views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYM: Nepalese


Identification. The term "Nepali" refers to any person born within the borders of the kingdom of Nepal or from a group considered historically or territorially indigenous to the kingdom. As an ethnonym, this term roughly encompasses but does not describe the particularities of the multiple Ethnic and caste groups that make up Nepal and have their own distinct ethnic identities. Through the cultural dominance of the state of Nepal following its emergence in 1769 and through a long history of political, economic, and cultural interactions between the peoples of this region, many ethnic groups share elements of a common pool of sociocultural attributes. Nevertheless, these groups also exhibit great variation in language, dress, and religion to the extent that certain groups on the northern and southern borders of Nepal are indistinguishable from the people of Tibet and north India, respectively. Nonetheless, there have been settlements in the foothills of the Himalayas since the fourth century b.c., and there is mention of ethnic groups in this region in the early Sanskrit epic literature.

The name "Nepala," referring to a frontier Himalayan kingdom, appears on inscriptions in India from the fourth century a.d. Nepal emerged as a unified nation-state in the eighteenth century with the conquests of the Shah dynasty, which ruled the Thakuri principality of Gorkha in west-central Nepal. In the early nineteenth century, following the confrontations with the British in India and the subsequent forced relinquishment of appropriated lands, the current borders of the country became established within a longitude of 80° and 88° E, with India on its eastern and western borders, and within a latitude of 27° and 30° N with India to the south and Tibet to the north. The country covers an area of 145,954 square kilometers (slightly larger than Arkansas). Social change is occurring very rapidly in Nepal with the influx of tourists and imported goods, the opening of new roads, and an increasing interest and investment in education. The country now has many doctors, engineers, and agronomists, a number of whom have been trained in the United States or Europe. Simultaneously, many old and elaborate social and cultural traditions are declining. The major political and social developments that Nepal is now undergoing are effecting many changes throughout the country. It is hoped that these developments will address the crucial problems of poverty and unemployment, soil degradation, and overpopulation that are currently troubling the country.

Demography. The population of the country is estimated to be between 19 and 20 million people (1991). With the control of epidemics and an expanding population since the 1930s, the rate of population growth has reached 2.7 percent. At this rate, the population will double in twenty-seven years and further increase the already severe pressure on the arable land available for cultivation. This situation has led to an increasing migration from the middle hills and mountain regions of Nepal to the cities and to lower-altitude Terai in the south, which has been viable for settlement for the last thirty years following the eradication of malaria. Nevertheless, the majority of Nepalis (53 percent) continue to live in the middle hill region of the country.

Linguistic Affiliation. There are more than twenty-six distinct languages spoken in Nepal that are related to Indo-European, Tibeto-Burman, and Austroasiatic language families. Nepali, the lingua franca of the country and an Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, came to Nepal with Khas settlers who migrated into the western Himalaya region of northern India approximately 1500 b.c. The Nepali Language is also known historically and colloquially as Khas Khura and Gorkhali because of its association with the early settlers of western Nepal and with the Gorkha dynasty. It is the native tongue of well over half of the inhabitants of the country. Many more people speak Nepali as a second Language in administrative, commercial, and educational contexts. A number of important ethnic groups in the midland region of the country, including the Kathmandu Valley, speak Tibeto-Burman languages as their native tongues. Among this group are the first settlers and the architects of Nepal's cultural florescence in the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars. Other important ethnic groups such as the Tamang, Magar, Rai, and Limbu, who make up an important percentage of the population of the hills and mountain regions of Nepal, also speak Tibeto-Burman languages. There are a number of groups in the formerly malarial jungle valleys of the Siwalik and Mahabharat ranges in southern Nepal, such as the Tharu, Danuwar, and Darai, who speak languages that mix Austroasiatic linguistic elements with a number of words from North Indian and Tibeto-Burman languages. Along the southern plains of the Terai one also finds people whose languages (and customs) are indistinguishable from similar groups speaking Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Mithali in north India. Similarly, along the northern region of Nepal one finds various clusters of peoples (e.g., Sherpa, Manangi) whose language, religion, dress, and subsistence patterns closely resemble groups in Tibet, from which they had migrated during the last two millennia.

