Folklore and Folklife of Gopalis in Kunchhal and the Neighboring Villages

Introducing the Folk Group


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Nepal is recognized as the flower orchard of several castes and ethnicities of people living in the geographically diverse areas of the country. There are several castes, ethnic groups and sub-groups of people in Nepalese society. Among them, one is the Gopali ethnic group, which is also known as ‘Gwala’ or ‘Gwal’. It has been said that Nepal was named after the earlier name (Nep) of this ethnic group. There are some similarities between this folk group and the Newar community living in Kathmandu valley and other parts of the country.

Gopalis consider themselves as the ancient ethnic group. They believe that their ancestors were the Gwalas who came to Shonitpur (Thankot, Kathmandu) from Dwarika during Dwapar Yug (a mythical period in the ancient time) with Lord Krishna, for the purpose of killing the demon King Banasur. Gopalis call themselves the descendants of Nandagopali and Krishnagopali, but there is no evidence yet to support the claims they make about their ancestors. However, historians have said that there is some truth in the Gopalis’ belief on this matter.

According to the legend, Krishna’s son Praddumna had married Prabhavati, the daughter of Banasur. Later, Krishna went back to Dwarika after establishing the Gwalas’ kingdom in Kathmandu valley. The Gwalas ruled over the kingdom for a long period in the valley. They followed the tradition of worshipping the cow. It is found that they had ruled over the valley for 9 generations of kings, prior to the arrival of the Mahispal and Kirant kings in the kingdom.

As some historians have explained, the Gopal kings belonged to the sub-group of Nep ethnic group, and Par was the name of the sub-group who used to live taming buffaloes. Both Nep and Par (also called Mahispal) ethnic groups were interested in taming animals (cows and buffaloes respectively), so they wanted to reside near the forest areas because pasture land was essential to keep their domestic animals. So, they resided in the localities where there was jungle in the hillside above and plain land on the foot of the hills – like the places of Tistung, Palung, Thankot, Balambu, Kisipidhi, Kirtipur, etc.

In this connection, some information is mentioned in the inscription found in Toukhel, Chitlang VDC ward no. 6 (Makawanpur district), which was established by Amshubarma in sambat 37. According to the inscription, king Amshubarma had given some land to the local people to transfer the village from one locality to another because there was the scarcity of land to keep the domestic animals in the village. From this evidence, we can say that Gopalis were living by taming domestic animals including cows and buffaloes. Explaining this inscription, historians have said that the typical ethnic group residing in the localities of Chitlang such as Toukhel, Nhulgaun, Kunchhal etc. are the Gwalas or Gopalis.

In this way, we can notice the presence of Gopali folk group from the ancient time to the beginning of human settlement in Kathmandu valley and the Lichchhavi Era. Nowadays, they are residing in some localities of Kathmandu valley and in some villages of Makawanpur district.

It seems Gopalis had entered the northern part of Makawanpur district from Kathmandu valley and from Simaraungad, which lies on the south.

In Kathmandu valley, Gopalis are residing as the indigenous residents in the places like Thankot, Machchhegaun, Kirtipur etc. In the northern part of Makawanpur district, they are found in Bajrabarahi, Chitlang and Daman VDCs. The localities of their permanent residence include Kunchhal, Gahate, Kulgaun and Papung of Bajrabarahi VDC, Toukhel and Nhulgaun of Chitlang VDC and Shikharkot of Daman VDC.

In the villages of Toukhel and Nhulgaun (Chitlang VDC), Gopalis have settled for a long period. The inscription of sambat 37 found in Toukhel is the evidence of this. According to Ratna Bahadur Gopali (48) of Toukhel, nowadays 80 households are living in this village (as of 2062-7-24 B.S.). They came to this village migrating from Naukhande, a neighbouring village.

In Papung village of Bajrabarahi VDC ward no. 1 (Kothanani Tol), 60 households of Gopali ethnic group are living nowadays. Similarly, in Gahate (ward no. 5 of the same VDC), there are 29 Gopali households; and 7 households are found in Kulgaun (ward no. 7 of the VDC). Kunchhal village lies in ward no. 6 of Bajrabarahi VDC, which is an old settlement area of Gopalis; and the entire village is their settlement. ‘Kunchhal’ was named after the Gopali word ‘kuncha’, which means ‘the corner place’, since this village lies in the cornerside of a hill. There are more than 200 Gopali households in Kunchhal; and most of the villagers are Gopalis. The total population of Gopalis living in this village is 1228.

