Nepal Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nepal has amongst the greatest climatic diversity on Earth, and amongst the greatest ethnic diversity as well. In this lesson, we'll explore this diversity and see what it has meant for Nepal.

Ethnicity in Nepal

Anthropologists have long noted that mountainous areas tend to have much ethnic diversity, which is not that surprising. If we look back to thousands of years ago, various societies who entered mountainous terrain tended to settle in mountain valleys. This is where water gathers, and there's bit more natural shelter and resources. Overall, in a harsh mountainous environment, the mountain valleys are the best place to be. However, living in mountain valleys also made these societies fairly isolated. It's difficult to travel to other societies, so there is less interaction; and rather than develop a single identity and language, each mountain society tended to develop into its own unique ethnic group. In fact, around the world, the more mountainous and harsh an area is, the greater ethnic diversity tends to have grown there.

Nepal is home to some of the most variable climates on the planet, including the highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, and Mount Everest itself. As a result, Nepal estimates that it has (ready for this?) 125 distinct ethnic groups, according to their 2011 national census. Ironically, not one of those groups is traditionally called 'Nepali'. That's a nationality term applied to all people in Nepal, not a strict ethnic term. And no, Yeti is not one of the ethnic groups either.

Some of the major ethno-linguistic families in Nepal
Ethnic groups of Nepal

Alpine Ethnic Groups

Now, don't worry, we're not going to try and cover all 125 of the Nepalese ethnic groups in this lesson. What we can do is look at some major groupings. For the most part, all of these ethnic groups are descended from either the Tibeto-Burman, Mongoloid, or Indo-Aryan ethnic families. So, ethnic groups in Nepal tend to be loosely related within greater linguistic and ethnic families, and are divided geographically, and in fact by altitude. Living around 1300 feet above sea level are the Alpine ethnic groups. Perhaps the most well known of these ethnic groups are the Sherpa. Sherpas are very closely tied to Tibetan customs, and are commonly used as alpine guides for mountaineers from around the world. However, even they aren't as high up the mountains as the Dolpa people, who are considered to be the highest-elevation ethnic group in the world, and have settlements up to around 20,000 feet above sea level. For the most part, the Alpine groups are Buddhists and live on herds of animals they pasture in the mountains. Some of these groups still live in very similar fashions to their ancestors centuries before, as Nepal has been unable to bring much to this area in the way of healthcare or technology. In general, however, people of the Alpine like their ways of doing things, and are proud to maintain their traditions.

Sherpa woman
Sherpa

Temperate Climate Ethnic Groups

Moving down the mountains a bit, we find people living in more temperate mountains and hills, closer to the 5,000-7,000 feet in elevation range. This region features a diverse range of ethnic groups. While most people in the Alpine region are loosely connected to a Tibetan ethnic family, the temperate zones are split between Mongoloid groups from central China and Indo-Aryan groups from India. That means that both Buddhism and Hindu are frequently practiced religions. Two of the most powerful ethnic groups in Nepal live in this region as well. The Brahmin and Chhetris people are believed to be descendants of people who migrated from different parts of India centuries ago. The temperate zones also see a diversity in lifestyles, from farming and fishing in generally urbanized centers, to the Kusundas people who are essentially a hunter-gatherer society without permanent villages or settlements.

The Subtropical Groups

The Subtropical regions of Nepal, which at their lowest points are only 230 feet above sea level, also share the characteristic diversity of Nepal. Hindu is practiced widely in this region, and actually Islam as well. Many ethnic groups of this region speak languages that are Sanskrit in origin, coming from the Indo-Iranian language families. The Tharus people, one of Nepal's oldest ethnic groups, live in the dense forests and urban centers of the subtropical zone. Many of Nepal's cities are located generally in this region, and are inhabited by a wide range of people.

As people of this subtropical ethnic group demonstrate, Nepal is very diverse in ethnicity and lifestyles
Subtropical people

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