At the Indo-Tibetan Interface

The Newars constitute a community whose ancestral home is the Kathmandu valley. Only a few centuries ago, before the creation of modern Nepal , the valley was known as Nepal ; and it has lent its name to the larger polity today known as Nepal . The intimate link between the valley and the term Nepal is also reflected in the fact that in Nepali, the modern national language,[1] the Newari language is known as Nepal Bharsa, and in Newari it is known as Nepal Bhaye. Both terms mean the “language of Nepal .”

The origin of the term Newar is not yet fully established. According to D.R.Regmi “... Newar is a comparatively new term. It came to be used for the inhabitants of the valley about the 17th century. The Jesuit and Capuchin visitors used the word in the same context. The first Nepalese record to use the term is one of Pratapamalla’s inscription [sic] which is dated NS 774.”(Regmi 1969:14)[2] However, Regmi also points out that this only refers to use of the term in preserved records and that the term probably was used much earlier and then “... meant one who lived in Nepal .” (Regmi Ibid.) Then, it should have meant simply an inhabitant of Nepal .[3] As the first syllable in both words is the same, it is generally assumed that the word Newar has been derived from Nepal .[4] Today, the term Newar is used to designate those who have Newari as their mother tongue or are the offspring of such persons, e.g., descendants of Newari migrants who have forgotten the Newari language but, nevertheless, are identified as Newars in relation to other ethnic groups. The Newars themselves sometimes say that those who observe Mhapuja are Newars and that those who do not are not Newars. Mhapuja (worship of the body) is intimately connected to the Newari calendar and is the first rite of the Newari year ( Nepal Sambat). Normally, it falls on the full moon of November. The Nepal Sambat calendar is peculiar to the Newars.[5] It prescribes a number of rituals and festivities which are not observed by other Nepalese people, although there are many which also do coincide with, have the same significance as, and closely resemble those observed by Non-Newars, e.g., Tihar, Sivaratri, Holi, Satya Narayan and Dussein. Thus, in Nepal one can distinguish different ritual levels. Certain rites and festivities are observed by most Nepalese people and can be called national, whereas others are peculiar to the different ethnic groups.

The origins of the Newars are shrouded in mystery. Levi has proposed that the Newars may have migrated to the Valley from the region north of the Himalaya .[6] Fürer-Haimendorf writes: “there is every reason to believe that the bulk of the Newar people has been settled in the Nepal Valley since prehistoric times.”(1956:15) According to K.P.Malla “[t]he aboriginal people of the Valley were possibly Austroasiatics who were later assimilated by the Mongoloid Kirats.”(1979:132) Among scholars there seems to be consensus that the Newars can be traced back to the ancient Kiratas,[7] who inhabited the valley two millennia ago. Not much is known about the Kiratas.[8] The Kiratas fought wars with the Indo-Aryan invaders and are mentioned in the Mahabharata. The Kiranti tribes, the Rai and the Limbu of East Nepal, are thought to be descendants of the Kiratas.[9] The Kiratas were followed by the Licchavis who founded a dynasty and left the earliest sources[10] thus far discovered, inscriptions from the fifth century A.D.[11] There is also agreement that the Newars and the valley have been repeatedly invaded by other people from the surrounding hill country and the Gangetic plains. The invaders were attracted to the valley by its rich alluvial soils, its urban riches, and the chances for spoils.[12] Some of the invaders founded new dynasties; most prominent of these were the Malla dynasties,[13] which are thought to have come in the l2th century from Tirhut in Bihar . These early immigrants tended to become newarized: they assumed cultural patterns from the Newars and adopted their language, making it their own. After some generations such immigrants or invaders would be more or less indistinguishable from the original inhabitants. However, some (e.g., the Jha caste) also retained many social and cultural traits of their own, a process which has been facilitated by the caste system.[14] This is certainly an important part of the explanation for the great variety among castes and localities that one encounters in Newari culture.

The Newars speak a Tibeto-Burmese language which indicates their affinity to other Nepalese tribes and castes who also speak such languages, for instance, Tamang, Gurung, Magar, Rai, and Limbu.[15] However, there are several important aspects of Newari culture which differentiate it from these to such an extent that it would be grossly wrong to put the Newars squarely in the same category.[16] Firstly, the Newars have a well-developed script of their own, as well as a large body of literature, mainly of religious character.[17] The Newari script fell into disuse during the 19th century. Today it is, generally speaking, only known by some members of the priestly castes and Newars who have a keen interest in Newari history and culture. However, this does not imply that Newari is no longer a written language. Modern Newars use the devanagri script. There are several Newari authors, both of short stories and poems, literary societies, Newari language conferences, treatises on Newari culture, and one daily newspaper.[18] Secondly, the Newari language, as well as Newari society, have become deeply sanskritized, i.e., penetrated by words and idioms of Indian origins, although its grammar is of Tibeto-Burmese character. This particularly applies to its literature. According to Kamal Prakash Malla:

[a]lthough Newari is a Tibeto-Burman language by stock, its literary dialects are deeply influenced by the Indo-Aryan [sic] dialects, models, and traditions. Just as Newar social and cultural systems are a product of a fusion of two streams, similarly classical Newari literature is a most tangible evidence of the symbiosis between a Tibeto-Burman language and the Indo-Aryan literate culture.(Malla l982:4)

The Sanskritic influence is not a novelty which has come in the last centuries. The Licchavi rulers already used Sanskrit in their inscriptions, although they relied on “a Non-Sanskrit vocabulary for many administrative terms, personal names, and more than eighty percent of the place names,” some of which are still in use “with little change, frequently as alternative names employed exclusively by Newari speakers.”(Slusser l982:10)[19] Newari first appeared as a written language 1173 A.D..[20]

The sanskritization has been a slow process. It began during the Licchavi era when Sanskrit was the official language recorded in many surviving inscriptions. Then, during the transitional period between the Licchavi and the Early Malla epochs, Sanskrit was still significant. Its significance increased further with the Malla period when the rulers were explicitly Hindu, although the Mallas also patronized Buddhism. During this period Newari became a literary language with its own characters. In the era following Prithvi Narayan Shah’s conquest, when the valley became part of a greater Nepal , the Newars to a large extent learned Nepali, and Sanskrit has continued to be the ideal language of the conservative literati, although Hindustani and English have been important, too, as conveyers of new influences.[21] Through Hindustani words of Persian and even Arabic origin have also entered Newari and Nepali.