In Daman VDC, a small Gopali village is Shikharkot, having 76 households.


Gopali Language

The language of Gopalis is similar to Newari. However, it differs from the standard Newari in accent, vocabulary, pronunciation, sentence structure, word formation etc. Besides, the influence of localization is found in the language, and there is also a mixture of some Nepali and Tamang words in it. The language is spoken with a long tune, and it is difficult to understand for the Newari speakers. If there are outsider Newari speakers listening to the conversation of Gopalis, the outsiders simply remain the observers, without understanding anything.

There are some differences in the language from one village to another as well. The Gopali language spoken in Kunchhal is not intelligible for non-Gopalis. It is not well-intelligible even for the Gopalis who reside in the villages other than Kunchhal. Pure Gopali is spoken in this village. This must be because only the speakers of this language reside in the village and there is very rare chance for the Gopalis to be mixed with the speakers of other languages.

Gopali language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of Sino-Tibetan language family. It is spoken for communication but its script is not developed so far; so it is limited only to oral communication, having no development of written literature.

The Gopalis of Kunchhal village call their language Gwaa Bhay or Newaa Bhay and the language spoken by the Shrestha community of Kathmandu, Patan and Saraswati Bajar (of Bajrabarahi VDC) as Syasya Bhay.

One significant characteristic of colloquial Gopali language is vowel sound deletion in the syllable sequence. In most of the Gopali words, the phonological feature of medial vowel deletion is noticed in pronunciation. As a result, instead of pronouncing the original two-syllabic words as it is, the words become monosyllabic in utterance, after deleting the vowel in the initial syllable. For example, khuche (dog) becomes khche (/u/ is deleted). In the morning, Gopalis eat their traditional food Dhindo (made of flour) with pumpkin curry, milk etc. In the evening, they have rice, vegetables, Gundruk (fermented mustard leaves), Sinabali (fermented radish) etc. They eat Mali (made of flour), curd, roasted corn, Thon (home-made beer) etc. in the afternoon. They also eat Bajee (beaten rice), peas and beans, buffalo meat etc. and drink alcohol in the feasts and festivals.

Gopalis have their own traditional dresses. The women wear Haku Patasi (black home-made sari), Putulan (a kind of blouse), white home-made Jani (also called Patuka, which is worn round the waist), and Gacha (shawl). Similarly, the traditional items of Gopali male dress are: Khesa tupuli (cap made of khesa, a kind of thread), Tapalan (home-made garment like Nepali Daura), Jani (white waist-cloth), etc. They also wear Suruwal, Istakot and shoes. Gopalis used to wear the shoes made of straw materials or Nalu (a plant fibre), and the women used to wear beads made of silver coins. But nowadays the use of these traditional items is gradually reducing.


Village, Gods and Festivals

Gopalis are rich in their folklore and folk culture. They have their own identity reflected in their customs, festivals, Jatra, folk gods-goddesses, etc. They like to live at a place making the houses very close to each other, so their houses in the village are very much concentrated, and mostly the houses are joined to each other. There are narrow pathways in the Gopali settlements. There are taps, inns, wells and worshipping places or temples in the village; and there is Lachhi (square-shaped platform for social and cultural performances) in the centre.

Ganesh, Bhimsen and Mahadeva are the gods compulsorily worshipped by Gopalis. Gaikeshwar, Champakeshar, Unmukteshwar, Pandukeshwar etc. are the main forms of Mahadeva worshipped by Gopalis. Similarly, they also worship the folk gods/goddesses Chuni, Satkanya and Panchkanya. Basically, all Gopalis follow local Hinduism, but nowadays some of them have begun to follow other religions as well.

Several festivals observed by Gopalis are similar to those celebrated in the Newar community. They celebrate Gathemangal, Byanjankegu, Gai Jatra, Jugan Charha, Yanya Punhi, Dashain, Family and Kinship

There are two types of Gopali families living in Kunchhal village: joint family and nuclear family. Usually, a nuclear family splits from the joint family after the son’s marriage, whereby the members of the split family (including the husband, wife and child/children) prepare their own food on a separate oven, though it may be in the same house. But even after separation, they help each other in the agricultural activities of Bola or Parma – the indigenous system of exchanging labour work.

Two types of kinship systems are mostly observed. The first one is consanguine kinship – which includes the blood- related family members, i.e. father, mother, son, daughter, grandfather/mother/son/daughter. The second type is affine kinship – including the kin-related family members, e.g. maternal uncle/aunt, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, etc. The roles of different kins in the rituals like Maha Puja, Bhai Tika, Chhewar, Beyanki, Leratei, marriage etc. show their social unity in this folk group. Kins play a very important role in Bola too, because most of the Bolas are from the kinship.


Guthi and Bola System

Guthi plays the role of a powerful social institution among Gopalis. This is the final authority to take decision on the important matters of socio-cultural activities to be held. Generally, membership of Guthi is not allowed for women; so they do not participate in the decision making procedures in Guthi. Usually, there is no gender discrimination in Gopali society. However, since Guthi members enjoy a greater socio-cultural status and prestige than others, it has assigned a better position for males than females in an indirect way, by restricting its membership only among the males.

The Guthi’s activities are different from one locality to another. Guthi organizes some important rituals for uniting the people of Gopali folk group. It organizes Chunni Shikari Puja three times a year, one month long Dapha Bhajan in Kartik, Kumari Puja and Gokeshwor Puja on the day of Shree Panchami, Bhosala Puja in Baishakh etc.

Guthi has five main Naikes (the supreme or head of the village) from five main Toles (small section of the settlement) and five Thakalis (the oldest male person in the village) from five Toles. Besides, there are three Bahidars from the three main Toles and the Chhimies (Guthi members) in the Guthi.

Bola is a unique type of exchange labour system inagricultural activities. This is the foundation of Gopali society. Without this, no one can complete the agricultural works from
plantation to harvesting. It is not confined to agricultural works but also found in the construction of houses, making canals, feasts, Dapha Palo Bhoj (feast arranged by the singing groups in turn), etc. By doing this, they don’t take money or grains but they must participate in a feast organized by the host family after completing the particular work.



Life Cycle Rituals

Although Gopali folk rituals are found similar to those followed by the Newar community, there are differences between the two. For example, while the ritual of Ihi (girl’s marriage to Bel, a wild fruit) and Bara (a ritual of keeping the girl in isolation after Ihi) are customary in Newari culture, Gopalis do not observe these rituals. Instead of Bara, they have the tradition of fasting for 5 days and giving Gunyu-cholo (a set of traditional lady’s dress) to the girl.

Some typical rituals observed by the Gopalis are described below.

Macha Byanki: After the birth of child, Gopalis have the practice of observing Sutak (period of ceremonial uncleanliness) for 4 days. They invite Derima (a lady having special duty to fulfil on this occasion). Generally, women deliver the baby on the first floor of the house. The woman sleeps on paddy straw. The ritual for purifying the woman after the 4-days of uncleanliness is called Macha Byanki. To perform this ritual, the baby is exposed to the sunlight and kept on a bundle of the straw which was used for delivering the baby. After taking the bundle of straw out, it is kept at a place safely, and Derima scratches the bundle with an arrow. Then food items are put in a leaf plate which is kept on the bundle.

Bhusha Khaya (hair cutting): The hair cutting ritual is performed between the 6th and 12th year of the male child’s age. After hair cutting, some Gopalis, though not all, also perform the ritual of Bratabandha or Kaitapuja. The boy’s sisters, paternal aunt and maternal uncle have special duty on this occasion. Maternal uncle usually cuts the hair and the boy’s paternal aunt collects the hair in a brass plate and then takes it to the stream nearby to dispose it and let it flow with water. Gopalis do not cut their boy’s hair prior to this ritual; and even if it is cut before, the hair should be kept safely and should be taken to the water in the stream on this occasion. Bya (marriage): In the past, Gopalis had the tradition of child marriage. But nowadays, it is no longer in practice. However, the youngsters are considered ready for marriage after the age of 13-14 years. Even these days, there are events of marriage between the girls and boys of 15-16 years. There are several instances of love marriage in this age.

There are two types of marriage among Gopalis: arranged marriage and love marriage. In the case of love marriage, the boy and girl go away from their family and stay in the house of the boy’s relatives for some time. In such cases, the boy’s party has to organize Leratei (a special ritual-cum-feast), with the consent of the girl’s parents, to make the marriage socially acceptable.

Si (death ritual): Gopalis have a Singuthi (an indigenous organization like ‘trust’) to manage the death ritual. In Kunchhal village, altogether 105 households are involved in the Singuthi. In the funeral ritual, all the members of Singuthi go to the funeral procession with a piece of firewood. Death ritual consists of several works, which the members of Singuthi have to perform. In the case of their denial to perform, they should pay the fine. After the death of a senior person, the family members should mourn for 13 days, and thereafter they are considered purified. In the past, Gopalis used to invite a Newar pundit for performing this ritual, but nowadays the Aryan pundit is invited. Generally, Gopalis wear white dress for 6 months after the death of their mother and for 1 year after the death of father. This period is called Barkhi.


Indigenous Technology and Wisdom

Some of the important indigenous technologies found among Gopalis include: drainage for irrigation, Pani Ghatta (stone-made flour mill running through water power), using the oxen-pulled ploughs, etc. But nowadays, the tractor has also been introduced among Gopalis as modern technology.

To mention the folk knowledge, the Gopalis seem to be expert in making Sinabali by pressing the radish in the deep hole under the ground, making Gundruk keeping the mustard leaves in the heat of manure, making Chana after cutting the radish, making liquor, etc. The indigenous skill of cloth making using the hand-loom is also found among them.
Gopalis have the tradition of treating the illness by shamans and traditional healers. In Kunchhal, people have the belief that the god/goddesses Panchkanya and Satkanya play role in making people ill; and only the shaman can treat the illness. In the case of injury in the external body parts, they apply the liquid of Banmara (a typical wild herbal plant) in the wound.


Folk Art and Architecture

Gopalis used to have three-storey houses. Such houses are still found in Shikharkot. There are four-storey houses in Kunchhal, Gahate, Papung and Kulgaun. In Papung and Toukhel, the houses are made of bricks; but in Gahate, Kulgaun and Shikharkot, the houses are stone-made. In Kunchhal, the houses are of mixed type.


In Papung, altogether 33 houses were destroyed due to fire in 2033 B.S. (around 1976); and there are lots of differences in the style of houses constructed before the event and thereafter. The traditional house buildings are totally changed after their renovation. Nowadays, Gopalis have followed the modern style of house construction – e.g. making cemented houses, constructing the cemented pillars, etc. Traditional houses have the carvings in the wood, but the modern ones do not have such type of art.


Economic Life and Livelihood

Although most of the Gopalis are living on agriculture and animal husbandry, some are involved in other occupations as well. Their economic life and livelihood can be described in the points given below.

Agriculture and animal husbandry: Most of the Gopali families are depending fully on their agricultural land for their survival as well as for economic activities. They have two types of land: a) Boon (plain terraces), where they grow paddy, potatoes, cabbage, chilly, maize etc.; and b) Keu or Bari (slope terraces), in which they grow radish, millet, corn, horse-bean, and other vegetables.

Gopalis also tame animals keeping them at Goths (sheds). They construct the Goths in Keu, which is usually far from their house.

Basically, all the Gopalis manage their economic activities by using their farm and live-stock products. Despite their limited income, they do not have hand-to-mouth problems.

School teacher: Some Gopalis of Kunchhal village are teachers in the local primary schools. In addition to their regular duty of going to school, the teachers are also involved in the farm activities in the morning and evening hours.

Business: Some persons are involved in business activities, including:

    a) Collecting and selling farm products: The vendor collects vegetables, paddy and other products from the villagers at a place and supplies these goods to the cities in gross   

    b) Managing small shops: The shopkeeper sells the items of daily use – e.g. soap, matchboxes, kerosene, cooking oil, biscuits, sandals, cigarettes, local wine, etc.


Foreign-wage labourers: Some people within the age group of 18-30 have gone to the foreign countries for employment. They are employed as labourers in Saudi Arabia,

Qatar and Malaysia.

Cottage industries: Some Gopalis are also involved in the domestic/cottage industries – e.g. weaving looms; producing goods of domestic use such as Doko (bamboo-made basket), Namlo (long strip for carrying load); and making Gundruk (fermented leaves of mustard, radish etc.), Sinabali (fermented radish), Leu Chana (long slices of radish, which are dried hanging on ceilings etc.), Lespati (small pieces of radish dried on the floor), etc. They sell these products going to the city.

But the people involved in making such items do not spend their whole time in these works. As a regular business, they are involved in the farm activities; so they spend only their spare time in producing these goods.

Folk Literature

Folk literature is defined as the people’s literature in which the folk’s thought is presented in the folk language in the folk style for the welfare of the folk people. This sort of literature is found among Gopalis as well. They have fewer folk ballads, but their interest in folk songs is remarkable. Particularly due to their religious belief, they give much time in worshiping the folk gods and goddesses, and in singing the religious and devotional songs. They spend the morning and evening hours for worshipping and singing religious songs. The religious song Gula Dapha is performed in the month of Shrawan; and Kwayala Dapha is performed in Kartik.

