People in Nepal

Faces Of Nepal


The Brahmans (or Bahuns in Nepali) are the traditional Hindu priest caste and speak Nepali as their first language. They are distributed throughout the country in both the Terai and Middle Hills and traditionally plaster their houses with red earth. Many Brahmans are influential business-people, landowners, moneylenders and government workers. They are extremely conscious of the concept of ritual pollution or ‘Jutho’, of their home and food. They do not let others to enter into their kitchen. Brahmans traditionally do not drink alcohol.


The other major Hindu group is the Chhetri caste. In villages Chhetris are farmars, but they are the warrior caste. They are known for being outstanding soldiers, and a large part of the Nepal Army is made up of chhetries. Thakuris are group of Chhetris descended from the Rajputs in India and have the highestsocial, political and ritual status among Hindus. The Chhetri caste includes the Ranas; the herediary kings of Nepal, the Shahs and Thakuris.


The Magars originate in the Western and Central areas of Nepal, though are found in scattered communities throughout the county. Traditionally hill farmers inhabiting the lower slopes, they are also known for their fighting abilities and many have been recruited into Gurkha regiment of the British and Indian armies. It is thought to be a strong cultural bond between Magars and Gurungs. They may be either Hindu or Buddhist faith. Hindu Magars practice the same religion as the Brahmans and Chhetris and employ Brahmans as priests. Magars women often wear necklaces of Indian silver coins. Magars constitute the largest ethnic group in the country and one will encounter them on most treks in Nepal. They are often integrated into villages dominated by other groups.


The Gurungs also originates from the Central and Western parts of Nepal though have tended to inhabit higher areas adopting a lifestyle of sedentary agriculture and nomadic pastoralism. Like the Magars, Gurungs have also been well represented in Gurkha regiments. They are predominantly Buddhist, though small Hindu and Shamanist communities exist. In recent years, many Gurungs have become involved in the hotel business, especially in the Pokhara region. Many Gurung men still wear the traditional short blouse tied across the front and the short skirt of white cotton material, or often a towel, wrapped around their waist and held by a wide belt. In the trek to Ghandruk area near the Annapurna sanctuary, Gurungs men fashion a backpack out of piece of coarse cotton looped across the shoulders.


Ta-Mang literally means ‘Horse Soldier’. Tamang legend says they migrated to Nepal at the time of Genghis Khan as cavalry troops. Although they are primarly hill people, many Tamangs have moved to Kathmandu, where they are employed as weavers of Tibetan rugs and as painters of high-quality ‘Thankas’.

The Tamangs are found around the Kathmandu valley and in Central and Eastern Nepal. Mainly Buddhist, they form a significant proportion of the porters in these regions, but many are also engaged in agriculture as small holders and day labour. The Tamang language originates from the Tibeto-Burmese family. Tamangs speak a Tibeto-Burman language among them and believe they originally come from Tibet. Tamang women wear gold decorations in their noses and the men traditionally wear a ‘Bokkhu’ (sleeveless wollen jacket). The rough black and white blankets, called ‘Rari’ that can be seen in homes in the hills and in shops in Kathmandu is a Tamang speciality.


The Thakalis originate from the Kali Gandaki Gorge and like many Nepali groups, have been subject to both Hindu and Buddhist influences. Adept entrepreneurs, they have cashed in on the trekking boom and have established little hotels all along the Annapurna Circuit and have also extended their influence to other parts of the country. Before Nepal was opened up to tourism, their economy was dominated by subsistence farming and, in the Kali Gandaki area, by salt trading. Despite their history of trade with Tibet, the Thakalis are not of Tibetan ancestry. Theyare related to Tamangs, Gurungs and Magars.


The Newars are of Mongolian origin and are the dominant ethnic group of the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding central areas of Nepal. Despite their geographical origins, the majority are now Shaivite Hindus following received Hindu customs, although communities of Newari Buddhist do remain. They represent perhaps the gretest synchronism of the Tibetan and Indian traditions of any of Nepal’s ethnic groups and also incorporate aspects of animism. The newari language has been influenced by both Tebito- Burmese and Indo-European families. Tradionnaly Nepal’s leading traders, Newars once organized trains of baskets carrying porters over the trans-Himalayan passes to Tibet. They are also remarkable crafts-men and developed the unique building style that successfully blends influences from India, China and Tibet, with craved wood beams and pagoda-like temple roofs.


