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Caste and Ethnicity

Nepal Table of Contents


By Amy Waldman
April 11, 2004 – (NYT) With its simple mud homes, low roofs and string cots,
this tiny settlement near the Indian border looks like any other in this part of
western Nepal. Only the women suggest something different, garishly painted
as they are even in the early morning hours.

They loiter on a slope or around the tea stall, waiting for men, who come,
banter, negotiate, then slyly walk one of the women to one of the village
houses. The women's children play nearby and watch.

Caste has become destiny for many communities, defining their profession
through generations. But few people have inherited so vexed a destiny as the
Badis of Nepal. Their profession is prostitution, passed down from one
generation to the next.

While many Badi women have left the sex trade, others keep falling into it,
driven by hunger, a lack of alternatives and the stigma of being a Badi.

The Badis, who number tens of thousands across western Nepal, are one of 36
castes who make up Nepal's untouchables, said Suk Lal Nepali, a Badi who
runs Social Awareness for Education, or SAFE, a nonprofit organization that
works with the Badis.

But, he added, "we are untouchable among the untouchables."

Sunni Nepali, now 22, began working as a prostitute four or five years ago.
Her body supports 11 relatives, including her parents and two younger
brothers. Each encounter — she has up to five a day — earns her anywhere
from 70 cents to $2.15. She loathes the work, she said, but sees no choice. She
has no education.
Besides, she asked: "Who's going to marry me? I'm already involved in this."

The Badis did not start out as prostitutes when they migrated to Nepal from
India some three centuries ago. They made drums and musical instruments,
fished and danced and sang. They would go to the homes of landlords, or
zamindars, to entertain at social ceremonies, in return for food.

In time, the zamindars claimed some of the girls as concubines. They would
use them, then abandon them when they had children, said Ramesh Nepali, a
Badi. Many Badis have taken the surname Nepali to avoid the disgrace of
being a Badi.

In this patriarchal society, fatherless children have few rights. It can be

difficult to register their births, and thus get them citizenship, school
admission, even the right to vote.

Already nonentities in society's eyes, daughters dutifully followed their

mothers into prostitution, often encouraged by parents no longer willing or
able to work themselves. Badi men lived off the women's work.

Social welfare organizations have tried to coax the women into other jobs
with some success, said Suk Lal Nepali, although he noted that even his own
sister slipped into prostitution three years ago. He says only 150 women
remain in prostitution, down from 587 a decade ago.

Still, the whole population remains stigmatized.

About half of the 50 families that lived in this settlement have migrated to
India in search of work as maids or guards, leaving perhaps 250 Badis in
Muda. In part, that is a result of pressure from Maoists waging an insurgency
against Nepal's constitutional monarchy. They are also against prostitution
and have ordered the Badis to stop their work. There is pressure, too, from the
government, carried out by the army and the police.
"We can no longer be prostitutes," said Kokali Nepali, 30, a mother of four.
"Before, it was accepted, it was open. Now there is pressure from all sides —
society and government. We cannot do it openly."

In this part of Nepal, however, there is little other work to be found. Even
many of the women who have abandoned the sex trade, like Kokali Nepali,
live off it, working as educators for SAFE and other groups.

All of the women insist they practice protected sex, and say they have
educated many of their customers to do the same. Sunni Nepali even lamented
that because she used condoms so reliably, it would be difficult for her to
conceive a child to raise on her own, which she wanted.

There have been about 236 total H.I.V. cases identified in the middle and
western parts of Nepal, said Dr. G. Raj Shakya, the president of the Nepal
S.T.D. and AIDS Research Center in Nepalgunj.

He said he had not identified H.I.V. cases among Badis, but that he was
almost sure there were some. Many of the women refused to be tested, he
said, for fear that a positive result would further stigmatize them and their

The women say the danger is from those who migrate to India, and then come

Using the AIDS threat as leverage, the Badis have been seeking government
help to move into other lines of work, but without success.

"We are in a position to leave prostitution if the government is ready to

announce we are not prostitutes and provide alternatives," Suk Lal Nepali

His organization has opened hostels for Badi girls, hoping that a different
environment will keep them from following their mothers into the sex trade.

But some girls remain. Kokali Nepali's 7-year-old daughter was around as the
women did business. So was Gomati Nepali's 12-year-old, Rabina, who said
she wanted to be a nurse.

Gomati Nepali got into prostitution at 15, when her parents were sick, the
family poor. She works out of her mother's house.

"In an environment like this," Gomati said of Rabina, "I'm afraid she will go
into this."
What is the caste system of Nepal?
The cast system of Nepal is banned by Nepalese Law but it still exists in
many parts of Nepal. One is considered untouchable based upon the cast of
which they are born. Someone claims to be superior claiming others inferior.
For example, those who make the best knives in the world, the Kamis are
considered untouchables in rural parts of Nepal!!! Influence of cast system is
in marriage too, that is a person falling in a particular cast group marries
someone in the same cast group. Bahun or Brahmin cast marries someone
Brahmin or a cast near to it. Nepal is developing everyday and in cities the
cast system is almost negligible these days. In rural areas of Nepal, cast
system still prevails due to lack of education and awareness. An example of a
cast system would be that you are cast A, either higher or lower, holding a
higher or lower power in the community being affected by various casts B C
D E and so on. It is possible to sue someone if he/she has discriminated you,
the Nepalese law provides that. In Nepal, the cast system is being slowly
eradicated by education and empowerment.

Ethnic Groups
Nepalese society was ethnically diverse and complex in the early 1990s,
ranging in phenotype (physical characteristics) and culture from the Indian to
the Tibetan. Except for the sizable population of those of Indian birth or
ancestry concentrated in the Tarai bordering India, the varied ethnic groups
had evolved into distinct patterns over time.
Political scientists Joshi and Rose broadly classify the Nepalese population
into three major ethnic groups in terms of their origin: Indo-Nepalese, Tibeto-
Nepalese, and indigenous Nepalese. In the case of the first two groups, the
direction if their migration and Nepal's landscapes appeared to have led to
their vertical distribution; most ethnic groups were found at particular
altitudes. The first group, comprising those of Indo- Nepalese origin,
inhabited the more fertile lower hills, river valleys, and Tarai plains. The
second major group consisted of communities of Tibeto-Mongol origin
occupying the higher hills from the west to the east. The third and much
smaller group comprised a number of tribal communities, such as the Tharus
and the Dhimals of the Tarai; they may be remnants of indigenous
communities whose habitation predates the advent of Indo-Nepalese and
Tibeto-Mongol elements.
Even though Indo-Nepalese migrants were latecomers to Nepal relative to the
migrants from the north, they have come to dominate the country not only
numerically, but also socially, politically, and economically. They managed to
achieve early dominance over the native and northern migrant populations,
largely because of the superior formal educational and technological systems
they brought with them. Consequently, their overall domination has had
tremendous significance in terms of ethnic power structure.
Within the Indo-Nepalese group, at least two distinct categories can be
discerned. The first category includes those who fled India and moved to the
safe sanctuaries of the Nepal hills several hundred years ago, in the wake of
the Muslim invasions of northern India. The hill group of Indian origin
primarily was composed of descendants of high-caste Hindu families.
According to Joshi and Rose, "These families, mostly of Brahman and
Kshatriya status, have spread through the whole of Nepal with the exception
of the areas immediately adjacent to the northern border. They usually
constitute a significant portion of the local elites and are frequently the largest
landowners in an area." This segment of the Indo-Nepalese population, at the
apex of which stands the nation's royal family, has played the most dominant
role in the country. Other ethnic groups, including those of Indian origin that
settled in the Tarai, have been peripheral to the political power structure.
The second group of Indo-Nepalese migrants includes the inhabitants of the
Tarai. Many of them are relatively recent migrants, who were encouraged by
the government of Nepal or its agents to move into the Tarai for settlement
during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the early 1990s, this
group mostly consisted of landless tenants and peasants from northern India's
border states of Bihar and Bengal. Some of these Indian migrants later
became large landowners.
The north Indian antecedents of a number of caste groups in the hills (that is,
the first group of Indo-Nepalese migrants), which, in the early 1990s, made
up more than 50 percent of the total population, are evident in their language,
religion, social organization, and physical appearance. All of these features,
however, have been modified in the Nepalese environment. These groups--
several castes of Brahmans, the high-ranking Thakuri and Chhetri (the
Nepalese derivative of the Kshatriya) castes, and an untouchable category--
generally are classified as Pahari, or Parbate. However, in most parts of Nepal
(except in the Tarai), the term pahari has only a limited use in that the Paharis
generally are known by their individual caste names.
Nepali, the native tongue of the Paharis and the national language of Nepal, is
closely related to, but by no means identical with, Hindi. Both are rooted in
Sanskrit. The Hinduism of the Pahari has been influenced by Buddhism and
indigenous folk belief. The Paharis' caste system was neither as elaborately
graded nor as all embracing in its sanctions as that of the Indians; physically,
many of the Paharis showed the results of racial intermixture with the various
Mongoloid groups of the region. Similarly, the Bhote or Bhotia groups
inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas--among whom the Sherpas have
attracted the most attention in the mountaineering world--have developed
regional distinctions among themselves, although clearly related physically as
well as culturally to the Tibetans. The term Bhote literally means inhabitant of
Bhot, a Sanskrit term for the trans-Himalayan region of Nepal, or the Tibetan
region. However, Bhote is also a generic term, often applied to people of
Tibetan culture or Mongoloid phenotype. As used by the Paharis and the
Newars, it often had a pejorative connotation and could be applied to any non-
Hindu of Mongoloid appearance.
An extraordinarily complex terrain also affected the geographic distribution
and interaction among various ethnic groups. Within the general latitudinal
sorting of Indo-Nepalese (lower hills) and Tibeto-Nepalese (higher hills and
mountains) groups, there was a lateral (longitudinal) pattern, in which various
ethnic populations were concentrated in specific geographic pockets. The
deeply cut valleys and high ridges tended to divide ethnic groups into many
small, relatively isolated, and more or less self- contained communities. This
pattern was especially prominent among the Tibeto-Nepalese population. For
example, the Bhote group was found in the far north, trans-Himalayan section
of the Mountain Region, close to the Tibetan border. The Sherpas, a subgroup
within the Bhote, were concentrated in the northeast, around the Mount
Everest area. To the south of their areas were other Tibeto- Nepalese ethnic
groups--the Gurung in the west-central hills and the Tamang and Rai in the
east-central hills--particularly close to and east of the Kathmandu Valley. The
Magar group, found largely in the central hills, was much more widely
distributed than the Gurung, Tamang, and Rai. In the areas occupied by the
Limbu and Rai peoples, the Limbu domain was located farther east in the
hills, just beyond the Rai zone. The Tharu group was found in the Tarai, and
the Paharis were scattered throughout Nepal. Newars largely were
concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley. However, because of their past
migration as traders and merchants, they also were found in virtually all the
market centers, especially in the hills, and as far away as Lhasa in Tibet.
This geographically concentrated ethnic distribution pattern generally
remained in effect in the early 1990s, despite a trend toward increasing spatial
mobility and relocating ethnic populations. For example, a large number of
Bhotes (also called Mananges from the Manang District) in the central section
of the Mountain Region, Tamangs, and Sherpas have moved to the
Kathmandu Valley. Similarly, Thakalis from the Mustang District adjacent to
Manang have moved to Pokhara, a major urban center in the hills about 160
kilometers west of Kathmandu, and to Butawal and Siddhartha Nagar, two
important urban areas in the central part of the Tarai, directly south of
Pokhara. Gurungs, Magars, and Rais also have become increasingly
Most of the Indo-Nepalese peoples--both Paharis and Tarai dwellers
(commonly known among the Paharis as madhesis, meaning midlanders)--
were primarily agriculturalists, although a majority of them also relied on
other activities to produce supplementary income. They generally raised some
farm animals, particularly water buffalo, cows, goats, and sheep, for domestic
purposes. The Paharis traditionally have occupied the vast majority of civil
service positions. As a result, they have managed to dominate and to control
Nepal's bureaucracy to their advantage. It was not until the 1980s that a prime
minister came from the non- Pahari segment of the population. Despite some
loosening of the total Pahari domination of the bureaucracy in recent years, a
1991 newspaper report, summarized in the Nepal Press Digest, revealed that
80 percent of the posts in the civil service, the army, and the police still were
held by the Brahmans and Chhetris of the hills, who comprised less than 50
percent of the population; 13 percent were held by Kathmandu Valley
Newars, whose share of the total population was merely 3 percent. The report
added that even in 1991, the eleven-member Council of Ministers in 1991 had
six Brahmans and three Newars. Furthermore, six of the nine-member
Constitution Recommendation Commission, which drafted the new
constitution in 1990, were hill Brahmans. In spite of the increasing number of
Newars holding government jobs, they traditionally were recognized as a
commercial merchant and handicraft class. It was no exaggeration that they
historically have been the prime agents of Nepalese culture and art. A
significant number of them also were engaged in farming. In that sense, they
can be described as agro-commercialists.
Most of the Tibeto-Nepalese groups traditionally could be considered agro-
pastoralists. Because their physical environment offered only limited land and
agricultural possibilities, the Tibeto-Nepalese groups who occupied the high
mountainous areas, such as the Bhote and particularly the Sherpa, were
almost forced to rely more on herding and pastoral activities than on crop
farming. They also participated in seasonal trading activity to supplement
their income and food supply. However, those peoples inhabiting the medium
and low hills south of the high mountains-- particularly the Gurung, Magar,
Tamang, Rai, and Limbu groups-- depended on farming and herding in
relatively equal amounts because their environment was relatively more
suitable for agriculture. Among these groups, the Gurung, Magar, and Rai
historically have supplied the bulk of the famous Gurkha contingents to the
British and Indian armies, although their ranks have been augmented from the
Thakuri and Chhetri castes of the Indo-Nepalese Paharis. The term Gurkha
was derived from the name of the former principality of Gorkha, about
seventy kilometers west of Kathmandu, and was not an ethnic designation.
The Caste System
One integral aspect of Nepalese society is the existence of the Hindu caste
system, modeled after the ancient and orthodox Brahmanic system of the
Indian plains. The caste system did not exist prior to the arrival of Indo-
Aryans. Its establishment became the basis of the emergence of the feudalistic
economic structure of Nepal: the high-caste Hindus began to appropriate
lands-- particularly lowlands that were more easily accessible, more
cultivatable, and more productive--including those belonging to the existing
tribal people, and introduced the system of individual ownership. Even though
the cultural and religious rigidity of the caste system slowly has been eroding,
its introduction into Nepal was one of the most significant influences
stemming from the migration of the Indo-Aryan people into the hills. The
migrants from the north later were incorporated into the Hindu caste system,
as defined by Indo-Aryan migrants, who quickly controlled the positions of
power and authority. Tibetan migrants did not practice private ownership;
their system was based on communal ownership.
No single, widely acceptable definition can be advanced for the caste system.
Bishop and others, however, view caste as a multifaceted status hierarchy
composed of all members of society, with each individual ranked within the
broad, fourfold Hindu class (varna, or color) divisions, or within the fifth
class of untouchables--outcastes and the socially polluted. The fourfold caste
divisions are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya or Chhetri (rulers and
warriors), Vaisya (or Vaisaya, merchants and traders), and Sudra (farmers,
artisans, and laborers). These Pahari caste divisions based on the Hindu
system are not strictly upheld by the Newars. They have their own caste
hierarchy, which, they claim, is parallel in caste divisions to the Pahari Hindu
system. In each system, each caste (jati) is ideally an endogamous group in
which membership is both hereditary and permanent. The only way to change
caste status is to undergo Sanskritization. Sanskritization can be achieved by
migrating to a new area and by changing one's caste status and/or marrying
across the caste line, which can lead to the upgrading or downgrading of
caste, depending on the spouse's caste. However, given the rigidity of the
caste system, intercaste marriage carries a social stigma, especially when it
takes place between two castes at the extreme ends of the social spectrum.
As Bishop further asserts, at the core of the caste structure is a rank order of
values bound up in concepts of ritual status, purity, and pollution.
Furthermore, caste determines an individual's behavior, obligations, and
expectations. All the social, economic, religious, legal, and political activities
of a caste society are prescribed by sanctions that determine and limit access
to land, position of political power, and command of human labor. Within
such a constrictive system, wealth, political power, high rank, and privilege
converge; hereditary occupational specialization is a common feature.
Nevertheless, caste is functionally significant only when viewed in a regional
or local context and at a particular time. The assumed correlation between the
caste hierarchy and the socioeconomic class hierarchy does not always hold.
Because of numerous institutional changes over the years and increased
dilution (or expansion) of the caste hierarchy stemming from intercaste
marriages, many poor high-caste and rich low-caste households could be
found in the society in 1991.
Although Paharis, especially those in rural areas, were generally quite
conscious of their caste status, the question of caste did not usually arise for
Tibeto-Nepalese communities unless they were aware of the Hindu caste
status arbitrarily assigned to them. Insofar as they accepted caste-based
notions of social rank, the Tibeto-Nepalese tended not only to see themselves
at a higher level than did the Hindu Pahari and Newar, but also differed as to
ranking among themselves. Thus, it was doubtful that the reported Rai caste's
assumption of rank superiority over the Magar and Gurung castes was
accepted by the two latter groups. Moreover, the status of a particular group
was apt to vary from place to place, depending on its relative demographic
size, wealth, and local power.
Even though Nepali (written in Devanagari script, the same as Sanskrit and
Hindi) was the national language and was mentioned as the mother tongue by
approximately 58 percent of the population, there were several other
languages and dialects. Other languages included Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu,
Tamang, Newari, and Abadhi. Non-Nepali languages and dialects rarely were
spoken outside their ethnic enclaves. In order to estimate the numerical
distribution of different ethnic groups, the census data indicating various
mother tongues spoken in the country must be used.
In terms of linguistic roots, Nepali, Maithili, and Bhojpuri belonged to the
Indo-European family; the mother tongues of the Tibeto-Nepalese groups,
including Newari, belonged predominantly to the Tibeto-Burman family. The
Pahari, whose mother tongue was Nepali, was the largest ethnic group. If the
Maithili- and Bhojpuri-speaking populations of the Tarai were included, more
than 75 percent of the population belonged to the Indo-Nepalese ethnic group.
Only three other ethnic groups--the Tamang, the Tharu, and the Newar--
approached or slightly exceeded the one-half million population mark. Most
of those non-Nepali linguistic and ethnic population groups were closely knit
by bonds of nationalism and cultural harmony, and they were concentrated in
certain areas.
More about the Population of Nepal.

