1958, Bernard Pignede, a French student of anthropology came to Nepal to study about Gurungs. He spent seven months in a Gurung village Mohoriya (Kaski, Gandaki) and traveled through many neighboring Gurung villages to do his research. He learned to speak tamu-kuwei (gurung dialect) and documented pretty much everything about the gurungs - their social structure, culture, religion, history, occupations, legends and myths. He translated pae, a ritual and religious pratice that one gurung generation has passed down to another for thousands of years. Pae conveys the oral history of gurungs and is considered very sacred. Unfortunately, Pignede died tragically in 1961 at age of 29. After his death, Professor Louis Dumont published Pegnede’s work in 1966. The book was immediately recognized as a major contribution to the anthropology of the Himalayas. Later, two noted anthropoligists - Sarah Harrison and Alan Macfarlane ( http://www.alanmacfarlane.com ) translated it in English and published the first English version in 1993. Harrison and Macfarlane did further study of gurungs and added more to Pignede's work. The English version of book is called "The Gurungs", which is probably the most acclaimed research on Gurungs so far.
An excerpt taken from Bernard Pignede’s book "The Gurungs" consists of a brief history of the Gurungs as compiled by Bhovar Palje Tamu and Yarjung Kromchhe Tamu based upon the pae.
"The Tamu (Gurung) Pye refers to the very beginning of civilization, more than eight or nine thousand years ago. They tell the origin of human beings and of the materials that they used. Tamu Priests still use some of these primitive utensils in their rituals. The Pye do not seem to have changed substantially over time. They refer to the ancestors of the Tamu, their Aji-khe (Khe-ku, nine male ancestors), Aji-ma (Ma-i, seven female ancestors), and Aba Kara Klye, spiritual master, lords, ghosts etc.
Tamu Pye tells how the first people lived in Cho (Tso) Nasa, a lakeside village, where they planted the first grain, barley. Then they dispersed to other places such as Sa Nasa, Dwo Nasa, Si Nasa and Kro Nasa, the latter being in the south, hot and fertile. Later the northern Cho Nasa was rich in religious activity, speaking Tamu-Kwyi. Other Tamu villages developed according to their proximity to the northern and southern ends. There are also stories about the discovery of fire, how the drum was first made, and many other things in the Pye.
The ancestors of the Tamu, Ma-i and Khe-ku, seem to have been represented as seven lakes (the former) and nine mountain peaks (the latter). Though there is no real evidence, there is a traditional assumption that Cho Nasa, as described in the Pye-ta Lhu-ta, lay in western Mongolia, and was ringed by seven lakes and surrounded by three mountain ranges. To the south, in Sinkian in Western China, north of Tibet, in the Turfan Depression, lay Kro Nasa. Large lakes are called nuur in Mongolia, nor in Western China, and tso(cho) in Tibet.
In Tamu tradition, as they migrated from one site to another, they would call the new site by the old name if it was similar in aspect. Tamu Pye tells that the soul of a dead person is believed to go first to Koko-limar-tso, which is under water. In the Qinghai region of China lies a huge lake with an island in the middle called Koko Nor ( or Ching Hai). It is similar to Hara Usa Nuur (one of the seven lakes) of western Mongolia, and some near-by places have names which end in "chow", conceivably derived from the Cho Nasa of almost six or seven thousand years ago, described in Tamu Pye. Similarly Sa Nasa, Two Nasa, Si Nasa and kro Nasa could be placed in the Qinghai, Kansu, Sichuan and Yunnan regions of China respectively, running southward.
Among the minority groups in China are the Tu peoples who live in the area around Lanchow and the Naxi (Nansi) people who live in the Sichuan and Yunnan regions. Tu and Naxi are also the names of two of the nine Tamu clans.
The Tibetans (Bod people) apparently migrated from the border regions of Qinghai, Kunsu, Sichuan and Yunnan. Later came a wave of Han (Chinese) immigrants. Chamdo (Chhyam Toh: nice village) in eastern Tibet seems to have been gateway to Tibet for all these peoples. A neolithic settlement at Karo not far from Chamdo has been dated as being more than 4,600 years old. The Han settlers called it Kham suggesting that they grew millet there. They may have been the ancestors of the Khampa (Bhotiya) or Khambu (Rai) of Nepal. Later a third wave of immigrants, possibly the Mhina Kugi (people of the nine clans) replaced the Han settlers. By this time it had become a cattle-grazing area though it may also have been an important trading post.
