Know Nepal: Caste, Ethnicity, Religion and Languages
Hinduism specifies four clean castes: Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (rulers and warriors), Vaisya (merchants) and Shudra (Dalits or peasants). Chhetri comprise 15.8 per cent and the Bahun 12.7 per cent of the total population. These four varnas are found in the Terai but in the Hills there are Bahun, Chhetri and Dalits, but not the Vaisya. Social hierarchy, and purity and pollution of castes and foods characterize varna and caste systems. These Hindu castes had migrated to Nepal after 11th century due to Muslim invasion of northern India.
Some peoples argue that the use of the term Dalit will never ever help to abolish caste-based untouchability. (Literally, ‘Dalit’ translates to ‘suppressed’ in Nepali.) They have defined the term ‘Dalit” to refer to those Hindu castes who have been placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy as Sudra and treated as untouchables by “upper castes.” There are suggestions that the Dalit term should not be used because it not only breeds inferiority but also it is insulting.
A total of 61 Adibasi Janajatis have been recognised by the Nepal Government, 5 are from the mountain regions, 20 from the Hills, 7 from inner Terai and 11 from the Terai region. A Janajati is a community who has its own mother tongue and traditional culture and yet does not fall under the conventional fourfold Varna of the Hindu system or the Hindu hierarchical caste structure. Many of these ethnic groups are Hinduized to some degree, although Hindu practices supplement rather than replace more ancient beliefs and practices. Unlike Hindu’s many indigenous nationalities of Nepal have a culture of eating beef,
Different indigenous nationalities are in different stages of development. Some indigenous nationalities are nomads, e.g. Raute, and some are forest dwellers, e.g. Chepang and Bankaria. Most of the indigenous nationalities rely on agriculture and pastoralism and very few are cosmopolitan, e.g. Newar.
Politically part of Nepal is essentially an extension of India in other respects. In Nepal, Madesh refers to India, so Outer Terai inhabitants are collectively known as “Madesi”. The majority of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture is indeed of the Shudra caste. Brahmans and Kshatriya are present, but only as a small percentage of the population. A wide range of untouchable service castes are found, including Chamar (sweepers) who are supposed to remove filth and dead animals.
As in India, there is a multiplicity of ethnic groups that have given rise to sub-castes within the main four that are usually endogamous (marrying within) and retaining distinct cultural features. India’s mild climate, agricultural abundance and technological sophistication have always made the country an attractive target for invasion. Newcomers eventually negotiate or are assigned their own sub-caste that retains much of their original culture as well as conforming to rules that go with being one of the four clean castes or untouchable. Non-Hindus are outside the caste system. Muslims make up about 10% of India’s population and there is a significant Muslim population in the western third of the country.
Even high-caste individuals from the Terai are largely excluded from the power structure of Kathmandu, which is dominated by hill peoples and Newars instead. This has given rise to a “Madesi” protest movement seeking greater participation or greater regional autonomy.
Northern India‘s lingua franca Hindi is widely spoken and understood throughout the Outer Terai. Much of the formal grammar and vocabulary of modern Nepali as it is taught in school seems to be borrowed from Hindi, so it is an easy language for Nepali speakers to pick up. Hill people often slip into it for communication with Madesis and even with europeans. More local Terai dialects are Awadhi in the west which is also widespread in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, Bhojpuri in the center which is also widespread in Bihar state, and Maithili further east, which derives from the ancient Mithla kingdom that was centered on the vast alluvial fan of the Kosi between its exit from the hills and the Ganges River.
Because of seasonal drought due to permeable upland soils and endemic malaria where finer sediments force groundwater to the surface, the Siwalik ranges are lightly populated by indigenous tribes following pastoral or hunting-and-gathering ways of life.
The Siwaliks enclose Inner Terai valleys that were also malarial before suppression with DDT, but with considerably more agricultural potential. Then they were mainly populated by Tharu who practiced a mix of shifting agriculture and hunting-gathering, since malaria limited population densities. Tharus are an enigma because their slender build, dark pigmentation and facial features are unlike both the mongoloid peoples of the hills, the indo-european Khas moving eastward through the hills, and invaders from the plains who generally originated in Central Asia. If they are aboriginal inhabitants, it would explain their ability to survive in a malarial zone. Yet their language Tharuhati is indo-european with no recognized traces of anything preceeding the indo-european incursions. Tharu are considered a janajati group somewhat outside the caste system. Traditional foods include pork and chicken as well as fish from rivers flowing through their native valleys. They live communally in large houses which are decorated with traditional motifs. Religious practices include recitals of the Ramayan epic called Badha Nach (‘great dance’).
The census of 2001 has listed 8 religions—Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, Kiranti, Christian, Jain, Sikh and Bahai. In addition, are animism or Bon are still practiced. Hindu comprises 80.6% and other religions are 19.4%.
Excerpted from http://wikitravel.org/en/Nepal