The decaying decadence of Nepal’s caste system

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ November 5th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Discover World Culture » Nepal.
Old lady from Bhaktapur

The caste system in Nepal can mean you will be no more than what you were born into: for better or worse

The Nepalese caste system is alive & active even if it doesn’t officially exist

Today there is still a very active caste system in Nepal. Primarily associated with India, caste systems in one form or another are evident the world over. The difference with Nepal is that the ideals behind the caste system were made illegal in 1962.

After a decade long civil war, a fallen monarchy, a fledgling democracy which still hasn’t been able to form a legal constitution since 2005 and a disastrous fractured political system Nepal’s caste system continues to influence everyday life in Nepal.

What is a caste system?

The global definition of the caste system surrounds a classification of several hereditary groups of hierarchical social class. However given the global nature of the ”caste system” it has in part become fragmented into slightly different meanings depending on the culture it’s embedded into. Thus making is a complex system that can combine many elements from birth right, ethnicity, occupation, power and financial acumen.

Layman’s understanding of the caste system

Depending on your families hereditary line including their wealth, power, influence, occupation, ethnicity, education and name you will be placed into a group within society that will determine your future job, income, education, lifestyle, social standing and influence including that of your offspring.

Social structure of the caste system in Nepal today

Based on words from Prithvi Narayan (founder of the Shah dynasty) there are 4 Varnas (main groups) and 36 castes in Nepal. Influenced by Hindu caste systems and originating from Indo-Aryans. Mix all that with 103 distinct groups speaking 92 languages and it becomes vastly complicated in Nepal which unfortunately in turn gives power to certain influential people today.

Street vendor in a crowd - Kathmandu Nepal

Nepal is culturally diverse – the caste system makes it even more so

However the basics of it are as follows.

The four Varnas in Nepal:

  1. Brahmin – traditionally priests, scholars and educators
  2. Kshatriya - soldiers, governors and kings
  3. Vaishya - merchants, farmers, cattle-herders and artisans
  4. Sudra - laborers, artisans and service providers.

There are then 36 castes within Nepal. Including the Dalits or “the untouchables” or in Newari “from whom water cannot be taken” - one should never touch someone of the lowest caste after all.

The irony here is that within the Dalit are Dhobis who wash clothes with their hands that the higher castes will then wear.

Many people’s “caste” can be identified by their surname. eg. Mr. Madu Bhusal can be identified by his surname as being a Brahmin.

Making the Nepalese caste system complicated

None of this is simple to “class” or understand though as there is a lack of clarity on the “definition of Dalit” for example which obviously means diversity in data. And that’s just on one caste!

Day to day reality of the caste discrimination in Nepal today

Technically ones caste shouldn’t have any influence on your standing in Nepal today. People of any “caste” or religion or ethnicity etc can attend any school or apply for any job etc. The problem is the reality on the ground tells a different story as discrimination and appraisals are often still based on caste. Even if such inference is not openly admitted.

A 1991 census reported 96,977 persons having educational attainment of graduate and above level. Of these, only 3,034 or 3.1 %  belonged to Dalit castes. Dalit make up for 20% of the population (source).

Whenever I mention I’ve made a new Nepalese friend in an ethnically diverse Nepalese population like the one in Kathmandu another longer term friend will ask what the new friends name is. Based on the surname alone my older friend will know my new friends caste and status. If it’s a conflicting caste to theirs there’s often a follow-up frown or nod of approval.

Younger Nepalese are not so quick to judge though.

Things will and are changing as they do for many things based on the moving of generations through societies pivotal roles.

There are also several organisations within castes that try to help those facing discrimination due to caste.

Sanskritization has also taken place where by some Dalits have taken the customs and traditions of higher castes on as their own. And in doing so have move up in caste themselves.

Positivity within the caste system in Nepal

While many may read the above and wonder why anyone would want a caste system you might be surprised to learn that many people actually feel comfortable with it. Or at least have become so comfortable with it that they are used to it.

Take a Mr. Ranpal a Nepalese rice farmer of the Vaishya varna or caste. He grows and sells rice for the markets as have his family for as long as they can remember. They are known and respected for what they do within the caste system. Mr. Ranpal may be called upon by someone from a Brahmin or Kshatriya caste to provide crops for their business.

Mr Ranpal knows where he stands in Nepalese society. Even without work he will never be asked to sweep a road, clean a toilet, or bake bricks. He will be asked to farm. With little education other than tilling the land for centuries Mr. Ranpal is a respected man of knowledge. He has security and pride in being Vaishya. If any wrong is ever done to him there are several groups that represent his caste who will protect him.

Young mother and baby in Kathmandu Nepal

How to get ahead in Nepal: it’s not just who you know, but what caste you were born into

If a merchant he is supplying rice to refuses to pay him then other members of Mr Rampal’s caste may refuse to supply the merchant with rice. So the merchant will have nothing to sell. That is until he pays Mr Ranpal what he is owed.

For some belonging to caste is much like a workers union. There is strength in numbers so long as you know your role.

Negative impact of the caste system in Nepal

Traditionally within the caste system Mr Ranpal and other of “lower” castes would never have been able to do things people of a higher caste could do.The Dalit caste were not allowed from entering certain temples, enrolling children in schools, attend certain festivals, walk on the same road as a member of higher caste, court or even look at a woman of a higher caste.

Breaking such caste dictates would result in punishment by death, fines, removal from their caste (demotion), or imprisonment.

Today such punishments are illegal by way of legislation. However if you think about how this has been instilled into people for generations and the lack of nationwide education in Nepal today. You might guess correctly that the caste system is still in place.

Think about the generations of wealth Kshatriya or Brahmins have built up over the centuries. Much like in western societies where they say “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” holds true in Nepal as it maintains the inherited ghosts of a caste system.

The caste system in Nepal may no longer technically exist but in its place is a very real “caste culture”

The caste culture in Nepal is choking it from progress

During my time in Nepal I’ve got to know quite a few local people of different castes. Some of my friends still shock me when I want to invite a laborer over to our dinner table rather than see him sit alone.

I’ve often been told “he’s just a builder”. Or they mention his tribe or caste. The laborer is often times highly embarrassed and I nearly have to force them to sit at our table.

He worked for you today. We are eating. Let us eat together.

A friend told me later that night that I’d insulted one the men at the table by letting a laborer sit with us.

“It’s just not done.” 

With attitudes and beliefs like that is it no wonder that Nepal’s politicians never seen to change. There’s a caste system in place there too. It’s always the same old people under the revolving door of different party names. None of whom can even form a constitution.

The future of the Nepalese caste system

I wrote previously about Doing business in Nepal and how one of the first steps was to find a gatekeeper. Gatekeepers are usually of a lower caste.  The benefit here is that a lower caste person can talk to another so that higher caste people (decision makers) can meet. It’s simply faster that way. It also sounds vaguely similar to other societies …

The problem is when a cleaner wants her children to have a better life. No matter their education, intellect or even financial well-being:

The people of a higher caste and an older generation don’t want to let go of a system that gives them power over others.

The solution is coming in the form of the new Nepalese generations that have exposure to international media and news. Already the caste mentality is eroding into one of a western approach. Unfortunately that’s often one that revolves around a social hierarchy based on wealth. But at least one has a better chance at breaking out of poverty than being forced into it by caste.

What remains now that the Nepalese caste system is eroding away; is the opportunity to lay the ghosts of the Nepalese caste culture to rest as well.

This is an additional feature article about the caste system in Nepal


(On a personal note: I’m expecting to go out into the mountains any day now; but waiting on some others.  During this time there might be some interruptions to journals/articles etc. I do have some some prewritten work ready for here though and hopefully some live updates so stay tuned!)


