History of the Nepali caste system

History of the Nepali caste system

Nepal’s caste system was and continues to be quite complex. While the caste system and legal code were publicly outlawed by the 1990 constitution, caste continues to play a prominent role in many Nepalis’ private lives. Nepal’s “unifier,” Prithvi Narayan Shah, once called Nepal “a garden of four varnas (castes) and 36 sub-castes,” a statement that many upper-caste Nepali point to as evidence of the Nepali’s multicultural plurality. However, whatever Prithvi’s intentions, Jung Bahadur Rana, Nepal’s monarch at the time, had traveled to Europe and was inspired to classify and document Nepal’s caste system according to European legal code. By 1854, the 1,400 page Muluki Ain was ratified into law, essentially codifying the social hierarchy and caste structure into law. Because Nepal was ethnically diverse and complex, it diverged from the traditional Hindu caste structure and was stratified into five hierarchical categories that separated impure and pure groups of people.

PDF Download from World Bank

The Khas people, ethnically distinct from the plain’s people of the South Asian peninsula, placed themselves at the top of the social hierarchy and became the Thagadari (wearers of holy threads). This group comprised of the Brahmin and Chhetri people who control the majority of the Nepal’s social and political power to this day. Below the Thagadari were three other groups: Matwali (enslavable and non-enslavable alcohol drinkers), Pani nachalne choichoto halnu naparne (impure but touchable castes), Pani nachalne chiochoti halnu parne (impure and untouchable castes). Ethnic groups and castes were placed into one of these categories and subjugated to different legal penalties and restrictions depending on which division they fell into.

The study into the state of caste, ethnic and gender discrimination by the World Bank and DFID produced a report entitled “Unequal Citizens”. The summary document, downloadable above, gives a clear insight into the caste system as it functions in Nepal.

Nepal’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity

Nepal’s geographic surroundings have left an indelible mark upon the people. High mountains, remote valleys, and centuries of migration have lead many groups with similar origins to diverge, culturally and linguistically. From the north Mongolian groups gradually migrated southwards over the Tibetan plateau and eventually into Nepal’s mountainous region, while Aryans from the South Asian peninsula migrated northwards into the hills. Being a main throughway for trade and goods, many groups moved across Nepal and settled in the hills. There is no accurate count concerning the number of ethnic groups and languages in Nepal. There are around 15 major ethnic identities and over 100 unique spoken languages. Many ethnic groups are also so internally diverse that their dialects are mutually unintelligible. Below is a list of groups who you may encounter on your trek; remember it is by no means an exhaustive or complete list of Nepal’s diversity:

  • Magar people
  • Bhotiya people of the himalaya
  • Sherpas of Helambu
  • Lhomi people
  • Thakali People
  • Gurung people
  • Sherpa people
  • Brahmin & Chhetri people
  • Rai people
  • A Thakuri woman
  • Limbu People (Kirati)
  • Facinating photographs from Humla, Dolpa and Mustang from 1970s
  • Newar people (Newa) of Nepal
  • Sherpa people
  • Tamang People

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