Ram Kumar Nepali is not permitted to enter the homes of many of his fellow Hindus in Kathmandu, Nepal, or even to touch their belongings, let alone touch their bodies.
That's because in the Hindu caste system, Ram Kumar is a dalit, a member of the lowest caste, considered untouchable by higher castes. Even among other dalit, Ram Kumar is scorned because his family is on the bottom rung, the lowest of the low castes in the complicated societal structure. And while discrimination against "untouchables" was outlawed in Nepal some years ago, it is still a very real fact of life for Nepal's estimated 4 million dalit.
Here's the irony of the situation: Ram Kumar is a massage therapist. Not only that, he's helping to train other Nepalese--especially untouchables--to join that nation's nascent massage therapy profession.
He is the operations director--and one of the first graduates of--Himalayan Healers, a healing arts school founded five years ago by Colorado massage therapist Rob Buckley, as a means to empower a group of people with very few options in life.
"Himalayan Healers school changed my life," Ram Kumar says. "Before, I was working as a receptionist in a hotel. But now I have a responsible job, good skills, and a better salary. And I am able to help the untouchable castes," he says.
"The main thing is the idea of teaching people who, from the day they were born, have been told they're too dirty to touch," says Buckley, 37, who first went to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000. "Returning the power of touch to them is the main thing. My main mission is helping these students to heal."
After leaving the Peace Corps, Buckley wound up in Ojai, California, and fulfilled a longtime dream of going to massage school. He graduated in 2004 without a long-term vision of what would come next.
Sitting in a circle of friends one day in the fall of that year, they all began envisioning their futures, and Buckley first put words to his unlikely project. "I said I would open up the first massage school in Nepal, but that it would be for untouchables," he recalls. "I hadn't even thought of that before. It just came out. But I went home and started typing up the first business plan that weekend with my father. It was pretty insane, but it just moved through me."
Buckley began trading massages for frequent flyer miles. Within a week, he had enough to get a ticket to Nepal.
"I flew to Nepal and began to lay the foundation," he says. "And once I got there, I thought, 'Let's just do it.' I let my return ticket expire. I gave away everything I had back in Ojai. I gave my car to my dad and started building Himalayan Healers."
Besides the school, Buckley's Himalayan Healers Project today includes a chain of four nonprofit spa boutiques throughout Nepal, where graduates are employed. Proceeds are invested in a "growth fund" that will be used to purchase land and begin construction of a new healing arts school that will include a self-sustaining eco-resort.
He has also opened the first Himalayan Healers boutique spa in his native Grand Junction, Colorado, and he is grooming one of the school's graduates, Sudarshana Adhikari, to take over the business when she's ready.
"I wanted and needed to learn a skill to work," says Sudarshana, who is a Buddhist, not a Hindu, but is married to a Brahmin, a member of the highest caste in Nepal. But in the United States, her high-caste Nepalese husband has a modest job working in the kitchen of a Grand Junction restaurant. "This feels good," says Sudarshana, who is now averaging 40-50 massages per month, and hopes to see that number steadily increase.
In Nepal, six students are currently enrolled in the three-and-a-half-month training program, 50 have graduated, and 40 of them are now working in Himalayan Healers spa boutiques. Four Seasons has hired three more at its resort in Bombay, India, and intends to hire more to staff five new spas it is opening in India.
"Nepal is a pretty small market," Buckley says. "We don't want to give someone the training and then have them unemployed. If we could arrange more jobs outside Nepal in safe locations, we would run with that. But we won't do that until we can provide them safety."
Those who are working are earning salaries 10 times the Nepalese national average. Those employed at the nonprofit spa boutiques earn a base salary, plus commission for every massage plus tips. From that, they're expected to repay their students loans. The repaid loan money is then used to pay for the training of the next group of students, so the school is self-sustaining.
"We're a runaway success in terms of a business in Nepal," Buckley says.
But recruiting the first students was not easy. Massage has long been associated with prostitution in Nepal, and Buckley knows he and his students must work hard to overcome that.
"Right now, our students are predominantly female, but our first group was predominantly male. That was just to get things going. Since we're the first massage school in Nepal, I really took my time recruiting and building our first class. I did nationwide interviewing, and I worked with organizations that work with untouchables to recruit our first class. Once we proved what we're
doing, more people began wanting to enroll."
Not all the students at Himalayan Healers are untouchables. All castes are represented, and this year the school has begun training some Bhutani refugees. But the school represents a unique option for those from the lowest classes, whose other vocational options are severely limited.
"In a karmic caste system, you do what your parents did," Buckley says. "For the untouchables, that means hard labor. If you're an untouchable, you've probably never been to school, so it's hard to move up a ladder. Fortunately, for massage you don't really need to read and write. Untouchables do hard labor and are paid abysmally.
Those are the options for our students, and for women, the options are even more limited."
Buckley ticks off stories of lives changed by his school. One of his favorites is the 20-year-old widow who had no skills, no job, and a small child to raise. What's more, because widows are traditionally shunned in Nepal, she had few prospects for remarriage. "She's now one of our managers. She's standing on her own and brings her child to work," Buckley says. "It's amazing when you consider what she's been through, and what she might be doing otherwise."
The school currently operates out of a rented building in Kathmandu, but Buckley plans to purchase some land and begin construction of a new school. The first phase of construction--four adobe-style buildings--is set to start this year. After that, the eco-resort will be built nearby and the adobe buildings will be converted to stone and woodwork.
The last phase of construction will include tourist cottages and student and volunteer living quarters. "We want to recruit American students to attend and live at our school," Buckley says. "They can live on-site with room and board included, get massage training, and have an authentic Nepalese experience and have fun, but do it a lot cheaper at our school than attending massage school in America."
He says his goal is to train 20 international students per year. And once Buckley completes his own master's degree in counseling, he wants to recruit returning military veterans to enroll in the school and to eventually launch their own massage therapy practices. "The focus will be on their healing from trauma and posttraumatic stress," he says.
For information on Himalayan Healers, visit www.himalayanhealers.org. Supporters are needed to sponsor students, donate treatments in the name of Himalayan Healers, conduct fund-raisers, and hire graduates.