Tamang Selo songs: Music as an agent of restoration of ethnic identity


By Aratrika Ganguly

“…I look up and my gaze drinks the beauty of the hills…And the snow-clad mountain peak…The view down the hill is prettier still…Sa la la-the river flows, foaming white, Hayadi ngaba maya la la” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 149). These wonderful lines taken from the Tamang Selo song “Himal lekh ma gaiko goth” (“The Cowshed on the Hills”) reflect the ephemeral tone of the Tamang Selo songs that speak of the hills and its beauty. This paper will explore select Tamang Selo songs in detail in an effort to further the identity question of the Tamang community under the pan-Indian Nepali community. This paper will essentially analyze the Tamang Selo songs of India and will focus on the Indian Nepali linguistic community. To differentiate themselves from the rest of the Nepali speaking communities of the world, Indian Nepali speakers also call themselves Gorkhas, but this term has not been much popular owing to various factors like the Gorkhaland Movement and so on. There are many experiments with terms to differentiate the Nepali people of India from other Nepali people, especially of Nepal. However, for now the term ‘Indian Nepali’ is used in a more general sense.

The Tamang community is a Tibeto-Burman community of the Himalayan regions, that traces its ancestry back to Tibet and even to Mongolia. The Tamang people have been distinguished for a long time because of their distinct identity, literature, culture, and heritage. This Himalaya-dwelling community is one of the oldest communities inhabiting the mountains. Nowadays they are scattered all over Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan; in India they are mainly concentrated in the areas of Darjeeling, Sikkim, Assam, and Nagaland. The Tamangs migrated from Tibet to various parts of India many decades ago, but still have retained a major part of their religion that is very similar to the Tibetan culture and other elements of culture pertaining to Tibet are still present among the Tamang people. However, according to other scholars, they reject the migration theory from Tibet and suggest that the Tamang community adopted Tibetan practices and their script at one point of time due to social and political compulsion. The Tamang community has in its culture an amalgamation of Tibetan and other cultures of the Himalayas. The Tamangs in turn also comprise of many subcastes.

Different scholars state their different opinions regarding the meaning of the word ‘Tamang’. Some scholars opine that the word ‘Tamang’ comes from their principal occupation as ‘horse traders’. Some say that Tamangs are ‘Mountain Army’ or ‘Tibetan cavalry’. One Tamang Scholar Ajitman Tamang defined that the word ‘Tamang’ means “Rungpo” which means the foreigners or inhabitants of the border lands of Tibet (Tamang, 2002). Another definition says that the word Tamang is derived from the combination of two words ‘Ta’ and ‘Mang’, which means “horse” and “salesman” respectively. So they are known as salesmen of horse. Western scholar Alexander Macdonald (1975) believes that Tamang are the indigenous inhabitants of Nepal who were here before the state formation. But the common belief is that the word ‘Tamang’ has been derived from the Tibetan word “Tamag”, in which ‘Ta’ refers to “Horse” and Mag refers to “warrior or Cavalry” during the time of king Srong-Tsen Gampo in Tibet (627- 49 A.D)… Furba Lama, also writes that the word ‘Tamang’ which is used by all the Tamang communities is neither Tibetan nor Nepali word and has no meaning. This is a word given by so-called Hindu ruler in Nepal. Actually the meaning of ‘Tamang’ is “Tamag”. Tamag is a Tribal community of Himalayan region who is believed to be the sub-sects of Tibetan community. (Tamang 2-3)

Hence, there are various debates concerning the origin of the word ‘Tamang’. Likewise, they have a distinct Tibeto-Burman language. The Tamang people in various countries speak different Tamang dialects according to their region and religion. This language does not have a script and later it was documented in both Devanagari and Tibetan scripts in South Asia. When the Tamang community joins their culture with the ethno-linguistic community of Nepali, the ultimate amalgamation of culture takes place.

