When People of Nepal, by Dor Bahadur Bista, was first published in 1967, it was the first relatively comprehensive view of the vast array of Nepali cultures, castes and ethnic groups, with descriptions of some of their customs. Since then the book has come out in many editions, but remains a standard against which more recent and more in- depth discussions are held.
Dor Bahadur Bista is considered to have been the pioneering indigenous anthropologist of Nepal , His writing brought his country’s diverse cultural patterns into focus, and forced an acceptance of their legitimacy as parts of the rich mosaic that defines Nepal. People of Nepal is and indispensable handbook for all students and scholars of Nepali life and culture, and all who work in development field in Nepal. The quality of scholarship and objectivity maintained by the author is free of value judgments. Thus they enhance the credibility of the book.
Dor Bahadur Bista conducted research all across Nepal, among numerous communities for many years before he began writing this book. Because of his vast field experience and intimate knowledge of his country and its cultures, he was able to give us both a feel for the nation and for the diversity of its people. Professor Bista studied anthropology at the University of London, the University of Wisconsin and Columbia University of Wisconsin and Columbia University in the USA.
When, after 1950, Nepal changed her policy of isolation and began to take a modern and realistic attitude toward the world at large, she opened her doors wide for all sorts of people, aid missions, and expeditions from outside. Only a very few outsiders had been admitted until then. Now, however, in this modern era Europeans, Americans, and others have poured into Nepal, the 'Land of Mystery', hitherto almost unknown to the world. Some have come with offers to help, develop and modernize Nepal. Some have come with purely scholarly interests of revealing the mysteries of life among the Nepali people, some with mere curiosity or for climbing the snow peals of the Himalaya.
Many people around the world wanted to know about Nepal and her people. But more important for Nepal - many Nepali people themselves become eager to know about the world, and above all, about their own country.
Nepal had been closed not only to the outside, but there was no incentive or encouragement even for the Nepalis themselves to travel inside the country. Because of the difficult terrain in the hills, the deadly malarious conditions in the plains, and the complete absence of any means of efficient transportation or communication, people in different parts of the country remained very much confined to their areas and relatively ignorant of the rest of the country. No one, except for a very few government officials, had ever traveled over the country. It was, therefore, with great enthusiasm, and pleasure that I took the opportunity to visit and study the Sherpa people of eastern Nepal in early 1957 in the company of Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, Professor of Asian Anthropology at the University of London. I traveled and worked with him among the Sherpas and gained some knowledge of the Raisand Limbus as well, when we visited their areas on our way to Darjeeling, in neighboring West Bengal.
When Professor von Furer-Haimendorf studied the Gurungs in the west and the Chhetris of Kathmandu Valley, I also accompanied him; and by 1962 I had visited the Thakalis and various border people in Mustang and Dolpo with him.
I am very much indebted to Professor von Furer-Haimendorf for training in the field as well as in his classroom at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where I was a student of cultural anthropology. He has also read the manuscript and given invaluable suggestions.
Despite my growing field experience and knowledge of many groups of Nepali people, this book would never have come to fruition without the plan, inspiration and financial assistance for extended field visit provided by the Department of Publicity and Mr. Kul Sekhar Sharma, Chief Secretary of His Majesty's Government, under whom the Department of Publicity was administered until 1964. I am extremely grateful to Mr. Sharma and to the Department of Publicity, His Majesty's Government of Nepal.
Many thanks are due to Mr. Donald A. Messerschmidt, formar Peace Corps Volunteer now residing in Kathmandu, who took considerable interest and relentless trouble to correct technicalities and helped bring the book into proper shape. Mr. Messerschmidt assisted in the typing of many sections, with the glossary, bibliography and the photography. Reudi and Regina Bossarts of Switzerland are to be thanked for their help in typing.
Others who read the manuscript in various forms and who gave considerable assistance in criticism and suggestion include Leo E. Rose, Director, Himalayan Border Countries Project, School of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley; Mrs. Frances Wilde of England; Thomas B. Smith, former Peace Corps Volunteer; Lionel Caplan and Charles McDougal, both of the University of London; and Boyd Michailovsky, American Peace Corps Volunteer. To all of them I am sincerely indebted.
I owe a deep sense of gratefulness to Mr. John C. Cool, a personal friend and Deputy Director of the United States AID mission to Nepal, who provided many facilities and encouragement and assisted in countless ways toward the ultimate completion of the book.
There are many others, foreign and Nepali, whose names are not mentioned but who offered advice, encouragement, suggestions and willing help. My thanks to all of them, but especially to those Nepalis in outlying villages and towns who were invaluable sources of information and hospitality during my wanderings. Those times were fruitful and their memories pleasant.
