Vernacular Religion: Varieties of Religiosity in the Nepali Diaspora

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Social & Cultural Anthropology


The research will examine the lived religious experience of Britons and Belgians of Nepali origin, under three separate headings: (1) personal quests for salvation, (2) attempts to build different forms of community, and (3) the propitiation of gods and spirits for help with worldly problems (e.g. illness or other misfortunes). The assumption in Judeao-Christian traditions is that all three types of religiosity will normally be provided by a single system, but there is no reason why this must be so. In many Asian contexts different ritual and ideological systems provide for each of these three aspects. Whether and how far this is so for British and Belgian Nepalis is what we intend to find out.

Migrant populations living in diaspora offer particularly interesting cases for studying how religions are created, re-created, and experienced by their followers. This project focuses on Nepalis living in the UK and in Belgium. Most are Hindus, but some are Buddhists, others 'animists' or shamanists, and yet others are Christians. There are close to 70,000 Nepalis living in the UK and at least 4,000 in Belgium. They have formed many organizations which will provide an accessible way for the researchers to work with the community. Nepali researchers are themselves part of the project team.

To understand individuals' personal quests, we will visit people in their homes, observe the shrines they have constructed, make copies (with permission) of religious texts they use in their daily worship, and discuss with them their regular religious practice. This kind of investigation of scriptural and liturgical religious texts used by ordinary people (i.e. those who are not themselves priests) has rarely been done for South Asians living in diaspora or even in South Asia itself: most research on religious texts assumes that rituals are carried out exactly as prescribed in the text itself. Ethnographic methods will allow us to ask practitioners themselves how people use and think about prescriptive religious pamphlets and recitation books.

To understand the communal or social dynamics of religion, we will participate in community and organizational events, as well as talk to people about why they attend the events they do.

To understand the ways people use religion as part of their search for cures to illness and misfortune, we will discuss what has happened in people's family lives and how they have turned to religion to address these circumstances.

The research will be carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Nepal Studies UK, a consortium of British-based social scientists of Nepali origin with wide research experience and extensive contacts within the diaspora community. An AHRC studentship will offer a young academic in training the chance to work on his or her own research alongside an experienced team and to benefit from their guidance and networks.

The research will reveal how Nepalis in diaspora define themselves religiously. It will also help to bring into clear focus the very question of what religion is, by showing how different definitions are presupposed, brought into play, and reproduced in different contexts and for diverse purposes.

Planned Impact

Non-academic users of this research will include

-- Local and national government policy makers in the UK and Belgium
-- Charities concerned with ethnic minorities, disadvantaged and under-represented populations, and ex-Gurkhas
-- The Nepali diaspora community
-- Media and lobbying organizations interested in pluralism, religious and cultural diversity, and interfaith dialogue
-- Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) user groups

British and Belgian policy makers will benefit from receiving accurate information about faith practices by diaspora populations in their respective countries. That religious affiliation as recorded in the census may be a misleading guide to actual practice is rarely appreciated by local and national officials. What needs to be conveyed is that there is a specifically Asian mode of religiosity -- or at least multiple models of religious identification and practice -- that enable different traditions to be combined for different purposes; a particular label may be preferred for public community identification, but this does not necessarily mean that personal religiosity follows the expected pattern. (There is an argument to be made here, already advanced by Gellner in the Nepal context, that it would be more realistic if multiple answers could be given to questions on religion in census returns.)

Given the unprecedented pressure on the government to allow all ex-Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK, it is likely that the Nepali communities we plan to study will expand considerably in coming years. Understanding how they organize themselves, how they attempt to reproduce and adapt religious practices in the UK environment, and the extent to which they differentiate themselves from practices in their homeland should be useful for local government, NGOs, and charities working on migration and assimilation issues (such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which has supported research on migration, faith, and cohesion, and the Runnymede Trust, which has published a report on the Nepali population in the UK).

