ETHNIC GROUPS IN EASTERN NEPAL
East Nepal borders the Darjeeling area of India to the south and a remote part of Tibet to the north. Sikkim (part of India) lies to the east and separates Nepal from Bhutan. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain at 8,598 meters (28,208-feet), is located here. The Eastern half of Nepal is richer in biodiversity and receives more rain than western parts of Nepal. Among the earliest inhabitants of Nepal were the Kirat of the eastern region.
The Kirantis are composed of two distinct ethnic groups, the Rai and the Limbu. Limbu are the 14th largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 1.5 percent of the population of Nepal. Rai are the 10th largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 2.3 percent of the population of Nepal. Some eastern Nepal groups live in Bhutan and the Darjeeling area of India. See Limbu and Rai
The Sunwar is a group with about 100,000 people that lives primarily in eastern Nepal. They are also known as Sunbar, Sunuwar, Sunwari. According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Sunwar have frequent Contact with the Gurung and Magar and are evidently culturally similar to these larger groups. The Sunwar are primarily agriculturalists, growing rice, wheat, and barley in river valleys and maize and millet in the hills. Their patrilineal clans are divided into the endogamous, high-status Bahra Thar and the exogamous, lower-status Das Thar groups. There is some evidence that the Bahra Thar are primarily Lamaist Buddhists and the Das Thar are mostly Hindu, although traditional beliefs of both religions are found in both groups. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Mundhum: the Animist Religion of the Rai and Limbu
The Rai and Limbu are largely animist followers of Mundhum. Mundhum (also known as Peylan) is the ancient religious scripture and folk literature of the Limbu as well as the ancient, indigenous religion of Nepal. Mundhum means "the power of great strength" in Limbu language. The Mundhum covers many aspects of the Limbu culture, customs and traditions that preceded Vedic culture of South Asia. The Mundhum goes beyond religion and serves as a guide for rituals, ethics and social values. [Source: Wikipedia]
Mundhum is organised into two parts — Thungsap and Peysap. Thungsap Mundhum is an epic that was preserved and passed orally before being written down. It was recited in the form of songs by Sambas, religious poets and bards. The Peysap Mundhum is a written religious book divided into four parts — the Soksok Mundhum, Yehang Mundhum, Samjik Mundhum and Sap Mundhum — and contains the stories of creation of the universe, the beginning of mankind, the cause and effect of the sins, the creation of evil spirits, such as the evil spirits of envy, jealousy and anger and the cause and effect of death in childhood.
The Yehang Mundhum contains the story of the first leader of mankind who made laws for the sake of improvement of human beings from the stage of animal life to the enlightened life and ways to control them by giving philosophy on spiritualism. Rules for marriage, arbitration, purification and religion are in this book. Lepmuhang Mundhum contains the story of destruction of human beings by a flood , the social customs of seasonal worship to God and rules of purification on child birth and death.
Mundhum is a spiritual, rhythmic and shamanic form of scripture. Mundhum rituals and teachings are only used and performed by a very special Kirat religious master or shamanic guru of Kirant. Mundhum is written in very ancient native Kirat language and tones. To study Mundhum, person must study a native Kirat language such as Limbu, Yakha, Sunuwar and Rai. Mundhum almost cover everything like the origin of earth, air, water, fire and life, medicine, god, all ritual birth, marriage, death..
Limbu are the 14th largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 1.5 percent of the population of Nepal. The Limbu are one of the largest tribal groups in Nepal. Resided in eastern Nepal between the Arun River and the border of Sikkim, India, they are a Mongolian people who speak a dialect of Tibetan, practice Hinduism mixed with traditional folk religion and were cheated out of much of the land they owned by Nepalese Brahmans. Some Limbu have settled in Darjeeling and Bhutan.
