On the Importance of Food

The social importance of food in Newari culture is readily apparent. For instance, the most common expression for greeting someone is Ja naye dwuno la?, i.e., have You had Your rice? (lit., completed to eat boiled rice?). To which one replies, dwuno (completed) or madwunu (not completed). This greeting is used daily. Even a casual visitor to the valley may notice Newars having picnics at scenic, sacred groves by a temple or blocking off a whole street for a bhoye (feast). The importance of food to the Newars is also expressed in the Nepali proverb: Parbate bigryo moujle, Newar bigryo bhojle. Literally, this says, the Parbatya ruin (themselves) by (excessive) sexuality, the Newars ruin (themselves) by (excessive) feasting. Elaborating on the significance, Newars explained that a Parbatya who comes into some money will spend it on acquiring a second or even a third wife (although polygamy is nowadays illegal), whereas a Newar will spend the money on extravagant feasting.

Food is also closely connected to the ritual and religious life of the Newars. Every Newari festival of importance begins with a day which is referred to as choyala bhu (lit., roast meat plate). At the choyala bhu one abstains from the boiled rice in the evening. Instead one enjoys roasted meat and flattened rice and drinks beer and spirits. Thus, the choyala bhu is related to sacred events, as it initiates important ritual periods when the Gods on which domestic and communal prosperity and health are thought to depend are propitiated. Choyala bhu is also observed at some life cycle rites. The choyala bhu is generally accompanied by other ritual acts which also mark the transition from daily life to a period of worship and festivities: one has a purifying bath, cleans all household utensils, and purifies the floors by besmearing them with a solution of cow dung and red clay.

Furthermore, a number of calendrical feasts are named after the foods which are prescribed to be eaten at them; for instance, Ghyöcaku sanlu, Yomari punhi, Sakimila punhi, Ukhu care, Sanya duling, Lai care, Duru cya cya yatra, Mala ja nakégu, Kai sanlu, and Bya ja nakégu.[1] The purposes of these feasts are highly differentiated. According to my informants, some are only named after foods because these particular foods are in season; e.g., at Lai care (lit., the fourteenth of the dark moon of the radish) lai (radish) is in plentiful supply. Others are related to religious beliefs and observances: Mala ja nakégu, when maidens are fed boiled rice and worshipped, is related to the Kumari cult; and Bya ja nakégu, when the frogs are fed boiled rice, beans, meat, and beer, is in order to ensure that they will provide sufficient rain for the standing rice crop to ripen. I will not go deeper into the significance of the calendrical rites named after foods, but mention them only in order to give yet another indication of food’s symbolic import in Newari culture.



Mala ja nakégu


Bya ja nakégu



One can also see the importance Newars attach to food in the sanctity of the Newar kitchen, and in that the Newars sometimes idiomatically refer to the household unit as bhutu, i.e., kitchen (lit., hearth). For instance, in Sunakothi one does not count people or houses at the annual census, known as bhutu phaye and performed by the Bica guthi, but kitchens (bhutu). There are also certain occasions on which each “hearth” is obliged to give grain to a particular guthi society, to various specialists, or to send a representative to a certain feast. One then refers to the obligation as tied to the hearth (bhutu).


On the Classification of Food

Newari meals can be classified into three main categories: 1) the daily rice meals (ja), 2) the midday snack (baji), and 3) feasts (bhoye).[2] The rice meal is eaten morning and evening in a room adjacent to or in the kitchen. It is eaten quietly and with little, or no, formality. The rice (ja) is boiled, and it is served with a lentil soup (ke), vegetables (tarakari) and, if one can afford it, some meat (la). In Nepali this type of meal is known as “dal bhat,” literally, lentil soup (dal) and boiled rice (bhat). Dal bhatis the standard fare of most Nepalese people.[3] This is expressed by the fact that the utterly commonplace, in Nepali, is sometimes idiomatically referred to as “dal bhat.” The second category, the midday snack, generally consists of flattened rice (baji), eaten with such items as roasted and curried soya beans (musya), fermented mustard leaves (gundro), or curried potato (alu tarakari). If possible, one will also have some meat (la) and beer (thon) with it. Newars refer to this kind of meal simply as baji. The baji is often eaten accompanied by small talk or even hilarious joking. The farmers often eat such a meal in the fields during the peak periods of the agricultural cycle when one does not have the time to go home to eat. The third category of food, which is served at feasts, also has baji as its base. At feasts various preparations based on buffalo meat are served along with curries of vegetables and pulses. Beer (thon) is invariably served along with the food. The feast meal is formally concluded by serving curd and sugar, and then sisapusa (fruit). Occasionally pieces of betel nut and cloves will also be served last, marking the very end of the meal.

