Karl-Heinz Kraemer
Department of Political Science of South Asia, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg

Requiring a social history: Must Nepali history be re-written?

In: Nepal: Myths and realities. In commemoration of the 75th birthday of Dr. Wolf Donner. Ed. by Ram Pratap Thapa and Joachim Baaden. Delhi: Book Faith India 2000, pp. 499-520.

The people's movement of 1990 has brought quite a number of changes in the conception of state and society in Nepal, the consequences of which are becoming slowly apparent in the public and academic discussions. One of the most important aspects has already found expression in the preamble of the 1990 constitution: The sovereignty, that had been claimed by the monarchs since the very beginning of the country's constitutional history, has been handed over into the hands of the people. What does this mean for the conception of Nepali historiography?

Ethnic demands for re-writing Nepali history

Nepali historiography has so far been a mainly political one concentrating upon the ruling elite with rare exceptions. Only a few books are concerned about the economic and social effects upon the masses. Most historians working on the history and politics of modern Nepal – almost all of them being Nepalis with very rare exceptions – still have problems to comprehend the consequences of the constitutional changes upon their scientific research and writing. I became aware of this problem in the early nineties, when I was writing my thesis on ethnicity and national integration in Nepal. Constitutional changes like the definition of the state as a multiethnic one, freedom of expression, the right to organize, legal equality, etc. have improved the legal rights of greater sections of society. The ethnic groups, constituting almost half of the country's population according to the national census of 1991, and the so-called untouchable people (more than 23% of the population) have got a basis to enter into a dialogue with the state. This dialogue aims at the removal of the existing social discriminations, an equal and appropriate participation in politics, economy and society, and compensation of former injustices.

One of the most important preconditions for such a dialogue is the historification of Nepal's ethnic groups. If the current leaders of the ethnic organizations, which are growing in number, talk about history, then they are talking about the history of their respective ethnic groups only in second place. It is the history of the Nepali state, that they criticize and want to have re-written, a history, in which their people are non-existent or are only mentioned in marginal functions. Please allow me to cite Parshuram Tamang, the General Secretary of the Nepal Tamang Ghedung to exemplify this way of thinking. The Tamangs have been suppressed in the past by Nepal’s ruling elite like hardly any other group in the country. Parshuram Tamang explained:

The Tamang people can look back on a long history of their own. But it is also a history of oppression. Accordingly, we demand an upgrading of our history. Even the ruling class of our country should analyse our history from a new point of view and acknowledge the actual state of our position. The numerous ethnic groups of Nepal – especially the non-Hindu ones – were subject to a very strong oppression and discrimination in the course of history. You know the history of this country. It was written by members of Nepal’s ruling class. They are very strongly prejudiced in their presentation and interpretation of the Nepali history. What you read in Nepali history books is not our history but the history of the ruling class only. It was written according to their own values, their way of thinking and their ideology. With their idea of a super caste they tried to point out their superiority. Our social history has not been written, yet. We demand that this be brought up now.

This statement makes clear that the ethnic organizations do not stand for a separation from the Nepali state, but that they see themselves as a part of the state, even though still not as an integral one. According to their argumentation, the integration of the different peoples of the country is only possible if all ethnic groups are treated equally. As long as the official version of Nepali history, as it can be read in a steadily growing number of history books, is only a history of the ruling elite, in which the ethnic groups are non-existent, then there can be no talk of equality of all Nepali citizens. The written history of the country is a mirror of the social order. In this context Parshuram Tamang said:

In our history books we still read that Jayasthiti Malla undertook great reforms by introducing the caste system to Nepali society. Out of that we cannot make out any positive social reform. Nevertheless, we are forced to read it like this in our history books. Another example: The Licchavi period is celebrated by the Nepali historians as being the Golden Age of Nepali history. How can we regard this period to be the Golden Age of Nepal, knowing that it was then that the system of slavery was introduced to Nepal? Therefore, we urgently demand a re-evaluation of Nepal’s history where all of Nepal’s ethnic groups hold an appropriate place and a revision of the development programme which must also take Nepal’s ethnic groups into consideration.