The Limbu are mostly farmers. Labor is divided along sexual lines and different families often join together and share resources and labor. Another source of income has been military service. They practiced blood sacrifice and believe that gods are transmitted along matrilineal; lines. Bad things are often blamed on men who are often ritually cleaned after something bad takes place. Drinking and dancing are important. Dance parties serve as a way for young men and women to meet. Even funerals have a lot of drinking. The dead are buried rather than cremated. The period of ritual pollution after the burial is three days for men and two days for women.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Agriculture is the main source of income. The abundance of land has made the cultivation of new agricultural lands possible, but insufficient knowledge of technology has limited their productivity. Limbu grow wheat, rice, and maize, and they trade some of the crops for goods that cannot be grown or made in their region. A sexual division of labor occurs in agriculture. Men plow the fields, women plant the seeds, and at the harvesting period both sexes join to complete the job. During cultivation families bring friends to help with the fields. These groups of people share labor with one another during especially busy times. Another source of income for Limbus is military service. Economic hardship has made it worthwhile to join the army both in Nepal and in India in Return for a small amount of cash. Associated with military service is respect and honor, especially for those of higher military rank. [Source: Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Limbus are considered the first settlers of east Nepal and are thought to be descendants of the Kiratis. Limbus became known to history in the 18th century, at a time when a number of small chiefdoms in Limbuan were under the authority of the kingdom of Bijayapur. In the latter part of the 18th century Nepal was formed by uniting various ethnic groups and numerous principalities under a high-caste Hindu dynasty. This conquest resulted in a number of migrations of high-caste Hindu groups into eastern Nepal, causing an ethnic and cultural split with the Limbus. The Limbus were expected to grant land to the immigrants for their support. [Source: Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The Nepalese government brought all tribal lands (with the exception of certain Limbus) under raikar, "a system of landlordism under which the rights of an individual to utilization and transfer of the land are recognized by the state as long as taxes are paid." Before this system was enforced all Limbu groups held land under the system of kipat, in which "an Individual obtains rights to land by virtue of his membership in a series of nesting kin groups." This change of land tenure caused Limbus to lose lands to the Hindu immigrants, who were mostly of Brahman caste. There were two reasons for this change. First, a shortage of lands was beginning to be felt, and therefore the government dissolved all the Limbuan rights to their kipat lands. A second factor was the absence of ownership documents, which led to legal conflicts over ownership and rent. Surrendered kipat lands helped to finance revenue settlements, postal services, and the army.
“The Limbus were left only with the land they were living on and cultivating. The Brahmans had some advantages over Limbus: they were skilled and had labor resources that the Limbus lacked and needed. They were also able to read and write, which qualified them for administrative jobs and forced the abolition of the kipat system. In the eyes of the Limbus, Brahmans were "ungrateful servants" who were trusted with their land but "stole" it instead. The Limbus are now determined to salvage their land under the kipat system and refrain from passing it on to members of other groups. Brahmans, at a cost to the Limbus, have become the most authoritarian ethnic group in east Nepal. Resentment is also felt by the Brahmans toward the Limbus; Brahmans regard the Limbus as "simple" and "concerned only for the present." Brahmans feel that if Limbus had looked to the future, they would not have granted their lands. The Limbuan struggle for land is an ongoing process that continues to affect social and political conditions in the region. In 1970, the population was estimated at 245,000.
Limbu Religion and Culture
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “One area of difference between Limbus and Brahmans is Religious. Limbus recognize and participate in many popular Hindu festivals but also have a number of their own practitioners. They worship by means of blood sacrifice. They believe that lineage divinities are not transmitted patrilineally. [Source: Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Rather, a woman inherits her mother's gods and when she marries and lives with her husband, she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the gods of the Household. Every time a bad thing or feeling is caused by the man, he will have to be washed clean of it. There are also forest deities that inhabit the area and have nothing to do with women. Limbu bury their dead and observe two to three days of pollution; the length of the period depends on whether the deceased is a female or a male, respectively. |~|
“Drinking and dancing are very important to the Limbus. Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and settlement of conflicts involve much consumption of liquor, especially beer. Dancing parties are given for visitors to the village. These affairs give the young Limbu girls and boys a chance to meet and enjoy dancing and drinking. |~|
At the singing contests boys and girls form a circle and dance as they sing. The Dhan Naach is a Limbu dance. Dhan means paddy, so this dance is largely performed during the rice harvest weeks. Men and women hold hands and dance together in slow circles to melodious music. The Balan Naach depicts the heroic acts of gods and goddesses.
