For at least 5,000 years, the region of Nepal has been in the middle of two of the world's major ethnic families. To the north, kept apart by the Himalayan chain came the Mongoloid people of central Asia and to the south, historically stopped by the malarial Terai, lay the Indo-Aryan people of the subcontinent.
The mountains and jungles on either side of what is now Nepal have acted as barriers throughout the ages, allowing determined people into the rugged country but then isolating them which in turn, has allowed them to evolve their own unique cultures.
Despite its size, there are over 50 different ethnic/linguistic groups found in the country, which makes Nepal as culturally diverse as Europe although recent internal migration has blurred this somewhat. Considering the number of different groups and their respective differences, Nepal's ethnic and caste groups do display a fantastic level of mutual tolerance. Religious practices remain distinct and outside of the major cities intermarriage is still rare.
The majority of Nepalis are relative newcomers, descendants of Hindus who fled the Muslim conquest of northern India. Throughout India, Hindus are divided into four primary castes but the immigrants to Nepal were mostly from the top two castes as these groups had the most to lose from the invasion.
Baahuns (Brahmans) belong to the highest, priestly caste. Whilst they may not always be the wealthiest, or even priests, historically they have had a significant edge in Nepali society. Baahun priests were always required to be able to read and write which meant that they always had access to government jobs throughout the country and even today, the vast majority of politicians and civil servants are from this caste. It is even the case that the newly elected Maoist party is made up of 50% Baahuns.
Chhetris (Kshatriyas) belong to the Warrior caste and make up the majority of Hindus in Nepal. Most are descended from an early wave of Hindu refugees who settled in the far western hills abandoning their orthodox religious practices over time. Being of high caste, Chhetris can move relatively easy in society and are favoured for commissions in the military and to a lesser extent, jobs in other branches of government and industry.
Dalits is the term used for the lowest caste in Nepal and India, also being unfairly referred to as 'untouchables' due to the lowly status of their caste and jobs. This caste has suffered severe disadvantages throughout the centuries and still does today to some extent. Orthodox Hindus see them as polluted and do not allow them into their temples or shops and its no coincidence that Dalits are less educated, poorer and suffer higher mortality rates than their higher caste counterparts. Traditionally blacksmiths, potters and musicians, these days they are more likely to be labourers or even porters.
Nepal’s most renowned ethnic group, the Sherpas more than likely arrived into Nepal from eastern Tibet sometime in the last five centuries and their name actually means 'people from the East'. Originally nomadic, it is believed that the introduction of the potato in the 1830’s encouraged Sherpas to settle in villages and the wealth gained from this led to the building of most of the monasteries found today.
Sherpas still maintain the highest permanent settlements in the world up to 4,700m and by the 1920's their hardened mountaineering had been discovered and they began regularly signing on as porters with various external climbing groups. In the beginning, all climbs were from the Tibet side, ironically enough as Nepal was closed to tourists until 1949 – of course it was only 4 years from this date when perhaps the most famous Sherpa of all – Tenzing Norgay summated with Edmund Hillary.
These days, Sherpas have diversified and now run their own trekking and mountaineering agencies, as well as providing lodges and making souvenirs. During the off-season in the summer months, Sherpas do return to farming the land.
Devout Buddhists, Sherpas also display some animist elements through their reverence for the sacred peak Khumbila and their belief of fire as a deity.
Isolated by malarial jungles for thousands of years, the Tharu groups are bound by two mysteries – where they came from and how they came to be resistant to malaria. The general consensus was that they arrived from the Eastern hills of India and spread across the Tarai over hundreds of years. While this would explain certain physical features and Hindu-animist beliefs, it can’t explain the many radically different dialects and dress found amongst the varied Tharu groups. This could be down to a group known as the Rana Tharus who claim to be descendents from high-caste Rajput women sent north by their husbands during the Muslim invasions – when the men never returned, the women married their servants (Rana Tharu women today have great autonomy in marriage and household affairs).
It is believed that red blood cells have a part to play in the malaria resistant people of the Tharu who are prone to sickle-cell anaemia although not much research has been done to back this up. However, house building in the area has always ensured that structures were built with small windows with the intention of keeping the smoke in and mosquitoes out.
These traditional Tharu houses are made of mud and dung placed over wood frames and in the past these were built for half a dozen families or more. These days it’s more common to find detached buildings for families living on their own.
Traditionally hunter-gatherers, Tharus in recent times have had to diversify into farming and livestock raising although fishing still remains an important activity – given the Tarai’s high water table.
These days, in the fallout from the Maoist election victory in 2008, many Tharu groups feel marginalized and misrepresented in parliament causing some friction with other ethnic groups in Nepal. They have also been affected by land grabbing – being bought out or cheated out of land. It is not uncommon for strikes to be called at short notice and this can have an affect on tourism as roads are often blocked during these strikes, making travel hard in the south of the country.
Newars come from the Kathmandu Valley and while this means they are located within Nepal’s hill region, they are careful to distinguish themselves from other hill groups. Their influence in the Kathmandu Valley far outweighs their numbers but one could be forgiven for thinking that Newar culture is Nepali culture.
Newar culture has been developing for thousands of years, impacted by immigrants, traders and usurpers which have arrived in the Valley region. The arrivals brought new customs, beliefs and skills but they never completely assimilated, instead finding their own roles in society and creating clan specific jobs and spiritual roles. Eventually over time, these clans or thars formally organised into the Newar caste system. As a result of this, we can take Newar society as a microcosm of Nepali society – they share many cultural traits and a common language (Newari) but there is an enormous amount of diversity among its people.
Newars are urbanites at heart and prefer to live in close social cities rather than spread out over the hills. The cities they built tend to be dense with them all having tall tenements up against narrow alleyways. Newar traders have colonised lucrative crossroads to re-create their unique bazaars throughout the whole of Nepal.Newars are usually easily recognisable – traditionally they carry heavy loads in baskets suspended at either end of a shoulder pole in contrast to most Nepali’s who carry things on their back with support from a line to the forehead. You can usually tell a Newar woman by fanned pleats at the front of her sari and while most men have abandoned the traditional dress, some do still wear the customary daura suruwal and waistcoat.
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