Physically the Newars represent an extreme mixture. Their facial types vary from the Mongolian to the Indo-European. The Newars themselves have different theories about their origins; some think they are the descendants of the Kirata(s), while others claim that they have migrated to the valley from Malabar in southern India . The foundation for the latter claim is the similarity between the word “newar” and “nayar,”[22] the implication being that the Newars were somehow related to the (formerly) martial Nayar caste of Kerala. Still others claim to be descendants of immigrants from the region presently known as Bihar on the Gangetic plains. This claim can be verified for certain groups of high caste Newar Hindus, notably the Jha Brahmans[23] and possibly certain other groups of the Brahman and Shrestha castes.[24] However, even these groups have to a large extent intermingled with the earlier inhabitants. Thus, the Newari society has to some degree been a crucible, a melting pot, in which various influences have been synthesized. Apparently, the later one delves into the history of the valley, the more dissociative outside influences have been; the recent trend has been away from absorption and synthesis towards “casteism” and cultural pluralism. To continue the metaphor, the melting pot has been replaced by vegetable soup.

The Newars’ own explanations of their origin vary, depending on caste and individual sophistication. Some castes, e.g., the Jha, know that their ancestors once migrated to the valley, whereas the Uray know that many male children in the caste have had Tibetan mothers. The Acharyas are thought according to the Newars, to have their origins in Karnataka.[25] That various immigrant groups have mixed is common knowledge. Even if one belongs to a group which traces its origin from present day Indian territories, the Kiratas tend to be regarded as the proto-Newars.

The two major religious currents, Vajrayana Buddhism and Hinduism, offer two differing myths to explain the origin of the valley’s civilization.[26] The Buddhists maintain that the valley was once a lake which Manjushri drained by the sword, whereas, Brahmanical accounts claim that the valley originally was the land of Gods (Devpuri).[27] However, in my experience, the Newar Hindus also accept the myth of Manjushri as the founder of the valley’s civilization.

According to the view of the Nepalese Buddhists, history begins in gigantic heavenly cities, populated by Gods, demigods, and living Buddhas who converted hundreds of thousands to become ascetics who came to the valley on pilgrimages to worship the self-existent (Svayambhu).[28] It is noteworthy that in Buddhist mythology there is a process of degeneration. Life begins in a golden age where people lived for millennia and winds down to the present painful existence. There are also a number of factors which, it is interesting to note, are regarded as given from the beginning; the urban life style and the monarchy are of divine origin. However, Mahachin does not, according to Hasrat, refer to China but was situated in Assam , although “the Buddhists of Nepal at the present day consider Manjushri a North man, a Tibetan in fact.”(1970:5) Indeed, Manjushri’s land of origin, Mahachin, may be a conjunction of Maha (Sk. great) and Chin ( China ).

The Hindu origin myth is rather pastoral and places Pashupati in a central position. This myth also accounts for golden ages which preceded the human era.

Here commences the reign of human or mortal Rajahs thus: In one of the jungles called Slekhamaviti was buried the image of Pashupatinath under the ruins of his own temple. This image was brought to notice and dug out thus, a Brahman inhabitant of Kirtipur had a cow named Kapila which used to go there to stream her milk on the heap, where the image of Pashupatinath, lay hidden. This was perceived by Gopala the Brahman, who to satisfy his curiosity removed the material of the ruined temple when he found the image of Pashupatinath, which he worshipped in a temple. Afterwards Ne-muni came, there and bestowed the sovereignty of Nepal on Gopala who accepted it with reluctance. He was named Bhumagat. He died the 88th year of his age. While he was reigning Pashupatinath used to assume the shape of a Kirante and go to amuse himself in the jungle of Slekhamaviti.(Hasrat 1970:33)

The last sentence is particularly interesting, as it indicates a bridge to the Kiratas who are generally agreed to have been the valley’s first inhabitants. Indeed, according to Sylvain Levi, Pashupati may be an ancient tribal God who has been metamorphosed into a variant of Siva with the rise of Brahmanism.[29]

Comparing the Buddhist and Hindu origin myths, it is notable that the Buddhists recount an origin in heavenly cities and that the city Manjushri came from is Mahachin, whereas the Hindus ascribe their origins to cowherders who only reluctantly became kings. This reflects generally held attitudes. The Buddhists do not regard trade and other business as degrading but, on the contrary, as natural activities, whereas the Hindu traces his descent from cowherders. Indeed, orthodox Hindus tend to regard trade and other mercantile occupations as somewhat lowly and ideally prefer agriculture and cowherding. Nevertheless, Hindu Newars are very much engaged in trade. The neglected state of the temple is also indicative. It may signify that a period of chaos prevailed before the advent of the Gopala. However, one should not exaggerate the differences between the two creeds. Pashupati as well as Svayambhu are revered by both. Manjushri is said to be an incarnation of Visvakarma,[30] who is a Hindu deity (architect of the Gods), which indicates the closeness of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It is also noteworthy that the Buddhist imagine the roots of their civilization to be in the north, a fact which points towards awareness of their Tibeto-Burmese origin.

