“Women have no caste, flatbread has no head, and the ‘Rautes’ have no houses,” says a man perched on a rock, pointing at a camp of cloth tents hidden in the mist. “You are duniya, the outside world, and we are the ‘Rautes’, we don’t have houses—we have camps.””

Only about 140 remain in the foraging tribe of Rautes. These people, who live on western mountains of Nepal inhabit lands ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Each summer, they travel up the mountain—and each winter, they come down.

Raute elders are convinced that their ancestral traditions will survive into the future. They don’t occupy the same place for long, they don’t grow crops, and they don’t work for outsiders. Nomadic Rautes have strong sense of attachment with the Forest. The main sources of living for the Rautes are the wooden materials they make. They have talent for crafting wood and creating household utensils. Their craftsmanship is handed down from generation to generation. They once used to exchange their goods for food, but these days they’ve started to earn a bit of money too.

During the 1970s, the idea of a “community forest” was brought to Nepal. The idea was that the forest belonged to nobody—and thus had to be protected. While this concept was a great idea in many parts of the world, it started to create problems for the Rautes. First and foremost: they couldn’t cut trees and thus couldn’t make their famous handicrafts. Any efforts to continue cutting trees led to conflicts with locals and further problems for the community. With their main source of economic well-being taken away, the Rautes have become more dependent on their monthly government hand-out (1000 rupees or 12 USD). Although this money is helpful now, it will likely increase dependence in the future.

“Earlier, they used to say that ‘to count the money is a sin’ but these days they ask for money whenever they meet,” said an experienced old man from Dailekh. Likewise, members of the Raute community are seen drunk all the times. Even children of 8 or 10 years of age can be found drinking. Rautes—who were once regarded as stubborn but clear-headed and innocent—are often seen these days drunk at local hotels and sometimes even fighting with locals.

Misunderstandings between the Rautes and the locals go way back. Some locals believe that Rautes conduct human sacrifices every twelve years. Others believe that if you wander into their camp, they’ll enchant you and keep you prisoner. All hearsay, of course, but nobody from outside the community has seen otherwise to refute the claim.

The Rautes seem to prefer to remain hidden behind a shroud of mystery—perhaps to shield themselves from the influence of duniya. They don’t talk much, don’t like outsiders in their camp, and tend to seek out isolated nooks for their enclosed world. Their life seems a conundrum: they endlessly wander along the boundaries of the world they have created. They roam like the clouds; they float across the landscape, free as the birds. But there also seems to be clash between the modern society and their relationship to it and their desire to continue their own lifestyle.

After all, how many generations will be able to continue living this lifestyle? Only time will tell.

—Kishor Sharma

Editors’ Note: Photo Kathmandu, the newest addition to the international photography festival circuit, launched in November 2015. The first edition of the festival served as a platform for interaction between photography, history, anthropology and a wide array of the arts.

LensCulture was a proud partner with Photo Kathmandu, presenting a series of preview articles from the festival’s program in advance of the launch. We look forward to next year’s edition!