According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the total population of Nepal was 26,427,99 in 2007. The population comprises people of more than 100 multiple ethnic groups who speak about 93 different languages and dialects which are further divided into different castes. The distinction in caste still plays a significant part in a Nepali’ life when it comes to marriage.
Some of the main ethnic groups are: Gurungs and Magars who live mainly in the western region; Rais, Limbus and Sunwars who live in the eastern middle hills; Sherpas, Manangbas and Lopas who live near the mountains of Everest, Annapurna and Mustang respectively; Newars who live in and around the Kathmandu valley; Tharus, Yadavas, Satar, Rajvanshis and Dhimals who live in the Tarai region; and Brahmins, Chhetris and Thakuris generally spread over all parts of the country.
Nepali is the official language of the state, spoken and understood by almost all the people of Nepal. English is spoken by many in government and business offices. It is the mode of education in most private schools of Kathmandu and some other cities.
Brahmans belong to the priestly caste. There are two different categories of Brahmans viz. 'Kumai Brahmans' and 'Purbiya Brahmans'. The 'Kumai Brahmans' are said to have come from the mountainous regions of Kumaon in northern India, west of Nepal. They are mainly confined to western and central Nepal and the capital city of Kathmandu. The 'Purbiya' Brahmans derive from the eastern part of Nepal and are found scattered across the country with a greater concentration in the eastern part of Nepal and Kathmandu.
Chhetris and Thakuris
Chhetris and Thakuris are traditionally rulers, leaders and warriors. The Brahmans are their teachers and family priests. They are orthodox Hindus. Chhetris and Thakuris are among the most influential and well-to-do social classes. They are mostly in government service, in the army and police force. Some of them have remained farmers and are relatively poor.
The Tamangs live mainly in the high hills in the east, west, north and south of Kathmandu Valley in central Nepal. The Tamangs are divided into several exogamous clans and are Buddhists. There are several gompas or gumbas (Buddhist temples) in most Tamang settlements. All their festivals and ceremonies are performed in accordance to Buddhism. Many of them are engaged in thangka painting.
In the middle hills and valleys along the southern slopes of the Annapurna Himalaya in mid-western Nepal, the Gurungs live together with other ethnic groups like Magars, Brahmans and Chhetris. These sturdy, hardworking people are Mongoloid in features. They are spread out over a large territory from Gorkha in the east through Lamjung, Manang and Kaski to Syangja district. They also have a tradition of 'Rodi', a club for boys and girls of similar age group where they sing and dance to their traditional music.
The Magars are similar to Gurungs in physical features but enjoy a separate identity. Along with the Gurung, the Magars for centuries have served in the British and Indian Gurkha/Gorkha regiments and in the Nepal Army. The Magars celebrate the festival dedicated to the goddess Kali in great pomp (a Hindu festival). Mainly in Gorkha, they sacrifice plenty of goats during the occasion. Magar villages are known for their traditional round and oval houses.
The natives of Kathmandu valley, the Newars, are mainly traders and farmers. With a purpose to trade, they are scattered across the country; with greater concentration in the Kathmandu Valley, Banepa, Dhulikhel, Bhojpur, Bandipur and Tansen. Despite their small population, their contribution to the history, art, architecture and business activities of Nepal is outstanding.
Newars speak their own language, 'Newari' better known as Nepal Bhasa which belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. There are both Buddhist and Hindu Newars. Like elsewhere in the country, religious syncretism is blended into the culture and tradition. They celebrate numerous feasts and festivals throughout the year. Most of the spectacular festivals of the valley like the chariot processions are Newari traditions. The traditional art and architecture of Nepal is dominated by that of the Newari community as they are known for their skilled craftsmen who took their craft as far as the Mongol court in China.