The Newars invariably eat with the right hand[4] Two styles are encountered: ja (boiled rice) is mixed with ke (soup), and formed into lumps which are pushed into the mouth with the fingers; eating baji (flattened rice), one uses the hand somewhat like a spoon and scoops the food into the mouth with a throwing motion. The left hand is regarded as unclean, and it is rarely taken up to touch the mouth, though sometimes the food may be handled with it, e.g., one may use it to break bread. The female is often associated with the left, and the Newars do have various complex conceptions concerning left and right, which will not be treated here. Irrespective of these conceptions, it also makes hygienic sense not to touch foods with the left hand as the rectum is cleaned with water using the left hand when one defecates. The Newars, as other caste Hindus, do regard anything that has touched the mouth of another person as polluted (New., cipa).[5] Indeed, foods or vessels that have touched one’s own lips are also regarded as polluted. Hence, the food is made into suitable portions before they are taken to the mouth, and bread is always broken off piece by piece. That is to say, one pollutes the food, while eating, morsel by morsel.[6] Liquids are polluted when one has touched the rim of the vessel. Beer and spirits are thus drunk polluted, whereas water is poured into the mouth holding the vessel above the head and without touching it with the lips.

The meals are almost invariably eaten while sitting on the floor, often on a long straw carpet. If there is more than one person who eats, the participants will generally (though not always) form a line (jho). Sitting down to eat, one generally gives a share of the food to the Gods before the food has become polluted in any way, i.e., before one begins to eat oneself. This share is called dyo chaye (God’s share), and it can be given to the Gods at all meals. It generally consists of a few rice grains and a little piece of each of the additional foods. If the meal is accompanied by water or beer, a few drops[7] of it will be scattered into the air, whereas the food items are set neatly next to the plate in front of the person who eats. I have persistently tried to pin down this practice by asking questions about its specific meaning and to which particular God the food is offered. But, I have invariably been given vague and indeterminate answers. I have been told that the meaning, or purpose, of the dyo chaye is to “feed” and “please” the Gods, and that it is not given to any particular God, but to God in a most general sense. Pressing my informants to name a particular God, they would say it was given to “any God.”

At feasts people sit in lines, and there is a great deal of talking, although generally people tend to eat rather fast. The lines in which the participants sit are sometimes hierarchically ordered. The eldest sits to the very right followed by the second eldest, and so forth. If there is a priest, officiating in a household of non-priestly caste, he will sit to the very right, regardless of his age, followed by the eldest. However, seating order according to seniority and rank is generally observed only among the first ten participants. The rest will sit in line but not in strict order according to seniority. Sometimes the women will sit after the men. The children sit at the bottom end. If there are several castes attending a bhoye, they will sometimes sit in different lines. Whether they do, or do not, depends on what is served, the purpose of the feasts and which castes attend.[8] For instance, at outdoor feasts and large marriage feasts with many guests, I would be welcome to sit in any line, except among the first ten in the honourary line. However, at small domestic feasts of great ritual importance, events which outsiders, and particularly non-Newars, usually are not allowed to attend, I was set apart from the others, i.e., in a personal line, for example, in front of everyone where I could take part without committing an outrage against the traditional rules.[9]

There are yet two other classifications of food which are particularly relevant in religious contexts, i.e., ritual foods, and offerings and prasad.[10]

One stems from the high Brahmanical (Vaisnavite) tradition of the Indian plain and divides food into three categories: 1) sattvic, 2) rajasic, and 3) tamasic. The first is the food of saints. The sattvic diet is strictly (lacto) vegetarian and also regards certain vegetables as impure, e.g., onion, garlic, and radish. The second is the food for kings and warriors. The rajasic food contains meat from goat and chicken as well as eggs. The tamasi is the food of demons and titans. It permits all the items in the two previous classes, as well as buffalo meat, fermented foods, spirits, garlic, onion, etc., in short, many of the foods which are explicitly excluded from the sattvic and rajasic diets. The underlying conception is that the food determines men’s moods and actions. Sattvic food will make a man saintly; rajasic food will make him a ruler or a warrior, i.e., powerful and sexually potent; tamasic food will make a man an uncontrollable victim of lewd passions, like a demon or a titan. This is a gross simplification. Hindus are well aware that not all people can be saints or kings, but nevertheless it reflects the ideas Hindus have about the effects of food on the state of mind. Newars do apply the idiom expressed in this classification, but only selectively, for instance, at vrta days when the pious observe a fast or, according to this classification, abstain from polluting foods, e.g., meat, garlic, onion, and alcoholic beverages. Sattvic food stuffs are offered to certain deities, notably, to Mahadev and Narayan (Vishnu), who are thought to be vegetarian and who do not accept blood offerings. Milk, grains, sweetmeats, etc., which are offered them are later eaten by the devotees as prasad. The sattvic food is associated with the Hindu current which regards renunciation of caste and society, abstinence from meat and alcohol, and celibacy as the proper means to attain salvation.

