There are over 100 ethnic groups, with over 65 different languages in Nepal. The two largest ethnic groups are the Brahmans and Chhetris, followed by the Newars and Tamangs and then groups like the Rais, Gurungs, Magars, Tharus and so on. Some of the ethnic groups are very small and many of the languages spoken by these groups are in danger of disappearing.
Generally most people from the ethnic groups live in the same houses as joint or extended families. In some small villages, extended clans can make up the whole community.
Brahmans and Chhetris are the two groups at the top of the social pecking order. Traditionally Brahmans served as priests and moneylenders; today they are found in government, education and commerce. The Chhetris are the largest Hindu caste specializing in military and political affairs. The royal family belongs to this caste. Originating from India with Indo-Aryan ancestry, the Brahmins and Chhetris make up around a third of the total population (17 and 18% respectively). Even though the caste system was officially abolished by law in 1963, these two groups still dominate politics and business.
The other two thirds of the population is made up of many much smaller ethnic groups. At the bottom are the occupational castes - blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors and so on, and at the very bottom, the sweepers and butchers. These groups were called ‘untouchables,’ though now are mainly referred to as Dalit castes.
Terai Ethnic Groups - Approximately 25% of Nepal’s population belongs to the Indo-Aryan groups of the Terai. The Maithili comprise Nepal’s largest single ethnic group after the Brahmans and Chhetris. Since the 1960s, there has been a massive population relocation from the hill districts to the more fertile plains, following the eradication of malaria there. Originally from India, there is uncertainty as to their true origins.
Tharu are the main indigenous group living right across the Terai. Up until the 1060s, there were about the only group who could live in the unhealthy climate of the Terai. Since then however, malaria has been eradicated and people from all over Nepal have been given incentives to resettle in this much more fertile area of the country.
Chepangs are a minority group, formerly nomadic hunter gathers who occupy the hills around Chitwan.
Hill Ethnic Groups
Newars are the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley. Originally Buddhist the majority are now Hindu or a tangled mixture of the two beliefs. Newari society is divided into 64 occupational castes, the largest being the Jyapu, (peasant farmers). Making up about 6% of the population, after the Brahmins and Chhetris, the Newars form one of the largest ethnic groups. They are often businessmen, artists and craftsmen, as the beautiful architecture of Patan and Bhaktapur can testify.
Sherpas are maybe the most famous of Nepal’s ethnic groups, even though they make up a very small proportion of the population. Their name means ‘People from the east’ and they were originally nomads who came from Tibet, wintering their yaks in Nepal. Settling in Nepal only in the nineteenth century, they are relatively newcomers. They have some of the highest permanent settlements in the world, up to 4,700m. Since attempts have been made on Everest, they have become famous as porters and climbing sherpas to Everest and other peaks (the term ‘sherpa’ is also used to describe mountain guides).
Tamangs are another of the largest ethnic groups, forming about 5-6% of the population of Nepal. Their homeland is generally in the hill districts of central and eastern Nepal. To a greater extent than the Newars, they have retained their occupations as farmers, porters and craftsmen, and tend to be relatively poor.
Gurungs generally inhabit the foothills of the Lamjung and Annapurna Himal. There, intensively farmed hillsides surround neat villages of stone houses, linked by a network of trails paved with precisely cut and fitted stone blocks. They speak an unwritten Tibeto-Burman language and at higher altitudes, retain Buddhist traditions, whilst in lower regions have generally become Hindu. Many Gurungs serve in the Gurkha armies of Britain and India.
Magars inhabit roughly the same region as the Gurungs, but farm the lower slopes. Originally followers of an animistic folk religion with a Buddhist veneer, most are now Hindu. Along with Gurungs, Magars make up the bulk of the Gurkha and Nepalese armed forces.
Thakalis, natives of the Thak Khola region near Annapurna are known as shrewd and aggressive traders who enjoyed a profitable position as middlemen in the salt trade between Tibet and lowland Nepal. Originally a mix of Tibetan Buddhist and Shamanist, many have converted to Hinduism.
The Kirati Rai and Limbu can trace their history at least 2,300 years when they were mentioned in the epic Mahabharata. Said to have once ruled the Kathmandu valley, they have now resettled in the eastern hills following a mixture of animist, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.
Bhotia is the term used throughout the subcontinent to describe the northern mountain peoples with close ties to Tibet. They speak a variety of Tibetan-based dialects and are followers of Vajrayana Buddhism with Shamanist Bon influences. Inhabiting the high valleys, they live by a mixture of farming, herding and trade. There are dozens of Bhotia groups including the Dolpo-pa, Lo-pa, Manang-pa and the famous sher-pa of the Solukhumbu region. Although the name Sherpa has become synonymous with ‘porter, properly speaking the sher-pa are a group tracing their origins to eastern Tibet from where they immigrated about 400 years ago.