The Kirantis are comprised of Rais and Limbus and are the oldest known peoples of Nepal. They live in the eastern hills of Nepal, the Rais being concentrated in the Solu Khumbu, Dudh Kosi and Arun Valley regions, while the Limbus are east of Arun Valley, in the Kanchenjunga region and also extend into northen parts of West Bengal in India. Both groups have supplied recruits to Gurkha regiments and reference is made to their fighting spirit in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Of Mongoloid features, both have Tibeto-Burmese languages. The religion of the Limbus incorporates elements of Buddhism and Shamanism, while that of the RAis is more influenced by Hinduism.

Sunuwars and Jirals

Sunuwars is one of the dominant groups in the region east of Kathmandu, particularly in the villages of Ramechap, Charikot and Okaldhunga. The Sunuwars women wear gold ornaments in their nose and ears and the men often join the Nepal Army. They live in whitewashed stone houses with black window frames. They worship their own gods, but often employ Brahmans as priests. Of the trek from Jiri to Everest the Sunwars can be seen. Jirels are small in number and are found in the area around and to the east of Jiri, the place that gives the Jirels their name. Their religion is significantly influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism, but has distinct practices and deities.


The Bhotia live in the northern parts of Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and along the Indo-Tibetan border in Garhwal, Kumaon and Himachal Pradesh. They are Mongoloid people who gradually moved off the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan Buddism plays an important part in shaping Bhotia society. The monastery is at the centre of the social environment, and the prayer flags, prayers wheels and chortens are a vital part of daily life.

Other Bhotia groups combine the same activity as the sherpas: subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry and trade, the last two complementing the firest because the altitude at which they live only permits one cropping season per year. The crops grown are wheat, barley, buckwheat and potatoes. The livestock includes sheep, goats and yaks (Bos Grummans).

Yaks provide many essentials of daily life, the cows producing one litre of rich milk daily. Reflecting how little most ethnic groups moved from their native soil, the suffix pa, as in Lopa, means ‘people of’.

Ethnic Tibetans

Several thousands Tibetans fled their homeland as a result of the Chinese take-over. Most are now resident in and around the Kathmandu and Pokhara Valleys. But some have remained in Bhotia country where they have highly successful in integrating with local populations, especially through intermirrage.


The Limipas are small group living in the Limi valley in the Northwest of Nepal.


With a population of no more than a couple of thousand, Dolpopas live in remote areas North of Jomsom and Muktinath. A hard working people, they are nomadic pastoralists, traders and weavers.


The people of Lo live in the fabled and once forbidden region of Lo Manthang, the capital of the high and arid region of Mustang, once an independent estate. Of Tibetan ethnicity, they follow Tibetan Buddhism and number about six thousand. They compete with the Thakalis for trade in salt and wool, and keep yaks, donkeys, mules and herds of sheep. They have close ties with Tibet and travel extensively on horseback. The region was once ruled by the Lo Gyelbu, or Raja of Mustang, but since 1952 his position has been honorary. He was the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Nepal Army.


The name Baragaunle means ’12 village people’. The Baragaunle are also ethnically Tibetan and live in the Muktinath at the upper Kali-Gandaki valley and follow a form of Lamaistic Buddhism that also incorporates elements of animism.


Known also as Manangapa or Nyeshang, this group live in the Manang region and along the northern stretches of the Marshyangdi River. They are perhaps the wealthiest of any Bhotia Groups thanks to a still extant 18th century decree by Rana Bahadur Shah, the third king of Shah Dynasty, which gave them trading privileges with Tibet and which has today been adapted to the trade of luxury items, some of which find their way to Kathmandu.

The trade network of the Manang people extends throughout South-East Asia and as far away as Korea. It is not uncommon to see large groups of Manangis jetting to Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Manangis call themselves Nye-shang, but many Manang people adopt the surname Gurung on passports and travel documents, even although they are more closely related to Tibetans than Gurungs.


Sherpas, the most famous ethnic groups in Nepal, live in the Solu Khumbu region of glacial valleys at the Southern approaches to Everest. Their name tells of their origin (Sha – east, Pa – people) and has come to be almost synonymous with the great peak that dominates the country. They migrated from Tibet around 6 hundreds ago.

