RELIGION IN NEPAL
Religion and caste infuse daily life on Nepal. Though officially Hindu, many people continue to practice traditional folk religions and respect certain elements of Buddhism. Traditionally about 80 to 90 percent of the people of Nepal have been are Hindu and about 10 percent have been Tibetan Buddhists and four percent Muslims, with relatively small numbers of Christians and practitioners of Jainism, Sikhism, Bon, ancestor worship and animism. Hinduism and Buddhism. have co-existed in relative harmony for centuries.
Religions: Hindu: 81.3 percent; Buddhist: 9 percent; Muslim: 4.4 percent; Kirat: 3.1 percent; Christian: 1.4 percent; other: 0.5 percent; unspecified: 0.2 percent (2011 estimated). According to the 2001 census, 80.6 percent of Nepalese were Hindu, 10.7 percent were Buddhist, 4.2 were Muslim, 3.6 percent were Kirat (an indigenous religion), 0.5 percent were Christian, and 0.4 percent were classified as other groups. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Library of Congress 2005]
Nepal was the world’s only constitutionally declared Hindu state. But that ended in May 2006 when Nepal was declared a secular country by the Parliament. In 2007, the Nepal monarchy — in which the king was regarded as an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu — was abolished. As was the case before the changes, the Nepal constitution protects religious and cultural freedom.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Except for perhaps Christians, almost all groups participate in indigenous and syncretic shamanic, oracular, or pre-Buddhist Bon beliefs and practices that recognize the effects of local gods, godlings, spirits, and places of power. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “EncySource: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992] Although the population of Nepal is mostly Hindu, since the 1971 census Hindus have shown the greatest decline as a proportion of the population, and Buddhists and Kirats have increased the most: in 1971 Hindus were 89.4 percent of the population, Buddhists 7.5 percent, and Kirats statistically 0 percent. However, statistics on religious groups are complicated by the ubiquity of dual faith practices — particularly among Hindus and Buddhists. Moreover, shifts in the population’s religious composition also reflect political changes. The 1990 constitution ended the government’s promotion of Hindu nationalism and official suppression of political participation based on religious, cultural, and linguistic traits. This policy has enabled greater freedom of religious expression and allowed the census to officially enumerate more religious groups. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005]
Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of of the Hindu god Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. The geographical distribution of religious groups revealed a preponderance of Hindus, accounting for at least 87 percent of the population in every region in the early 1990s. The largest concentrations of Buddhists were found in the eastern hills, the Kathmandu Valley, and the central Terai; in each area about 10 percent of the people were Buddhist. Buddhism was relatively more common among the Newar and Tibeto-Nepalese groups. Among the Tibeto-Nepalese, those most influenced by Hinduism were the Magar, Sunwar, and Rai peoples. Hindu influence was less prominent among the Gurung, Limbu, Bhote, and Thakali groups, who continued to employ Buddhist monks for their religious ceremonies. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: Nepal occupies a special place in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. According to Hindu mythology, the Himalayas are the abode of the gods, and are specifically associated with Shiva, one of the three principal Hindu deities. Pashupatinath, a large Shiva temple in Kathmandu, is among the holiest sites in Nepal and attracts Hindu pilgrims from all over South Asia. Pashupatinath is only one of thousands of temples and shrines scattered throughout Nepal, however. In the Kathmandu Valley alone, there are hundreds of such shrines, large and small, in which the major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, as well as local and minor divinities, are worshiped. Many of these shrines are constructed near rivers or at the base of pipal trees, which are themselves considered sacred. For Buddhists, Nepal is significant as the birthplace of Lord Buddha. It is also home to a number of important Buddhist monasteries and supas, including Boudha and Swayambhu, whose domeshaped architecture and painted all-seeing eyes have become symbols of the Kathamandu Valley. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Generally, Hinduism in Nepal is based on the Dharmashastras, Puranas, and various developments in Vaishnavism and Shaivism that have largely originated in India. Buddhism in Nepal blends Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, with Vajrayana, the Diamond Way. Whether Tibetans or Newars, Buddhists believe in the five Dhayani Buddhas, and along with Hindus they believe in the principles of dharma and karma. Hindus in Nepal worship the major gods of Hinduism, such as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. In the Kathmandu Valley Hindus along with the Buddhists also worship powerful local goddesses and gods known as Ajima, Vajrayogini, Bhatbatini, and others who can be very powerful, protective, and punitive.” The five Dhyani Buddhas; Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Rathasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, represent the five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. Buddhist philosophy conceives these deities to be the manifestations of Sunya or absolute void. Mahakaala and Bajrayogini are Vajrayana Buddhist deities worshipped by Hindus as well. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992; Nepal government]
History of Religion in Nepal
The 1992 constitution granted freedom of worship to all Nepali citizens but also established Nepal as a Hindu monarchy. At that time the constitution banned proselytization. Although discrimination against low castes and non-Hindus exists to some degree, Nepalese of all religions have traditionally been comparatively tolerant, Syncretic practices that merge Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous forms are evidence of a relatively open and tolerant religious scene. Hindu nationalism and intolerance, like that found in neighboring India, never gained much traction in Nepal. The Maoists that led a successful rebellion in the 1990s and 2000s and now are part of the Nepal government have many atheist and anti-religious views.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In the second half of the eighteenth century, Indo-Nepali under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah consolidated Nepal, conquering the Kathmandu Valley in 1769. The consolidation required an ideology that organized ethnic diversity, and those in power drew largely on Hindu caste ideology in formulating an integrative legal and administrative culture. Initially Nepal was ruled as a divine-right Hindu monarchy by the Shah royalty, whose power was usurped by Rana royalty in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ranas effectively ruled Nepal as hereditary prime ministers until 1950, when they were ousted and the Shah monarchy reestablished. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
“In 1990 a "people's movement" led to the establishment of a constitutional Hindu monarchy. Political order, however, was undermined by a Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 and by the massacre of most of the royal family in 2001. In late 2002 the new king, Gyanendra, dissolved the elected parliament and appointed an interim prime minister, heightening the instability of the political situation and precipitating a power struggle between the king, the Maoists, and a coalition of political parties.”
Religion and Nepalese Society
Religion occupies an integral position in Nepalese life and society. In the early 1990s, Nepal was the only constitutionally declared Hindu state in the world; there was, however, a great deal of intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Many of the people regarded as Hindus in the 1981 census could, with as much justification, be called Buddhists. The fact that Hindus worshipped at Buddhist temples and Buddhists worshipped at Hindu temples has been one of the principal reasons adherents of the two dominant groups in Nepal have never engaged in any overt religious conflicts. Because of such dual faith practices (or mutual respect), the differences between Hindus and Buddhists have been in general very subtle and academic in nature. However, in 1991, approximately 89.5 percent of the Nepalese people identified themselves as Hindus. Buddhists and Muslims comprised only 5.3 and 2.7 percent, respectively. The remainder followed other religions, including Christianity. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”“Sixty-two ethnic groups are legally recognized in Nepal and are distinct from the country's dominant Hindu caste communities. These ethnic groups have their own religions, which synthesize practices of indigenous, Hindu, and Buddhist origin. The population remains largely rural, and most people do not identify their religious practices doctrinally. Figures from the 2001 census describing Nepal's religious groups are generally believed to be inaccurate. Other estimates indicate that as many as 20 to 25 percent of the people practice Buddhism in some form. Generally, most of the population is divided into three groupings: Indo-Nepali (Parbatiya), whose cultural and historical affinities are with greater Hindu South Asia; peoples living along the border with Tibet, whose cultural and religious practices are continuous with those of Tibet; and Tibeto-Burman-speaking ethnic populations with independent religious traditions influenced to various degrees by Indic and Tibetan practices. [Source: ”Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Folk Religion in Nepal
