Nepal is a melting pot of many races and tribes. She has population of around twenty-two million, made up of an assortment of races and tribes, living in different regions, wearing different costumes and speaking different languages and dialects. They live under quite diverse environmental conditions from the low, nearly sea level plains at the border of India, northward through the middle hills and valleys and up to the flanks of the great Himalayan range where there are settlements at altitude of up to 4,800m. Farming practices are therefore equally diverse along with life styles and social customs.
The high Himalayan settlements of Tibetan speaking people are found perched precariously on mountain ledges and slopes. Life here is delicate balance of hard work and social merrymaking, tempered by a culture deeply steeped in ancient religious traditions. The best known of the high mountain peoples are the Sherpas who inhabit the central and eastern regions of Nepal. The Sherpas have easy access to Bhot (Tibet) for trade and social intercourse and therefore Tibetan influence on their culture and civilization remains distinct. The midlands are inhabited by various Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speaking hill and valley people, for example the Brahmins, Chettris, and Newars. While the Brahmins and Chettris are widely distributed throughout the country, the Newars are mainly concentrated in the Katmandu Valley and other towns.
The Rais, Limbus, Tamangs, Magars, Sunwars, Jirels, Gurungs, Thakalis, and Chepangs are other Tibeto-Burman speaking Mongoloid peole found living in the middle hills. They each have their own distinct social and cultural patterns. The Dun valleys and the lowland Terai are inhabited by people such as the Brahmins, Rajputs, Tharus, Danwars, Majhis, Darais, Rajbansis, Statars, dhimals and Dhangars. Though Nepal is a veritable mosaic of dozens of ethnic groups, they are bound together by their loyalty to the institution of Monarchy, and by the ideas of peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance to form one unified nation.
The Inhabitants and the Migrants
The Hindu epics and Puranas refer to the original inhabitants of the Himalayas- the Kulinds, Kiratas and Kilinds, Kiratas and Kinnars and later texts mention the Khasas and the Darads. Today three ethnic types constitute the Himalayan population: Negroids, Mongoloids and Aryans.
From very early times there have been migrations into the Himalayas and within it. Spiritual quest motivated a few to migrate there, and a small minority responded to the call of these mountains to test their own endurance and will power. Pursuit of profit propelled others. Reasons of state dictated the posting of garrisons even in remote, desolate areas. All these factors combined over a period of time to change significantly the complexion of the local populace. There have been waves of migration from Nepal to Sikkim and Kumaon, for instance, and from Tibet. At present it is extremely difficult to separate the different racial strains.
Bhutiyas of Bhutan
The Bhutanese are Bhutiyas of Mongolian origin who refers to themselves as Drukpa-inhabitants of Druk Yul or the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Apart from a few obscure areas of Nepal and Ladakh, and Spiti in India, the Bhutanese are the only large group to follow traditional Buddhism and, despite the building of roads and controlled introduction of tourism, have maintained many aspects of the culture.
People of Sikkim
The Sikkimese consists of three different groups – the Lepchas, the Bhutiyas and the Nepalis. The Lepchas are the original inhabitants but are now in a minority. Not much is known of their history before their conversion to Buddhism and the enthronement of Phuntsok Namgyal as the first historic ruler of Sikkim.
The people of Nepal are a complex mix of racial patterns. The dominant Hindu castes of Brahmin, Thakur and Chetri, along with several others speak Nepali. The Gurungs, Magars, Tamaings, Rais and Limbus form the Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies. These are part of the mongoloid, tribally organized groups of hill farmers who dominate the middle hills. The Sherpas of the Solo Khumbu region in the northeast of the country are amoung the many Bhutiya groups who speak dialects of Tibetan.
People of Himachal Pradesh
In Kumaon and Garhwal, in the central Himalayas, Khasas and Doms were the original inhabitants. The Khasas, historians surmise, were a west Central Asian nomadic tribe who entered through the northwest and spread from Kashmir to Assam.
People of Uttaranchal
In Himachal Pradesh, the descendants of these Khasas are known as “Kanets” and now claim Rajput status. The majority of the population in the present-day central Himalayas has Khasa ancestry. Immigrant Brahmins and Kshatriyas from the plains brought caste division with them and introduced new forms of social organization rooted in Hindu orthodoxy.
The Ladakhis are of ethnic stock different from that of the people of Kumaon and Garhwal. According to folklore, Ladakh was once totally populated by Darads. The latest archaeological finds give credence to this popular belief. The Mons belonging to the Mongoloid stock, and who are now far more numerous there, seem to have migrated at a much later date.
Most people in the Himalayas sustain themselves by a combination of agriculture and animal husbandry. Until very recently, those inhabiting the higher reaches migrated to lower altitudes during the winter months. Trade played an important role in the lives of the frontier villages in Ladakh, Himachal, Kumaon and Garhwal. Before the advent of the British, the contacts of Sikkim and Bhutan with Tibet were closer and more frequent.
People & Tribes of Himalayas
The population, settlement, and economic patterns within the Himalayas have been greatly influenced by the variations in topography and climate, which impose harsh living conditions and tend to restrict movement and communication. People living in remote, isolated valleys have generally preserved their cultural identities. However, improvements in transportation and communication, particularly satellite television programs from Europe and the United States of America, are bringing access from the outside world to remote valleys. These outside influences are affecting traditional social and cultural structure.
Nearly 40 million people inhabit the Himalayas. Generally, Hindus of Indian heritage are dominant in the Sub-Himalayas and the Middle Himalayan valleys from eastern Kashmir to Nepal. To the north Tibetan Buddhists inhabit the Great Himalayas from Ladakh to northeast India.
In central Nepal, in an area between about 1,830 and 2,440 m (between about 6,000 and 8,000 ft), the Indian and Tibetan cultures have intermingled, producing a combination of Indian and Tibetan traits. The eastern Himalayas in India and nearby areas of eastern Bhutan are inhabited by animistic people whose culture is similar to those living in northern Myanmar and Yunnan province in China. People of western Kashmir are Muslims and have a culture similar to the inhabitants of Afghanistan and Iran.
For the mountain people living in these states of Indian Himalaya, the Himalayas continue to be the predominant factor in their lives. Having acted as a natural and political barrier for centuries, the Himalayas have isolated a number of communities, cultures and customs.