CASTE GROUPS IN NEPAL
The fourfold caste divisions are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (or Vaisaya, merchants and traders), and Sudra (farmers, artisans, and laborers). These Pahari caste divisions based on the Hindu system are not strictly upheld by the Newars. They have their own caste hierarchy, which, they claim, is parallel in caste divisions to the Pahari Hindu system. In each system, each caste (jati) is ideally an endogamous group in which membership is both hereditary and permanent. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
Certain groups in Nepal are categorized according to their occupation. They are Kamis (smiths), Damais (tailors and musicians), Dhibis (washerman) Sarkis (cobblers and leatherworkers), Gaines (professional singers) and Khumbharas (porters). The origin of these castes has not been investigated yet by the anthropologists. Hinduism is their major religion and Nepali their major language. Many have their own local festivals and practices. The Deora Naach is a dance performed by the Damai. [Source: visitnepal.com ]
Vaisyas are merchants and traders. They have traditionally formed the Nepalese middle class. Damais, Kamis and Sarkis are important Sudra castes. Other Sudra communities, many of them laborer castes, include Sunars (goldsmiths), Lohars (ironsmiths), Vishwakarma (Drivers) and Nepalis (whose ancestry is unknown or doesn’t fit into the caste schem).
There are so many upper caste Brahmans and Chhetris in Nepal that the Sudraare often treated like Dalits (Untouchables). They are not allowed to enter the homes of high caste members or eat from the same plates or drink from the same cups as Brahmans and Chhetris. Brahman priest will officiates over their marriage ceremonies. Dalits and members of other castes are treated the same or even worse. Members of non-Hindu ethnic groups often treat the Sudra castes with the same disdain as upper caste members.
Kami are the seventh largest ethnic or caste group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 4.8 percent of the population of Nepal. They made up 3.9 percent of the population in 2001. Damai-Dholii are the 12th largest ethnic or caste group in Nepal. They make 1.8 percent of the population of Nepal. Sarki are the 15th largest ethnic or caste group in Nepal. They make up 1.4 percent of the population.
Powerful Ethnic and Caste Groups in Nepal
The Paharis traditionally have occupied the vast majority of civil service positions. As a result, they have managed to dominate and to control Nepal's bureaucracy to their advantage. It was not until the 1980s that a prime minister came from the non- Pahari segment of the population. Despite some loosening of the total Pahari domination of the bureaucracy in recent years, a 1991 newspaper report, summarized in the Nepal Press Digest,revealed that 80 percent of the posts in the civil service, the army, and the police still were held by the Brahmans and Chhetris of the hills, who comprised less than 50 percent of the population; 13 percent were held by Kathmandu Valley Newars, whose share of the total population was merely 3 percent. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The report added that even in 1991, the eleven-member Council of Ministers in 1991 had six Brahmans and three Newars. Furthermore, six of the nine-member Constitution Recommendation Commission, which drafted the new constitution in 1990, were hill Brahmans. In spite of the increasing number of Newars holding government jobs, they traditionally were recognized as a commercial merchant and handicraft class. It was no exaggeration that they historically have been the prime agents of Nepalese culture and art. A significant number of them also were engaged in farming. In that sense, they can be described as agro-commercialists. *
Although Paharis, especially those in rural areas, were generally quite conscious of their caste status, the question of caste did not usually arise for Tibeto-Nepalese communities unless they were aware of the Hindu caste status arbitrarily assigned to them. Insofar as they accepted caste-based notions of social rank, the Tibeto-Nepalese tended not only to see themselves at a higher level than did the Hindu Pahari and Newar, but also differed as to ranking among themselves. Thus, it was doubtful that the reported Rai caste's assumption of rank superiority over the Magar and Gurung castes was accepted by the two latter groups. Moreover, the status of a particular group was apt to vary from place to place, depending on its relative demographic size, wealth, and local power. *
Pahari is a term that is used to refer to mountain dwelling people and is generally used to describe Indo-European-speaking peoples of the Himalayas in north India and Nepal. Among the groups that fall into this category are (from west to east): 1) the Churachi, Gaddi. Kinnaura and Sirmuri (all in Himachal Pradesh); and 2) Jaunsari, Garhwali and Kumauni (all in Uttar Pradesh). [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
There are believed to be around 30 million Pahari: 10 million in Himachel Pradesh and Kashmir; 11 million in Uttra Pradesh; and 9 million in Nepal. The languages they speak — identified as Western Pahari, Central Pahari and Eastern Pahari (Nepalese) — are noticeably different than the languages spoken in the plains.
