The Caste System in India and Nepal: A Closer Look at Its Profound Impact and Struggles
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28
Beyond the Surface: Caste System Inquiries on the Annapurna Circuit
“In Nepal and India,” I asked our 20-some, well-educated, and articulate porter, “how do people determine your caste? After all, it’s not written on your forehead, and it is probably a sensitive topic, which not everyone may be comfortable sharing.” He explained that when people care to know your caste, they often pay attention to how you introduce yourself. For instance, if you were to introduce yourself as “Ramesh,” those who care to know your caste would follow up with the question, “What is your family name?” This inquiry is because, in Hindu cultures, a person’s last name is associated with their caste identity.
“Why would a young, well-educated individual choose to work as a trekking porter in the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal?” you might wonder. It’s a good question; the main reason is the financial aspect. But the full answer might go beyond that. And this essay will offer a glimpse into the broader reasons.
The cultural practice of inquiring about surnames to determine caste can evoke different responses. Some may feel proud of their caste heritage and openly share their last name, while others may prefer not to disclose it or may even challenge the relevance of caste distinctions altogether. I asked our porter, “Have you ever lied when asked your family name?”
During my visits to India and Nepal, which began in 1982 and continued a few times since, I had never before engaged in a straightforward conversation with a local about their true feelings regarding the caste system. Our porter’s openness and honesty blew me away during our three weeks on the Annapurna Circuit trail in March 2023.
The caste system could be traced back to ancient Hindu texts, which classified society into four varnas or classes in the following order: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Chhatris (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (laborers and artisans). Outside this framework were the Dalits, formerly known as “Untouchables,” who were considered outside the system and subjected to severe discrimination.
However, in reality, the caste system in India and Nepal are much more complex and diverse. And it is challenging to provide an exact number of castes as they can vary depending on different regions and communities. In both countries, there are thousands of castes, sub-castes, and clans, each with unique social, cultural, and historical characteristics.
In this essay, I aim to explore various facets of the caste system. My primary focus is understanding how the caste system influences individuals’ perspectives, aspirations, and sense of identity; how it shapes their perceptions of their roles and place within society. Furthermore, I examine this system from the perspective of intergenerational trauma.