From Chamdo, the Mhina Kugi moved westward to the Yarlung valley of the Lhoka region. Here they were known as Tamu (Tubo) by 1,000 B.C. and during the course of time developed Bonism, the pre-Buddhist religion, with its priest, the Nam-bo or Pa-chyu. Some of the Bon priests traveled to Cho Nasa. Another group of Tamu settled to the west of Lhoka.
There is a mountain called Tsan-Tang Goshi near Tsedang (Chetang?). The historical encounter there with Nya (Tri) Tsan (Po) around 2,500 years ago and the story of Nha-Chan (nha: ear: chan: pulled, elongated: long ears) in Tamu Pye are undoubtedly the same. Nha-Chan, the strong, was alone when he met the herdsmen and joined up with them. He helped with the hard, dangerous tasks of the tribe. Later he became known as Rhima-rchhe (great). By trickery he was married to a royal servant girl ( a poor Kugi), Cha Pa-mrishyo, instead of to the daughter of a Klye (king). His descendants became the Kwonma (mixed) clan.
Some Tamus settled in the northern Bagmati region, having gone through the Kerung or Ku-ti Pass, and became Tamangs. A sixth generation descendant of Nha-Chan from Lhoka joined with another group of Tamu, perhaps around Shigatse. Nyatri Tran-po, a thirteenth generation descendant of Nha-Chan became king of Lhoka around 300 B.C. Tamus may have settled in the Mustang area before the Kyar-Bo (Kyabri) developed in Lhoka around 100 B.C. Under the thirty-third Tsan-Po king of the Tubo dynasty, the powerful Song-Tsan Gam-po (629-650 A.D.), Tibet was unified and the capital moved from Lhoka to Lhasa. The power shifted to other border tribes during this period. Buddhism (not Lamaism) was adopted alongside Bonism. Later, in the eight century, Padma Sambhav (an Indian vajrayanist) founded Lamaism (Nyingmapa or red sect). He mixed Bon beliefs (the five lords), Hindu concepts (Garud Puran) and Vajrayan (Tantra mantra) to Mahayan, and populised it as Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetans used to worship him (Om Mani Padma Hu) more than the Buddha. Though the Bon priests were repressed by the Lamaists and the State, Bonism remained strong until the thirteenth century. However, the Bon priest of the Tamu or Tamangs do not mention Song-Tsan Gam-po as they had left Tibet many centuries before he came to power.
Bonism, the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, was a very advanced form of animism. It is still preserved, almost solely, by the Tamu priests in the form of the Pye-Ta Lhu-Ta. It relates the practical experiences of the ancestors in matters concerning the soul, the spirits, masters and lords, as lesions for the living, through which the priests can overcome the power of witches and ghosts. Bonism divides the universe into three worlds: heaven, the earth and under world. It is believed that when a person dies, his soul leaves the body and lives on in an invisible dream world. The priests’ role in the Pye is to carry the soul across Tibet towards Qinghai and then make it fly to heaven (the world of the ancestors), following the route given in the Sya-rka Kwe in the Pae.
According to the Tibetan mythology, Bonism is categorized as:
The Nam-bo Pa-Chyu is the oldest and first priest of the Tamu. There is no known date of origin. It may have branched into other forms during its development, adding stories of later ancestors as time went by.
Some Nam-bos seceded and started Kyar-bo (Kya-bri) after the murder of Drigum Tsan-Po (a seventh generation descendant of Nyatri) at Lhoka around 100 B.C. His descendants secretly invited some Bon priests and wise men from west Ngari, Drusa and Shangshung with the aim of revenging Drigum’s murder (Lo-ngam Dazi). Later, a Bon scholar, Shamthab Ngonpo, introduced the doctrines of six different non-Buddhist schools of philosophy, and combined them with the native Bon religion to form the complete Bon doctine of the Tubos, known at Kyarbo. Around that period the first lunar calendar was started. According to that ancient calendar, Lho-sar or Losar (New Year’s Day) is celebrated on 15th Paush (early January) as it is among the Tamus of Nepal to this day, and it is still celebrated on that day in some areas of Shigatse. Tamus used to call the kyabri, Pai-bo (Pai meaning Bhot or Tibet).
Pa-Chyu and Kyabri are similar in many ways. They both use the same language. They are both connected to the world of the ancestors through Cho Nasa. But the third Bon priest, the Lambo, reads his books in the Tibetan language which is not understood by the Tamus.
Lamaism flourished in 838 A.D. His elder brother, Lang Darma, took the throne, reintroduced Bonism and persecuted Lamaism. Shegur Luga, and others of his persuasion, continued the translation and reform of the Buddhist scriptures and enriched the Bon doctrine. Lam-bo (Gyur Bon) veered towards Lamaism. It is also called translated Bon and lies somewhere between Bonism and Lamaism. For instance, Gyur Bon needs animal sacrifice as do the other Bon priests. It is different from the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyupa and Kadampa.
