Colors of Diversity-1

Features Issue 38 Aug, 2010
Text by Eva Manandhar / Photo: Naresh Shrestha

The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People started in January 1995 and ended in December 2004. It was proclaimed by the General Assembly on 21st December 1993 with the main objective of strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health. The theme for the Decade was “Indigenous people: partnership in action”. The decade is now over. In December 2004, various ethnic groups organized their individual programs that highlighted their culture and marked the end of the Decade.

Nepal is a land of diversities. Within an area of 141,000 sq km, the Himalaya in the north has arctic conditions while the tarai (plains in the south) enjoys sub-tropical temperatures. The Nepali people are as diverse as the land they inherited. Nepal is inhabited by people of mostly Tibeto-Burmese or Indo-Aryan origin and they speak more than 200 different dialects. Among the indigenous people are the Limbu, Magar, Tharu, Sherpa, Newar and Gurung, who we have featured here. These ethnic groups wear some of the most fascinating and extraordinary jewelry while their traditional costumes may also turn a few heads.

The people living in the Gandaki zone are predominantly Gurungs. The Gurung people have Mongoloid features, with their round faces, fold in the upper eyelid and slanted lips. But the nasal roots are not very flat compared to the other ethnic groups. They are quite strong and usually short.

The women’s ornaments include Sirbandi which consists of three golden strips. Of these, one runs down the centre of the head and the other two run down the sides. They have intricate designs on them. Jhumko or clips are worn at the back of the head. Cheptesoon, the circular golden plates adorn both their ears while Jantar, a square piece made of gold is attached to their necklace. They also wear Pote or beaded necklaces which are quite commonly worn by most Nepali women. But their preferred color is green. Usually Naugedi which translates as nine beads (nau means nine) is a necklace with beads and nine pieces of gold is also worn. Mugamala is another interesting stone necklace that is worn by the Gurungs.  Chura or silver bangles with designs and golden rings adorn their hands.

The clothes they wear comprise Thute choli or blouse worn with the saree.  Patuka is worn on the waist and a small cloth worn at the back called Tikis. A shawl covers the shoulders and they refer to it as a Mujetro. The clothing of the men include Thute bhoto, Bhangro, which consists of a rectangular piece of white cotton folded in two down its length. The four corners are knotted two and two. The two knots are put together and then crossed. That on the left passing over the right and vice versa. The material fastened on the left is slung over the left shoulder whilst that on the right is slung over the right shoulder. The band of the material cross over the chest and meet at the back, where there is a big expanse of cloth forming a large pocket which hangs down to the top of the thighs. They wear a Patuka on their waists. The men also wear the essential Dhaka Topi (hat) while some wear a long piece of cloth on their head called Ghum. The shoes they wear is known as Kapsya.

The Limbus have mongoloid features and are normally fair in complex  ion. They have eye folds in the upper eye-lids, small flat  noses which are depressed at the roots. But their facial bones are high.  The Limbus are mostly settled in Eastern Nepal and are found living in the hills as well as the Tarai areas.

The women wear large decorative pieces on their heads, known as Samyanfung, which consists of a flat circular gold plate with a red stone in the centre. It may be worn as the only piece or along with a Sirbandi. The Sirbandi consists of three golden strips with one running down the centre, and two at the sides. A half moon shaped structure is attached to it which falls on the forehead.  Golden jewelry called Chepte Soon or large gold plate shaped ornaments adorn the ears. An essential part of the jewelry is the Bulaki and Dhungri in the center and the left side of their noses respectively.

A Kantha which they wear is a combination of gold pieces and Banath or red cloth. A silver necklace with broad stripes with a huge silver pendant is a distinct piece of jewelry and is popularly known as Chandrahar.  Cross cultural influences have introduced jewelry like the  tilhari, or the green pote necklaces, which indicate that the woman is married. Thick bangles made of silver around their wrists complete the Limbu look.

The Limbu men wear a daura surwal which is quite commonly worn by  Nepali men of many different ethnic groups. The exceptional dress that the Limbus wear is the Taga, which is a long costume worn over other clothes.   Normally the colors are of their choice but during marriages it is obligatory to wear white. Dhaka topi, generally made from colorful cloth with designs is favored.  The attire of the women is the chhitko saree normally black with patterns. A patuka and chaubandi cholo (Blouse) is worn and a shawl covers the back portion of their heads.