Slusser has divided the valley’s history after the little-known Kirata period into seven eras: 1) Licchavi, ca.300 to ca. 879 A.D.; 2) Transitional, ca. 879 to 1200; 3) Early Malla, 1200 to 1382; 4) Late Malla, 1382 to 1769; 5) Shah, 1769 to the present, but interrupted by the loss of power for a century; 6) Rana, 1846 to 1951, when a local family usurped the power but not the throne of the Shahs; and 7) Shah “restoration,” 1951 to the present.[31] One notable thing is that during these eras the contacts with the cultures of the Gangetic plain have been important. The Licchavi rulers were already sanskritized. Their precise origin is not established, although it is generally accepted that they had their roots in present day Bihar .[32] Surviving inscriptions give evidence that official documents were written in Sanskrit. During the Licchavi period the valley is said to have been under the sway of the Tibetan king Srongtsen Gampo for a short time, and both Newars and Tibetans popularly believe that a Nepali princess who was sent him as wife, together with her Chinese co-wife, converted him to Buddhism, thus initiating the conversion of Tibet .[33]

Buddhism has existed in the valley side by side with Hinduism and had its heyday during the transitional period, when Vajrayana Buddhism developed and established several important centres in the valley. Then, the valley became more Hindu oriented again, paralleling the development on the plains. According to legend, Shankarcarya, the Hindu reformer, is said to have visited the valley and defeated the Vajrayana priests who were responsible for the worship of Pashupati, whereafter he drove them out of the temple and substituted Brahmans.[34] This legend reflects a Hindu revival and corresponds to a similar development on the Gangetic plains, where Buddhism declined during this period. It is still said that the Buddhists had defiled the God by throwing their refuse over him; they had reversed the sacrificial order, taking the offerings first themselves and then throwing the refuse onto the God.[35]

The Malla period can be divided into two stages, early Malla (1200 to 1382 A.D.) and late Malla (1382 to 1769 A.D.). During the former the political centre seems to have been weak and even lacking at times. The era ends with the ascension of Sthithi Malla to the throne. Sthithi Malla centralized the government and, according to popular belief, introduced a legal code which divided the populace into castes.[36] Little is known about the early Malla period; not even the kings’ names are known with certitude. During this period contact was also maintained with China and Tibet , as both domains shared an interest in Buddhism with the inhabitants of the valley. Indeed, “Tibetans still turned to Nepal as a source of Buddhist cult objects,” and Nepalese artists even went to build temples in Tibet.(Slusser 1982:7) Most famous and still widely known in Nepal, I can attest, was Aniko, “who at the instance of Kubilai Khan was brought to Tibet with a retinue of craftsmen to construct a golden stupa.”(Slusser 1982:71)[37]

The later Malla period saw the development of a high level of artistic achievement. Most of the famed pagoda-style temples and Newari architecture as we know it today developed then. During this period the trans-Himalayan trade was important and provided the livelihood for a significant group of aristocrats and traders among the upper castes.[38] For one century the government was centralized in Bhaktapur, but later it was divided into three semi-autonomous kingdoms, which were often involved in disputes with one another to the extent that the divisiveness became one of the most important factors that facilitated the conquest of the valley by the Gorkhas.

The Shah period was initiated with the conquest of the valley by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769. The Gorkha Raja intelligently used the divisions among the Malla kings. To gain a strategical advantage he entered a pact with the Malla king of Bhaktapur against the Malla kings of Kathmandu and Patan. When he had conquered those two cities he then turned to defeat Bhaktapur as well. He also blocked the important trade route between India and Tibet , causing great difficulties for the general populace due to shortages and for the Newari upper classes whose wealth depended on the trans-Himalayan trade. The situation became so bad that it is said that the traders and the aristocratic castes finally supported Prithvi Narayan Shah in order to bring an end to the war and the blockade.[39]

The early Shah period ended when the Prime Minister Jung Bahadur usurped the executive power in 1846. This initiated a century of autocratic rule. Following the rule of Jung Bahadur the Prime Ministers’ office (Rana) was kept within the bounds of one (Chetri) family. The Rana regime has been much criticized because the Rana families used the state revenue as private income, largely wasting it on conspicuous consumption; they allied their regime with the British rulers in India, thus supporting colonial rule; large harems were kept; there was extreme Hindu-orthodoxy at the expense of other religions; Nepal was closed off from the rest of the world; and development which they thought could endanger their rule was intentionally prevented. The Ranas were ousted in 1950 in a revolution in favour of the King who nominally had remained head of state.[40] The Rana period strengthened the Hindu current in Newari society and the tendency to emulate high caste (Parbatya) models for social behaviour, while it suppressed Buddhism.

The revolution of 1950, in which the Newars took part by closing their shops and going out into the streets, was followed by a restoration of the Shah dynasty.[41] Initially, there was an experiment with multiparty parliamentarism, but in 1959 it was replaced by the unitarian Panchayat democracy, a system of directly elected councils in several tiers. Thus, there are village panchayats, district panchayats, zone panchayats, and a national panchayat. There are also class organizations for labourers, children, students, ex-servicemen, women, farmers, and youth.[42] The Panchayat system has allowed many Newars to be elected to public offices. The end of the Rana rule also meant that the country was opened to foreigners, and a road was built to India . Thus, new influences have affected the valley’s culture, mainly from India , but also from the Occident and Japan . For instance, the youth go to see many “Hindi” films, and the traditional womens’ dress, the parthasi, has largely been replaced by the Indian sari, while among young men blue jeans are greatly desired. And, Toyota taxis ply even the outlying villages in the valley.

