Essay: A Cultural Survey of the Brahmin and Chetri of Nepal

This post has been back-dated:


Nepal is located in the Himalayas and contains eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. The Himalayas are often called the roof of the world. The mountains have done much to shape the history and culture of the nation. This small, landlocked nation sits between Tibet (now part of modern China) and India and has been influenced by both nations. But, thanks to the seclusion of the mountains, Nepal has developed many cultures of its own. There are many people groups in Nepal, and they remain quite isolated. The largest group, and the one that is currently in power, is the Brahmin and Chetri.

Researching the Brahmin and Chetri has been interesting since they have spread throughout the country and enforced their culture on the other people groups. Their success in making their culture the national culture can be seen in the fact that many authors fail to note the distinction, if they are even aware of it, between the Brahmin and Chetri and Nepali culture. They have, however, maintained their preeminence in society, through an adaptation of the Hindu caste system. These people of Aryan descent hold the key to the nation, and an understanding of their history and culture is essential to an effective ministry in Nepal.

The Brahmin and Chetri are of Indo-Aryan ancestry. In this paper they are treated as one people group because in the Nepali adaptation of the caste system they are very close and allow inter-marriage, which is not allowed with the lower castes.

Nepal has a more relaxed form of the Hindu four-caste system. The Brahmin were originally the priests and teachers and were highly respected. The Chetri were the protectors, the warriors, and the leaders of the people. The Baishya were the traders and craftsmen, and the Sudra were the common workers. The Pani Nachalne were so low they were not included in the caste system. They are the famous “untouchables.”

The Nepali version of the caste system commonly groups the upper two castes together as the Parbatiya or Tadgadhari which means “born-twice” or born-again. Born-again in this case refers to incarnation instead of salvation, but this term is still kind of neat. The other two castes are grouped together as the Matwali. Either as a reflection of the Parbatiya’s view of the Matwali or an accurate description of their life style, the word Matwali means “alcohol drinker.” While the Parabatiya are Indo-Aryan, the Matwali are mostly Tibeto-Burman. The Brahmin and Chetri are not only a separate economic class they also have a separate history.

The history of the Brahmin and Chetri reaches back to the ancient Khas. Little is known about this large group of people. Very few artifacts have been found. They were evidently Indo-Aryan Hindus. In the fourteenth century, the Muslims invaded northern India and the Rajasthani princes, who where also Hindu, fled into the Khas territory but quickly took over, dividing the area into many small kingdoms. They also conquered the Gurung and Magar in the midwestern section of modern Nepal.

The Eastern most kingdom of the Gurung territory was Gorkha. The city of Gorkha is just east of the center of modern Nepal between Kathmandu to the east and Pokhara to the west. Prithvi Narayan Shah, king of Ghorka from 1722-1775, was attracted to the wealth of the Kathmandu valley, which at the time was inhabited by Tibeto-Burman people, the most famous of which were the Newars. The Malla dynasties had been in power since the late twelfth century but by the eighteenth century had split into three city-states fighting among themselves. Prithvi Narayan Shah took advantage of the Malla weakness and internal fighting and began a 20-year war of attrition to take the valley. He then went on to conquer all of modern-day Nepal plus a good bit more. Several wars with the British of India and the Chinese have shrunk the border down to its present size.

The present king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, is the twelfth in the Shah dynasty. He is a Chetri of the Thakuri family. While the Shah dynasty has remained unbroken, from 1846-1951 a hereditary prime minister called a Rana was the head of government. The Rana were supported by the British, and when the British left India after World War II, they soon fell.

The Gorkhali also called Pahari (people of the hills) spread throughout the new land and multiplied greatly. The Brahmin and Chetri are the desendants of the ancient Gorkhali or Khas. They assigned the conquered people for the most part to the lower castes. However, not all groups have accepted these designations.

Even though they only make up about thirty to forty percent of the people of Nepal, The Brahman and Chetri have made their language the national language and call it Nepali. This language is also known as Kha-Nepali, Khas Kura, Gorkhali, Parbatiya, or Eastern Pahari. They have used various methods to “encourage” the other people groups to learn it. This has also made research difficult since there are now many different people groups of many different backgrounds that speak the same language.