The Nepali linguistic community has felt a sense of alienation since ages. Therefore, the various cultural and ethnic communities like Tamang and others try to come under one umbrella to survive the cultural hegemony of the dominant cultures of India. The way the Tamang people communicate, their way of life, their rituals and customs are not given proper recognition by the dominant cultures. Hence, the various ethno-linguistic communities like Tamang, Limbu, Rai, Gurung, Mewar, etc. must hold on to the Indo-Aryan Nepali for survival. In turn, Nepali also gets enriched with cultural elements from the various communities while struggling against other dominant languages of India. This symbiotic relationship is what constitutes the contemporary linguistic community of Indian Nepali. Nonetheless, it is not always a very symbiotic relationship; at times, the various aforementioned communities are bound to come under the dominance of Nepali as they will otherwise be excluded from any kind of cultural reciprocation. Likewise, when the Tamang community chooses to preserve itself with the help of Nepali, we can see the hegemonic domination of Nepali on the Tamang community through the Tamang Selo songs.

The Tamang Selos are the traditional performative songs of the community. They are sung in Nepali. This amazing amalgamation of so many cultures makes the genre of Selo a melting pot of various cultures pertaining to various regions. It is a microcosmic reflection of South Asia in macrocosm. The oral tradition of the Tamang is retained through these songs. The main subject matter of the Selo is the social interaction that happens in a man’s life from his birth to death. The Selo becomes the mouthpiece of this community. They are sung during all the important rituals of the community. According to some scholars, the word ‘Selo’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘shaili’ or ‘performance’. “While many others claim that the root word comes from Tibetan ‘se’ means something that can be sung and ‘lu’ is song. Some other theories also argue that ‘selo’ is a derivative of the word ‘syalu’ which is an invitation to join in dance” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 10).

Songs are called ‘whai’ in the Tamang language. The traditional songs of the Tamang community are mainly of two types – the Tamba la whai sung by the Tamba, oral historian and poet who is one of the social leaders of the Tamang society. Tamba la whai gives information on the origin of instruments, clan stories, etc. The other one is the Whai. It dwells on human emotions like love and hate. They are sung by the ordinary village folk. The Tamang Selo songs comprise of the elements of both Whai and Tamba la Whai. Tamang Selo is wholly a new genre of songs born out of the traditional Tamang songs. It is born out of the area of contact between various cultures and communities. The Tamang Selo reflects the culture and beliefs of the Tamang people and uses the Nepali language as its linguistic medium to reach the people. The culture of the Himalayan community now mixes up with the much broader and complex identity of Nepali. Nepali is both a cultural identity as well as a linguistic one. Nepali or Nepalese is an Indo-Aryan language which blends with the Tibeto-Burman identity of the Tamang. Nepali becomes the connecting language among the various communities living in the Himalayas. Tamang Selo uses the universal language of Nepali which is also one of the most important and hegemonic languages of the hills. Nepali has become the common mode of communication among the various communities in the hills and it bridges the gap among the diverse communities present. This cultural and linguistic hegemony helps in bringing the various kinds of cultures under its dominion. This confluence of the Tamang community with the Nepali language has created the Tamang Selo songs. The flow of culture from the ancient Tibeto-Burman community to the wider modern Nepali community is a mode of connecting people that gives them a sense of identity in the complex cultural web. The Tamang Selo incorporates the universal language of Nepali in reviving the Tamang culture. The small Tamang community joining the vast lingua franca called Nepali reaches a place where it represents the South Asian identity. On the other hand, the people of the hills irrespective of their socio-religious identity take the help of the Tamang Selo songs to distinguish themselves geographically as the people of the hills, as Nepali people. This affirmation of identity helps them to validate their familial, social, ethnic, and also cultural heritage. Tamang Selo songs become the repository of the Tamang culture and it helps the Tamang people to search for their roots and in turn search for their self through these songs. In the face of continuous struggles, the Tamang Selo songs help in keeping alive their tradition. It helps in creating a sense of self which has been distorted by years of hegemony they have faced from other cultural communities and from the changing socio-political times.

