Biodiversity Nepal
For the Future Generation

Environment and culture: How environmental conditions have shaped Nepalese culture

Our cultural diversity is a matter of pride and should be seen as an adaptation feature rather than a social divide.

Photo: Geopolitics of Environment Journal

In Nepal, people have adopted cultural practices to adapt to their environmental conditions. Such relations fall under the realm of ecological anthropology and has been studied throughout the world. What makes Nepal an interesting place of study is that despite being a small country, it hosts a wide variety of environmental conditions and this could be a reason of high cultural diversity here. Here I would like to shed the light on the practices adopted by various ethnic groups in Nepal as a way of adaptation to their environment. 

Historically, there were two main groups of people in Nepal. The Khas have connections with the Central Asia speaking Indo-Aryan language and the Sino-Tibetan people who speak Tibeto-Burmese dialects. The Khas are the ancestors of the present day Chhetri, Thakuri, Kami, Damai, Sarki, Gaine, (dalit), Sanyasi, Badi, Jogi, Gharti, Bhat and some Brahmins among others. The Sino-Tibetans are the ancestors of Rai, Gurung, Magar, Tharu among others and even Newar of the Kathmandu seem to belong to this group

The Kiratis (Rai, Limbu, Yakkha, Sunuwar among others) inhabited the foothills of the Himalaya which were densely vegetated and received plenty of rainfall. The agricultural practice became their way of life and nature provided the bulk of the resources for livelihood. But agriculture is a risky business plagued by unpredictability. To address these fears, the Kiratis opted for the celebration of Bhumi Puja as a prayer to Mother Nature for healthy crops and protection from natural calamities.

Performing Bhumi puja. Picture: Far and High Adventure Travel

Likewise, consuming Kwati on Janai Purnima is a thought to have links with the farming practice in the Kathmandu Valley. The festival falls in the month where the bulk of agricultural work has been completed historically. Kwati are nutrient-dense which has a lot of health benefits. Hence, this festival might be a way to energize the body.  Similarly, Newar culture uses the skin or meat plate of rhinoceros to pay homage to one’s ancestors as yearly rituals of death person because they considered it sacred. But during these times rhinoceros were rampant. Their distribution could most probably be a nuisance to these community so as a population check they might have developed this tradition.

Dor Bahadur Bista speculated that Hinduism did not spread in the Himalayan region because of environmental restrictions. The Brahmin priests could not take frequent baths required for their rituals in these regions. Hence, Buddhism with no such requirement was able to maintain its hold.  The sect that spread in the Himalayan region forbids its adherents from killing animals. But they are allowed to eat the meat of an animal which dies by accident. Probably, to get around this restriction, Buddhist in Mustang celebrate the infamous yak blood drinking festival. This festival, now a commercial business of sort involves the drinking of raw hot blood of yaks extracted from the jugular vein. The locals believe the blood has healing properties. However, Mark Turin of the Yale Himalaya Initiative opines this was a way of sometimes over-bleeding the animal which might die and yield meat.

Moreover, in the Southern region in Nepal in the Rana Tharu household, the extended family structure is attributed to the environmental condition. A system of Badaghar was prevalent consisting of family of more than three generations with typically thirty or forty family members. The Terai region was densely forested. Clearing the forest required large labour but the labour force was scarce. The large family structure ensured a sizable labour force. Likewise, a large family also provided social security, mutual love and bonds between family members could be maintained and the burden of household expenditure would be lessened as it was shared by all. 

Furthermore, the Khas were converted to stratified Hindu caste system upon arrival of Brahmin priests but originally they were pastoral nomads who raised livestock. A sense of equality was present and their communities were believed to be egalitarian, independent and economically homogeneous. They used to celebrate various shamanistic and animistic rituals. This social condition was a result of their environmental condition. As a case study of the Khas, I present the dynamics of Jyulel and Pawai of Jumla. In the Jyulel caste, a change in the environment brought about by the introduction of marsi (a rice variety) by Sage Chandan Nath resulted in the change of their cultural practice. They have adopted a customary calendar of paddy cultivation which is deeply interwoven into the Jyulel culture as a religious duty. All of the Jyulel migrants are expected to return home by 12th Chaitra to participate in plantation process. In the past, even funeral rites were performed for the ones who did not return supposing they might have died. In contrast, the Pawai who inhabit the high elevation practicing dry cultivation still adheres to their ancient customs. Their customs have not been bound as Jyulel. 

Rice Plantation festival in Nepal. Picture: Himalayan Smile Treks

As a side note, I now believe practicing discrimination is a gross disrespect to our cultural resilience.  Our cultural diversity is a matter of pride and should be seen as an adaptation feature rather than a social divide. There are also communities here that have excelled in social harmony like the Mishra family in Kathmandu Valley. Mishra who originally migrated from Tirhut India have proudly proclaimed the festivities of the valley as theirs. They speak the same language – Nepal bhasa as Newars do but have also maintained their own unique identity. This speaks volumes of the adaptability Nepalese society has practiced.  

Writer: Anu Rai, is one of the contributors to Biodiversity Nepal. She is studying M.Sc. in Environmental Science at Kathmandu University.

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