Brahman and Chhetri of Nepal
Identification. Brahman and Chhetri are high Hindu Nepalese castes. They have played a more dominant role than have any other group in the formation of the modern Nepalese state. Their moral values and social and political strength continue to play a commanding part in contemporary Nepalese life. Brahmans are known in Nepali as "Bahuns." Chhetri is the Nepali equivalent of Kshatriya, the second of the four varnas into which classical Indian society was divided.
Location. Brahmans and Chhetris are found throughout Nepal. Those living in the Terai (the low, level strip in the southern part of the country) are much like their counterparts across the border in northern India. This article describes those who inhabit the middle hills of Nepal. Here the climate of their villages depends primarily on elevation, which varies from 300 meters or so in the valley bottoms to as high as 2,500 to 3,000 meters on the hillsides and tops of ridges.
Demography. Because the Nepalese census does not record the caste status of citizens, it is impossible to know how many Brahmans and Chhetris inhabit the country; but probably the two castes together constitute the largest group in Nepal. Their percentage of the population declines from the western hills, where they comprise well over half the population, to the east, where they are usually one among many minorities.
Linguistic Affiliation. Brahmans and Chhetris speak the national language, Nepali, as their mother tongue. This is an Indo-European language closely related to Hindi and other North Indian languages. Like Sanskrit, the language from which it is descended, Nepali is written in the Devanagari script, which is a syllabary rather than an alphabet. The rate of literacy among Brahman men, whose traditional priestly role required them to read sacred Hindu texts, is well above the national average.
History and Cultural Relations
Brahmans are thought to have begun emigrating to the far western Nepalese hills in the twelfth century after they were dislodged by Muslim invasions in India. In the Nepal hills they encountered the Khas, people of the same general background as the Brahmans, who nevertheless ranked low in the caste order because of their deviance from orthodox caste rules. Both the Khas and the progeny of unions of Brahman men and Khas women, called Khatri, were granted the status of Chhetri. The existence of Matwali Chhetris (those who drink liquor), who do not wear the sacred thread, is evidence that not all Khas were accorded Chhetri status.
Brahmans and Chhetris live in villages, hamlets, and isolated homesteads. The walls of their small houses are constructed from stone or mud brick, painted red ocher around the base, whitewashed above, and topped with a thatched roof. The floors and interior walls are made from a mixture of cow dung and mud, which dries to a clean, hard surface. The houses of those living in towns, such as Kathmandu, the capital, are larger and are made of brick and cement.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Rural Brahmans and Chhetris keep a few cattle and raise crops in their terraced fields. Brahmans also act as family priests, and Chhetris serve in both the Nepalese army and the Gorkha (Gurka) brigades of the British and Indian armies. In urban areas both castes are prominent in government service, financial services, and politics.
Industrial Arts. Any needs that Brahmans and Chhetris experience for craft and industrial products are met by lower-ranked artisan castes, such as blacksmiths, tailors, and leather workers.
Trade. In rural areas Brahmans and Chhetris typically rely on others, such as Newar shopkeepers, for their commercial requirements.
Division of Labor. Only Brahman males may act as priests, but much of the daily household puja (worship) is done by women. The day-to-day agropastoral activities of Brahman and Chhetri families are shared between men and women. Both sexes work in the fields, but overall women spend more hours per day in agricultural and domestic labor than men. They perform most of the child care, preparation and cooking of food, and weeding and tending of crops. Men do the plowing and maintain the terrace walls. Both are active at harvest time.
Land Tenure. Brahmans and Chhetris are often landowners. Fields are often terraced and mostly have been fractionated into small plots through inheritance over generations. Large-scale absentee landlordism is not common in the hills of Nepal.
Kin Groups and Descent. Brahmans and Chhetris are members of two kinds of clans, the thar (indicated as a surname) and the gotra; the former is exogamous if a relation can be traced, but the latter is strictly exogamous. Descent and inheritance follow the male line exclusively.
Kinship Terminology. All first cousins are addressed by sibling terms. Siblings are designated as either older or younger brothers or sisters: there is no generic term for brother or sister. Unrelated persons, including strangers, are also often addressed by kinship terms.
Marriage. 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. Village exogamy is usually observed, and parents arrange their children's marriages with the help of an intermediary. An astrologer also is consulted to ensure that the couple make a good match. The boy's family priest, in consultation with the bride's family, sets an auspicious date and time, based on the lunar calendar (several months of the year are inauspicious for marriage). The entire wedding ceremony lasts a full day, from the time the members of the groom's party arrive at the bride's home till they leave the next day with the bride. The most important part of the ritual is kanyadan, the gift of the bride to the groom by her parents. A married woman always wears vermilion powder in the parting of her hair, so long as her husband is alive.
Domestic Unit. The newly married couple ideally, and usually, live with the groom's family, along with his parents, brothers and their wives (if any), and unmarried sisters. A new bride enters this household in a lowly position, and her mother-in-law usually gives her the most onerous chores. Her status rises after she has given birth to a child, particularly if it is a son. Eventually she herself succeeds to the powerful position of mother-in-law.
Inheritance. Except for what a daughter may receive as dowry, all property, particularly all landed property, is inherited by sons. If a joint family is dissolved before the senior parents die, a woman is entitled to a share of her husband's property.
Socialization. Mother and child are considered polluting until the eleventh day after birth, when a purifying ceremony is conducted and the baby is given a name. The first feeding of rice, called pasni, is given after 5 months for a girl and 7 months for a boy. A boy's head is shaved at about 7 years of age (a small tuft of hair is left on the back as a sign that he is a Hindu), and he is formally initiated into full caste membership when he receives the sacred thread, either at the time of the haircut or a few years later. At her first menstruation a girl is removed to another house, where she is shielded from the sight of any men in her family and from the sun. Both parents participate in raising their children, but women perform most of the child care, especially in the preteen years. Fathers act as disciplinarians as their children grow older.