The conquest of the valley, led by the Rajah of Gorkha, Prithvi Narayan Shah in l768, has had profound impact on the Newars. One result, which the Newars sometimes explicitly resent, is that they no longer are masters in their own house.[43] Indeed, they barely constitute half the population of the valley.[44] A second is that they, to a large extent, have become bilingual out of necessity and have taken an active part in the polity created in the late 18th century. Thereby, they have been greatly influenced by the high caste Parbatyas, who make up the politically dominant groups in modern Nepal . In spite of the resentment the Newars have felt at times, they have adapted rather well to the new political and economic situation. Newars provide a large portion of the civil servants and often reach very high positions in the Nepalese administration. Indeed, the Shah dynasty has oftentimes recruited its closest advisors from the higher echelons of the Shrestha caste, whose ranks previously, during the Malla reign, had provided the Newari kings with the same services. Nowadays, Newars are often found as ministers, etc. The creation of modern Nepal has also allowed Newars to migrate to new areas, and one presently finds many Newar communities outside the valley. A number of the better known are Palpa, Tansen, Baglung, and the old bazaar in Pokhara. However, some of these settlements may have been established before the conquest. The migrants have largely claimed to have Shrestha caste status, regardless of their ancestral caste. They have also intermarried with other castes and sometimes forgotten their mother language, becoming speakers of Nepali, and thus contributing to what has been called the “Nepalization” of the country.[45] Living outside the valley they have become merchants, traders, and civil servants and have rarely taken to farming. These migrants have to a large extent lost their ancestral culture, the social order prevailing among the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley .

The Newars can be regarded as a resultant of intersecting influences at the Indo-Tibetan interface, both culturally and physically. Culturally, the dominant influences have come from India ; the aristocracies have often traced their origins to India , where the caste system originated as well. One has also tended to regard Sanskrit as the most profound of languages, as the medium of religious and philosophical truth. This Hindu influence has steadily increased and continues to do so, as knowledge of the national language Nepali becomes more widespread through education and broadcasting. However, there are cultural traits among the Newars that are also found among other Tibeto-Burmese people: e.g., linguistic similarities, the comparatively higher social position of the Newar women, and the comparatively lenient view of divorce.



Religion and Social Organization

Religiously the Newars can be classified as both Hindu and Buddhist. The major cults are Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism.[46] The former is referred to as Buddhamarga , the latter as Sivamarga. Both creeds have been established since antiquity in the valley.[47] Both Buddhamargi and Sivamargi Newars are Tantricists, i.e., one believes that the union of male and female powers moves the universe. In this regard the cult of the mother Goddesses and their consorts, the Bhairavas, is particularly important. These cults are ritually characterized by the reversal of the values of orthodox Hinduism and Buddhism. In both, sexual abstinence, vegetarianism, non-violence, and teetotaling are imperative, whereas the Tantricist may copulate, eat meat, sacrifice animals, and consume fermented and distilled drinks ritually.[48] Tantricism is sometimes referred to as vamacara tantra, i.e., “left-handed” practices.(Slusser 1982:214)

Saddhus at Pashupathinath at ShivaratriThe most important shrines in the valley are Svayambhunath (Buddhist) and Pashupatinath (Hindu). Different castes worship different deities at different occasions and more or less intensively. Only the higher echelons in the caste system claim to be exclusively Buddhist or Hindu. The Vajracharyas, Buddhist priests, will adamantly maintain that they are Buddhists, and so will the Bare and the Uray, whereas, the Deobrahman, the Jha, and the Shrestha caste will maintain that they are Hindus. However, if one goes deeper into this issue in a conversation, one will find that the distinction between the two groups is largely artificial. Hindu and Buddhist alike always worship Ganesh first in every ritual. Indeed, every locality has its local Ganesh ( Ganesh Than).[49] In addition, several of the valley’s most important mother Goddesses that are Hindu Tantric are attended by the Buddhist Gubhaju priests. Hence, the distinction is, in my opinion, rather an issue of identity in relation to other castes.[50] The differences between the two margas are smaller than their similarities.[51] Both groups worship the same deities, speak the same language, and have similar social organizations. Indeed, they are both part of the same society.[52]

Further down in the caste hierarchy no distinction is made between Buddhists and Hindus. For instance, in Sunakothi, where I conducted my field work, the main priest, who officiates at all life cycle rituals, is the Buddhist Gubhaju.[53] The village also has a number of Buddhistic shrines (one chaitya was erected in 1983) and several religious societies ( guthis) devoted to the worship of Buddha. However, this does not prevent the villagers from also employing Brahmans who receive grain annually as payment for the performance of various other rites. If the villagers were asked, they generally asserted that they were Hindu. At the same time they did not hide the fact that they thought I was asking a silly or irrelevant question. To them the distinction seemed to lack meaning. If I pressed them for an answer, they would sometimes say that all Gods are the same, or that Buddha is an avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu.[54] Furthermore, the most important deity in the religious life of the village is Bala-Kumari, a virgin Goddess, who, in spite of her alleged virginity, is regarded as the “mother” of the village. According to Allen’s priestly informants, the virgin Devi “...represents pure and untouched creativity, not because she is the negation of sensuality and maternity. She is the pure unruptured vessel who nevertheless contains within herself the full potential of creative motherhood.”(Allen l975:60) The Kumari cult is also prominent in Kathmandu and Patan, where Kumari is represented by a prepubescent girl (the famed “living Goddess”) of Sakya caste.[55]

Kumari going to see Ghore Yatra

Kumari going to see Ghore Yatra

Other important deities are Karunamaya, the deity who ensures that the Nagas (serpents) give rain, and the Astha Matrika, the eight mother Goddesses. There is also a plethora of deities of the crossroads, spirits, and ghosts. This category includes supernatural beings which are peculiar to each neighbourhood. Most important are the Ajimas who dwell at the crossroads. The Ajimas are the grandmother Goddesses and are regarded as the keepers of municipal records. Hence, they are propitiated with offerings both at the birth and the death of any member of the community. In some instances these supernatural beings may be survivals of chtonian deities inherited from an unknown past, though others are hovering ghosts of those who have recently died in accidents. These spiritual beings are often propitiated when someone falls ill.

