While India accounts for the vast majority of the world’s Hindus, there are significant populations in other countries, notably Nepal, the Himalayan nation located between India and China (Tibet). In fact, Hindus make up a larger share of the population in Nepal than any other country. 85 to 90 per cent of the people in Nepal are Hindus, while according to the 2001 census, 80.5 per cent of the people of India identified themselves to be Hindu (Rodrigues 28). Hinduism has played an important role in shaping the history of Nepal, which was a Hindu kingdom, and the world’s only officially Hindu state, until 2008. Although Hinduism as practiced in Nepal is similar in many ways to Hinduism in India, several unique and important aspects characterize Nepali Hinduism.
Nepal has historically been a meeting point of Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups. The Indo-Aryan, or Hindu caste groups, migrated to central Nepal between the 12th and 15th centuries when the Muslims invaded India and they migrated north (Burbank 46). Most of the indigenous Tibeto-Burman groups eventually adopted Hinduism in some form, yet in many cases their religious and cultural traditions survived and were incorporated into their version of Hinduism. Any migrants that arrived in Nepal at different times in history eventually interacted with the local population, and these waves of immigration and the interaction between Hindu groups and indigenous groups helped influence how Hinduism is practiced in Nepal.
Sudden and violent political change has been a persistent part of Nepal’s history (Whelpton 1). Prior to the emergence of the modern state of Nepal, the area that now makes up the country was divided among many competing kingdoms and states. Nepal was first occupied by the dynasty of the Licchavi family and then was dominated by other historical dynasties. The Licchavi-kings ruled the country and had close ties with India because they were related to the Indian dynasty by marriage (Kooij 3). The Malla Dynasty ruled the nation from the 13th to 18th centuries after being forced out of India. During the Malla dynasty was when the indigenous individuals were called Newars (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4).
The modern state of Nepal emerged in the middle of the 18th century when Prithvi Shah conquered the Katmandu valley, known as Nepal today, and unified the territories that now make up Nepal under his leadership. Prithvi Shah established a royal dynasty that lasted until the ending of the monarchy in 2008 (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:3). The Shah dynasty at this time played an important religious role in Hinduism in Nepal, as the royal family occupied their own caste and were revered, with the king believed by many to be an incarnation of the deity Visnu (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:3)
From 1846 until 1951 the Rana dynasty ruled Nepal with the Shah kings serving only as figureheads (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4). The Rana dynasty made the prime minister and other governmental positions hereditary. The Rana dynasty used Hindu ritual to codify the castes and ethnic groups of Nepal (Gellner and Whelpton 1997: 4).
A popular uprising led to Nepal becoming a constitution monarchy. In 1990 the new constitution changed the country from an independent Hindu Kingdom to a democratic Hindu and constitutional monarchial kingdom. Ten members of the royal family died in 2001 and prince Dipendra was crowned to be the new monarch. Dipendra shot and killed the family, and eventually Gyanendra, King Birendra’s brother, became king. Protests broke out in 2006 and Nepal was officially in civil war and later was declared a federal republic.
Hinduism played a significant role in the emergence and development of the modern state of Nepal. While the country is now an officially secular republic, political parties with Hindu nationalist and royalist views remain important, although not as powerful as secular parties.
Hindu practices and traditions play an important part in day-to-day life for Nepali people. Festivals and rituals help promote group cohesion and solidarity (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 1). In Nepal a commonly practiced ritual is morning worship at neighborhood shrines (Burbank 80). The main gods that Nepali Hindus worship are similar to India’s Hindus, being Brahma the creator, Visnu the preserver, and Siva the Destroyer. Nepali Hindus may often choose one particular god to worship daily (Burbank 76).
Siva is regarded as the guardian god of the country of Nepal. Temples dedicated to Siva are decorated with bulls on them, as the bull is Siva’s mount. A trident is usually placed on top of the temple and a drum is another decoration and is one of Siva’s known attributes. The word Siva comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “destroyer”; this destruction associated with Siva has to do with the purifying power of opening a new path for new creation. The deity Siva follows Brahma the creator and Visnu the preserver with Siva being the destroyer of the world (Kooij 14).
The Hindu religion in Nepal teaches the concept of Dharma. The duty and righteous actions in relationship with the cosmic order that Hindus follow. In the context of Nepal, people speak of Dharma as something one does, rather than something one believes in (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 8). This concept is practiced by most religious Hindus and is therefore an important part of the faith in Nepal. The three paths to Moksa are also important within the concept of Dharma in Hinduism in Nepal. These three paths consist of the attainment of knowledge, devotion to god, and the path of action are the ways to attain Moksha, the union of the individual with the Supreme Soul (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 11).
Several significant Hindu festivals are celebrated in Nepal. Perhaps the most important festival in Nepal is Dasain. All castes participate in the festival, which lasts fifteen days, making it the longest and most anticipated festival in Nepal. In September to October the fifteen days occur during a lunar fortnight with the final day ending in the full moon. The Hindu Goddess Durga is worshipped for nine days and on the tenth day young individuals receive blessing from elders. The festival has great social significance and family is a very important part of the celebration with a large emphasis on the renewal of community ties (Kooij 11).
Another important festival is Tihar, known as Diwali or Deepawali in India. Tihar is also known as the festival of lights, where lights are celebrated for five days and people pray to the Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune and the consort of the god Visnu. Families gather in their homes where they light candles and small clay lamps, which are kept on throughout the night to make Laxmi feel welcome in their home (Burbank 76).
One of the most significant aspects of Hinduism in Nepal is the Kumari tradition, in which young girls, selected from the Newari community, are worshipped as manifestations of the goddess Durga. The word Kumari means “virgin” in Sanskrit and the girls need to be prepubescent and unmarried. While there are multiple Kumaris in Nepal, the most popular well-known Kumari is located in a palace in the center of the capital, Katmandu. The Kumari must perform purification rites before taking her throne and is not supposed to leave her palace except for important ceremonial circumstances. Like Durga, Kumari has a third eye painted on her forehead and she dresses in red. Every few years, in October or November, a new Kumari is selected and has to undergo a test. The first part of the test the young girl is taken to a temple and freed into the courtyard where there are several scary creatures and the second part is sleeping in a room with many scary animal heads. If the girl does not show fear then she is the correct candidate and holds all the right qualities; this takes place during the Durgapuja festival (Kooij 11).
While Hinduism is practiced in Nepal in similar ways to Hinduism in India, it differs in other important ways. The caste system in Nepal, for example, is broadly similar to the caste system in India. In Nepal, as nearly everywhere in India, everyone knows what caste or ethnic group he or she belongs to (Gellner 2007:1823). The caste system was first introduced to Nepal by the Hindu caste groups, which migrated to Nepal around the 12th to 15th centuries. It was during the 14th century that king Jayasthiti Malla introduced caste principles and conduct in Nepal (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 5).
The caste system in Nepal is different from India’s Hindu caste system, although this difference mostly shows up in the comparison of the upper levels of the caste system. In India the caste system came about by regional adaptation in which there were four main categories (Hitchcock 116). The Tibeto-Burman groups were incorporated into the Nepali caste system, this integration being one of the biggest differences between Nepal and India’s caste systems.
In Nepal, the top caste consists of the Brahmans, known as Bahuns in Nepal, and the Kshatriyas, known as the Chetris. The bottom includes untouchable artisan castes (Gellner and Whelpton 1997:4). However, the Nepali system includes Newari and other ethnic group-based castes in the middle, as well as historically included a royal caste at the top. The lack of intermarriage also helped to create this aspect of structure.
There are numerous festivals that are celebrated by Hindus in Nepal and India, whether it is harvest season offerings to gods or rainy season when the rain god is worshipped. Another difference between Hindus in Nepal and India is that some festivals that are celebrated in India are not celebrated in Nepal, or vice versa; and certain festivals are celebrated on different days and at different times. Dasain is a more important festival in Nepal and Diwali is generally more important in India.
Perhaps the main reason for Nepali Hinduism’s unique character is the influence of Tibeto-Burman indigenous groups’ traditions. Kumari and Durgapuji are well-known examples of this influence and of the interaction between the cultures that make up Nepal. The tradition of the Kumari is significant because it originates with Nepali Newari community. Newari culture has retained elements, which are non-Indian and belong to the cultural background of the Tibeto-Burman Himalayan people (Kooij 1). Hinduism in Nepal has been shaped through its interaction with, and incorporation of, these traditions and cultural practices.
Until 2008, Nepal was the world’s only multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, Hindu kingdom (Rodrigues 460). Religion has always been a central feature of Nepali life, and Nepal has been a meeting ground for diverse religions (Pyakuryal and Suvedi 8). Hinduism has played an important role in shaping Nepali history. Although broadly similar, Nepal and Indian Hinduism differ in certain important details. Certain unique aspects, and the interaction between the Hindu migrants from India and the indigenous groups fundamentally shaped the unique nature of Nepali Hinduism. Rituals, festivals, and traditions such as Kumari help define Hinduism in Nepal as well as the country as a whole.
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Article written by Christine Gilman (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its contents.