The history of the country, so the argumentation of the ethnic organizations, must bear witness to the great injustice inflicted upon the numerous peoples by the ruling elite in the past. Especially mentioned in this context are

  • deprivation of ethnic territories by the Nepali state,
  • allocation of ethnic territories in favour of members of high Hindu castes,
  • enslavement, subjugation and indebtedness of once autonomous and self-sufficient ethnic peasants,
  • systematic decomposition and dissolution of ethnic areas by settlement of members of high Hindu castes,
  • deliberate cutting of ethnic areas by arbitrary drawing up of administrative borders,
  • social and judicial incapacitation of ethnic groups by the discriminating law code of the muluki ain,
  • introduction of caste values and prejudices into ethnic communities, which – with the sole exception of the Newars – had casteless societies before,
  • withholding of every kind of education,
  • exclusion from all government offices,
  • non-participation in the politics and administration of the country,
  • destruction of ethnic cultures by perpetual state politics of Hinduization.

According to representatives of the ethnic organizations all this has to be mentioned by name without extenuation or reservation. They regard this avowal as an unalterable precondition and basis for all further political demands of the ethnic organizations. Because of their growing historical consciousness the ethnic elites are no longer satisfied with a guarantee of free social, political and economic equality, but they already want compensation for the ruling elites' former injustices against the ethnic groups. A corresponding historiography would also prove, why, in which way and at whose expenses special groups of society have reached their current political, economic and social supremacy.

In this way history becomes the strongest and most important argument for the formation of consciousness and identity among Nepal's ethnic groups. Their leaders argue that their situation can only be changed by a fundamental revision of Nepali history. But what they call "objective" managing of history, is a long-lasting process, that is in need of ground work by the ethnic groups themselves. In the same way the open-mindedness of the Nepali historians will be important for the arguments of the ethnic groups and organizations.

Today the priority task of the ethnic leaders is the description of their peoples' history, a task that can only be done by members of the ethnic groups or at least with their decisive participation. Nepal's ethnic groups are not without history, but their conception of history is in many ways different from the one, that is the basis of western historical science. The factor time in general plays a quite different role in Nepal than it does in western cultures:

For Nepalis, time is like a flowing river: very few people think of discrete quantities of water in relation to the flow of river and, similarly, Nepali time is continuous without any sense of beginning or end or particular divisions... Nepali culture does not have a sense of time as past, present and future; it is always an endless present and past is usually reckoned only in a transcendental sense.

The traditional historiography of the ethnic groups fulfilled the tasks of the past. Starting with myths and religious interpretations it explained the origin, way of living and culture of the respective group. In this way the ethnic group got interior identity and separation from the outside world. This traditional conception of historiography is no longer sufficient for Nepal's ethnic groups to describe and evaluate their current situation, as D. Hellmann-Rajanayagam in a similar way has proved in connection with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Identity on the basis of myth, religion and culture may explain the past and early present, but it is insufficient for the interpretation of current affairs.

Today the ethnic groups as entities wrapped up in myths and legends are standing in opposition to a Nepali state, which is building its foundation upon a historiography of the western type. Not so long ago the same Nepali state itself recognized the necessity of western historiography to upholding its national unity. The early historical writings on Nepal are mainly from western scholars. It was only after the abolition of the Rana oligarchy and the opening of the country that Nepali scholars tried to describe the history of their country in the way of western historians. Early works like those of Balchandra Sharma and Dhundiraj Bhandari were meant for the broader Nepali public. Education was to become a public good, and with growing general education the state had to legitimate itself. But it also had to provide an identity that could be the basis for the interior unity of the young nation. For this purpose the early Nepali historians could refer to works of exiled Nepalis from Darjeeling, like Parasmani Pradhan, Surya Bikram Gyavali and Dharanidhar Koirala, who had shaped the ideas of political and literary Nepali nationalism since the late 1920s.