In religious terms one can easily detect that many of the elements of the Newar social structure correspond to religious and devotional levels or categories. Indeed, this can be extended to the bulk of Nepalese Hindus, who all worship Pashupati. Certain deities are worshipped by all Newars: Karunamaya who is the lord of rainfall; the Astha Matrika, the eight mother Goddesses; Kumari, the deity of pure female energy; and the Bhairavas, the frightening Gods of movement, unruliness, and alcohol. Single castes are rarely associated to certain deities, but groups of castes are, e.g., the Buddhists (and the Pradhan Hindu aristocrats of Bhagvan Bahal in Kathmandu ) worship Bhimasen, the Pandava-brother, as a patron saint. Localities ( tole) also have their own deities. There is invariably a Ganesh Than, which is worshipped at life cycle rituals; new brides are taken to it to be introduced. There may also be particular cults tied to the locality, e.g., the Nardevi cult of Nardevi tole and the Bala-Kumari cult of Sunakothi. Within the castes there are subgroups which worship different deities. The higher castes have a type of secret God known as Agamdyo, and the cult acts of its worship are kept absolutely secret. One may also have Digudyo (lineage Gods), which are propitiated once a year by the assembled members of the patrilineage. On the household level the household’s private Gods are generally found. These commonly include Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, or in her place, Bhimsen, and an assortment of other Gods.

Often special societies, guthis (See chapter VIII), which hold land, have been instituted to worship particular Gods. These are invariably of a local nature. Then, participation in parts of the rites is restricted to the members of the guthi, while other parts may be public.

Religion is highly significant in Newari society. Most Newars seem to be performing ritual acts every day, and most festivities have overt religious elements. Indeed, it was difficult for my Newari friends and informants to even imagine atheism. The religious acts vary from the observance of rituals which last several days to minor ritual acts, such as, folding the palms every time one passes a certain deity, circumambulating the local Ganesh temple clanging a bell set up for the purpose, or always offering the first morsel of a meal (or beer or spirits) to God. Newari rituals are very complex and are supported by “more than 1.500 titles which codify rituals and rites, including the rites du passage.”(Malla 1982:15) Unfortunately, most are in classical Newari and (thus) not accessible to the layman. Nevertheless, daily life is saturated by ritual. Indeed, Malla describes the ritualization of Newari society as “[t]he Newar addiction to codification on the one hand and to rituals on another.”(Ibid., emphasis mine) Here it is noteworthy that Newari religion, as exercised by the layman, places little emphasis on belief in religious dogma (often people cannot explain why certain ritual acts are performed) but great emphasis on physical acts. Religion to the Newar is not the confession of a certain creed but rather a way of life which involves both belief and the observance of various ritual acts and rules (e.g., caste endogamy) which may be highly varied. Indeed, according to Toffin, religion and ritual are so closely related to society that “[p]our avoir une existence légitime, une unité sociale doit avoir une function rituelle.”(1978a:130) The religious pluralism is extreme to the extent that even the same image of a God may be taken to be different Gods by different persons or groups. Thus, the favourite God of the Newar farmers, the rain bestowing Karunamaya, is worshipped by people of all castes and walks of life also as Bunga Deya, “Padmapani Lokesvara, Matsyendranath, Visnu, Siva, Sakti, Bhaskara, Brahma each according to his devotion.”(Locke 1980:452)



The Newari Way of Life

The Newari culture is notably urban: most, except for some of the formerly “untouchable” households, live in houses of several stories, having the kitchen on the top floor, whereas the ground floors are used for storage or a shop, generally run by the family.[56] The houses are usually tightly clustered together, which gives even the smallest village an urban — and the bigger cities a rural ambience, as they are largely populated by farmers. In the cities there are many bahals (monasteries), rectangular residential compounds formed by houses surrounding a shrine. The people living there claim to be descendants of monks, who in a distant past married and became householders, although maintaining their sacred status. The architecture, especially the elaborately carved wooden windows, have been the object of much admiration, though the absence of sewage systems has been less admired. The area outside the house is regarded as an extension of the house. Thus, the streets are used to dry and husk grains, to spin, to keep chickens and ducks, to play, to bask in the winter sun, or to sit around gossiping, although the use of the street as a living space is disappearing in some parts of Kathmandu due to the increasing vehicular traffic.

The Newars have a high degree of specialization of labour. Traditionally, one’s occupation was tied to the caste to which one belonged. There were, and still are to a large extent, various specialists who inherit their professions according to caste: e.g, priests, astrologers, masons, painters, stone workers, bronze workers, copper workers, silver and gold smiths, carpenters, traders, gardeners, dyers, washermen, tailors, butchers, and sweepers. The Newar craftsmen have been noted for their skill and artistry, and much of their produce was exported to Tibet in the past. Often there is a concentration of specialists to certain localities (tole). Thus, there is a tendency for carpenters to occupy one locality, for bicycle repairmen to be in another, whereas a third will have a concentration of tradesmen or gold smiths. Traditionally, most households would also own land, even the city dwellers of Kathmandu and Patan, and one would be largely self-sufficient in grain to the extent that it was considered an embarrassment to go to buy grain in the market. Such land holdings were, and still are, generally tilled by members of the farmer (Jyapu) caste. However, recent changes in the landlord-tenant relationship, which have left more with the tiller and less with the landowner, as well as an increasing population pressure, have resulted in few non-farming families being self-sufficient in grain. Instead, a large portion of the city dwellers are dependent on cash incomes and on being able to buy most of what they require in the market.

