Bahunvada: Myth or reality?

By Kamal P Malla

19 November 2018

ARCHIVE: The Kathmandu essayist on the history of ethnic hierarchy in modern Nepal (1992).

main image smaller

Kamal Prakash Malla, the Nepali linguist, historian and intellectual polymath, passed away earlier this week on 17 November 2018. A prolific essayist who wrote in English and Nepal Bhasha, he was best known for his critical writings that punctured the nationalist orthodoxy during Nepal’s partyless autocratic decades. Malla’s work is remarkable for its breadth – from medieval epigraphy to sociology of the Kathmandu intelligentsia – its grounding in scholarship and for its “wicked willingness to splatter holy cows,” as our Founding Editor Kanak Mani Dixit put it. His writings are collected in The Road to Nowhere and From Literature to Culture.

In the following piece written for Himal’s special issue in May-June 1992 on ethnicity in Nepal, Malla makes his contribution to the debate on the impact of bahunvada (or Brahminism) in Nepali life, warning against the “overconfidence in democracy as the Ultimate solution” to the problems of socially and economically disadvantaged communities of Nepal.


After 25 years of persevering belligerence, Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the three cities of the Kathmandu Valley in 1769, One year later, on 23 March, he shifted his capital to newly occupied Kathmandu. With his court came his kinsmen, retinue, priests and soldiers — the new aristocracy of the hill region — to settle permanently in Kathmandu. They symbolised what Nepal’s leading economic historian Mahesh C Regmi calls “a shift of political and economic power”. Among them were the thar-ghar, the chosen and select families of hill brahmins such as Aryal, Khanal, Pandey and Panta, who were rewarded with the best lands and houses in the Valley as their jagirs in return for their services to the Gorkhali court in war and peace. Thus begins the success story of the parbate Bahuns, the brahmins from the hills.

The Sanskrit word brahmana has more than one meaning and is therefore potentially ambiguous. Without the contextual clue it might mean any of these four: supernatural power or the absolute world-spirit; a Vedic text of the brahmanic class; the god Brahma; or a member of the priestly order in the Hindu society. Relatively speaking, the native term Bahun is decidedly preferable for it is starkly unambiguous in its social and cultural reference. Manu, the Hindu law-giver, prescribed six main functions to a brahmin: study and make others study, sacrifice and make others sacrifice, give and receive gifts (Manusmrti X: 75) . However, Manu nearly forgot the central political or ideological function of the brahmana, that is to legitimise the political power, no matter who holds it, for which he receives the munificence of the powers that be. It may not be instantly possible to verify if all the known clans of parbate Bahuns, listed for example in Shikharntha Subedi’s Tharagotra Pravaravali, perform all these ritual functions. Perhaps, they don’t.

Nor is it possible to chronologise and substantiate the claim of these clans to have migrated from the heartland of Aryavarta into the laps of the rugged hills of Nepal. Perhaps, it is even silly to expect them to observe Manu’s prescriptions in the cold Himalaya at the high noon of the Kali Yuga. But a number of these clans and lineages with gotras and pravaras allegedly drawn from eponymic Vedic and Upanishadic rishis claim nothing if not pristine purity of blood and Aryan descent. However, only a few families have published their authentic genealogies, going back eight to ten generations, and fewer have bare of dead manes. Those who migrated to the Kathmandu Valley came with their jajaman families such as the Chhetri families of the Thapas, Pande, Basnet, Bohara and Kunwars — who later on staked a claim to have descended from the Ranas of Chitor.

Both as well as the jajamans speak khas kura (or Nepali as it is known today) and are known as khasa — a people originally classified by Manu as vratya or “those who have abandoned sacred rites and lost their caste” (Manusmrti X: 22) Not only the Gorkhali army but also their civil administration did not recruit the Newars — the inhabitants of the conquered Valley because of the deeply ingrained distrust and contempt for them in the Gorkhali psyche — graphically expressed in such sayings as “Newar ista ra babu dusta kahilai hundaina; a Newar is never a friend just as a father is never an enemy”. Only since October 1804 were some Newars admitted in the revenue administration, then only because the Gorkhali sardars didn’t comprehend the the Valley’s land administration system.