The Nepali history was described by emphasizing the well-known royal genealogies of the Kathmandu valley inherited by the Shah dynasty some 200 years ago. Special stress was laid on those episodes that laid the foundations of the current state: the Hindu tradition of Nepali monarchy since the times of the Licchavis, the consolidation of the caste system in the Kathmandu valley by Jayasthiti Malla, the descent of the ruling Shah dynasty from leading Indian Rajput families of Rajasthan, the glorification of the heroic unification of Nepal initiated by Prithvinarayan Shah, the presentation of 19th century Hindu politics as a political necessity for the unification and as an example of tolerance towards Nepal's non-Hindu peoples, and even the justification of Rana politics as the only foreign political way to guarantee Nepal's independence and freedom. In writing this national historiography many myths were incorporated and fixed in time. But historical legitimation was also a matter of foreign policy for the Nepali state. Nepal had to prove her independence and sovereignty vis-à-vis the imperial claims of her great neighbours, India and China. This necessity has never become clearer than during panchayat times. So it was only in the 1960s that the first major historical works by Nepali authors were published in English.

At no other time had the Nepali state tried so hard to justify its Hindu political foundations and social order as under the panchayat system. But one can also say that never before had this been so necessary, since political power had traditionally been the matter of a very small elite. The participation of the people had been a foreign word. It had to be directed in a way that did not endanger the system and its ruling elite. And the Nepali historians, most of them being Brahmans, have always been faithful to this maxim. One example for this attitude of the Nepali historians may be a statement of Prayag Raj Sharma, one of the most outstanding scholars on Nepali history and society. In 1989, i.e. almost four decades after the ousting of the Ranas and about three decades after the introduction of the panchayat system, he wrote:

... perhaps, Nepal has not still been what one may call a fully modern state. One example of this may be that it takes pride in the fact that it is the only Hindu kingdom in the world today, which appeals to its religious rather than secular sentiments... All measures in modernising the state even now go through a centralised process of selection and get coloured in values that the Hindu State still upholds and espouses. In such circumstances, therefore, one would like to think that an individual, who is politically ambitious and wants to improve his social status in society, will continue to use Hinduisation as a means of a broader socialisation for some time to come.

This is the state's conception of historiography with which the ethnic organizations have to enter into a dialogue. They can only do so if they leave the mythic network of their traditional ethnic historiography and base themselves on thinking verified in time and territory, which is fundamental to the western conception of historiography. The ethnic elites think that the aspects of race, religion, language and, maybe, own literature are no longer sufficient. Moreover, the ethnic groups are in need of an identity based in time and not only in myth. Ethnic boundaries must be defined not only in society, culture and territory, but also in time. This kind of extended identity is the basis of modern ethnic nationalism in Nepal. D. Hellmann-Rajanayagam in the context of Sri Lanka calls it an "indigenized concept of nationalism".

Here it becomes clear why the ethnic leaders are calling their groups nationalities instead of ethnic groups or tribes. They use history to define, explain and mark off what they call their respective nation: the common origin or descent, the common territory, the common language, the common race and culture. In this context they regard it as tenable, that descent or origin are explained by myths; it is only important that these myths are incorporated into the verified history of the people. The Nepali historians as well still do not hesitate to start their historiographies with the different myths about the origin of the Kathmandu valley.

But before evaluating modern ethnic historiography in Nepal some other questions have to be answered: is it possible to explain the origin and immigration of ethnic groups historically on the basis of oral or written traditions of the respective peoples? If the answer is yes, can mythical and historical facts be separated? Is there a general difference between ethnic and western scientific understanding of historical facts? In which way can historical studies help to understand and evaluate the social system of a special ethnic group?

If you answer the first question with yes, you will be immediately led to the second question. If the answer is no, you will have to ask what other tools can be used to raise the ethnic historiography above the level of pure assumption. Such tools can be oral or written reports about the past, for example historical sources and statistics from outside the ethnic group. Both these tools are regularly used by historians. Quite a number of western scholars have already applied these methods while doing research on Nepali ethnic groups. The ethnic elites today use the results of their research as a secondary source for the historiographies of their respective ethnic groups, but they don't make it its basis.

One has to ask if history itself does not have mythical qualities. Is it not inevitable that historical data receive the quality of mythical, i.e. ideological statements? A historical fact is not simply what has really happened, but it always depends upon the interpretation of the historian. It is he who decides what is historically relevant and what can be left out, and it is he who joins the selected facts together.

Historiography always produces a history that is dependent upon the person who tells it. It is a conscious or involuntary collage or interpretation of what has happened. The difference between historical and mythical facts is smaller than it may appear at first sight. Both at times fulfil the same request: they want to prove something by telling it. All societies – and Nepal's ethnic groups are no exception – have a history of their own. The difference lies in the importance the people give to their history. Besides the different conception of history there remains the question of differences between western and ethnic historical facts. They are dependent upon the size and the composition of the respective group. In small and homogeneous societies – most of Nepal's ethnic groups fall under this category – events were regarded as historical which in larger societies only received the status of anecdotes.

The question remains, what historical studies can contribute to the theoretical and social self-interpretation of the Nepali ethnic groups. The policy of the Nepali state has deprived the ethnic groups of their formerly pronounced identity. It has forced on to them the culture and manner of thinking of the country's ruling elite. What once were independent and proud societies became by the politics and law of the unified Nepali state subordinated and inferior sections of a very stratified social system topped by the ruling elite of high Hindu castes. This conception of Nepali society was introduced in all parts of the country by dictatorial measures. It was upheld even after the abrogation of this dictatorship and the opening of the country, and it was further consolidated by one-sided and unbalanced historical interpretation. Today the ethnic organizations challenge this form of official state historiography by describing and interpreting the history of their peoples from their respective positions. It is a history that began long before the foundation of the modern Nepali state. Its continuance after the forceful subjection and incorporation into the unified Nepali state reads totally different from what can be read in the books of the high caste Nepali historians, which is always a history of the ruling elite. In the context of ethnic historiography it is interpreted and told from the ethnic view. i.e. it becomes a history of the people. The well-known Nepali state historiography describes in heroic words the military, political and legal unification, while the ethnic historiography informs us about a history of subjection, deprivation of territory, enslavement, and legal, economic, political and social incapacitation. In this way the ethnic historiography has two functions: it shall wake up the feeling of ethnic homogeneousness by providing a common history, and it shall lead to ethnic consciousness. The ethnic groups are informed about the historical foundations and reasons for their ever-present deprivations and disadvantages in the modern Nepali state.

But ethnic historiography is also a precondition, if the ethnic leaders want to enter into discussions with the Nepali state about the abolition of inequalities. By setting the classical ethnic arguments – like race, language and religion – into the historical framework they loose their exclusively cultural aspects and become a political issue. It is in the historical context, that ethnic groups change from cultural entities to nationalities, janajati, as they are called by the current ethnic leaders.

Reactions of Nepali scholars on ethnic demands

What are the consequences of the ethnic argumentation just described for Nepali historiography? Two essential spheres must be mentioned in this context, which are closely interrelated. The ethnic argumentation, on the one hand, contains the demand for a "neutral" historiography. It states that what has been sold so far as the history of Nepal is only a history of the ruling elite, who use it as basic self-legitimation. To prove the necessity of a neutral historiography the ethnic elites object to the legitimation history of the ruling elite a historical description from the perspective of the people. This, automatically, leads to the second consequence, the demand for a social history, which would also be the history of the Nepali society, i.e. a people's history.

Interestingly, the demands for turning away from the one-sided political historiography of the ruling elite and for turning to a social history of the people coincided with the political changes of 1990. It is supported by a young generation of Nepali historians, among whom I especially want to mention Pratyoush Onta. There is support also from anthropological research, which so far is the only provider of information on the historical past of the different Nepali peoples. The latter support is quite natural since cultures not having a written language are the special domain of ethnology. A historiography from the people's perspective makes it necessary to take oral tradition into consideration in many respects. But Nepali historians still deny the academical legitimation of oral tradition, even though it has proved for long to be an important source of historical information.

In lack of written documents, a social history of Nepal will always have to refer to oral tradition. But the latter can also enrich the elitist political historiography as Rajesh Gautam has proved with his history of the Nepal Praja Parishad. Those who only want to accept written documents must object that there are a lot of clues or even evidence that many of the written documents have been falsified or invented to legitimatize the ruling elite’s claim to power. Nepal's well-known ethnologist, Dor Bahadur Bista, has made this clear in the context with the Khas in his excellent, but provocative book "Fatalism and Development".

Bista's book reads like a reply to the well-known conception of Nepali historiography. According to Bista, the Khas, belonging to the Caucasoid race, and the Tibeto-Mongolian Kirant – in the ancient Indian scriptures a collective term for the non-Arian peoples of the Himalayan area – were Nepal's oldest population groups; and they also were the first to found states on the territory that is now called Nepal. In ancient days both these groups were practitioners of shamanism and animism. Bista denies the theory of Sanskrit scholars that groups from the Indian plains, like the Buddhist Shakyas or the Koliyas, Mallas, Licchavis and Guptas, immigrated to Nepal in very early days. He claims that at least some of them were indigenous Nepali dynasties, who later constructed their descent from prominent ruling families of the Gangetic plains. It was in Licchavi and Gupta times that Vishnuism entered Nepal, accompanied by the idea of caste. But for many centuries it remained a foreign religion practised only by a very small elite. Shaivaism and Buddhism still were the religions of the masses, and neither of them knew a social stratification based on castes.

Bista claims that the visit of the Shankaracharya from Southern India at the end of the Licchavi period had a devastating effect on both mass religions. As intended by the Shankaracharya, the Brahmans, who are called Bahun in Nepal, received a high ritual status with great influence upon the political sphere. Additional land gifts provided them a special economic position as well. Bista states that the revolution initiated by the Shankaracharya overthrew the Licchavi dynasty and, in the course of the disturbances that followed, opened up the way for an even stranger social regime. At the beginning of the second millennium Buddhist institutions and rituals were replaced more and more by those of high caste Hindus, and the influence of the caste system increased. Buddhism

which has been acclaimed as the highest expression of Asiatic humanism, which spread throughout the countries of the Middle and Far East, refining customs, art and literature, wiping out misunderstanding and prejudice, shattering the bond of caste and promising peace and redemption for all, the religion which led primitive Nepali society to the dawn of civilization

almost disappeared in the country of its origin.

Bista declares that the disintegration of the Licchavi realm into a number of smaller states only started after the end of the first millennium. Two of these new states, the Magar state with its centre at Palpa and the Khas realm with its twin capitals Dullu and Sinja, soon became serious rivals of Kathmandu in the central Himalayan region. The ruling dynasties of the three kingdoms were more and more influenced by the caste system prevailing in India at that time. The reason for this trend lay in the arrival of a growing number of high caste Hindus from the Indian plains, especially Brahmans, who showed a great aversion to Buddhism. Threatened in their home country by the expanding Islam, they fled to the western hills of current Nepal, and some of them also came to Kathmandu. In their host country they tried hard to preserve their religion and lifestyle. Dor Bahadur Bista calls the Nepali version of this culture Bahunism.

Some of the Hindu pandits realized that it was important to invent fictive genealogies for local ruling dynasties to prove their Indian origin. This, according to Bista, gave the impression that the Nepalis were unable to govern themselves. Nepal had never been conquered by India or Indian dynasties. So history had to be interpreted as if the so-called Indian dynasties had been quasi invited because of their personal superiority compared to everything Nepal had to offer. Bista writes in this context:

It is very hard to believe that Nepalis, with their reputation for an independent spirit and martial qualities, could not produce their own leaders but had to wait for fugitive nobles to arrive from India and paid homage to them as soon as they set foot in the hills. There is evidence suggesting that such Indian pedigrees for the Thakuri-Chhetri are the artifacts of their own sycophants.