History and Cultural Relations

The geographic distribution and diversity of ethnic groups in Nepal reflect the migrations of groups displaced by or escaping adverse sociopolitical conditions in central, southern, and southeastern Asia. For instance, there is evidence that people from Southeast Asia moved into the Himalayan region in flight from the expanding Han dynasty during the first millennium b.c. It is also well documented that groups from north India moved into Nepal during various waves of the Muslim invasions during the fourteenth century. Further, the military and administrative consolidation of the Gorkha regime in the eighteenth century united the eighty or so ethnically varied principalities in the region and asserted an orthodox, Hindu sociopolitical and religious order. This led to the legislative designation of singular ethnic groups such as the Tamang, which often encompass diverse peoples. The formation of the nation-state of Nepal and its need for resources of grain and labor also forced the expanded settlement of the region and led to migrations of families to India to escape the demands of the state.


Throughout much of the hills and habitable mountainous ranges, most settlements consist of loosely clustered households surrounded by agricultural land. Households usually group on a hilltop or hillside and near a river or spring. They are connected by footpaths that often converge around a large pipal or banyan tree, which is surrounded by a stone platform and seating structure (chautara ) that serves as a resting place for travelers and a meeting place for informal or village-council social gatherings. Most hamlets consist of a few clans (thar ) of a particular group (e.g., Magar, Gurung) and often one or more households of artisan castes (e.g., metalworkers) . There are also more densely compact settlements among the Brahmans and Chhetris, Sherpa, Newari, and others that may consist of over fifty households as well as small shops and schools. Throughout the hills there are a number of large towns consisting of several hundred or a few thousand people, especially where there is an important temple or monastery, a marketplace, a motorable road, or an administrative center. The Newari have typically lived in cities or large towns that each form a commercial, social, and ritual center surrounded by their terraced fields. Their settlements vary in size from large villages to the former city-states of Patan, Kathmandu, and Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. However, the most common houses in the middle hills are two-story, mud-brick houses with thatchor, recently, tinroofs. The bottom of each house is painted in red-clay ocher and the top half is whitewashed. The floor is cleaned regularly with a newly applied mixture of wet cow dung and clay. The kitchen must be kept pure, so it is often located on the second floor of the house in order to avoid the pollution of stray animals that might wander into it. Most houses have a veranda and a courtyard where people socialize and work on weaving, corn husking, and other chores. In the northern, mountainous regions of Nepal, such as among the Sherpa or people of Dolpo, houses are made of stone and wood. In the southern, lowland region of the country houses are made of bamboo matting, plastered with mud and cow dung, and covered with a thatch roof. In Newari towns and cities, houses are more elaborate three-story dwellings of stone or baked brick with tin or slate roofs, and they may have carved windows and courtyards in the middle of the house. Simplified versions of these houses are being made of cement or brick throughout the Kathmandu Valley to accommodate its current population boom.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Most Nepalis depend on agriculture for their main subsistence and as a source of cash. In the northern, mountainous regions of the country the Sherpa, Manangi, and others practice high-altitude agriculture. Their main crops are barley, wheat, buck-wheat, and maize, along with potatoesand, recently, squashgrown as vegetables. In these areas there is only one growing season, so that supplemental resources from trade, herding, and wage labor are needed. In the midland and southern regions of the country, the land has been terraced for generations, so that people are able to grow irrigated rice during the monsoon and dry rice, maize, millet, and wheat on more elevated dry land both in the summer and during the winter. They intercrop their fields with soybeans and chilies, and they have gardens of cauliflower, squash, turnips, and greens. Herding animals is an important and common economic activity in northern, Tibetan-oriented regions where people keep yaks, cows, and crossbreeds for butter, cheese, and meat. They also use ponies, sheep, and yaks as pack animals in their long-distance trading. In slightly lower elevations groups such as the Magar have a transhumant economy, and so they move seasonally between elevations for farming and herding. Most people in Nepal keep buffalo, goats, or cows for milk and buffalo or goats for meat, and, if the people are not orthodox Hindus, also pigs and chickens.

