Paper presented in a national seminar on Strengthening Decentralization and Good Governance in Nepal organized by the Political Science Association of Nepal (POLSAN) and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), Kathmandu, April 21, 2002.

Krishna B. Bhattachan, Ph.D.
Central Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Kathmandu

Nepal is a small country characterized by both bio-diversity and socio-cultural diversity. Nepal indeed is a multi racial or multi-caste/ethnic, multi lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural and more recently multi-(political) party country. Prior to the "territorial unification" under the Gurkha imperialism or internal colonization of 1768, different indigenous nationalities had their own homeland and self-rule. It was during those times that different indigenous nationalities had evolved and sustained different voluntary organizations. After 1768, the rulers imposed the policy of domination of one caste, one language, one religion and one culture over many others. Unfortunately, the Nepalese people had to go through different variety of autocratic rules for 122 out of 134 years. Despite of predatory State most of the indigenous nationalities sustained their ethnic identity, language, religion and culture due to underdeveloped transportation and communication system in the country. Also, it is a historical reality that rapidly expanding process of globalization and intensification of previous policy of cultural violence through the domination of one caste, one religion, one language and one culture, the very process of marginalization or preipheralization, grinding poverty, and isolation from a lack of transportation, communication and education have indeed helped, on the one hand, to maintain some of the traditional local governance intact, and on the other hand, many of them were either lost or at the verge of extinction.

Traditionally Nepal used to rely heavily on voluntary local governance on everything. It used to be an ideal way of every-day-life. Local governance, therefore, helped to fulfill the needs of the community and to be self-reliant. Since the fifties, several efforts have been made for decentralization but in the name of decentralization the process of centralization has been intensified.




There are 61 indigenous nationalities (21 in the Mountain, 23 in the Hill, 7 in the Inner Terai and 10 in the Terai regions) and about 125 languages and dialects that are still alive in Nepal. Traditional voluntary local governance has neither attracted the attention of social scientists, including anthropologists, nor of development practitioners. So far, very few articles have trickled on the issue (Bhattachan 1996; and 1997; Chhetri 1995; Dhakal 1996; Gurung 1999; Gellner 1995; Manandhar-Gurung 2000; Messerschmidt 1978; and 1981; Pradhan 1980; Regmi 1998; Uphoff 1986; Vinding 1998). We all know that there are different types of traditional voluntary local self-governance of different caste and ethnic groups. There has not been yet any effort to study in detail about such organizations in a single study. I will try to bring together all available but scattered information in this paper that would give us a fairly reasonable picture about the situation of traditional local governance in Nepal.


Grassroots Democracy of the Syangtan: Posang [1]


Posang is one of the best example of democracy voluntarily practiced by indigenous peoples is that of the Syangtan (Panch Gaule), one of 61 indigenous nationalities of Nepal. They live in the southern part, few hundred meters away at the south-west of the Jhongsamba ("Jomsom") airport, of the Mustang District. The total number of households and population has always been very low, that is about 100 households. Each and every Syangtan household automatically becomes member of the Village Assembly called Yhul Jhompa. The whole community is divided in two phajan or groups, the big group (phajan thyowa) and (phajan cyanpa), with different clans. The Village Assembly meets every two years. Each group meets in separate but adjoining courtyards. Each and every household must take responsibility of headmen sooner or later. Aliens or non-Syangtan people may reside in the village but they can not take part in the Village Assembly.

During the Village Assembly, each group elects headman for the other group from among the households who have volunteered to take the responsibility for the next two years. As stones are used as ballots, the candidates who receive maximum number of stones are declared elected. The announcement is made during the after lunch plenary. Between the two headmen elected, whoever is elder becomes thyumi thyowa (senior headman) and junior thyumi cyangpa (junior headman). Headmen take oath at the end of the tenure. According to Vinding (1998:255), "The outgoing headmen take an oath (kyang chinpa) by placing a hand on a religious text and promising that they have not done anything wrong during their tenure." During the plenary the outgoing headmen are kept locked in adjoining rooms and public auditing is done by the plenary. If the members have any complain against wrong doings by the headmen, these issues would be thoroughly discussed and if found guilty they determine punishment accordingly. Then only the headmen are brought back to plenary, charged with the wrong doings, declared punishments and they are given an opportunity to defend themselves. If the plenary should still find them guilty, they would be punished-theoretically it may be as extreme as a death punishment, that is, put in a sack and throw in the nearby Kaligandaki river.

The Assembly also meets every year to appoint village workers and every three-year to take Census of the community. The community members are divided in three groups based on age groups. The headmen along with village workers are responsible for everything of the community, including agriculture, irrigation, pasture, food security, animal husbandry, marriage, festivals, worship, justice, and so on.

