The “brilliance” of the insidious caste system, to me, is what Ambedkar calls its inherent “graded inequality.”
The five castes (see image), the five social groups, are graded top to bottom.
Social ranking also exists within the groups that make up a caste. That is, stratification exists between the groups that make up each social group — in the case of all but the High Castes, the ethnic groups. The gradation does NOT end there.
There is stratification within pretty much every ethnic group. Pretty much every ethnic group is made of a number of different communities of people. There’s a hierarchy to the way the communities are structured. And guess what? There’s gradation even within every community of people! How brilliant is that?! That intricate stratified structure essentially functions as a check on people’s ability to object to, challenge or question, and overturn the excesses of the caste system.
In part I of this series, I outlined how Nepali society is made up of a caste-dictated structures. For an individual, it’s made up of concentric circles of people with his/her family — the most important structure — occupying the central position (see image below). People move within bubbles defined by and related to it.
In this follow up blog post, I go into the details of how the intricate gradations dictates a crucial activity: family alliances, i.e. marrigeability, to show how they also control communities and individuals.
As was alluded to earlier, apart from the so-called High Castes, the Khas-aryas, other castes are made up of different ethnic groups (see image below for an example). The image, for instance, lists a number of the ethnic groups belonging to the third caste, the Enslavable Alcohol-Drinker caste.
According to the 2011 Census Report, the population of Nepal is made up of 126 caste/ethnic groups! I am pretty sure — while not very clearly stated or delineated or spelled out anywhere by anyone and/or likely not even understood very well by many — the gradation exists between as well as within ALL the 126 ethnic groups.
To begin with, the high castes (“wearers of the holy thread”) are divided into Bahuns (Brahmins) and Chettris, the former being of higher status. Among the three named ethnic groups (in the image above) belonging to the “Non-enslavable Alchol-Drinker” castes — Newar, Gurung, and Magar — Newars likely see themselves as being of higher status than the other two. I could be mistaken but, within the “Enslavable Alcohol-Drinker” caste, Limbus likely see themselves as of higher status than the rest. Furthermore, members belonging to pretty much every one of the rest of the seven named ethnic groups could likely describe the status of their own ethnicity relative to the rest. What’s the likelihood of all of them being consistent however? I don’t know but I wouldn’t put my money on it!
As for within Bahuns, the highest caste, the Upadhayay, for example, occupy the top spot! I wouldn’t be surprised if the different communities of Chettris are graded too. As for the communities that make up ethnic groups, the Newars for instance, have their own “high castes” (such as the Shresthas, the Pradhans etc.) and “untouchables” (such as the Shahis). The Gurungs too have their own sub-categories: the “Char jat” and “Solah jat” (the four and sixteen clans respectively). The latter are of lower status. (Incidentally, I am NOT a Gurung, contrary to what my surname says.) The gradation, as has already been hinted at, does NOT end there…of course! That would be too straight-forward!
The gradation within an ethnic group, of course, partly dictates who you can — rather really should — marry.
That is, who one can create a familial alliance with and in that way, indirectly, serves as a hindrance to establishing alliances with or showing allegiance to or getting too “cosy” or “friendly” with just anyone in general. Of course, naturally, some from different ethnicities or castes do find themselves getting close but end up up suffering as their relationship is unacceptable to one or both families.
Let’s look at the communities of Shresthas and Shahis belonging to the Newar ethnicity. In the diagram below, let’s assume Family 1 represents a high caste Shrestha family.
All four families overlapping with them, our Shrestha family here could potentially establish a familial alliance with through marriage. All four and the rest would likely belong to the same social status. The reason they might NOT be able to establish a familial alliance with the others may be for some other reason, such as patrilineage. Of course, only eight families are shown just for illustration. But the important thing to note is that ALL eight families would belong to Shrestha and/or of similar “high status/caste” Newar communities.
Next, let’s have a look at the diagram below which shows an ethnic group broken down by marriage group families. In other words, those within a circle represent a group of families that are connected to one another through marriage and/or their ability to potentially inter-marry. Of course, again, only seven are shown for illustration.
Returning to our Shrestha family (belonging to family group 1)…. They would likely bulk at arranging the marriage of a son or daughter of theirs with one belonging to a Shahi family, who, because of the latter’s lower status, belong to a complete different family group, say X in the image. Similarly, within Gurungs, the likelihood of a Ghale Gurung’s family, “char jat” Gurung, being amenable to one of theirs marrying with or into one belonging to a “Solah jat” Gurung would likely be low or even zero.
What’s amazing about the graded inequality in the caste system is that it’s found even within my people of Upper Mustang, who are all Tibetan-Buddhists and ethnic-Tibetan (Bhote in Nepali and belonging to the third caste)!
Those at the top of the pecking order are members belonging to the royal family, who go by the surname of “Bista,” a surname denoting a Chettri. The Tangbetanis, my community, originally from the village of Tangbe, are one of the lower status people among the Mustangis. Patriarchs of families from other villages, for instance, have likely never or rarely visited the homes of Tangbetani carrying a bottle of their best home-made brew, or vise-versa! (During the course of the visit, when the host drinks the brew the guest serves, the deal is sealed!)
And of course, within the community of Tangbetanis, while there are those one cannot obviously marry because of, again, patrilineage, there are also those one SHOULDN’T marry because of their lower status within the community or can’t hope to marry because they come from a higher status family! In other words, even the small community of Tangbetanis, families can be broken up into marriageability groups (“Marriage groups” in the above image). I would be very surprised if this were NOT the feature of most other communities belonging to other ethnic groups as well.