After Jang Bahadur Kunwar came to power in September 1846, following the Kot Massacre, he reorganised the judicial, civil, and revenue administration along seemingly institutional models. His Muluki Ain, or Civil Code of 1854, tried to codify Hindu caste orthodoxy as a state ideology with the Bahuns and Thakuris- Chhetris topping the social hierarchy, and lumping a large segment of other Nepalis, including the Newars, as enslavable matawalis. Although Jung Bahadur’s Muluki Ain, which gave the highest ritual status to Bahuns, was officially abolished 110 years later in 1964, it had by then ensured the Bahun’s secular status as well by putting them at the top of the social pyramid. The Newars were ‘upgraded’ as ‘un-enslavable’ in 1863, when Jung Bahadur was visibly pleased with their services in the 1854/55 war with Tibet and the 1857 Lucknow operation.

Among Jang Bahadur’s client families staffing the Rana administration, most came from the Khas Thakuris, Chhetri and Bahun famines. Of the 230 bhardars (council members) signing the 1854 Ain, there were only seven Newars — three subbas from the family of Siddhi Man Rajbhandari, two kharidars and one dittha and one other. Because of their knowledge of Persian-Urdu, Tibetan and English, the Jaishi Kotha and the Munshi Khana — which dealt with all foreign affairs — were staffed by a few select Newar families. Thus, the Newars seemed to have made a small dent into the early Rana administration. Their administrative skills and accomplishments must have been no small assets, enabling them to survive the conspiratorial court politics which lingered on till the rise of Chandra Shumshere in 1901.

A classic instance of the Rana court ethos is narrated by Sukra Raj Shastri, the martyr hanged in 1941, in a biography of his distinguished father Madhav Raj Joshi entitled, Sahidke Kalam Se (From the Martyr’s Pen, posthumously published in 1958). In July 1905, in the presence of Chandra Shumshere, Madhav Raj was brutally beaten by the pandits of his court for asserting that true Hinduism is enshrined in the Vedas and the Upanishads, not in worshipping the stone image of Pashupatinath. Madhav Raj was paraded through the streets of Kathmandu with a bleeding head and a bloodstained body. In many ways, as Bhuvan Lal Joshi and Leo E Rose put it, Madhav Raj Joshi was the first rebel in Nepal who revolted against brahmanic orthodoxy by inaugurating the social and political awakening which led to the movement for democracy in the 1940s and the overthrow of the Ranas in 1950.

The extent and proportion of the Bahun and Newar inroad into the Rana administration can be judged from the list of bhardars who assembled on 7 November 1950 to depose King Tribhuvan after he sought asylum in the Indian Embassy. Among the 258 highest officials signing the document, there were 23 Newars in all—two kazis, four sardars, 16 mir subbas, and one engineer. From the Bahun community there were 36, out of which 13 were from the families of Badaguruju, Rajaguruju and Gurupurohit, four pandits, nine Mir Subbas, five Sardars, four professors and one doctor (see Grishma Bahadur Devkota’s Nepalko Rajanaitik Darpan Part I, 2016 pp. 28-33 for the full list).

With the exception of the Bahuns, the Newars were the earliest to realise the importance of modern education and training for the professions. They were among the first to make use of education, as soon as the Durbar School was made accessible to the public in the 1890s. They were also among the first to send their youth to attend Tri-Chandra College when it opened in 1890. During Rana times, Newars not only made use of these limited opportunities at home, but also sent their offspring to India and as far afield as Japan.

Rivalry and competition for patronage by the Ranas took the form of that typical Nepali institution called chakari, or visible demonstration of personal or familial loyalty. Bitter rivalry was an invariable part of the social history of powerful and influential Bahun and Newar families during the Rana century. One notable rivalry between Bahun lineages, for example, was the feud between the Kumais and the Purbiyas, those with origins in Kumaon and those who had settled further east. This was reflected in the personal conflicts between Badaguruju Hem Raj Pandey and Ram Mani Acharya Dixit during Chandra Shumshere’s reign.

