Identification. The Gurungs are a people inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in central Nepal. Their origins are uncertain, though linguistic evidence suggests that their ancestors may have migrated from Tibet about 2,000 years ago.
Location. The majority of Gurung villages are located on mountain slopes at elevations between 1,050 and 2,100 meters in the foothills of the Annapurna and Lamjung Himalaya and Himalchuli in Nepal at 28°0′ to 28°30′ N and 83°30′ to 84°30′ E. Toward the Himalayan range, there are wide gorges with tall craggy ridges rising above them. These are dotted with villages, set high on the mountainsides. Often there will be jungle above a village and below it a cascade of terraced fields. Winters are cold and dry, though it seldom freezes. Monsoon rains come from the south in summer. Temperatures range from about 0° to 32° C. "Gurung country" is situated between two distinct ecological zones, the alpine Mountain highlands and the low subtropical valleys. Likewise it exists between two great cultural and social traditions, Tibetan Buddhism to the north and Indian Hinduism to the south.
Demography. The 1981 Nepal census reported 174,464 Gurung speakers in Nepal, making up 1.2 percent of the country's total population. These figures reflect a smaller number of Gurungs than actually exist, since they indicate only those who named Gurung as their mother tongue and not all Gurungs speak the language. The census shows Gurungs to be most numerous in the districts of Lamjung, Syangja, Kaski, Gorkha, Tanahu, Parbat, and Manang in Gandaki Zone, central Nepal.
Linguistic Affiliation. Gurung belongs to the Tibeto-Burman Language Family and resembles other languages of peoples of the middle hills of Nepal, such as Thakali and Tamang. It has a tonal structure and no written form. Most Gurungs are bilingual and tend to be fluent from childhood in Nepali, the Sanskritic language that is the lingua franca of the nation.
History and Cultural Relations
Gurung legends describe a "Ghale Raja," a king who ruled the Gurungs in ancient times. He was overthrown by the Nepali raja of a neighboring principality about the fifteenth century AD. By the sixteenth century, Khasa kings of the Shah family had conquered most of the principalities that make up Present-day Nepal. Gurungs acted as mercenaries in Khasa armies, including those of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ancestor of the present king of Nepal, who completed unification of the kingdom of Nepal when he conquered the Kathmandu Valley in 1769. Because of their service, Gurungs enjoyed relatively high status in the new kingdom. They continued to act as mercenaries, and in the nineteenth century the Nepalese government signed a treaty allowing the British army to recruit them and other hill peoples into the Gurkha regiments, in which they continue to serve. Beyond ancient legend and documented relations with the nation-state (such as military service), little is known about the history of Gurungs.
The Gurungs are neither geographically isolated from other groups nor unaware of the social conventions and cultural values of the peoples around them. They are involved in trading relations with members of neighboring ethnic groups, including Thakalis and Tibetans, and high-caste Hindu merchants who travel through the villages selling household goods. Gurungs also have ongoing patron-client relationships with members of blacksmith and tailor service castes who live in hamlets attached to Gurung villages. Although interethnic marriage is strongly disapproved of, friendly social intercourse with members of other ethnic groups is usual, and bonds of ritual friendship (nyel ) are forged between Gurungs and members of equal-status ethnic groups.
Gurung villages are built high on ridges and consist of closely clustered groups of whitewashed houses with slate roofs. Houses of lineage members tend to be built alongside one another. While most Gurungs remain in rural villages, since the mid-1970s many more prosperous Gurung families have chosen to move to Pokhara, the nearest urban center, because of the greater comfort of urban living and improved access to educational facilities and medical care.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The main occupation of Gurungs is subsistence agriculture. Millet, wheat, barley, maize, potatoes, soybeans, and rice are grown. Some households also maintain vegetable gardens. Goats, chickens, water buffalo, and oxen are kept within the villages. Sheep and water buffalo are still grazed on high-altitude pastures, but deforestation has caused a reduction of fodder and thus in the last fifty years pastoralism has become a less significant economic activity. The rugged terrain on which Gurungs farm does not allow much agricultural surplus. The most important source of cash income for Gurungs is service in the Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies.
Industrial Arts. Weaving is a common activity during the slack agricultural season. Women weave carrying cloths and woolen blankets, and men weave carrying baskets, winnowing baskets, and storage baskets.
Trade. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Gurungs played an important part in the salt trade with Tibet. This relationship was discontinued for political reasons in the mid-twentieth century. At present, some urban Gurungs engage in trade with India and others are prominent in contracting and transportation businesses around Pokhara.
Division of Labor. There is little formal division of labor among Gurungs. Men may not weave cloth and women may not weave bamboo or plow. Women generally look after the house, cook, and care for the physical needs of children. Men and women engage in most agricultural activities, as well as chopping wood for fuel and gathering fodder for livestock. Livestock in high-altitude pastures is most often tended by men. Metalwork, tailoring, and carpentry are performed by non-Gurung service castes who live in hamlets attached to Gurung villages.
Land Tenure. While forest and grazing land are communally owned, agricultural land is held privately. Rights to land are equally distributed among sons.
Kin Groups and Descent. Lineages in Gurung society involve localized agnatic groups linked by a known ancestor. Each lineage is part of a clan. Clan affiliation cuts across locality and acts as a more generalized organizing principle in Gurung society. Descent in terms of rights to lineage resources and clan affiliation is patrilineal, but descent through the mother's line influences marriage possibilities and prohibitions.