Industrial Arts. Most Tibetan-oriented peoples weave cloth and make sturdy and colorful clothes, bags, and carpets. Their carpets have become a desirable market item world-wide. Other groups such as the Gurung and Magar also weave cloth and rugs, but, as with most people today, they purchase commercial cloth, jewelry, and cooking utensils in markets. Most people build their own houses and many carve wooden containers for holding butter and yogurt. Also, most villages have artisan castes such as metalworkers and tailors. As the size of the settlement increases, other occupational castes such as barbers, butchers, potters, and launderers are found. Artisan specialization attained a high level of development among the Newars during the Malla period (twelfth to eighteenth centuries) in the Kathmandu Valley, where one still finds elaborate occupational specializations and refined traditions of painting, wood carving, and metal casting. However, the availability of inexpensive market goods and exposure to new cultural values have caused a decline in these traditions.

Trade. Since Nepal is at the crossroads of central and southern Asia, trade has always been an important facet of the economies of many peoples in the region. The trade between Tibet and India supported, in part, the rise of the great city-states in the Kathmandu Valley and allowed a number of Newar merchants to become very wealthy. Control of this major, regional trading network in the eighteenth century permitted Prithivi Narayan Shah, the first Shah king, to conquer and unify the country. Today, trade is crucial for most households for they sell a part of their produce, usually rice and milk, for cash to buy needed market items such as cloth, matches, and kerosene. Certain ethnic groups have specialized subgroups, such as the Uray among the Newar and the Daffali among Muslims, who are merchants and bangle sellers, respectively. With the closing of the border with China and the end of the Tibetan salt trade, many of the northern groups famous as traders, such as the Thakali and Sherpa, have had to travel to southern Nepal to trade for needed supplies. However, largely in the Terai, Indian merchants control the import of raw and commercial goods that are needed in Nepal, and they likewise dominate capital investment in the country.

Division of Labor. There is division of labor among most groups in Nepal, but it is rigid for only a few activities. Generally, women do the bulk of the work in the fields and at home. In many groups, women till the soil, plant, weed, and harvest the crops. They also dry, winnow, and often husk grains. Women also cut grass and collect leaves for animals and carry water. If impoverished, they may also perform wage labor. In the house they cook, clean, and care for children. Unless from a wealthy family, girls receive little education beyond elementary school and so rarely hold commercial or civilservice jobs, although this situation is changing. In a number of groups widowed or divorced women engage in trade or shopkeeping. Men do the heavier agricultural labor of plowing the fields and fixing terraces and irrigation works, but they may also help women in their fieldwork if necessary. Men engage in most major economic transactions, such as buying and selling land, animals, and produce. Many men temporarily travel to work sites or join the army in Nepal or India to make cash needed by their households. It is increasingly common for men to seek employment as wage laborers if poor, or in commerce or government jobs if somewhat educated. Occupational castes specialize in certain tasks such as cutting hair, fishing, priestly work, or butchering, which is largely carried out by men.

Land Tenure. Almost all but the very poorest households own land. Land is classified according to its productive potential. In one classification, khet is land that is irrigated and is the most valuable. Bari is land that can be cultivated, but not irrigated. Pakho is land that cannot be cultivated for it is usually steep or rocky. There are a number of forms of land tenure in Nepal relating to individual households, lineage ownership, mutual-aid ownership, or land designated as gifts or payment to religious institutions or for government service. In the kipat system an individual has rights to land by virtue of membership in a lineage, although today only the Limbu are allowed to own this form of land. Gifts or payments of land by the government, though largely discontinued, still account for the ownership of large tracts of land and many landlord and tenant relationships. Most Nepalis possess land under the raikar system, in which the utilization and transfer of land is recognized by the government as long as taxes are paid on it.