Dor Bahadur Bista emphasizes that during his long years of ethnological research he did not find any hint that even a single Nepali Thakuri family was of Indian origin. Moreover there was a lot of proof that at least most of the Thakuri and Chetri were of Nepali origin. One such proof is, for example, that they have clearly indigenous clan and family deities. Special rituals exist for these deities performed by local shaman priests. According to Bista it is hardly imaginable that an Indian family would have accepted such non-Brahman deities and employ non-Brahman priests for their rituals. Historians, for example, time and again repeat the claim that the Shah Thakuri are of Indian Rajput origin. This statement is in contradiction to the fact that all their clan and family deities are exclusively worshipped by Magars, who, according to the orthodox Bahun concept, belong to the impure lower castes. To extend their influence and to enforce their hierarchical caste system the Brahman pandits had to distort the Nepali history by running down Nepali achievements and reorientating the culture towards the Indian plains.

Bista declares that many members of the elite circles who played an active role in the process of Nepali unification later accepted the title "Chetri". But not all of today's Chetris have this background. Many Chetris are also descendants of Brahman fathers and mothers belonging to indigenous ethnic groups of the country. With the immigration of Bahuns into new areas along the process of unification, these Chetri children of mixed marriages became the core of Nepali caste society. Their difference to local Matwali children was that their Bahun fathers provided them with a sound education, which was the basis of their later economic and social successes. These Chetris in return became the clients of the Bahun priests. Education and economic status helped them to become a local elite, which influenced the local forms of society by introducing into the local ethnic society a fatalistic attitude based on the principles of the hierarchic caste system.

By this interpretation of history based on many years of ethnological research, Dor Bahadur Bista has challenged the Nepali historians. One should have expected, that they would cry out, because one of the most accepted Nepali scholars reproached them with what before they might have heard only from some of the very few foreign historians working on Nepali history. But so far there has been little defence. The main answer was a disregard of Bista's book, even though it had to be reprinted several times because of the great public demand.

It was only in 1993 that three of the leading Nepali historians for the first time published a book under the title "Social History of Nepal". But the authors do not mention Bista's book published two years earlier. Besides, their bibliography proves that they almost totally disregard the results of ethnological research. This attitude coincides with the basic position of the Nepali historians, about which Onta referring to historical and anthropological conferences of 1992 critically wrote:

... the contribution of the anthropologists to a deeper historical understanding of Nepal is significant. However, Nepali historians are yet to adopt anthropological methods in their research. Their absence during the two anthropology conferences held in Kathmandu in September, 1992, and the absence of anthropologists during the history seminar are evidence of the lack of an active inter-disciplinary interest among the practitioners of both disciplines here in Nepal.

Considering this exclusion of ethnological research and its results, the social history, as it is presented by Vaidya, Manandhar and Joshi, can only start where political history has stopped, i.e. with the well-known genealogies of ruling houses and the reports and documents based on corresponding verified legends and myths. Just like the often repeated political history, the authors' social history remains a mere history of the elitist upper strata of society at different times. The authors especially refer to episodes of the Rana times, a period that in the meantime has been politically well researched.

What this means in practice for the given conception of historiography shall be exemplified with the interpretation of Hindu infiltration. Compared to Bista's above mentioned negative interpretation, Vaidya, Manandhar and Joshi glorify the same event as follows:

Meanwhile India was invaded and much blood was shed by the Muslims. There was a great problem for the orthodox Hindus and Buddhists. These peace-loving people had to run away in search of a safe place to protect their life and religion. So groups of people entered Nepal for shelter. Among them the famous groups were the Senas and Shahs who could become the kings of various regions. These emigrés were well received by the aborigines of the area like Magars, Gurungs, Tamangs and others, because of their superiority in wisdom, warfare and noble behaviour. These people were very polished and very social and could adopt themselves in the new environment and with the host communities.