With a history of oppression and subjugation you would expect to find Nepal about ready to explode with racial tension and a strong anti-caste movement. What is surprising, though, is that while there is a lot of tension and a strong communist movement, caste does not seem to be the main issue. As a matter of fact the majority of the leadership of the two communist parties are Brahmin and Chetri.

Nepal is a constitutional monarchy. It is the only Hindu Monarchy in the world. There are two main parties. The Congress party currently has a significant majority but is actually a combination of several other parties. The Opposition is led by one of two major Maoists Parties. The Communists have not been able to gain much control, but they have been managing to cause a lot of trouble. The leaders of both parties and most of the members are Brahmin and Chetri. The lower castes and the indigenous peoples of Nepal are very rarely involved in politics even though the Constitution now makes it illegal to discriminate against them. Discrimination was eliminated primarily because of outside pressure, but unofficial and social discrimination is still a problem.

The Brahmin and Chetri control the educational system and the Nepali language and culture are becoming even more dominant. Most schools are Nepali only, and the nations university is also Nepali only. To become a citizen, which many of the indigenous people are not, you must learn Nepali.

One of the most desired and well paying jobs in Nepal is in a non-government organization (NGO). Nepal has been the recipient of millions in humanitarian aid. Large portions of this money go into the pockets of the people who are given the responsibility of using it for the benefit of the people. There are several websites devoted to exposing and challenging caste discrimination. One of the main arguments given in their challenges is that a disproportionate number of Brahmin and Chetri are receiving these much coveted positions. There is little information on discrimination within the business world of Nepal. This is probably because there is not as much money in Nepali business. Although you cannot be absolutely certain when arguing from silence, it appears that the positions that are most desired and considered the most important are in NGO’s not business or government. The NGOs claim that their allocation of positions are in line with government population statistics. But, even this has been challenged.

Some have compared Nepal to America because of its great diversity. Actually Nepal has greater diversity and does not have a group with an unquestioned majority, like the whites of America. Nepal has fifty to one hundred or more people groups. The government has been accused of over-counting the Brahman and Chetri population and undercounting other groups. For example after much “persuasion” almost sixty percent of the people speak Nepali, therefore the Brahmin and Chetri claim to represent the majority of the people. Opposition groups claim that they are only thirty percent, and that since the women are not represented, they only represent fifteen percent of the population. The interesting thing about this is that the next largest group is only about eight percent, so the Brahmin and Chetri are still the largest group. The other claim made by the advocates for the indigenous people is that many villages are assigned to the “other” category and then lumped under the Chettri even though it is obvious they are not Chetri because they have never been treated with that much respect.

Their religion is traditionally Hindu, but in Nepal it has become very much mixed with Buddhism and Tantra or Animism. The Nepalis worship Buddha as a reincarnation of Vishnu a Hindu god. And for some reason the Buddhist worship many of the Hindu gods. They simply practice the religion that their families have been practicing for years.

In Nepal the practice of religion is far more important than doctrine. Religion is very integrated into their daily lives. They pray every morning and they have many religious festivals. All public holidays have religious significance. One other interesting fact is that the Brahmin and Chetri are vegetarians, but this is not from some general respect for animal life. Millions of animals are sacrifice as part of many of their holidays. The cow, however, is given a special place. The cows are thought to be divine. In Nepal the exclamation “Holy Cow” would be seen as simply redundant.

Most Nepalis are rural. It is still mostly an agricultural society. Things are changing rapidly, though, now that they are open to the outside world. There has been much industrial activity lately, and the country is starting to become more urban. The Brahmin, which were considered to be like the holy cows, did not originally own land. They were to be supported by the people, but many today have land and are farmers. As Nepal becomes more industrialized and urban, there will be drastic shifts in culture that could eventually sweep away the caste system.

The Nepalis eat Bhats…ok, Bhat, that is rice. Rice and curried vegetables are to the Nepali what hamburgers and french fries are to some Americans. In my humble opinion both could get boring. Actually the same or similar meals every day would get boring no matter what it is. In the cities, especially Kathmandu, you can get a bit more variety, but most of the people have very little variety. It is somewhat surprising for Nepal to have such a boring menu given its location, sandwiched between two countries that are famous for their food.

Nepal’s traditional art and fashion seem to have been developed by two groups that are so different that they hardly seem like they belong in the same nation. The temples in Nepal, many of which date back to the days when Tantra was the main religion, are now controlled by the Brahmin. The art that is found in these temples is anything but modest. The walls are often decorated with images of humans, gods, monkeys, and other creatures having sex in many painful or impossible positions, frequently with three or more partners. Ritual sex, as in many cultures, was seen as a way to gain favor with the gods, especially fertility gods who were very important to agriculture. The Brahmin and Chetri have done nothing to hide or remove this art.

In stark contrast to the temple art, Nepali fashion is very modest. Women wear robes that completely cover them and men wear baggy pants and long tunics. Modern fashion shows held in Nepal have been viewed more as entertainment than a real model for the clothes of the future. Many people like to see the strange clothes or all the skin that the clothes do not cover, but few ever even think about wearing such odd outfits. There has been considerable modernization in clothing styles in the last few decades but Nepal and the Brahmin and Chetri in particular remain much more conservative than the average American.

The Brahmin and Chetri, like most other people groups in southeast Asia, wear there life savings as jewelry. The jewelry in Nepal, especially, is quite large by western standards. Each people group has its own style. Supposedly, you can tell what people group or village people are from by their jewelry. The Brahmin and Chetri men can be identified by their Janai, a three strand cord that only they are supposed to wear.

When working with the Brahmin and Chetri and any other people group in Nepal there is very little that the average American would find morally offensive, except possibly the animal sacrifice. But, a quick survey of the Old Testament should cure any moral objections. As Christians we know that this is no longer necessary, and in this case, they are offering sacrifices to the wrong God, but this is a problem that will go away when a person gets saved and should never become a major issue.

Two things that would be a problem are alcoholism and child prostitution. Most Brahmin and Chetri consider both to be wrong and so there would not be a general conflict in morals, but it would be easy to get so involved in these and other social issues that you forget your main purpose. The best cure for and prevention against sin is a relationship with Christ. In fact most people groups of Nepal are comparatively conservative. They may not be as conservative as Muslim nations or east coast America, but they are close. A person from central or especially western United States would have to be careful not to offend the Nepali sense of morality. Americans already have a bad reputation thanks to television and tourists, which represent primarily the most liberal of Americans.

Evangelism in Nepal presents an interesting problem since any church you start is likely to fill quickly with the lower castes and therefore make it almost impossible for that church to reach out to the Brahmin and Chetri because of the social barriers. It is similar to Free Will Baptists finding it difficult to get the wealthy to come to their churches, only worse because there is a definite line between the castes, which no one crosses, and very few will associate with anyone of the lower castes. In order to reach the Brahmin and Chetri you almost have to establish a church for the few Brahmin and Chetri that you can reach at first and then train them to evangelize others in their caste. As believers become more familiar with the Bible and with the God that loves all people regardless of their caste, you can encourage them to attend the Matwalis church and even start to minister to them. It would be a great testimony to Christianity if you could bring these very diverse groups together.

The church for the Brahmin and Chetri should be kept open and active until there are no unsaved Brahmin and Chetri left to reach. Individuals that are not part of the Brahmin and Chetri outreach should be encouraged to go to the main church as soon as is reasonably possible so that the upper caste church does not become an established and separate denomination. These churches should always be seen as an outreach group and training ground for missionaries, and not accepted as a tradition of helping these castes to remain separate.

Reaching the Brahmin and Chetri requires a unique approach that is custom built to work in their society. Unfortunately, many of the Americans who do not make the mistake of assuming that all cultures are similar to their own, make the mistake of assuming that all foreign missions should take the same approach that is used in tribal Africa or South America. The message of the gospel stays the same, but the method of spreading the gospel must adapt to the culture being reached.BIBLIOGRAPHY

Burbank, Jon, Nepal,.New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1993.

Camerapix, Spectrum guide to Nepal, New York: Interlink Books, 2000.

Chambers, Kevin, A traveler’s guide to Asian cultures, Santa Fe, NM: J. Muir Publications, 1989.

Finlay, Hugh, Nepal: a Lonely Planet travel survival kit, Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet, 1996.

Karafin, Amy and Melanie Sponholz, ed., Fodor’s Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, New York: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2000.

Reed, David and James McConnachie, The rough guide to Nepal, London: Rough Guides, 2002.

Ross, Zoë, ed., Nepal, New York: APA Publications, 2000.

Warham, Paul ed., Let’s go : India & Nepal, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

9 responses to “Essay: A Cultural Survey of the Brahmin and Chetri of Nepal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *