by Berit Madsen.
“My deepest wish for my son is that he will get a good education”, Sher Bahadur Bishwakarma says. “When I was a child we did not get the opportunity to go to school. Instead we had to look after cattle, cut leaves, and work in the fields. Today it is difficult to make a living up in the hill villages. So, if my son wants to go to Kathmandu or India when he grows up he will need some knowledge”.
Sher Bahadur Bishwakarma is twenty two years old. His son – and first born child – is only thirteen days old. Sher lives together with his wife, his parents, two younger brothers, and a younger sister. His wife, Jasuli Bahadur Bishwakarma, is twenty years old. They live in a small clay house in Pachnali village in West Nepal. Their house is next door to Parvati’s shop (first article) in the kami tole. The house consists of three rooms with a separate kitchen for each nuclear family in the household. For the last two weeks the entrance to Sher’s house has been decorated with a net, hanging down from above. An axe and a curved knife are put on each side of the wooden door. The net, axe, and knife protect the mother and the new born child from evil spirits. Since Sher’s wife gave birth two weeks ago, she has not left the house without taking the axe or the knife with her as a protection. Nobody can touch her nor the new born baby before a name giving ritual, Nwarani, has been carried out.
The kami caste
Sher and his household belong to the kami caste. The kami is one of the dalit castes, the untouchables, in the Nepalese caste system. For generations Sher’s family has worked as blacksmiths – an occupation which is interrelated with the kami caste. The blacksmiths make farming tools, knifes for cutting leaves, cooking stoves, and other kinds of utensils made of iron. It takes three days of preparation to start up the blacksmith work. First charcoal has to be prepared. Charcoal is made of wood collected in the forest some hours walk away from the village. The wood will burn on low temperature, while the blacksmith watches it carefully. He sprinkles the burning wood with water to prevent it from burning down to ashes and instead, eventually, be turned into charcoal. Nowadays the general lack of forest due to the massive cut down of trees in the surroundings has made it more and more difficult for the blacksmiths to make charcoal.
Today Sher’s son is thirteen days old and the nwarani ritual is carried out.
“My great grandfather was a very big man. He had good physical strength which is needed if you are a blacksmith”, Sher says. “We kami people are known for our ability to work hard. This is also why kamis are employed in wedding ceremonies. We carry the bridegroom in a wooden chair – a basket – from his village to the home of the bride; and after the wedding we bring the bride to her husbands household. You have to be strong to carry the basket for many hours in the steep hill sides”.
Sher has decided not to follow his traditional caste occupation. His argument is, that there are already three blacksmiths in the village, who share the few orders coming in from the upper castes. He also prefers to work as a wage earner. Often the blacksmiths are not paid in money for their work, but instead with goods such as wheat and millet. The same goes for the work which Sher and other dalit villagers carry out on the upper castes’ land. As payment for taking care of the fields they receive half of the harvest – a system which is known as Bali Ghare Pratha. The harvest rarely lasts Sher and his family throughout the year.
Another reason for Sher not to become a blacksmith is due to the way the caste system works. Sher exemplifies how the system works: “During harvest time the upper caste people provide us with a meal a day”, he explains. “We cannot eat inside their houses but have to sit outside. After finishing the meal we have to wash the dishes ourselves. The upper castes believe that we have polluted the plates by eating from them. I don’t know why they think that we are polluting. We all have the same blood, we eat the same kind of food, wear the same kind of clothes – so why should we be different?”
Pavitra Malla, an upper caste woman who lives a few minutes of walk from the dalit hamlets, gives her point of view upon Sher’s caste and the other dalits in the village. “Yes, we do not allow the dalits to enter our houses. The dalits eat cows and buffaloes, that is why they are dirty. If we eat this kind of meat or touch somebody who eats it, the gods will make us very sick. When one of our buffaloes dies we tell the sarki dalits to come and fetch it. The sarki use the skin to make leather strings. But they also eat the meat – so how could we allow them to enter our houses or take water from our water tap?”
The primary school system
Most of the grown up dalits in Pachnali are illiterate. Especially the women. There were no schools in the villages during their childhood. Today there is a small school in Pachnali. It is situated on the hill top behind the village.