The caste system in Nepal is the cause of widespread prejudice and

exploitation – despite being outlawed.
For women in the low caste badi community, the system has meant an
inescapable destiny: prostitution. But, thanks to one woman, who herself
broke free from such a life, there is now hope for hundreds of others.
Uma Devi Badi, 40, is head of the local organisation 'Community Support
Group'. Herself a badi ex-prostitute, Uma has first hand experience of the
treatment of badi women in Nepal. "It was hard at first," she admits. "No
one would listen to me. They did not feel it was possible that we could be
equal because we are scorned for our livelihoods." But, with the help and
support of ActionAid, Uma was able to establish a hostel for 25 badi boys
and girls in small, rented premises in Tikapur, western Nepal.
Set back from a small road leading to a paddy field, the brick building with a
corrugated roof encapsulates the dreams of a whole community. Inside,
books are strewn over the bunk beds and drawings pasted on the walls. Here
the children are provided with accommodation throughout the week and are
sent to the local school.
The hostel also offers after-school literacy and numeracy programmes so
that the children get extra support with their education. One young girl,
Reshmi Nepali, 17, has just completed her School Leaving Certificate and
enthuses about her experience. "I am happy to be here, I have the
opportunity to study and to attend class, otherwise I would have to enter
the profession," she says. "In the future, I would like to be a social
activist, raising awareness among the poor."
The hostel has been such a success that the badi women have been able to
secure funding for a larger building, which is in the process of being built.
This new hostel will be owned by the badi community and it is hoped will
accommodate up to 100 children when finished.
Thanks to Uma, subsequent generations of badi women are breaking free
from the cycle of poverty and prostitution that has plagued them for decades.
However, she acknowledges that there is still more work to be done. "As a
group we are strong, we face the same struggles and have united in
order to overcome them. But there is a long journey before we achieve
equal rights. Our children need citizenship papers so that they can
receive an education, and we are pressing the government for change."
Taken from a story originally written for 'Common Cause' by Yvonne Singh.
photo : ©Jenny Matthews/ ActionAid UK
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Dalits Print this page
The life of the lower castes in the western part of Nepal.
by Berit Madsen
“In this hamlet we are all low caste people. The upper caste
who live further up the village cannot touch us. If they do so
they get polluted”, says Sunga Kami. She is an elder Dalit
woman from Ratoli, a small village in Doti district in the far
western part of Nepal. “But sometimes a woman from one of
the higher castes comes to our house. Her name is Raju
Bohara. She likes to sit in our yard. But when she returns
home she has to purify herself by sprinkling gold-treated
water over her body. That is the custom up here”.

Today Raju Bohara, who belongs to the Chhetri caste, visits

Sunga Kami’s household. Her hamlet is only a few minutes
away by foot. Raju sits down in the yard. It is a sunny
afternoon and all the women in Sunga Kami’s household are
busy drying lentils and rice grains on straw mats. A young
woman begins to grind the already dried lentils in a stone
grinding mill. She is dressed in pink and has a yellow
marigold flower behind her ear. Goats and hens are walking
around in the yard. It is the children’s job to keep them
away from the straw mats with rice and lentils.
Sunga Kami and her household
There are twelve family members in Sunga Kami’s
household. Four of her sons live in India. One of them has
just returned to Ratoli to pay his mother a visit. Two
daughters are married and they both stay with their
husband’s families in neighbouring villages. Sungi Kami’s
household belongs to the Kami caste which is one of the
many lower castes in Nepal. A common denominator for the
lower castes is Dalit. The term originally means people living
in the swamps (daldal) or oppressed people, but today it
refers to all low caste people in Nepal. The Dalits is the
group of people who are considered untouchable by the
higher castes. It is believed that the Dalits can pollute higher
castes and therefore any kind of close physical contact must
be avoided. As Sunga Kami explained above, Raju Bohara
has to clean herself ritually after a visit to Sunga Kami’s
household. She has namely exposed herself to pollution just
by entering a Dalit household.

The untouchability of the Dalits has an immense influence on

their daily life. In most parts of Nepal the Dalits are not
allowed into Hindu temples; they cannot use the wells, taps
or other water sources that are reserved for the higher
castes; they cannot enter restaurants and tea-shops, but
have to sit outside and eat or drink from plates and cups
especially reserved for Dalits; at the grocer’s shop they have
to keep a distance while the goods are delivered to them;
they cannot enter the homes of upper castes nor settle
nearby the upper castes’ hamlets. In many ways these
restrictions imply that Dalits live on the margins of the
Nepalese society.

The Doti district

We are in the Doti district in the far western part of Nepal. It
is a beautiful mountainous area covered with pine trees and
small terraces cut into the steep mountain sides. The white,
impressive Himalayas follow the northern horizon and to the
South one gets a picturesque view down the valleys. The
turquoise blue Seti river winds through the deep gorges
from the mountains to the low lands. At this time of the year
the fields in the valleys are covered with young, green wheat
sprout. On the hill sides the fields are still barren and grey.
Only a few kitchen gardens light up the landscape. Most of
these gardens belong to upper caste people, as do most of
the fields surrounding the villages. Only a few households
from the lower castes own a piece of land or a kitchen