The farmers work their fields individually, family-wise, and sometimes, particularly during periods of high labour input, in bola, a form of labour exchange wherein the fields are worked in teams. The main crops are rice, wheat, maize, and mustard. There is also increasing horticulture: cauliflowers, cabbages, tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and pumpkins are grown and marketed in the cities. During the last decades it seems as if the farmers have had a good marketing situation, as the demand has increased faster than production due to the influx of people to the capital. Indeed, a large part of the food consumed in the cities Patan and Kathmandu has to be imported from India or brought from the Terai region.

Comparing the Newars to other Nepalese tribes and castes, one can establish that they are comparatively well off; the national average per capita domestic product was (in 1976-77) 1334 N.C.[57] Among the Jyapu of Lalitpur district I measured the cash per capita income, in 1982, to be 1134 N.C., and then only cash income was included. If in natura income had been included it would have been considerably higher, as the households are largely self-sufficient in grains and vegetables.[58] The Newars have also had advantages of the proximity to the central government and the national centre, which has provided them with better access to employment and education than most other groups.[59] The Newars are proud of their culture. They tend to think of themselves as the true culture bearers of Nepal , referring to their development of crafts, the cities, and the complicated net-work of kin and guthi relationships. They thus tend to regard the other people somewhat condescendingly, as intruders, as of lower rank and somewhat uncouth. One is not infrequently told by Newars, that the Parbatyas have borrowed everything they have of value from the Newars. Newari pride goes back especially to the Malla period, when the great temples and cities of the valley were built. According to Nepali the Newars refer to the “Gorkhas as Pakhe. That is to say, the Gorkhas have no material culture of their own to boast of.”(1965:19)[60] However, such attitudes are usually only revealed on impersonal levels. Many Newars frequently have close and lasting relationships with non-Newars.

Newari society can be described as ascriptive hierarchical. The traditional central hierarchical principles are based on caste, seniority and sex; one’s status in life is determined by these variables, which in turn affect one’s profession, one’s relationships to others, and one’s role in rituals. Yet another important variable in this context is socio-economic standing, which may sometimes override the ascriptive status. Lower castes may increase their status by being well-to-do. Nevertheless, the status they then assume tends to be expressed in the traditional idiom: i.e., one moves up to a higher hierarchic (ascribed) position, well-to-do Jyapus assuming the name Shrestha or migrants to Darjeeling calling themselves Pradhan.

The particulars of Newar social organization will be discussed later in this dissertation. I would like to conclude this initial, general discourse on the Newars with an in extenso quotation from Levi, whose characterization of the Newars, although too idyllic when broken out of its context, is succinct and, in my opinion, still largely valid:

Le trait dominant du charachtèr néwar, c’est le goût de la société. Le Néwar ne vit jamais isolé; il aime à loger, un peu comme le Parisien, dans des maisons à plusieurs étages et grouillantes de population, quitte à demeurer a l’étroit, aussi bien en ville qu’au village. Il sait jouir de tous les plaisirs que la nature l’ui donne; il chante, il cause, il rit, il goûte finement le paysage, se plaît aux piqueniques de gaie compagnie, dans un site ombragé, près d’un ruisseau ou d’une source, à l’abri d’un vieux sanctuaire, en face d’un spectacle aimable ou grandoise. Cultivateur adroit et soigneux, il excelle aussi a tous les art manuell, même le plus délicates; il est orfèvre et forgeron de talent, sculpteure fantaisiste, teinture et peintre de goût commercant, avisé sans rapacite, artiste né. Il a transformé les art de l’Inde, bati des temples et des palais qui ont servi de modeles aux Tibétains, aux Chinois; la pagode classique vient du Népal. La réputation des artisans népalais consacrée par les siècle est encore établie dans toute l’Asie centrale.(Levi, Vol I l905: 248-49)[61]


[1] The language presently known as Nepali is an Indo-European language. It is the mother tongue of the Indo-European Parbatya castes under whose leadership the Nepali state was formed in the late l8th century. This language is also known as Gorkhalli (as the Rajah of Gorkha Prithvi Narayan Shah was instrumental in unifying of a large number of principalities into present day Nepal ), Khas kurra, and Chetri kurra: i.e., the language of the Khas’ (mountain Hindus) and the Chetri caste, respectively. Since the unification of the country this language has assumed the position of national language, and it is now widely spoken in Nepal as the lingua franca. Indeed, one commonly finds that migrants of widely varying tribal origins have adopted it as a mother tongue in their new areas of settlement. In my opinion, the best overview of the language situation in Nepal is an article by K.P. Malla Language in Nepal , p. l32-l49 in K.P.Malla, The Road to Nowhere. Kathmandu l977.

[2]  Slusser has converted N.S.774 to 1654 A.D. Slusser 1982:9.


[3]  Regmi 1969:14.


[4]  Slusser 1982:9.


[5]  There are several calendars in the valley. Predominant is the Vikram Samabat, which is used by the Nepalese government and administration. See Hasrat (1970:49-50) for an account of the origin of the Nepal Sambat calendar.


[6]  Levi vol. I. 1905:220-222.


[7]  See, for instance, Slusser 1982:9-11, Hasrat 1970:xxiv-xxvii, Malla 1977:132.


[8]  Indeed, it has not even been established if they were a distinct ethnic group, called Kirat, or if the term broadly referred to the border people who lived on the outskirts of the Gangetic plain’s cultures.


[9]  The relationship between the Rai and the Limbu and the proto-Newars is, however, unexplored.


