Honolulu: Exhibit gives a glimpse into Nepal's remote mountain minorities
Mention Nepal and most people think of climbing Mt. Everest and the famed Sherpa ethnic people who help hundreds of mountaineers make that difficult ascent each year.
But the Sherpa are only one of about 80 ethnic minority groups in the tiny country, some of whom live in such remote, mountainous regions that they are virtually invisible to the rest of the world.
An exhibit of artifacts and photographs at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu offers a glimpse of two minority groups, the Rai and Tamang. Both live in the steep terrain of what’s called the Middle Hills, which makes up about 65 percent of the nation’s area.
Living at roughly 4,500 to 7,000 feet above sea level, they primarily farm rice, wheat and corn. The forests are the lifeblood for the Rai and Tamang, who forage for the bamboo used to build homes and tools and for the firewood used for cooking and heating.
The Tamang practice a form of Lamaistic Buddhism, according to the exhibit, and share religious texts with neighboring Tibet. Meanwhile, the Rai are animist, revering the air, earth, water, fire and their ancestors — though they have been influenced by the Hinduism that dominates much of the country.
Villagers provided the artifacts used in the exhibit, said Michael Schuster, the gallery’s curator. They include jewelry, masks, musical instruments, farming and cooking tools, clothing, paintings and religious icons.
The idea for a Nepal-themed exhibit arose almost two years ago when Mary Carroll, the first honorary consul for Nepal in Hawaii, approached Schuster about accompanying her on a trip to the Middle Hills.
There was one catch. “You’d have to walk three days in and three days out,” he recalled her saying. Intrigued as he was, he had to decline because of the time commitment.
Then about a year ago, Carroll told him there would be space on a helicopter in and out of the region that was carrying some doctors. He and two photographers got on board.
Their arrival offered immediate drama, as the doctors were within hours assisting a pregnant woman with a dangerous breech birth, the lives of both the mother and child at stake.
“There are no medical facilities in these small, isolated villages,” Schuster said.
There are also few roads. In the area where the Rai people live, there are none, and everything has to be toted by man or beast. Bamboo wicker baskets are used to carry firewood and a host of vegetables, grains and woods.
The Tamang area can be reached by four-wheel drive vehicle on a trail that’s 10 hours from the nearest real highway.
“It took 18 for us because our jeep couldn’t make it so we had to take a different jeep for the last few hours,” Schuster said.
“People were very generous, very open,” he said when asked about how they, outsiders, were received. “In fact, most of the artifacts in the exhibit were donated so that we could share their culture. These are very poor people, yet they managed to find things that I could use to show people to understand more about their lives. They were happy to do that.”
The items had to be carried out of the mountains in those ubiquitous woven baskets, which hang on the back and are held in place with a strap across the bearer’s forehead.
Schuster said the Rai and Tamang he met are eager to connect with the world.
“They want to maintain their culture and identity, but they also want to be connected to the goods and services and information,” he said. “That was important to everyone I met there. They want to build schools. They want to learn English.”
Likewise, Schuster hopes the public will take an interest in the cultures of these minority groups and their distinct languages, religious practices and clothing.
“For anyone who’s interested in what’s going on in the world, it’s a rare opportunity to actually see items and try to understand how people are developing their lives in a very isolated community,” he said.
And for anyone living in Hawaii, this exhibit could be a surprising opportunity to understand your neighbor.
“Interestingly enough, there are 200 Nepalese people living in Honolulu,” Schuster said, “and so, even though they’re kind of invisible, it’s important to know about who our neighbors are, that there are people here who come from that world.”
“Mountain Minorities: Tamang and Rai Cultures of Nepal” runs at the East-West Center in Honolulu through May 10. A metered parking lot is about a block past the East-West Center. The attendant in the kiosk entering the campus can direct you to the lot.
Open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays noon to 4 p.m., closed Saturdays, federal holidays and April 5.
The exhibit is free.
Phone: 808 944-7177; web: http://arts.EastWestCenter.org.