Kin Groups and Descent. Almost all Nepalis belong to patrilineal descent systems which organize marital, Inheritance, and ritual behavior to varying degrees. A few groups along the Tibetan border recognize bilateral relations and function largely in terms of named households and kindreds. Most villages are dominated by one ethnic group and consist usually of a number of exogamousand, in some northern regions, endogamouspatriclans. A few groups such as the Sherpa and Gurung have ranked, endogamous phratries or moieties, which consist of a number of clans that are associated with an aristocratic or ritual status. Members of clans consider themselves related through a common, though unknown, ancestor. Local descent groups or lineages form active, functioning agnatic units. Affiliation in a local descent group is marked by recognition of a common ancestor, observance of birth and death pollution, and, often, participation in mutual-aid groups. Men and women are born into their fathers' clans, though upon marriage a woman becomes a Member of her husband's clan. Ties to matrilateral households and kindred may often be important sources of support, ritual relationships, and, at times, status (e.g., among Nyinba).

Kinship Terminology. Among many Nepali-speaking and also some Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups siblings may be addressed according to an age order from oldest to youngest or simply as an older or younger sibling (e.g., Jetha, Kānchha). In many groups siblings address parallel and some cross cousins with sibling terms. In the first ascending generation parents' parallel siblings may be addressed with parental terms marked by their age rank (i.e., older or younger). Cross parental siblings may be addressed by particular terms and treated in a distinctively relaxed or more formal manner. Family and lineage relations almost always observe marital taboos. However, for some groups, such as high-caste Hindus, phratries or gotra are exogamous, while for other groups, such as the Gurung, their moieties are endogamous.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. All groups in Nepal follow some form of clan, lineage, or local descent group exogamy, at least through the fifth generation. Hypergamy is not commonly practiced except among some Rajputs in the Terai and a few interethnic marriages where trade-offs are made between ritual status and class. However, for many groups marriages entail hypergamous relations among families and lineages as a post facto result of the higher status accorded wife takers over wife givers. For most high-caste Hindu groups dowry and bride-wealth is an important factor in marriages and an indication of the status of the families involved. Nevertheless, for most Tibetan-and Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups a ritual and often substantial payment is made by the groom to the bride's family. Cross-cousin marriage is not practiced among many groups such as the Sherpa and Hindu caste groups. However, the Thakuri permit and prefer cross-cousin matrilateral marriage. Other groups such as the Tamang and Nyinba prefer bilateral cross-cousin marriage. In general, most marriages are made between couples of the same generation. However, the average age of marriage partners is increasing as education becomes more important and available. Monogamy is the most common form of marriage in Nepal, although a few Individuals in most groups also practice polygyny. A number of Tibetan-speaking people, such as the Nyinba, Sherpa, and Baragaonli, practice variant forms of fraternal polyandry. Throughout Nepal most marriages are arranged by the Parents of the couple, though with varying degrees of involvement and control. Among high-caste Hindus, marriages have typically been arranged wholly through the decisions of the couples' families. Young men and women of Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups in the middle hills, on the other hand, have more occasion to interact with one another and may induce their parents merely to arrange marriage ceremonies for them. An unusual, and perhaps more legendary than actual, practice among Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups is wife capture. In such a case, following the abduction of a woman, both she and her family need to agree to a marital arrangement or the relationship is dissolved. Eloping is mainly practiced among more impoverished families. After marriage, couples typically live with the husband's extended family for a number of years. However, among the Sherpa marriage takes place in stages, perhaps for years. Thus a husband and wife may continue to live with their respective natal families for years and only visit each other. Once the wife's dowry is arranged and/or they have children, they move in together. In groups throughout Nepal young wives look forward to visiting their natal families during their first few years of marriage. It is not uncommon for women to leave their husbands and return to their natal family or for men to leave their wives and form a union with a new wife. If bride-price has been paid it may have to be returned in part to the husband. Women are allowed to claim rights to their husband's property if they have been abandoned, especially if they have children. Second marriages are not condoned for high-caste Hindu women, and they result in a reduction in social and ritual status if they occur. Men also gain a bad reputation if they divorce their wives, but they do not lose ritual status if they remarry. For other groups Divorce involves much less stigma for women. Among the Magar, for instance, women who leave their husbands and remarry lose a few ritual privileges, but this is nothing compared to what happens to high-caste women.

Domestic Unit. Most young couples live with the husband's parents for a number of years, usually until the father of the family dies. When this happens the brothers divide the patrimony. However, beforehand there may be many tensions and status considerations within the household among brothers and their wives. These conditions and the increasing need for household economic diversification often lead one of the brothers, with or without his wife, to seek employment or engage in trading outside the village, and sometimes outside the country, in order to provide cash and be able to act with a degree of autonomy. Polyandrous households appear to have more continuity and stability than extended families made up of monogamous couples.

Inheritance. Inheritance throughout Nepal generally is based on the traditional Mitakshara system, which is encoded in Nepalese law and which states that a legal right to an equal share of the household property goes to each son. In practice, of course, deciding equal shares of partible property is complicated and often fraught with tensions. There have been reforms in the inheritance law for women recently so that they supposedly have more equal rights to the property of their natal family, if they are unmarried, and to their husband's property if he dies. Formerlyand no doubt still today, in practicethey had to wait until they were 35 years old to claim an equal share of their father's property. If their husband had died, they only had been allowed rights to use the land, which reverted to their husbands' agnates.

Socialization. In general, Nepalis indulge and enjoy their young children. Toilet training and weaning are relaxed and breast-feeding may continue until children are 3 years old. Most Hindu and Buddhist groups have a number of rites of passage for children such as first rice feeding, first haircutting, puberty rites for girls, and sacred-thread or initiation ceremonies for boys. At about 8 years old, children are expected to begin to perform domestic chores. Girls carry water and fodder and care for young children and boys may be expected to tend animals.

Sociopolitical Organization

After a brief attempt at democracy in the 1950s, Nepal has had a constitutional monarchy based on a tiered system of representative government called the panchayat system. This system has largely been in the control of the king. Recently (1990-1991), Nepal has entered a period of major political transition in which a new constitution has been written and direct, democratic elections of representatives to the National Assembly has been instituted. These developments limit the power of the king.

Social Organization. There are a number of caste and Secular hierarchies in Nepal that have a functional meaning in the context of local settings. However, for more than two hundred years high-caste Hindu Nepali-speaking groups have dominated in many sociocultural and institutional settings because of their control of the country's political economy. This cultural dominance was consolidated in the Legal Codes of 1859, in which all groups were broadly cataloged and ranked roughly according to caste principles with, of course, Brahman Chhetri at the top. However, in 1964 the king ended the government's legislation of social practices based on caste.

Political Organization. At the local level, villages have always been run by headmen and, often, a council of elders or influential men. The government had sanctioned the power of headmen by allowing them to collect taxes. The panchayat system, with its elected representatives at the ward and multivillage level, and the institution of government courts in administrative centers throughout the country have superseded, though not entirely replaced, this earlier system of political organization.

Social Control. At the village level there are no formal mechanisms of social control, although many groups have lineage or local-descent groups of elders that decide the meaning of inappropriate behavior. Yet, in the event of crime or legal disputes, these groups do not have real power other than to institute forms of ostracism or contact district courts or police.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Nepal is a Hindu kingdom in which the king is considered an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Although the majority of the country is Hindu, a number of groups of sizable populations are Buddhist. There are a few groups of Muslims in the country and an even smaller number of converts to Christianity. Except for perhaps Christians, almost all groups participate in indigenous and syncretic shamanic, oracular, or pre-Buddhist Bon beliefs and practices that recognize the effects of local gods, godlings, spirits, and places of power. Generally, Hinduism in Nepal is based on the Dharmashastras, Puranas, and various developments in Vaishnavism and Shaivism that have largely originated in India. Buddhism in Nepal blends Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, with Vajrayana, the Diamond Way. Whether Tibetans or Newars, Buddhists believe in the five Dhayani Buddhas, and along with Hindus they believe in the principles of dharma and karma. Hindus in Nepal worship the major gods of Hinduism, such as forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Saraswati. In the Kathmandu Valley Hindus along with the Buddhists also worship powerful local goddesses and gods known as Ajima, Vajrayogini, Bhatbatini, and others who can be very powerful, protective, and punitive. There are also a number of local cults of particular deities throughout the country, such as the Masta cult in western Nepal. People believe that dangerous ghosts and demons, such as the bhut, pret, and masan, haunt crossroads and rivers and wherever they are made offerings of appeasement. Also, some people believe that snakes and frogs have supernatural powers.