Dalit hamlet in the Doti district

The Dalits in the Doti district belong to three separate low
caste groups – the Kami, the Sarki, and the Damai.
Traditionally each group is linked to a specific occupation.
The Kami caste works as blacksmiths, the Sarki as
shoemakers, and the Damai as tailors – occupations which in
Nepal all are considered “dirty” and therefore only should be
carried out by Dalits. The three groups are further divided
into different subgroups, each with a separate occupation,
such as Sunar (goldsmiths), Bhul (leather workers), Lohar
(metal workers), Parki (bamboo handicraft workers), and
Tamata (copper workers). The upper castes in Doti consist of
Brahmins and Chhetris. Traditionally the Brahmins are
priests or scholars. The Chhetris are the warrior caste. Today
Brahmins still carry out their traditional occupation, but most
Chhetris make a living as farmers, landowners, or
The Dalits in the Doti district all live in separate hamlets
apart from the higher castes. Most Dalit hamlets are densely
built-up areas of small houses with mud walls. Some
hamlets are placed on hill tops and one wonders when the
next strong wind will pull them off the ridge. Round
haystacks are kept on wooden pillars in the yards. In the
glaring winter sun the hay shines with a warm yellow colour.
A few households have livestock such as buffaloes and
goats. They keep them in small stables next to the house.
From a few Damai households the sound of an old iron
Laxmi sewing machine crystallises in the air. One or two
Kamis spend the winter repairing ploughs and other farming
tools. But today most Dalits in the Doti district do not
practice their traditional caste occupation. In lack of skills
and modern technologies their products cannot any longer
compete with high quality products made in the cities.
Instead the majority of Dalits make a living as day labourers
on the higher castes’ land or by taking on different manual
work such as cutting stones, selling firewood from the
mountain sides, or working on road construction. The higher
castes rarely pay in cash for the different kinds of work the
Dalits perform for them. Instead they pay with lentils and
rice grains around harvest time – a system known as Bali
Ghare Pratha. The younger generation is not particularly
interested in continuing their parents’ professions as these
jobs are considered “dirty” and are looked down upon from
the rest of the society.

Winter time is low season for day labour work. Men,

therefore, hang around, waiting for spring to come where
the seasonal agricultural work begins. Women are, on the
other hand, always busy with the daily house work, such as
cooking rice (dhal), lentils (bhat), and flat, barley bread
(chapati), fetching firewood and water, feeding the buffalo or
goats, etc.

Winter time is, however, a good time for weddings according

to the Nepalese calendar. If a couple is married in January or
February their life together will be endowed with prosperity
and fortune. One morning a Kami visits the local Brahmin
astrologer. He wants the astrologer to find the most suitable
date for his daughter’s wedding. The Kami brings a steel
plate with uncooked rice, an orange flower, and a five
rupees-note as payment for the astrologer’s prediction.
While the astrologer figure out the time for the marriage to
take place, the Kami has to sit outside in the courtyard and
wait for the answer. If he here by mistake touches the earth
- since he is a Dalit - it has to be ritually purified with cow
dunk. “It is our custom and we have to protect out culture”,
the astrologer explains, while the Kami is leaving with the
most suitable date for his daughter’s marriage: the 30th of
January at 5.00 am. “This is how we have done it for
generations. And how can we, the higher castes, change
caste behaviour when the Dalits also differentiate among
themselves? A Kami thinks that he is superior to a Damai
and treats him accordingly. Also, if I meet a Dalit person on
the path he will automatically step aside in order not to
touch me. So he is just as well keeping up the tradition, isn’t
The Brahmin astrologer looking
for the most suitable date for
the Kami's daughters wedding.
The Nepalese caste system
Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world. The caste
system is closely related to Hinduism. The Vedas - the 2500
years old sacred Sanskrit texts which Hinduism is based
upon - separate the population into four groups: Brahman,
Kshetriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. The four groups are
hierarchically ordered with the Brahmins in the top and the
Sudras in the bottom. According to the Veda’s creation
myth, God created Brahman from his mouth, Kshetriya from
his arm, Vaishya from his thigh, and Sudra from his feet.
The Dalits or untouchables belong to the Sudra, those
created from the feet and thereby the lowest of these
categories. 20 % of Nepal’s population (22.6 millions in
1997 figures) are Dalits. More than 4 million people in Nepal
are therefore considered untouchable.

In 1990 the practice of caste based discrimination and

untouchability was declared illegal and punishable by law in
Nepal. A person who is found guilty in caste discrimination
can now be sentenced up to one year in prison or be fined to
pay 3000 rupees (1 US $ is 74 Nepalese rupees). The law is,
however, seldom taken into practice and numerous cases of
discrimination against the Dalits are still taking place. As
such the caste system still forms an essential part of the
cultural landscape in Nepal.
Many Dalits explain their low status and untouchability as
determined by the Gods. As Mohan Baral Kami, a Dalit
goldsmith says, “God created the caste system and we have
to accept our low caste status if not to make the Gods angry
with us”. However, many high caste people also consider the
Dalits to be impure because “they are dirty”, “they don’t
keep their houses clean”, “they eat animals dead from
accident or disease” – an explanation to the “impurity” which
also are heard among Dalit themselves.

Doti landscape and the blue

Seti river in the winter time
From a socio-economic perspective poverty is an important
marker of the untouchables. Dalits are not only culturally
inferior but also economically deprived. Since most Dalits in
the hill regions own no land and only receive a small amount
of grain as payment for their work, they are forced to take
loans from higher caste people to buy food and other daily
necessities. They hereby become a kind of “bounded
labourers”, as they are obliged to work on the upper castes’
land to pay off the interest without much chance of ever
being able to repay the loan. Most adult Dalits in the hills are
illiterate, especially the women. Today some Dalits attend
school, but rarely beyond second class for the girls and forth
or fifth grade for the boys; quite a large number of Dalit girls
do not attend school at all.

Migration and new strategies

Today almost every Dalit household have one or two male
family members who work in India, either seasonally or for a
longer period such as 5-10 years at a time. In India they
find jobs as watchmen in hotels, dish washers, drivers, and
other kind of casual work. Hill-Dalits have also begun to
migrate to the Terai, the low land in the southernmost part
of Nepal. In the Terai they hope to buy a piece of land or
find new kinds of job opportunities.

The migration to the Terai also provide the Dalit families with
new strategies to improve their social status. It is quite
common among hill-Dalits to change their surname or leave
out the caste indicator in the name – e.g. Kami, Damai, and
Sarki – when they move to the low lands. By doing this they
hope to get different and better possibilities within the caste
system which they hope especially will be profitable for their
children. Recently it has become popular among Dalits to
convert to Christianity as a way of avoiding the caste
system. Up till now about 10 % of the Dalits have taken on
this new religious belief.

The caste system and its many manifestations has a strong

impact on the every day life of Dalits in Nepal. But the caste
system seen as a social system also opens up for individual
strategies or multiple ways of choosing to navigate in this
cultural landscape. As the local Chhetri healer, the Dhami
Jhankri, in Doti tells: “Up here in my village I will never
accept food from a Dalit’s hand. But if I travel to the capital
Kathmandu I will eat food from everywhere, since in
Kathmandu I don’t know the people so how am I to know
who have cooked it?”.
The Caste System
Dalit (untouchable)
children often have limited
opportunities in the caste

Most Americans believe in social mobility. Typical American

children think that they can grow up to become anyone they
want — a fire fighter, a brain surgeon, the president of the
United States. Even kids from poor families have a chance of
getting rich.
Under the ancient caste system in South Asia, though, the
idea of social mobility made no sense. People were born into
strict social positions called castes, and their children
belonged to the same social class. In fact, under the caste
system, parents knew the jobs their kids would hold even
before the kids were born.
The Hindu caste system is
ordered hierarchically,
with Brahmins at the top
and Sudras at the bottom.
Untouchables, also known
as Harijans or Dalits, fall
outside of the caste
system all together.

Caste Parties
According to the Hindu religion, society should be divided
into four broad classes called VARNAS. A person had the
same varna that his or her parents had. And he or she had it
from birth to death — there was no way to change it. Hindus
did not question the varna system. It was simply considered
a part of the way the universe works.
Hindus rank the four varnas from highest to lowest. In
descending order of importance and prestige, they are the
Each varna must observe certain rules of purity. The
Brahmins are considered so pure that they may never eat
food prepared by anyone but another Brahmin. This means
that Brahmins cannot go to a restaurant where the staff are
not also Brahmins. Also, marriage outside one's one varna is
usually forbidden.

The caste system is structured so that

people marry within their own caste, but it
isn't unheard of to marry outside of it. In
fact, having a woman marry a man of a
higher varna is a way for a family to
achieve social mobility.

The Untouchables
There is a fifth major class in Hinduism, but it is considered
so low that it doesn't even qualify as a varna. Most people
call it the "UNTOUCHABLE" class because its members are
forbidden to touch anyone who belongs to one of the four
varnas. If a Brahmin priest touches an untouchable, he or
she must go through a ritual in which the pollution is washed

The caste system is not

described in the Hindu
scripture. The system was
originally devised to create
an understandable division
of labor and identify
different groups of people.

Untouchables do all the most unpleasant work in South Asia.

They are forced to live on the outskirts of towns and villages,
and they must take water downstream from and not share
wells with varna Hindus.
Many Hindus in the past believed that untouchables
deserved this treatment — a treatment that is in many ways
even harsher than that inflicted on African Americans before
the Civil Rights Movement. Hindus think that a person is born
to this class because of bad karma he or she earned in a
pervious life.