Sacrifice to BalakumariHowever, the Newars also have another idiom in which animal sacrifice and alcoholic beverages are not only permitted but culturally prescribed. This is the Tantric tradition. These foods are ritually classified as amkara, because their initial letter is M (lit., ma). These foods are classified together as the pancamkara, the five Ms, although two of them are not strictly foods but concepts which may be represented by food. These are mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (divine sign language), madya (alcoholic beverages), and maithuna (intercourse). In the Tantric tradition, these five concepts and various ritualia associated with them are tied to the religious practice to attain salvation. The five concepts can, according to Pradhan,[11] be represented in Newari culture by food items, particularly by the khe sagan. This contains the food items mentioned as part of the pancamkara: mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), and madya (ayela). The mudra is represented by wa (pulse cake) and maithuna by egg.[12] Here, I want to make the point that in Newari cultural conceptions — although the pancamkara may not be known to all it is not polluting to eat meat and drink alcoholic beverages. On the contrary animal sacrifice, meat consumption, and drinking of alcoholic beverages are culturally prescribed. The reasons given for this vary: one, popularly held, is that the Tantric Gods are blood thirsty[13] and relish alcohol (such deities are known as hitva dyo), and, if one did not sacrifice animals to them, they would satisfy their blood thirst by causing accidents;[14] a second, more profound reason, is that the Tantric Gods, to some extent, represent various aspects of the devotee’s personality which have to be satisfied. To become initiated into such a cult is known as receiving diksha, and, according to Greenwold, “[w]hen the adept receives the ‘diksha’ of a particular deity he is thought to become that deity himself. Or perhaps one should say that the adept miraculously is absorbed into the deity and so takes on his powers.”(Greenwold 1974b:120) Here, I have no conclusive data. Indeed, the nucleus of some of the Tantric cults of the Newars is nearly impossible to penetrate, as absolute secrecy is required from those who become initiated. For the anthropologist, even “under cover” methods are impracticable, as initiation is strictly limited by the rules of caste and lineage.[15] To the deities that accept and crave blood sacrifice, one offers buffaloes, goats, piglets (to Naudurga only), ducks, chickens, eggs, and black pulses. The latter two are also regarded as blood sacrifice and often serve as substitutes for proper animals among the poor. Only male animals are sacrificed. The quadrupeds are slaughtered by cutting out a piece of the throat of the animal with a knife, whereafter the jugular is found and severed. The blood is then made to gush out onto the deity.[16] Thereafter the sacrificed animal is taken home to be prepared and eaten by the devotees. Occasionally, it may be cooked and eaten at the site of the sacrifice.

Circumbulating Balakumari before sacrifice,

The Tantric tradition has reversed the ideals (generally known as ahimsa) upheld in ascetic Hinduism and Buddhism: the practitioners drink alcohol ritually, eat meat ritually, marry and beget children, observe caste rules, and occasionally, even copulate ritually. Thus, salvation can be attained by the Tantricist, by indulging in the very things which in other forms of Hinduism and Buddhism represent anathema to the religiously virtuous.

Both systems of classifying food are current, and the Newars in general do not ponder the inherent contradiction. Instead, the two systems are regarded as complementary and have validity on different occasions. On some days one should (ideally) fast or refrain from food of the rajwik and tamas categories (e.g., at vrta days), whereas at other times one should eat meat and drink beer and spirits. However, during my field work I have often seen Newars fail to observe vrta days[17] (e.g., the ekadasi, the eleventh of the bright half of the lunar month), but never to miss a choyala bhu. Even the very poorest will provide some meat and beer on such days.[18]

The analyst can make a different category of foods of the food which is related to Newar religion and cosmology and the expression of the conceptions of the social order. This category includes the ritually significant foods which are closely related to both the social order and the pantheon. It would thus include: choyala bhu, a plate with roasted meat which heralds the arrival of a major festival or rite; prasad, any food offered to a deity in order to be consumed afterwards; same baji, fried flattened rice with meat and fish which is eaten at certain occasions; ghasa, display food; si, a ritual dish which generally marks the order of seniority; and dyo chaye (lit., God’s share), the morsel set aside for the Gods before one begins to eat.


Previous Research on Newari Food Culture

Newari food culture is a subject relatively new to anthropology. Toffin describes the food culture and customs related to food in a chapter in his monograph on the material life of the Jyapu village Pyangau.[19] He has also written an article on the “Si ka bhoye.” There are also scattered references to food in many works dealing with the Newars. So far, I have encountered four works which are devoted solely to Newari food culture: one is written by the Frenchman Toffin, the other three by Newars. Below I will briefly recapitulate and discuss the main findings presented in these works, including Toffin’s monograph on Pyangau and statements with theoretical import made by other authors.

