The major cultures prevalent in the Nepali Himalayas

Nepal, with a population of around thirty million, is an ethnically diverse country, comprising 125 caste groups. Geographically, Nepal consists of 15 percent Himalayas, 68 percent of hills, and 17 percent of plains.  

Generally, settlements above 7,000ft and up to 17,000 ft are considered Himalayan. Here the oxygen pressure is low, and so are the humidity and temperature. These challenges influence the Himalayan settlements, and people in these regions have adapted accordingly. 

Only about seven percent of the Nepali population reside in the Himalayan regions, mainly because of difficult life - infertile soil, hostile temperature, and lack of economic opportunities. 

Mainly the Sherpas live in the high mountains, along with Lopas, Manangis, and Dolpas. The Sherpas are much concentrated in the eastern region of Nepal - Solukhumbu. The Lopas and Baragaonlis live in the semi-arid regions of Upper and Lower Mustang, the Manangis in Manang. The Dolpas live in the western distinct of Dolpa. 

The mid-hills in Nepal are inhabited by various ethnicities, from Thakalis, Magars, Gurungs, and Tamangs to Brahmins, Chhetris, and Thakuris. You can see the concentration of these ethnicities in different parts of Nepal. Here is a brief overview of ethnic concentrations in Nepal.


The Sherpas

The Sherpas entered Nepal from Tibet. The word Sherpa comes from Shar (east) and Pa (people). Combined together, Sherpa means people of the east, and east refers to the east of Tibet. 

In Nepal, Sherpas inhabit Helambu (north of Kathmandu) and Rolwaling Valley, a section of east-central Nepal bordering Tibet. Sherpas are known all around the globe as mountaineers. They entered Nepal in the 15th century, making a living by trading (mainly salt, wool, and rice), herding (cows and yaks), and as farmers (growing up barley, potatoes, and buckwheat). Sherpas follow traditional Tibetan Buddhism. 

Interestingly, though the Sherpas lived by the side of the high mountains, they did not attempt to climb mighty mountains because of their belief - the Himalayas as the abode of the gods. That changed later, especially after Tenzing Norgay Sherpa along with Edmund Hillary, became the first persons to reach Everest. However, Sherpas still revere the mountains. They perform puja before climbing mountains and do not allow any animal sacrifices. 

As the world becomes much more connected and due to an increase in economic activities, the Sherpa culture is currently exposed to modern influences. Hence, to know more about Sherpa life, you must visit Sherpa Culture Museum in Namche Bazaar.  

The major Sherpa festivals are Losar, Dumje, and Mani Rimdu. The festive activities include drinking, dancing, and singing. 

Losar falls at the end of February. Losar marks the beginning of the new year in the Tibetan Calendar. 

Dumje festival falls in July and is associated with prosperity, sound health, and the welfare of the community. This festival marks a period when the Sherpas take their herds to high altitudes.

Unlike two other festivals, Nyungne is an austere festival where Sherpas refrain from drinking and dancing and undergo penance to wash away their sins. The Sherpas visit the Gompas and recite the sacred texts or simply chant “Om Mani Padme Hum.”

Sherpa's traditional clothing is similar to Tibetans. Both women and men wear woolen undershirts and a Bakhu (a wrap-around robe) that reaches below the knees. There is a fastening around the waist. Women also wear rear aprons, the married ones wear front aprons as well. 

For a better understanding of Sherpas, you can participate in the following treks.

  1. Everest Base Camp Helicopter - 10 Days 
  2. Everest Base Camp Helicopter - 5 Days 
  3. Everest Base Camp Hike/Tour - 17 Days 
  4. Everest Base Camp Short Trek - 10 Days 
  5. Everest Base Camp Trek - 14 Days 
  6. Everest Base Camp Trek via Gokyo Lakes- 15 Days 
  7. Everest High Passes Trek - 15 Days 
  8. Everest Three Passes Trek - 17 Days 
  9. Everest View Trek - 7 Days
  10. Luxury Everest Base Camp Trek - 14 Days
  11. Gokyo Ri Trek - 11 Days 

The Gurungs

The interesting fact is that the Gurungs came from Tibetan societies that had no caste system. When they came in contact with the hill people and Aryans, they were influenced by the caste system, and as a result, you can find Grurungs fragmented into several castes. 2011 Nepal Census shows that Gurungs make up 2% of the Nepali population. The Gurung settlements are concentrated in Manang, Lamjung, Mustang, Gorkha, and Kaski in the Annapurna region.

Though in the past, Gurungs were mainly engaged in animal herding, supplementing their income with grain production. The Gurungs living in the high hills still practice migratory herding to a great extent, while those living in lower regions grow rice, millet, maize, and millet in beautiful terraced fields. 

Original Gurung homes were made of wood and covered with mud and dung, but nowadays will probably see stone and slate houses. In the remote Gurung regions, you will still find Gurungs dancing and singing at feasts and festivals. The Garda Sheba dance performed between January and March is particularly famous. 