Many people continued to practice their traditional folk religions. According to “Countries and Their Cultures” “There is a strong animistic and shamanic tradition. Belief in ghosts, spirits, and witchcraft is widespread, especially in rural areas. Spiteful witches, hungry ghosts, and angry spirits are thought to inflict illness and misfortune. Shamans mediate between the human and supernatural realms to discover the cause of illness and recommend treatment. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Practitioners of Bon-po — a precursor of Tibetan Buddhism — turn their prayer wheels counterclockwise, contrary to clockwise for most Buddhists. They also pass temples by walking in the right side. A Dolpo saint by the name of Tulka Tsewang meditated for 65 years inside a wooden crib. To gain an audience with him a votive offering — that looks like a piece of chocolate and a shell suggesting the spinning of the universe — was presented to him. [Source: Joel Ziskin, National Geographic April 1977]
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ There are also a number of local cults of particular deities throughout the country, such as the Masta cult in western Nepal. People believe that dangerous ghosts and demons, such as the bhut, pret, and masan, haunt crossroads and rivers and wherever they are made offerings of appeasement. Also, some people believe that snakes and frogs have supernatural powers.” |~|
In the Dolpo, villagers worship gods of the mountains. Houses are purified by smearing a layer of cow dung on the floor. Another good way to keep out evils spirits is to make seven balls from sacred rice and cow dung and place them on top of the doorway. Before a Dolpo horse race can begin the horse have to ride over a consecrated juniper fir. When drinking chang in the Karnali, a region west of Dolpo, the custom is to smear rim of the cup with rancid butter and empty the cup three times. [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993; Barry Bishop, National Geographic, November 1971]
Magar Blood Rituals
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. They are a Hindu people who live in the middle Himalayas and Terai and west-central and southern Nepal.
Describing an annual bloody ritual honoring the Hindu gods Shiva and Durga, John T. Hitchcock wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The kot above Banyan Hill is the scene of two Dashain observances — both the major one which takes place during eleven days in the fall and a smaller one known as Chaitre Dashain that is held during a single day in March or April. The focus of both is the incarnation of Shiva's active female principle, or Shakti, who in one embodiment is called Chandi and in another is called Durga. The initial proceedings at the kot during the spring rite emphasize the importance of the Brahman community throughout the area. A group of Brahman men worship Chandi by reading aloud a Sanskrit text, the Chandi-Patha. This takes place in a small shedlike Structure that is open on one side. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“The second part of the worship, the beheading of a young goat, takes place before a small stone building where Durga resides. (At one of these rituals observed by anthropologists in the 1960s, a Magar headman of a nearby hamlet was in charge. His young son was not yet strong enough to do the beheading, so the headman did that. But the boy was the one to wet his hands in goat blood and put his hand prints, one on each side, on the Durga temple door.) The remainder of the ritual symbolizes political aspects of the Thum. The three Thum messengers are given money. A leatherworker is designated to cut up the goat carcass according to traditional rules for distribution. Portions go to the Thum's eight headmen, with one for the raja of Bhirkot, and some to representatives of other Untouchable castes involved in Dashain — a tailor who with his band provided music, and a metalworker who sharpened the sword for the sacrifice.”
Shamanism in Nepal
Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia. Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors. Shaman generally take on their roles after enduring a sickness.