In the monograph on Pyangau Toffin takes a descriptive approach.[20] He points out the importance of the boiled rice, ja which “...occupies a privilege place in every day meals. Among all culinary preparations, it is the noblest, the one which gives most prestige. Next to it, the other dishes have a secondary place.”(1977:9) I agree with Toffin that ja is important and occupies a special place ritually and socially. However, it is debatable if it is “the noblest, the one which gives most prestige.” I find it hard to understand what is meant with prestige and nobility in this context; in my experience prestige foods are special meat preparations, as, for example, the jellied meat dishes takha, sanyakhuna, and gorma. The list could also be extended to certain varieties of fried or roasted meats. These are the foods which are crucial to a feast. Providing them well-prepared and in large quantities does give prestige. Furthermore, Toffin has constructed two tables which illustrate different types of meals and the social patterns attached to them.

In the first table on “etiquette” and “aliments,” Toffin shows the following: the daily morning and evening meals are eaten in the kitchen, the main food item is boiled rice, water is drunk with the meal, people are silent while eating, and the men eat before the women. At the daily midday meal one eats in the house, the main food item is flattened rice, one drinks water, the etiquette is conversational, and men and women eat separately or together. Meals in the fields during peak seasons in the agricultural cycle have flattened rice as the basic food item, beer is drunk with the food, the etiquette is conversational, and men and women eat together.[21] This largely corroborates my own observations, though there are also some discrepancies which may be attributable to the fact that I worked in a different village than Toffin. The rice meals are not always eaten in the kitchens; some Jyapu households have a separate room for eating adjacent to the kitchen. Among the Uray and other higher castes in Kathmandu and Patan such rooms seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Furthermore, I often observed Jyapus having the midday snack in the kitchen with beer. It is doubtful that the Jyapu may be worked into such a rigid scheme as Toffin has done. To me, it seems rather that there is considerably more flexibility concerning where one eats, what one eats, with whom one eats, and the observed etiquette.

The second table presented by Toffin refers to the daily main food (the rice meals), the snack-like meal in the fields, and the ceremonial meals. The three categories of meals are related to two sets of descriptive variables, one concerning the contents, the other, the etiquette. Here, one learns that in Pyangau the daily meals consist of boiled rice, are mainly vegetarian, contain seasonal vegetables, are served with water, are frugal, and contain boiled and fried food items. The daily meals are eaten in the houses on workdays, are characterized by economization, and are participated in only by the household members (“famillie restreinte”). They are closed to other castes, men eat before the women, and silence is observed. The meals in the fields have flattened rice as their basis, are vegetarian, contain seasonal vegetables, are generous, and contain fermented and dried food items. They take place outdoors on work days and are economical, a larger group of relatives (“famille élarge”) and friends may participate, they are open to other castes, men and women eat together, and there is conversation and laughter. The ceremonial meals are based on flattened rice, are non-vegetarian, contain the same (prescribed) vegetables, are eaten with beer, are abundant, and contain roasted and stewed food items. The ceremonial meal takes place indoors or outdoors on holidays and demands gross expenditure and prodigality. A large group of relatives participates, as do friends and guthyars. It is open to other castes with certain limitations, men and women eat together, and there is conversation and laughter.[22] These conclusions again corroborate my own observations.

In the article Le si ka bheyfestin de la tête’ chez les newar, (1976) Toffin describes and analyzes the significance of the si rite in which an animal is sacrificed, divided, and consumed according to a prescribed pattern. In Toffin’s account a goat is sacrificed and its head is divided into eight parts which are eaten by the lineage’s elders (thakalis). In his interpretation Toffin points out how the si rite distinguishes the junior from the senior. The former are dependent upon the latter for the performance of necessary rituals. Here, Toffin links the interpretation to the argument of Hubert and Mauss in the Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice (1899):

On y retrouve le même schéma général dans le déroulement de la cérémonie: des rites d’entrée visant a faire passer les sacrificiants du monde profane au monde sacré, la préparation de l’aire sacrificielle, le choix et la décoration de la victime, consécration des instruments, l’immolation, al cuisson des aliments sur le feu sacrificiel, la répartition des parts, le banquet communiel, phase extrèmement importante du sacrifice, puique c’est à ce moment précis que le monde des hommes et celui des dieux son confondus. Les huit personnes qui cherchent, en mangeant la tête de l’animal, à acquérir des forces nouvelles, son a bien des égards des dieux eux-memes et sont traités en tant que tels.(Toffin 1976:337)

Furthermore, Toffin sees a connection to the myth of Purusa in the Rig Veda, where the four varnas were created from the body of the mythical, primordial man, Purusa. The head became the Brahman, the arms the Khatrya, the hips the Vaisya, and the feet the Sudra, all of which symbolizes the ideal (high caste) socio-political order of Hindu society. According to this model the Brahmans do the thinking and the talking, the Khatrya the fighting, the Vaysya are lustful, and the Sudra less “clean,” serving the upper varnas. Vaguely analogously, the goat head is consumed by the elders of the lineage and the body by the juniors and the women, thus marking the prescribed functions of the different social categories,[23] i.e., that the elders are in command of society.

