The study of food culture has been subject to increasing attention in anthropology.[1] Hindu food culture has received particular attention, as the hierarchical caste system and its compartmentalization of society is reflected in the food habits, in the rules concerning purity and pollution, and with whom, according to custom, one may or may not eat what. Major works have been published by Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi, Dumont , Freed, Harper, Mayer, Marriot and Wiser.[2] Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi has described and analyzed food in south Indian ritual and found that food offerings constitute a kind of language for addressing the Gods. Mayer and Freed account systematically for who may or may not eat what with whom, in certain Hindu villages. Marriot has studied the transactional aspects of food in Hindu culture, pointing out how certain groups of castes are givers, while others are receivers. Harper has researched ritual pollution as an “integrator” of caste and religion in a Karnataka village and points out the significance of “respect pollution,” e.g., how the acceptance of polluting foods marks ritual subordination. Wiser extensively documents the food culture of a north Indian Hindu village. Dumont constructed a matrix table, based on Mayer’s data, which graphically showed the relations between caste and acceptance of food and drink.[3] Indeed, presently it appears that every respectable field monograph on Hindu villages will have parts dedicated to the relationship between caste and food. There are also a number of studies on food in ancient India which show that considerable change has taken place over time; for example, the cow, now taboo as food, was once sacrificed and eaten.[4] In the Nepalese field Paul-Ortner has analyzed food as a key-symbol among the Sherpa of Solu; Stone has inquired into food, hierarchy, and illness among Brahmans of the Trisul area; and Czarnecka has also related food to hierarchy in the same area, creating yet another of the by now classic matrixes on who, according to custom, may or may not eat what with whom.[5] There are also scattered references on food culture in many works dealing with Nepalese tribes and castes, and there are a number of works dealing with Newari food culture. The latter will be examined in chapter III.


The Purpose of the Dissertation

The purpose of this dissertation is to explore certain aspects of the symbolic significance of food in Newari society. I shall analyze the significance of certain foods and certain customs immediately associated with food in relation to the most important elements of Newar social structure. Thus, the purpose of the dissertation is two-fold: i) to distill the meanings (significations) of various foods in interactive contexts, and ii) to analyze the relationships of these foods and customs to the social structure of the Newars in order to understand their significance in the social context.[6]

The word symbol is of Greek origin. Symbolon means contract, token, insignia, and a means of identification. “In its original meaning the symbol represented and communicated a coherent greater whole by means of a part.”(Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974, vol. 17, p. 900) In this dissertation I adopt the following operational definition of symbol: a symbol is anything which “serves as a vehicle for a conception — the conception is the symbol’s meaning.”[7]


Elements of Social Structure

With the term element of social structure[8] I denote one of the categories that together make up the social fabric. The definitions of the elements discussed in this dissertation are emic: i.e., I have followed the Newars’ own classifications of caste (jati), kin, and other social categories of importance. The following elements of the social structure have been selected for study: caste ( jati ), house(hold) ( chey ), patrilineage (phuki ), married daughters (mhayemaca ), affines (jilajan ), religious associations (guthis ), and the village elders (thakali ) and headmen (nayemha ). The elements may in some instances be divided into sub-categories; for instance, a household may consist of several nuclear families. Such sub-categories have been included in the discourse under the title where they seemed to have most relevance.



The elements of the social structure will provide the focal points for this dissertation. However, I want to point out here that this is largely an editorial issue. In real life the elements of the Newar social organization are not as easily separated. On the contrary, taking a “holistic” view it can be seen that they are distinct but also inseparable parts of a complex social fabric. Castes are made up of phukis; phukis are made up of households; and, all households have affines and are affines themselves in relation to other households — if not in the present, then in a past generation. Furthermore, the members of the guthis are householders. In terms of the significance of food items, this implies that what is relevant on the caste level may also be relevant for phukis and households, although that which is relevant on the household level need not be relevant, or significant, for the phuki or the castes in relation to other castes. In such cases I have treated the food item in question under the heading where it seemed to be most relevant.

