The life of the lower castes in the western part of Nepal.
by Berit Madsen
“In this hamlet we are all low caste people. The upper caste who live further up the village cannot touch us. If they do so they get polluted”, says Sunga Kami. She is an elder Dalit woman from Ratoli, a small village in Doti district in the far western part of Nepal. “But sometimes a woman from one of the higher castes comes to our house. Her name is Raju Bohara. She likes to sit in our yard. But when she returns home she has to purify herself by sprinkling gold-treated water over her body. That is the custom up here”.
Today Raju Bohara, who belongs to the Chhetri caste, visits Sunga Kami’s household. Her hamlet is only a few minutes away by foot. Raju sits down in the yard. It is a sunny afternoon and all the women in Sunga Kami’s household are busy drying lentils and rice grains on straw mats. A young woman begins to grind the already dried lentils in a stone grinding mill. She is dressed in pink and has a yellow marigold flower behind her ear. Goats and hens are walking around in the yard. It is the children’s job to keep them away from the straw mats with rice and lentils.
There are twelve family members in Sunga Kami’s household. Four of her sons live in India. One of them has just returned to Ratoli to pay his mother a visit. Two daughters are married and they both stay with their husband’s families in neighbouring villages. Sungi Kami’s household belongs to the Kami caste which is one of the many lower castes in Nepal. A common denominator for the lower castes is Dalit. The term originally means people living in the swamps (daldal) or oppressed people, but today it refers to all low caste people in Nepal. The Dalits is the group of people who are considered untouchable by the higher castes. It is believed that the Dalits can pollute higher castes and therefore any kind of close physical contact must be avoided. As Sunga Kami explained above, Raju Bohara has to clean herself ritually after a visit to Sunga Kami’s household. She has namely exposed herself to pollution just by entering a Dalit household.
The untouchability of the Dalits has an immense influence on their daily life. In most parts of Nepal the Dalits are not allowed into Hindu temples; they cannot use the wells, taps or other water sources that are reserved for the higher castes; they cannot enter restaurants and tea-shops, but have to sit outside and eat or drink from plates and cups especially reserved for Dalits; at the grocer’s shop they have to keep a distance while the goods are delivered to them; they cannot enter the homes of upper castes nor settle nearby the upper castes’ hamlets. In many ways these restrictions imply that Dalits live on the margins of the Nepalese society.
The Doti district
We are in the Doti district in the far western part of Nepal. It is a beautiful mountainous area covered with pine trees and small terraces cut into the steep mountain sides. The white, impressive Himalayas follow the northern horizon and to the South one gets a picturesque view down the valleys. The turquoise blue Seti river winds through the deep gorges from the mountains to the low lands. At this time of the year the fields in the valleys are covered with young, green wheat sprout. On the hill sides the fields are still barren and grey. Only a few kitchen gardens light up the landscape. Most of these gardens belong to upper caste people, as do most of the fields surrounding the villages. Only a few households from the lower castes own a piece of land or a kitchen garden.
The Dalits in the Doti district belong to three separate low caste groups – the Kami, the Sarki, and the Damai. Traditionally each group is linked to a specific occupation. The Kami caste works as blacksmiths, the Sarki as shoemakers, and the Damai as tailors – occupations which in Nepal all are considered “dirty” and therefore only should be carried out by Dalits. The three groups are further divided into different subgroups, each with a separate occupation, such as Sunar (goldsmiths), Bhul (leather workers), Lohar (metal workers), Parki (bamboo handicraft workers), and Tamata (copper workers). The upper castes in Doti consist of Brahmins and Chhetris. Traditionally the Brahmins are priests or scholars. The Chhetris are the warrior caste. Today Brahmins still carry out their traditional occupation, but most Chhetris make a living as farmers, landowners, or businessmen.
The Dalits in the Doti district all live in separate hamlets apart from the higher castes. Most Dalit hamlets are densely built-up areas of small houses with mud walls. Some hamlets are placed on hill tops and one wonders when the next strong wind will pull them off the ridge. Round haystacks are kept on wooden pillars in the yards. In the glaring winter sun the hay shines with a warm yellow colour. A few households have livestock such as buffaloes and goats. They keep them in small stables next to the house.
From a few Damai households the sound of an old iron Laxmi sewing machine crystallises in the air. One or two Kamis spend the winter repairing ploughs and other farming tools. But today most Dalits in the Doti district do not practice their traditional caste occupation. In lack of skills and modern technologies their products cannot any longer compete with high quality products made in the cities. Instead the majority of Dalits make a living as day labourers on the higher castes’ land or by taking on different manual work such as cutting stones, selling firewood from the mountain sides, or working on road construction. The higher castes rarely pay in cash for the different kinds of work the Dalits perform for them. Instead they pay with lentils and rice grains around harvest time – a system known as Bali Ghare Pratha. The younger generation is not particularly interested in continuing their parents’ professions as these jobs are considered “dirty” and are looked down upon from the rest of the society.