[10]  Still earlier sources will probably be uncovered by archaeologists in the future. However, so far, His Majesty’s Government has followed a restrictive policy concerning excavations.


[11]  Sharma l982/83:7.


[12]  It is not clear to what extent the rulers were invaders or merely immigrants.


[13]  There is little reliable data on the precise origin of the Mallas. For a discussion see Slusser 1982:52-61.


[14]  G.Berreman has pointed out that: “[f]rom a functional perspective, caste systems can be seen as facilitating cultural and socio-economic differentiation. They provide mechanisms for incorporating distinct groups into a society and maintaining them as groups without incorporating their members into extant groups. Thus, they function to maintain cultural, occupational, and economic differences; to maintain power relations; and to protect the status quo.” (Berreman 1968:336)


[15]  According to K.P.Malla (1977:138), Newari can be classified as a non-pronominalized Tibeto-Burmese language, i.e., in the same category as Tamang, Magar, and Gurung.


[16]  Indeed, given the Newari conception of these tribes, many Newars would find it insulting: e.g., the Tamang are regarded as syame (Tibetans) and are often the butt of jokes at local plays.


[17]  However, Newari literature is not only religious. There is also poetry, drama, and prose of a secular character. See K.P. Malla 1982:2-5.


[18]  Usage of written Newari is generally restricted to the upper urban castes in the large cities. Other Newars tend to give priority to being literate in Nepali, as it is imperative in all official contexts, whereas being literate in Newari brings little tangible benefit. Thus Newari is to many, most I believe, a language which is merely spoken. Indeed, one may often note that people in offices converse in Newari but write in Nepali, and that conversation between Newars who do not know each other may start in Nepali, only to rapidly switch to Newari, once it has been realized that both are Newars.


[19]  Slusser has obtained this information from D.Vajracharya 1968:6, Licchavikalako itihasama kirata kalako pradhava (Kirata influence in the history of the Licchavi Period), Purnima 17,5:1 (V.S.2025 Vaisakha, 1-8. Abridged as Kirat influence in Lichavi History. Regmi Research Series, 1-1 (1969), 7-9.)


[20]  Slusser 1982:50. For an account of Newari literature, see K.P.Malla 1982, passim.


[21]  Hindustani is, according to Turner (1936:xx), Urdu, Standard Hindi, and Hindi dialects.


[22]  Nepali 1965:28-29. Nepali also cites a number of other indications which suggest affinity to the cultures of south-western India : similarities in temple architecture, and the occurrence of an agricultural implement (used to pulverize the soil before sowing) called Khatta muga in Newari and Katta Kol in Malayalan.


[23]  Many Jha Brahmans speak fluent Maithili and maintain matrimonial alliances with Maithili Brahmans of the Terai and the plains. In my experience they are sometimes anxious to pass as non-Newars, i.e., as Parbatya Brahmans. Hence, they will claim that they do not eat buffalo nor drink alcoholic beverages, whereas other Newars maintain that the Jha Brahmans do. In any case, the Parbatya Brahmans generally do not accept the contraction of marriage alliances with any of the Newar Brahmans.


[24]  Little reliable information is available on these migrations. Nevertheless, the Newars tend to regard all Brahmans as descendants of immigrants from India . See Nepali (1965:151) on the Deo-Bahju’s (Brahmans) traditional belief that they once came from Simra in the Terai.


[25]  Nepali 1965:157.


[26]  That the myths are contradictory does not particularly disturb the Newars, who have a highly inclusive attitude towards religious dogma, whereas participation in certain cult acts is highly exclusive.


[27]  Hazrat 1970:xx.


[28]  See Hazrat 1970:3-32 for a full version of the Buddhist origin myth.


[29]  Levi vol.I 1905:366.


[30]  Hazrat 1970:5.


[31]  Slusser 1982:18.


[32]  Jha 1970:14-20. Regmi says that the origin of the Licchavis is obscure (1969:67). He argues that they may be related to the Tharu people of the Terai, or that they may have had their origin in Vaisali. In any case, Regmi is convinced that they brought Sanskrit with them to the valley. Regmi 1969:27-31;83-84.


[33]  Both the relationship to Srongsten Gampo and the marriage of a Nepali princess to him are obscure and uncertain to the historians. For a discussion of the Nepal-Tibet relationship of this period, see Slusser 1982:32-36.


[34]  Hazrat 1970:38-40, Wright 1877:18-23.


[35]  The Newars still throw refuse at Kaladyo, a variant of Siva who resides at crossroads. It is hard to get a comprehensible explanation for this custom from the Newars. It is in fact a reversal of the sacrificial order; normally a deity is first fed the food which is thereafter eaten by the humans.


[36]  However, caste was known earlier in the valley, although during the Licchavi period it probably only encompassed Brahmans and other high caste immigrants. For a discussion, see Sharma 1982/83, D.R. Regmi 1969:271-72, and chapter IV on caste.


[37]  Slusser is here referring to Petech 1958:9-101 Medieval History of Nepal. Serie Oriental Roma,10.


[38]  The traders mainly belonged to the upper castes Shrestha, Bare and Uray.


[39]  For accounts of the conquest, see Kirkpatrick 1811:380-86, xxx.


[40]  For accounts of the Rana period see: Rana 1978; Joshi and Rose 1966:23-80.


[41]  See Joshi and Rose (1966:57-80) for an account of the revolution of 1950.


[42]  Caplan 1975:38.


[43]  Up to the Gorkha conquest of the Nepal Valley l768 immigrants or conquerors tended to become newarized. However, the Gorkhas kept their own language and customs (though some who reside in the valley learned Newari) and kept apart from and, with reference to the politically important high Hindu castes of the Gorkhas, ritually above the Newars. In other words, the Newars found themselves governed by people whom they initially regarded as foreigners.