The Pahari people are generally believed to have originated from people that migrated from the plains to the mountains during the past 3000 years, presumably to escape population pressure, famines, droughts, disease and military and civil conflict. Great numbers are believed to have migrated after the Muslim invasions. Some of these people lived in fortresses villages, of which ruins can be seen throughout the region.
Paharis in Nepal: Brahmans, Thakuri and Chhetris
The north Indian antecedents of a number of caste groups in the hills (that is, the first group of Indo-Nepalese migrants), which, in the early 1990s, made up more than 50 percent of the total population, are evident in their language, religion, social organization, and physical appearance. All of these features, however, have been modified in the Nepalese environment. These groups — several castes of Brahmans, the high-ranking Thakuri and Chhetri (the Nepalese derivative of the Kshatriya) castes, and an untouchable category — generally are classified as Pahari, or Parbate. However, in most parts of Nepal (except in the Terai), the term pahari has only a limited use in that the Paharis generally are known by their individual caste names. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Nepali, the native tongue of the Paharis and the national language of Nepal, is closely related to, but by no means identical with, Hindi. Both are rooted in Sanskrit. The Hinduism of the Pahari has been influenced by Buddhism and indigenous folk belief. The Paharis' caste system was neither as elaborately graded nor as all embracing in its sanctions as that of the Indians; physically, many of the Paharis showed the results of racial intermixture with the various Mongoloid groups of the region. *
The Paharis traditionally have occupied the vast majority of civil service positions. As a result, they have managed to dominate and to control Nepal's bureaucracy to their advantage. It was not until the 1980s that a prime minister came from the non- Pahari segment of the population. Despite some loosening of the total Pahari domination of the bureaucracy, 80 percent of the posts in the civil service, the army, and the police in the 1990s were held by the Brahmans and Chhetris of the hills, who comprised less than 50 percent of the population of Nepal. *
Thakuri are the 13th largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 1.6 percent of the population. Thakuris are the self-proclaimed elite of the Chhetris and the highest ranking of the many Chhetri groups. The king and the royal family are Thakuris. The Ran clan, which provided all the prime ministers, between 1846 and 1950, and ran Nepal behind the scenes, were Chhetri but not Thakuris. The movement to overthrow the Ranas was led by Brahmans and Chhetris.
Brahman and Chhetri
The Brahman and Chhetri are upper caste groups that have played pivotal roles in Nepal’s development and history. Brahmans are the highest caste and have traditionally been priests. Chhetri are the Nepalese equivalent of Kshartriya, the second highest caste and have traditionally been warriors. They have many of the same customs as Brahmans and are found throughout Nepal but are concentrated most heavily in the lowlands near India and mid level hills and valleys such as the Kathmandu valley,
Chhettri are the largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 16.6 percent of the population of Nepal. Brahman-Hill are the second largest ethnic group in Nepal. They make up 12.2 percent of the population of Nepal. Chhettri made up 15.5 percent of the population and Brahmans made up 12.5 percent of the population in 2001. Brahmans are known in Nepali as "Bahuns."
The Brahman and Chhetri have traditionally been regarded as like single group and viewed like an ethnic group even though they are caste groups. They are most dominant in the western hills where they make up about 80 percent of the population and are scattered throughout the rest of the country.
