Call it a myth, call it a story, call it a sequence of sacred tales.
To the Kulung, it is known as Riddum (or Mundum/Mundhum) and since time immoral, these series of memories and fables have been shared orally from one generation to the next to depict the origins of the cosmos – or simply, how the world came to be, even before humans appeared on the face of the earth.
“It is spoken in the language of our ancestors, which is different to our language today, and is passed from one generation of Shamans (spiritual leaders) to another.”
Identity means everything to the Kulung people of eastern Nepal from a region known as the Mahakulung on the lower slopes of Everest. On a visceral level, the Kulung understand that their unique history, culture and customs sets them apart to every other ethnic group in the Himalayas, in Nepal and around the world for that matter. The Riddum is a way of preserving their distinctive collection of lives and the value they hold in the face of a government that refuses their official recognition as an Indigenous group.
Anthropologist Martino Nicoletti, who spent more than 10 years specialising in the ethnography of the people from the Himalayas, says the Riddum is a “well ordered map that illustrates the birth of customs, institutions and religious practices that are still today characteristic of the Kulung Rai people and lifestyle.” He describes the Riddum as a major teaching tool in the Kulung community. “It explains the origin of things and their interconnections, bringing them closer and making them more comprehensible… there is no clash between myth and history. On the contrary, they are skillfully mixed in such a way that every Kulunge Rai is constantly aware of being only the latest link in that very, very long genealogical chain which, from the historical present, points directly towards the past, becoming lost in the abyss of origins.”
This ancient tales is told in a specific ritual language that sadly, with each passing generation, has slowly become forgotten. To keep a dialogue alive with their past ancestors, the Kulung only tell the Riddum in this dialect to explain the very creation of the world at special community and family events.
They are also united in their resilience and their fight to preserve this affinity, which has kept generations of Kulung linked spiritually since the very beginning of life, as the Riddum explains.
The Association of Nepal Kirat Kulung Language Cultural Development is one of the organisations leading this battle, mobilising the community to speak up to the Nepalese government for their entitled and dignified rights as an Indigenous groups. According to the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) Act 2002, there are 59 recognised indigenous ethnic groups in Nepal, but the National Federation of Indigenous Rights recommends a further 25 groups, which includes the Kulung community. However, the government refutes that the Kulung meet the legal definition of an indigenous group: “a tribe/community having their own mother language, tradition rites, customs, distinct cultural identity, distinct social structure and written/unwritten history.”
Chandra Singh Kulung, the association’s director, said: “We have been working for the social and economic development as well as for the linguistic and cultural development of the Kulung community since the we created the organisation in 1996.”
“We have in many ways made great progress, but then in other ways, we have so much more to do… We have 13 branches in different districts and we lobby in collaboration with other organisations too. Our 15-year advocacy campaign for equal rights is a never-ending fight because indigenous issues are not a priority in the government’s eyes. The way we can have the biggest impact is by putting pressure on our local government representatives.” (See this video from their rally in the streets of Kathmandu in 2013)
Cholochhaa shared the same sentiment. “It’s very difficult. Sometimes I don’t feel like a ‘real’ Kulung person anymore because I live a lot of the time during the year in Kathmandu when I am not guiding groups on treks. Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost my roots. That’s why it’s so important that we fight for our recognition.”
Known as Cholochhaa by his family and the Carrying Everest team, his birth certificate however reads with a different name. “On paper, my name is Arjung, named after the Hindu god. Even though I am not Hindu, we have to have a Hindu name because we don’t have permission to use our Kulung names.”
In a community that is so rich in story, culture and connection, their work on the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trail, whether that be as porters, storehands, cooks, cleaners, teahouse owners, farmers and more, has in fact become an integral part of their evolving identity.
The trekking industry, ironically and iconically for that matter, has become an engrained part of their way of life – despite both its exploitation and its opportunity.
Dilip Kulung, human rights activist for the lower Everest region of the Mahakulung and the marketing director of Majestic Himalayas Treks and Expeditions, explained this well: “It’s hard not to think of trekking when considering the Kulung people. Our livelihoods in the Mahakulung rely on the trekking industry and has done so for the past few generations.”
“We face many challenges including high rates of poverty, vast unemployment, an unproductive farming system, a poor education set up, environmental threats and unsatisfactory healthcare. Despite all the difficulties though, we live from a place of peace, harmony and mutual respect.”
As the Riddum continues to be shared from one generation to the next till this day, the preservation of the Kulung identity rides less on the government’s inaction, and more heavily on the responsibility of the younger generations of the Kulung to uphold and keep sacred the intangible connections, relationships and conversations that might not have formal recognition in the eyes of Nepalese law, but speak of a people, place and community that is irrefutably an indigenous community, and always has been.
This story is third of a five-part series sharing my experiences as the storyteller on the film project Carrying Everest. Stay tuned for the next one! Support and follow the creation of this documentary on Facebook and Instagram.