The Limbu have traditionally carried khukaris (knives) tucked in their belt. The Limbu have a reputation for being quick tempered and not afraid of unsheathing their khukaris. The Limbu have distinguished themselves fighting with the Gurkhas.
The Limbus regard raksi as traditional drink. Raksi is a strong drink. It is clear like vodka or gin and tastes somewhat like Japanese sake. It is usually made from kodo millet (kodo) or rice. Different grains yield different tastes. Limbu drink it and tongba with pieces of pork, water buffalo or goat meat sekuwa.
Among the Limbu marriage is not considered legitimate until a child is produced. Until that time the woman is regarded of low status and is scolded by her mother-on-law and addressed as “hey you” on the streets. The marriage itself can take three forms: 1) arranged; 2) adulatous; and 3) theft. The first kind involves the payment of a bridal price by the groom’s family and the approval of parents. The second and third kinds are ways to get out paying a bride price
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “In the past, marriages were arranged by families with neither the bride nor the groom having much comment on the marriage payments or ceremonies. After the wedding the girl would give up her last name for her husband's, in return for a brideprice. Modern times have changed this and now both parties have a chance to choose and decide on the matter. The gift giving continues after the wedding and marriage payments extend over many years. [Source: Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Adulterous” and "theft" marriages are legal. “In case of adulterous marriage a bride-price is not required. Some compensation is paid to the former husband by the new husband. Also, if the woman is single, the new husband visits the woman's natal home with offerings to form a closer bond with her family. "Theft" marriages are common. The term "theft" means that she has agreed to be taken without negotiations. Such elopement is one way to avoid the high cost of a bride-price. The women in these marriages are considered as weak subjects, labor resources, and child bearers. For the Limbus these undesirable marriages, especially theft of married women, are usually initiated at dances. |~|
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Families related "by the bone" make up patrilineal lineages and clans. Death of a member brings pollution on the local agnatic descent group. During this time adults refrain from eating meals cooked with salt and oil. Wives who have taken their husband's family name also take their impurities by eating leftovers from their meals. Lineage and clan groups are exogamous, so men and women with the same clan name are forbidden to marry or have sexual relations. Today, lineages do not have a great influence on marriage, though payments are made to the chief of the clan. In general Limbu families are economically and ritualiy independent of each other.” [Source: Saideh Moayed-Sanandaji, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“Women play a great and very active part in the marriage, in part because in many households the man serves in the army for many years and the woman is the decision maker concerning the house, children, marriage, and business. Women also influence the stability of a marriage. The mother-in-law phobia is strongly felt, and in most cases the mother-in-law is the prime reason for a bride's departure. Language is also a barrier if the bride is from a different region.
“The Limbus, like many Nepalese, are hesitant to address one another directly. Calling out a name in public is taboo and creates embarrassment; therefore the new bride is called "you" or "the wife of so-and-so" (teknonymy) and she does not have full status as a woman until she bears a child. Until full acceptance by the mother-in-law, the marriage is uncertain, as the wife can return to her natal home if she is made to feel uncomfortable. Polygamy is not widely practiced; it is practiced only if the wife is barren or has failed to produce sons. Kinship is very important in a marriage. A union with kin is considered successful and ideal.”
Rai are the 10th largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 2.3 percent of the population. The Rai are an ethnic group that lives in eastern Nepal. They and the Limbu are regarded as subgroups of the Kiranti. They are primarily rice farmers and live in some of the same areas as Sherpas. In recent years they have been hired by Sherpas to work as porters on treks and expeditions in the Mt. Everest area. Otherwise little is known about them..
The largest Tibeto-Nepalese group in eastern Nepal, the Rai are also found in India, Sikkim, and Bhutan. John T. Hitchcock wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Subsisting primarily as rice agriculturalists, Rai also have a tradition of men migrating to cities for work and men serving as Gurkhas. The Rai are composed of two major subgroups, the Khambu and Yakhu, each of which is composed of patrilineal clans and lineages. The Rai speak a Kiranti dialect. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
In some areas, particularly in India, Rai have combined traditional shamanism and ancestor worship with beliefs and practices taken from Buddhism and Hinduism. At the singing contests, like the Limbu, boys and girls form a circle and dance as they sing. Many Rai carry khukaris (knives) tucked in their belt.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022