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Cultural Pluralism and National Cultural Identity

The case of Nepal

Dilli R. Dahal

‘Culture’ and ‘Cultural Identity’ are sensitive topics. Often, they are hard to define. While explaining the diversity of human cultures or developing a concept of nation state, these topics are discussed either narrowly or broadly by philosophers, political scientists, cultural historians and anthropologists. It is easy to define an indigenous culture or a culture of a particular group, as most anthropologists do. However, it becomes an immensely difficult task to define a national culture or cultural identity of a nation, especially when a nation is composed of diverse ethnic/caste groups with different race, language, religion and culture. History has already shown that when there is an ‘artificial’ conglomeration of cultures, a nation gradually falls apart in the name of language, religion, race or culture. The tragic conflict between the Tamil and the Sinhala, the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the frequent Hindu-Muslim riots in India are recent examples. The problems in each case are the cultural identities of the people as expressed through language, race, religion, caste and culture.

In this article, I provide a case study of Nepal, which has been facing a serious cultural identity crisis in recent years, despite its long unified cultural history. I argue that this has happened because of the regular attempt by rulers, who wanted to develop a homogeneous Nepali culture within the frame of Hindu political ideals and without seriously considering the diversity and complexity of the Nepali culture. Here, I put together facets of history, sociology and politics to argue my case.

Historical Perspective of Nepali Culture

Nepal, a small Himalayan Kingdom sandwiched between India and China, is a cultural mosaic forming a unique kind of multi-ethnic and caste society, throughout its history. There are about 140 distinct ethnic/caste groups, who have lived side by side for the past 2,000 years, maintaining separate yet related cultural traditions of their own. This has come to be collectively known as ‘Nepali Culture’.

Today, the Nepali culture in essence, is the combination of the following three distinct elements:

(i) A culture representing the four distinct categories of people: (The caste-origin Hindu groups; the ethnic/tribal groups; the Muslims and others, Sikh, Bengali, and Marwari and Christians). Of them, the caste-origin Hindu groups represent approximately 70 per cent of the total population of Nepal.1

(ii) Racially, two distinct groups of people: the Indo-Aryan (Caucasoid) and the Mongoloids, and

(iii) A culture heavily influenced from the Indian Hindu civilization from the south and the Tibetan Buddhist civilization from the north. In terms of cultural tradition or civilization, Nepal as a whole can be distinctly placed as an interface between the Hindu and the Buddhist civilization (Fisher, 1978).

As Nepal was divided into small kingdoms and principalities before 1768, it is difficult to give an overview of the totality of the Nepali culture. However, it can be said that the Nepali social structure was traditional in nature. There was little ethnic tensions or conflict between ethnic groups or cultures. The family, kinship caste and village were the main forces of social institutions. The people were highly orthodox in their religious attitudes and divided in geographical, linguistic and cultural units. Nobody was seriously concerned about a common language or culture. So, the ‘Nepalese’ social structure comprised localized and thriving ‘local’ or ‘small traditions’ or of ‘indigenous village civilization’, hardly crossing the caste, creed and ethnic boundaries.

After the unification of Nepal by the Gurkhali King Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1768, the Nepali social structure was gradually enticed with the Hindu model of Great Tradition, albeit without intensively disturbing the local cultures. This peaceful transition was affected through the implementation of the Legal Code of 1854. This Code categorized all the people of Nepal into four distinct orders, without seriously considering the diversity and complexity of the Nepali culture. The orders were:

1. Tagadhari (castes wearing sacred thread),

2. Matwali (liquor consuming castes),

3. Pani na calne choi chito halnu naparna (castes from whom water is not accepted, but whose touch does not require aspergation of water), and

4. Pani na calne, choi chito halnu parne (untouchable caste).

This Code embodied certain distinct features: commensality, supremacy of Hindu values and religious orthodoxy, and caste as the basis of social mobility. A member, irrespective of his cultural background, breaching these features of Code, was either severely punished, excommunicated or had to accept demotion within the caste hierarchy (Sharma, 1977: 96).