[44]  As the caste system has been abolished, there are nowadays no official surveys accounting for the numbers of each different group living in the valley. Instead, the last census gives the population in each village Panchayat. The most current data I have been able to obtain is Frank’s (1974), who states that there were, in the late sixties, 46.7% Newars in Kathmandu, 55.2% in Bhadgaon and 50.7% in Lalitpur (Frank 1974:91). The numbers refer to the three districts (jilla) Panchayats: i.e., they include large rural tracts and even parts of the surrounding hill country. Furthermore, Frank’s ethno-demographic survey also showed that in Kathmandu there were twenty-three ethnic groups. Chetris made up 18.8% and Brahmans 16.1%, followed by Tamang who comprised 10.7% of the population. The demographic composition of Bhaktapur and Lalitpur was similar, though there were more Newars and fewer from other ethnic groups.(Frank: Ibid.)


[45]  On the marriage patterns of such migrant Newars, see Caplan l974.


[46]  There are several other cults in the valley. The Parbatya castes practice their form of Hinduism in which Pashupati plays a central role, too. There are also other cults, various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and different types of shamans (Jhankri). However, there is no open religious strife between the adherents of different religions. On the contrary they often worship the same Gods, except for the Muslims, who, however, constitute such a small group that, one can say, it lacks significance for the larger Nepalese society. Indeed, in the old legal code, the Muluki Ain, they were ranked as a caste among those from whom one does not accept water.


[47]  The Kiratas, who were the forefathers of the present Newars, worshipped Pashupati, one of the most important Gods in modern Hinduism. They also worshipped Bhairavas. Both Pashupati and Bhairav represent different aspects of Siva, one of the most important Gods in Hinduism, and one who is thought to be much older than the later forms of Hinduism which have largely developed subsequent to the “Aryan” invasions of the subcontinent during the dominance of the Brahmans. It is generally agreed among scholars that the Siva-cult and many other religious features of the sub-continent were there before the “Aryan” invasions which led to the formation of Hinduism as we know it. The argument is that these ancient cults were so popular and deeply ingrained that the Brahmans, and other politically and religiously significant groups, had no choice but to accept the integration of these cults into the religion and society of the sub-continent.


[48]  Although, indeed, ritual copulation is supposed to occur in certain rites, one should not get the impression that Newari society and religion is orgiastic. On the contrary, such rituals are held absolutely secretly. Indeed, I have lived in Newari society for years, and I have never heard of such rituals actually being performed. The persons who possess such information will be restricted to the participants, who maintain absolute secrecy.


[49]  In Hindu mythology Ganesh is the son of Siva. His main attributes are his elephant head, his pot belly, and a rat upon which he rides. Ganesh is known to be clever and fond of sweets. Among the Newars he is regarded as the protector of the locality, and he is particularly worshipped on Tuesdays.


[50]  This accords with Barth’s (1970) relational analysis of ethnic identity.


[51]  The Hindus are referred to as Sivamargi and the Buddhists as Buddhamargi. Marg is from the Sanskrit and means path; thus, the terms refer to the followers of the path of Siva and the followers of the path of Buddha.


[52]  The problem of the “casteism” of Newar Buddhist priests and other practices which contradict the tenets of original Buddhism have been discussed by Greenwold (1974a and 1974b).


[53]  The Varjcharya priest is referred to in common parlance as “Gubhaju” or “Guruju.” The latter is the respectful form of address.


[54]  Avatar is a Hindu concept which refers to the appearance a God may have taken in Hindu mythology. The important Hindu God Vishnu has had, according to popular mythology and, indeed, the scriptures, ten forms, each of which are referred to as an avatar.


[55]  Theoretically, there are two distinct Goddesses Bala-Kumari and Bala-Kaumari. Then, Bala-Kaumari would be a virgin form of Kaumari, the spouse of Kumar, whereas Bala-Kumari would be a virgin form of Durga.(Slusser 1982:334 and 336) However, in Sunakothi no distinction is made between Bala-Kumari and Bala-Kaumari. In any case, to the villagers Bala-Kumari represents virginal female energy, though she is also regarded as a mother.


[56]  See Slusser 1982 and Korn 1979 for accounts of Newar architecture.


[57]  Statistical Pocket Book: Nepal , 1982:194. The figure given at current prices 1976-77. According to UNCTAD 1983:437 the per capita GDP was 137 US dollars in 1980, 1795 N.C in 1982’s exchange rates. These figures should be treated with caution, as they may be subject to error due to difficulties of measurement and fluctuations in the exchange rates. I have cited them here merely to point out that the Newars are relatively well-to-do.


[58]  The economics of 67 households were surveyed. The produce not marketed was for methodological reasons not included in the computation of the per capita income figure. The per capita income must be considerably higher. 61% of the households said their agricultural output was sufficient to sustain them; thus, a large part of the value produced in the village is never expressed in a pecuniary value. For instance, only 11.8% of the rice, 11.5% of the maize, and 23% of the produced wheat are marketed. The results of this survey will be published elsewhere.


[59]  For a discussion of the Newars’ special standing in modern Nepal , see Toffin 1975(c):38-39.


[60]  The term “Gorkhas” in this context refers to mountain Hindus, particularly from the present Gorkha and Lamjung districts. The term is in itself ambiguous. It may refer to inhabitants of the region surrounding Gorkha, the ancestral principality of the Shah dynasty, including various tribal groups; to the ruling Shah dynasty; or to Nepalese soldiers in the national or in foreign armies.


[61]  It is debatable if the Newars really have influenced the art of India and China to the extent that Levi argues, although there is little doubt that the valley has been known in large parts of Asia for its skilful craftsmen and beautiful temples.