Nowadays, there is a peculiar type of Lama in Tamu society, a fourth priest, some of whom have changed from third. Kyabri and Lambo need Pa-chyu with them for the main rituals. The new Lamas do not need them. They talk about being blessed by Buddha but they find difficulty in understanding the Buddhist tests, and Tibetan Lamas are critical of these Tamu Lamas. However, they have been able to influence a poorly educated society and have caused trouble to both Bonists and Buddhists as a result.
According to the Tamu legends, Tamus must have settled in Mustang around the first century A.D., just after the Tamangs settled in Bagmati zone. These two groups have been separate for no more than three thousand years. There are two Kohibos (kohmbas or [gumbas]) in Mustang, one in Fa-li-pro Myar-so for Pa-chyu, the other in Li-pro Myar-so for Kyabri.
The Tamu used to hunt long distances following wild animals. They would move their settlements if they found a better place to live. While they inhabited the banks of Mha-ri-sy (Marsyangdi river) in Manang, they adopted a new Klye (master) as their chief or king. His descendants are called Klye (Ghale), an additional clan of the Tamu tribe.
Some Tamus crossed the Annapurna range in the course of hunting around 500 A.D. They liked the high land and sowed some grain there. When they returned on a second visit, they had a good harvest. On the third visit peoples from three clans came and settled there in their three groups, calling it Kohla Swomae Toh. It was the first historical village of the Tamus on the southern slopes of the Himalayas and it became the last united village too. Other Tamus migrated later from Manang and Mustang. Those remaining in Mustang became the Thakali when other Tibetan groups, and probably some Tamangs, arrived.
At Kohla, there was a revival of Pye-Ta Lhu-Ta (Bonism). Some further chapters were added there after the long silence of the centuries of migration. Tamu Kwyi (Tibeto-Burman language) speaking Tamu peoples with their pure Mongoloid features, tried to refine their Bonic Pye, Pae, Failu, Teh, Parka, Lho-sar, Dhu-kor, Rwo-di, etc. their customs and culture which is totally different from that of Hindu Aryans.
At Kohla, the Kyle, Kugi, Kwonma and clan chieftains were king, ministers, administrators and Kroh (Mukhiya) respectively. Though they had different ancestors, Klye and Kwonma did not intermarry. However, both did intermarry with the Kugi. After some centuries of peace, politics began to affect development. An interesting turn of affairs happened as a result of a Pae for Chimi-Udu. The Pae was conducted first by Syo-labe Pa-chyu, but the Asyo-Kwei was not given. The soul could not proceed on it’s journey and sent a message to repeat the Pae with a piece of Asyo-Kwei. The Pa-chyu performed the Pae again with some Kyabris in the manner requested. As a result, the Kyabris became the royal priests and were given the name Klye-pri (Khe-pri). Thus, these priests gained greater prestige in the society. Pa-chyu were by ancestry from the Lhege and Kromchhe clans, Klebri from the Tu and Mhabchhe. Other clans were not taught to be priests originally.
The increase in population caused great problems at Kohla. Groups of people moved on, to the south-east, south and south-west, to start new settlements. It would appear that there were no other tribes in the Gandaki zone except for some neolithic Kusundas (now extinct). Beef was eaten by the Tamu before their contact with the Hindu castes.
A legend tells how some of the Kwonma clan went from Siklis to Nar in Manang to learn Lamaism from recently-arrived Tibetan Lamas. On their return those who had learned well were called Lam, those who had not, Lem. Then the Kwonma divided into three sub-clans, Kwon, Lam and Lem, according to the closeness of their kinship connections with each sub-clan. The Lam and Lem (followers of the Lama priest) formed marital links with the Kwon (followers of the Pa-Chyu, Kyabri). In fact, these sub-clans (Swogi) are the descendants of the same ancestor. Despite this they formed strong groups. Later, during the period of Samri Klye of siklis, Lam and Lem began to marry with the daughters of the Kyle. However, the Kwon did not change their custom and did not marry with the Kyle, although they had different ancestors. Lamas introduced the word Guru, indicating high prestige, and it became the familiar term when distinguishing the tribe from other tribes or casts, eclipsing the word Tamu."