Four methods have been used to obtain the data for the dissertation: i) participant observation, ii) interviews, iii) surveys, and iv) studies of the relevant literature. Participant observation and surveys have mainly been conducted in the Jyapu village Sunakothi,[9] which is located in the Lalitpur District south of Patan. Interviews have been conducted both in Sunakothi and in Kathmandu . The field work was conducted in two periods: February - December 1982 and August - December 1983. The interim was used to write up field notes and to generate questions for the re-entry into the field.[10]

The chapters dealing with the elements of social structure share a common disposition. First the general properties of the element of social structure in question are discussed. Then data on rituals in which food is important, and on the usage of ritually significant foods are presented and analyzed. Food items become meaningful — i.e., carry information on social structure and religious beliefs — only insofar as they form an integral part of particular social and cultural contexts. Thus, the significations of food vary with the context of usage, and consequently the meanings of the ritually significant food items have to be obtained through a contextual analysis of their usage based upon observations, informants statements, and available literary sources.

Most of the data used concern two castes, the Jyapu and the Uray. In Newari culture there is great local variation in customs, language, and ritual. However, at the same time there is a great deal of local interaction, and in some instances interdependence, among the various segments of Newari society. In spite of local variations, the Newars can be said to belong to the same cognitive universe, i.e., the signification of a certain custom or food item will be obviously the same to Newars of different caste and locality.[11] The dissertation rests on the assumption that the Newars can be aggregated to such a level of mutual intelligibility. However, there may be certain exceptions. If such have come to my knowledge, they are reported in the text. Furthermore, to facilitate an easy check-up and to open the possibilities for other anthropologists to continue, analytically or in the field, I have tried to state clearly to which castes all data refer. Here, I have systematically applied the following rule: when a caste or subgroup is named, all the subsequent text deals with that group until information on a new caste or subgroup is introduced and that group named.[12] When no information is given on which caste the information refers to, it refers to Newars in general. Then, the information will be valid for most Newars and concern matters taken for granted by them, although exceptions may be encountered among marginal groups. Newars who do not live in the valley have been eliminated from the discourse both for practical reasons and because they tend to lose many of their ancestral customs after migration.[13]

The food culture of the Newars is rapidly changing, particularly those customs which mark out certain social relationships which are, or were, unequal. The caste system and its hierarchical axiology have been replaced by egalitarian ideology. Often during my field work I was told that “one did not care” about many of the ancient rules. Hence, much of what should be interesting in a study of the significance of food in Newari culture has disappeared, or is rapidly disappearing. Nevertheless, in a study of the symbolical significance of food these things are important. Consequently, I have chosen to extend my study backwards in time. I have gone back as far as I have been able to find any sources, although, of course, what was valid in the nineteen fifties, or in the eighteenth century, need not be valid today. Hence, I have taken care to be explicit about the period to which the data refer. Here, I have chosen to inform the reader when the presented data refer to any period other than 1982/83 when the field work was conducted. The data referring to the twentieth century which have been obtained by interviews and which refer to relations no longer current, are indicated by such terms as “formerly” or the “recent past.” Here, I hope the contexts in which such data occur will make clear which period the data pertain to.


A Note on Transliteration

There are certain difficulties with the romanization of Newari. Although heavily influenced by Sanskrit and modern Indian languages, Newari is basically a Tibeto-Burmese language. Hence, there is a significant distance between the orthography and the phonetics. In writing, Newari is often not spelled as it sounds, or rather the written words are not pronounced as they should be according to the rules of vocalization of Sanskrit. To make matters still more difficult, Newari is an increasingly “wild” language. It lacks any central authority, such as the French Academy , which could establish the rules of pronunciation and grammar and determine what is “right” and “wrong.” Indeed, in modern Newari texts, one frequently encounters the same word spelled differently by different authors.[14] According to the current trend, Newari is increasingly becoming a language used among Newars in “Newari” contexts. One may, for instance, encounter civil servants who are Newars and who chat among themselves in Newari, although every document in their offices will be written in Nepali. But, Newari is only read and written by a few enthusiasts.[15] Thus, there is little limit on the development of dialectical variations. Furthermore, there is yet no dictionary on modern Newari. Hence, the transliterations used in this dissertation will follow the layman’s Newari, the Newari I was taught. In Sunakothi only a minority was literate, and no one read or wrote in Newari. Thus, the transliterations of words from the Jyapu village Sunakothi are transliterations of the Newari spoken by farmers who can neither read nor write.[16]