During the autocratic partyless Panchayat rule, the imposition of local bodies such as the Village Panchayat and after the re-establishment of multi-party political system in 1990 the Village development Committee (VDC), traditional voluntary organizations such as Posang has been marginalized.


Bheja [2]


Bheja is a multipurpose voluntary organization of the Magars of Western Nepal. One or more than one community may forma a Bheja. Each household of the community becomes member. If a member does not attend a puja (worship) organized by the Bheja, the member is either suspended or purged (Dhakal 1996:40). There are different types of Bheja which includes Susupak Bheja ("General Assembly"), Riti-Thiti-Baslane-Bheja ("Rules and regulation establishment") and Chandi Bheja ("Discussion about Villagers' Concerns"). Bheja is headed by an elected Mukhiya and religious activities are taken care by Poojari. Bheja performs many functions that pertain to religion, agriculture, resource management, entertainment, and conflict management. Although Bheja has begun disappearing, Dhakal (1996:48) writes, "All, however, is not lost yet. Revival and renovation can still put back life into this time-honored institution."


Land Management: Kipat [3]


Land, water, forest, and pasture are life and blood of indigenous peoples. Mahesh Chandra Regmi (1998:534) writes, "Land is held on a tribal, village, kindred or family basis, and individuals have definite rights in this land by virtue of their membership in the rlevant social unit. Hence, title to land has a communal character and it is usufructuary, rather than absolute." Regmi (1978:538) writes, "the Indo-Aryans have migrated from the Indian plains to the south and from the sub-Himalayan hill areas to the west of Nepal, it is also probable that the Kipat system in its present form is a relic of the customary land tenure that the Mongolian communities established in the areas occupied by them prior to Indo-Aryan penetration."

According to Mahesh Chandra Regmi (1998:88), the Kipat owning communities included Limbu, Rai, Majhiya, Bhote, Yakha, Tamang, Hayu, Chepang, Baramu, Danuwar, Sunuwar, Kumhal, Pahari, Thami, Sherpa, Majhi, and Lepcha. However, the State reconfirmed "traditional customs and privileges" in 1961 but Kipat was abolished, that is turned into Raikar, through back door in the name of land reform in 1968.

"Although we have conquered your country by dint of our valor, we have afforded you and your kinsmen protection. We hereby pardon all of your crimes, and confirm all the customs and traditions, rights and privileges of your country. . . . Enjoy the land from generation to generation, as long as it remains in existence. . . . In case we confiscate your lands . . . may our ancestral gods destroy our kingdom." (Regmi 1978:540).

Regmi has quoted Prithvi Narayan Shah swearing for destruction of the "kingdom" but in Nepali text made public by Mr. Bir Nembang, the leader of the Limbuan Liberation Front, the swearing is for the destruction of the "descent." It may be merely a coincidence that King Birendra's desecent was destroyed indeed on June 1, 2001.

The main actors of the Kipat system were Subba, Karta, Karbari, Budhauli, Bhaiyad, Thari and Raiti/Sukumbasi. The main activities included tax collection, settlement (Raiti basaune), land translator, dispute resolution, distribution natural resources/ management, legal (dejure/defaeto), chardam/ kharchari (Raiti, Subba relation), thekibethi/ beth/ begar, bhag / bandhaki (bad / badkara), chhinti / pharse / rajinama (16 ane / damasahi/ tiro ), hale / kodale ( raikar) and occupational tiro.


Forest Management: Mirchang of Marphalis [4]


Mirchang (the Committee of 15 Members) is a traditional voultary organization of the Marhpatan (Pacnhgaule), one of the indigenous nationalities of Nepal. They live in the southern part of Mustang adjoining the Thakalis of further south. They are divided into four clans: Hirachan, Lalchan, Pannachan and Juharchan. More than 100 households are in Marpha.

Mirchang's main responsibility is management of natural resources, including forest. All four clan groups are equally represented in Mirchang. As forest is very precious for these people, Mirchang makes rules and regulations concerning the use of the forest. No one can enter forest without its permission. They have authority to fine if members violate rules. They are supervised by the Village Headman. If they too violate rules, headman is authorized to carry out investigation. Village headman, just like in Syang, take oath at the end of his tenure. Mirchang used to function well even without any written laws, rules and regulations. According to Dr. Sumitra Manandhar-Gurung (2000), Mirchang was "weakened and lost" after implementation of much publicized but failed USAID funded project called Resource Conservation and Utilization Project (RCUP) in 1978.