Besides this document, Bernard Pingde also collected other texts from various sources that tell the origin of Gurungs.
a). One of the texts which was in Nepali came from the east of Nepal where the Rais and Limbus live. It goes as follows:
"The Kirati are the oldest inhabitants of Nepal. Soyenbumanu who lived in the land of Hemonta had several children, The second Thoinua, went off towards Japan. The third went towards Thailand, Burma and Cochin-China. The eldest went towards China, then Tibet, and arrived at the nothern frontier of India. His name was Munainua. He had ten children: Yoktumba, founder of the Limbus, Yakakowa, founder of the race of Rais, Lunpheba, founder of the Larus, Thanpheba, Suhacepa, founder of the Sunwars (Chepangs, Thamis), Gurupa, founder of the Gurungs, Mankapa, founder of the Magars, Toklokapa, founder of the Thakalis, Tamangs and Sherpas, Thandwas, founder of the Tharus and of the Danwars. For thirty-three generations, the Kirati governed in Kathmandu".
b). C.B Ghotane, a Gurung scholar has the following interpretation of Gurung history:
"The origins of the Gurungs, Magars, Tamangs, Tharus, Sunwar and Danawar of central Nepal seem to be connected with the ancestors of the Kirats, an ancient Indian tribal group, who occupied the northern area of the Indo-Gangetic plain and the foothills of the whole Himalayan range which extends from the Kashmir valley to Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.
The earliest civilization of Kathmandu valley was founded by Kirats. They lived in the foothills and the large inner valleys of Nepal. They appear to have fled to the green mountain tops for safety after the overthrow of the Kirat ruler in the first century A.D. They were pushed further north with the invasion of Indo-Aryans, who infiltrated Nepal in great numbers during the period of Muslim attacks on India from the fifteen century.”
Bernard Pingde also collected a few other "vansavalis" that Brahamin priests had prepared. The accountability of such "vansavalis" is questionable since they contain conflicting facts and are influenced by the Hinduism and it’s castism.
Pingde did his research during 50s when most of the Gurungs were still living in their ancient villages and their rich culture and traditions were well preserved. Today, many Gurungs have migrated to the cities of Nepal and abroad. They are struggling to preserve their language and culture. Pingde's book on Gurungs serves as a great source of knowledge for anyone who would like to know about one of the ancient people of Nepal, the Gurungs.
Though only about half a million in number, the Gurung people have made distinct and immense contributions to history and culture and have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to world peace and progress. At present, the majority of Gurungs live in Nepal, where they form one of the many ethnic groups in the country. In Nepal, Gurungs have and continue to play significant roles in all spheres of the country’s development. Outside Nepal, many Gurungs, some in their renowned role as Gurkha soldiers, have lived and been exposed to diverse world cultures in areas as different as Bhutan, Europe, Hong-Kong, India, Japan, Korea, and the United States of America.
In Nepal, Gurungs can be divided into two categories, highlanders and lowlanders (though Gurungs are predominantly highlanders). Highlanders living on the slopes of Himalayas still rely heavily on a pastoral and agricultural way of life. They grow rice, wheat, maize, millet and potatoes, normally on terraced mountain slopes. They also derive subsistence from sheep breeding for meat and wool, using fierce mastiffs as sheepdogs. The highlanders’ way of life resembles that of Tibetans in terms of religious beliefs and cultural practices. In contrast, lowlanders are more influenced by Hindu religious beliefs and practices. It is not surprising to see Gurungs using a Hindu priest for birth and a Buddhist Lama (priest) for last rites at someone’s death.
Many Gurung families, however, have another important source of income - the pensions and salaries of family members who are in the army. Among them are the legendry fighters of the British Gurkha Regiment, who were honored with Victoria Crosses for their bravery. Indeed Gurungs are renowned for their role as Gurkha soldiers, making unparalleled contributions in far flung places such as Europe during World Wars I and II, Burma, Malaysia, the Falklands, Africa, and India. Most recently, Gurungs have participated and continue to participate in most United Nations peacekeeping missions throughout the world.
Despite many pushes and pulls of modern day life, Gurungs are increasingly eager to learn, preserve, and celebrate their distinct cultural heritage and practices. This includes not only the various belief systems and cultural practices surrounding festivals, birth, marriage, and death rituals, but also the Gurungs’ own language Tamu Kwei, generally considered a Tibeto-Burman dialect. This focus on Gurung culture continues to provide invaluable insights and inspiration toward the future.
In an ever more interdependent world, Gurungs face the challenge of balancing the preservation of their unique cultural heritage with adaptation to the demands of modern life. The majority of Gurungs still struggle for basic opportunities to improve their livelihoods. As in the past, Gurungs need to invest in opportunities that build on their well-known attributes as people who are hard working, trustworthy, adaptable, and quick-learners in meeting the challenges of modern life in Nepal and beyond its boundaries. Gurungs seek support and guidance from individuals, institutions, and governments.