Every conception of the social and cultural foundations of the ethnic groups is missing, if the latter are mentioned at all in this book. For example the origin of the central elite from some of the most important ruling houses of Rajasthan is described in detail as a historical truth, even though the construction of this derivation has been proved for long. But it is mentioned at the same time, that it is very difficult to decide when ethnic groups like the Magars, Gurungs and Tamangs immigrated into Nepal and where they came from. There is no word, that these groups have naturally grown myths and legends, which often are older than those of the ruling elite, and that these myths contain a lot of hints concerning the history of these peoples. There are even cases that proven results of ethnological research are replaced by the discriminating mythifications of the ruling elite. It is stated, for example, that the societies of the Magars and Gurungs are divided into numerous castes, even though it is well known that, with the only exception of the Newars, the Nepali ethnic groups don't know the stratification of society along caste lines und conceptions. And about the Tharus it is stated

... that they were the descendants of the Rajput women who were sent to Nepal by their husbands for safety. When their husbands did not join them, as they perished fighting with the Muslims, these women took their servants as husbands. The offsprings of such unions are called Tharus.

It is out of the question that the example just mentioned is based on myths and legends of the ruling Hindu elite. It shall explain the low place of the Tharus in the state's social hierarchy introduced in the 19th century: the mentioned Rajput women offended the laws of their Indian homeland, according to which the remarriage of widows was strictly prohibited. But these women not only married for a second time unknowing if their original husbands were still alive, but they even married their servants, i.e. men of a much lower status.

This fits into the negative description of the women's role as it is stated in the social history written by Vaidya, Manandhar and Joshi. They always transfer the situation within the Hindu dominated ruling houses upon the masses of the people, and they declare that what was true for the court was also true for the households in the countryside. One example is what the authors have written about the polygyny that was prevailing at the royal courts:

Not only among the ruling families but also among the common mass there was a tradition of polgamy. Generally the males used to have many wives, although such system caused domestic problems. The well-off people used to keep wives in different houses...The people used to feel it a matter of prestige and masculinity to have many wives... The poor females had neither any say or could make any protest against this. If a woman is suspected of having any sort of link with any person other than the husband, such female would have no place in the society neither in her husband's house nor in her parent's house.

Can ethnological research influence the conception of Nepali historiography?

The cited excerpts from these two versions of Nepali social history elucidate extremely opposite positions, between which exchange of ideas and mutual replenishment is necessary. The book of Vaidya, Manandhar and Joshi is a first attempt to fulfil the demand for a widening conception of Nepali historiography, which has often been raised during the past years: Nepali historiography can no longer be purely a political one, but the social and economic aspects must also be taken into consideration. The authors' attempt has only been partly successful. The main problem of their interpretation is that they remain closely connected with the traditional conception of Nepali historiography, as it has been elaborated during the past centuries through the ruling elite by constant interpretation. As a result the book lacks any understanding for Nepal's multiethnic and multicultural society. As it is well-known from political history, the social history, too, becomes an interpretation from the view of the Kathmandu valley, from the Indian or alleged Indian immigrants and Brahman pandits. The outer regions of the country and their indigenous population are not mentioned at all or, if they are mentioned, then they are totally underdeveloped savages, without education, character and morals.

One cannot reproach the authors for totally disregarding the oral tradition of the country. Quite a number of narrations are mentioned, which partly became written history in the course of time. But the problem is that all these narrations are part of those stories that support and justify the ruling elite’s conception of historiography; many of the stories have even been invented for this purpose. If the authors are writing about Nepal’s ethnic groups, then they first of all use this above mentioned oral tradition to describe and interpret them. And this is the same tradition that, on the other hand, praises the culture of the ruling elite and its social order to the skies.