The majority of people residing in the Kathmandu Valley are Newars. Their facial features are a mixture of Mongoloid, Caucasian, Australoid and Tibetanish also. The skin pigmentation varies from very dark to very fair.

Among the various ornaments worn by Newars, the ones that distinctly stand out are, Loonswan which is a gold plate worn at the centre of the head with superb designs all over with a coral containing an image of Lord Ganesh in the middle. A huge golden necklace known as Tayo which hold significant meanings is also important. A Ghau, which is a golden pendant with stones joined to a necklace is also impressive. Kilip as the name suggests is worn at the back of the head. The word probably came from the English word ‘clip’. The Teek Ma is another elaborate piece worn on the head. It has many small strings attached to a point and is worn on the side. Besides these, some of the commonly worn ornaments are Patachin shikha or a simple gold necklace, Company shikha which is a necklace made of coins, and Bhimpuma, another necklace made of coral. The earrings are u-shaped and are called Makansi. The hands are adorned with gold rings and bangles. Kalli  which is usually made of silver is also worn around the ankles.

Though most of the Newars wear sarees they call it a parsi, and unlike the others instead of putting the end at the back, they wrap it around their waist above the pleats. A patuka is usually worn above it and the blouse completes the attire. However the Jyapu community wears a distinct saree popularly known as Haku Patashi, which is a plain black saree with a red border. They wear a full sleeved blouse which is tied at four different corners and is called ‘Thana tagu kapoya lan’. Above it, a shawl or Haku gacha is also worn. The men wear a knee length dress, the upper part of which, resembles women’s clothing, but is slightly loose and is called lan and the trousers worn with it is called Suruwa.

However, one must note that Newars living in the various parts of Kathamandu valley not only speak different dialects of Newari, but also wear  different types of clothing. Even the festivals are not the same as can be seen during the Gai Jatra and the Mohani festivals. And some festivals are only celebrated in Bhaktapur and Thimi.

Tharus are indigenous people of the Tarai region. Like most people living in the hot plains, they  are dark skinned. They also have folded eyes, which are slanted back and have small noses. Most of them have thick lips and high cheekbones. These features indicate they are also of mongoloid stock. Physically they are short and are not very heavily built.

The Tharu women put on a Mandutika on their foreheads and wear a Mangauri on their head. A phuli or Nathiya is worn on the nose along with a bulaki in the center. Kanaili is sported on the upper part of the ear and below it is worn the Kanausi or Airam. They have several kinds of necklaces including the silver ring called Sutiya or Hansuli and Churla consisting of two broad bands with a distinct piece joining them at the centre. They also wear Shree Kanthak mala, which is a collection of miniature spear-like projections, Humel and Haikal which are made up of coins, Painkak which has a collection of coins in the front only and there are necklaces with intricate designs popularly known as Taunk, Kanseri and Thosyu. The hands are also decorated with ornaments such as silver bangles called Bhetuwa and  Jodma bangles.  The upper part of the arm is adorned with Josam, Bijayat, Baju, and Anandi.  Rings are also worn and are known as Manduri, Thesar or Bicchiya.  Paijon is worn on the legs and below it, the Pairi and Kara (silver rings).

The saree and blouse is also preferred by the Tharus. But other dresses such as the lehenga, a long skirt or thetwa gunew, which is a knee length dress with a few folds in the front is also worn. They wear a shawl over their clothes, which is known as gthya.

The men’s garments include Dhoti, Kamij or Kurta. On top of it they wear a waistcoat. They also wear a shawl, known as chhadari over these clothes. The men folk use a few ornaments, such as Kanaili on the ears, silver necklace and Anandi on their right hand.

There are however, Rana Tharus and  Dangauru Tharus who are said to have originated from Rajasthan and Dang respectively. The Rana Tharus can be distinguished by the large number of coins that they wear on their clothing. When dressed up for their festivals, they look spectacular.

Magars are mostly found living in central Nepal. They have high malar bones, the fold in the upper eyes, small flat noses with depressed nasal roots and thick lips.

The women wear Sirbandis on their heads. Chandrama (half moon-shaped clips. Chandra means moon) are also worn along with smaller ones.  Dhungri is worn on the top of their ears and they also wear Chepte Soon, which have a red or green stone. Maruli which is shaped like small thorns is also worn. A Bulaki sits on the nose, and a Phuli on the left side. A major attraction is the heavy necklaces called Kantha. Some opt for the Muga (Coral beads) and Yun (Torquoise) placed along with gold. Silver coins are strung together to make an attractive necklace. Attached to it at the bottom is a Humbell, a square plate which has religious inscriptions on it. Pote is mostly worn in green or yellow. They wear Raiyan on their hands, (thick bangles with thorn like projections) and could also wear a Baghmukhe (Lion-face), which is quite thick. Rings in the shape of coins adorn their fingers.