Rodhi Ghar, a type of clubhouse, where young Gurung boys and girls meet for singing and dancing, also originated from Gurung culture, but its popularity is shrinking due to modern influences. 

Gurungs follow a combination of several religious traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. Witchcraft is supposedly practiced, and there are local priests to fight evil spirits. Gurungs, in certain parts, mainly in Manang conduct Buddhist rituals with the help of Lamas. They also practice pre-Buddhist Bon religion, and shamanistic belief is widespread. Most Gurungs celebrate all major Hindu festivals. However, they have certain festivals that they follow with other Mongoloid groups.

Gurungs celebrate Poush Pandra (which falls around 30th December) with a communal feast. The money for this feast is often collected through dance performances or by working together. On Maghe Sangrati (which falls around 15th January), Gurungs visit neighboring rivers and wash themselves. Gurungs congregate to drink millet liquor and enjoy themselves. 

On Baisakh Purnima (Full moon day in April or May), Gurungs participate in Garda Sheba, a unique dance, that can last up to three days. Similarly, Gurungs celebrate Sawan Sangrati (which falls in July) quite elaborately. 

Gurungs are known for their bravery as Gurkha soldiers all over the world. Since life in the hills requires Gurungs to carry heavy loads through several steep slopes, they are physically strong. They do not participate in the caste system and are ready to take any job. 

Traditional Gurung men wear bhoto ( a type of blouse) with laces in the front. They wear Jama (a sort of skirt), wrapping it around the waist. A long cloth (Patuka) is tied like a belt on their waist. They might use Patuka to carry Khukhuri ( a long-blade knife). A topi (cap) completes their dress. 

The Gurung women wear a cholo ( a sort of blouse) on the top and a phariya ( a long pleated skirt) that is often red. They also wrap a patuka on their waist. 

If you want to see and experience the Gurung culture, you can choose the following treks. 

  1. Annapurna Circuit Short Trek - 10 Days
  2. Annapurna Circuit Trek - 14 Days
  3. Annapurna Circuit Trek with Tilicho Lake - 16 Days
  4. Annapurna Trek - 20 Days
  5. Annapurna Circuit Trek with Annapurna Base Camp - 27 Days


The Tamangs 

Tamangs are Tibeto-Burmese people who comprise around six percent of Nepal’s population. The word Tamang comes from “Ta” which means horse, while “Mang” means traders in Tibetan. So, Tamangs were probably the horse traders that entered Nepal a few centuries back. 

Recent estimates show that more than 51 percent of Tamangs live in Bhaktapur, Kathmandu, and Lalitpur districts. Tamangs have their own language, religious beliefs, and lifestyle. Tibetan inscriptions dating back to the 13th century state that Lo Manthang fort, in Mustang, was built to protect themselves against Tamangs, referred back then as “Se Mon Tamang.”

Records show that Tamangs started using ‘Tamang” as their second name (surname) in 1932 after King Tribhuvan and Prime Minister Bhim Shumsher allowed them to do so while joining the military or civil service. During the Rana regime, Tamangs worked as menial laborers, such as porters, gardeners, and postmen. 

Unlike Gurungs, Tamangs were barred from joining British regiments in India so the rulers of Kathmandu would have a ready labor reserve. In the 1970s, the Tamangs living in the hills around Kathmandu supplied firewood and charcoal to valley citizens, thus causing deforestation.

Tamangs have their own language, dress, culture, and social structure. Almost all Tamangs are Buddhists, their language originates from the Tibeto-Burman language and is similar to the Gurung language. All Tamang rituals involve a Lama, and Lamas choose the auspicious days for performing religious ceremonies. 

Tamangs follow the Chinese lunar calendar. 

The typical Tamang music and dance is Tamang Selo. The “damphu” is a musical instrument that is typical to Tamangs. Traditional Tamang songs are called Hwai, which are mainly used for rituals. 

Tamangs have their own marriage ritual, and marriage between maternal and paternal cousins is allowed. To propose to a girl, a young Tamang will offer bread, hen, and alcohol to the girl’s family. If the girl's family accepts these offers, the relationship is confirmed. 

One of the distinguishing features of the Tamang community is the acceptance of maternal power over paternal while making marriage decisions. The bride’s mother has the authority to accept or reject a proposal. Widow marriage is accepted and even encouraged. 

Sonam Lhochhar is the main Tamang festival celebrated in February or March, welcoming their new year. Buddhist Jayanti is another important festival. 

Tamangs also have their own traditional clothing - the lungi, patuka, cholo, Tamang mala and Tamang Ghalek. 

Most Tamangs live in the Himalayan regions, more densely in some regions. The Langtang region is one of the centers of Langtang settlements. 

If you want to experience Tamang culture firsthand, here are the treks for you. 

  1. Helambu Trek - 5 Days
  2. Langtang Trek - 8 Days
  3. Langtang Valley Ganja La Pass Trek - 11 Days
  4. Langtang Gosainkunda Trek - 13 Days

If you like to experience different cultures in the Nepali Himalayas, you can book suitable treks with us. Just call/Viber/WhatsApp us at +977-9840055491 or email [email protected].