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19 Great responses to The decaying decadence of Nepal’s caste system

  1. Audrey says:

    I love your Old lady from Bhaktapur photo. Stunning!

  2. Amazing piece of work here, Dave. It’s always great to read something that shows the other side of an issue that I did not previously know about.

    • I’ve been meaning to write that for a while. Generally I don’t see most people taking a huge interest in it. But in terms of global observations it’s interesting to me in terms of documenting it. Much like the great work you’re doing in China.

      Hopefully it will be of interest to others who long-stay or go to volunteer or learn more about the cultures.

  3. Emma says:

    Very insightful piece. I never new there was this much going on in the world. Thank you.

  4. Jan says:

    Could have read this on National Geographic, fascinating! I couldn’t imagine living in a society like that.

    But as you wrote there’s something similar over here too. People do judge you on your name (Nationality) and of course job status.

  5. Stanley says:

    Dave,

    This is a terrific article – well researched and well written. It was a pleasure to read.

    Best,

    Stanley

  6. Stuart says:

    One of the most interesting reads I’ve had in a while. Strange to read about being born into a caste, interesting to read about those happy with it!

  7. Jeremy Heath says:

    As an old hat in Nepal this is one of reads I’ve come across by a traveller in some time. Well done.

  8. Amir says:

    Once every generation we see the shackles society remove from this caste way of life. It’s replaced by a society that values it’s people based on wealth alone.

  9. Mrs Neupane says:

    Interesting article, however I think you might have missed the intersections between ‘caste’ and ‘wealth’. I am married to a Nepali man (and from my name you can see he is from Brahmin caste)but he grew up in a poor family. Indeed his sisters had arranged marriages to men from Kshatriya (mainly Rana/Ranabhat) families as their Brahmin caste gave kudos and the Kshatriya families could guarantee a much more comfortable life. There are at least as many poor Brahmins as there are rich in Nepal, the same goes for many of the castes & ethnic groups. I do see more of a willingness for Nepalis to have a mixed marriage with a foreigner than with a different ethnic groups within Nepal, which is odd but apparent.

    In Nepal it’s never as simple as Brahmin = rich. The nearest analogy I can think of are the marriages and relationships formed out of the ‘new money’ of USA with the poor but aristocratic families of Europe that took place in the late 19th & early 20th century. Many poorer Brahmin & Kshatriya families will encourage marriages with a rich, but ‘lower caste’ family

    It’s encouraging to see many Nepali friends who basically don’t give a damn about ‘caste’ and I am optimistic. In centuries past English surnames were a kind of caste system but they still give a clue as to a family’s origins (eg, Prime Minister ‘Thatcher’). But until Rai marries Sharma and Pun marries K.C. Nepal will always have a meaningful system of discrimination – I hope the youngest generation there will show the way.

  10. Agnes says:

    While reading your article I was wondering about some things. As a foreigner are you allowed to make relationship and friendship with people of all the castes? If I understood it correctly it is ok as far as you don’t attend to force people of two different castes to each other.

    Does this system still have an impact on marriages? Is it possible for a couple from different castes to get married? And what about foreigners? I’ve read your other article about living in Nepal so I know that it is possible/allowed to get married to a foreigner, but I still don’t understand whether they have to be aware of the casts?

    Thank you for your answers!

    • Yes as a foreigner you are allowed to have a relationship or friendship with any caste. As a Nepali technically and legally this is also true. In practice however, especially among the older generations or those who still believe in the caste system, it’s more difficult. Especially a higher caste marrying a lower caste. As this would be seen as bringing shame on a family.

      Again technically and legally there’s no law preventing different castes from getting married. In reality it’s not that often you would see a lower caste man marrying a higher caste woman.

      As there’s no law that prevents who you marry yes a foreigner can marry someone from any caste. In a strange way if a foreigner married someone from a lower caste it would probably elevate them somewhat in the caste hierarchy. So long as the foreigner had money, influence etc.

      I hope I answered your questions!

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