Nepalese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Loyalty
  • Companionship
  • Interdependence
  • Faith
  • Tradition
  • Patience
  • Tolerance
  • Dependability


Nepal is a landlocked, mountainous country located between India and Tibet. It is well known for the impressive Himalayan range and deep valleys that shape the landscape. The Nepalis have a reputation for being dependable and resilient people who can withstand difficult conditions. This was recently exemplified in the stoic national response following the devastating earthquake of 2015. Nepalis often exhibit patience and calmness, and are generally not overly dramatic people. Their tolerance has enabled many different faiths and ethnicities to coexist quite harmoniously. Much of Nepal’s culture is deeply steeped in tradition and religion. However, new values and ideas are being introduced to the general population in light of a new democratic political order.


The Nepalese are generally deeply loyal to their citizenship and culture. They are very proud that their country has never been colonised, seeing this as a key distinguishing fact between them and India. The Gurkhas (Nepalese soldiers) continue to be highly admired for their role in this regard1. Nepalis understand the worth and beauty of their land. The culture is enigmatic with many religious customs, rituals, festivals, processions and local secrets. Yet, people also share a sense of sadness regarding the widespread poverty and mismanagement of their country. Indeed, poverty is an undeniable social issue. This, coupled with an unstable political situation, means the primary ambition of most Nepalese is generally to secure a stable future for their family.


Nepal is largely underdeveloped with limited social services and public infrastructure. There are very few urban centres outside of the capital city of Kathmandu. An estimated 83% of the population live in rural areas (2011). The geographical isolation that the mountains create has generally led many villages to be secluded from outside influence, meaning many have retained quite a distinct cultural identity. Tribal and nomadic practices continue in many places. The diversity of customs and values between regions means Nepal cannot be broadly generalised. However, typically it can be observed that the more remotely situated a community is, the more visibly traditional their cultural practices will be. Meanwhile, those regions with access to better education are likely to have diverged from some aspects of traditional social customs. Kathmandu in particular is becoming very outward looking, drawing influence from across the globe. Recent cosmopolitan transformation is visible in fashion as traditional Nepalese attire is now usually only worn in rural areas.


Social Hierarchies

Nepalese culture is quite hierarchical and there is significant stratification between the poorest and the most powerful of society. People mostly accept these differences in social status as the natural order and defer to those who are older or who they perceive to have a high reputation. However, a person’s status and background is not always immediately evident in Nepal. For example, one may find that a fruit seller has a degree in business. As it can be difficult to assume someone’s status from their appearance, Nepalis commonly ask about one’s age, profession, education and family background to determine the correct level of respect to be shown. Westerners often find that they are deferred to a lot and treated with high regard as (relatively speaking) they are considered to be very wealthy in Nepal. Land ownership is also a common measure of status. However, one’s family reputation and status (ijat) is generally thought to be more important than material wealth. People are not expected to be respected because of their money, but rather their virtue. There is also a preference shown towards those who are educated or speak English. This being said, many Nepalese are gradually becoming more materialistic and money focused.


The Nepalese awareness of status is also heavily influenced by the Hindu caste system. Although often classified under one term, the ‘caste’ system actually represents multiple overlapping systems of stratification. The ‘varna’ system divides society into four broad categories (varna) that are sometimes described as clusters of castes. These are the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. Each varna is considered to indicate a different level of ‘purity’ – with the Brahmins being the holiest/purest in Hinduism. Within each varna, there are more specific ‘thar’ categories that specify the social community one is born into and are often referred to in terms of vocation/employment. They are allocated and stratified into the varna system depending on the person’s social status. For example, occupations considered ‘dirty’ – such as cleaning or handling cow leather – are situated within the lower varna class of Sudra.


One’s caste traditionally determined the person’s line of work, position in the social hierarchy and defined ideas of self-worth. Despite it becoming illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste in 1962, the influence of this social stratification has remained. Some Nepalis may socialise and marry within their caste while others may even ostracise those belonging to subordinate castes. For example, they may not accept offers of food from someone of a low caste, believing it to be ‘impure’. Nevertheless, as Nepal modernises, the social constraints of the caste system are fading. In Kathmandu, for instance, where castes mix on a daily basis, the concern regarding others’ castes is diminishing. The younger generation is also particularly liberal and open towards all castes. One of the main agendas of the incoming government has been to recognise all castes.


Ethnic Demographic

People’s social distinction, be it their caste or ethnicity, plays a big role in informing their personal identity in Nepal. For example, many Nepalis use the name of their ethnic group or caste as their surname. An individual’s ethnicity is different from their caste. While one’s caste is usually indicative of occupation and family status, ethnic groups commonly share a distinctive language, ancestral home, religious tradition or form of social organisation.


