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Ethnic Groups of Nepal

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Nepali Sherpa man

The Sherpas are by far the most famous ethnic group found mostly in the northeastern reaches of Nepal. They are widely known for their friendly demeanor and impeccable mountaineering skills as leaders, porters, and guides. They live in the higher altitudes which has helped them achieve (and helped others to achieve) many mountaineering firsts like in the 1950’s a Nepali Sherpa by the name of Tenzing Norgay helped Sir Edmund Hilary reach the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest or Sagarmatha.

The Sherpa villages are usually found at elevations ranging as low as 3000 meters and can reach well over 5000 meters (which might explain the amazing ability to climb mountains). Their marriage lives are very interesting compared to western standards. Two brothers may marry one common wife, or two wives. If there are three sons in a family the middle son is automatically turned to be a celibate monk. Although four sons in one family is a rare case, it has happened before, then they may pair off in two’s and each group may marry two common wives.

Living in Nepal, but close to the Tibetan Plateau, there are many different celebrations and festivals yearly – some from the Nepali culture but many from their roots in the Tibetan culture. The two most important ones for the Sherpas are Losar, the New Years celebration at the end of February (by Tibetan calendar). The other is Dumze celebrated in the local monastery for a week during the month of July. The worship of Guru Rimpoche, Phawa Cheresi, other important deities is guided by the village lama. (To read more about Losar and Dumze, see our festivals page.)

Although they are known to be incredible mountaineers, many of them try to indulge in some agricultural activities whenever possible like raising cattle. During the cold winter months a number of this group ventures south in search of warmer climate and a place to trade homegrown spices and herbs as well as woolen blankets. This is also an ideal time for them to purchase any merchandise they might need for when they get home to use themselves or to trade.

Brahman woman carrying a basket

The Brahmans are considered to be the highest social caste. Any priest from a Hindu temple will be from the Brahman caste. They are known to be priests and teachers. There are two groups of this ethnic group – the Kumai Brahmans and the Purbiya Brahmans. The main difference between the two is their home villages.

The Kumai Brahmans are said to come from the mountain regions of Nepal in the Kumaon region in west Nepal near the border of northern India. Although no group can really be confined to live in specific areas, they mostly live in Kathmandu as well as central and western Nepal.

The Purbiya Brahmans are found scattered across Nepal but many concentrated villages are found of this group in the capital (Kathmandu) and in the eastern reaches of the country.

Joyful Nepali women

The Chhetris and Thakurisethnic groups dominate the mid hill and valley region and are considered to be second in line to the Brahmans. They are some of the most do-gooders and influential community members among the other social groups in Nepal.

You can find them in high government service positions of work such as the leaders, rulers and warriors (including but not limited to police and the army) of Nepal.

Although some of the Chhetris and Thakuris have chosen to live like other “lower” social communities in a financially poor trade as farmers.

Nepali Newar man

Making up a population of 44% in the Kathmandu Valley are the original natives of Kathmandu are the Newars. Although there is such a high percentage in the valley, this community only makes up around 5.5% of Nepal’s overall population. Even though this number is small compared to the rest of the country, this group has an important and valued influence on the Nepali society, economy as well as its politics. The Newars are famous for their cultural richness in arts, crafts, architecture, as well as medal and the very well displayed wooden carvings (found all over the valley as well as other parts of Nepal). The Newar community contributes to a significant amount of business activities and history in the country.

Although there are some books claiming that the Newar ethnic group is Buddhist, they are actually a harmonious blend of both beliefs and cultural traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. They have their own language Nepal Bhasa or Newari, which is from the Tibeto-Burman influence. There is also a Newari script called the Ranjana Lipi which has no linguistic connection to Nepali, Sanskrit, or Hindi.

Nepali woman in traditional headgear

The middle hill and valley ethnic group called Gurungs, live together in harmony with other ethnic groups like the Magars, Chettirs, and Brahmins. They have some physical features of their past Mongolian heritage. Their main living territories stretch from (but are not limited to) the Gorkha area in the east across Lamjung and Manang districts, and beyond. There are also many Gurung descendants living in the Pokhara Valley.

They can be mostly described as joyous, vibrant, and playful people. They love to dance and have unique dancing traditions which may be seen at many festivals throughout the year. Enjoying dance is something that is instilled to them at a young age. Many participate in a traditional club called “Rodi” which is when a group of boys and girls near the same age get together in a social manner and perform songs and dance. These gatherings give the Gurung children the opportunity to meet and understand each other. These common social gatherings at a young-ish age allow them to possibly find their life-long “dream” spouse. There is a high favored rate of marriages from their second-cousins as first-cousin marriage is not allowed.

Nepali Thakali womanNepali Thakali woman

People of the Thakali community have similar to Mongoloid features and are from the valley of the Kali Gandaki River in western Nepal known as Thak Khola. There are four clans, with equal social status but are still ranked in superiority from Bhattachan, Sherchan, Tulachan, and the “highest” praised, if you can call it that, being the Gauchan. There are even different animals of worship for each clan; dragon, yak, elephant, and lion (not in that particular order). Thakalis only marry other Thakalis but this union must be between two different castes.

Living in the Mustang District (those who have not ventured out) along an important salt trading route, this community survives in Nepal’s most popular trekking area near the Annapurna range by means of running impeccably clean kitchens in their hotels, guest houses, and restaurants.

