crédits Photo Philippe Sagant, 1966-1967; source: LESC_FPS_7.1.8, film 14.29
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Philippe Sagant, « Dasaĩ and dual power among the Yakthumba »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 49 | 2021, mis en ligne le 11 janvier 2021, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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