Caste system in Nepal

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The Nepalese caste system is complex and continues the traditional system of social stratification of Nepal. The caste system defines social classes by a number of hierarchical endogamous groups often termed as Jāt. This custom was previously only prevalent in the core Hindu societies of the Khas, Newar, Madhesi. However, since the unification of Nepal in the 18th century, Nepal's various indigenous tribes have been incorporated within the caste hierarchy level. Nepalese caste system broadly borrows the classical Hindu chaturvarnashram model consisting of four broad social classes or varna: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. The ethnic indigenous groups do not belong to this class system.

History of the caste system in Nepal[edit]

The Nepali civil code Muluki Ain (1854) was written by Jang Bahadur Rana after his European tour. It codified social codes in practice for several centuries in Nepal that was rooted in Vyavahāra (traditional Hindu legal procedure), Prāyaścitta (avoidance and removal of sin) and Ācāra (the customary law of different castes and communities). These three are collectively called Dharmaśāstra. A traditional Hindu king was duty-bound to put these precepts into practice.

Hierarchies of Major Caste/Ethnic Groups in Nepal according to Muluki Ain (1854):

Caste Division Caste and Ethnic Groups
"Namasinya Matwali" (Non-enslavable Alcohol Drinkers) Magar, Gurung, Sunuwar, Rai, Limbu, various Newar castes.
"Masinya Matwali" (Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers) Tamang, Chepang, Kumal, Sherpa, Hayu, Tharu, Gharti, etc.
"Tagadhari" (Wearers of the Holy Thread) Khas - Brahmin, Thakuri, Chhetri; Newar - Brahman and some Shrestha castes; Terai - Brahmin and Kshatriya castes.
"Pani Na Chalne" (Impure but touchable) Newar lower occupational castes - Jogi, Kasain, Khadgi, etc.

Muslims and Europeans.

Untouchable Khas occupational castes - Kami, Sarki, Damai, Badi, Gaine, etc.

Terai occupational castes - Dhobi, Halkhor, Chamar, Dushad, Dom, Musahars, etc.

Newar lowest occupational castes - Kulu, Pode, Chyame.

The Muluki Ain divided Nepali citizens into two castes "the caste whose water is allowed to remain pure" and "the caste whose water is defiled". Chiefs of the various castes were entrusted with sorting out issues related to their own castes.[1] The heads of Kamis (blacksmiths) and Sarkis (tanners and cobblers) were called Mijhars. Similarly the head of Damai (tailors and musicians) was called Nagarchi. Castes of the first (non-defiling) category also had their chiefs. In this way community members might not need to go to courts or government offices to settle minor legal matters. Mijhars and Nagarchis, however, added to injustice and exploitation meted out to their respective communities. They were obviously influenced by their masters' natures.[citation needed] Like their masters, they never hesitated to do injustice against their own communities. No appeal was heard against them.

From the medieval period onward, people could lose status through caste demotion. People considering themselves superior used caste as a pretext for exploitation. The lower castes were prevented from entering temples, receiving education, listening to high-caste people's teachings, worshipping, planting Bar or Pipal trees, digging ponds, and participating in fairs and festivals. Upper caste people use the things such as sewing cloths, iron pots & other instruments that were prepared by untouchable caste. Sometime, their bloods used by those upper caste people, who have unable to find same group bloods from his/her relatives. In this way, upper caste uses such things and articulated their bloods but they never eat untouchable caste touches food items and water. This problems persist also into intra-untouchable caste group. They could be exiled from the country for looking at a high-caste woman. If they encountered someone of higher caste they would have to step aside. They had to pay jadau (obeisance) to any higher caste person. They could be put to death for rebelling against caste rules. If someone from higher caste married a woman from lower caste, he was not eligible for legal intercession against jarikhat (adultery). A sacred thread-wearing or even non-thread-wearing person would need to be ritually purified if they were touched by an 'untouchable'. Two-way conversation with upper castes was banned for them. These discriminatory provisions of the civil code were based on Hindu scriptures like Parskar Grihyasutra, Gautam Sutra, Manusmṛti and Shukra Niti.[2][3] There was no provision for lower-caste participation in the economic, social, cultural and administrative spheres. They had to survive on low-paid manual work such as playing indigenous musical instruments, leather-work, practicing music, art and dance, pottery, general labor, cleaning latrines, and washing clothes. This system prevailed till by law until Muluki Ain was revised in 1962.