One of the three works by Newars, which I referred to, is R. Pradhan’s (1979) Some Aspects on Food and Ritual in which he deals with the food culture of the high caste Hindu Newars.[24] Pradhan is therein theoretically bold. However, I will not discuss his theories here as his paper is said to be forthcoming in a largely revised form, which may be rather different from the paper to which I have had access. Instead, I will recapitulate his major empirical finding, namely, that certain vegetarian foods are related to marginality. Certain foods are eaten at childbirth (macabu), at girls’ pre-menstrual rites (Baratayegu), and during the first period of mourning by the closest mourners. He also argues that there are essentially two types of marginality, one auspicious and one inauspicious. The former is associated with marriages and other events which can be regarded as socially positive. Here he analytically opposes the amkara foods to non-amkara, which he refers to as non-ame, as he has not been able to find a Newari term. In this category he places pancamrita,[25] dhau, and the prescribed absence of salt in food on certain occasions. It is argued that amkara foods are eaten on pure and auspicious occasions:

There is a very interesting switching of oppositions of the ritual state of the participants and the food system. [The] [o]pposition of ame:non-ame inversely relate[s] to purity and auspicious[ness:] e.g., marriage, the most auspicious and pure rite where ame food is allowed and prescribed and death, the most inauspicious and impure where ame food is tabooed.(Emphasis mine. Pradhan 1979:13)

Thus he is able to construct a four field matrix:





Marriage: Salt, ame betel nuts                        

Childbirth: no ame for ten, no salt one day, betel nuts given.



Annual Sraddha: no ame day before sraddha

Death: no salt, no ame


Pradhan’s paper also contains some interesting data on high caste Hindu Newars which I will use in my analysis. Here, it may be added that the choyala bhu, too, seems to be related to auspicious occasions and marks the border between everyday life and periods of sustained feasting and performance of rituals. Choyala bhu, which contains roasted buffalo meat and beer and spirits should then be placed among the “ame” food in the upper left field, i.e., as marking a pure and auspicious occasion.

A second work by a Newar on Newari food culture is Ratna Kaji Vajracharya’s Jigu Sanskrit Ya bwo-ghasa (Items of our food culture) (N.S.1102).[26] Vajracharya is mainly dealing with a particular kind of food items known as ghasa, which are ceremonially displayed at various, generally festive occasions before the proper feast meal starts. There are many variants of ghasas: nyataghasa (five ghasa), cyataghasa (eight ghasa), cimitaghasa (twelve ghasa). Vajracharya’s main contribution, in my opinion, is that he describes how different sets of ghasa represent and honour different sets of deities.[27] For instance, a particular set of nyataghasa may represent the Pancabuddha (The five Buddhas) or the Pancapandava (The five Pandava brothers), whereas another set of nyataghasa represents five Hindu deities. Thus:[28]

Nyataghasa (First set)




Buddhist Deity

Hindu Deity


 Palu (ginger)




Musya (soy bean)




 Wo (pulse cake)




 Khayapi (pumpkin)




 Waunca (vegetable)




Nyataghasa (Second set)        




Hindu Deity


Palu (ginger)



Naye (fish)



Khe (egg)              



Hinla (raw meat mixed

with blood)



Panla (raw meat mixed

 with amaling, a sour




Vajracharya also points out the variation in the ghasa encountered among different castes and in different toles (localities). Here, it should be noted that the upper Buddhistic castes have many different varieties of ghasa and, that the lower one goes down the hierarchy of castes, the fewer ghasa are set. In referring to Vajracharya, Sakya, and Uray, he enumerates ten different sets of ghasa, the simplest containing only five food items, the most complex eighty-four,[29] whereas the Ghatu have only two sets of ghasa of eight or twenty-four items, respectively.[30] Certain ghasa are not strictly tied to any rite but may be set at different occasions. Others are used only in certain rites, e.g., the upper Buddhistic castes have particular ghasa for choyalabhu, kaulabhu, kumaribhu, wedding ceremonies, purification, and after childbirth. Vajracharya makes no attempt to provide sociological explanations. He is rather inclined towards explaining and justifying the ghasa in terms of dietary rationality. In this vein he writes:

Our forefathers have used the ghasas which have the necessary elements for our body. And they have used them according to the cold and the hot season. On this subject the shastra has said as follows: ‘To have strength to be healthy, to have long life ... all depends upon fire, grain and water. If people take food cautiously on time, and with balance, they will be healthy and live 36.000 nights. [Idiomatically one hundred years] .... Those who consume a balanced diet, their lives become longer: those who do not take a balanced diet become ill.’[31] According to the wisdom above the displaying of ghasas and eating them had been composed two thousand years back. Since that time, the displaying of ghasas had been practiced. So our food was scientific since that time.(N.S.1102:5)

