The Magars are an indigenous ethnic group of Nepal whose homeland extends from the western and southern edges of the Dhaulagiri section of the high Himalayas range south to the prominent Mahabharat foothill range and eastward into the Gandaki basin. In Nepal, there are a good number of people who identify themselves as Magar people. Representing 7.14% of Nepal's population according to the 2001 census, this is the largest indigenous group in Nepal. According to the 2001 census, 74.60% of ethnic Magar were Hindus and 24.47% were Buddhists.
The Magars are divided into 7 major groups as: Thapa, Ale, Rana, Budhathoki, Roka, Gharti, and Pun. All Magar clans intermarry one with the other and are officially of equal social standing.
The first mention of them is the fact that in AD 1100, the Magar King of Palpa and Butwal, Mukunda Sen, invaded and conquered the Nepal (Kathmandu) valley. It is always understood, however, that they have resided round about Palpa from time immemorial and that they were probably the earliest settlers from the north. This part of the country was formerly divided into twelve districts, each under its own ruler, being known as the Barah, or twelve Magarant or twelve Thams, the members of each supposedly being of common extraction in the male line. Some records show these twelve areas as being Argha, Gulmi, Isma, Musikot, Khanchi, Ghiring, Rising, Bhirkot[disambiguation needed, Payung, Garhung, Dhor and Satung, but it is probable that some of the latter places should have been excluded in favour of Palpa, Galkot, Dhurkot, Char Hajar Parbat and even Piuthan and Salyan.
The Magars of middle and western Nepal lay claim to an exciting role in Nepal's formative history. Their kingdom was one of the strongest of west Nepal in and around Palpa District during the time of the 22 and 24 rajya principalities (17th and early 18th centuries). Hamilton, during his research in Nepal in 1802, came to a conclusion that all the kings of 24 principalities including Sen King of Palpa in the Western Nepal were Magars. Magars believe that they have the same origins as the Thakuris and vice versa. It is believed that many of the aristocracy among Magars assumed and acquired the Thakuri caste and status. In recent years many scholars and historians claimed that Nepal's former ruling Shah kings were the descendants of Magar Kings of the Barah Magarath/Kali Gandaki Region. The 18th-century king, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Nepal announced himself as a Magar king. According to Hamilton, Mincha and Khancha Khan, the forefathers of former Shah kings of Nepal, were of Magar descent. Baburam Acharya, the most prominent historian of Nepal, also confirmed that Nepal's former Shah kings were the descendents of Magar Kings.
Many prominent historians of Nepal have claimed that Aramudi, 8th Century ruler of Kali Gandaki Region, was a Magar King. "Aramudi" is named after the Magar language.'Ari'-'Source of Water' + 'Modi'-'River'='Arimodi' or 'Aramudi', thus the literal meaning of Aramudi is 'source of river'. Jayapida [782-813 AD] whose other name was Vinayaditta, a king of Kashmir, invaded Kali Gandaki Region, a traditional homeland of the Magars of Nepal. Aramudi resisted the invasion and virtually defeated Jayapida. After capture by Aramudi, he was taken to the right banks of the Kali Gandaki river, in a strongly built fort, where Aramudi imprisoned him. Jayapida was a powerful king of Kashmir who ruled for 31 years and defeated the kings of Kanyakubja(Kannauj), and Prayag/Allahabad in Utter Pradesh, India. He was in a conquering expedition to the valley of the Ganges.
Genetically and physically, Magar people are Mongoloid/east Asian. They are believed to have migrated from Tibet like the Gurungs and other prominent ethnic groups, however, there is an interesting mythical story describing Magar's origins and versions of three different language groups are presented.
The origin of the Magar of the Bara Magaranth (twelve Magar kingdoms east of the Kaligandaki River) is that in the land known as Seem there lived a tribe of people. There were two brothers named See Magar and Chintoo Magar who began to have differences. As a result, one stayed back and the other headed south and after a series of migrations reached the place called Kangwachen. This is in southern Sikkim on whose northern end lived the Bhutia people while at the bottom or southern end settled these Magar immigrants. As the years passed the Magars became very powerful and made the northern Bhutia their vassals. At this time the Magar king named Sintoo Sati Sheng (shang) ruled in a very despotic manner and the northern bhutia conspired and assassinated him. Later on the queen of this king took revenge and poisoned 1000 Bhutia people at a place called Tong Song Fong, meaning "where a thousand were murdered." But later on, the Bhutia won and so the Magar had to again migrate further south and from there they moved in all directions among which one group migrated to Simrongadh. They are believed to have moved towards the Bara Magarnth area of Palpa, Gulmi, Dhor, Gherung, etc. One group moved towards the Okhaldhunga region and another group seems to have returned to the east. No dates are given.
A second Magar federation called Ather Magarat (18 Magar Kingdoms) was situated west of the Kaligandaki River, inhabited by Kham Magar. They have a different origin legend. There were four brothers, so says the legend, and one day they went hunting but got lost. They camped at a place and distributed the chores to do. From these four brothers the various jats or tribes emanated. The first tribe was the Bahun Magar (the eldest brother's tribe), then came the Thakuri Magar (the second eldest brother), then the Khas Magar (the third brother) and lastly the Kami Magar (the youngest brother). Thus the Khas Magar became the Kham Magar of today, it is said.