It is very gratifying to have one's own effort recognized and appreciated. The fact that the two thousand copies printed less than three years ago were in short supply within two years, with a pressing demand for more, was an indication of the growing interest in the subject. So it is with very great pleasure that I introduce this second and revised edition to interested readers in Nepal and abroad. I have taken the opportunity to update the population figures and bibliography and to correct 'some errors that had crept into the first edition. I have also tried to integrate some necessary changes both in facts and in their interpretations as suggested by sympathetic readers and critics. I also took the liberty of splitting a chapter on a group of Terai people called Rajbansi, Bodo, Dhimal and Satar into three separate chapters. A small group of people known as the Dhangars have been introduced for the first time. Aside from these minimum and very necessary changes, I have decided to leave the bulk of the text as it is inspite of some sincere suggestions for drastic changes from some of my best friends. For this I have to beg for their indulgence with the excuse that there is no single approach I could find that would satisfy everybody with regard to the alleged discrepancies or the irregularities in size, arrangement and division of different chapters. It was not feasible for me to obtain the same amount of information on each group within the time available, and I thought it would be unfair to waste some of the data I had for the sake of uniformity. So I decided to put down whatever useful information I had for immediate use until more detailed information on all the people was available.
The division of the three main groups, the Himalayan, the Middle Hills and the Valley, and the Terai people, has been equally arbitrary. Because of the increasing mobility of different groups of people across geographic boundaries the regional divisions indicate only the stereotypes, as indeed do many of the customs and cultural phenomena I have discussed in the following chapters. For the same reason I have resisted the temptation to include an ethnographic map. The dynamics of group integration into a paramount national life have been outlined in the concluding chapter.
I have been equally lucky to receive encouragement and practical help from a number of friends for this edition as I was in the first. James F. Fisher was very helpful in editing the entire text and improving and updating the chapter on Magars as he was fresh back in Kathmandu from his field study of Magars in Dolpo. I am extremely grateful to him, to Boyd Michailovsky for the help in correcting the grammar, to Rebecca Monette of the Summer Institute of Linguistics for proof reading and to Uttam Kunwar for making all the former issues of Roop Rekha available for my use. My brother Khem Bahadur assisted in preparing the expanded bibliography, my son Hikmat in preparation of index and final arrangements at the press. Thanks are due to all of them and to my wife for her endurance and patience in bearing the entire responsibility of the family during all these years of research and study that I had to do away from my family. Her assistance in many ways while I was engaged in writing were equally important.
I must thank my friend Dr. Harka Bahadur Gurung, Honourable member of the National Planning Commission, for constantly inspiring me to bring out the second edition and for a number of his suggestions for revision of the book.
My special thanks are due to Mr. Swayambhu Lal Shrestha for his sympathetic criticism and for letting me consult his text of unpublished criticism of the previous edition of the book.
In conclusion, I would fail myself if I did not express grateful thanks to all the enthusiastic friends and readers without whose constant urging this edition would have been delayed for quite some time.
The Kingdom of Nepal lies in South Asia between the east meridians of 80°4' and 88°12' and the north parallels of 26°22' and 30°27'. Nepal is bordered by India on the west, south and to the east, and by Tibet region of the People's Republic of China in the north. Its area is 54,718 square miles, and the present population is 2,27,36,934. * Nepal embraces a part of the main Himalaya range in the north including Mount Everest (29,028 feet), the highest mountain in the world, and also a part of the Gangetic plain in the south.
Geographically the country can be divided into four major regions:
(1) the Himalayan highlands with snow mountains and glacial valleys;
(2) the lower Himalayan ranges with their green forest and long slopes leading to fertile valleys, such as Kathmandu, Pokhara, Surkhet and several smaller ones;
(3) the forest areas of the inner Terai, the low river valleys and the foot hills of the Churiya, Siva-Lekh range - all of them with a very hot climate;
(4) the flat and fertile land of the Terai, the north edge of the Gangetic plain.
With a few exceptions the great majority of the Nepali people live in well defined, specific geographic regions. The Tibetan speaking Mongoloid people live in the high Himalayan regions of the north, with an alpine climate at altitudes of between 8,000 and 16,000 feet.
Immediately south of the Himalaya are attractive mountain valleys. This region is inhabited by various Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speaking hill and valley people. Its altitude is between 3,500 and 7,000 feet above sea level. The climate is cool-temperate to warm-temperate. Fifty percent of the people live here.
To the south of this region the stretch of land which consists of the low river valleys and unhealthy forest belts is inhabited by various indigenous people whose origins and affinities are quite obscure. Here, as is the case in the high Himalaya, there are fewer inhabitable areas than in the middle ranges. Also lacking is the charm of the mountain surroundings at higher altitudes. The altitude is 1,000 to 2,500 feet above sea level.
The fourth and most economically important geographical region is populated by various Indo-Aryan language speaking Mediterranean type people and some indigenous people such as the Tharus, Dhimal, Satar, Koche, Musahar, Meche and Dhangars. This is agriculturally the most productive of all the regions and is therefore usually called the granary of Nepal. More than fifty percent of the people live in this region, which is thirty to fifty miles wide and five hundred miles long. The land is rich in production of rice, corn, wheat, sugarcane, tobacco, jute, pulses, mustard and a variety of forest products. The climate is tropical savanna with a summer monsoon.
The people living near the borders of the north and south have easy access to the neighbouring countries for trade and social intercourse. Both of these border areas are within the sphere of influence of the respective neighbouring countries in matters of race, religion, language, culture and economy, whereas the middle regions are far removed and isolated from such outside influence and foreign culture. For this reason the middle hill people have always been stern nationalists. The Nepali language, which is the national language, is widely spoken and understood in this middle region. Likewise, the energetic middle hill people make some of the best soldiers in the world. They are sought by the British, Indian and Royal Nepal armies. A majority of the country's administrative officers come from this region. Any knowledge that the outside world - beyond India and Tibet - had about Nepal was about these people. This was partly because of the Gurkha soldiers and partly because the court of Nepal and other offices in Kathmandu have been, by tradition, predominantly staffed by these people.
Owing to the lack of communication between different groups, each remained in its traditional area, isolated from other groups until quite recently. Every single group spoke a different language or dialect, developed its own marriage and social rules, and became ethnocentric in almost every respect. There was no feeling of being one nationality, one nation.
The only mobility that can be traced within the country until modern times is a very slow and restrained migration of the middle range people, and this almost always from the west to the east along the mountains and from the mountain ranges south to the Terai.
When Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the smaller warring principalities and brought them together to form one united Nepal during the middle of the 18th century, he felt impelled to say that his hard earned country was a garden for all types of people. Certainly, Nepal was united politically; but much yet remained to be done to unite it socially, culturally and economically. The situation at that time was not propitious for extending relations with the outside world. The giant empires were a matter of serious concern for the freedom-loving people of Nepal. So the subsequent governments of Nepal felt that they had no choice than to shut themselves in completely and close the borders. The isolation was complete with the result that the country remained one of the most primitive and backward in the world. The art and culture that flourished in medieval Nepal was confined and frozen for a century and a half. For this long period the. technology of Europe, America and Japan was absolutely forbidden. It was only after the close of World War II, when the world situation had changed, that Nepal was able to uncoil herself, open her borders and establish relations with the outside world.
A new legal code guarantees equality to all the people in the eyes of the law. Much effort is being put into the construction of not only an east-west highway, but also a number of other internal roads, airline routes, telecommunication links and postal services throughout the country. Suitable educational institutions are being provided for all the people. All is helping to encourage change of attitudes, inter-community marriages and cultural exchanges to fully unite the nation. Then the accounts I have given in the following chapters concerning the peculiarities of the different groups will be only a record of the past, although I have used the present tense in describing life as it is today. In some cases changes are coming more rapidly than I could have imagined when researching and writing this book.
Some writers in the past have quite unjustly placed the people of Nepal on their own theoretical social ladder. In this regard the past governments of Nepal misled them by creating an unnatural vertical social ladder, framing the legal code accordingly. People with so many different origins and cultural backgrounds cannot possibly be arranged into strict social frameworks. However, the values of the Hindu caste system tend to pervade the entire Nepali situation. As a result, people outside the caste system - i.e. Gurungs, Magars, Rais, Limbus, Tharus, etc. - are tempted to rank themselves within the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy, seeking a relatively high position either equal to or just beneath that of the Chhetris, who are ranked second in the caste hierarchy.
The present monograph is an attempt to record some of the existing interesting differences, and similarities, among various groups of people. But I do not claim, by any means, to have done this job completely. To visit so many different groups of people personally and to study them within a very short time was not an easy job. Although there are a few books that are useful, I have found it necessary to visit all these people personally to be able to understand them better. But since I could not spend enough time among each group, there are some people whom I know less well than others. I studied some ethnic groups several years ago, while with others I have been working until quite recently. Some societies are changing very quickly, and complete accuracy is difficult.
There are some groups of whom I have been able to give only brief descriptions because of my limited knowledge. I feel, therefore, that even after the appearance of this book the remarks of Professor Tucci, the famous Tibetologist and one of the authorities in Nepali history and religion, that "the ethnographical study of Nepal, despite the many researches undertaken, is still one of the most complex in the world,"* will remain as true as ever. It will take many years of continued research in this field before anyone can claim to have comprehensive information about all the people of Nepal.
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