Introduction to the caste system in our society through the lens of Nepali literature works

Where ever we go our first mark of identity is our Name followed by the surname or the family name. We are taught from our young age itself to take pride on who we are? Where we come from? But what kind of impact does this system that is divided by caste has in our society. Stories of caste discrimination for some in today’s generation may sound like folklore but even in our 21st century where we have developed immensely in field of technology and education. Caste system is still prevalent in many Indian societies; there are age old traditions where certain castes are barred from participating in the higher caste functions or even houses. Some of the castes are referred to as “untouchables,” barring them from socialization. With the world trying to propagate ideals like; equality for all, United Nation in 1948 article one of the declaration states that: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Is their equality amongst us?

Introduction to the caste system in our society through the lens of Nepali literature works
source: longest way home

Introduction to the caste system in our society through the lens of Nepali literature works

History of Darjeeling

Darjeeling district is home to immigrants from Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet, Bhutan and even Europe. Till early 1700s, the whole of Darjeeling district was part of Sikkim and under the administration of Raja (or the Chogyal) of Sikkim. In 1706 however, the present Kalimpong district was taken over by the Bhutanese. Sikkim was also continuously invaded by the Gorkhas from Nepal. In 1780, the Gorkhas who were continuously invading many areas managed to capture Sikkim. The Raja of Sikkim requested the East India Company’s assistance to win over the Gorkhas. The East India Company helped Sikkim gain back its lost area, in return of which the Chogyal of Sikkim has said to given the area comprising Darjeeling as gratitude to the company, though it’s slightly debated that the British company saw the area to be suitable for their purpose and took the area in lease.

As soon as the Company marched on to the hills they started establishing sanatorium for the ailing army troops. The huge expanse for the tea estate also attracted the Company interests in the area more. The development in the area invited many working immigrants for cultivation, tea plantation, roads & buildings. In about 10 years between 1839 and 1849, number of immigrants grew from 100 to 10,000. While immigration to Darjeeling took place from all neighbouring places, most came in from Nepal.

The Lepcha community is said to be the original tribes who had settled in the hills before the British Invasion, after the hills were taken over by the British company many workers from Nepal migrated for job opportunities. The Bhutia and Sherpa from the North of the mountain valley near the border of China also saw an opportunity of trade with the Indian country as the King of Sikkim had opened up passes to enter to the country they also started settling in these region for trade.

In Sikkim the Nepalese served as a wedge to contain the Bhutia of Sikkim and Bhutan. The Nepalese fitted admirably and became critical actors in the tremendous expansion of both Darjeeling and Sikkim economies from the mid nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. By 1900 the Nepalese formed more that 50% of the total population in Sikkim and Darjeeling

Language a binding force in the diverse caste and culture in Darjeeling

Language: After the Gorkha King Narayan Shah invasion in the entire Nepal, the kingdom had come under one banner and Nepali language played an integral part in bringing the unity among the various tribes. Nepali Khas Bhasa- is a language of the elite Bahun and Chettris in Nepal, and has been used as a systemic tool to subjugate the many ethnicities that make up the nation. In the early phase of the Gorkhas invasion Nepali language played an integral role in bring the various ethnicities together, King Shah used the language to bring all the people under one banner and thus everybody had to learn the nepali language for it was now the language of the king. Literature was one form through which the Nepali language was made popular amongst its masses.

Nepalese who settled in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Sikkim, Kalimpong, Assam and the rest of the North east came from multiple ethnicities: Kirat, Gurungs, Magars, Newars ,Bahuns and Chettris. Each brought their language and own culture to Mughlan (India), but claimed Nepali as their lingual franca,(common language) allowing a universal sense of identity that traversed ethnicities and political boundaries in a strange land. The people settled in the Darjeeling region did had a strong link with the nepali literature of Nepal but we also see that many of the writers of Darjeeling region tried their best to create a literature with our own local writers. But great literary figures like Adikavi Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, Lakshmi

Prasad Devkota and Agam Singh Giri’s literary works played an immense role in developing the Nepali literature in both the country (Nepal and India).

Caste System

Nepal is said to be invaded by a group of Indian known as the Licchavis in the year 300 and along with they brought Hinduism and caste system. The caste system has grown to become a very strong distinctions and a fixed hierarchical framework for the country’s different communities. The distribution of the castes is similar to the Indian caste system i.e the Brahmin (originally priests and the top among the hierarchy, Chettris (warriors or the governance), Vaishyas (framers and the tradesmen) and Sudras(craftspeople and people with the unskilled jobs) this division is further extended by the Dalits the untouchables. The age old tradition of discrimination among the castes has such a strong grip in the people’s mind that many such practices still exist where ever they go.