In brief, the regime before 1950 was authoritarian in political structure, without any opposition from any ethnic or cultural group or political parties. Social harmony as well as national cultural identity was maintained by strictly enforcing Hindu laws. In other words, the rulers consolidated their powers by arranging all groups of Nepal in a hierarchial framework of the Hindu caste structure. The Hindu values of morals and merits were enforced to provide the support base for the despotic regime.

Along with the overthrow of the Rana regime in 1950, Nepal opened her door to the outside world encouraging the process of democratization and modernization. But Nepal could not develop a new model of ethnic pluralism. With the introduction of the Panchayat government in Nepal in 1962, the political and social structures of Nepal became more rigid and orthodox. One of the significant aspects of the Panchayat system was its ban on political parties; there was no place for organized political activity and opposition within the system. But even within this given structure, one of the most dramatic changes that took place was the introduction of New Legal Code (Naya Mulki Ain) in 1964. According to this Code, nobody could claim inferiority or superiority on the basis of race, caste and creed; everybody was equal before the law.

No doubt, many of the strictures of the caste system such as the ‘defiling’ of food and water by the low castes and religious sanctions against anti-caste behaviour have weakened after the introduction of the New Legal Code. But the caste system is alive and, in some cases, has become more distinct and prominent over the years. Caste forms the basis of social interaction among the majority of Nepal’s diverse ethnic population and there is a fairly uniform order of caste ranking even today. This is because those ethnic/caste groups whose social position is higher in the traditional hierarchy have usurped much of the power, influence, wealth and prestige available within the system. Thus Brahmanical values have become a model to raise one’s socio-economic status and even to identify oneself in the existing structure. This has invariably led towards the process of Sanskritization or Hinduization, providing for more orthodox, stratified, caste-hierarchial values even for those who were originally outside the framework of the caste frame. The process of Sanskritization and Hinduization of a group (whether an ethnic Limbu or an ethnic Thakali) is, therefore, an affirmation and not a negation of the caste system and their values (Jones 1976; Ijima 1977; Sharma 1977; Bista 1971). That is why an untouchable still finds difficulty in locating one’s own position within the framework of the New Legal Code. Untouchability is not enforceable in courts. The system inadvertently provides a new basis for caste exclusiveness and this has given rise to the creation of ethnic/caste associations such as Manka Khala (an association of the Newar community), Thakali Samaj Sudhar Samitee (Thakali association), Magurali (a joint association of the Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu), Kamatapuri (a joint association of the Koche, Meche and Tajpuria), Sadbhawana Parishad (an association of the people of Terai) and many more. The objectives of these associations, at least theoretically, are to protect one’s own language and culture from outside forces, but they see themselves as part of a historical cultural unit which is both exclusive and in opposition to the ‘outside’. Cultural identity has already taken the shape of political identity in the context of confrontation over issues such as language, religion, economy and culture.

In brief, though the introduction of the New Legal Code was a bold attempt in the traditional Nepali society, it was already too late to maintain ethnic harmony and integrity as Nepal could not move a step further towards economic modernization. Over the years the people became poorer and economic disparity widened more than before. In other words, the economy could not be transformed to service the projected caste-neutral social structure. This problem has been compounded further by the liberal political structure in the recent years.

Democracy and Forms of Ethnic Tension

After a long struggle, Nepal was able to forms a democratic government in April 1990. This political structure provided avenues for public debates. This has, among others, helped to bring out ethnic tensions in the streets. Three main forms of ethnic divides deserve attention. The first is between the Pahade (hillmen) and the Madhesiya (plainsmen) based on the regionalism and ethnicity. The second is the split between the high caste Hindu groups (particularly the Hill Brahmin, Thakuri, Chhetri and Newar) and the so-called ‘indigenous groups’ or Janjati of Nepal. The third is the split between the Brahmin and Newar groups and the high caste Hindu groups and the low caste Hindu groups.