The children sit outside in the school yard. They are split into three groups; first and second class in one group, third and fourth in the next, and fifth class in the third. During daytime the sound of children repeating after the teacher echoes in the mountains: “one, two, three… a, b, c”. The teacher is a chhetri from a neighbouring village. He walks around the children with a cane in his hand. If a pupil is not concentrated or has forgotten the numbers or the alphabet the punishment comes immediately: he or she is caned on the shoulder or in the palm of his/her hand.
The majority of the boys attend school up till fifth class. Some dalit girls in Pachnali do not go to school. They look after the cattle and fetch leaves. The school starts at 11 am followed by a lunch break at 1 pm. Classes are continued again from 1.30 to 16.00 pm. Most children do not return to the school after lunch. They either play around in the village or are send to the forest to collect firewood and food for the animals.
The evening school
Two months ago Sher was employed by a German NGO to start up an informal evening school, proudha, for the illiterate women in the village. The evening school runs for a period of six month. From 7.00 to 8.30 pm each night the women gather in an unused stable. Sher has only five years of schooling from his childhood. He is, however, an enthusiastic teacher and as the months pass by the women gradually learn basic reading and writing skills.
Sher receives 765 rupees (approx. 10 US $) a month for the job. He is also provided with a kerosene lamp to light up the stable, since there is no electricity in the village. A damai teacher runs a similar informal evening school for the women in the damai tole. According to one of the damai women, Sundari, they need two separate evening classes as the kami stable is too small for housing all of them. Sher thinks that there is another reason as well related to the caste system.
“When foreigners come to Pachnali, most villagers tell them that there is no untouchability among dalit people. They say so because they know that this is how it should be”, Sher says. “But when the foreigners leave the village we just follow the tradition: We don’t touch each other, we don’t eat together, and we cannot enter each others kitchens. The damai people think that they are superior to us kamis. But most people from my kami caste believe that the damai and sarki are inferior to us. It is because the sarki eat buffaloes and cows; the damai grown-ups don’t eat this kind of food but they sometimes feed their children with buffalo meat. The upper castes say that all dalit eat cows and buffaloes, but it is not true”.
The internal hierarchy among the dalits in Pachnali is partly based on eating habits, and partly on caste occupation. As kamis are doing the most physically demanding work, the other dalit groups in the village consider them to be at the bottom of the caste system. Traditionally the damai caste work as tailors and drummers. As drummers the damai play an important role in different ritual practices. Due to this religious profession the damai consider themselves superior. Sher explains that this internal hierarchy and untouchability is one of the reasons why kami and damai women cannot participate in the same evening classes.
Change is difficult
Sher wants to change the caste system. He hopes that the social practices that differentiate people based upon ideas of purity and pollution one day will disappear. Therefore he has taken up these discussions in the evening school. He believes that most of the younger generation feels like him. But it is difficult to make changes since the elder generation resists. “My parents would never allow a damai into our kitchen. They tell me not to accept food from their hands. If I do they say to me: “Look at yourself – you are a grown up person, how come you behave like a child?”. How can I go against my parents will? I have to live in this society, and therefore I also have to accept the caste system and its practices. If I alone start to behave differently I will be kicked out from my home”.
The ritual for the new born child
It is the day for Nwarani ritual. When the son was born Sher’s uncle went to the brahmin priest in the neighbouring village. The priest looked into his astrology book and found the right date for the nwarani ritual to be carried out: Thirteen days after the birth. People from the kami tole gather around Sher’s house. They bring tika – red powder – to put on each others forehead. The tika brings good fortune. Damai drummers arrive.
They play the drums to get the attention of the gods. The brahmin priest also found a suitable first name for the child. During the ritual the name is made public – the son is called Dil Bahadur Bishwakarma. Sher himself decided which surname to give to his child. Traditionally the dalit groups use the caste name as surname. But Sher didn’t want his son to be called kami. “When your surname is kami everybody knows that you belong to this lower caste group. If we call him Bishwakarma instead, then people outside this village might not know that he belongs to the dalits. Maybe this will help him to get a better position in the society”.
Through the nwarani ritual the new born child becomes part of the human world. For the first time since the boy was born Sher is allowed to touch his child.