Earlier they were traders and porters, carrying butter, meat, rice, sugar, paper and dye from India, and salt, wool, jewellery, Chinese silk and porcelain from Tibet and beyond. The closure of the border following the 1962 border war between India and China undermined their economy. Fortunately, with the arrival of mountaineering expeditions and trekkers, the Sherpas found their load carrying skills, both on normal treks and in high altitudes, in great demand.

Sherpas now are well recognized trek guide and most of them are engaged to the travel and trekking field.

The Khumbu region has provided a valuable contingent of able bodied, hardy and seemingly fearless Sherpa porters and Guides. Over 80 years they have built up a mountaineering reputation as the elite of Himalayan porters.

Early expeditions took Sherpas from Darjeeling to climb in far-flung places in the Himalaya. They were often reffered to as ‘Tigers’, but they were rearly accorded the recognition of their full worth. Sherpa Tenzing, the well-known Sherpa guide for his involvement with the first western expedition to reach the summit of Everest, received an award for bravery.


Like Tamangs and Sherpas, Rais speak a Tibeto-Burman language of their own and have a very unusual culture. They practice an indigenous animistic religion that is neither Buddhist nor Hindu, although a fair amount of Hindu influence is evident. Rais have characteristic of Mongoloid features.

Some Rai villages are extremely large and boost 200-300 households. Typically, villages are spread out over the hillside with trails leading in every direction. Finding the right route in these villages is always a challenge. Rais are skilled in using bamboo for a number of purposes, including the construction of houses, baskets, fances and water pipes.

Rai people are very independent and individualistic. More than Two Hundred Thousands or so Rais in the Eastern hills of Nepal speak at least 15 different languages, which, although seemingly closely related and are mutually unintelligible. When Rais of different areas meet they must converse in Nepali.

Rais (along with Limbus, Magars and Gurungs) are one of the ethnic groups that supply a large proportion of the recruits for the Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies.

An unusual sight, to western eyes, in regions of Rai influence is the ‘Dhami’-a shaman who is a diviner, spirit medium and medicine man. Occasionally one will see Dhamis in the villages, but more often one will encounter them in the remote trails, dressed in elegant regalia and headdresses of the pheasant feathers. The rhythemic sound of the drums that a Dhami continually beats while walking, echoes throughout the hills.

Most Rais live between the Dudh Koshi and Arun rivers. One will meet them on treks to Everest, Makulu and between Solu Khumbu and Hile.


The Rais and Limbus are known collectively as Kirati- the earliest known population of Nepal’s Eastern hills where they have lived for at least 2000 years. Early Hindu Epics such as the ‘Mahabharat’ refer to the waelike Kirantis of the eastern Himalaya. From the 7th century CE (the common Era or AD), the Arun valley was the site of fierce fighting between Tibetan and Assamese war lords.

Many Limbus have adopted Subba as their surname and many men serve either in Gurkha regiments or in the Nepal Army. Limbus are the inventors of ‘Tongba’, a tasty, but very potent, millet beer that is sipped through a bamboo straw. Their religion is a mixture of Buddhism and Shamanism and they have their own ‘Dhamis’. Most Limbu people live in the region east of the Arun River. One will be in Limbu country during a trek to Kanchanjunga.

Musalman (Muslims)

Nepal’s Muslim population is known as Musalman. They live in the Kathmandu Valley, the Eastern Terai and throughout the the western hills. They migrated to Nepal from India, predominantly from Kashmir and Ladakh. Musalman are tradionally traders and dominate Kathmandu’s trade in handicrafts, souvenirs, shoes, bengals and other cosmetics related business.


The largest and probably the oldest group in the Terai is the Tharu. Now mostly peasant farmers, the Tharus once lived in small settlements of single-storey thatched long houses within the jungles, which gained them a reputation for being immune to malaria. They have their own tribal religion based on Hinduism. Tharu women have a special dignity and play an important role in Tharu society. Though Tharus live in most of the terai region, one will meet them mainly in Biratnagar, Nepalgunj and around Chitwan National Park.

Dhanwar, Majhi and Darai

These three related groups live along the river valleys of the Terai and are among the poorest and least educated of Nepal’s ethnic groups. The Majhi people traditionally live by fishing and operate dugout canoe ferries throughout the country.

Other Groups

The Satar, Dhangar, Koche, Rajbansi, and tajpuria are other Terai Groups. One is not likely to meet these people on a trekking trail.

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