Religious Practitioners. Brahman priests and the Vajracharya Buddhist priests of the Newar are caste-specific roles that may be achieved only by caste members following initiations. These religious specialists perform important rites of passage and domestic rituals and provide important teachings and information on many subjects. Most shamans enter their role as practitioners through the onset of a sickness or possession, which serves as a calling. However, in some groups religious specialists, such as the khepre and pajyu among the Gurung, can achieve their roles only if they are members of one of the ranked divisions of their society.

Ceremonies. Most of the major festivals and celebrations of Hinduism and Buddhism, such as Durga Puja (Dasain), Holi for Krishna, Shiva Ratri, and Buddha Jayanti are elaborately observed in Nepal. They take various forms in local Ethnic communities, which also hold numerous other calendrical and deity festivals throughout the year. The blending of Buddhist and Hindu belief and practice, which is so common in Nepal, may be seen in the worship of certain deities and in large local festivals, such as the Machindranath Jatra in Patan in the Kathmandu Valley. These celebrations and ceremonies serve as rituals of renewal, reenactments of historical events, and the marking of powerful beliefs, practices, and relationships. The spectacular Mani Rimdu ceremony performed every year by the Sherpa in Khumbu has multiple meanings for the participants. Rites of passage, so crucial to the reproduction of social identities throughout Nepal, may be found in every community and entail activities such as those mentioned for child rearing, illness, marriage, and death.

Medicine. People in Nepal often attribute a number of causes to illnesses. Most groups believe that humoral imbalance leads to physiological disturbances. They also believe that astrological disjunctions and the attack of ghosts and certain deities may also cause maladies. Witchcraft is also feared as a dangerous source of illness and death. It is not uncommon for people to seek treatment from many kinds of specialists as well as at an allopathic hospital or physician's clinic.

Death and Afterlife. Most Hindus and Buddhists cremate their dead. For Hindus, this is done ideally by a river so that deceased's souls can have a swift passage to desirable realms in the afterworld. Many groups simultaneously believe in reincarnation and worship their ancestors. Among some of the remote Tibetan-speaking people, corpses are cut up and thrown into a river or left on a hilltop for vultures to eat. Members of the Jogi caste are some of the few people who bury their dead.

See also Brahman and Chhetri of Nepal; Gurkha; Gurung; Lepcha; Limbu; Magar; Newar; Nyinba; Sherpa; Sunwar; Tamang; Thakali


Bista, Dor Bahadur (1967). The People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandhar. Reprint. 1980.

English, Richard (1985). "Himalayan State Formation and the Impact of British Rule in the Nineteenth Century." Mountain Research and Development 5(l):61-78.

Fisher, James F. ed. (1978). Himalayan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface. The Hague: Mouton.

Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von (1973). The Anthropology of Nepal. Warminister: Aris & Phillips.

Hitchcock, John T. (1980). A Mountain Village in Nepal. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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

Sharma, Prayag Raj (1983). "Nepali Culture and Society: An Historical Overview." Contributions to Nepalese Studies 10:1-20.



views updated Jun 11 2018

Ne·pal·i / nəˈpôlē; -ˈpälē/ • n. (pl. same or -pal·is) a native or national of Nepal. ∎  the Indic language that is the official language of Nepal; also used in the Indian state of Sikkim.• adj. of or relating to Nepal or its language or people.