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The Limbu, one of the largest tribal aggregates in Nepal, live in the most easterly part of Nepal between the Arun River and the border of Sikkim District, India. The Limbu are of Mongolian descent and speak a Tibeto-Burman dialect. In 1970, the population was estimated at 245,000.

History and Cultural Relations

In the latter part of the eighteenth century Nepal was formed by uniting various ethnic groups and numerous principalities under a high-caste Hindu dynasty. This conquest resulted in a number of migrations of high-caste Hindu groups into eastern Nepal, causing an ethnic and cultural split with the Limbus. Limbus are considered the first settlers of east Nepal and are thought to be descendants of the Kiratis. Limbus became known to history in the eighteenth century, at a time when a number of small chiefdoms in Limbuan were under the authority of the kingdom of Bijayapur. The Limbus were expected to grant land to the immigrants for their support. The Nepalese government brought all tribal lands (with the exception of certain Limbus) under raikar, "a system of landlordism under which the rights of an individual to utilization and transfer of the land are recognized by the state as long as taxes are paid." Before this system was enforced all Limbu groups held land under the system of kipat, in which "an Individual obtains rights to land by virtue of his membership in a series of nesting kin groups." This change of land tenure caused Limbus to lose lands to the Hindu immigrants, who were mostly of Brahman caste. There were two reasons for this change. First, a shortage of lands was beginning to be felt, and therefore the government dissolved all the Limbuan rights to their kipat lands. A second factor was the absence of ownership documents, which led to legal conflicts over ownership and rent. Surrendered kipat lands helped to finance revenue settlements, postal services, and the army. The Limbus were left only with the land they were living on and cultivating. The Brahmans had some advantages over Limbus: they were skilled and had labor resources that the Limbus lacked and needed. They were also able to read and write, which qualified them for administrative jobs and forced the abolition of the kipat system. In the eyes of the Limbus, Brahmans were "ungrateful servants" who were trusted with their land but "stole" it instead. The Limbus are now determined to salvage their land under the kipat system and refrain from passing it on to members of other groups. Brahmans, at a cost to the Limbus, have become the most authoritarian ethnic group in east Nepal. Resentment is also felt by the Brahmans toward the Limbus; Brahmans regard the Limbus as "simple" and "concerned only for the present." Brahmans feel that if Limbus had looked to the future, they would not have granted their lands. The Limbuan struggle for land is an ongoing process that continues to affect social and political conditions in the region.


Agriculture is the main source of income. The abundance of land has made the cultivation of new agricultural lands possible, but insufficient knowledge of technology has limited their productivity. Limbu grow wheat, rice, and maize, and they trade some of the crops for goods that cannot be grown or made in their region. A sexual division of labor occurs in agriculture. Men plow the fields, women plant the seeds, and at the harvesting period both sexes join to complete the job. During cultivation families bring friends to help with the fields. These groups of people share labor with one another during especially busy times. Another source of income for Limbus is military service. Economic hardship has made it worthwhile to join the army both in Nepal and in India in Return for a small amount of cash. Associated with military service is respect and honor, especially for those of higher military rank.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Marriage is defined as a legitimate union between a man and a woman so that they may produce legitimate children. In the past, marriages were arranged by families with neither the bride nor the groom having much comment on the marriage payments or ceremonies. After the wedding the girl would give up her last name for her husband's, in return for a Brideprice. Modern times have changed this and now both parties have a chance to choose and decide on the matter. The gift giving continues after the wedding and marriage payments extend over many years. Women play a great and very active part in the marriage, in part because in many households the man serves in the army for many years and the woman is the decision maker concerning the house, children, marriage, and business. Women also influence the stability of a marriage. The mother-in-law phobia is strongly felt, and in most cases the mother-in-law is the prime reason for a bride's departure. Language is also a barrier if the bride is from a different Region. The Limbus, like many Nepalese, are hesitant to address one another directly. Calling out a name in public is taboo and creates embarrassment; therefore the new bride is called "you" or "the wife of so-and-so" (teknonymy) and she does not have full status as a woman until she bears a child. Until full acceptance by the mother-in-law, the marriage is uncertain, as the wife can return to her natal home if she is made to feel uncomfortable. Polygamy is not widely practiced; it is practiced only if the wife is barren or has failed to produce sons. Kinship is very important in a marriage. A union with kin is considered successful and ideal. For the Limbus there are three types of marriages: adultery, arrangement, and "theft." All three are legal. In case of adulterous marriage a bride-price is not required. Some compensation is paid to the former husband by the new husband. Also, if the woman is single, the new husband visits the woman's natal home with offerings to form a closer bond with her family. "Theft" marriages are common. The term "theft" means that she has agreed to be taken without negotiations. Such elopement is one way to avoid the high cost of a bride-price. The women in these marriages are considered as weak subjects, labor resources, and child bearers. For the Limbus these undesirable marriages, especially theft of married women, are usually initiated at dances.

Families related "by the bone" make up patrilineal lineages and clans. Death of a member brings pollution on the local agnatic descent group. During this time adults refrain from eating meals cooked with salt and oil. Wives who have taken their husband's family name also take their impurities by eating leftovers from their meals. Lineage and clan groups are exogamous, so men and women with the same clan name are forbidden to marry or have sexual relations. Today, lineages do not have a great influence on marriage, though payments are made to the chief of the clan. In general Limbu families are economically and ritualiy independent of each other.

Religion and Expressive Culture

One area of difference between Limbus and Brahmans is Religious. Limbus recognize and participate in many popular Hindu festivals but also have a number of their own practitioners. They worship by means of blood sacrifice. They believe that lineage divinities are not transmitted patrilineally.

Rather, a woman inherits her mother's gods and when she marries and lives with her husband, she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the gods of the Household. Every time a bad thing or feeling is caused by the man, he will have to be washed clean of it. There are also forest deities that inhabit the area and have nothing to do with women. Limbu bury their dead and observe two to three days of pollution; the length of the period depends on whether the deceased is a female or a male, respectively.

Drinking and dancing are very important to the Limbus. Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and settlement of conflicts involve much consumption of liquor, especially beer. Dancing parties are given for visitors to the village. These affairs give the young Limbu girls and boys a chance to meet and enjoy dancing and drinking.

See also Brahman and Chhetri of Nepal; Kiranti; Rai


Caplan, Lionel (1970). Land and Social Change in East Nepal: A Study of Hindu-Tribal Retenons. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Jones, Rex L., and Shirley K. Jones (1976). The Himalayan Woman: A Study of Limbu Women in Marriage and Divorce. Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing Co.


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