Nepal has a population of more than 26 million people, made up of over 40 different races and tribes. The country offers such diversity that the visitor may experience any lifestyle from the stone age, in far west and high hills, to the jet age of Kathmandu.
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The two major groups in Nepalese society are Tibeto-Burmans, or Mongoloids from the north, and Indo-Aryans from the south. Many customs are inherited from both sides and have been developed by the influences of the land, climate and available resources.
The largest groups can be divided on the basis of geographical locationsby altitude.
Sherpa, in literal terms, means people of the east in the Tibetan language. Originally from Tibet about 500 years ago they have a close affinity with the Tibetan language, culture and religion. Sherpas major occupations include agriculture, animal husbandry, trade and have become famous for trekking and mountaineering. Today they are know worldwide for their skill and hardiness. They follow Buddhism as their major religion.
The settlement of these people is considered the highest of any living ethnic group in the world. These people live beyond the mountains, west of the Kali Gandaki river valley. These people practice Buddhist customs.
Larke is the northern most part of Nepal’s Gorkha district while Siar is the northern part of the Dhading district. These people mainly speak the Tibetan and Gurung languages and have ethnic affinity with Gurungs.
The people of Manang are called Manang Bas. Their major occupations include trade and business. They have their own language and scripts and maintain their own local religious practice with 12 villages called Bara Gaule-Baragaun. The famous pilgrimage spot on the Annanpurna Circuit, Muktinath, lies in their area. Although Buddhism is part religion, they follow Bon-Po which pre-dates the reign of Bhuddha.
The settler of Lo are called Lopas. They carry on trade between Nepal and Tibet in the Upper and Lower Mustang areas. Buddhism is their major religion. They have their own local language and festivals outside typical Buddists as well.
These people are the inhabitants of Olanchung Gola, the main trading route along Eastern Nepal. Besides Buddhism, they have their own customs and practices.
Thudam, Topke Gola and Lhomis are other ethnic groups within Nepal’s alpine region.
Middle Hills and Valleys
Two large groups distributed in scattered patterns all over the country, which are considered the two highest castes in Nepal. They have sharp Indo-Aryan features and an olive complexion. Brahmins are believed to have migrated from India while Chhetris are from the present day Khasa people from Khasi. These people follow Hinduism as their main religion and socially they have many sects. They are divided into two major streams, the Purba and Umai. The Kumain people are of the origin of Kumo, Northern India, Uttar Pradesh. Their social practices depend upon Hindu religious epics. They speak Nepali, the national language of Nepal and use a script with basis in Sanskrit.
Kirati mainly consists of Rai and Limbu people. Literally Rai or Limbu means headman. They are decendents of the Kirati’s who first formed the kingdom in the Kathmandu Valley. They now mainly live in far eastern Nepal. Kirati people are well known for their courage and bravery and are often recruited into armies abroad like the more famous Gurkhas. The religious text of Limbu is the Mundhum.
Newars are mainly settled in Kathmandu Valley and in major trading centers throughout the kingdom. They have Mongolian features and their own language and script, Newari, believed to have its origin from Tibeto-Burmans. Hinduism and Buddhism are their main religions. They have complex social systems and practices and are comprised of many castes. Trade and farming are their main occupations.
In Tibetan language Tamang means horse traders. It is believed that they originally came from Tibet. The majority of Tamangs live in the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley. Their social practices and customs are based on Buddhism and they have their own language, Tamang. They work mainly as farmers, labours and as porters.
Their origin is basically found in hill regions of western Nepal. Their religion is Buddhism and their language, Magar Kura, depicts their affinity to the Tibeto-Burmese tongue and culture. Farming, military service, weaving, hunting, and fishing are their major occupations.
They are famous for their innocence, simple mindedness, and bravery while serving in military forces. They are mostly settled along the higher slopes of the Annapurna areas and the Kali Gandaki river above the Baglung district. They are farmers of rice and grains and also sheep. They are ethnically related to Magars, Thakalis and Kiratis in eastern Nepal. The Gurung people love music and they have their own language.
The origin of Thakali is Thok Khola, a high valley in central Nepal along the Muktinath region. They have Mongolian features, a fair complexion and narrow eyes. Thakalis are divided into four major groups: Gauchan, Tulachan, Sherchan and Bhattacan. Their religion is a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jhankrism. They are known for their hospitality, good salesmanship, and cleanliness.
Certain ethnic groups in Nepal are categorised according to their occupation. They are Kamis (smiths), Damais (tailors), Dhibis (washerman) Sarkis (cobblers), Gaines (professional singers) and Khumbharas (porters). The origin of these castes has not been investigated yet by the anthropologists. Hinduism is their major religion and Nepali their major language. Many have their own local festivals and practices.
Furthermore, Sunwars, Jirels, Chepangs, Kusundas and Panchgaule (five villages) are other minor ethnic groups of the Nepal midland hill regoins. Sunwars are Jirels are considered to be the off shoots of Magars. Panchgaule are similar to Thakalis. Kusundas still live in primitive conditions. They live in caves, under trees and in temporary huts in the forest. Only a handful of them are settled into occupational farming. Chepangs, who are believed to be the offshoots of Kirats, are slowly moving into urban areas.
Ethnic Groups of Terai Region and Southern Nepal border.
These a people are similar to Bramin and Chhetris of the middle hills. Their major difference being a high degree of influence from the neighbouring North Indian people.
This is the largest and oldest ethnic group of the Terai belt found living in close proximity to densely forested regions. They are dark in complexion and have smart, trim bodies. They follow the Hindu religion and their practices are dependent on many typical Aryan practices. Farming and business are their main occupations. Danwars, Majhis and Darais are very similar to Tharus, physically and culturally. Nevertheless, they speak their own languages which are of Sanskrit origin.
This is a dominant ethnic group of far eastern Terai areas of Jhapa and Morang. Although they follow both Hindu and Muslims religions, they have their own local practices. Farming is their major occupation.
They are similar to Santhals of Bihar, India. They are very much like Tharus and their social life is organised and disiplined. They believe in Hinduism. Dimals, Bodos, Dhangars are agriculturist Hindu. Bodos are settled in an area know as the Mechi Zone and are more known as Mechain people. Dhangars, who live in one part of the eastern Terai have their origin in Madhya Pradesh, India. Dhimals are the Terain counterparts of the Limbus from the eastern Terai, mainly in Jhapa.
There are Muslims migrated from Northern India. They speak Urdu and their social practices correspond with the Muslim religion.
Although these above accounts depict a fundamental description of Nepalese ethnic groups, it is difficult to pin point who is “ethnic” and who is “non-ethnic”, who is “indigennous” and who is “non-indigenous” in a particular place. Past migration histories mean Nepal seems to be a melting pot. This is especially prevently in urban areas.