Vajracharya also argues that ghasas are beneficial in terms of vitamins, etc.[32] Indeed, this may be true, though it can also be understood as an attempt to rationalize the ancient Newari cultural heritage in order to give it purpose and legitimacy in modern Newari society. An interpretation analogous to Ortner’s[33] concerning the use of torma among the Sherpa would imply that the ghasa are set to embody the Gods, to incarnate and bring them closer, and to make them accessible to the worshippers. However, there is little data to support such a hypothesis. An alternative interpretation, which has support in R.K.Vajracharya’s work, is that the setting of ghasa is a replication of the pantheon, which is thought to move the world with food materials. Foods are labelled as Gods in the same manner as a Nuer may call a cucumber an ox and sacrifice it as being an ox, although it is perfectly clear to all concerned that the “ox” is really a cucumber.[34] Here, it is noteworthy that the food items per se do not always represent the same deities. Ginger may represent Vairocana or Bhimasen or Mahadev in different ghasa (See above). The knowledge of the traditional meanings of the ghasa seems to be limited to a few Vajracharyas and other high caste persons. Most persons I asked about the significance of the ghasa said it is set “for God” or that they did not know. Nevertheless, the ghasa is regarded as indispensable in certain feasts, somewhat similar to the way that the Christmas tree is an indispensable part of Christmas for many northern Europeans, where few would attribute any particular significance to the Christmas tree except as a symbol representing Christmas.

A third work dealing with Newari culture is by C. Vajracharya Nasa, twansa wa ritithinta jigu jatoya vibhajan (N.S.1102).[35] This work is a M.A. paper, published in Newari, and deals with food, drinks, and caste division in Newari society. It puts forth some interesting data, which are presented later in Chapter IV. Basically, the article is a descriptive account of which foods are subject to restrictions in terms of caste, with special reference to the Buddhists. It also describes how pollution extends beyond food to household utensils, and how rules concerning from whom one may not accept boiled rice may be circumvented by the addition of ghyö (clarified butter). It is also characterized by an egalitarian undertone: Vajracharya is ideologically opposed to the caste system as it divides Newari society, although she also states that the traditional sentiments are strong and that it is difficult for the high castes to overcome their feelings of repulsion towards close contacts with lower castes. Apart from the ethical and moral objections one may raise against caste systems, the egalitarianism also reflects a new attitude brought about by the influx of non-Newars to the valley. The increasing population pressure and competition (for scarce resources, jobs, market shares, and education) in the valley have had the result that many Newars wish to rule out the old divisions in Newari society. Gopal Sing Nepali (1956) has offered a classification of the Newars related to ritual and food. Here he has written:

From the ritual point of view, as regards food, we can distinguish three groups. The larger group or the smoking group the members of which can smoke from the same hookha [water pipe]; the inner group or the feast groups the members of which can eat together at a feast in which a special kind of meat dish, Thalthale is served; and finally the innermost group or the rice-group, the members of which, can eat boiled rice touched by each other and can also enter the kitchen. This group consists only of relatives. (Nepali 1965:149)

This paragraph deserves some comment. Firstly, tobacco is hardly a food. However, Nepali’s statement makes sense if one adds that the verb for smoking in Nepali is khannu, the same as for eating, and in Newari smoking is twune, the same as for drinking. Indeed, there is an outer category of people and foods, e.g., at restaurants. Here one will generally eat only flattened rice, beans, potatoes, and possibly fried meat. However, one will not smoke the hookha with any of these people, at least not sharing the same mouthpiece, unless one belongs to the same caste. Those with whom one smokes the hookha are generally of the same caste, or higher, although in the latter case, the high caste person may decline to share the mouthpiece. The second category in Nepali’s classification, I find even more strange. I have never encountered any dish called “thalthale,” nor could I find any Newar who had. Possibly, Nepali has misunderstood the word takha, which stands for a special kind of meat-jelly (See appendix I). Takha is indeed subject to caste rules (see chapter IV). Lastly, the group one eats rice with is larger than the circle of relatives, though it is correct that boiled rice is primarily eaten with one’s own relatives. Non-family members do enter the kitchens, although access to the kitchens is indeed restricted to a few who are generally relatives or very close friends. Whether or not close friends are allowed into the kitchen may be a matter of caste. If the hierarchical distance is great, it is highly likely that the lower caste person may not be invited into the higher caste kitchen.

