Oct 20, 2023

Nepal is a very ancient country, which was ruled by many dynasties in the past. Among them, the Kirat rule is taken as a very significant one, being the longest period that extended from pre-historic to the historic period. In ancient Hindu scriptures, Nepal is referred to as the “Kirat Desh” or “the Land of Kirats”.

The Kirat Rai belongs to the Kirati group or the Kirat confederation that includes the Rai, Limbu, Yakkha and Sunuwar. Dhimal, Hayu, Koche, Thami, Chepang, and Surel ethnic groups also reflect themselves to be of Kirati origin.

The traditional homeland of the Rai extends across the Solukhumbu, Okhaldhunga, Khotang, Bhojpur and the Udayapur districts in the northeastern hilly/mountainous region of Nepal, west of the Arun River in the Sun Koshi River watershed. Rais is also found in significant numbers in the Indian state of Sikkim and the northern West Bengal towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling.

According to Nepal’s 2001 census, there are 635,751 Rai in Nepal which represents 2.79% of the total population.

Language & Script:

Kirat Rai speaks more than 32 different languages and dialects within the Tibeto-Burman languages family. The oral language is rich and ancient, as is Kirati history, but the written script remains yet to be properly organized as nearly all traces of it was destroyed by the next rulers of Nepal, The Lichhavis and almost eradicated by the Shah dynasty.

The Rai are divided into many different sub-groups – Bantawa, Chamling, Sampang, Dumi, Jerung, Kulung, Khaling, Lohorung, Mewahang, Rakhali, Thulung, Tilung, Wambule, Yakkha, Yamphu, Sunuwar, Ambule, etc. Some groups number only a few hundred members. Every sub-group speak different languages.

The Kirat Rai has their own Kiranti script. It disappeared for many years and reintroduced by Te-ongsi Sirijonga in the 17th century. This Sirijonga, who was believed to be the reincarnation of the first, was apparently martyred in 1743 for the sake of this script by the Sikkim Lamas, who tied him to a tree and flung poison arrows at him. The script was named ‘Sirijonga’ in his honour by the Limbu scholar Iman Singh Chemjong in 1925.

Religion & Culture:

Nakchong (the Rai priest)

The traditional Kirati religion, apparently predating Hinduism and Buddhism, is based on ancestor-worship and the placation of ancestor spirits through elaborate rituals governed by rules called Mundum. Sumnima and Paruhang are worshipped as primordial parents. Sikatakhu Budo, Walmo Budi, and Jalpa Devi, among others, serve as Kirati deities. A major Rai holiday is the harvest festival, Nwogi, when freshly harvested foods are shared by all. The Bijuwa or Nakchhung (Dhami) or Priest plays an important role in Rai communities.

The Rai community can be described as worshippers of nature. When the wildlife begins moving to the high hills of the Himalayan ranges while the seeds sown in the fields by the tribes grow and bloom with flowers, the tribes perform Sakewa puja which includes dancing and singing. The dance is called Silli and mimics the movements of birds and animals during their migration. The performance of Sakewa puja is led by the Nakchong (the Rai priest) or by the head of an important family in his absence. During Sakewa puja instruments such as the dhol (or dhela), the jyamta, the bow and arrow, the chindo, the yak tail, and the cock and hen are used.

After Sakewa Puja, the Rai community is banned from playing any musical instruments until after they have performed the harvest festival, udhauwli, in August and September. At this time the birds and the animals return from the high hills to the low lands and puja silli is completed.

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