Chhetris and Brahman have sharp Indo-Aryan features and an olive complexion. Brahmans are believed to have migrated from India while Chhetris are relatives of the present day Khasa people from Khasi. Both groups are Hindus and have many subgroups. They are divided into two major groupings: the Purba and Umai. The Kumain people are from Kumo in Uttar Pradesh, northern India. They practice Hinduism and speak Nepali, the national language of Nepal and use a script derived from Sanskrit. [Source: visitnepal.com ]
The moral, social and political leadership of Brahman and Chhetri continue to play a major role in Nepalese life. Those living in the Terai lowlands are a lot like their counterparts across the border in northern India. Those who inhabit the middle hills of Nepal are more distinct. Their percentage of the population declines as one moves eastward from the western hills, where they comprise well over half the population, to the east, where they are usually one among many minorities. [Source: James. F. Fisher, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Brahmans are though to have first arrived in Nepal in the 12th century during one of the early Muslim invasions of India. In Nepal they mixed with the Khas, a people of similar Aryan background but were not Hindus and were of lower rank than the Brahmans. The offspring from Brahman men and Khas women (Khatri) were called Chhetris and were allowed to wear the sacred thread that Brahmans wear. However, the existence of Matwali Chhetris (those who drink liquor), who do not wear the sacred thread, is seen as evidence that not all Khas were accorded Chhetri status. |~|
Brahman and Chhetri Customs and Traditions
Chhetris and Brahman are Hindus and their customs and lifestyles define and conform with those of most Nepalese Hindus because they are the largest Hindu groups in Nepal. Brahman and Chhetri traditionally have had much higher levels of education and literacy than other castes and ethnic groups. They often occupy the best farming land. Customs regarded marriage, family and religion are similar to those of the Brahman and Kshartriya castes in India. [Source: James. F. Fisher, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
In rural areas Brahman traditionally served as priests and worked as farmers. Some work as shop owners and inn keepers. Many perform no priestly duties at all but still rely on other castes for their commercial needs. Chhetri also work as farmers but also have a long tradition of serving in the military. In urban areas both groups have traditionally dominated government administration, politics, education and financial services, in many cases because they were the only ones allowed to get an education. They are often landowners, and in many cases absentee ones. By virtue of being landowners they powerful politically and economically.
Chhetris and Brahman are not as powerful as they once were but are still powerful. Brahmans still own much of land in the countryside and still force peasants to work for them in feudal arrangements. Brahman women are expected to bathe their husband's feet each morning as a sign of respect. Brahmans are sometimes paid for their services with cows rather than money.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Brahmans and Chhetris are members of two kinds of clans, the thar (indicated as a surname) and the gotra. Most marriages are monogamous, but polygynous unions were traditionally frequent and are still occasionally found. Second and subsequent wives are often members of other ethnic groups, such as the Gurungs, Magars, Tamangs, Sherpas, and Newars, but not low-caste artisan groups. With the exception of Thakuris, the self-proclaimed aristocrats among the Chhetris who practice matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, cousin marriage is not practiced. Brahman girls traditionally married by the age of 11, and Chhetri girls a few years later; but educated urban dwellers now marry in their late teens or early twenties. Grooms are normally a few years older than their brides.
Magar Caste Relations
Magar are the third largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 7.1 percent of the population of Nepal. They are a Hindu people who live in the middle Himalayas and Terai and west-central and southern Nepal.
John T. Hitchcock wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Banyan Hill Magars, who themselves comprise a distinctive caste group, live in two major kinds of relationships with the neighboring caste groups of Kihun Thum. One kind rests on ideas about ritual pollution, and the other involves exchanges of services for food or other payment. A major split exists between those caste groups called Touchable (chhune ) and those called Untouchable (nachhune ). Members of a Touchable caste cannot ritually pollute those of any other local castes merely by touching them, but they are themselves subject to pollution by the touch of any Untouchable person. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|, Banyan Hill is the pseudonym for a Magar village]
“From the Magar point of view, the major Touchable castes in the vicinity of Banyan Hill make up a hierarchical ritual order of Upadhyaya Brahman (Brahman of highest Status) , Jaisi Brahman (offspring of a Brahman and a Brahman widow), and Magar. The three Untouchable caste groups in the area, tailors (Dami), metalworkers (Kami), and leatherworkers (Sarki), are thought to have equal ability to pollute. |~|
“The relative status of Touchable caste groups is expressed in a variety of ways, as illustrated by a few kinds of interactions between Magars and Brahmans. When a Magar man meets an Upadhyaya Brahman man, the Brahman raises his foot and the Magar touches his forehead to it. A young Brahman meeting an older and Respected Magar man first inclines his head and then lifts his foot to be touched. Before stepping on a freshly cleaned veranda of an Upadhyaya home, a Magar woman touches her forehead to one of the steps. Magars address Upadhyaya Brahmans as "grandfather" or "grandmother." If a Magar man boils rice in his own vessel he will not offer it to a Brahman because he knows that the Brahman may not accept it. In contrast, the Magar may take rice cooked in a Brahman's vessel. |~|