The women wear a Cholo (blouse) with a Chipko gunyo, or saree. The waist is covered by a bright yellow or blue Patuka (waist-band), while a Teki, a square shaped black Makhmal (velvet) cloth, is folded and worn in a triangular shape at the back. Gada a bag to hold ones necessities is strung around the shoulders. A shawl of Dhaka or Makhmal with beautiful designs is wrapped around. A Ghalek of red or black makhmal which is meant for warmth is also used extensively. A Khurpeto is also slung around, which is used to hold a Hansiyan (sickle).

 The men wear the distinct Nepali topi, with a white Daura or shirt. A Gada or a bag is carried for convenience, in which they carry tools and supplies needed in the fields like Hansiya (sickle) rope, water, food, etc. A Kacchad or lungi of white color is worn along with a checkered Patuka. The only ornaments they wear are Ludka (earrings).


Sherpas trace their origins to Tibet. Their traditional dress as well as their culture are quite similar to that of Tibetans.  They live in the mountainous regions mostly in Eastern Nepal, especially in the Solu Khumbu area around the Everest region. They are known to be hardy people and extremely well adapted to high altitudes, which has made them world famous as mountaineers.

Being highland people, the Sherpas prefer woolen clothes to suit the alpine climate and the hat, which they call Apshe Shamung is worn by both men and women. One can quite easily differentiate between the two by the designs in the one worn by men, which is absent in the women’s hat. The shirt with extremely long sleeves, which almost touches the knees, is known as Tetum for men and the one worn by women is called Wonju. Above the shirt the men wear a long shirt like attire, called Chuwak, which falls just above the knees. The men wear trousers called Pishu while the women wear a Bakhu or Angee. This graceful traditional dress is still worn by the womenfolk in special occasions. A piece of cloth is worn at the back and is called Kitil. After marriage, a rectangular piece of cloth called a Pangi that has horizontal lines in vibrant colors is tied to the waist. This signifies the marital status of the women. To keep warm in the chilling winter colds, socks are compulsory and these are known as Kanshu. Doja or the radiant colored shoes are an added attraction in their apparel and they also keep the feet warm. The Sherpas have a tradition of putting on Khata, a white cloth as a token or blessing during marriage or any other special occasion.

Their ornaments which are mostly made of silver, consist of interesting pieces like the Chhap Chhap which is equipped with a brush, tweezer, tiny spoon, pin, etc. A Genjen is sported on their waist which is quite elaborate and has three long silver strips with intricate designs and precious stones in the center piece. The Jee mala is made of muga (coral), combined with stones with black and white designs. It may just be a simple necklace or one that has a distinct pendant.

Indigenous people in the limelight
Nepali society has been enriched by the diversity of cultures, physical characteristics and religious practices of the people, which make this country  such a fascinating tourist destination. Many ethnic groups are further divided into sub-groups that can lead to much confusion, especially since they speak many different dialects and even seek a separate identity.

Although women, even in the villages today, wear less jewelry, there are special occasions like weddings and religious festivals, when they adorn themselves with fascinating ornaments. In Kathmandu, we are fortunate to be able to see the various indigenous people celebrate their individual festivals with great fanfare wearing their distinctive costumes and glittering ornaments.

In the near future we will be featuring other diverse ethnic groups in Colors of Diversity –II.

Special thanks to Krishna Subba for sportingly agreeing to grace our cover. She hails from Dhankuta, but is now living in Kathmandu and is the (Chairman) Chairperson of Kirant Yakthung Chumlung.

We are grateful to the various Associations for their invaluable assistance and kind co-operation in making this feature possible.

Tamu Bouddha Sewa Samiti (Gurung)
4243688 Email:

Newa: Deya Dabu (Newar)
Phone:  4267605

Kirant Yakthung Chumlung (Limbu)
Phone: 5520349

Tharu Kalyankari Sabha
Phone: 4490740

Magar Samaj Sewa Kendra
Phone: 5541683
Email :

Nepal Sherpa Sangh
Phone: 4488256