Creating a better life for Nepal’s lowest caste

Graduate student Bishnu Pariyar is changing a 2,000-year-old caste
system one woman at a time
By Colleen Mullaney Photo by Rob Carlin
Bishnu Maya Pariyar, a graduate student in Clark’s International
Development, Community and Environment Program, stands approximately
five feet tall. To the Dalit people, the lowest caste in Nepal, she is a giant.
Pariyar has defied a more than 2,000-year-old caste system by becoming an
educated Dalit woman. She is going even further, breaking down the rigid
Hindu caste system of Nepal by empowering other Dalit women through
education and micro-finance groups.
Pariyar’s story begins in the remote village of Taklung located in the Gorkha
Province of Western Nepal. One of 11 children of subsistence farmers, her
family lives under a caste system, a strict hereditary social class system in
Hinduism that restricts people’s occupations as well as their association with
people from other castes. Pariyar and her family are members of the Dalit
and the sub-caste, Damai. They are in charge of sewing and repairing
clothing for approximately 90 to 120 upper-caste families, or bistas, with
compensation of one basket of corn per year. They are also bound to perform
traditional music at any ceremonies their bistas may have. This can occur
several times per week, with no compensation and relentless abuse and
Dreaming of a better life By age 10, Pariyar had already witnessed caste
discrimination by seeing her father humiliated in front of his children and
listening to her neighbor being beaten by her husband. Pariyar knew that she
herself could be that woman in a few years. Even worse was the widespread
acceptance of this as God’s will unto them, “the untouchables.” But for
Pariyar, it was unacceptable.
“I would always hear the crisis next door and say to myself, ‘Why doesn’t
she stand up for herself and her children? Why does she not say anything?’”
Pariyar recalls. “Then I realized that if she had independence she could take
care of her children and herself. If there were laws against this, she could go
to the police, but there are none. There isn’t even any solidarity between the
women because they are not allowed to talk to each other. I always wanted
to do something about it but it was only my dream.”
She collected stray rice and millet grains left after the harvest to save money
for the education her father could not provide. Pariyar earned enough to
attend a secondary school two hours away by foot, over the mountainside of
Western Nepal.
Tormented by students and teachers, unable to drink from the same vessel as
her high-caste classmates and unwilling to experience the further humiliation
of purifying a vessel touched by her sub-human lips, she spent her days
thirsty, tired and abused, but not defeated. Still required to help tend to the
chores, Pariyar studied while she took animals to pasture. She was the first
girl in her community, of any caste, to graduate from high school. Pariyar
attended Tribuvan University in Katmandu on a scholarship from the
Himalayan Foundation and earned a degree in social work.
The dream becomes reality Pariyar then worked for the Self Help
Development Program, a nonprofit organization created to assist women and
children through business and loan programs. After two years of fighting
with her director to lend to Dalits, she conceded that this program would
never do so. She quit her position, but did not give up.
“They were not helping the poorest-of-the-poor people,” Pariyar says. “I
could not help crying every day and this opened my eyes. I said ‘Why don’t
I establish my own program to help these people?’”
Pariyar decided to bring her business plan to three American women who, in
turn, gave her the seed money to start a micro-financing group for Dalit
women. She taught women literacy and basic math skills, then gave them
loans to start businesses of their own. She started two more groups, leaving
the newly empowered women in charge of their new business ventures. They
grew into fully self-reliant, women-led financial organizations with the
purpose of educating other Dalit women and men while building their
common fund. They inspired many others to become a part of this
organization, which was quickly spreading a sense of pride and
commitment. So began the Association of Dalit Women of Nepal, now
called Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON).
Impressed by the changes that EDWON brought to Pariyar’s village in
Ghorka, an American, Eva Kasell, offered Pariyar sponsorship to attend
college in the United States. Pariyar earned a bachelor’s degree in political
science at Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. She is currently
earning her master’s degree in international development and social change
at Clark.
Returning to Nepal Pariyar remains committed to the now 1,500 women she
has helped in Nepal. More than 700 children have been awarded
scholarships to secondary school. One village was able to purchase its own
water tap and build a temple where people of all castes worship together.
They now drink from the same vessels—regardless of caste—and they
openly confide in one another. Domestic violence has dramatically
decreased in villages where these groups have been formed.
After graduating from Clark, Pariyar plans to go back to Nepal. Pariyar feels
that she will be most useful working hand-in-hand with her compatriots at
the grassroots level—not just talking about change, but teaching others how
to implement it. She hopes to apply what she’s learned at Clark to the
problems in Nepal.
“I have learned so much from other students and teachers, all of whom have
been to other third-world countries,” Pariyar says.
She feels that she has been able to educate her classmates and professors at
Clark about the caste system and the plight of the Dalit people, and says she
is grateful for the accepting and socially conscious learning environment
Clark provides. She knows that she could live a comfortable life in the
United States, but her conscience is her guide. She knows it will lead her
back to Nepal.
For more information about EDWON, visit the Web site
Folk Music in the Caste System of Nepal
Felix Hoerburger
Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 2, 1970 (1970), pp.
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