Three main groups of people reside in the Terai: the original inhabitants (e.g. Tharu, Dhimal), the people of ‘Indian origin’ and the hill Nepali people. The influx of hill people suddenly increased in the Nepal Terai after the malaria eradication programme of the late 1950s. Historically, neglect of the Terai people by the hill-dominated government created an outburst of ethnic tension in the Terai. Some Terai leaders, particularly those representing the Hindu caste groups in the ‘Sadbhavana Party’ have started a Pahadiya Hatao campaign to physically remove the hill people from the plains — which might be considered a disturbing trend in national politics. These leaders also advocate the use of Hindi as a link language in the Terai, challenging Nepali, the national language of Nepal.

The division between hill people and plains people also seem linked to the uncontrolled flow of Indian migrants crossing the border to settle in the Nepal Terai. Because so many of the groups on either side of the border are culturally identical, it is difficult to differentiate between the Nepali Terai residents from the Indian settlers. Daily familial, cultural and commercial interactions which take place between these groups further complicate matters. In recent years, more and more Indian workers have been coming into Nepal, who settle with their wives and children. That a problem of national identity should arise among the Terai people, as also the fact that hill Nepalese thus question the allegiance of the Terai residents seems natural (Dahal, 1992).

The divide between the high caste Hindu groups and the Janajati are also on the forefront these days. The Janajatis also feel that they have always been neglected by the Hindu high caste dominated governments of Nepal. They claim that they are the indigenous population of Nepal and demand a share of power in national politics and insist on the recognition of their cultural and linguistic rights. They consider themselves as non-Hindu groups, although the Hindu dominated government of Nepal has always tried to incorporate them within the Hindu caste hierarchical model. The Hindu caste culture is considered as an ‘alien culture’ by the Janajatis. Furthermore, the Brahmin’s predominance in every field of life—political, economic and social — is labelled as ‘Brahmanbad’ and thus the Brahmins have been the subject of attack in recent years in Nepal (Bista 1991; Sharma, 1992).

Likewise, social and political competition between the Newars and the Brahmins is creating serious problems for the nascent democratic structure of Nepal. The Newars of Kathmandu Valley feel that they have been gradually displaced in their home, and by the ‘outsiders’, particularly the Parbatiyas (the hill people), the Madhesiyas (the plains people) and the Bhotiyas (the Mountain people). (Malla, 1992) Newars actually claim that as they are the original inhabitants of the Valley, they should have access to all fields of Nepalese life-social, economic and political. In fact, considering the present population size of Newars in Nepal (5.5% of the total population), Newars are one of the most benefited groups in the social and economic developments of Nepal.

Finally, conflicts between the high castes and the low castes are emerging rapidly. About 12 per cent of the total population of Nepal consists of untouchables.2 The New Legal Code, after its three decades of implementation, has not been effective in changing the socio-economic status of the untouchables, and they have the lowest social and the economic status compared to other groups in Nepal. As a consequence, they are raising voices against the dominant Hindu castes.

Finally, the language issue has come on the forefront in recent years. About 60 different languages and dialects are spoken in Nepal. No doubt, all of the languages must be preserved as the cultural heritage, whereas a national language is also most essential for Nepal. The Nepali language has been functioning as the national language of Nepal for over the last two centuries. It is spoken as the mother tongue by more than 50 per cent of the total population. Over the last three decades or so, the Nepali language is being widely adopted throughout the kingdom and spoken by almost all people. But the government is adopting an ambivalent language policy. The Sanskrit language has been made compulsory up to the high school level without considering the diverse language groups whereas the Nepali language is withdrawn as one of the compulsory papers in the examination of Public service Commission in Nepal. How can one be a good official if one cannot write the Nepali language well?