David H. Holmberg wrote in “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Most significant among religious practices in Nepal” other than Hinduism and Buddhism “is shamanism. Shamans or specialists in possession can be found practicing in every community. Most Hindu villagers regularly engage specialists in possession for propitiatory or exorcistic rituals. All Tibeto-Burman-speaking hill groups also employ shamans. Shamans among the Tibeto-Burman-speaking populations perform such services as capturing lost shadow-souls, propitiating household divinities, attaining revelatory visions, divining the future, exorcizing evils, and rejuvenating the life force. Shamans also lead pilgrimages to sacred sites. Shamanism per se does not constitute a separate religion in Nepali communities; rather, it is a fully integrated part of the complex, nondoctrinal ritual systems found among most ethnic groups in Nepal. Although shamanism is declining in some communities, like the Sherpa, and among the middle classes of Kathmandu and other urban areas, it continues to be a vital force in village ritual life. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006. Homberg is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University ]
Frankie Taggart of AFP wrote: “Shamans, known in Nepal as dhami-jhankris, claim to find the lost souls of the sick by travelling between three worlds connected by an upside-down tree called Kalpa Vriksha, the “tree of immortality”. They say they commune with the deities and spirits – both benign and malignant – inhabiting each world. Shamanism has had its critics, however, in a country where ancient superstitions can have a devastating effect. Two weeks ago, villagers in southern Nepal beat a neighbour and burned her alive because their shaman had told them she was a witch. The crime caused widespread revulsion, with Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai appealing to Nepalis not to listen to the accusations of shamans. “In villages especially, faith healers are from the local community while Western medicine practitioners are from cities and towns and are often regarded as outsiders,” says Ravi Shankar, a professor at the Manipal College of Medical Sciences in Pokhara, Nepal’s second city. [Source: Frankie Taggart, AFP, March 4, 2012]
“Many academics in the West believe that shamans rely on the “placebo effect” – the tendency of any treatment, even an ineffective one, to cause improvements in health simply because the recipient believes it will work. “However, even doctors who distrust Nepal’s shamans have in the past relied on their services, training them to use rehydration salts to treat diarrhoea and administer antibiotics in pneumonia cases. “There is the negative aspect where diseases like epilepsy and mental illness are regarded as entirely due to supernatural causes and modern medical treatment is neglected,” says Shankar. “But then, this was the case in the West also about 150 years ago.” – AFP
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”: “Shamans are an important link between the people of Kihun Thum and the world of deities and spirits. During one of the studies done in the 1960s, there were three shamans in the Thum — two Magars and a Brahman. One of the two Magars was an ex-soldier living in a hamlet near Banyan Hill [pseudonym for a Magar village], and he was the one turned to most often by the people of Banyan Hill. He called himself a lama — implying that he was a Tibetan priest, though he was not — and he was most often referred to by that term. He would tell his clients the cause of a present trouble (for example, a sick buffalo) and would advise them on the steps to take to remedy the problem. But his practice was more than remedial. It was also prescient: he would foretell what misfortunes the future held and how to forestall them. | [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“This shaman's special powers derived from his ability to enter a trance state. To do this he did not don any special Costume other than an empowering necklace. While seated, he clasped a number of leafy branches in both hands and held them before his face while muttering a series of spells. When he became possessed by the spirit he had summoned, the branches shook violently, and he began speaking in the spirit's voice. The spirit would answer questions from the afflicted family and also those of any in the larger audience that usually assembled when it was known that the shaman would be holding a seance. His techniques were not limited to his ability to enter a trance state.
“When he deemed it appropriate, he provided medicines concocted from items he carried in an old army rucksack. His pharmacopoeia included the following: some Ayurvedic treatments available in the local or more distant bazaars; a bull's tooth; a human legbone; the navel of a musk deer; a shred of a leopard's tongue; a porcupine's jawbone, plus its stomach, still stuffed with the dried contents; a tortoise shell; a piece of red brick; a black stone; and numerous bits of leaf and bark. Often the patient was required to drink a concoction of selected ground-up bits from this array. Ground-up brick was a frequently used component. Harder, nongrindable items such as a bull's tooth were merely touched to the medicine. |~|
In the Dolpo region, shaman are fixtures of religious life. Journalist Dianne Summers witnessed a pre-caravan ritual with a shaman who was dressed completely in white and had a long braid coiled in a knot on the top of his head. The shaman, she wrote, "rolls his head from left to right, yawns, and grimaces. He jumps like an animal around the primitive wooden statues. The bell in his hand rings erratically as he shakes. His braid falls to his waist...The shaman takes a handful of rice which pours into the other hand... [He] starts to speak in a high pitched voice, as if possessed by the god." [Source: Eric Valli and Diane Summers, National Geographic, December 1993 ☺]
“To solve a problem the shaman tells one man take a handful of blessed rice and put half of it on the beam above the entrance to the house and spread the other half on his goats and sheep before the caravan leaves. He than must sacrifice a lamb to the god of the forest and bring the shaman back a temple bell from Tibet.”☺
In the Dolpo region, shaman are consulted for medical advice. On the caravan Summer's daughter Sara became very ill with a high temperature. To figure out what was wrong a village doctor threw a couple of dice and pronounced that demons had seen her nice cloths and possessed her thinking she a rich girl. He recommended that Sara take the name of a blacksmith and wear miniature tools to trick the demons into thinking she was low status. At a monastery lamas donned demon masks and threw paper images of demons into a fire in attempt to exorcize them. For whatever reason Sara eventually recovered. ☺
Joel Ziskin witnessed another shaman ritual in the Dolpa. To exorcize a blue mermaid-like demon from a young man the shaman went into a trance, howled, bent over and sunk his teeth into the man. In another folk treatment an ailing woman is treated by a lama who cauterizes a vein with a red hot iron and herbs. If the treatment doesn't an exorcism like the one just mentioned will be performed. [Source: Joel Ziskin, National Geographic April 1977 [☻];
Describing yet another shaman ritual Marcia Liberman wrote in the New York Times: "The shaman was sitting on his haunches, shaking up and down, beating a drum and chanting in a high-pitched voice as he called forth the malevolent spirits. His back was hung with small animal skins and bells that jingled as he shook. Great black feathers were stuck in his turban. Periodically he lowered the drum, showing his face, glistening with sweat, and altering the pitch of his voice; sometimes he rose and strode about for half the night. When he left the next day, a string of white sticks hung over the door, to keep the hostile forces from returning."
Practitioners of the Kirat religion make up 3.1 percent of the population of Nepal. It is mainly practiced by the Himalayan Kirat people and called Kirat Mundhum. The Kirati people, also spelled Kirant or Kiranti, are a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group a native of Nepal. They believe they are the indigenous aboriginals of the Himalayas in Nepal and live mostly in the Eastern Himalayan region of Nepal. A few live in northeast India, mostly in Sikkim but also northern hilly region of West Bengal, Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts. [Source: Wikipedia]
In early Kirat Kingdom, Mundhum was the only law of state. Kirati people worshiped nature and their ancestors, practice shamanism. Some Kirat Limbus people believe in a mythological god called Tagera Ningwaphuma (shapeless entity appearing as a bright light), who is worshipped in earthy form as the goddess Yuma Sammang and her male counterpart 'Theba Sammang'.
The Kirat Limbu ancestor Yuma Sammang and god of war Theba Sammang are the second most important deities. The Limbus festivals are Chasok Tangnam (Harvest Festival and worship of goddess Yuma), Yokwa (Worship of Ancestors), Limbu New Year's Day (Maghey Sankranti), Ke Lang, Limbu Cultural Day, Sirijanga Birthday Anniversary. Kirat Rai worship (Sumnima/Paruhang) are their cultural and religious practices. The names of some of their festivals are Sakela, Sakle, Tashi, Sakewa, Saleladi Bhunmidev, and Folsyandar. They have two main festivals: Sakela/Sakewa Ubhauli during planting season and Sakela/Sakewa Udhauli during the time of harvest.
Describing a Kirat shaman, Frankie Taggart of AFP wrote: “Her body begins shaking as she mumbles an ancient shaman mantra to the beat of a double-sided drum, coaxing snake spirits out of a young Nepali man who has “lost his soul”. Iron bells around Parvati Rai’s white shirt ring as she jumps and writhes in a trance, her headdress of peacock feathers waving wildly as she flings her arms over her patient. [Source: Frankie Taggart, AFP, March 4, 2012]
“In the background, awestruck Westerners watch the animistic ceremony performed not high in a mountain pass, but in a comfortable modern property in suburban Kathmandu. “The boy has lost his soul and we are helping him find it,” says Mohan Rai, as he helps the ethnic Kirati healer complete the age-old ritual.