Rais and Limbus
The Rais and Limbus jointly known as Kirants are said to have ruled the Katmandu valley from around 7th century BC to the time they were defeated around 300 AD. After their fall they moved to the area now known as Patan and later to the east of Nepal occupying the Arun valley up to the Sikkim border. They have strong Mongoloid features and speak a Tibeto-Burman language. Today the Rais are found mostly in the hilly regions of eastern Nepal mainly around Dhankuta, Terhathum, Bhojpur and Arun and Dudh Koshi valleys. The Limbus are spread out in the extreme east of Nepal, mainly in and around Taplejung, Khotang and the Arun Valley. The Rais are neither Hindu nor Buddhist but worship their own deities and ancestors. They are divided into many sub-groups each of which speaks a different dialect. The Limbus follow a mixture of Shaivism and Animism. Among the Rais and Limbus marriages are monogamous. Many have served in the Gurkha regiments of the Indian and British armies.
The most famous among the Himalayan people are the Sherpas because of their natural mountain climbing skills which has made them an indispensable part of mountain expeditions as leaders, guides and porters. As an individual or in groups, they have set records of many 'firsts' in the mountaineering world. They live in the high Himalayan region of eastern Nepal, in the vicinity of Mt. Everest, along the Arun Valley, the Dudh Koshi River and its tributary areas. Sherpas are strongly Buddhists and observe a number of festivals during the year including Lhosar which is their New Year and also the most important of festivals. In the higher regions like Thyangboche, Chiwang and Thame, they celebrate an interesting festival called Mani Rimdu which has become a major tourist attraction. With strong Mongoloid features, they are said to have originally come from Tibet and resemble them in their traditional costumes and religious beliefs. The sherpas have adapted to the high altitude where they live.
The Tharus are the indigenous ethnic group of the Tarai with a concentrated population in the middle and west of Nepal. Most of the Tharus have Mongoloid but dark features which distinguishes them from the other Mongoloid people. They are aboriginal Tarai settlers and are said to be partially immune to malaria. The Tharus have their indigenous dialect, known as 'Naja'. But they speak a mixture of local dialects, such as Prakriti, Bhojpuri, Mughali, Nepali, Urdu and Maithili. They live in long houses accommodating large extended families. They are divided into three major groups: the Desaura, Dangaura and Rana Tharu. The Tharus believe in animism but celebrate some Hindu festivals as well. Each village has its own local gods and goddesses protecting the people. Some Tharus are believed to have immigrated from Rajasthan while others claim they originated in Dang. During festivals Tharus dress up in spectacular costumes and large silver ornaments.
'Thakalis' are believed to have originated from Thak Khola, the valley of the Kali Gandaki river in western Nepal. They are famous for their neatly tended kitchens and are mostly engaged in running hotels, inns, and restaurants. They are encountered mainly in the Around Annapurana Trek, one of the most popular trekking routes in Nepal. The religion of the Thakali is a mixture of Buddhism, shamanism, Bonpo and Hinduism. Lha Feva is the most significant festival for the Thakalis. Although they have Mongoloid features they are quite distinct from the other ethnic groups. They once played an important part in the salt trade with Tibet.
Manangé or Manangba
Manangé people resemble Tibetans but are believed to be originally of the Gurung ethnic group and most use the surname Gurung. They live in the lower hills and valleys of Manang in the upper reaches of the Marsyangdi River towards the north in central Nepal. The Manang district encloses three distinct areas of Neshyang, Nar and Gyasumdo; all of them culturally interrelated. Skilled traders, they have been travelling in south-east and far-east Asia for centuries dealing in jewelry, herbs and whatever fetches a good price. Later they switched to importing clothes and electronic goods from Hong Kong and Bangkok. They are strongly Buddhist and celebrate Lhosar as their New Year. They also celebrate interesting events like the Archery Festival known as ‘Metha’ which lasts for weeks involving competition between various villages around Manang and the horse racing festival known as ‘Yartung’ which is also celebrated in Mustang.
The Dolpa or Dolpo settlements are concentrated in the remote and fascinating region which is confined by the Dhaulagiri massif in the south and east; the Sisne and Kanjiroba in the west and Tibet on the north. They generally settle at altitudes of 3,660 m to 4,000 m. They are probably the highest settlements in the world. The people of Dolpo have mongoloid features and bear a close resemblance to Tibetans. They share the same religion, Buddhism and also speak Tibetan. Their homeland is famous for the pristine turquoise lakes and beautiful landscape. They trade with Tibet and transport their barter goods on yak caravans often travelling for extended periods. Their lifestyle was portrayed in the film “Caravan”.
