Diwali shines a rare spotlight on Nepal’s untouchables

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Nepal’s musician caste, which is considered among the untouchables, is used to being relegated to the sidelines of society. But on this year’s Diwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, a group of 10 Gardharbas found themselves at center stage.

This year, Diwali, which is known in Nepal as Tihar, was celebrated around Oct. 17. That day and night, a group of 10 musicians, referred to as Gandharba or Gaaine, wandered through Kathmandu’s neighborhoods plying their minstrel trade at the houses of both rich and poor.

Long after dark the group entertained their hosts with music and song — a pastiche of traditional and improvised lyrics that elicited laughter, catcalls and even tears from audiences and performers. The musicians were rewarded with offerings of rice, bread, fruit, liquor and money. It was a return to an old tradition that is rapidly dwindling in a modern Nepal.

“Ever since I was a young child we only go wandering on Tihar. We can make money on Tihar, but we don’t do it only for money, we also do it for our old culture,” said Kishwor Gandharba, 20, a recent high school graduate whose father works in Kathmandu’s tourist district of Thamel.

The Gandharbas are a small caste virtually unknown beyond the borders of the Himalayan nation. They roam from town to town, playing music on their sarangees — the rough equivalent to fiddles — to make money where they can.

A 2001 census found that there were almost 6,000 Gandharbas in Nepal, accounting for only 0.03 percent of Nepal's population of more than 22.7 million. Though, many in the caste claim their population now hovers around 10,000.

Despite their relatively small numbers, Gandharbas hold a unique place in Nepali society, said Stephanie Spray, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in anthropology and film, who began studying Gandharbas in 2001.

For centuries, they have been oral historians and conduits for information across Nepal’s famously rugged terrain. They were dispatched by king Prithivi Narayan Shah to spread the news of Nepal’s unification 240 years ago and the sarangee has emerged as an iconic symbol of Nepali culture. Even 20 years ago it was common to see Gandharbas wandering from town to town as their primary source of income.

Today, wandering represents not only a way to make ends meet, but also a means by which to ensure the survival of Gandharba traditions.

“We have to save our own culture. Playing the sarangee, playing the arwaaj [a traditional stringed instrument] is a blessing for our culture,” said Purna Bahadur Ghandari, 52.

Despite its rich pedigree, Gandharba culture has been shaken by the influx of modern media, according to Jacob Penchansky, director of the Mountain Music Project, an organization aimed at preserving traditional music and culture.

“As radio, TV, internet and recorded music become more ubiquitous, [the Gandharbas’] role is no longer so important,” he said. “Because of this, you see many Gandharbas moving to the city to find a life dependent on the tourist industry, which offers little guarantees.”

Tourism is the lifeblood for many of Kathmandu’s Gandharbas, who earn their keep by selling small sarangees to tourists as souvenirs or performing at restaurants and hotels. But a decade of political upheaval scared away many foreign visitors and Nepal’s tourism industry is still finding its feet.

Nepal had 251,523 tourists arrive by air between January and September this year, a 2.2 percent drop from that same time period last year, due to “fluctuation” in the global tourism industry, according to the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB). An NTB spokesman said that relative political calm has released pent up demand for tourist travel to Nepal, noting that in April air tourist arrivals increased by 16 percent year-on-year to 37,819. The NTB is optimistic that the tourism industry — which contributes 2 to 3 percent to the nation’s GDP — is on the mend and has launched a marketing campaign aimed at bringing 1 million tourists per year to Nepal by 2011.

While there are other anecdotal signs that tourists are beginning to return to Nepal, the effect has yet to trickle down to Kathmandu’s Gandharbas, for whom it is common to sell only one small sarangee each, every tourist season. On average, a low-quality sarangee fetches a price of NRS1,000-2,000 ($14-27).

Wandering from house to house hardly commands a prince’s wage either. Over the course of one day during Tihar, when homeowners are known to be more generous, the group of 10 Gandharbas received about NRS14,000 ($190) in donations.

Some Kathmandu-based Gandharbas also point to a new threat to their livelihood. Restaurants and stores in Thamel have begun hiring guards to keep hawkers at bay.

Many Gandharbas survive off a mix of tourism-related work and wandering. Research is scant on the condition of Gandharbas, particularly female Gandharbas, in rural areas. Consequently, it is difficult to make broad statements about whether the Gandharbas’ lot has improved in past decades.

“The question is not whether or not their situation is any better or worse, but rather is it livable?” Spray asked.

Increased educational opportunities and stronger community networks have improved the quality of life for many Gandharbas. They also benefit from a more relaxed attitude toward their untouchable status; in major cities it is commonplace for Gandharbas to mingle freely among the high castes.

Yet the caste system remains a powerful force in many rural areas, where Gandharbas are still barred from entering high caste homes or even touching the clothes of a Bahun (Brahmin), the highest caste. On top of this, Gandharbas face the same hardships shared by the vast majority of Nepal’s citizenry: poverty, the high cost of education, limited access to even basic necessities such as clean water and medical treatment.

Many young Gandharbas are eager to change with the times. Kishwor Gandharba hopes to study forestry or agriculture in university so as to eventually find work with a development organization in Nepal.

Kishwor’s father, Sanu Kanchha Gandharba, 45, is better off than some. A tour in Japan a few years ago, at the invitation of a Japanese sponsor, provided him with the funds to purchase a small parcel of land in his home village. It was not enough, though, to pay for the construction of a house, and the family cannot afford the fee for his son’s university entrance application. They are looking for a foreign sponsor to support Kishwor’s education.

Still, a university education is hardly a guarantee of job security, and Kishwor, like countless young Nepalis, aspires to study and work overseas.

“Even for someone with a master’s degree there’s no employment [in Nepal]. All the Nepali students are unemployed, so they are going abroad to study. But Gandharbas are very poor so they can’t afford to study abroad,” he said.

Kishwor is keen to celebrate to his cultural roots but also recognizes there’s little future in wandering from town to town. His plight is one shared by many Gandharbas and Nepalis, regardless of caste or ethnicity— a continuing negotiation between their traditional culture and the forces of modernity.

The Gandharbas are hardly the first walk this tightrope, and many in the caste would gladly trade their sarangees for economic stability, Spray said. She believes the threat posed by modern life to Gandharba traditions could be ameliorated if Nepalis once again view Gaaines as relevant to their national identity. In this way, the caste’s cultural heritage could translate into capital — as was the case for early American blues musicians.

Meanwhile, Gandharbas like Kishwor and his father Sanu Kanchha struggle to survive in this rapidly changing country. While money is the first concern, equally important is a vision for improving the caste’s standing without forsaking their identity.

“Sometimes you need money, sometimes you need ideas,” Sanu Kanchha said. “Right now we need someone with ideas.”