In association with the members of the Centre for Nepal Studies UK, we will publish short summary articles in community magazines (in both Nepali and English) and in local newspapers in areas of high Nepali settlement. Where appropriate some of the results may be announced on relevant community websites. CNS-UK has a good record of engaging with the Nepali community, since it has had to hold many meetings to establish its bona fides while carrying out its own census. Dr C. Laksamba, one of the members of CNS-UK, and one of the researchers participating in this project, is also an editor of one of the weekly Nepali newspapers (Europe-ko Nepal Patra), which has a wide circulation in the community.

In order to communicate with British policy-makers and English media more broadly, a press release describing the main findings of the research will be written at the time of the workshop, to be publicized and widely disseminated by the Oxford University Press Office and the Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) communications office. It is our hope that an emphasis on multiple religious allegiances will enable the media and organizations promoting interfaith dialogue and an understanding of pluralism to consider how identities can be multiply constructed, rather than view religious categories as exclusive.

In addition, Hausner, who has extensive experience publishing ethnographic research for policy audiences and who is a formal COMPAS Research Associate, will write one policy briefing paper on diaspora and religion for dissemination to interested migration specialists and government and NGO officials. Hausner and Gellner together will write one working paper in the COMPAS series. Both these publications will be disseminated to the user groups and individuals who a
Description This is the first major research project to study the relatively small but fast-growing Nepali diaspora in Europe. In 2008 the Centre for Nepal Studies UK (CNSUK) estimates that there were 72,173 Nepalis in the UK. There are many ex-Gurkhas and their families, plus growing numbers of students, nurses, and other professionals. They have settled mainly in London, Manchester, Reading, and towns close to army bases (Ashford and Folkestone in Kent, Farnborough and Aldershot in Hampshire). The project produced a wealth of interesting material on the ways in which religion is reproduced and reconstructed anew in the UK environment (with a comparison with Belgium also included). The research revealed a considerable gap, in many (but not all) cases, between religion as practised (at home, for oneself) and religion as presented for public consumption (whether by other Nepalis or by the wider UK public sphere). To take one example from many, researchers visited a man who described himself as not religious though raised Hindu, displayed a line of mini Christmas trees on a dining room sideboard opposite his wife's Hindu shrine, and a Christian cross next to a photograph of his deceased mother. He said that he had been baptised when visiting a church with friends in Japan, and his daughter was happy to consider herself part Hindu and part Christian. Such religious identities are not only complex and multiple, they also have a collective, family dimension as well as a purely individual one.
Exploitation Route The most immediate and obvious lesson is that in the UK's decennial census, if there is to be another one, it should be permitted (as with the nationality question) to tick more than one box in answer to the question 'What is your religion?'.
The major publication, Global Nepalis: Religion, Culture, and Community in a New and Old Diaspora (OUP, 2018), now brings together research on many different parts of the world where Nepalis are found, including India, SE Asia, the Gulf, Europe, and the USA. It will be an essential baseline and reference point for any further research on these populations.
The principal articles from the project are now collected in the volume Vernacular Religion: Cultural Politics, Community Belonging, and Personal Practice in the UK's Nepali Diaspora (Vajra and CNSUK, 2019).
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The research on this project contributed to Gellner's ability to become co-author, with C. Laksamba, K.P. Adhikari, and L.P. Dhakal of 'British Gurkha Pension Policies and Ex-Gurkha Campaigns: A Review' (Reading: Centre for Nepal Studies UK, available at
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description John Fell Fund
Amount £61,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2011 
End 03/2013
Description Research partnership on UK Nepali diaspora 
Organisation Centre for Nepal Studies UK (CNSUK)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Advice for survey and subsequent activities and CNSUK publications
Collaborator Contribution Partnership in carrying out research and publishing the results
Impact Participation in CNSUK's research on ex-Gurkha campaigns (especially to do with pensions):
Start Year 2007
Description Feedback to Nepalese community representatives 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Lively discussion and exchange of views

Research subjects made aware of the results of the project as a whole.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012