Shaman Academy in Nepal
Frankie Taggart of AFP wrote: ““Nepal’s traditional healers were almost wiped out due to modernisation but they are enjoying a revival now, thanks to interest from the developed world. After decades of modernisation when witch doctors were almost wiped out, “urban shamans” are enjoying a renaissance among Nepal’s metropolitan middle class and Westerners looking to be healed, cleansed or spiritually awakened. [Source: Frankie Taggart, AFP, March 4, 2012]
Mohan Rai, the founder of the Shamanistic Studies and Research Center Nepal, “has been on the frontline of the revival since setting up his center in 1988 to breathe new life into a practice he says has been “left behind” by science, technology and the big world religions. “Shamanism is 75,000 years old. But it is dying out in the villages and I want to keep these traditions alive,” says Rai, who is critical of the mainstream religions and governments he believes have plotted to kill off shaman practices. “I have thousands of students a year and, more and more, they are Westerners looking for something Western medicine has failed. Some of my students are also medical doctors looking to integrate shamanism into their own work.”
“Mohan Rai, 80, who is married to two sisters and speaks English, German, Spanish, French, Sherpa, Tibetan and Hindi, has enjoyed a colourful life. Born into a Bhutanese farming community, he grew up helping his father, “a powerful and well-known shaman” with healing rituals for the sick in his village. After a stint in the British army as part of Nepal’s legendary Gurkhas and time as a trekking guide and mountain rescuer, he was led back to shamanism via working with foreign anthropologists locating witch doctors among the country’s indigenous tribes.
“He realised the healing art was of great interest to the developed world and set up his research center to spread the message, employing shamans from Himalayan mountain communities In his center sits a photograph of a six-year-old German boy whom Rai says he healed after the youngster, riddled with cancer, was given just two years to live. He also relates the story of a paralysed man he helped to walk within just a few healing sessions.
“Tobias Weber, 33, a German farmer travelling in Nepal, says he was drawn to shamanism after becoming interested in healing but disillusioned with Western medicine. “Shamanism can complement what doctors and nurses in the West are able to do,” he says. “If you have broken your arm you go to a hospital but there is also so much you can get from the spiritual side of healing which people never experience.” Australian Laura Martino is taking a course at Rai’s center and wants to help people in her home town of Melbourne reconnect with their spiritual side. “I came here with a totally open mind, which I had to because of some of the amazing experiences I’ve had here, like trips to the mountains and sleeping in graveyards,” she says. “I think the Western world has lost something in its approach to healing and we really need to get in touch again with nature.”
Muslims in Nepal
Muslims are the eighth largest ethnic group in Nepal. According to the CIA Factbook in 2020 they make up 4.4 percent of the population of Nepal. Muslims made up 4.2 percent of the population in 2001. In the 1980s it was estimated that make up about three percent of Nepal’s population. Small communities of Muslims have lived in Nepal for centuries. Some urban Muslims trace their families' origins in Nepal back to the days when the country was an important trade center.
Muslims live primarily in the western Terai near the Indian border. Some work as traders and merchants in Nepal towns. Many used to specialize in selling glass bracelets call “churate”. In Kathmandu, there is a community of Muslims of Kashmiri descent that arrived centuries ago at the invitation of the Malla kings. Most are Sunnis and many speak Urdu as the first language. Many are descendants of Indian immigrants that began arriving in Nepal after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 and, like their counterparts in India, have been incorporated into the caste system.