I have left out the vistarga (:), as it may be confused with the colon. Furthermore, concerning words which are well known in the anthropological discourse and which have been fetched from the literature I have retained the original phonetically inspired spelling used in my sources: e.g., the names of castes and of certain Gods. This (latter) spelling coincides with the way the Newars themselves generally transliterate to English.


The Dissertation’s Disposition

The first chapter has introduced the research problem, which is to analyze the significance of food in Newari culture in relation to the most important elements in the social structure. Definitions of key concepts have been provided, and the method and basic assumptions upon which the dissertation rests have been presented.

The second chapter provides a brief introduction to Newari society. This introduction is particularly aimed at those readers who have no previous knowledge of Newari culture, and it provides a background for the subsequent discourse. The historical, ethnic and linguistic background, the social structure, and religion constitute the main contents of this chapter.

The third chapter establishes the importance of food in Newari culture and deals with general aspects of Newari food culture. There is a brief account of the daily food, snack-like meals, and feasts. The classification of foods is also described. The chapter concludes with a summary of previous research on Newari food culture.

The fourth chapter deals with caste and food. Its main argument is that food gives expression to caste divisions and hierarchical relationships between different castes. Here, it is also established that the other side of exclusion is inclusion, that eating together marks unity and identity in terms of caste.

The fifth chapter is concerned with the relationship between food and the household unit. Here, it is established that the private meals in the household are radically different from feasts with a wider participation. The food eaten privately among the household members is often monotonous, and little etiquette is observed, whereas, at feasts, the food is elaborate , prescribed, and etiquette is of importance. The chapter also discusses various relations within the household: between men and women, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and juniors and seniors. Calendrical feasts, life cycle rituals, guests, and the economic impact of the food culture are also examined.

The sixth chapter concentrates on the affines and the married daughters. Here it is shown that Newari society is a very tight web of relationships, and that foods and feasts have great importance in keeping it together. Furthermore, the relationships of children to their maternal uncles are discussed. Here, it is argued that the indulgence a maternal uncle shows them is also reflected to some extent in the food culture.

The seventh chapter deals with the patrilineage, the phuki . The main argument is that food is important as a means of expressing the phuki’s togetherness and cohesion. For instance, there are rules that the phuki’s kinsmen must participate in certain feasts, and those who cannot, later receive their shares of the ceremonial food.

The eighth chapter deals with the guthi societies and other institutions. Here it is shown that the guthis form a complex net-work of closed societies in which participation in ritual feasts is important to mark membership in the guthi or in the local community. In this chapter the relationships between the human and the divine are also discussed, and it is shown that the normally valid rules for the seating order are waived at some religious occasions, i.e, that religious principles overrule others.

The ninth chapter draws conclusions from the previous chapters and distils the significations of certain particularly prominent food items. Furthermore, the question is posed: “Is food culture a language?” The answer to this question is both positive and negative. Food carries structural (positional) messages concerning the relationships between castes and various categories of kin. It may also convey particular messages, e.g., by the way one treats (or mistreats) one’s guests. There are also a few food items which convey messages in certain ritualized situations, e.g., at marriage and at the birth of a child.





[1]  See, for instance: Lévi-Strauss 1969, Douglas 1975 and 1976, Tambiah 1969, Jacobson-Widding 1981.


[2]  Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi 1977a and 1977b, Mayer 1960, Marriot 1976, Wisers 1955, Dumont 1972, Freed 1970, Harper 1964.


