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ETHNONYMS: Barthapalya (in Nepali), Bhotia, Bhutia, Tamang


Identification. The Nyinba are one of many small, largely endogamous groups positioned along the northern border-lands of Nepal that can be identified as ethnically Tibetan by their language, by the Tibetan Buddhist religion, and other features of culture and social structure. The Nyinba live in Humla, a district of the Karnali Zone in far northwestern Nepal. Tibetan speakers in this region call their territory "Nyin Yul Tshan Zhi," literally, "the four villages on a southfacing [sunny] slope." Nepali speakers call the community "Barthapale," thapale referring to its high valley location. Government documents originally identified these people as "Bhotia," meaning Tibetan. Later, to affirm their Nepali nationality, they became classified as "Tamang," the ethnonym of Tibeto-Burman-speaking hill people from central Nepal.

Location. Nyinba villages are located at approximately 30° N and 81°51 E, in a valley carved out by the Humla Karnali and Dozam rivers. The terrain in this region is rugged and the arable land limited, creating strong competition for land. Nyinba control a narrow band of territory beginning at 2,550 meters and extending to the valley summit, with the villages located between 2,850 and 3,300 meters. This elevation is associated with a temperate climate. Much of the force of the summer monsoon is spent on mountains to the east and south, limiting annual rainfall. A second, western monsoon brings heavy snowfalls in winter.

Demography. In 1983, the Nyinba included 1,332 Individuals, 716 males and 616 females. The high sex ratio, 116 males for every 100 females, can be attributed to a pattern of preferential treatment of male infants. Almost 35 percent of the population is less than age 15, and the intrinsic rate of natural increase appears to be relatively low: between 1 and 1.5 percent per year.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nyinba speak a dialect of Tibetan similar to the dialects of other ethnic Tibetan groups in west Nepal. These seem most closely related to dialects spoken by western Tibetan agriculturalists. The Tibetan Language is related to Burmese, with these two languages considered a branch of the Sino-Tibetan Language Phylum.

History and Cultural Relations

Nyinba believe that their ancestors are an amalgam of Peoples mostly from western Tibet and also from elsewhere in Tibet, ethnic Tibetan regions in Nepal, and Byansi villages ("Byansi" refers to groups of Tibeto-Burman speakers found farther west in Nepal and India). Villagers state that their ancestors settled the region during the fifteenth century, thus after the collapse of the Malla Kingdom, which united Western Tibet, western Nepal, and possibly Ladakh. Although the Mallas supported both Buddhism and Hinduism, their successors were high-caste Hindus hostile to Buddhist peoples. These rulers formed a feudal confederacy, which was conquered by and annexed to the kingdom of Nepal in 1789. The incorporation into a centralized state had little impact on daily life until recently. It principally affected matters of land tenure and taxation, intercaste relations, and serious legal offenses. Beginning in the 1950s, the government established a new district capital not far from where the Nyinba live and introduced a system of democratically elected, local panchayat councils, which are linked to similar regional and national councils. Although Nyinba have long been citizens of Nepal, they also have provided support and had affiliations to Tibetan religious institutions. These relationships ended in 1959, with Chinese suppression of the revolt in Tibet.

Throughout their history, Nyinba have participated in a multiethnic society. Their territory stands at the intersection of the region's three major ethnic groups. To the south lie Villages of high-caste Hindus, to the south and west are villages of Bura, a group of both Buddhists and Hindus citing Byansi antecedents, and to the north are the villages of ethnic Tibetans. Nyinba relationships with these other groups are oriented principally around economic transactions and religion. Nyinba trade extensively. They import commodities from Tibet and other Tibetan border regions into high-caste Nepali and Bura villages to the south and bring the latter's surplus grain back to Tibet. They also sponsor religious festivals with other ethnic Tibetans, send lamas to Buddhist Bura Villages, and participate in regional cults of spirit possession. Otherwise, they are relatively insular and disapprove strongly of community exogamy.