Reporting from Kathmandu, Saif Khalid of Associated Press wrote: In one corner of Kathmandu's Jame Masjid, a stone's throw from the former-royal-palace-turned-museum, lies the tomb of Begum Hazrat Mahal — forlorn and shorn of its past grandeur. Mahal was the queen of Awadh, a princely state in neighbouring India, and the face of the 1857 rebellion against the British. She fled the Indian city of Lucknow after the revolt was crushed, and the then ruler of Nepal, Jung Bahadur Thapa, who had taken his army to help the British quell the rebellion and plunder the city, offered her asylum. M Hussain, the secretary of Jame Masjid, says that many of Mahal's supporters followed her to Nepal. [Source: Saif Khalid, Associated Press, May 21, 2016]
“But Islam had, in fact, been introduced to Nepal long before that. Kashmiri traders first arrived in Kathmandu in the 15th century on their way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Many of them settled in what was then known as Kantipur and now as Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur during the rule of King Ratna Malla The 500-year-old Kashmiri Takiya mosque, a few hundred yards from the palace in Kathmandu, is a testimony to this history. “Muslims lived as a silent minority for centuries at the goodwill of the Nepali state," explains Hussain.
“But, in recent years — inspired by the Maoist rebellion that lasted from 1996 until 2006 — they have become more vocal and visible. “The Maoist rebellion paved the way for their [Muslims] political and cultural rights," Hussain says, sitting in his small office in the mosque premises. Muslim festivals were declared public holidays for the first time in 2008 — the year the monarchy was abolished and a democratically elected government led by Maoists took office.
“The country's new constitution, which came into effect in 2015, includes Muslims for the first time, adding them to a list of marginalised groups. The constitution also ensures a job quota for Muslims, who currently fill less than 1 percent of civil service positions.
Christians in Nepal
Christian make 1.4 percent of the population of Nepal. Christian and Muslim missionary activity is prohibited by law. Proselyting and conversion of Hindus to other religions is forbidden. One of the country kings summed western religion influence this way: "First the Bible, then the trading stations, then the cannon." Despite this, Christian missionaries have been working in Nepal since 1950, mainly in medical and educational fields.
David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Nepali from disadvantaged ethnic groups have converted to Christianity in significant numbers during the past 30 years. Tiny communities of Sikhs, Jains, and Bahá'ís have migrated from India. [Source: David H. Holmberg, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
On churches and Christian activity in Kathmandu, Cities of the World reports: “A full-time ordained minister serves the interdenominational Protestant community. Sunday worship services, Sunday school classes, and auxiliary fellowships are available. Roman Catholic Masses are conducted by American Jesuit and Mary knoll priests at least once daily and several times on Sunday at various locations in Kathmandu. Anglican/Episcopalian Holy Communion Services are held about six times a year at the British Embassy. A small, international Baha'i community holds regular meetings and conducts children's classes. No organized Jewish community exists in Kathmandu, and no regular Jewish services are conducted, but the Israeli Embassy holds occasional holiday services. Other religious groups do not have formal facilities, although occasionally ministers of other faiths visit Kathmandu. Some religious groups gather informally in homes, depending on members present in Kathmandu. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
In September 2009, a church dormitory collapsed during a Christian conference in eastern Nepal, killing at least 24 people and injuring 62. People had gathered in the eastern town of Dharan, about 390 kilometers southeast of Kathmandu, for the week-long conference and were sleeping in a church extension made of bamboo and tin roofing when the collapse took place, police official Arjun Khadka said. Among those killed were 17 women and four children.
Funerals in Nepal
Bother Hindus and Buddhists practice cremation. Many groups believe in reincarnation and honor their ancestors. Hindus cremate the dead along river banks and throw the ashes of the dead into the water, ideally at the ghats at Pashupatinath, a sort of mini Varanasi in Nepal. It is customary for a son to perform the funeral rites. Some Tibetan Buddhists perform "sky burials," in which corpses are cut up and left at special sites for vultures to eat.
To fulfilling obligations to the soul of the deceased, the bereaved family sends a religious procession through the streets along a prescribed route that has a long history. Satire, jokes, fancy costumes, and colorful processions of cows fill up the streets to cheer up the bereaved families. David H. Holmberg wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: The death of an individual brings pollution to immediate kin and patrilineal relatives for a period of 13 days, though principal mourners observe restrictions for a year.”