The social and political competition between the Bahuns and the Newars has deep historical roots as these two communities were the first to enjoy the fruits of Rana patronage, access to civil service and opportunities for modem education and training abroad for learned professions. With their higher literacy rates, Bahuns, Chhetris and Newars, make up more than 70 to 50 percent of Nepal’s trained manpower — excepting the army and police. Twenty-eight years after the overthrow of the Ranas, when a survey on the social and ethnic composition of higher education enrollment was conducted by Tribhuvan University, it was found that out of its total enrollment in 1979, 45 percent were Brahmins, 20 percent Chhetris, and 19 percent Newars.

Now that democracy has arrived once again in Nepal, this hold of the three communities on the strategic roles and elite functions in society is unlikely to stay where it was. And education as much as politics probably holds the harmless key to social change, particularly education for the socially and economically disadvantaged communities of Nepal, such as the Tharus, the Tamangs and other Tibeto-Burman-speaking communities.

The recent outbursts against brahmanism are not, therefore, too unexpected. When the Nepali Congress supreme leader Ganesh Man Singh voiced his discontent at the political appointments made by the elected government, which went mostly to Bahuns, he launched what some local papers called “a crusade against brahmanbad”. Unfortunately, the term brahmanbad is a total misnomer here because historically speaking brahmanbad — brahminism—is a religious outlook which gives a crucial place to sacrifice and rituals characteristic of the Vedas and the Upanisads. lt has nothing to do with Bahuns pushing Bahuns to the top of diplomatic service, for example.

Nor does brahmanbad have anything to do with fatalism, allegedly a typical outlook of Bahuns and inimical to Western-style development. Both Ganesh Man Singh and Dor Bahadur Bista, through ideas introduced in his recent book Fatalism and Development, have done a great disservice to the Brahmins love for learning, their intellectualism and application — not to speak of their traditional role in Hindu society as ritual specialists with near monopolistic knowledge of the scriptural texts.

The inborn instinct for survival, particularly political and economic survival, is too strong a propelling force among the Bahun community. If survival is the surest test of fitness, the Bahuns have done remarkably well under every political regime — the Shah-Rana, and the partyless as well as multiparty ones. All the ruling monarchs, not to speak of the princelings of doubtful descent, roughly from Manadeva (464-505 AD) to King Birendra (1945-2001) may have been led to believe by their counsellors that Nepal is asil Hindustan and they — and they alone — are the true Defenders of the Faith, the true Hindupati. This illusory pedigree and cultural legitimacy is enshrined just as much in the modem democratic Nepali constitution with sovereignty vested on the people of Nepal as in Manadeva’s inscription at Changu, installed in 464 AD.

The fatalistic outlook could not have been the propelling force behind the Brahmin success story. A propensity for fatalism does not explain the political successes of today’s Marxists-Leninists-Maoists with their unending rival claims to political caste purity and the monopoly over revolutionary wisdom, neither does it explain the political success of so many others who are not as enthusiastic about the classless millennium. They may recite the Gita in private or preach selfless action in public, but Bahuns are anything but fatalists in social and political practice. If any section of Nepali society has perfectly internalised “the Protestant capitalist work ethic” and its accompanying cult of acquisitive success, it is the Bahuns. Without relentlessly pursuing success, how could they have dominated every field of Nepali public life just in a matter of a few generations since the creation of the Nepali nation-state? You name it — rightist, centrist or leftist politics, the media, literature, diplomacy, civil service — you will invariably find Bahuns at the top, if not dangerously close to it. Fatalism certainly didn’t carry them so close to the peak.

On his return from the seminar on democracy and ethnicity in England recently, Nepali Congress Party President and former Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai once again broadcast his sanguinity when, in an interview given to Nepal Television, he said, though not in so many words, that democracy is the ultimate solution to all ethnic problems. Just look at the voter behaviour in the Tarai, he said. Sadbhavana could have swept the polls. And the Mongol candidates would have swept the east. Just see what happened. Both were rejected and swept aside by the well-behaved Nepali voters.

