The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion
On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.
The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:
The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications. …
The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.
A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).
The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.
Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.
The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:
This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.
Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website Retreatours.com) indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.
The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.
A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”
Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.