The Chamar at the bottom of Hindu caste system and even within the intra-caste hierarchy

Guest Post by Tribhuvan Chandra Wagle ©

Tribhuvan C Wagle
Author : Sociologist/Anthropologist and journalis

Chamar was known as an untouchable Hindu caste, which is now classified as a Dalit under the schedule of National Dalit Commission (NDC), who inhabit scattered settlement all over the Terai region of Nepal. The Chamar is ranked at the bottom of Hindus caste system, even within the Dalit intra-caste hierarchy. Although, the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063BS, Caste Discrimination and Untouchability Act (Offence and Punishment) 2011 and other some provisions of law commit to end all form of caste based discrimination and protect the rights of marginalized groups such as Chamar, Badi, and other so-called Dalit \ untouchable as well. But, in practice, the Chamar is supposed one of the lowest untouchable castes. Except Dom and Halkhor, no other group accepts water from Chamar.

Portrait photo of Shanti Devi Chamar, she was a Member in the first constituent Assembly/Nepal   Sources of Photo: Internet search
Portrait photo of Shanti Devi Chamar, she was a Member in the first constituent Assembly/Nepal
Sources of Photo: Internet search

The term ‘Chamar’ is derived from the Snaskrit word ‘Charma’ and means leather. So, the word ‘Chamar’ is related to the word Charmakar, which means ‘one who works with leather (cobbler). It is believe that The Chamars, originally came to Nepal from India back in the fourteen century, But the Chamar claim that they are indigenous people of Nepal. They also claim again The Terai region of Nepal is the origin place of Chamar.  They live in almost all the Terai districts of Nepal, who are Indo-Aryan. They believe they are belonging to the clan of Kashyap. During the discussion Ram Sebal Ram, then Member of NDC, I was told a myth on Chamar origin:  once, four brothers of Brahmins were going to take bath in a river, they saw a dead cow floating in the river .Then two brothers threw their ‘Janai;’ (a holy thread put on by Brahmins) on a tree then they take out the dead cow from river. Two brothers who take out the dead cow from the river were became a ‘Chamar’ known as Dalit and untouchables as well. From that time the word ‘Chamar’ became as synonyms of a caste. There are other myths also found on Chamar’s origin in local society.

The Chamars have the highest number among Terai Dalits. In the 1991 census, they numbered 203,919 which is the 9 percent of the total Dalit population of Nepal. The Chamar population with more than 10,000 was noted in 10 districts of the Tarai, According to the population figure of census 2011, there are 335893 Chamars live in Nepal which is 1.27 percent of the total population of country. According to National Dalit Strategy Paper 2002, they are mainly found in Siraha, Saptari, Bara, Parsa, Nabalparasi, Rupandehi, Kapilvastu, Rauhat, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Sarlahi, Banke, Morang, Sunsari and Jhapa. They are known as Chamar Ram, Harijan or Mochi. Ravidas, Satanami, Ruidas, Ramnami, Rhishi, Mahara and ‘Raidas’ are some popular surnames of Chamars. According to the NDC above mentioned surnames are used by Chamar community.  There are so many subfamily or subgroups within Chamar community such as Chhapariya, Naika, Mochi, Mahara, Safari, Kunaujiya (may be Kanaujiya) Magahiya, Gohit and Goria.  Satanami is supposed as higher family within Chamar community. They do not accept water from other subgroup of Chamar.  On the other side Muslim Chamars are also found in Nepal but they are not related in this article.


Being Hindu the Chamar belong to the Shiva and Bhagvat sects. Their deities are Kali, Nandi, Goraiya, Lakeshwori, Raktamala, Mira, Kuhelni, Narasinha and Bhawani. They follow the spiritual teachings of Ravidas. Most Hindu Chamar belong to the Raidasi sect and worship guru Ravidas, a disciple of Ramananda, who is known as a champion for promoting change for the oppressed Chamar. The Chamar community is in a long slumber in education. The overall literacy rate of Chamar was 10.1 per cent in the 1991 census. The male literacy rate was 17.4 percent whereas the female literacy was only 2.6 percent. Population Census 2001 showed the literacy rate of the population 6 years and above of Chamar was 27 percent. The male literacy rate was 18.1 percent compare the female rate 8.5 percent whereas the national average rate was 65.5 percent.

The term ‘Chamar’ is derived from the Snaskrit word ‘Charma’ and means leather. More or less social and cultural pattern of Chamar are like to other Hindu castes. They have their own formal institution which helps to solve the intra-Chamar social conflict. Mainjan and Jabar are known as the head of their institution. 