Economic Management: Dhikur [5]


Dhikur originated with the three indigenous nationalities, namely, Thakalis, Gurungs and Bhotes of the western mountain and Hill. Dhikur has been a prime example of voluntary credit associations that has sustained for centuries and still continue to expand to other different communities, including the Dalits and professional groups, including teachers. It is estimated that the volume of transaction exceeds transactions through banking system. One may compare Dhikur with the western credit card system, the former is informal and group-trust based while the latter is formal and high-tech based.

Dhikur actually originated with the collection of food grains but it has turned into a mechanism to raise capital for investment in trade and business. Traditionally, relatives of an individual who desperately need some capital to run a business becomes ghopa and find out interested relatives and other community members to participate in the Dhikur. Within few days, organizer finds out enough number of participants to raise enough capital. If the number of interested volunteers are many, the amount of installment would be less and if the number is less the amount would be high. They volunteer group may meet at certain specified interval of time, say for example, every month. Every month each volunteer deposit money and all money collected would be given to one of the participants, first with the most needy ones. The interest rate is low compared to profit made after its investment. As the turn completes the volunteer Dhikur group automatically terminates.

Thus, Ghopa (Coordinator) invite members, call meetings, keep records, collect installments, distribute the fund, collect fines, settle disputes and make the Dhikur a success. Close relatives, other relatives, friends, and acquaintances are invited for membership. Jamani (Guarantor) functions as collateral. The size and amount of Dhikur differs from one Dhikur to another but in each Dhikur both are fixed. Those who get funds pay shiku (interest). The order of recipient of the fund is determined by giving first turn to the organizer (ghopa) and the subsequent funds to needy shareholders or whoever is lucky to win lottery or open bidding or closed bidding. Each constellation of Dhikur terminates with end of the cycle. New constellations of Dhikurs with new members are created. It goes on and on.


Agriculture Management: Chaatis Mauja Irrigation System of the Tharus [6]


The Tharus who lived in the Chatis Mauja area in Rupandehi district had developed a voluntary irrigation system about 150 years ago. Until the fifties it was owned and controlled by the Tharus. As hill to Terai migration became intensified since the sixties and Butwal and Bhairawa became trading centers, many hill caste and ethnic groups migrated to this area. Thus the Chatis Mauja irrigation system has now been run and controlled by mixed groups. After 1979 the rules and regulations has been formalized. The entire activities concerning operation and maintenance of the irrigation system are done by the villagers themselves.

At the grass roots level, groups are formed with 2-5 members. They elect a headman (these days the position is referred to as Chairperson) of the irrigation system is called Mukhtiyar in annual meetings for one year. They also elect vice-chairperson and nine regional members. Two Meth Mukhtiyars, a Secretary and two messengers are appointed by the committee.

The Committee decides rules and implements accordingly. The Committee is responsible for water distribution, labor contribution, and other needed works.

Prof. Norman Uphoff (1986) has cited Chattis Mauja Iirrigation Sytem as one of the four best model of irrigation system in the world.

Labor Management: Parma/Nogyar/Porima

Voluntary labor organization called Nogyar by the Gurungs, Porima by the Limbus and Parma by the caste groups are most ubiquitous in the Hills. It basically a reciprocal labor exchange system used mostly during peak agricultural season. The basis of recruitment, according to Messerschimdt (1981:43), includes neighborhood, gender, age, clan and moiety.


Socio-cultural Forum: Khel [7]


Khel is a voluntary social organization of the Tharus of mid-western Terai region of Nepal. Many Tharus are not aware about such organization. It, therefore, indicates that it is close to extinction. It is basically an organization where community members participate in various social and cultural activities.


Religious cum Social Management: Guthi the Newars [8]


Newars are the indigenous nationalities of the Kathmandu Valley. They are one of the very few indigenous nationalities who have been urban oriented and made great success in politics, bureaucracy, arts and architecture. Guthi by now has been associated with a kind of land tenure system, religious and philanthropic endowments, foundations, trusts, oil-processing cooperatives etc. (Messerschmidt 1981:42). The traditional Newar Guthis are basically of three types: clan based, lineage based and territory based. There are many varieties of Guthis which includes Si Guthi realted to death rituals, Dewali Guthi related to worship of the clan deity, Nasa Guthi related to music and so on. Each and every Newar household voluntarily becomes member of one or the other Guthis, often of multiple Guthis. They are called Guthiyars and the headman is called Thakali. If members violate norms and values they would be denied of services or of participation and social boycott as an extreme punishment.


Local Administration: Choho of Tamang [9]


Tamangs are the indigenous nationalities who reside in adjoining parts of the Kathmandu Valley. Their traditional homeland is called as Tambasaling. Their one of the important traditional voluntary local governance system is called Choho. Choho is a way of life of the Tamangs. Also, Choho is a clan leader first selected by the community members and later continue with heredity succession. Choho plays multiple roles, including that of the administrator, judiciary and spiritual leader. For his voluntary services, the community members give gifts of alcohol and head of sacrificed animal.