Chepang and Kusundas
These backward ethnic communities belong to a well-defined traditional area in the south of Dhading, the west of Makawanpur and east of Chitwan along the steeper slopes of the Mahabharat range of middle Nepal. Although nomadic people, a few of these tribal people have started deriving subsistence from agriculture otherwise they are hunter gatherers. They have the ability to survive by hunting and searching for roots to eat. Though, they are economically backward, they have a rich and unique cultural tradition. In recent time there has been an attempt to get them to settle down in one place.
One of the vanishing tribes of Nepal, the population of Rautes is down to 658. This nomadic tribe lives in the mid-western part of Nepal. They are known for making wooden bowls which they barter with other goods especially foodstuff like grains. They also use the wooden bowls to keep grain and maize. They make temporary residences near the forest where they search for food. They are hunter gatherers who hunt monkeys most of the time.
The amazing diversity that is seen in the Nepali society also means there is much diversity in the customs and beliefs of each different ethnic group. The major division is along religious lines where the two major players are Hinduism and Buddhism. Then there are Jains, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and ethnic groups that follow their own unique religious beliefs and customs. Even among the Hindus and Buddhists there are groups like the Newars who besides following religious customs, have unique rituals such as the Bel Biwa where a young girl is symbolically married to a Bel fruit. Newars are divided into two religious groups: Hindus and Buddhists.
Among all the customs and rituals, the rules of marriage are particularly interesting. In traditional families, marriages are arranged by consenting parents after the boy or girl comes of age. Child marriage and polygamy still exist in Nepal although abolished by law. Each ethnic group has a different set of rituals for the wedding ceremony while many in general follow the Hindu customs. For many it is customary to elope before being officially accepted by the parents and among some it is even normal to wait for the girl to get pregnant before the official ceremony. Nepali customs are as diverse as the people themselves.
The marriageable age has been legally set at 18 for women and 21 for men, but such laws are not strictly adhered to. Even today, most marriages are arranged by parents, but love marriages are becoming common especially among the educated people. In the villages, child marriages are still practiced and in Kathmandu especially among the Newar community, two siblings getting married off simultaneously is also common. Weddings are elaborate often lasting days. Ceremonies include bringing the bride to the groom’s house in a procession accompanied by music played by a brass band. Originally, the band consisted of an ensemble playing ‘Panche Baja’ comprised of Nepali folk instruments. But more and more Nepalis are opting for the brass band which is deafeningly loud.
The pasni (rice-feeding) ceremony is one of the important occasions for a child. In the presence of family and priest, the seven month-old child is dressed in finery and fed rice presented on a coin by all members of the family. He is shown several objects on a tray: a heap of earth, paddy (unhusked rice), bricks, toys, rings, a pen and ink-pot, and a book. It is said his parents can tell the child s future profession from the object he first picks up.
Nepali is the official language of Nepal, with over 93 other languages and dialects spoken as mother-tongues in different parts of the country. Nepali is of the Indo-Aryan family of languages brought from central Asia by the Aryans. The original Old Indo-Aryan language gave rise to Sanskrit from which Nepali derives. Nepali uses the Devanagri script (the script of the city of the gods, sometimes known as Nagari) which derived from the Brahmi script of ancient India.
Most ethnic groups have their own languages and some like the Rais have many dialects spoken in the various regions where they live. Newars, Rais, Limbus, Lepchas all have their own script which are still in use. One of the most well-known script is the Ranjana Lipi used by the Newar people. They have used various other scripts over the centuries. In the tarai regions, various languages like Maithili, Hindi and others are spoken. Most people can speak Nepali, which is the lingua franca of Nepal.
English is widely spoken in the cities and with more and more schools teaching in the English medium, a large population of the younger generation can speak English. Both English and Nepali are used for official purposes.
Foreign students can study Nepali (spoken and Devanagari script), Newari, Sanskrit and Tibetan languages at the Bishwa Bhasha Campus (at Bhrikutimandap) of Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. They may pursue BA and MA studies in the Nepali language at the Department of Nepali Studies, Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur.