Basic Nepali culture and customs lesson

Hello wanderers! If you are planning a visit to Nepal you must know that the country, the people and the traditions are veeeryy different from what you are used to in Europe or America. That’s why I’ve assembled a brief guide to help you understand how you may behave.

I came to Nepal as a volunteer through the organisation ‘Cooperating Volunteers‘. This guide was written by the Nepali division of this organisation. I asked my volunteer programme coordinator (who was also my teacher for these lessons) his authorisation to publish it in my blog and luckily for me (and you!) he was pretty happy with the idea.

I have not altered the text in any way so you may find the style different from my own. Also, I find extremely interesting to analyse how each point and fact is explained, because this in itself gives us information about the Nepali society.

So, what you are going to find here is some general information about what to do and not in Nepal, as well as some personal comments that I’ll be adding during my time in the country. The information is especially applicable if you plan to visit Nepali villages, and was designed to help volunteers fit in their host family.

This post is part of a basic guide about Nepal for tourists and volunteers: ‘The ultimate guide to visit Nepal: everything you need to know’. As I’m currently writing it, the posts you have available right now are the following:

So, let’s get to work!

Cultural information training: Dos and don’ts

1. Generalities

  • Feet are considered dirty (for good reason), so everything associated with them will be. Avoid pointing your feet -especially the bottoms) at people or places of worship. Don’t touch people with your feet and try to make them as inconspicuous as possible.
  • Don’t step over food. If necessary, move the food with your hands and then step around it. also, do not step over people who are sitting on the floor, walk around.
  • Remove your shoes before entering the kitchen. In many cases this will extend to the whole house, but follow the customs of the family. Watch for piles of other shoes and follow suit. Place your shoes upright, as an upside-down shoe is unlucky.
  • Don’t turn your back to a place of worship if possible and always walk in a clockwise direction around temples. In cities, they paint arrows to help you remember, but in the villages you’re on your own.
  • Privacy: not applicable.

2. Caste

Nepali society still operates chiefly under the influence and principles of the caste system. Each caste is created from a different part of the body of Brahma, the Creator.

There are four principal castes.

BRAHMIN

  • Created from the head of Brahma.
  • Highest casta.
  • They wear JANAI (a circle of string worn over the shoulder). It is a sacred thread.
  • They are unable to eat food prepared by lower castes.
  • They hols the highest positions in society – doctors, priests, teachers, lawyers and farmers.
  • Common surnames: Ghumire, Paudel, Adikhari, Subedi.

CHHETRI

  • Created from the shoulder of Brahma.
  • Stereotyped as exceptionally strong or brave, often soldiers or guards.
  • It is the Royal families caste.
  • They wear JANAI.
  • Common surnames. Khadka, K.C, Basnet, Nepal.

BAISE

  • Created from he stomach of Brahma.
  • Common caste among the Newari people.
  • They are very often traders, business people, farmers or restaurant owners.

SUDRA

  • Created from the feet of Brahma.
  • Lowest caste.
  • They hold the lowest positions in society: labourers, farmers, blacksmiths.
  • ‘Untouchables’.
  • Because of their treatment in society, very often they have little access to personal hygiene.
  • Common surnames: B.K, Sunwar, Danuwar.

Miss Wanderitall says: I asked my teacher if visiting foreigners such as myself were assigned any caste or were considered within any ‘range’ of castes and he literally said that foreigners are considered guests, which is represented as gods. He said that anyone who’s not from the country cannot be compared to caste system, as it only applies to locals. 

 

General caste rules

  • It is considered rude to ask a person their caste, so search for clues from profession or surname.
  • If you are in a Brahmin family, be very careful in the kitchen. Brahmins will not eat food cooked by a lower caste and you run the risk of contaminating the whole kitchen by cooking or unauthorized touching. Some families will be flexible, but learn the rules before you go blundering around the kitchen in the middle of the night looking for noodles.

Miss Wanderitall says: according to my teacher, the caste system was abolished and forbidden by Constitution about 30 or 40 years ago, but although younger generations have been raised in a non-caste society, older people and especially in the village still have these believes imprinted in their self. 

 

3. Marriage

The vast majority of marriages in Nepal are arranged. When a daughter is in her late teens or the son in his early 20’s, the parents begin the search for a suitable match. This is a time of great pressure and stress for both the children and the parents, since so many criteria have to be found acceptable by both sides in order for the union to be agreed upon. These include areas such as caste, occupation, socioeconomic status, family history and status or prestige within the village or town.

Once a suitable match has been found, the children are allowed to meet for a span of about 5-10 minutes, during which the bride serves the bridegroom tea. Finally, the parents ask for the consent of their children (more often than not, only the prospective bridegroom is asked for his opinion) and the arrangements for the wedding are finalized. Often, the bride ‘leaves’ the decision in the hands of her parents.

As a result of this procedure, you may find that married couples in your placement are not necessarily as close as you might expect; the father going away to work in a foreign country does not have the repercussions it would in Western countries.

4. Jhuto (contamined)

This is the term used in Nepali society to describe something that is impure or has been contaminated. There are several ways in which an object or person can become jhuto:

  • Eating and drinking: if something touches your mouth, it is instantly jhuto and can no longer be consumed by others. Therefore, after your hand has touched your mouth when eating, that hand and your food are now contaminated. Be sure not to touch anyone or anything with this hand until you have finished eating and you have had the opportunity to wash. When you finish drinking, you will notice that Nepali people have developed the exercise of drinking without letting their lips touch the pitcher into an art form. They can take several gulps before even lowering the pitcher and rarely if ever spill any on themselves. Do NOT try this at home, ask for a glass. After two or three months you may have had enough practice to take a couple of sips without drowning…
  • Birth: following the birth of a child in the community, the entire house is again jhuto for 11 days. Members of the family are forbidden to celebrate festivals, get married or attend worship during that time. After 11 days, a priest will come to the house and purify it using cow urine.
  • Death: following a death in the family, the house is again jhuto for a period of 13 days. During this time, the members of the family are not allowed to eat salt and have many other eating restrictions, depending on the region. Family members will shave their heads. The close relatives of the deceased, particularly the son and the daughter are not allowed to celebrate festivals or marry for the period of a year, and must wear white in mourning for the same length of time.
  • Menstruation: during her period, a woman is considered jhuto and is not allowed into the kitchen to cook. Depending on the region, the level of banishment can range from simple kitchen restrictions to banishment from the house and restrictions against eating or associating with other members of the family.

5. Natural habits

Nepali people have no qualms about exhibiting or even flaunting the body’s natural functions. Here are some examples of what you may experience:

  • Spitting: everywhere and by everyone. Sometimes this is prefaced by a particularly pleasant phlegm-clearing sequence.
  • Urinating on the side of the road: this is usually by men, but you will see some women join in. Usually people prefer to find a somewhat secluded area, but you can’t count on it.
  • Nose picking: again by everyone. This is not considered offensive and it can be quite distracting if you are talking to someone and they are going for gold… You will notice that many people also have allowed a pinky nail to grow unnaturally long. This is used as a tool…
  • Belching: most meals are accompanied by a symphonic range of belches and burps.
  • Sharing: everything is considered communal property. The only thing you can get away with is wet food, so spit on your food if you want to keep it.
  • Unpunctuality: 5 o’clock depends on whether or not they want to do the activity. If they do, it means 3 o’clock. If they don’t, don’t expect them until about 7.
  • Asking personal questions: grow accustomed to answering detailed questions concerning your future plans, particularly concerning when, where, who, why and how many people you will marry. Also, as a foreigner, you ARE fat and probably American. Just call them Indian.
  • Hugging boys and girls: it doesn’t happen. Period.

6. Women

Women have a few different things to be aware of that don’t affect men. In villages women do not smoke so if you are seen smoking it will cause quite a stir. females also generally do not drink alcohol. also, girls should try to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and legs whilst in villages, as anything less is seen as being very provocative. Teachers at schools are generally conservatively dressed while working, so maybe following suit will help you fit into the school community.

Women should also prepare themselves to be outraged by the treatment and the lifestyles of women in Nepal. Women are viewed as inferior to men and, as a result, are expected to work in the fields, cook, clean, raise children and generally adopt a subservient attitude. Past male volunteers have done their best to raise awareness by washing dishes after meals, cleaning and bullying men into helping. The men generally sit around, drinking and playing cards, and this can take some getting used to.

7. Sickness

To put it simply, expect to get a little sick. The water and food both conspire against you in Nepal, and they might take a little time to beat. Many volunteers experience some diarrhea, fever or food poisoning especially when they are new to a village. Luckily though, the chemist in Nepal all have a range of wonderful diarrhea drugs and antibiotics available over the counter that can help cure the Delhi Belly.

8. Toilets

There are two options: you become a black market toilet paper smuggler or you go Nepali. In the former, use plenty of water to flush, as the toilets clog easily and can cause huge problems. If you go Nepali, there will always be water provided to help. Only use your left hand and make sure to only pass objects to others with your right hand. Your left hand will be considered constantly jhuto.

9. Safety

  • Animals: be careful about walking around at night, as several of the placements are frequented by rhinos and snakes. Also, be aware of your surroundings when passing buffaloes or cows. They are generally pretty gentle, but everyone has grumpy days.
  • Drunks: again, try to avoid walking at night and always carry your torch with you. Many of the villages have an army of drunks who emerge after sundown and will be anxious to practice their English skills on you. Be polite but firm, and extricating yourself should not be a problem. You will probably not be in danger. They still possess the famous Nepali hospitality, even while inebriated.
  • Buses: sitting on the top of the buses is a wonderful way to travel and after checkpoints it’s usually a viable option. However, be careful of wires and branches as they can ruin a trip. Also, buses have pickpockets and thieves, so watch your bags (especially if they are placed on the roof) and exercise common sense about carrying valuables.

10. Miscellaneous

  • Bargaining: generally about half the initial price will be a good place to start, unless you are in Kathmandu. Take time to learn the value of things and you will save yourself a lot of money.
  • Possible needs: mosquito nets, chlorine or iodine for Nawalparasi placements, lunges (sarong) for women, cards/books, gifts for your host family.
  • Whistling: it is not approved, though the rest of Nepal thrives with the most annoying and raucous sounds imaginable.

Basically, to fit into Nepali society and not offend people is an easy task. If you are with a host family they will help you through the difficult situations you find yourself in and will be very understanding of any mistakes you make. To remember the jhuto rule is particularly important as yo do not want to contaminate other people’s food. Just wait for someone to serve you. It sounds funny to be waited on, but it’s considered polite in Nepali homes.