“Each Banyan Hill Magar family, except for that of the headman's plowman, is regularly served by one of seven Brahmans from four nearby Brahman hamlets. These Brahmans perform priestly functions and are referred to as upret. During the course of a year the upret visit their client families to help them observe a number of calendrical festivals, including the day in July or August when the "World Snake" (the "Bed of Vishnu" and the "Garland of Shiva") is worshiped; Tika Day in September or October, during the festival of Dashain, when they give each family member a tika to ensure good health and prosperity; and Thread Full Moon, usually in August or September, when they tie yellow and red yarn around their clients' wrists, partly to ensure that if they die within the next six months they will go directly to Heaven. Other occasions for which a Magar family may call their Brahman include: a ceremony to prevent an inauspicious disposition of the planets from harming a baby; the Satya Narayan puja for Vishnu; an elaborate marriage; and a baby's naming ceremony. Upret are paid when they provide services; generally this payment consists of a small amount of money, plus food deemed appropriate for a person of such high caste to take from a Magar. Such food includes uncooked rice, ghee, salt, and spices. |~|
Magar Untouchable and Service Castes
Magar are the third largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 7.1 percent of the population of Nepal. They are a Hindu people who live in the middle Himalayas and Terai and west-central and southern Nepal.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Magars regularly employ the services of the various Untouchable castes. The hamlet is served by seven tailor families, all but one of which had a sewing machine by the 1960s. At least once during the year, one or more members of a tailor family, often a man and his wife, come to their Magar client's family to sew. They work on the client's veranda and are given their meals. The items most in demand are blouses for men and women. A tailor who works for a regular client supplies his own thread, and if asked to make caps — usually a cap is required for each man in the family — he supplies the cloth. The client provides cloth for other garments. Magar families usually pay their tailors twice a year, after each harvest in the spring and fall, by giving them millet or maize. Wealthy families give additional payments at this time and, if possible, give rice, which is highly valued by groups like tailors who have no irrigated fields. A final set of payments may be made on major festival occasions such as Dashain in the fall. A tailor will come to a client's house on these occasions expecting a meal and liquor. If he has already eaten at another client's, he is given food and liquor to carry home. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“In the 1960s, nine households of metalworkers provided services on a fairly regular basis for one or more Banyan Hill families. Four of the nine were ironsmiths; one, a coppersmith; four were goldsmiths. The most regular kind of work expected of the ironsmith is putting good cutting edges on plow tips, axes, mattocks, ditchers, and sickles. Pay for such usual work is the same as the tailor's: a measure of millet or maize twice a year plus food and drink on festival days. Ironsmiths also make a large variety of new implements for which they are paid on a piecework basis. |~|
“About half the Banyan Hill families regularly engage the coppersmith. (In the 1960s, one family gave him as much as 40 kilograms of paddy rice, but most gave a single payment of 18 kilograms of millet or maize.) In return for one such large payment, the smith repairs copper utensils such as water vessels, vessels for cooking buffalo mash, and vessels for making distilled liquor. Families who make regular payments think it cheaper to do this than to pay separately for each repair. |~|
“In the 1960s, four goldsmiths had a regular connection with about a third of the Banyan Hill households. Goldsmiths devote their skills almost entirely to making and repairing women's jewelry — nose rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, finger rings, hair ornaments, and the small gold flowers women wear in one nostril. The goldsmith's work and pay is comparable to that of the coppersmith. |~|
“About half the hamlet's Magar families retain a leatherworker on a regular basis. Leatherworkers are from four Neighboring leatherworking families. In return for annual payments of millet or maize and food or drink at major festival times, they are expected to remove dead animals — a service they usually perform whether or not they are retained, since they can sell the hides and, in the case of buffalo, the intestines, which are used as tie ropes. |~|
“Once a year representatives from members of the Untouchable ferryman caste living in a hamlet located at a much-used ferry point on the Kali Gandaki River come to Banyan Hill. They go from house to house asking at each for a number of kilograms of grain. Only those households whose members have crossed or expect to cross the river using ferryman services give to the ferrymen. It is said that the ferrymen remember who has given and do not charge them at the river. In the 1960s, three messengers served all the hamlets in Kihun Thum, and all were members of an Untouchable caste. At that time the messenger who served the Banyan Hill households was a metalworker. Like the ferrymen the messenger annually goes from house to house in his constituency asking for bulk payments of grain. He also visits the houses at major festivals to get food and drink. |~|
Newari Caste System
The Newars are an ethnic group associated with the Kathmandu Valley. Regarded by some as the earliest inhabitants of the valley, they are both Buddhists and Hindus. They speak a Tibetan language with many Sanskit and Nepali loan words. The word “Nepal” is believed by some to have been derived from word “Newar,” or possibly the other way around. The Newar are the sixth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 5 percent of the population of Nepal.
