Caste system in Nepal

The Nepalese caste system is the traditional system of social stratification of Nepal. The Nepalese caste system broadly borrows the classical Hindu Chaturvarnashram model consisting of four broad social classes or varna: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Sudra.

The caste system defines social classes by a number of hierarchical endogamous groups often termed jaat. This custom was traditionally only prevalent in the Hindu-Aryan societies of the Khas, Madhesi, and Newars. However, since the unification of Nepal in the 18th century, Nepal's various indigenous nationalities and tribes "Adivasi Janajati" have been incorporated within the caste hierarchy, to varying degrees of success. Despite the forceful integration by the state into the pan-Hindu social structure, the ethnic indigenous groups and tribes do not necessarily adhere to the customs and practices of the caste system.[1]

Traditional caste system

Caste-origin Hill Parbatiya Hindu groups/Khas

The social structure of caste-origin Hill Hindu or Khas groups is simple, reflecting only three groups in hierarchy, with the distinct absence of the Vaishya and Shudra varnas. Much of the previously animist/tribal Khas population of the western Nepal region acquired the 'Chhetri' status in the 1850s with the proclamation by the Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, making Chhetris the most populous caste/tribe of Nepal. The mother tongue of these groups is Nepali and its various dialects. In 2001 the CBS recorded only nine groups in the caste-origin Hill Hindu groups.[2]

Parbatiya/Khas-AryaPopulation (40%)
Twice-born: (30.4%) Khas Arya(Brahmin): Bahun (Purbiya, Kumai, Jaishi)12.18%
Kshatriya: Chhetri, Thakuri17.8%
Dashnami Sanyasi and Kanphata Yogi0.86%
Service-castes (previously Untouchable) (8.03%):Kami4.75%

Caste-origin Madhesh Hindu groups/Aryans

The social structure of the caste-origin Madhesi Hindu groups is complex, reflecting four varna groups with distinct hierarchical structure within them. These various cultural groups belong to four distinct language groups: Maithili, Bajika, Bhojpuri, Tharu and Awadhi. In 2001 the CBS recorded 43 caste-origin Hindu groups in the Madhesh.[2]

Madhesi-(aryans)Population (14%)
Twice-born: (1.67%)(Brahmin): Maithil Brahmin, Bhumihar0.59%
(Kshatriya): Rajput, Rajbhat0.32%
(Vaishya) :baniyas(rauniar, sudhi, vyahut, teli, kalwar, sonar, halwai)% will be updated soon(largest trading castes)
Other pure castes: (8.5%)Yadava3.98%
Rajdhoves (farmers)1.25%
Māllāh (fishermen)0.6%
Kewat (fishermen)0.5%
Service-castes (previously Unclean or Untouchable): (3.84%)Kurmi1%
Lohar (iron-smiths)0.36%
Kumhar (potters)0.3%
Mali (florists)0.1%
Dhobi (washermen)0.4%
Hajam/Thakur (barbers)0.44%
Chamar, Harijan, Ram (leather-workers)1.3%
Paswan, Dusadh (basket-makers)0.75%
Musahar (labourers)0.8%

Caste-origin Nepal Mandala groups/Newārs

The case of Newār is exceptional. This group presents a complicated social structure, not only reflecting the model of four Hindu varna categories, but is also clearly divided into two distinct religious groups: the Hindu and the Buddhist. Newars are divided internally into distinct cultural groups of over 25 occupational caste categories who share a common language (mother-tongue) Nepal Bhasa.[2]

Newārs (Nepal Mandal)Population (5.5%)
Twice-born Hindus: (1.35%)(Brahmin): Rajopadhyaya Brahmin0.06%
(Kshatriya): Chatharīya Srēstha0.5%
(Vaishya): Pāñchtharīya Srēstha, other Srēstha etc.0.8%
Twice-born Buddhists: (1.0%)Vajracharya/Shakya (priests and goldsmiths)0.7%
Urāy (Tuladhars/Bania) (traders and craftsmen)0.3%
Other pure castes: (2.7%)Maharjans/Jyapus (farmers)2.2%
Hindu Tamrakar (coppersmiths)
Kumhāh/Prajapati (potters and farmers)
Ranjitkar (cloth-dyers)
Tandukar (farmers)
Malakar/Mali (florists)
Nau/Napit (barbers/nail-cutters)
Balami (farmers)
Pahari/Nagarkoti (farmers)0.06%
Kau/Nakarmi (iron-smiths)
Manandhar/Sāyami/Teli (oil-pressers and brewers)0.2%
Service-castes (previously Unclean or Untouchable): (0.5%)Bha/Karanjit (funeral priests)
Khadgi, Naye (butchers and musicians)0.22%
Jogi, Kapali, Darshandhari (descendants of Kanphata Yogi sect, tailors, musicians)0.05%
Dhobi, Sangat (washermen)
Kulu, Dom (leather-workers)
Dyala, Podhya, Chyamaha/Chandala (sweepers, fishermen)0.16%

Muluki Ain (1854)

The Nepali civil code Muluki Ain was commissioned by Jung Bahadur Rana after his European tour and enacted in 1854. It was rooted in traditional Hindu Law and codified social practices for several centuries in Nepal.[3] The law also comprised Prāyaścitta (avoidance and removal of sin) and Ācāra (the customary law of different castes and communities).