The government has identified between 50 and 60 Nepalese ethnicities (2011). Many of these are indigenous to Nepal and have origins as the original inhabitants of a certain region (e.g. the Tharu and Tamang people). Other ethnicities in Nepal, while not native, are often historical inhabitants of the areas. Some of the biggest ethnicities are the Brahmin-Chhetri, Magars and Newars.


The ethnic makeup of Nepal reflects the historical migratory patterns into the country from the North and South. Broadly, the castes and ethnicities can be broken down into two main groups: Tibeto-Burmans and Indo-Aryans. This differentiation between the two is not so much socially distinctive, but often visible in hereditary features that suggest distant ancestry. Indo-Aryans typically have similar appearances to their Indian neighbours in the South, whilst Tibeto-Burmans generally resemble Mongol or Tibetan people. Indo-Aryans are more populous and have come to dominate Nepal socially, politically and economically, while Tibeto-Burmans traditionally inhabit the mountains at very high altitudes. However, with increasing urban and overseas migration, the geographic differentiation between ethnicities is reducing.


Nepalis with foreign ancestry may have retained certain cultural influences that relate to their ancestral background. For example, those from India commonly follow Hinduism, whilst Tibeto-Burmans are generally Buddhist. However, these labels purely serve as a helpful way to categorise the origins of Nepali ethnic diversity and don’t necessarily reflect Nepalese people’s personal identity. People are unlikely to describe themselves as ‘Tibeto-Burman’ or ‘Indo-Aryan’. Every individual ethnicity has developed a strong and distinctive cultural identity. They often share a common language, belief or form of social organisation unique to their ethnic group.


Collectivism

Nepalese culture is very collectivistic. Families may combine their assets in order for all members to be economically secure, and close friends perform favours for one another on a regular basis. This interdependence has been largely driven by necessity, as the government cannot always be relied upon to provide support. Instead, Nepalis tend to be deeply reliant on and loyal to their family and social group. It’s common for people to forfeit their own aspirations for the betterment of their entire family unit. For example, one person may work in very difficult conditions whilst sending remittances back to others. In rural areas and at high altitudes especially, people depend on their community for survival, and basic assets are shared communally. Village elders are often the authority figures of these communities. Those who are urban, educated and internationally exposed may be more individualistic in their outlook. However, given the underdeveloped status of Nepal, economic independence is still difficult to attain.


Friendship and Company

Most friendships have a strong significance and substance to people in Nepal. They are approached quite earnestly and are not usually shallow relationships that come and go quickly. There is a sense of graciousness that comes with sharing in another’s company; people are constantly “humbled” to meet others, have a guest or gain a new friend. Once the growth of a friendship begins, so too does an expectation of loyalty and reliability. People often reach out to friends for personal favours and support and may expect to be granted certain privileges (such as job opportunities) on the basis of the relationship.


Generally, Nepalis feel most comfortable when they are accompanied in whatever they do. They love companionship and are known to strike up conversation for little reason other than to talk. This aspect of Nepalese culture makes it feel very warm and inclusive. People rarely go anywhere alone (eklai), particularly women. Those who are travelling alone can expect to be questioned out of curiosity as to why; solo travellers are usually sent off with a blessing and so are accompanied by the wishes and prayers of their family.


Purity and Fatalism

A deep moral and ethical awareness is interlaced into daily life in Nepal. This is influenced by religious values and beliefs, as well as cultural ideas of purity. They are deeply entrenched and ritualised in people’s diet and personal practice. Almost any action, object, job or person can be categorised as particularly ‘pure’ or ‘impure’. Nepalis can be quite reserved in their behaviour, acting modestly in accord with what is considered to be appropriate behaviour within these cultural guidelines.


The fundamental importance religion holds in many Nepalis’ lives also influences their approach to problem solving. It is common for people to take a fatalistic attitude, assuming the cause of problems to be the result of a god or spirit’s work. For example, witches are sometimes thought to be the cause of bad luck. This fatalism does not necessarily mean people are passive, waiting for things to occur at the will of a god. Nepalis generally work very hard until the point that they can do no more – from there, “what will be will be”. However, misfortunes are often attributed to an individual’s behaviour; for instance, bad health is commonly perceived to result from bad karma. Therefore, Nepalis are known to be quite stoic and tolerant in difficult situations as this explanation of problems can make them feel as if they somewhat deserve to suffer.


The Nepalese military played a famous role in fighting the British off.

See the statistics on the side of this page for a list of different ethnic groups in Nepal.

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