Winter time is low season for day labour work. Men, therefore, hang around, waiting for spring to come where the seasonal agricultural work begins. Women are, on the other hand, always busy with the daily house work, such as cooking rice (dhal), lentils (bhat), and flat, barley bread (chapati), fetching firewood and water, feeding the buffalo or goats, etc.
Winter time is, however, a good time for weddings according to the Nepalese calendar. If a couple is married in January or February their life together will be endowed with prosperity and fortune. One morning a Kami visits the local Brahmin astrologer. He wants the astrologer to find the most suitable date for his daughter’s wedding. The Kami brings a steel plate with uncooked rice, an orange flower, and a five rupees-note as payment for the astrologer’s prediction. While the astrologer figure out the time for the marriage to take place, the Kami has to sit outside in the courtyard and wait for the answer. If he here by mistake touches the earth – since he is a Dalit – it has to be ritually purified with cow dunk. “It is our custom and we have to protect out culture”, the astrologer explains, while the Kami is leaving with the most suitable date for his daughter’s marriage: the 30th of January at 5.00 am. “This is how we have done it for generations. And how can we, the higher castes, change caste behaviour when the Dalits also differentiate among themselves? A Kami thinks that he is superior to a Damai and treats him accordingly. Also, if I meet a Dalit person on the path he will automatically step aside in order not to touch me. So he is just as well keeping up the tradition, isn’t he?”.
The Nepalese caste system
Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world. The caste system is closely related to Hinduism. The Vedas – the 2500 years old sacred Sanskrit texts which Hinduism is based upon – separate the population into four groups: Brahman, Kshetriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. The four groups are hierarchically ordered with the Brahmins in the top and the Sudras in the bottom. According to the Veda’s creation myth, God created Brahman from his mouth, Kshetriya from his arm, Vaishya from his thigh, and Sudra from his feet. The Dalits or untouchables belong to the Sudra, those created from the feet and thereby the lowest of these categories. 20 % of Nepal’s population (22.6 millions in 1997 figures) are Dalits. More than 4 million people in Nepal are therefore considered untouchable.
In 1990 the practice of caste based discrimination and untouchability was declared illegal and punishable by law in Nepal. A person who is found guilty in caste discrimination can now be sentenced up to one year in prison or be fined to pay 3000 rupees (1 US $ is 74 Nepalese rupees). The law is, however, seldom taken into practice and numerous cases of discrimination against the Dalits are still taking place. As such the caste system still forms an essential part of the cultural landscape in Nepal.
Many Dalits explain their low status and untouchability as determined by the Gods. As Mohan Baral Kami, a Dalit goldsmith says, “God created the caste system and we have to accept our low caste status if not to make the Gods angry with us”. However, many high caste people also consider the Dalits to be impure because “they are dirty”, “they don’t keep their houses clean”, “they eat animals dead from accident or disease” – an explanation to the “impurity” which also are heard among Dalit themselves.
From a socio-economic perspective poverty is an important marker of the untouchables. Dalits are not only culturally inferior but also economically deprived. Since most Dalits in the hill regions own no land and only receive a small amount of grain as payment for their work, they are forced to take loans from higher caste people to buy food and other daily necessities. They hereby become a kind of “bounded labourers”, as they are obliged to work on the upper castes’ land to pay off the interest without much chance of ever being able to repay the loan. Most adult Dalits in the hills are illiterate, especially the women. Today some Dalits attend school, but rarely beyond second class for the girls and forth or fifth grade for the boys; quite a large number of Dalit girls do not attend school at all.
Migration and new strategies
Today almost every Dalit household have one or two male family members who work in India, either seasonally or for a longer period such as 5-10 years at a time. In India they find jobs as watchmen in hotels, dish washers, drivers, and other kind of casual work. Hill-Dalits have also begun to migrate to the Terai, the low land in the southernmost part of Nepal. In the Terai they hope to buy a piece of land or find new kinds of job opportunities.
The migration to the Terai also provide the Dalit families with new strategies to improve their social status. It is quite common among hill-Dalits to change their surname or leave out the caste indicator in the name – e.g. Kami, Damai, and Sarki – when they move to the low lands. By doing this they hope to get different and better possibilities within the caste system which they hope especially will be profitable for their children. Recently it has become popular among Dalits to convert to Christianity as a way of avoiding the caste system. Up till now about 10 % of the Dalits have taken on this new religious belief.
The caste system and its many manifestations has a strong impact on the every day life of Dalits in Nepal. But the caste system seen as a social system also opens up for individual strategies or multiple ways of choosing to navigate in this cultural landscape. As the local Chhetri healer, the Dhami Jhankri, in Doti tells: “Up here in my village I will never accept food from a Dalit’s hand. But if I travel to the capital Kathmandu I will eat food from everywhere, since in Kathmandu I don’t know the people so how am I to know who have cooked it?”.