Social Organization. A caste system prevails, with the Brahmans and Chhetris occupying a very high position in it.
Political Organization. Village political life tends to follow its own dynamic, regardless of changes in the national political scene. Village affairs tend to be managed by formal or informal councils of village elders in which Brahmans and Chhetris, by virtue of their status as landholders and their relatively higher education, often play prominent roles. Nationally the king, whose ancestor unified the country in roughly its present form at the end of the eighteenth century, has always been a Thakuri, an aristocratic section of Chhetris. The Rana family, which provided all prime ministers from 1846 till 1950 and is still powerful in the government and army, is also Chhetri. The movement to overthrow the Ranas and subsequent political movements aimed at democratic or socialist reform have frequently been led by Brahmans and Chhetris.
Social Control. Until 1963 Nepal's Mulki Ain (national code) explicitly stated which activities were proper for each caste group and prescribed penalties for infractions of the law. Since the code's revision in 1963, the Mulki Ain treats all citizens equally under the law.
Conflict. Those conflicts that cannot be settled through informal means at the village level are referred to the legal and judicial system of Nepal.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. All Brahmans and Chhetris are Hindus and subscribe to most of the basic Hindu beliefs. At a minimum these include three notions. One is dharma—the idea that each person has a specific duty, moral code, and set of behaviors which are entailed by virtue of membership in a group (such as a caste group). Another idea is that of karma—sometimes likened to "cause and effect," because it explains whatever present state of affairs exists in terms of the events in previous lives that produced it. The third is moksha (salvation)—release from the round of rebirths that reincarnation involves.
Religious Practitioners. Brahmans may act as family priests (for Brahman and Chhetri households, but not for other castes and ethnic groups), as well as officiate at shrines and temples and at rituals associated with major festivals. They also handle all the rituals performed during marriage. They are generally present on religious occasions and read excerpts from the Vedas or other Sanskrit texts. They also recite from the Puranas and from the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Ceremonies. All Brahmans and Chhetris are Hindus and observe festivals, perform rituals, and worship deities associated with Hinduism. One of the more important annual festivals is Dasein (or Durga Puja), in which the goddess Durga (Kali) is worshiped over a fortnight in the month of October. Many ritual offerings and animal sacrifices are made at this time, and there is much feasting and visiting among immediate family and extended kin. On the tenth day of the fortnight each individual male and female pays respect to senior relatives, who then reciprocate by placing a colored tika on the forehead of the junior person. Also observed is Phagu (called Holi in India), the spring rite of Hindu culture related to fecundity and the god Krishna. It comes in the month of Phagun (February-March) and is a riotous time when men, women, and children sing, dance, and throw colored powder and water at each other. Other annual festivals include Tihar (Dipavali, the festival of lights), Janai Purnima (changing of the sacred thread), and Tij-panchami (a purificatory rite for women). Rituals in addition to those mentioned above (under Socialization and Marriage) include worship of the household god (kuldevta ), worship of brothers by sisters (bhai tika, celebrated during Tihar), and daily (morning and sometimes evening) worship of various of the Hindu deities, including Ganesh, Shiva, Vishnu, Ram, Krishna, Saraswati, Durga, Parvati, Narayan, Bhairab, and many others. Some Chhetris of west Nepal worship Mashta through shamans (dhamis or jhankris ) and know little or nothing about traditional Hindu deities and festivals.
Arts. Brahmans and Chhetris are not known for their artistic interests or abilities. Music, dance, and visual and plastic arts are traditionally the domain of other, generally lower castes, and except among educated urban people Brahmans and Chhetris do not indulge themselves in these activities. Their simple, mostly undecorated houses reflect this lack of artistic bent.
Medicine. Brahmans and Chhetris will accept medical help from any available source, whether it is an Ayurvedic doctor (a specialist in herbal medicine), a passing Buddhist lama with a reputation for effective medicines, a shaman who prescribes treatment after going into a trance, or a practitioner trained in modern scientific medicine.
Death and Afterlife. Someone whose death appears to be imminent is taken to a riverbank to die, as all rivers are considered sacred. Even if death occurs elsewhere, within hours the corpse is cremated beside the river, into which the ashes are finally cast. Mourning restrictions (including elimination of salt and other items from the diet) for the death of a close relative are observed for thirteen days. Men shave their heads and are considered polluting during this time. At the end of the mourning period a big feast takes place. Food and other items for the deceased in the next life are given as gifts to the officiating priest. For one year a monthly shraddha ceremony is performed. Thereafter an annual shraddha ceremony commemorates the person who has died. Without funeral rites—which must be performed by a son—the deceased cannot proceed to either Heaven or Hell and instead will plague survivors as an evil spirit.
Bista, Dor Bahadur (1987). People of Nepal 5th ed. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von (1966). "Unity and Diversity in the Chhetri Caste of Nepal." In Caste and Kin in Nepal, India, and Ceylon, 11-67. London: Asia Publishing House.
Hitchcock, John T. (1978). "An Additional Perspective on the Nepali Caste System." In Himalayan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface, edited by James F. Fisher, 111-120. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
Prindle, Peter H. (1983). Tinglatar: Socio-Economic Relationships of a Brahmin Village in East Nepal Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
Sharma, Prayag Raj (1971). "The Matwali Chhetris of Western Nepal." Himalayan Review 4:43-60.
JAMES F. FISHER