The unique part about Tamang Selo is that it uses the traditional Tamang musical instrument called the damphu. This instrument has a very interesting story about its origin. This legend is related to Peng-Dorje and his consort Ruisang. Peng Dorje and Ruisang are supposed to be gods of Sanatan Dharma, i.e. Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. One song namely “The Damphu song” or “Damphuko Geet” celebrates this mythical story. According to Jas Yonjan ‘Pyasi’, “Damphu and Damphu-geet represent the folk culture of the Nepali community, and thus, play an important role in Indian folk culture” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 28). Memorizing the myth of Peng-Dorje and Ruisang in the songs helps the people to preserve their historicity and this claim of historicity is passed down through the Tamang Selo songs. Some of the Tamang Selo songs use mnemonic devices which help the singers to memorize the song very well. One such example of the song is “shital mathini shital bhayoni” (“Cooler it was, cooler it tends to be”). The lines “Smallest of the peacock chicks, startled on the edge of karda knives” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 172) do not correspond with the essence of the song, but act as a mnemonic device. These devices are amalgamated into the songs to keep alive some of the Tamang beliefs and refrains in the Nepali Tamang Selo songs.

The modern Tamang Selo songs do not belong to any clan and, in reality, they represent the Tamang community in general. Considering the bigger picture, they are termed as an important genre of Nepali folk music. Consequently, several communities that originated in the hills can now claim the Tamang Selo songs to be a part of their cultural identity. For example, the song “Srishtiko Sundar Phulbari” (“Beautiful gardens of creation”) celebrates a certain place and in this case it is the popular hill station called Darjeeling, situated in the north of the state of West Bengal. The beauty of the queen of the hills has been glorified in this poem. She is described as the “Enchantress who holds the world in thrall…Wearing a crown of snow,/O, Queen of the mountains, Darjeeling” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 174-175). Darjeeling is now inhabited by several communities who follow different faiths. The common link between them is the Nepali language. This Tamang Selo song now belongs to all these communities and whoever stays in Darjeeling or loves the town can call it their own. Therefore, Tamang Selo songs become a part of the cultural identities of the people living in Darjeeling. It has become one with the Nepali identity and anyone speaking Nepali can claim that Tamang Selo is a part of their culture. In this case, through Tamang Selo songs, the various communities construct their own dynamic ethnic identity where Nepali is the common denominator.

Sailung is a mountain of the Himalayas that has been associated with the Tamang origin myths. These myths and places like Sailung help the Tamang people to establish their own hierarchy within the Nepali culture and separate them from the influences of various religions and lingua franca existing in the hills. Through the Tamang whai, the Tamang people claim their origin stories and glorify the places of their origin. These Tamang whai help in reminding them of their glorious past and this nostalgia is preserved through the songs as it happens in case of any oral cultural tradition. In the song “Hamro ta Sailung Lekhma” (“From the top of Sailung”), the beauty of Sailung has been re-imagined and re-created. Primarily a courtship song, this song also celebrates the “Tamang myth-making process…the Tamang place of origin” (Dasgupta, and Tamang 191). This song has the Tamang refrain “Lai, lai, laibari, mhenda, chhanai, la la lhasso” like other songs which also contain other Tamang refrains. Though mostly composed in Nepali these songs are interspersed with Tamang refrains as a way for the Tamangs to re-assert their identity and keep their language alive in the face of the Nepali language.

Contemporary Tamang Selo songs try to integrate socio-political elements in the songs. They try to remodel the genre by incorporating the age-old themes pertaining to human existence with themes that can be related only to the present socio-politico-cultural situation. For example, the song “Aye Syangbo” composed by Shri Singh Maan Waiba and recorded by his daughter, the famous singer of Nepal, Hira Devi Waiba in the seventies, speaks of the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama from Tibet (Waiba). Thus, it is not anymore about just preserving the traditional knowledge and belief system of the Tamangs, but also about reflecting on present-day social situations and its impact on people.

As the Tamang people have been trying to restore their Tamang identity within the Nepali identity, the struggle for owning their identity as a distinct community has been one of the major struggles that the Nepali people have been waging for decades. After Indian independence, the Nepali speaking communities wanted their official recognition and that was another reason why they had to come under the identity of Nepali. In the 1980s the struggle for linguistic and socio-politico-cultural rights reached its zenith and culminated in the Gorkhaland Movement, led by Subhash Ghising who himself was a Tamang.

…one of the movement’s demands was that ‘Gorkhaland’ be recognised as a tribal state under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Such a move would have ensured tribal benefits for all of Darjeeling’s people of Nepali origin, regardless of their specific caste or ethnicity. As it was, Gorkhaland never became a state, and in 1989, Ghising settled for chairmanship of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (OCHC), which remains under Calcutta’s jurisdiction as part of West Bengal. (Shneiderman, and Turin)

Moreover, even when the central government in the 1980s started reserving more seats for the Scheduled Tribes in various arenas of government sector, it created opportunities for the oppressed communities to finally regain some of their rights. However, those who grew up in post-independent India in a pan-Nepali identity got slowly detached from their tribes. Therefore, it posed a problem for them to adjust to their tribal status once again. At times, the inclusion of the Tamangs and Limbus in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category created distortion among the pan-Indian Nepali community, but it also made the other communities realize that they can also opt for the ST category which will help them in the long run. Many saw the tribal status as a tool to make their lives better, a reprieve from the crushing politics of leaders like Ghising, the state and central government. Both the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJMM) (the party led by Bimal Gurung) and Ghising’s Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) wanted to create a homogeneous culture constituting cultural elements from various tribal communities, but this has led to more chaos over the years. As a result, we see that the identity of the Tamang community and the Nepali identity are imbricated in a mutual symbiotic relationship in the contemporary times. Instead of segregating them or homogenizing them, it is time to celebrate their mutual relationship that is always in a dynamic flux and ever changing. In the long term, it helps both fight against the hegemony of other Indo-Aryan languages in the places where the Tamang people mainly reside. The Tamang culture and Nepali identity are now in a dynamic, symbiotic relationship with each other and Tamang Selo songs portray the most honest aspects of this relationship.

Works Cited

Bagchi, Romit. Gorkhaland: Crisis of Statehood.  SAGE Publications, 2012.

Kaur, Tanveer, and V. Venkatesan. “Sikkim Tribal Groups Seek Reserved Seats In Assembly.” Frontline, 2019, https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/article26015188.ece. Accessed 8 Sept 2020.

Dasgupta, Sayantan, et al. Call of The Hills. 2nd ed., Jadavpur University Press in Collaboration with Centre For Translation Of Indian Literatures, Jadavpur University, 2016.

Dasgupta, Sayantan, and Shradhanjali Tamang. Tamang Selo. 1st ed., Jadavpur University Press in Collaboration with Centre For Translation Of Indian Literatures, Jadavpur University, 2015.

Norboo, Samten. “Migration of the Tameng Tribe from Tibet.” The Tibet Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 1981, pp. 39-42. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43300007. Accessed 10 Sept. 2020.

Samanta, Amiya K.. Gorkhaland Movement: A Study in Ethnic Separatism. A.P.H. Publishing, 2000.

Shneiderman, Sara, and Mark Turin. “Seeking the Tribe Ethno-Politics in Darjeeling And Sikkim.” Markturin.Sites.Olt.Ubc.Ca, 2006, https://markturin.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2018/07/Seeking_Tribe.pdf. Accessed 15 Aug 2020.

Tamang, Anjana. “The Tamang Community In Sikkim: A Historical Study.” Sikkim University, 2016.

“The Cultural Studies Reader: Free Download, Borrow, And Streaming: Internet Archive”. Internet Archive, 1993, https://archive.org/details/culturalstudiesr0000unse/page/366/mode/2up?q=hegemony. Accessed 10 Sept 2020.

Waiba, Hira Devi. Navneet Aditya Waiba | Aye Syangbo. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ym_jA2fkCs. Accessed 12 Sept 2020.

Aratrika Ganguly, PhD Student, Dept. of Comparative Indian Language and Literature, University of Calcutta.


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