Although Jhankrism is their original religion, there are also influences of Buddhism, Bonpo, and Hinduism found in their culture.

Nepali Tamang woman and child

Living mostly in central Nepal in the high hills to the north, south, east and west from the Kathmandu Valley, the Tibeto-Burman speaking group care called Tamangs. They are, for the most part, Buddhist but many of their religious ceremonies have a Jhankrism feel (which is a kind of Shamanistic cult). However they do perform traditional festivalsby Buddhist practices.

Most make their living being porters for the trekkers during the tourist season, and also porting for local traders using Nepal’s foot-highways or the streets of Kathmandu and Pokhara as their route. Generally the Tamangs are somewhat oppressed and are usually considered poor by Nepali standard.

Culturally the Tamangs are divided into many clans based on caste (or last name respectively). A Tamang is allowed to marry anyone they want as long as it is from a different clan from their own.

Woman with traditional nose-ring

The Limbus come from the far east of Nepal mostly from the Khotang and Arun Valleys in the Taplejung region. The Rais also come from eastern Nepal but more to the north in the hilly region near (but not limited to) Terhathum, Bhojpur, and Dhankuta. They also have communities coming from the Dudh and Arun Valleys.

The Limbus and Rais together are almost 4.5% of Nepal’s population. The Rais have a blend of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with their own deities and other religious beliefs specific to them also with some Tibetan Lamaism influences in their rituals. The Limbus belief system is a combination of Buddhism, Shivaism, and Animism.

In marriage, the Limbus and the Rais follow the same traditions – the marriages are between two people (no sharing wives/husbands). As for marriage ceremonies they can be arranged, the couple can elope, or there are still some “capturing” practices of a spouse to be.

When a member of (both) Limbus and Rais communities dies, they bury their dead and place a tombstone with the dates of their birth and death.

Nepali Tharus man in festival-dress

The Tharus clans live as a concentrated population in the middle and west of Nepal mostly in the inner and northern stretches of the terai. Although they are believed to have fled from India during the 12th and 13th century Muslim invasions they are still considered the indigenous terai settlers.

The majority of the Tharus ethnic group has Mongoloid features with dark or semi-dark features. They make up close to 6.5% of Nepal’s population and speak a variety of dialects such as Prakriti, Mughali, Urdu, and Maithili with Naja as their major spoken dialect as well as Nepali.

They believe in Animism but celebrate Hindu festivals and have their own deities in each village. Their community is divided into two main caste groups the Pradhan, considered to be the superior of the two, and the Apradhan. A marriage between the Tharus people is usually between two people, but on occasion there have been cases both women and men having multiple spouses.

Nepali drying out some food

The rural ethnic groups – the Chepang and Kusundas – live along the steeper slopes of the Mahabharat range in middle Nepal, east of Chitwanand west of Makawanpur. Traditionally they are a tribal community that live self sufficiently and work by hunting and collecting wood Rescently there have been advances of land developing projects springing up in the area, that some of these communities have had other working opportunities doing the hard labor of these jobs.

They live somewhat out of the way of the hustle and bustle of the more developed parts of the country, but this does not deprive them of their rich culture and traditions. They participate in many Hindu festivals like Tihar, Sakrantis, the most important celebration of the year Dashain as well as their own tribal festivals including that of Nwagi.

Nepali Magar man

The Magars play an important part of the British and Indian Grukha division and the Nepal’s Army. Their religion is usually considered Buddhism but there are some who practice Hinduism. This community makes up over 7% of Nepal’s population and they speak a dialect that is of the Tebeto-Burman influence.

Their most popularly celebrated festival celebrated in the town of Gorkha is one dedicated to the Goddess Kali. Here there are several goats sacrificed for the occasion.

There houses in their villages are simple and traditional with either round or oval shaped houses. Many of these may be seen when trekking through the Annapurna Conservation Area.

Elaborate (and heavy) festival wear

Looking and religiously practicing rituals similar to Tibetans, the Manangi do not prefer to relate themselves as Tibetan but prefer to compare themselves to the Gurung ethnic group. They live in central Nepal near the upper stretches of the Marsyangdi River in ManangValley. This district is split up into three diverse sections – Nar, Neshyang, and Gyasumdo – which all live culturally unified.

Agriculture is their main resource for work – breeding cattle and sheep as well as harvesting wheat, barley, potatoes and other vegetables.

Some of the highest settlements in the world belong to the Dolpa or Dolpo-pa settlers.  Sandwiched between the Sisne and Kanjiroba Mountains in the west, Tibet in the north and the Dhaulagiri Himalaya in the south and east, this community in the Dolpadistrict lives at altitudes ranging from 3600 meters and as high (if not higher) as 4000 meters.

They have Mongoloid features, and being so close, speak Tibetan. Many of them are illiterate but would not be considered poor.

The majority of the Dolpa people are Buddhist but again being so close to Tibet there is a harmonious blend of the Bon (or Bon-po) types of Buddhism practiced here. This is obvious when disposing of a deceased family member. Some may leave the body for the river to take, or some may chop the body to pieces and feed it to the vultures since the body was merely a portal for the soul (meaning after death the body is no longer important and should be “gotten rid of” completely).

In this region marriages may be arranged, the couple can elope or you can always capture yourself a spouse. The marriage subject here is very relaxed and all the brothers in one family can share a common wife.