All four Nyinba villages include a main settlement at the center of village territory plus one or more small hamlets located nearer its borders. The largest village includes fifty-eight households, the smallest twenty-seven households (the constituent hamlets are two to seven households in size). The settlement pattern is nucleated; the houses are tightly clustered, with adjoining walls and roofs in the larger and older settlements. These houses are large and three stories tall; they are solidly built of fashioned stone and timber, often covered with a layer of mud plaster. At ground level is the barn, which is subdivided into compartments for different domestic animals. On the second story is the family's main quarters. This typically consists of a kitchen-cum-living room, a windowless storage room for valuables, another storage room also used for sleeping, and a long outer corridor, where a small, second hearth is placed. On the top story stand a number of storage sheds. The main living rooms have plank floors and carved pillars, while the other rooms have earthen floors and roughly cut pillars. Windows are small and closed by shutters; glass remains exceedingly rare. Villages and hamlets are surrounded by agricultural land, with the hamlets located adjacent to more recently reclaimed lands on the margins of village Territory. Each village has rights to specific forest and grazing lands. Each village also includes its own gompa, the temple and domestic establishment of a noncelibate Buddhist lama. These buildings are set apart from the houses of lay people, typically located above village settlements and in a "pure" place.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Nyinba have a diversified economy and engage in agriculture, trade, and animal husbandry, in that order of importance. Agriculture is central, economically and symbolically. Due to the difficult terrain and the high elevation, however, it is both physically demanding and relatively unproductive. Villagers may double-crop their lowest-level fields with winter barley and buckwheat or plant a single crop of millet, amaranth, and beans. At middle elevations wheat and buckwheat are grown, whereas the highest fields are planted only with buckwheat. People grow vegetablesdaikons (radishes), turnips, potatoes, peas, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, and cabbagesin small kitchen gardens. Households also own fruit and nut trees: apricot, walnut, apple, and the rare peach tree. On average, households produced approximately 84 bushels of unhusked grain in 1982, a disastrous agricultural year; in a year of good harvests, they expect to produce about 50 percent more. That yield was supplemented by the proceeds of trade and cattle herding. Nyinba do not have access to extensive grasslands, so that cattle herding is limited and continues to contract, as high lands are being converted into farmland. Nonetheless, households keep some cattle, for their milk products and manure.

Industrial Arts. Nyinba villagers employ low-caste Nepali speakers for metalwork and sewing cotton clothing. They employ Tibetan refugees for large carpentry jobs and for religious artwork. Woolen clothes, shoes, and coats are produced at home from their own or imported wool and sheepskins.

Trade. People rely on trade to cushion the inevitable fluctuations in agricultural productivity. This involves exchanging Tibetan and Indian salt for surplus grain produced in the Nepalese midlands. These goods are transported mostly on the backs of agile goats and sheep. Nyinba also trade in yakcow crossbreeds and import high-pasture sheep and wool from Tibet and manufactured goods from India for their own consumption. Trade occupies nearly the entire year, taking its participants from the Tibetan plains through the Nepalese midlands to Indian border towns. In 1982 this trade resulted, on average, in take-home profits of 34 bushels of husked grain, 5 bushels of salt, and diverse commodities for each household with adequate manpower to engage in it.

Division of Labor. Some tasks, most notably plowing, are performed exclusively by men; others, particularly weeding, are performed exclusively by women. Nevertheless, many other subsistence tasks may be performed by either sex. This is quite practical in a society where the number of male and female household members varies widely. To generalize, women engage in a range of agricultural tasks over protracted periods of time, while men's contributions to agriculture are sporadic but very intense. Men are exclusively responsible for trade, while the relatively undemanding task of cattle herding may be entrusted to a child or elderly person of either sex. Women hold the major responsibility for domestic work, Including child care.

Land Tenure. Individual households have rights over farmland, while villages control forests and grazing lands. All Nyinba own some land, though the richer households have vastly more than the poorer ones. The state has ultimate rights over all this land, although they are realized in little more than the right to taxation. Nyinba buy and sell land rarely; it is in short supply and very expensive. In the past, when wastelands were reclaimed, each village household received an equivalent share.