Socio-economic Management: Ttho of the Gurungs [10]


Ttho is a social organization of the Guurngs where membership is voluntary and have no officials as such. According to Gurung (1999:39) it is the indigenous village assembly of the Gurung community. Resources are generated through voluntary contributions of food grains, called Ttho Syor, by its members. Such contributions are used mainly for community priests such as Lama, Gyabre, Jhankri and community messenger called katuwal. They spend some of these resources for socio-cultural activities, including life cycle rituals. Ttho strictly follow the traditional unwritten rules and regulations concerning natural resource management, agriculture and irrigation, animal husbandry, repair of trails and collection of honey.

Gola functions within the Ttho organization. Gola is based primarily on volunteer cooperative labor mobilization (Gurung 1999:40). Each Ttho has its own Gola. Ttho members contribute their labor voluntarily if they should build house, construct trails, resting places such as chautari and pati-pauwa. Gola members have now begun to save money and use it for needy members or for emergency services. Gola is rapidly disappearing in the Gurung community.


Socialization and Information Management: Ro-Dhin ("Rodi") of the Gurungs


Both teenagers and young adult boys and girls voluntarily gather in a specific house in the evening. They enjoy singing, dancing, story telling, etc. This functions like a media center where all boys and girls share information about firewood and fodder collection, pasture, animal husbandry, agriculture, irrigation, forest, etc. During the day time all of them get engaged in different household and agricultural works. They, therefore, cannot communicate with each other. Older members also attend and most of them do works related to weaving wollen blankets called radi pakhi. Sometimes, boys and girls who like each other do get married. This is the reason why some western anthropologists have portrayed Rodi as a dormitory organization with offensive meaning in the Nepalese cultural context.


Social Welfare Management: Aama Samuha (Mother's Group)


Mother's groups is perhaps one of the most universalized traditional voluntary organizations in Nepal. It first started with the Gurungs of Western Nepal. As most of the Gurung men used to join in the British Army, and more recently, in Indian Army, for the last two centuries, Gurung women formed mother's group to sing, dance, and organize cultural activities in the evening. One of the most interesting activities they perform is to welcome returnee Lahures and guest visitors. They Lahures (returnee British or Indian Army Men) and guest visitors donate money to the Aama Samuha. Ama Samuha usually organize signing and dancing programs in the evening and collected money is used to build trails, temples, etc. Many INGOs and NGOs have formed and promoted Aama Samuha across the country among different caste and ethnic groups. The Aama Samuha of Bahun-Chhetri castes have very aggressively raised anti-alcohol movement in the villages.




By now it is clear that there are many traditional local governance practices that are either extinct or there are threats of extinction. Despite of predatory State policy of the Bahun-Chhteri rulers of the last 233 years, which is based on the theory of Bahunism (See Bista 1991 for detail) or domination of one- caste, one language, one religion and one culture, and also despite of lack of attention of donors and INGOs to preserve and promote traditional local governance, most of the useful traditional system of local governance are either expanding its boundaries or at the least surviving. There is no doubt whatsoever that traditional system of local governance continue to be marginalized by the State.

There is definitely a need to conduct more serious and intensive research about such traditional local governance systems and grassroots democracy. Also, there is a need to make an inventory of such systems. There is indeed tremendous opportunity to use traditional local governance practices not only for grass-roots development but also for national development.


Bhattachan, Krishna B.

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End Notes:

  1. This part is based on a book by Michael Vinding (1998) and personal communication with Mr. Omkar Prasad Gauchan.
  2. This part is based on an article by Suresh Dhakal (1996).
  3. This part is based on books by mahesh Chandra Regmi (1978; 2000) and personal communication with Pragya Bairagi Kainla (Poet Til Bikram nembang), Dr. Chaitannya Subba, Mr. Arjun Limbu and Mr. Mahendra Lawoti.
  4. This part is based on a draft report prepared by Sumitra Manandhar-Gurung (2000).
  5. This is based on my own personal observation. For detail see Messesrchmidt 1978; 1981; Chhetri 1995)
  6. This section is based on Uphoff (1986).
  7. Based on personal communication with Dr. Keshav Shakya and Mr. Dhruba Manandhar.
  8. This part is based on articles by Donald A. Messerschmidt (1981) and David Gellner (19 ).
  9. This part is based on a draft report prepared by Sumitra Manandhar-Gurung (2000).
  10. This part is based on an article in Nepali by Rajendra Gurung (1999).

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