One so much wishes that Kishunji’s optimism and his confidence in the healing capacity of democracy were a shared experience in Southasia. Forty-five years of democracy, punctuated once in a while by Pandit Nehru’s Linguistic States solution or Mandal Commission’s Report, have left ethnic nerves in Punjab, Assam and Kashmir as raw as ever before.

The aggrieved sentiments of the Tarai, the Janajatis, the Matawalis of the Hills, and the Newars of the Valley may be fake political gimmicks, but the two millennia of Brahmin domination in the social and cultural life of Nepal’s recorded history is not. So far these sentiments have been expressed in psychological metaphors, often confined to Janajati get-togethers, newspaper columns, or Sadbhavana public meetings, and rarely if ever in organised political activities of any damaging value.

But if these sentiments, as expressed by Ganesh Man Singh, Gajendra Naxayan Singh, Gopal Gurung, Sitaram Tamang, Suresh Ale, M S Thapa and Padma Ratna Tuladhar are translated into organised political movements, then into military action, Nepal will never remain the same. We will  all be committing national harakiri, unwittingly converting Nepal into a Sri Lanka of the north.

The periodic outbursts of these leaders have, therefore, a cathartic value because now and then they let the steam out of the ethnic pressure cooker or the melting pot, if you like. What might ultimately be damaging to the political prospects of the leading parties is the ‘Kishunji’-style overconfidence in democracy as the Ultimate solution, because such complacency is likely to sweep the brewing storm under cheerful carpets.

One shouldn’t, for instance, be surprised if the Newars, one of these days, rally round a ‘sons-of-the-soil’ style movement in sharp reaction against the swarming inroads by madhesiyas, parbates and bhotias (thanks to the construction, carpet and garment industries) whose influx has displaed Newars from their lands and real estates. With his social and cultural fabric of life slowly being destroyed, the average middle-class Newar of Kathmandu today feels like a displaced Nawab of Lucknow after the Loot. He feels like an alien in his own home, pushed too hard against the wall by ever-stiffer social and economic competition with some 20,000 in-migrants every year. The headlong rush is not only robbing Newars of their jobs, open space, and unpolluted civic life, but also destroying their culture and treating them as a dwindling specimen of aborigines deserving to be confined to the slum areas of Asan and the vegetable markets of Kathmandu.

Let me conclude with the latest so that I need not elaborate any more. With a per capita income of USD 170, the state in Nepal supports 16 years’ free education for the Bahuns who cultivate the Sanskrit language. It spends NPR 32.1 million annually for 690 students at the Mahendra Sanskrit University — at NPR 45,000 per student per year. Recently, 77 members of Parliament, representing all the five leading political parties, submitted a memorandum to the Education Minister for making Sanskrit “compulsory from Grade 1 through 10” in public schools.

Astonishingly, this appeal is signed by leading Marxist-Leninist leaders such as Jhalanath Khanal, Radha Krishna Mainali and Lilamani Pokharel. With all their commitment to the slogans of social justice and equality, do these leaders know that the state is already spending NRs 45,000 per Sanskrit student out of the taxpayerss pockets, whereas it has been refusing to spend anything on 25,000 students studying Science, Management, Medicine, Education and the Humanities in the so-called “private campuses” of Tribhuvan University?

When one delves deep into the recesses of the political manoeuvre for making Sanskrit compulsory to 3.4 million Nepali children at school, for many of whom not even Nepali is their first language, one unwittingly bumps into naked bahunvada and medieval feudalism running amok under the garb of New Democracy or infant democracy. Viva l’enfant terrible!


~Kamal Prakash Malla was a linguist, historian and an essayist. His writings are collected in The Road to Nowhere and From Literature to Culture.

Post Comments

Leave a Reply

Comments will have to be approved by a Himal Southasian moderator before they are published. See Comment Moderation Policy.

More from Analysis