Nepali also accounts for a somewhat sensational food habit:

...the consumption of an organism produced by the rotting of meat. I did not, however, come across a single individual eating such a thing. But the consensus of opinion among the Newars themselves asserts that it still forms a favourite dish of the Jyapoos in the Patan area. Some of the high caste Buddhist Newars are also reported to relish it. It is prepared in the following manner: Raw meat is stuffed into half a foot-long bamboo tube, which is closed tightly at its both ends. It is allowed to rot till the flesh is transformed into maggots. These organisms begin to eat one another and finally become a single organism of the size the volume of the tube. It is boiled in water and cut to pieces.(Nepali:1965)

Just as Nepali, I could not find a single person who had eaten this food item, and only a few who had heard of it, and then, in an utterly vague manner. I also particularly asked Buddhists (Uray) in Kathmandu and Jyapus in the Patan area (Sunakothi belongs to Lalitpur Jilla, the administrative unit of which Patan is the centre), and neither had heard about this dish. Apparently, the story was a current rumour at the time Nepali did his field work.[36]

Rosser (1966) has discussed the significance of the boiled rice in the relationships between the Uray merchants and their Vajracharya priests and accounted for a conflict which occurred when the latter refused to accept boiled rice from their Uray clients, although the Vajracharya had traditionally accepted rice from the Uray. Rosser’s work points to the great significance of the boiled rice as a status marker, and the importance attached to with whom one does or does not eat boiled rice. The article concludes with a discussion of caste politics in terms of caste status and the means used to assert one’s aspirations. The Uray began to boycott the Vajracharya priests who refused to take rice from them. The Vajracharya priests tried to maintain their cohesion through a caste council (the Acharya guthi), much like a trade union, but failed to attain their objectives due to the economic strength of the Uray, who succeeded in boycotting the services of the Vajracharya. As many of the Vajracharya were economically dependent on the Uray, the result was that the Vajracharya became temporarily divided into two groups: one which wanted to accept boiled rice from the Uray and one which did not.[37] Rosser’s work indicates that the custom of refusing boiled rice from lower castes, at least in the Vajracharyas’ case, may be a rather recent phenomenon in Newari society, an emulation of high caste Parbatya Brahman behaviour stimulated by the Rana regime’s ardent support of orthodox Brahmanism.

Particular attention has also been paid to the mutual obligations, which are occasionally ruinous, of giving feasts for relatives and fellow-guthyars. Oldfield commented that “...fulfilment of this duty is often a very heavy tax upon a poor man; but it is not optional with him to comply with it, as, were he to neglect it, he would be disowned by the rest of his own class and would thus practically be outcasted.”(1880 vol. II 154) Fürer-Haimendorf has also noted that these feasts cause

...the donor a considerable financial strain. Indeed it is said that the inability to fulfil the numerous social obligations of this type has forced many Newars to emigrate from the Valley and settle in distant villages. A recent enquiry into the economic position of the Newars of Kathmandu made by a Newar organization has revealed that some Newar families spend on the entertainment of guests about ten times the amount normally spent on the food consumed by the members of their household. If this figure is even approximately correct it suggests the prevalence of a system of reciprocal rights to hospitality which amounts to a pooling and common consumption of food resources by social units comprising very large numbers of primary families.(1956:31)

Today, there is less of this type of mutual feasting. There are still many occasions, particularly in connection with life cycle rites and the last rites, when a great many persons are invited and feasted, but it does not go on continuously as described by Fürer-Haimendorf. Here, internal reform seems to have played a part, on which I unfortunately have not been able to obtain information. In Sunakothi I collected data on participation in feasts, and I found that people do go to many feasts and also give feasts quite often. However, the numbers are restricted to a few a year, and hence one cannot really call it “a pooling and common consumption of food resources.” However, the ritually prescribed feasting is probably nutritionally significant at the household level, as a great many feasts are observed in which participation is restricted to the household members. The restriction to household members is not necessarily ritually imperative but merely due to the fact that the other households are also celebrating the same feast.

In the concluding remarks in his monograph on the Newars, Nepali has noted the integrative function of the mutual feasting: “Complete integration of the members of the community is sought through a large net-work of feast-dominated institutions, which are not found among the other ethnic groups of Nepal. ... An aberrant course may be taken up by an individual only at the cost of complete social isolation which will make his life miserable and his personality debased.”(1965:415) In this context Nepali stresses the significance of the guthis:

The entire net-work of social relations in the Newar community is kept strong through the feasts and festivals under the auspices of the various guthis. These feasts and festivals are numerous. They are not so much religious as are [sic] social. It is through the participation in these feasts that a Newar individual enjoys the protection of the society. Solidarity is sought to be maintained through the feasts and festivals on four different levels — family, patrilineal grouping, caste and community. On the other hand, the feasts and festivals not only effect the integration of the different living individuals but also act as a bridge between the living and the dead. In the Newar social organisation, the living and the dead both go to make the social group.(1965:420-21)

I agree with Nepali’s main argument here, although I would like to add that participation in many of the guthi feasts is often restricted to one man from each household, usually the eldest. It is also debatable if being social, in Newari society, with its emphasis on social cohesiveness and religion, is not tantamount to being religious. Here, it seems that Nepali has taken a Durkheimian stand and elected to draw a sharp line between the sacred and the profane.[38]


[1] The literal meaning of these terms are as follows: Ghyöcaku sanlu, 1st (of the solar month) of ghee and molasses; Yomari punhi, the full moon of fig breads; Sakimila punhi, the full moon of sake seeds; Ukhu care, the 14th of the dark half when sugar cane is offered to the Gods, lit., ukhu = sugarcane, care = the 14th of the dark half of any lunar month; Sanya duling, the 12th of the lunar month dedicated to eating fermented fish; Lai care, the 14th of the dark half of the lunar month dedicated to radish; Duru cya cya, the yatra of babies weeping for yatra milk; Mala ja nakégu, to make maidens eat boiled rice; Bya ja nakégu, to make frogs eat boiled rice.


