The Thangmi myth of origins

As told to Dr Mark Turin

In the beginning, there was only water. The gods held a meeting to decide how to develop this vast expanse. First they created a type of small insect, but these insects couldn't find a place to live since there was only water and no solid land. Consequently, the gods created fish which could live in the water. The insects took to living on the fins of the fish, which stuck far enough out of the water to allow the insects to breathe. The insects collected river grass and mixed it with mud in order to build dwellings on the fins of the fish in each of the four directions: south, west, north, and east.

Then a lotus flower arose spontaneously out of the water, with the god Vishnu seated in the middle. Out of the four directions of the lotus flower came an army of ants. The ants killed all of the fish-dwelling insects and destroyed their houses. The ants took the mud that the insects had used for their dwellings and left, gathering another species of grass as they went. They mixed this with the mud to construct new houses. Then the snake deities arose. It was still dark, so the sun was created.

Eventually, the gods gathered together and decided to create people to populate this vast expanse. Mahadev first tried to make a person out of gold, then one out of silver, then one out of iron, and finally one out of copper. However, none of these metal humans could speak.

Then Vishnu joined Mahadev in the endeavor, and tried his hand at making people. He made 108 piles of wood and burned each pile down to ash. Then he mixed each pile of ash together with chicken shit, and both gods used this mixture to make a new person. Vishnu built the person from the head down to the waist, and Mahadev built it from the feet up.

The two halves were made separately and then joined together at the navel. Now the person was ready. The gods called out to it, saying, "Hey, human!". The first people they had made-those of metal-couldn't respond, but this one responded. Then the gods commanded the person to go and die, so it did.

A thousand years passed. During this time, the spirit roamed the earth. Eventually, it ended up near Mt. Kailash, where it entered the womb of a giant sacred cow to be reborn. The cow gestated for seven months, during which time she wandered to a place called Naroban. After another three months, three divine sons were born to the cow: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwor.

The mother cow then instructed her three sons to eat her flesh after she died. She died, and the sons cut her flesh into three portions, one for each son. The youngest son, Maheshwor, went to wash the intestines in the river. As he was washing the entrails, 12 ved, or sacred texts, fell out of them. Three of the ved were washed away by the river, but Maheshwor managed to salvage the other nine.

While Maheshwor was away at the river, the two older brothers buried their pieces of meat in the ground. They did not want to commit the sacrilege of eating their own mother. But when Maheshwor returned, they lied to him, saying that they had already eaten their portions of meat, and urging him to eat his as well. So he ate it. Then the two older brothers revealed their lie and accused Maheshwor of eating their sacred mother. Maheshwor was so angry that he struck the oldest brother, Brahma, with the intestines he was carrying. The intestines wound around his neck and back, becoming the sacred thread of the Bahun. Brahma stole some of Maheshwor's ved and went south, carrying the stolen goods. He went to a place called Kasi [the Indian city of Banaras], and his lineage became Kasi gotra.

Vishnu ran away to the other side of the ocean and became a king. He had no lineage. Carrying the remaining ved, Maheshwor went to the north, chanting om mani padme hum. He went all the way to Lhasa [the Tibetan capital] and his lineage became Lhasa gotra.

Back in the place where the mother cow's flesh had been hidden, a pond arose. There three groups of people spontaneously emerged: the Barosetu, which included the Bahun, Chhetri and Lama [ethnically Tibetan peoples, including Sherpa and Tamang], who were under the patronage of Brahma; the Narosetu, which included the Newar, Magar, and Thangmi, who were protected by Maheshwor, and the Karosetu, including the Kami, Sarki and Damai, whom Vishnu looked after.

Then out of the pond arose a god named Bali Raja, who was responsible for giving caste/ethnicity [N: jat]and language to each of these three groups. He said, "Now I will give you jat," along with which he gave them languages. To the Barosetu, he gave the ved, along with om bhasa [N: the language of om], and to the Karosetu he gave only an anvil and other tools for working with metal. To the Narosetu, from whom the Thangmi are descended, Bali Raja gave shamanic implements instead of books, language or tools: they received a golden drum, a golden ritual dagger, a golden plate, a golden water jug, and a golden lamp. These objects arose spontaneously in the hands of the Narosetu.

The Narosetu called on the gods in their three abodes of earth, water, and sky, crying, "Give us knowledge! We will always worship Narobhumi!" The gods of the four directions gave them knowledge and allowed them to stay in each of the four places. The gods also demanded that the Narosetu make offerings to them on Buddha Jayanti.

Up until this time, none of the people could speak. Bali Raja said, "I will divide you into 18 jat, and after I do this, I will give you food and language, too". So they sat in prayer to Bali Raja.

He gave the Barosetu and Karosetu their jat. Then it was the Narosetu's turn. There were three Narosetu brothers. The oldest brother then had five sons, who were named and associated with different jat as follows: the oldest brother Ya'apa became the Thangmi forefather, the next brother Ma'apa became the Limbu forefather, then Sa'apa became the Chepang forefather, Ka'apa became the Dhami forefather and Kanch'apa became the Rai forefather.

Then Bali Raja gave language to the 18 jat. He first gave language to the other 17 groups and by the time he got to the Thangmi forefather Ya'apa, there was nothing left. So Ya'apa had to pick up the leftover bits and pieces of all of the languages that the other groups had already received.

No one had any suffering or pain then. Everyone was happy. Then Bali Raja decided to give seeds to all of the 18 groups. Each group brought different kinds of containers to collect the seeds. The Sherpa came with a leather bag, the Bahun came with a cloth bag, and the Thangmi came last with a bamboo basket, but there was almost nothing left for them. This is how divisions were made between the receiving and non-receiving jat. The Thangmi fell in the non-receiving category.

Eventually, Narosetu came to Thimi. There he worshipped Bhume. Until then, Bichi Raj (an incarnation of Vishnu) had been King of Thimi. There were kings in all of the directions, but Bichi Raj was in the middle. One night, Bichi Raj's queen had a dream. She dreamt that Bichi Raj cut down seven banana trees at the base. Bichi Raj interpreted her dream to mean that he would win over seven kingdoms. So he tied the queen up so she couldn't sleep again and possibly have a conflicting dream. Bichi Raj did indeed win seven kingdoms, one of which was Thimi. In the process, he fought with Narosetu as well, and Narosetu was killed. Narosetu's five sons ran away. Ma'apa, Ka'apa and Sa'apa fled to the West, while Ya'apa and Kanch'apa fled together to the East.

To see and hear recordings of the Thangmi in Nepal: