Nepal is turning into a nation of hybrid identities

Increase in inter-ethnic marriages blurs cultural distinctions, complicating job quotas

Ever since Nepal’s founding king Prithvi Narayan Shah described the nation state he forged as a garden of 4 castes and 36 ethnicities, besides considering themselves ‘Nepali’ most people have also kept a distinct sense of sub-national identity.

The Muluki Ain of 1854 defined this social hierarchy, and the 2011 census lists all 125 castes and ethnic groups, forming the basis on which the new Constitution defines Nepal’s reservation policies for the civil service, government and Parliament. But with an increase in inter-ethnic marriages producing an even more multicultural society, there may be a need to redefine ethnicity as the country becomes even more diverse.

“Growing up, my most cherished memories are visiting my grandparents from both sides of my family and being exposed to diverse beliefs, traditions and food,” recalls Rubeena Mahato, who has a Maithili father and Newar mother. “The two ethnic backgrounds merged seamlessly without one undermining the other.”

But despite embracing her dual heritage and being raised in a household with no concept of caste hierarchy or religious superiority, and taught to respect people regardless of their ethnicity, Mahato says society kept her in a box as she grew up. (See box story below)

Mahato recalls that the first question she was asked at school was about her caste and ethnicity. As children who didn’t know better, her classmates made assumptions based on what they had seen their parents do. Mahato was seen only as a Madhesi, leading her to feel self-doubt over her Newar identity. While she embraced her duality, her peers and teachers did not.

INTERETHNIC LOVE: Prime Minister KP Oli presents rhododendron blossoms to his wife Radhika Shakya on 21 February during Kalu Pande Diwas in Dahachok. Pic: Krishna Paudel

The caste and ethnic categorisation in the Muluki Ain and a rigid perception of identity pose obstacles for Nepalis who want to adopt their hybrid identities. Seira Tamang is a political scientist whose research focuses on social exclusion. She says, “Regardless of how people might choose their ethnic and other identities, society at large will see and treat them according to the singular homogenised identity and strata of the Muluki Ain.”

Historian Pratyoush Onta of Martin Chautari says Nepalis have three types of responses to multiethnic identities: embracing their hybrid ethnic identity, reasserting one ethnic identity while rejecting the other, or identifying themselves only as Nepali. Keeping a single ethnic identity as long as it abides by the ongoing patrilineal system aligns with the current perception of ethnic identity, but there is social and political confusion for many like Mahato who want to preserve their hybrid ethnic identity.

Mahendra Lawoti, professor of political science at Western Michigan University, who has written extensively on Nepal’s reservation policies, says, “Ethnic identity is not just shaped by the individual’s perception of themselves, but also society’s recognition of them. Ethnic identity, to some extent, is a social construct.”

Indeed, the ethnicity of a person in Nepal is still largely determined by the father’s lineage. But this can lead to even more confusion over the freedom of women to change their ethnic identity and surname with marriage and the matter of reservation policies.

Besides a mandatory quota for women in government and civil service, there is also affirmative action for indigenous people, Dalits and other ethnicities. But as marriages create more multiethnic identities and a weaker attachment to a single ethnicity, the future of the reservation policy comes into question.

“The reservation policy should be reflective of society and should respond to changes in the social dynamic,” says Lawoti. “The state does not recognise multiethnic individuals, but it should respond to this new reality.”

However, whether offspring of inter-ethnic marriages will seek to assert their hybrid identity, or take up one or other of their parental identity is also uncertain. Some may prefer to assume the identity of their Dalit or indigenous parent rather than their 'higher caste' parent in order to benefit from reservation.

Lawoti and Onta both agree that policies should be more flexible to accommodate multiethnic individuals. different caste or ethnicity. Women should be allowed to either keep their birth surname or change it to their husband’s, but if they are allowed to change when it fits their immediate purpose, the system perpetuates unfairness.

“Women should be allowed to change their ethnic identity when they get married but not to simply abuse the system,’’ says Lawoti. In Nepal’s patriarchal society, even with inter-ethnic marriages there is a tendency for wives to adopt the customs, traditions and culture of her husband’s ethnicity, forgoing her own. Children are raised with the culture of their father’s ethnicity. When doing so, the ethnic background of women erodes and hybrid identities are less likely to be formed.

However, with greater geographical mobility, the spread of education, and people moving out of historical ethnic enclaves, there are more possibilities of mixed ethnicities. Politician Tripple P Gurung and journalist Ramyata Limbu raise their children with a fusion of ethnic customs and practices. Both Gurung and Limbu traditions are preserved flexibly within the home – a trend that many families with inter-ethnic marriages now practice.

Basantapur of Sunsari district in eastern Nepal is perhaps one of the most multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic villages in Nepal. Anthropologist Chudamani Basnet researched inter-marriage in the town and found that although Janjatis have been intermarrying people from higher caste groups, there were none of the expected cultural conflicts.

A Limbu woman married to a Giri man found that as they had migrated away from their families and were more economically independent, they faced very little inter-ethnic conflicts.

However, not all such marriages are accepted. 'Higher caste' people who have married Dalits, for instance, are routinely ostracised by their own community. Sometimes couples who have crossed caste or ethnic lines to elope have been publicly taunted, beaten, or driven out of their villages.

Basnet attributes much of the opposition to the loss of cultural heritage and language. “Inter-marriage was made possible by a common language, Nepali, which has facilitated interaction between people of different ethnic groups, but at the cost of their mother tongues,” he adds.

As offspring of inter-ethnic marriages create and practice their own fusion customs, some of the distinct cultural and linguistic attributes of the original ethnic groups tend to erode. The future of hybrid identities with the current social and political state of Nepal is therefore uncertain, even though Prime Minister KP Oli and his wife Radhika Shakya, and other senior politicians, themselves have married across ethnicities.

Inter-ethnic marriages in Nepal came in waves. During the Panchayat, many underground Communist leaders, like KP Oli, developed relationships with young women in the households where they rented rooms, or in the neighbourhoods of inner city Patan and Kathmandu. During the National Development Service, college graduates were mandatorily required to serve a year in rural areas, and got married to locals. The third wave was during the conflict, when Maoist guerrillas could get married with the party's consent. Today, education, mobility and connectivity have unleashed a new wave of inter ethnic marriages.

Uncertainty is also perpetuated by the lack of data regarding inter-ethnic marriages. The Department of National ID and Civil Registration refused this paper’s repeated requests to release data of inter-ethnic marriages or to comment on the trend, citing issues of privacy and discrimination.

Regardless, Nepal is celebrated as a multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic nation, characteristics that have been embedded in the Constitution. But while the country as a whole may have a rich ethnic diversity, it is also becoming a new melting pot.

Read Also:

Happily ever after, Shraddha Basnya

Caste no bar, Kong Yen Lin

Nepal, an emerging rainbow nation, Rubeena Mahato

Nepal's mutli-ethnic future, Shyam Shrestha


Suksari Chaudhary was in her early 20s and working in a garment factory in Kathmandu Valley when she met Chhewan Lama. Amidst the hum of sewing machines and heaps of fabric scraps, the two fell in love.

They went their separate ways, but five years later they both found jobs in a school in Lalitpur and got married soon after. Although she is Tharu and he is Tamang, the wedding ceremony reflected neither culture but was performed using Brahmin rituals.

“I think it was easier for us to have an inter-ethnic marriage because both our parents were no longer with us and our other relatives also had inter-ethnic marriages,” says Chaudhary. Lama’s parents and Chaudhary’s father had passed away years before they met.

The only time they faced any difficulty over their mixed marriage was when they returned to Lama’s home in Kavre for the first time after getting married. She recalls, “At first, his extended families didn’t really understand why he had married a Tharu.” But when Chaudhary was asked to sit in a traditional Tamang puja by Lama’s family, she felt welcomed and accepted. It was rare for a conservative family to allow a person from another ethnic background to worship with them.

A year after their marriage, Lama and Chaudhary had a daughter, who grew up in a multiethnic household. She is now 22, and Chaudhary regrets not teaching her daughter Tharu customs, just as she herself never had the chance to learn about her heritage. As the only Tharu family in a predominantly Brahmin/Chhetri area, as a girl she was only familiar with the customs and practices of the ‘higher caste’ community.

Today, the family has added other rituals to their celebrations. For example, during Dasain, they put white tika on each other in the evening as per Tamang custom. Lama says, “When we were raising our daughter, we neither raised her strictly as a Tharu nor a Tamang. She is a combination of both and a product of an interlaced family.”


Growing up in a Maithil-Newar household, Rubeena Mahato embraced her colourful and multicultural heritage, celebrating both Rakshya bandhan and Bhaitika with Newari mandaps and eating Mithila dishes like thekuwa, khajuriya and daal puri during Chath and delicious yomaris during Newar Lapte bhoye bhoj. “My dual heritage merged seamlessly and they always have,” says Mahato.

From a young age, Mahato was taught to respect everyone regardless of their ethnic or caste background. But she did not always receive the same treatment from others, and witnessed others get harassed because of their heritage.

“Because of my upbringing, it was inconceivable for me to engage in ‘othering’ and exclusion, or to suffer it. I remember arguing with my friends over it and refusing to participate. Over the years, there have been multiple occasions where I have had to lecture perfectly educated young people for using caste slurs. Most are embarrassed, some are quite taken aback and some refuse to introspect. But I know that we cannot let such behaviour go unchallenged.”

Now living in the US with her husband, Mahato remembers: “Our home is a riot of colours, tastes and flavours from our various heritages. What could be more Nepali than that?”