In terms of traditional caste occupation, Chamars are cobblers, skinners of dead animals, tanners, shoe-makers and scavengers. Mid-wife (Sudeni) was also a main traditional works for-

A smiling face of a member of Chamar during his traditional works
A smiling face of a member of Chamar during his traditional works

Chamar women, which is known as Chamaini. Due to the modern birthing process in health centre the Mid-wife job of Chamar woman is disappearing these days. In addition, they also play musical instruments and drums during private and other holy festivals. These days, most of Chamar engaged as agricultural labour and Riksa (a sort of cart) puller as well. We can say Chamar are traditional media person who has informed to locales about main festivals and eclipse beating Drum (Dholak). They play Rasanchauki Baja which is like Panchai baja of hilly area popularly known as Chamar Baja. The Rasanchauki Baja is a collective form of Pipihi (Sahana), Dhol (Dholak) Narasihga, Mridanga and Nagara.

 More or less social life of Chamar is like to other Hindus either so-called upper or lower Dalits of Terai. The Chamar marry within their community but maintain exogamy at village or clan level. In Uttar Pradesh of India, marriages between cousins are acceptable, preferably with the daughter of a mother’s brother. They are patriarchal with male domination. The Chamar celebrates birth, marriage, death rites and local festivals more or less like to so-called upper castes. Mainly, birth, marriage and death rites are compulsory to be completed by Chamar. Other norms, value, folkways and social ways are mostly similar to the Hindu value. They have their own priest to perform such types of rituals.

They are celebrating festival mostly similar to the so called higher Hindu caste such as: Chhath, Dashain, Tihar, Jitia, Phaguwa (Phagupurnima), Maghesankrati, Ghari, Adra, Newan, Gosai, Asari, Chaurachan, Dashahara and so on. Jitiya is popular festival among Chamar like other Terai community. This festival is specially celebrated by the mothers for the wellbeing of their children. Among the above mentionrd festivals Phaguwa and Chhath are the two major festivals observed by Chamar.

They worship to Bantha as the greatest one ancestor of Chamar. Similarlly, Chamars worship to Bandi, Goraiya, Jalapa and Lukeshwari as their family god (Kul Devata). According to Dipak Chaudhary, writer of Nepal Ko Madisi Samaj, the Chamars also worship to Suphalbhagat as their ancient god. Other gods, family and village deities are also worshipped. They recite mythological tales and sing songs from the religious epics.

A gathering of Cahmar women in a Village
A gathering of Cahmar women in a Village

They have their own formal institution which helps to solve the intra-Chamar social conflict. Mainjan and Jabar are known as the head of this institution. The Mainjan is one of the main leaders of Chamar who lead over 30 to 40 villages for intra-Chamar issues whereas Jabar works as the assistance of Mainjan. After the death of Mainjan the most eldest son of Mainjan took over the rights and responsibilities of Mainjan.

More or less social and cultural pattern of Chamar are like to other Hindu castes. Neo-delivered mother is kept in a separate room after the delivery for six days. The sixth day is called Chhatiyyar. On this day the mother purifies herself by taking bath. In addition, the child has given name on this day. On the death, it is estimated, that more than 95 percent of the Chamar cremate their dead body, some other almost 5 percent bury them. The dead body is cremated in any selected area or at the bank of river. It takes 13 days to complete death rituals. At that time Kriyaputri does not take salt, meat and alcohol till 13 days. Other rituals, folkways are like to upper caste. Maithili, Nepali Bhojpuri and Awadhi languages has spoken by Chamar. Some Chamars mark a picture of Godhana on their body like a Tattoo. They also sketch different types of pictures on the wall of their house believing to secure from the eye of enemy or devil.

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  1. The chamars it is true have had the worst end of the stick from all castes .why from all castes . This is the question that no body asks we are trodden section of a ruling class otherwise there is no reason for all castes to only ever mention chamars .reason we were threat to them in the past and pver 2000 years of prejudice we have not given in and acceptef our fate . only the tradition of a ruling class wouldnt you day


    1. Thank you for the visit and and comments. That’s true. The cast system was created for the benefit of ruling class and such social problems have not been addressed properly even in the so called wave of the democratic change. So what I believe is change we need, change we can.


  2. Interesting article. I think the concept of caste is difficult for Americans to understand. I suppose the closest concept is ethnicity or race. But, a question. I studied about India and Hinduism quite extensively in college (1968-72) a long time ago. Is the system still very rigid when it comes to marriage and occupations? Or is there some fluidity? Do most people hide or ignore their caste identities or are those identities still strong?

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    1. Thank you Joseph. There are some changes but not satisfactory. People have still been treated discriminately. This is 21st century but we still have such scar in the society which is the big barrier of development. 😦 Where the society is free from the cast system there is extreme income inequality. So I think we are missing some clues of development for all.

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