The present caste system derives from Shah dynasty founder Prithvi Narayan's famous saying that Nepal was a garden of four varnas and 36 castes.[4] However this is only a rough estimate for the Hill region. The Newari community and the Terai community each has more than 36 castes.

Four Varnas in Nepal[edit]


The 1st varna includes Khas people from the Brahmin varna of the Hindu varna system, mainly comprising vedic priests, scholars and educators.

This category also include Brahmins from Maithil community of southern Nepal, as well as Rajopadhyaya or Dev Brahman/Dhyo Bhaju from Newar community.

Brahman (संस्कृतम् :ब्राहमण) (Nepali: Bahun (बाहुन)) is a colloquial Khas language Brahmin (Nepali: बाहुन) caste, who are traditionally priests, educators, scholars and preachers Hinduism. By tradition—and by civil law until 1962—they represented the highest of the four Hindu varna or castes.


Brahmins (also Brahmans) have historically been a caste (one of the four varṇas, according to The varnarasram system वर्णराश्रम पद्धति) in Nepal. The Brahmin castes may be broadly divided into two regional groups: Pancha-Gauda Brahmins and Pancha-Dravida Brahmins as per the shloka, however this shloka is from Rajatarangini of Kalhana which was composed only in 11th CE and many communities find their traces from sages mentioned in much older Vedas and puranas.

कर्णाटकाश्च तैलंगा द्राविडा महाराष्ट्रकाः,
गुर्जराश्चेति पञ्चैव द्राविडा विन्ध्यदक्षिणे

सारस्वताः कान्यकुब्जा गौडा उत्कलमैथिलाः,
पन्चगौडा इति ख्याता विन्ध्स्योत्तरवासि

Excluding the indigenous janajati ethnic groups Sunuwar, Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Sherpa, Newar, Mananggay, Mustang-gi, Thakali, Dolpo, Walungi and similar ethnic groups comprise over 50% of the population of the Middle Hills, the Khas Bahun represent 31% of the Hindu population while the second-ranked Khas Chhetri or Kshatriya and Thakuri castes who were traditionally rulers and soldiers make up another 42%. This leaves only 27% engaged in occupational castes such as blacksmiths, tailors/musicians, tanners/cobblers, potters, sweepers and goldsmiths. This top-heavy social structure contrasts strongly with that of Nepal's Terai plains and the adjacent territories of northern India.

The Brahman community is the major chunk of the community of Nepal. They moved eastward along Xinxiang province of China, the Western Tibet, the himalayan foothills from Kashmir and Kumao/Garwal. They settled first in the Karnali River basin, then the Gandaki. finally the Kosi basin as well as into Sikkim and Bhutan

Family names of the Brahmin[edit]