[3]  The above mentioned authors have worked in different parts of India, and as regional variations are great I will not attempt to evaluate the validity or reliability of their results. These are particularistic, and (at best) valid for the particular caste or region that has been studied; i.e., testing a proposition based upon research on the Karnataka Brahmins on the Newars of Nepal would constitute a grave “ecological fallacy.” Neither do I intend to compare Newars to other Hindus; though perhaps this work may be used as a basis for such a pursuit. Here, it will be sufficient to say that if there is a common denominator with regard to food culture, shared by most Hindu populations and reported by many anthropologists, it is that food customs symbolize and demarcate hierarchical relationships.


[4]  See, for instance, Prakash 1961.


[5]  Paul-Ortner 1970, Stone 1977, Czarnecka 1984.


[6]  Signification is defined by Gregor as the “public meaning of a sign or sign-complex; its denotations covers all utterances which can, in principle, meet public evidence conditions.”(1971:380) However, as consistently using the term would be cumbersome, I have frequently used various synonyms, particularly for its verb form signify: e.g., mark, express, convey message, mean, etc. Significance on the other hand is defined as the “private and consequently variable meaning of a sign or a sign complex.”(Ibid.)


[7]  This definition has been obtained from Geertz 1966:5 and an addition to it has been made by Paul-Ortner 1970:1. The latter had quoted the former adding the first emphasized part which is not within quotation marks. Geertz here is based upon Suzanne Langer 1960 Philosophy in a New Key (Penguin 1948), and other works by her.


[8]  Here I have followed Fürer-Haimendorf’s (1956) usage.


[9]  Several surveys covering a large group of variables were performed during the field work. Only a part of this survey work has been used in this dissertation. (See Chapter V.)


[10]  See appendix II for a brief account of the field work, and a discussion of some methodological problems pertaining to work in caste societies with special reference to Newari society.


[11]  The local cultural differences seem to grow with the distance. The castes I am dealing with in this dissertation live in Lalitpur and Kathmandu Jilla Panchayats. The Bhaktapur Newars are different in many ways. They are more thoroughly Hinduized, etc. Nevertheless, I believe that they, too, could be included in the same “cognitive universe,” although a few of the things the Lalitpur and Kathmandu Newars do might be incomprehensible to them.


[12]  The lack of clear information consequently given on the caste to which particular data refers is a major drawback in many works dealing with the Newars, e.g., G.S. Nepali 1965.


[13]  On migrant Newars see: Gurung 1980:14,31,140,194,242,295, 298,300,351,354; Caplan 1974:46-57 and 1975 according to the index.


[14]  Foreigners as well as Newars have been inconsistent in romanizing Newari: e.g., the Newari word for betel nut is spelled “gue” (Bajracharya 1959, Nepali 1965), “gwe” (Greenwold 1974a, Toffin 1977), “gve” (Lienhard 1974), “gwaye” (Tuladhar 1979/80). In Kathmandu my Newari teacher consequently transliterated it “goye.”


[15]  In Sunakothi the villagers were amazed when I brought books from Kathmandu written in Newari. The few who were literate were literate in Nepali. When shown a Newari text they generally first claimed that they could not read it, and when they were asked to spell Newari words in devanagri the result was often far from the way the same word would have been spelled in Kathmandu. The reason for this inconsistency is that Newari is a language which is spoken rather than read and written, and that it is generally transmitted from one generation to another orally only. Also in the past the literary Newari was far from uniform. According to K.P.Malla (1982:28-29), there were in the period before the Gorkha conquest at least seven different scripts in use, plus a a number of “purely Indian” including devanagri. Most famous was the ranjana script, “... which continued to be popular until the end of the Mallas.” During the century of Rana rule writing in Newari was suppressed, and when one began writing in Newari again one used devanagri , the same script as Nepali the national language is written in, instead of the previously used.


[16]  See Toffin 1977:17 on the difficulties to transliterate the Newari spoken by illiterates.