It was an attempt to include the entire Hindu as well as non-Hindu population of Nepal of that time into a single hierarchic civic code from the perspective of the Khas rulers. Terai and Newar Brahmins and Kshatriyas were officially placed below their Khas equivalents. Similarly, serious limitations and oversights of this code include the complete exclusion of the large middle-ranking Terai groups. Most notable contradiction is the inclusion of previously non-Hindu tribes "Adivasi Janajati" groups, as well as non-Nepalis including Muslims and Europeans into the hierarchical fold.[4][5]

Hierarchies of Major Caste/Ethnic Groups in Nepal according to Muluki Ain:[6][7]

Caste DivisionCaste and Ethnic Groups
"Tagadhari" (Wearers of the Holy Thread)KhasBrahmin, Thakuri, Chhetri;

NewarBrahman and Chatharīya Srēstha;

TeraiBrahmin (referred in the code as Indian Brahmin)

"Namasinya Matwali" (Non-enslavable Alcohol Drinkers)Newar Vaishya equivalent castes – Panchthariya Srēstha, and Newar Buddhists – Gubhaju/Baré (Vajracharya/Shākya), Urāy (Tuladhar and others), Jyapu, and other smaller pure occupational castes.

'Gurkha' tribes – Gurung, Magar, Rai and Limbu

"Masinya Matwali" (Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers)Bhote (including Tamang and Sherpa), Thakali, Chepang, Gharti, Hayu, Kumal, and Tharu.
"Pani Na Chalne Chhoichhito Haalnu Naparne" (Water-unacceptable but touchable)Newar lower impure occupational castes – Bha, Manandhar, Kapāli, Khadgi/Kasaĩ, Dhobi, etc.

Mlechha: Muslims and Europeans

"Pani Na Chalne Chhoichhito Haalnu Parne" (Water-unacceptable and untouchable)Khas occupational castes – Kami, Sarki, Damai, Badi.

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

Newar lowest occupational castes – Kulu/Dom, Podhya, Chyamaha/Chandala, etc.

The social values preached by the Muluki Ain, however, were providing restrictive, anachronic and out of step with the spirit of times. These values were seen as a potent instrument of Rana political repression. After the Rana regime, caste rules relating to food, drink and intercaste marriage were openly louted but the Muluki Ain had not been abrogated. In 1963, Legal Code was replaced by New 1964 Legal Code. The legal recognition to caste and all the discriminatory laws made on the grounds of caste were ceased.

The caste system today

The caste system is still intact today but the rules are not as rigid as they were in the past. In 1962, a law was passed making it illegal to discriminate against other castes led all castes to be equally treated by the law. Education is free and open to all castes.

The caste system conjoints a structural class divide which persists, in which lower castes/ethnicities are generally socio-economically are not equal like 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.[8]

Participation of Khas-Brahmins in Civil Service is 41.3% in spite of its population size of less than 13%. The population of Newars is around 5%, but its occupancy in Civil Service is more than one-thirds (33.2%), the population of Khas-Chhetris constitutes 17.6% but its participation is mere 14.7%. If these major three castes (Khas Brahmin & Chhetris, and Newars) combine together their shares in the Government of Nepal, civil service employment is 89.2% in 1991. Their dominance is reflected in education, administration and economical activities of the nation. Among those 73.8% in higher education belong to higher castes, 22.0% Janajatis and 2.9% Dalit.[9]

They have become major decision makers in the bureaucracy of Nepal has become crystal clear. In terms of earning/income generation, Newars have the highest per capita income of Rs. 38,193. Khas upper castes come next with an average income of Rs. 24,399, Adivasi Janajatis ranks third with an average income of Rs. 15,630, Dalit Rs. 12,114 and Muslim ranks the lowest, Rs.11,014'[10] The democratic transitions also failed to be inclusive management and functioning governance mainly because government was unable to understand and articulate the spirit of all Nepalese people irrespective of their caste, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

In this process the left outs were oppressed class (Dalits), women, the poorest of the poor, powerless and the second class citizen and indigenous nationalities (Adivasi Janajatis). In Nepal, high castes dominate 91.2% among the prominent position in politics and bureaucracy. The Dalits who constitute 12.8 percent of the total population of the country have no representation in the higher echelons of power' (Gurung, H. 2006). Similarly, the Janajati has 36.0% of the total population of the country, has representation of 7.1%.[11] In terms of education, 88.0% of Khas Brahmins & Chhetris, and Newars have access to school, 12.0% have never been to school. More than fifty (52.0%) of Hill Dalits, 47.0% of the Tarai Dalits, 48.0% of the Muslims and 30 percent of the Hill Adivasi Janajatis have never been to school.(Census, 2001)

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 (Adivasi 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 Khas Brahmin and Chhetri 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".[12]

See also


  1. Hofer, Andras (1979). The Caste Hierarchy and the State of Nepal: A Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854. Universitatsverlag Wagner.
  2. MOPE (2002). Nepal Population Report, 2002. Kathmandu: Ministry of Population and Environment, HMG, Nepal.
  3. Stiller, L. F. (1993). Nepal: Growth of a Nation. Human Resources Development Research Center, Kathmandu.
  4. Hofer, Andras (1979). The Caste Hierarchy and the State of Nepal: A Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854. Universitatsverlag Wagner.
  5. Guneratne, Arjun (2002). Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal. Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801487286.
  6. Gurung, H. (2005). Social exclusion and Maoist insurgency. Paper presented at National Dialogue Conference on ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Kathmandu, 19–20 January 2005.
  8. 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
  9. Dr. Gurung, H. 2006
  10. NLSS II, 2004
  11. G.Neupane, 2000
  12. Jones, Peris S.: Deepening Democracy: International Labour Organisation Convention 169 and Nepal's Democratic Transition The NIBR International Blog, 11.06.2011

Further reading

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