  • A अ - Acharya (आचार्य), Arjel (अर्जेल)/Arjyal (अर्ज्याल)/Aryal (अर्याल), Awasthi(अवस्थी), Adhikari(अधिकारी)
  • Ā आ - Atreya (आत्रेय), Arya(आर्या)
  • B ब - Banskota (बास्कोटा), Bidari, Baral
  • Be बे - Belbase (बेलबासे)
  • Bh भ - Bhatta (भट्ट), Bhattarai (भट्टराई), Bhusal (भुसाल), Bhurtel (भुर्तेल), Bhandari
  • Ch च - Chalise (चालिसे), Chapagain (चापगाईँ), Chamlagain (चम्लगाँई )
  • D द - Dawadi (दवाडी), Dahal (दाहाल),Devkota (देवकोटा), Dev (देव)
  • Dh ढ - Dhakal (ढकाल), Dhungel (ढुंगेल)
  • G ग - Gaudel (गौडेल), Gautam (गौतम), Guragain/Gurangain (गुरागाईँ), Gyanwali (ज्ञवाली), Gaire (गैरे)
  • Gh घ - Ghimire (घिमिरे)
  • H ह - Humagai (हुमागाई)
  • J - Joshi(जोशी), Jha
  • K क - Kafle (कफ्ले/काफ्ले), Koirala (कोइराला)
  • Kh ख - Khanal (खनाल), Khatiwada (खतिवडा), Khakurel (खकुरेल)
  • L ल- Lamsal(लम्साल), Lohani (लोहनी), Lamichhane(लामिछाने)
  • M म- Mainali(मैनाली)
  • N न- Nepal (नेपाल), Nyaupane (न्यौपाने), Neupane (नेउपाने), Niraula (निरौला)
  • P प - Parajuli(पराजुली), Pageni (पंगेनी),Pandey, Pandit (पण्डित), Pant (पन्त), Pathak (पाठक), Pokhrel/Pokharel (पोखरेल), Phuyal, Paudyal (पौड्याल)/Poudyal/Paudel (पौडेल), Pudasiani (पुडासैनी), Panthee, Paneru, Pyakuryal (प्याकुर्‍याल)
  • R र - Regmi (रेग्मी), Rijal (रिजाल), Rimal (रिमाल), Risal
  • S स - Silwal, Sapkota (सापकोटा), Subedi (सुवेदी), Sharma (शर्मा)
  • T त - Timilsina (तिमल्सेना), Tiwari (तिवारी), Tripathi (त्रिपाठी), Thatal(ठटाल)
  • U उ - Upadhyaya (उपाध्याय), Uprety (उप्रेती)
  • Y या - Yadav (यादव)
Very often, Khas Bahuns can be identified by their middle names being Dev (देव), Nath (नाथ), Mani (मणि), Raj (राज), Prasad (प्रसाद), Devi (देवी). They never use bahadur (बहादुर) as their middle names because it is associated mainly with Chhetris (Kshatriya) and "martial tribes".


The 2nd varna includes Khas-Chhetri people, mainly comprising traditional soldiers and administrators.

The 'Chathariya Shrēṣṭha' are the descendants of Malla rulers, nobles, and courtiers, considered Kshatriya equivalents of Newar community.

There are many Kshatriya castes living in the Nepalese Terai, including Rajputs, Thakur, Kayastha, etc.

Bold text===Vaishya=== The 3rd varna includes people from the Vaishya varna, mainly comprising merchants, farmers, cattle-herders and artisans.

Khas ethnicity does not have Vaishya castes.

Newar community's various Vaishya castes include hereditary commercial, mercantile, and crafts castes.

Terai community's various Vaishya castes include hereditary castes including, Halwai, Sahu, etc.


The 4th varna includes people from the Sudradamai varna, mainly labourers, artisans and service providers.

Traditional musical instruments played at weddings

The caste engaged in sewing clothing is called Suchikar (सुचिकार)or Sujikar (सुजिकार). Those who play musical instruments like damau (damaha, दमाहा), hudko, and devbaja[5] – particularly in wedding processions—are referred to as damai (दमाइ), dholi ढोली, hudke (हुड्के), nagarchi (नगर्ची) and nagdi. Originally they were called different names according to which instruments they played. Someone employed in sewing is now called darji (दर्जी), tailor, master, or tailor-master. Darji was once used only for tailors, but now it is used for all tailors as well as musicians. Similarly, damai or damahi has also undergone extension of its meaning. Initially it only meant someone who played the damaha. Now it is used for the entire caste.

Surnames Pariyar'sewa'Tikhatri',se', Nepali Darji, (some of them related to newar community like kapali,podey, halahulu,chami naye e.t.c) and others have come in vogue recently. In western Nepal, Damai came to be used only lately. As damai is considered a derogatory word in the east, so is dholi in the west. This community is distributed all over Nepal.

Community of wandering singers[edit]

Gaine playing Sarangi

There is a community known as Gaine (गाइने) or Gandharwa (गान्धर्व) who wander about Nepal singing ballads of historical bravery and gallantry, self-accompanied by a sarangi (सारङ्गी) -- a four-stringed violin-like instrument.

Gaine are also found settled in the Western and Mid-Western Regions, especially in Jumla, Kaski (Batulechaur), Syangja, Gorkha, Tanahu, Palpa, Gulmi, Rupandehi, Surkhet, Dailekh, Jajarkot, Rukum, Pyuthan, Dang and Salyan districts, as well as in Kathmandu Valley and Bhojpur in eastern Nepal.

Gaine are looked upon as untouchables, however Jhalak Man Gandarbha (1935–2003) rose to national prominence and performed regularly on Radio Nepal. Gaine sometimes use the surname Nepali. Only a limited number of other surnames sound original. Most are like surnames of Brahmins, Kshetris and Kamis, or are named after particular places.

The Caste System Today[edit]

The caste system is still intact today but the rules are not as rigid as they were in the past. Because of western education, contact with foreigners, media, and modern communications, people are progressive in many aspects. In 1962, a law was passed making it illegal to discriminate against the untouchable castes. In practice, however, discrimination still continues today.

In the past, when Brahmins and Chetris came in contact with Sudras, they used to bathe. Now, some people just sprinkle water on their body and some do not even care at all. Today, Brahmins have land, work in the field and are involved in government service. Some Baisya and Sudra caste people are teachers, high officials, and successful politicians. Previously, Brahmins were not subject to the death penalty and were instead given the same status as cows in the Hindu religion. But now, all castes are equally treated by the law. Education is free and open to all castes. Discrimination is only done socially.

The caste system has also led to a structural class divide which persists, in which lower castes/ethnicities are generally socio-economically worse off than those of higher castes/ethnicities. Recent research has also shown that when it comes to Nepali people's impressions of social change, "Poverty, Human Resources and Region" explain more of the variation than "Ethnicity, Caste or Religious belonging" - i.e. people's perception of their own social situation has more to do with geography and objective social class, than with their association with the groups that the state has based its internal social policy on.[6]

In recent times, following the overthrow of the Nepali monarchy and move towards a federal republic, ethnicity and caste have taken center stage - the indigenous peoples (adevasi janajati) who make up a third of the country having been guaranteed rights that have not yet been fulfilled. There is an observable reaction to this among certain Brahmin and Chetri groups, seeking to prevent group-based rights from becoming an important factor in the country that earlier had a political system associated with group-based discrimination. Certain outside analysts have suggested that "seeking a balance in approach requires addressing both specific indigenous historical injustices while creating a common citizenship for all marginalised citizens regardless of identity, which remains a particularly challenging issue for Nepal."[7]

Additional reading[edit]


  1. ^ Khatry, Prem "The Manjani system of the Danuwar state of the Kamala Valley: a brief study of an egalitarian judiciary", Contributions to Nepalese Studies, Vol 1, No. 1 (January, 1995), pp. 43-55.
  2. ^ Drekmeier, Charles (1962) Kingship and community in early India. (Stanford: Stanford University Press), pp. 223 ff.[1]
  3. ^
  4. ^ Hachhethu, Krishna "Nepal: Confronting Hindu identity", South Asian Journal, 2(October–December 2003), pp. .[2]
  5. ^ Damai instruments
  6. ^ Aasland, Aadne and Marit Haug: Class, Caste or Location? How Do Different People Assess Social Change In Nepal? The NIBR International Blog, 27.05.2011
  7. ^ Jones, Peris S.: Deepening Democracy: International Labour Organisation Convention 169 and Nepal's Democratic Transition The NIBR International Blog, 11.06.2011

External links[edit]