When i was a child, I remember being instructed to NOT do — and not doing — many of the things with one uncle and his family (including his children, my first cousins) that I was able to do with the rest of my uncles, aunts, and first cousins. I discovered the reason only as a young adult: his wife came from a family of lower status from ours! In the eyes of this uncle’s siblings and relatives, he had lost his “higher status” and therefore he and his family needed to be treated like an “unequal.”
What all of that also boils down to is that two randomly picked Nepalis will likely be able to tell where their taha (“social place”) is relative to the other based on the combination of their facial features and/or their names and/or their surnames.
Members of families belonging to different Family Groups following the practice of not inter-marrying generation after generation is now the Nepalis’ Sanskiriti or Chalan (tradition) and therefore must be followed, so goes the argument anyway!
Sure, for a long time, many Nepalis from different ethnic groups didn’t even come in close, regular, and sustained contact with one another because of the geography of the country and lack of infrastructure. But, even now, social interactions between them is more limited than one would expect. Even in urban centers, social gathering are significantly more exclusive than they appear to a casual observer and also more exclusive than what many might believe them to be.
Here are two tweets I made to a hill so-called high caste Hindu man restating that truism.
What are d chances of our social worlds over-lapping in a significant manner?
Anyway, to reiterate, Nepalis are FORCED to—& do—live in completely different worlds&realities based pretty entirely on their #caste—even those w/ exactly d same educational background…+
— Dorje Gurung, ScD (h.c.) (@Dorje_sDooing) December 1, 2020
Contributing to that is the lack of knowledge and understanding about one another. All a legacy of of generations of conscious and deliberate social segregation and poor education. Nepali education — both formal and informal — insufficiently educates the population about fellow Nepalis, among other things. We humans fear that which one doesn’t know enough about or one does NOT understand, or that which is very different from oneself.
The result? Nepalis being pretty closed and inward-looking as a people in general. As a matter of fact, when Nepalis talk about “us” and “them” the “them” generally refers to those beyond the third concentric circle. That’s a lot of “them”!
So, what has ended up happening is something I pointed out in the first of the blog posts in this series:
Self-segregation driven by expectations and pressure from the society and reinforced by members of the two inner circles help maintain the above division.
Consequently, the high status members within an ethnic group (Shresthas within Newars, for example, or Ghales within Gurungs, or Bistas within Upper Mustangis), by “necessity” (i.e. social standing), “segregate” themselves even from many others of their own ethnic group.
Those in the middle also “self-segregate” from those farther down in the hierarchy to maintain their “middle status,” as it were. The most “inferior,” those at the bottom, have little choice but to limit themselves to their own kind because those “above” them won’t accommodate them.
To conclude, a large majority of Nepalis, whether high, middle, low, or some other in-between status, socialize and work and, therefore, spend a large chunk of their time with members within the three inner circles.
And that extends to between ethnic groups within a caste (see image below) and of course also between castes as well. Having said all that, in some instances, the reason for self-segregation is as much just based on the perception of one another by the members themselves and mutual history as on anything else.
Given the strong familial and social expectations to “self-segregate,” which ultimately ends up facilitating their marriage to someone from one’s marriage family group, how many will defy the overt and covert pressures and, instead, marry outside?
According to the 2011 census report, 64% of the population either had married at one time or another and/or were still married (see chart below).
A vast majority were likely arranged marriage between couples from the same or similar social status. What percentage would have involved an arranged marriage between a couple from vastly different social status, whether from a community or an ethnic group or from different ethnic groups belonging to the same caste? Likely zero. What percentage would have been arranged inter-caste nuptials? Again, likely zero. What percentage would have been inter-caste “love marriage”? Likely a small or insignificant percentage.
The reason? See below for pie charts breaking down the married population of the country by the age they were when they got married for the first time.
A whopping 80% of males and 95% of females had been less than 25! Given that Nepali youngsters in Nepal START getting any degree of independence from their families ONLY into their twenties, and a vast majority of them will have developed very close ties with mostly of those from within the first three concentric circles, a vast majority of the couples very likely had arranged marriage, ARRANGED by their families. Additionally, they must have come from families of the same or similar social status.
What would be the consequence of marrying outside your family group? You would pay a price for that. To begin with, many families do put their children — even adult children — through mental and emotional agony over marriage. It’s not unheard of for families to disown their own children for refusing to marry someone the family found for them or for marrying someone they didn’t approve of. It’s not unheard of for couples from vastly different social status to elope and get married on their own for fear of their families preventing them from tying the knot. One reason Nepali families marry off their children at such young ages, especially girls, is out of a fear of their child eloping and bringing shame on the family! About 3 out of 4 females, for example, had still been teenagers when they were married (off)!
Marrying and living within relatively small bubbles and valuing those within those bubbles more than others has some dire consequences for the society, which will be the topic of follow up blog posts.
So, what are the chances that Nepalis will accept inter-caste marriage as normal, as they do the sun rising from the East every morning, and when? The reason that’s important is that, again, I agree with Ambedkhar when he declared that the only thing that will dismantle the caste system is inter-caste marriage.
What do you think?
Added after the publication of the blog post because of their relevance.
Bennett, Lynn, Dilli Ram Dahal and Pav Govindasamy, 2008. Caste, Ethnic and Regional Identity in
Nepal: Further Analysis of the 2006 Nepal Demographic and Health Survey. Calverton, Maryland,
USA: Macro International Inc. [Added Jan. 17, 2021.]