Kinship Terminology. The Gurungs have a wide array of kin terms, which are highly differentiated and precise. Birth order and relative age are important matrices in the structure of Gurung kinship. Kin terms are used for nearly everyone with whom Gurungs interact; unrelated persons are assigned a fictive term.
Marriage. Marriage and childbearing are important to the assumption of full adult status for Gurungs. Marriages are arranged when daughters are in their mid-to late teens and sons in their late teens to twenties. In previous generations the age at marriage for girls was earlier, from about 9 to 13. Among Gurungs, cross-cousin marriage is preferred. The category of cross cousin is broad, including a large number of classificatory relatives. Residence is patrilocal, with a preference for village exogamy. Divorce can be initiated by either the man or the woman. Bride-wealth in the form of gold jewelry is given to the bride at marriage. If the husband initiates a divorce without due complaint, such as adultery, the wife has the right to keep the bride-wealth. However, if the wife causes or initiates the divorce she is required to return the bride-wealth to her husband.
Domestic Unit. Among Gurungs, the domestic unit changes over time. A household will begin as a nuclear family, and, as sons reach adulthood and marry, their brides come into the parental home and remain there while their first one or two children are small. The domestic unit is then an extended family for a period of five to ten years. As the son's children grow, he will build a separate residence, usually next to that of his parents.
Inheritance. Resources are distributed equally among sons in Gurung society. If there is no son, a daughter can inherit, and the son-in-law will come to reside in the household of his parents-in-law. The patrimony may be divided prior to the death of the father. In that case, the father can reserve a small portion. Although it runs contrary to Gurung custom, Nepalese law specifies that unmarried adult daughters should inherit a share of family property.
Socialization. Children are taught to be obedient and respectful of elders. They learn by imitation and the active encouragement of the older children, who often care for smaller ones. Corporal punishment is occasionally used, and unruly children may be isolated briefly. More often children are coaxed toward good behavior and instructed through stories about possible social and supernatural consequences of bad behavior.
Social Organization. Gurung society is organized into two tiers or subgroups called the "Char Jat" or "four clans" and the "Sora Jat" or "sixteen clans." The subgroups are endogamous and within subgroups each clan is exogamous. The Char Jat group has traditionally claimed superior status to the Sora Jat group. Clans within each subgroup intermarry and otherwise treat one another as equals.
Political Organization. Until 1962 the Gurung villages were governed by hereditary clan leaders and village headmen. In 1962 the national government instituted an electoral system whereby villages are grouped together in units of five, called panchayats, and divided into neighborhoods or wards from which local councillors are elected. The electorate also chooses a pradhan panche and uper pradhan (like a mayor and vice mayor, respectively) to lead the panchayat.
Social Control. Gossip and fear of witch attack are common means of social control. The local council is able to levy fines against panchayat residents, and for serious crimes government police may be called in.
Conflict. Disputes are often resolved by elders trusted by the parties involved. If this does not provide a solution then they may be brought before the village council or, as a last resort, to the district court.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Gurungs practice a form of Tibetan Buddhism strongly influenced by the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, and they also observe major Hindu festivals, such as Dasain. They believe in some tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, such as karma, yet they have a set of beliefs about an afterlife in the Land of the Ancestors and in local deities that are peculiarly Gurung. Gurungs believe their locale to be inhabited by supernatural forest creatures and by a variety of formless wraiths and spirits. Some of these exist in and of themselves, while others are believed to be the spirits of humans who have died violent deaths. Gurungs believe in the major Hindu deities and in the Buddha and bodhisattvas. Particular villages have their own deities, which are felt to be especially powerful in their immediate surroundings.
Religious Practitioners. Practitioners of the pre-Buddhist Gurung religion, called panju and klihbri, are active in the performance of exorcisms and mortuary rites. Buddhist lamas are also important in funerary rituals, as well as performing purification rites for infants and some seasonal agricultural rituals. Wealthier Gurungs occasionally call lamas in to perform house-blessing ceremonies. Brahman priests are summoned to cast horoscopes and perform divinations at times of misfortune. Dammis from the local service castes are believed to be particularly potent exorcists and are often called in cases of illness.
Arts. Gurungs make nothing that they would identify as art. The goods that they produce, such as baskets and blankets, are useful and tend to be of a conventional plain design. The artistry of Gurungs is expressed in their folk music and dance and especially in the evanescent form of song exchanges between young men and women.
Medicine. Gurungs often employ exorcists as well as scientific drugs when suffering from an illness. Scientific medicine is highly valued, but it is costly and is not easily available in rural areas. Herbs and plants are also used in treating illness and injury.
Death and Afterlife. Death is of central symbolic importance for Gurungs. The funerary ritual (pae ) is the main ceremonial occasion in Gurung society, involving two nights and three days of ritual activity. It is attended by kin, villagers, and a large number of people who come for the conviviality and spectacle. Buddhist lamas and the panju and klihbri priests of the pre-Buddhist religion may officiate at the pae. Death is believed to involve the dissolution of elements that make up the body, so that the earth element returns to earth, air to air, fire to fire, and water to water. This process leaves the plah or souls (nine for men and seven for women), which must be sent through the performance of the pae to the Land of the Ancestors. There life continues much as it does in the present world, and from there the spirit can take other rebirths.
See also Gurkha; Nepali
Macfarlane, Alan (1976). Resources and Population: A Study of the Gurungs of Nepal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Messerschmidt, Donald A. (1976). The Gurungs of Nepal. Warminister: Aris & Phillips.
Pignède, Bernard (1966). Les Gurungs: Une Population himalayenne du Népal. The Hague: Mouton.
ERNESTINE L. McHUGH