White and shaved heads are signs of mourning. During a special ceremony restless souls of the dead are exorcized in a rite known as Kanto. A vegetarian Brahman priest deliberately defiles himself by eating a meal with animal marrow in it to assume the troubles of the deceased. The priest then climbs on the back of an elephant, while onlookers throw stones and garbage to banish the troubles, and the priest is banished for the rest of his life, supported by donations from wellwishers.
Magar Beliefs About the Afterlife and Deceased Relatives
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”: “ A Magar who dies does not cease being a member of the family. He or she continues to be aware of descendants and can affect them. The descendants, in turn, continue to be aware of him or her and realize that what they do controls, at least partially, the way he or she treats them. There are two kinds of deceased ancestor. One kind, called bai, is a spirit being who wanders about on Earth and likes sacrificial blood. The other, called pitri, is in heaven and does not like sacrificial blood. [Source: John T. Hitchcock, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]
“A deceased family member may become a bai for a number of reasons. Bai include those who performed no Religiously sanctioned good deed during the course of their lives; those whose dead bodies were touched by some polluting animal, such as a dog; and those who were witches or shamans. In addition, those who in the ordinary course would not become bai may be intercepted on their way to Heaven by a witch or shaman and be made to return to Earth and trouble their family. Bai are somewhat like mari, the main difference being that mari trouble a wider range of persons than their own descendants. |~|
“Bai are honored once each year, and most families offer the sacrifice — generally a cock for a man and a hen for a woman — on the full-moon day in the month of Baisakh (April-May). To eliminate the necessity for making this annual sacrifice, a lineage member can go to Banaras (Varanasi, in India) where with a single offering he can placate the bai forever. |~|
“Bai can either cause trouble or refrain from doing so; pitri too can trouble their descendants or bring them good fortune, more frequently the latter. Pitri are honored in either of two ways. One way is through the ancient Hindu ceremony of sraddha. A Banyan Hill man who honors his mother and father in this way calls a Brahman to assist him and performs the rites on the anniversaries of their deaths. In the fall he repeats the ceremony on the appropriate day arrived at by calculations based on the Hindu calendar. |~|
Superstitions and Human Sacrifices in Nepal
In an a place where illiteracy is high and many people are uneducated, superstition and exaggeration run high. There are lots of rumors. Nepalese are regarded as deeply religious and conservative. One long time Kathmandu resident said, “It’s a very Hindu society, with intense observance of holy days. Their lives are hemmed in by the astrologer.”
Some Nepalese believe that spirits inhabit the jungle. One of the dangerous is a witch with backward feet that lures young men into forest never to return. Goats are sacrificed at small shrines in Kathmandu. Sacred rice is usually grown on its own special plot. In the Karnali region, gray is considered the best color for a horse and the mane should grow in the right direction. If it has a clockwise swirl that means you will lose a son. [Source: Barry Bishop, National Geographic, November 1971]
Astrology is taken very seriously by many Nepalese. Isabella Tree wrote in National Geographic: “Every Newar has a horoscope, drawn up at birth by an astrologer. A hand-painted scroll of complex tables and diagrams kept in a strongbox in the family worship room, the horoscope bears a person’s private birth name and the astrological signs believed to influence his or her life. A candidate’s horoscope must have no inauspicious indications. The most favorable sign for a kumari is the peacock — symbol of the goddess.” [Source: Isabella Tree, National Geographic, June 2015]
Human sacrifices were allegedly performed in Nepal up until a century ago. Some believe they still occur is remote places. Ducks, chickens, young male goats and water buffalo are sacrificed in the homes and on the alters of temples as a harvest offering to the gods. An astrologer announces the time blood flows down every streets and blood mixed with flowers is smeared all over everything as a blessing. [Source: Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, July 1987]
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