They have the tradition of Hile Naach (‘dancing in the mud’) on the occasion of Saparu (also called Gai Jatra, cow festival) festival every year. There is also the tradition of Barabarse Naach (a typical dance programme organized once in every 12 years). Bade Pyakha (a dance devoted to goddess Bajrabarahi), and Swet Vinayak Pyakha (devoted to god Swet Vinayak) are the religious dances found among Gopalis.

Gopalis sing the ballad based on the biography of King Gopichand and Bharathali. Among the folk songs, the important ones are Tamimye (old folk songs), Baramase Geet, children’s songs, and several other songs related to love and attraction as well as trouble and pain – e.g. Maya Madhula, Juta thwa pir, etc.

Based on the available data and the relevant materials, Gopali folk literature can be studied by classifying it into: a) folk songs – which include religious songs, seasonal songs, short folk songs, festival songs, children’s folk songs, and folk ballads; b) folk tales and legends, c) biography and memories, d) folk proverbs, e) riddles etc.


Performing Folk Culture

Under the performing folk culture, two dramatic song performances deserve special mention, which are performed on the occasion of Barabarse Naach. The dance narrating the story of King Kam Singh and Chandra Singh is peformed in Kunchhal. Another dance is the Barabarse Bajrabarahi dance, which is performed in the participation of all the local people including the Gopalis of Purano Tistung (Old Tistung). This dance is based on the story of King Satal Singh. In these dances, we can see the mixture of Newari and Nepali languages to some extent. The tradition of such a dramatic song, performed once in every 12 years, is found in Toukhel also.

On the occasion of Gai Jatra festival, a folk dance called Gunla Pyankha is famous in the villages of Kunchhal, Papung, Toukhel etc. Similarly, Twak Naach is a dance performed on the occasion of Kartik Purnima (Full Moon Day in the month of Kartik – i.e. around October-November) in Toukhel.

Among the various folk musical instruments found in the Gopali community, some major ones are: Khin, Jhyali, Ta, Bagu, Ponga, Bansuri, Dha, Muhali, etc.


Folk Entertainment and Folk Games

Nowadays, Gopali youths play cards and carom board as part of their entertainment. Similarly, among the games played by children, some popular ones are: Dhyaba (throwing coins), Khyapu (rope skipping), Gatta (playing small stone pieces), Khopi (gambling with coins), Bhamcha or Katamari, Chungi, Bheladekini (kitchen-utensils), Baghchal, marbles, hide-and-seek, etc.


Change and Continuity

Despite having their unique forms of folk tradition, folk culture and values, changes are found particularly among the young generations of Gopalis in the recent years. As a result of modern education and their contact with the people of other communities, the traditional norms and values are gradually changing. Although the old generation is following the practices discussed in this article, the youngsters seem to be less serious towards maintaining them. This trend is noticed in the lack of attraction among boys and girls to the folk songs/dances like Barabarse Naach and Dapha Bhajan, their reduced membership in Guthis, etc. While the folk dress Haku Patasi is commonly worn by the women of old age and middle age, it is rare among the young girls. Among the young men also, the traditional dresses are less popular.

Due to the contact of this folk group with the Newar community of Kathmandu valley, some changes are noticed in their way of celebrating the folk festivals and rituals also; and they are slightly modifying their traditional rituals – as in the case of Kukur Pooja (worship of the dog) and Kija Pooja (worship of the brothers by their sisters) during Tihar. Some influences of Brahmin culture are also noticed in their folk practices.

Like in the case of socio-cultural practices, changes are noticed in language use also, resulting into their tendency of mixing the Nepali and some English words in the conversation using Gopali – their mother tongue. In their speech, the influence of Nepali, Tamang and Kathmandu-based Newari accent is noticed. It indicates that, instead of their language being maintained as it is, there are ample possibilities of changes in the coming days.



Gopalis are known as one of the ancient ethnic groups of Nepal. The people of this folk group have their own folklore, folk tradition, folk language, folk rituals, folk religion, folk literature and folk practices. They have maintained some differences from the Newar community in language and culture. They used to be called the Gwalas or Gwals. Later, they disliked these words and started to use the word Gopali for their identity. But nowadays they like to be called themselves Gwalas again. They have, thus, begun to think that the word Gwala carries a greater value to refer to their ancestors.

Prepared by: Mr. Tej Prakash Shrestha
In association with: Dr. Rudra Laxmi Shrestha, Mr. Ekaram Maharjan and Mr. Jitendra Kumar Chaudhary
Translated into English by: Binod Luitel