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Diwali shines a rare spotlight on Nepal’s untouchables

As modern times sweep Nepal, members of the ancient musician caste find themselves grasping at an old way of life — or racing to catch up.

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.