The Tarali Magar are said to have originated from the union of a male whose mother had fled the region of Jumla during a war of the Kalyal kings there. It is not known who her spouse was but she is said to have arrived at Tarakot in a very pregnant condition and given birth to this boy. One day the boy saw a strange phenomenon in the jungle lake where he went with his cattle. The lake was alleged to be filled with milk and surrounded by a large forest. The boy spotted seven shining creatures like fairies bathing in the waters of the lake. He was enthralled and came to observe them daily. One day he told his mother about this strange sight and she advised him to touch the youngest of these angels so that she would became human and thus he would be able to marry her. This happened and the boy brought the beautiful damsel to his mother, but when they asked her who she was she replied in a tongue, which was incomprehensible for them. The devi was offered some bread and she uttered the words "Tai khe nan." Slowly they began to learn the language of this woman and Kaike was spread among themselves. The language was called Kaike, meaning language of the Gods.
Bernard Pignede also collected other texts from various sources that tell the origin of Magar.
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 Tibet and arrived at the northern 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."
The original religions or beliefs of Magar people are Shamanism and Tengriism. In addition to shamanistic and tengriistic, practices possibly brought from Siberia, is the northern Magar practice Tibetan Buddhism in which their priest is known as Bhusal.
Generally speaking, Buddhist and Hindu practices are practiced among Magars. They are less evident in Kham hinterlands particularly in rugged 3,000-4,000 meter ranges along the boundary between Rukum and Pyuthan-Rolpa districts. These hinterlands are geographically and therefore culturally isolated from the beaten tracks of transhimalayan trade routes and from rice-growing lowlands.
Majority of Magars are Hindus.(Hitchcock, 1966:25-34). From the perspective of their faith system, they appear as worshippers of nature or as animists. They believe in shamanism and their dhami (the faithhealer or a kind of shaman) is called Dangar and their jhankri (another kind of faithhealer or shaman) is called Rama. The traditional spiritual and social leader of Magars was called Bhusal who was very influential in the early days (Bista, 1996:66). Magars have an informal cultural institution, called Bheja. Bheja performs religious activities, organizes social and agriculture-related festivities, brings about reforms in traditions and customs, strengthens social and production system, manages resources, settles cases and disputes and systematizes activities for recreation and social solidarity (Dhakal, 1996). Some educated and prosperous Magars are leaving these practices and adopting traditional Hinduism.
Dress and ornaments
The Magar of the low hills wear the ordinary kachhad or wrap-on-loincloth, a bhoto or a shirt of vest and the usual Nepali topi. The women wear the pariya or sari or lunghi, chaubandhi cholo or a closed blouse and the heavy patuka or waistband and the mujetro or shawl like garment on head. The higher altitude Magars wear an additional bhangra and the ones living in Tarakot area even wear the Tibetans chhuba. The ornaments are the madwari on the ears, bulaki on the nose and the phuli on the left nostril, the silver coin necklace and the pote (green beads) with the tilhari gold cylinder and kuntha. Magar males do not wear ornaments but some are seen to have silver or gold earrings hanging from their earlobes called gokkul. The magar girls wear the amulet or locket necklace and women of the lower hills and the high altitude ones wear these made of silver with muga stones imbedded in them and kantha. The bangles of gold and glass are also worn on their hands along with the sirbandhi, sirphuli and chandra on their heads. These are large pieces of gold beaten in elongated and circular shapes.
Magars traditionally engage in agriculture and in the military. Magars are renowned for their honesty, discipline, motivation and good humour, which account for their military success. Magars constitute the largest number of Gurkha soldiers outside Nepal. The famous Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa was the descendant of a Magar Thapa, as was also General Amar Singh Thapa. Sarbajit Rana Magar became the head of government for a while in 1776 during the regency of Queen Rajendra Laxmi. Biraj Thapa, General Abhiman Singh Rana Magar and Sarbajit Rana Magar had become Nepal Army chiefs in the past. Biraj Thapa Magar was the very first army chief in Nepal Army's history. Magars are famous as gallant warriors wherever they served in the past. The Magars are prominently represented in Nepal's military, as well as in the Singapore Police Force, the British and Indian Gurkha regiments, and they are also employed as professionals in the fields of medicine, education, government service, law, journalism, development, aviation and in business. They can be found doing well in many fields in East Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.
Dor Bahadur Bista's observation of Magar's occupation during 1960s was, "Some of the northernmost Magars have become quite prosperous by engaging in long-range trading that takes them from near the northern border to the Terai, and even beyond to Darjeeling and Calcutta. Were it not for their role in the Gurkha regiments of the Indian and British armies, their self-sufficiency might be endangered." There is no doubt that those great Magars who served in different armies as brave Gurkhas sacrificing their own family life have great contribution for the betterment of Magar community. Toni Hagen, who did his field research of Nepal during the 1950s, has observed about Magars' occupation and race, "Magars possess considerable skill as craftsmen: they are the bridge builders and blacksmiths among the Nepalese, and the primitive mining is largely in their hands. On the lower courses of the Bheri & Karnali rivers, a great number of Magars annually migrate to the Terai & there manufacture bamboo panniers, baskets, and mats for sale in the bazaars along the borders. In their most northerly settlement, on the other hand, the important trading centre of Tarakot on the Barbung river, they have largely adopted their way of life, their clothes, and their religion to that of the Tibetans; like the latter, they also live by the salt trade. As regard race, the Magars have almond-shaped eyes or even open eyes, whereas Mongoloid eyes are very rare." Lt Gen (Retd) Y. M. Bammi (PhD), Indian Army, who served with Gurkhas for many years observes about Magars, "Magars resemble Mongols, and are considered more handsome. However, being the first to have come into contact with immigrants from India, some of their sub-clans have lost their Mongoloid looks.