The Newars have their own caste system. with 64 clearly defined occupational castes with priests and confectioners near the top and sweepers and drum makers near the bottom. The relationships between castes is very complex and incorporates Buddhist Newars. Social organizations called Guthis play a major role in Newari society. They can be formed around everything from maintaining a temple to providing charity for needy people or tending a communal agricultural field. They serve an area for people to socialize and make business connections and provide the service the group was set up to provide. Sometimes entire extended families belong to a guthni and it is not unusual for an individual to belong to several guthis. A guthis is generally lead by its most senior member. Some act like village councils and settle dispute or punish members that break the rules.
Hiroshi Ishii wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Intercaste relationships are hierarchical and expressed in commensality, marriage, and other behavior as well as in the division of labor... A guthi often owns land and other property, and holds feasts, which are hosted in rotation by the members. Some priestly and artisan castes had or have guthis to cover one large area and control members' occupations, marriage, and conflicts. In many other castes, funeral associations control the caste members. They may extend beyond the settlement boundary, depending upon the demographic condition of the caste concerned. Castes tend to live in different quarters or wards (twa ), which among some castes are given specific names. A quarter usually houses plural lineages, which may form a corporate ritual unit. There are many guthis of restricted membership to carry out rituals among higher castes.Musical groups and voluntary dance or drama groups are widely found both as intra-and intercaste organizations. [Source: Hiroshi Ishii, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
Newars are known for having a lot of rules and often requiring strict adherence to them. “A sense of conformity is pervasive. Violation of norms sometimes ends in ostracism. Each social group is led by elders who assume their seats according to seniority based on generation and age; but other members who have prestige and ability may emerge as practical leaders.
“Newar Society is divided into many occupational castes. There are both Buddhist and Hindu castes, though the distinction is not clear in many cases. The main Buddhist castes are: Gubhaju (in Sanskrit, Vajracarya), Buddhist priest; Bare Sakya, gold- and silversmith; Uday (Udas), artisan; and Jyapu (Maharjan), farmer. Among the Uday there are, among others, Tuladhar, merchant; Kamsakar, bronze worker; and Tam-rakar, coppersmith, castes.
Main Hindu castes are: Bramhu (Brahman), Hindu priest; Syesya (Srestha), merchant, clerk, etc.; and an unclean caste called Jugi (Kusle, Kapali), tailor, musician. There are Hindu Jyapus and Buddhist Syesyas also. Some examples of the castes below Jyapu are: Kumha (Prajapatī), potter; Nau (Napit), barber; Kau (Nakarmi), blacksmith; Saymi (Manandhar), oil presser; Pu (Citrakar), painter; Chipá (Rañjitkar), dyer; Nay (Kasai), butcher; Kullu, drum maker; Po (Pode, Dyala), fisherman, sweeper; Cyame (Cyamkhala, Kucikar), sweeper; and Harahuru, sweeper. Not all the members of a caste engage in their caste-specific occupation. In some castes, caste occupations are not clear-cut. There is much variation among castes in the extent to which caste occupations are followed. Some members of Nepali-speaking Damai (tailor) and Kami (blacksmith) castes serve Newars. Division of roles by caste is more complex and actively observed in festivals. Remuneration for caste services is made in kind, in cash, by feasting, or by giving the usufruct of land. In terms of population, the Jyapus outnumber others and the Syesyas follow. There are a considerable number of Buddhist priests but fewer Brahmans. The populations of lower castes are small in most cases. |~|
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