Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

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Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic because it’s complex, and I’m still working to understand all of its nuances. Notions about and rules concerning impurity are prevalent in many aspects of Nepali culture, from traditions surrounding mourning to menstruation to the caste-system. Some of the rules are practical, but some of them have been very hard for me to come to terms with.

Jutho is the Nepali word for “impure.” In Nepal, we eat with our hands, and once I touch the food on my plate to my mouth, my hand and the whole plate of food are considered jutho. I can’t reach for the serving spoon to take a second serving for myself because it would contaminate the non-jutho food. In Nepali culture, the left hand is also considered impure. Because it is the one used for wiping, touching others, handing them things, or serving with the left hand is impolite. These rules reduce the spread of germs and are, in that way, very practical.

The concept of jhutho extends way beyond the hands, though. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, this year, because Tri’s mom died, we can’t celebrate any holidays. This is because we’re considered jutho. I still don’t understand exactly why we’re considered jutho (I’m still investigating this one), but I do understand some of the reasoning behind this rule. It forces the mourners to really mourn and remember the one they lost. It also frees them from performing some of the social obligations involved with Nepali festivals at a time when they’re feeling bad. On the other hand, a year is a long time to be restricted from any kind of celebration, and it can be painful and lonely.

Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them. I struggle more to accept impurity in other contexts, especially as it affects women.

When a woman is menstruating, she is considered jutho. She cannot touch other people or their things; she cannot go in the kitchen, cook, or touch others’ food or water.

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a fairly conservative host family that followed traditional rules about jutho, and the first time I had my period in their house, I was shocked. My host aamaa was very strict and wouldn’t let me come in the kitchen. I had to sit in a separate room while eating, and I couldn’t serve myself; she had to serve me.

There was a teenager who used to work in their house as a domestic helper. One day, when I had my period, we were outside washing clothing. Before we started, he filled a bucket with water and then went inside the house to get some soap. I thought I would help him by bringing the bucket over to the dirty clothes. As I was lugging the water across the patio, he came back outside looking really mad. “Why did you touch the water?” he yelled at me in Nepali. He then took the bucket, dumped out the precious water and refilled it before washing the clothing.

There is some positive that comes out of the rules about jutho as they relate to menstruation. For women in Nepal who work hard from before day break to sunset, that time of the month is a time to relax. The men often cook the meals, and women are off the hook. On the other hand, for women to get a break from work, why do they have to be considered “impure”?

Thankfully my immediate Nepali family members don’t believe in that type of jutho, so it’s never been an issue in our house. One of the interesting outcomes of the tradition is that periods are less taboo here than in the US. If I can’t enter the kitchen, then everyone in the family knows when I have my period. In the American culture I grew up with, people didn’t talk about periods and definitely didn’t want others to know about them.

I still struggle with the rules about menstruation, but it was something that I dealt more with as a study abroad student, living with a host family. The jutho that I’ve been struggling with recently has to do with how I fit into the caste system in Nepal, something I’ll leave for tomorrow’s post.