Dor Bahadur Bista’s book is atotal opposite to this kind of interpretation of Nepali society in the historical context. His interpretation comes very close to that of the ethnic elites or is even identical in greater parts. But there is nevertheless a decisive distinction. The ethnic elites in their endeavour to abolish the state’s discrimination against many population groups and to get equality in politics, society and economy come out, like Bista, against the traditional Nepali conception of history. But the former make a bipartition of society into high Hindu caste elites, who once immigrated from India, and the suppressed non-Hindu tibeto-mongolian peoples. This ethnic argumentation leaves unmentioned not only the lower Hindu castes and the Tarai Hindus, who together constitute almost one quarter of the country’s total population according to the census of 1991, but also the Khas, i.e. the ancestors of Nepali culture and language, and their fate in modern Nepali history.

The latter group is pushed to the fore by Bista, who calls himself a Khas. Traditional Nepali historiography, as well, does not deny that the Khas, besides the Kiranti, constitute Nepal’s oldest population groups. In the western part of current Nepal there existed a huge Khas state until the 15th century. During its heyday it also comprised adjoining areas of current India and Tibet, before it disintegrated into numerous small states. This, too, is proved by historical research and undisputed. But during the following centuries the Khas seem to have totally disappeared from the scene; according to the official version of history there are no Khas in Nepal today. But this appears unbelievable, since it is a matter of fact that just the language of the Khas, khas kura, is the basis of the current national language Nepali, i. e. the mother tongue of all Hindu hill castes of Nepal. It is indeed hard to imagine, that high caste Hindu refugees came to Nepal in greater numbers about 600 years ago and that these refugees, because of their mental superiority and their noble character, were asked by the indigenous people to become the rulers of their small states. And it is totally unbelievable that these superior foreign rulers then accepted the language of the dying out Khas people as their mother tongue, as it is sold as historical truth by the official Nepali historiography.

Here the historical interpretation of Bista is much clearer, although some historical events are not dated correctly. So Bista fills a gap in the traditional as well as in the ethnic interpretation of history. Both of them leave the Khas more or less unmentioned in modern history. Bista proves that the current Chetris are the descendants of special groups of Khas and Magars; only a few centuries ago these groups were transformed to Hinduized Chetris or even Bahuns by Indian Brahmans who fled to the Himalayan region.

The integration of this aspect into the Nepali conception of historiography would have several consequences. First it would neutralize the ethnic argumentation that the Chetris and Bahuns are foreign immigrants. Bista proves, that the Chetris and many Bahuns, too, belong to Nepal’s indigenous peoples, that they, too, in some way have been victims of the process of Sanskritization; but at the same time they also have been its product. This different view of at least the greater part of the current high Hindu castes does nor refute the historical conception of the ethnic groups, which is based on the concept of suppression and displacement by the Hindu castes, but it deprives the movement based on this concept of its possible militancy. And finally this changed conception of historiography would also be of importance for the national consciousness: History would prove that the current ruling elite is not of foreign, i.e. Indian, but of indigenous origin. In view of the constant problem of distinguishing from India this aspect is not to be underestimated.

In this way the combination of traditional and ethnic historiography could lead to far reaching changes in the conception of Nepali history. In the long run the recognition of the historical contributions of the different peoples, cultures and regions could become the foundation of national integration, peaceful coexistence and development of civil society in Nepal. I would like to conclude my article with a citation of Pratyoush Onta, who in my opinion is a typical representative of the coming generation of Nepali historiography:

It becomes obvious that the golden age of Nepali history has not become a reality. That might not matter so much, but disciplinary history must become faithful to the life-experiences of the many 'subaltern classes' of Nepal's peoples: ethnic minorities, children, women and the 'untouchables'. Those who presume to write history must come alive to the fact that there are victims of history.

This writer would even suggest that historians abandon the disciplinary virtues as 'objectivity' along with the state-centric view of Nepali history. We should produce passionate poly-centric histories, using oral and other sources based on life experiences, and resist the totalising claims of official histories. We must redefine the 'major problems of general interest' so that history of Nepal stops to be elite prosopography.

Copyright © 2000, Karl-Heinz Kraemer