Likewise, the Hindi language is merely a tool for playing politics in the Nepali Terai today for those who feel themselves outside of the Hill Nepali mainstream. Most of the Terai people (excluding the tribal ethnic groups and the hill people) in fact speak not Hindi but the Maithili, Bhojpuri, Bajika (mixture of Bhojpuri and Maithili) and Awadhi languages.


In brief, cultural similarity is not necessarily a diagnostic of common origins (Barth 1969: 9-11). My discussions have demonstrated that social, economic and political conditions of Nepal over the years motivated people to show serious concern over their own ethnicity, race, caste, language, religion and region. This concern is being demonstrated more intensely and publicly after the restoration of democracy thus contradicting the assumption that democracy is the ultimate solution to all ethnic problems of Nepal. The elites as well as the political leaders use the community identification as a tool for their own ends even today. The people who are better educated are becoming more and more culturally self-centred and religiously orthodox. The process of urbanization, transportation, communication and mass-media and new occupations are not helping much to change people’s traditional cultural values. This is leading towards a process of cultural disintegration rather than cultural cohesiveness and assimilation. In considering the present changing socio-political contexts, I feel that the government must adopt some cultural policies to develop this country as a multi-cultural nation.

(i) In lieu of the current emphasis on Hindu values-based national culture, a redefinition of Nepali culture is desirable which can incorporate various threads of cultures scattered from the east to the west of Nepal. This task is not easy. We have to develop certain common denominators from every culture of Nepal which can be harmonized as elements of a distinct national cultural identities of people. In other words, these traditional cultural elements must develop themselves into a national culture of Nepal.

(ii) It is an irony to note that Nepal attempted to develop social and political superstructures without an adequate economic base. This has not helped to push democratic institutions forward within the multi-ethnic society of Nepal. Most of the Nepali people feel that they do not share adequately in the economy, polity and social life of Nepal. Hegemony of certain ethnic identities over other identities is seen in many aspects of Nepali society. This is one of the root causes of ethnic and political discontents of various groups in Nepal.

The crucial problem today remains how to cross these socio-cultural barriers of status, language and culture in order to establish relationships of parity and reciprocity. The only solution lies in the promotion of performance based democratic institutions, which requires a stable government with strong commitment in action.


1. According to the 1991 Census, 89 per cent of the total population of Nepal are Hindus. In fact, only the caste-origin groups can be considered strictly Hindus and others not.

2. According to the 1991 Census, the untouchable hill populations only such as the Kami, Sarki, Damai and Badi make up 8.4 per cent of the total population. There are significant numbers of untouchables among the Newars and within the Terai Hindu communities of Nepal.


Barth, F., 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (ed. F. Barth), Boston: Little Brown.

Bista, D.B., 1971. "The Political Innovators of the Upper Kali Gandaki", In Man

———, 1991. Fatalism and Development, Orient Longman.

CBS, 1991. "The Census of Nepal, 1991", In Central Bureau of Statistics, Kathmandu.

Dahal, Dilli R., 1992. "Grasping the Terai Identity", In Himal (May/June).

Fisher, Jim, 1978. Himalaya Anthropology, Hague: Mounton.

Iijima, Shijeru, 1977. "Ecology, Economy and Cultural Change among the Thakalis in the Himalayan Kingdom of Central Nepal", In Changing Aspects of Modern Nepal (ed. S. Iijima), Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo.

Jones, Rex L., 1976. "Sanskritization in Eastern Nepal", In Ethnology Vol. XV, no. 1.

Malla, K.P., 1992. "Bahunvada: Myth or Reality", Himal (May/June).

Sharma, P.R., 1977. Caste, Social Mobility and Sanskritization in a Tribal Hindu Society: A Study of Nepal’s Old Legal Code", In Changing Aspects of Modern Nepal (ed. S. Iijima), Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo.

———, 1992. "How to Tend This Garden", In Himal (May/June).



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