Darjeeling which hosts people of various ethnicities and mostly from the Nepal, the caste system has silently paved its ways in the community. Though the division now is amongst the General (Brahmin and Chettris fall under) followed by the Schedule Tribe ( Bhutias, Sherpas, Lepchas and most of the tribal communities come under) and lastly the Schedule Caste (Kami, Damai). We may say that we don’t have any discrimination among people like in Nepal but the influence of the caste system of Nepal has a very strong grip in our upbringing.

Here is a small excerpt of young boy who pens down his feeling of belonging from the lower caste in Darjeeling:

 Note- Damai is a caste in the Nepali community, who were traditionally tailors and musicians. They are considered to be untouchables.

When I first typed the words "Damai," I found myself mildly ashamed to write it. I wonder if I was writing that I am a Rajput, a Chettri, a Tamang, Sherpa, Tiwari, Jat etc. would I still have these slight hesitations? Maybe not, actually definitely not! But then this is how "society" has fashioned my thinking. They have taught me to be ashamed of my own identity and thereby creating the absolute justification for calling me an "untouchable." For, it is not in constructing what others think of me, but fashioning what I think of myself, wherein lies the dubious brilliance of the caste system.

I was in class 4 maybe 5, when a close friend of mine started taunting me about my caste and this was when I was first made aware of the fact that my caste is something that I should be ashamed of, like a deformation that I can never get rid of and must always hide. Ever since, whenever someone asked me about my caste,

I have always had to think twice before answering, sometimes answering with silence or just whispering "Damai". To be ashamed of one’s own identity is like being ashamed of one’s own shadow; you have to be afraid at every turn of life.

Caste system through the lens of literature

‘Indian Nepali literary writing had its beginnings in the sawais penned mainly by Gorkha soldiers stationed in Assam, and in the laharis composed…by Gorkha or Nepali labourers working in the tea gardens of Darjeeling,’ Indra Bahadur Rai wrote in his 1994 essay. The sawai or the lahari, as  Darjeeling  historian  Kumar  Pradhan wrote, was poetry based on ‘folk rhythm’ than on conventional metre, and ‘represented the literary aspirations of the common man.’

The Nepali literature has its roots from the writings of the great poet Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, he was the first person to give the Nepali language its written form. His first work was the translation of Ramayana into Nepali script and thus began the journey of great literary works from many poets and writers.

The early writers like Bhanu Bhakta Acharya, Lakshmi Prasad Devkota and Agam Singh Giri were known as the “Triratna”(Three stars) of the Nepali Literature.

Their works reflects about the king’s tyranny, poor/ untouchables, societal norms. The issue of Caste system was highly shown in the work of poet/writer Lakshmi Prasad Devkota’s work.

Lakshmi Prasad Devkota was a Nepali poet, playwright, and novelist. Honoured with the title of Maha Kavi (literal translation: 'Great Poet') in Nepali literature,and is known as the poet with the golden heart. Devkota is by and large regarded as the greatest poet in the history of Nepal and Nepali language. Some of his popular works include Muna Madan, Sulochana, Mahendu Kunjini, and Sakuntala.

Muna Madan is a short epic narrating the tragic story of Muna & Madan written by Nepalese poet Laxmi Prasad  Devkota and  one  of  the  most  popular  works  in Nepali literature.

Muna Madan is based on an 18th-century ballad in Nepal Bhasa entitled Ji Waya La Lachhi Maduni (It hasn't been a month since I came). The song, which is popular in Newar society, tells  the  story  of  a  merchant  from Kathmandu who  leaves  for Tibet on business leaving behind his newly-wed bride. The wife is concerned for his safety as the journey to Tibet is filled with hardships, and she pleads with him not to go. But he leaves despite her protests. When he returns home after many years, he finds that she has died.

  i) म ा - भीरका भोटे , वनका जन्त,गाई को आहार।

 This is one typical example of how a certain tribe was seen by other caste. Here, the character Muna is trying to explain how the “Hills Bhutia” (caste) are to be feared as they are wild and murder people easily and one must not go as they might meet them.

 i) े -मेर  छ  घर  एक  कोस  पर,  तह  मर्दैन  मो  भोकी  लान्छ, न्  कक  हुन्न  ?  पर्दैन

( My house is a bit far from here, you won’t die, I will carry you, but are you okay with it or will it affect you?)

i) र्द -भोटे  को  पाउ  समाई  भन्छ  -  छे त्री  को  छोरो  यो  पाउ  च         छ  ,

 ले  च  ैना

 ठु लो  दर्दल  ले  हुन्छ  जात  ले  हुर्दैन

A Kshatriya touches your feet not with hatred but with love.

Great is a man with a great heart; not with great caste, creed, or by birth.

by Sourav Subba he is a freelance writer and can be contacted at