Religion is the lifeblood of the Nepalese, defining art, culture, social position and the ritual of daily life. Religion in Nepal comprises a net of magical, mystical and spiritual beliefs with a multitude of gods reflecting the diverse facets of Nepalese life.
Officially Nepal is a Hindu country, but in practice religion is a complex and unique interweaving of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs with a pantheon of Tantric deities tagged on, all against a background of ancient animist traditions. In very broad terms lowlanders are Hindu, highlanders are Buddhist and the middle hills are a mixture of both. The greatest intermingling is in the Kathmandu valley where there is a hardly a ‘pure’ temple to be found and everyone joins in the major celebrations and worships the most popular deities. For about 95% of people these deities are not a matter of faith, but living beings to be pleased or appeased by devotees.
The majority religion is Hindu, with a substantial number of Buddhists (being the birthplace of Buddha)
Nepalese society is traditional and conservative
Couples should be aware that public displays of affection are considered inappropriate
The left hand is considered unclean so the right hand should always be used for giving, taking, eating, shaking hands, etc
The feet are also considered unclean so it is impolite to kick someone, put your feet up on a chair or table, point your feet at someone or something revered or to touch someone else's feet
Cleanliness in appearance and modesty are greatly appreciated
Hindu caste Groups
These constitute 80% of the population of the middle hills, particularly in western Nepal.
Brahmans are at the top. Traditionally they served as priests and moneylenders, today they are found in government, education and commerce. Chettri are the largest Hindu caste specializing in military and political affairs. The royal family belongs to this caste.
The traditional middle-castes are absent in Nepal, filled instead by ethnic groups. At the bottom are the occupational castes- blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors etc. and at the very bottom, the outcaste sweepers and butchers.
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.
Hill Ethnic Groups
Newar 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 farmer.
The tamang are one of the largest ethnic groups whose homeland is central and eastern Nepal. To a greater extent than the Newars they have retained their farmers, porters and craftsmen.
Gurung 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 percisely cut and fitted stone blocks. They speak an unwritten Tibeto-Burman language and, at higher altitudes, retain Buddhist traditions whlist in lower regions they have generally become Hindu.
Magar people inhabit roughly the same region as the Gurung, but farm the lower slopes. Originally followers of an animistic folk religion with a Buddhist veneer most are now Hindu.Along with Gurungs, Magar’s make up the bulk of the Gurkha and Nepalese armed forces.
Thakali, natives of the Thak Khola region near Annapurna are known as shrewd and agressive 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 thier history at least 2,300 years when they were mentioned in the epic Mahabharata. Said to have once ruled the Kathmandu valley thay have now resettled in the eastern hills following a mixture of animist, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.
Mountain Ethnic Groups
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.