Kin Groups and Descent. At the core of Nyinba kinship is the concept of ru literally, "bone"which describes hereditary substance transmission through men and provides the basis for a system of patrilineal clanship. Clan Membership is important principally for marking social ranks within the community and for guiding marital choice through rules of exogamy. It has no economic and virtually no religious dimensions and does not generate any effective corporate groups. Although patrilineal descent appears important in several ethnic Tibetan societies in Nepal, it had minimal significance among agriculturalists in Tibet proper. Nyinba maintain that women transmit ru to their offspring through the medium of blood; these blood relationships provide a complementary, or matrifiliative, link to the mother's clan.

Kinship Terminology. The system of kin classification incorporates Omaha-type skewing rules, classifies relatives via same- and opposite-sex sibling links differently, and features spouse-equation rules that accord with a system of cross-cousin marriage. It also includes special terms that distinguish parents by relative age in complex, multipartner polyandrous and polygynous marriages.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All Nyinba men who have brothers marry jointly in fraternal polyandry. Over time, these marriages may become monogamous, due to deaths of brothers and occasional divorce. Thus household histories show 70 percent of marriages to have been initially polyandrous, although only half the marriages in 1983 remained so. Postmarital residence is ordinarily virilocal. Only when a family lacks sons will a daughter marry uxorilocally. Most uxorilocal unions are monogamous, although sometimes a second sister joins the Marriage, in sororal polygyny. Men whose wives are childless are encouraged to marry second wives and men extremely unhappy in their polyandrous marriages are sometimes permitted second wives by their families. This creates marriages that are both polygynous and polyandrous (less than 5 percent of extant marriages in 1983). In all such cases, the preference is for sororal polygyny. Polyandry is highly idealized in expressing fraternal unity; it is seen as economically advantageous, and it also confers political advantages in the village. Frictions between brothers seem to be minimized by practices ensuring equal sexual access to the common wife and by the designation of paternity, which gives brothers equal opportunity to father children within the common marriage. Divorce of men is rare, as is the divorce of women who have borne children.

Domestic Unit. Households are large and multigenerational, including, on average, 7.7 members and 2.6 generations in 1983. The wealthier households tend to be larger and to include a relatively greater proportion of men than the poorer ones. Membership in households accrues only through marriage or by legitimate birth (due to polyandry and polygyny, the children may have different parents). Polyandry also has the effect of creating low dependency ratios. Household membership presumes cooperation in productive labor and a share in what the household produces, both of which vary with age and gender.

Inheritance. Property is inherited jointly by all sons of the previous property-holding generation. When daughters marry, they receive a dowry of household goods, agricultural tools, and occasionally a domestic animal or rights to a small plot of land for lifelong use. Traditionally, never-wed women had rights to lifelong maintenance; now Nepali law entitles them to lifelong use rights in half the share given a son. In the rare cases of partition among brothers, property is divided according to per stirpes (equally between the branches of a Family) reckoning, a custom that may be due to Hindu Nepali Influence. Any household produced in partition that fails to maintain itself passes to the partitioners' brothers or their successors.

Socialization. Boys and girls are raised differently, as are first and later-born sons. Girls, for example, begin productive work at an earlier age and are expected to help care for their younger siblings. First-born sons are encouraged to take a leadership role in the family, to prepare them for later Household headship, and are taught to treat their brothers fairly, which is particularly critical for polyandry.

Sociopolitical Organization

Nyinba are citizens of the Nepalese state and subject to its legal code, which is Hindu-influenced but also gives recognition to traditional custom.

Social Organization. Nyinba are socially stratified, with the major distinction between a class of slaveowners and the descendants of their slaves, freed in 1926. Slaves traditionally married monogamously and uxorilocally and lived in nuclear-family households. This family structure dovetailed with and augmented the polyandrous households of their masters, many of whom suffered chronic shortages of female labor. Today the poorer slave descendants serve as a dependent labor force, supplemented by hired laborers from ethnic Nepali villages. There also are minor status distinctions within the former slaveowner stratum: the older, village-founding clans have greater status than members of more recently arrived clans.

Political Organization. In the past, the Nyinba were ruled by petty Hindu chieftains of high caste, whose descendants remain politically influential today. In 1789, they became subjects of the Nepalese state, which interfered little in the area, beyond regulating land usage and taxation, until the 1950s. The effect of these regimes has been to undermine Nyinba unity and indigenous institutions of leadership. The fact that villages successfully coordinate economic activities and religious ceremonials is due to a traditional system of village organization. This is based upon cooperative action between households related by past partitions and by the rotation of offices holding responsibility for collective events.

Social Control and Conflict. Today villages are highly factionalized, and prominent Nyinba anchor their power by affiliations with the descendants of their former rulers, who now participate in the national political arena. Although in law, Nepalese of all castes and classes now have equal Political and legal rights, some elements of past inequality linger on. Thus slave descendants remain less powerful (as well as poorer) locally.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nyinba are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingmapa school, although people also give credence to Certain cosmological beliefs held to antedate Buddhism and to the deities and ritual practices of their Hindu neighbors. The pantheon follows orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, with the addition of minor deities of local significance. Contrary to Buddhism, village founders become powerful ancestors who are thought to safeguard the village and to whom appeals for agricultural prosperity are addressed. People also fear the power of the evil eye and witchcraft.

Religious Practitioners. Each village includes one or more households of lamas, the most respected of whom trace descent to a hereditary lama lineage. These lamas are not monastics, although many have pursued advanced religious training in the monasteries of Tibet or in refugee centers in India and Nepal. Instead they marry, raise families, and serve the everyday ritual needs of villagers. A few women have become nuns; the esteem in which they are held depends on the rectitude of their lives and their religious accomplishments. Each village also includes several households of hereditary priests known as dangri, who are involved with the cults of local deities. These priests conduct from memory a simple liturgy modeled after Tibetan Buddhist ritual, preparatory to events of spirit possession. Finally there are the spirit mediums, or oracles, who are believed to incarnate local deities when possessed. The office of oracle rarely passes from father to son, but it does recur often among disadvantaged Nyinba, such as slaves and their descendants.

Ceremonies. Lamas celebrate Buddhist rituals at prescribed times in their household temples. In addition, they officiate at privately sponsored rituals, prompted by life-crisis events or the desire to acquire merit, and at public ceremonials. The ritual calendar includes both locally distinctive Ceremonies and those known throughout ethnically Tibetan areas. Among the former are ceremonies held to propitiate clan gods, those seeking the blessings of founder ancestors, and rites associated with the growth and harvesting of the major crops. At these special local ceremonies, both lamas and dangris officiate, and there is public oracular possession.

Arts. The Nyinba are known for their finely made, beautifully executed textiles, including woven carpets, tie-dyed shawls, and embroidered boots. Religious artifacts used in their temples, such as drums, bells, statues, and paintings, are produced by artisans from Tibet.

Medicine. Certain lamas practice traditional Tibetan medicine, which relies on empirical and mystical treatments: herbal and animal remedies, moxibustion (cauterization), and the performance of special rituals. Oracles also may be called in to diagnose the mystical cause of illness and to exorcise malignant supernaturals deemed responsible. Nyinba have been exposed to scientific medicine only since the mid-1970s. As more facilities are established and sources of supplies become reliable, reliance on them increases.

Death and Afterlife. Following death are a series of Ceremonies that culminate in a merit-creating feast for the entire village and close relatives of the deceased. Like other Buddhists, Nyinba believe in reincarnation, and one of the major goals of these ceremonies is to help the deceased attain the best possible rebirth. Funerals also include ceremonies designed to remove death pollution from relatives and those who have come in contact with the corpse. The funeral is accorded great importance, and rich and poor sponsor the same ceremonies, which is not the case for other life-crisis events.

See also Nepali


Bishop, Barry C. (1990). Karnali under Stress: Livelihood Strategies and Seasonal Rhythms in a Changing Nepal Himalaya. Geography research papers, nos. 228-229. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von (1978). "Trans-Himalayan Traders in Transition." In Himalyan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface, edited by James F. Fisher, 339-357. The Hague: Mouton Publishers.

Levine, Nancy E. (1987). "Belief and Explanation in Nyinba Women s Witchcraft." Man 22:250-74.

Levine, Nancy E. (1987). "Caste, State, and Ethnic Boundaries in Nepal." Journal of Asian Studies 46:71-88.

Levine, Nancy E. (1988). The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, Domesticity, and Population on the Tibetan Border. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.