The nomadic Rautes are the last hunters-gatherers of the Himalayas. The Rautes, who call themselves Kings of Forests, subsist on langur and macaque monkeys, wild yams, rice and a few kinds of vegetables traded from local farmers. Their main occupation is to trade and exchange of wooden items in nearby villages and bazaars. They migrate from river valleys up to middle hills in the Western parts of Nepal living in temporary camps hidden away from the villages in remote parts of the forests.
The nomadic Rautes belong nowhere and everywhere, and they have their own language, culture and beliefs. The Rautes believe in the sun God Berh that represents eternity. The Rautes have managed to avoid forcible assimilation and have not settled in villages and adopted Hindu beliefs and practices. Instead, they continue their traditional life travelling through the forests of Western Nepal.
The Rautes continue to maintain a certain degree of secrecy and avoidance towards assimilation, in order to keep their identity and to survive as a distinct community. As a photographer and an outsider, it was at first not that easy to deal with the Rautes. It took some days before they understood and accepted me in and around their camp in the forest. First, we had to get the acceptance from the Chief Headman and three other headmen, as well as from the community. Then we could start to hang around and photograph.
Several times, the Chief Headman came to the nearby bazaar, where we were staying, for negotiating and making sure that he and the community also benefited from my visit. One of the first days, we had a nice interaction with the Chief Headman and his wife talking about the origin of the Rautes and listening to their stories. We also showed them a book about the Rautes, and it turned out that the person shown on the front page of the book was the father of the Chief Headman’s wife. They were very pleased and happy, and we continued watching a documentary about the Rautes on a laptop. They of course knew all the people in the documentary film. Today, the community counts only 156 people.
At some point, the Chief Headman wanted me to buy him and his wife a large rooster. He could not convince me, and we had a bit of crisis later that day. But a few days later, it all worked out very nicely and they got their rooster. Another day, I was taken strongly by the arm and escorted out of the camp. We had not delivered the last goat, as agreed, and we were taken through the forest to the nearby village for goat negotiations. We found a goat at a reasonable price and returned to the camp to continue the photography work.
The Rautes are very clever people when dealing with local people and outsiders – like a foreign photographer. They have to be, in order to keep their identity and survive, and my visit to the Rautes also resulted in the following expenses:
- 2 x 3 packages of cigarettes
- 2 large packages of suthi (tobacco)
- 2 x 1 kilo of suntalas (oranges)
- 55 pairs of warm topies (caps)
- A big box of biscuits
- One large rooster weighing 5 kilos
- A good contribution for the purchase of five goats
It took me three days from the capital Kathmandu to reach the camp of the Rautes in Accham in Western Nepal. When doing such photography, it is very important to stay flexible and willing to spend the necessary time. It is very difficult to plan in great detail beforehand. Expect the unexpected. The uncertainly is what makes it so fascinating. It also all depends on the people you meet. My great advantage was that I know Nepal well and speak the main language Nepali. It meant that I could communicate with the local people and also with some of the Rautes. I had also teamed up with two local journalists, who knew the Rautes well and with a social worker from the area. Local contacts are essential and necessary for such kind of photography.
I knew that access to electricity would be a problem. I was, however, lucky that we did have access to some solar recharging during some of the days. If you are out in remote areas, you have to think carefully about your battery capacity and possibilities of recharging cameras, laptop, etc. Make sure you have plenty of batteries, reliable storage and solar recharging.
Photography is very often about meeting people. In such cases, it is essential to use your empathy and listen to people. Without good interpersonal connections, it would have been extremely difficult to get good portraits. If you decide to photograph remote areas and people like this, it would be very beneficial to do some research beforehand about the people you are going to meet. This will help you when looking for motives, composing your images and develop the story you want to tell. Finally, always be on a lookout for not just portraits, but also environmental shots and details. Such opportunities are everywhere!
I hope you have enjoyed my story about the nomadic Rautes, along with the images presented in this short article.
This article was submitted by Jan Møller Hansen. Please visit Jan’s online gallery to see more of his work.