[2] This classification is both etic and emic.


[3] There are some exceptions here. In some areas people eat dhiro (maize porridge) as a staple instead of rice. Indeed, among the Newar farmers the poorest eat dhiro daily when they are short of rice. However, one prefers to eat rice, and some will even feel embarrassed to admit that they eat dhiro. Furthermore, the Tibetan-speaking people who live near the northern border have tsampa (roasted barley) and alu (potato) as staples.


[4] See Das 1982:95 on the complexities of the symbolism of right and left in Hindu culture.


[5] Here, my observations are that the Newars are similar to the Rajputs, as described by Carstairs 1970:77-88, as far as the body image is concerned. The Newars also regard faeces and all other secretions from the body as polluting. Feet are also polluting, and the head is regarded as sacred and is covered in strong sunshine. However, Newars seem to be less preoccupied with these conceptions than the Rajputs. For instance, women are allowed to cook, both among the Uray and the Jyapu, while menstruating, although they are not allowed to worship either the domestic Gods or the public Gods.


[6] The Scandinavian way of eating sandwiches is quite abhorrent to Newars, to whom it seems as if the eater pushes the whole bread into the face while eating, thus polluting the whole sandwich instantly.


[7] A similar custom exists among Tibetans, who give the offering to Mkhon-chog. Personal communication with Dr.Claes Corlin.


[8] There are also other seating orders: e.g., in the sacred grove by the Bajravarai temple in the southern part of the valley, I saw a guthi sitting in a pattern which had an unmistakable resemblance to labia majora. However, as soon as I approached I was asked to leave and to refrain from taking photographs. All I could ascertain through my Newari companion was that it was a guthi from Thecu having a bhoye to which no outsiders were welcome.


[9] Harper has pointed out the ambiguity which sometimes occurs when one places a guest in a different line; it may be taken to imply either that the guest is of higher or lower rank.(1964:157)


[10] Prasad is food that has first been offered to a deity before it is eaten.


[11] Pradhan 1979:16.


[12] Khe sagan is generally served at, for instance, Macabu benke (purification after child birth), Kyeta puja (boys initiation), marriages, and Jyajanko ceremonies for the old.


[13] Not all Tantric deities crave blood sacrifice. Often the deities have both malevolent and benevolent forms: the benevolent forms of Siva are the vegetarians Mahadev, Siva and Pashupati, whereas the malevolent are known as Bhairavas. The latter crave blood sacrifice.


[14] The sacrificial methods are, according to western standards, exceedingly cruel. When I inquired about how one feels about this, I have been told that it is the Gods who are doing it, totally dissociating the impersonator from responsibility and guilt. However, this applies merely to instances where the Gods are impersonated by possessed persons at festivals. The answers are ambiguous concerning other sacrifices, such as those for a special purpose or those which are calendrically prescribed. Most people tend to think that they are necessary, though some people, on the other hand, regard them as a sin (pap).


[15] There are different degrees of initiation. Some persons may choose to become initiated only into the cult of the lineage deity (new., Digudyo or Agamdyo nep., Kul devata), which is compulsory, whereas others may seek diksha, initiation into the mysteries of Tantricism.


[16] There are also other methods. Cocks have their throats cut, and the piglets sacrificed in the Naudurga cult have their hearts torn out by the hands of possessed members of the Ghatu caste, who represent the deities. In some cults the warm blood is drunk by such representatives, as, for example, by Swetta kali in Nardevi tole and by Kaumari in the Ganadeya phyakhan in Sunakothi.


[17] Brta is used in Nepal to denote days of religious observances, particularly in connection with the ekadasi (eleventh of a new moon) and the purnima (full moon). However, in the Sanskritic tradition the concept of vrta has very complex connotations. See Kane 1974, vol. I.


[18] The only exceptions are households which observe the first twelve days of death pollution.


[19] Toffin 1977.


[20] Pyangau is situated at the very outskirts of the valley. The Pyangau Jyapu are regarded by the main body of Jyapus as a separate group, and one has little contact with them. Pyangau is an endogamous village (at least ideally) (Toffin 1978b:468), whereas Sunakothi, where I worked, is closer to the mainstream of Jyapu culture. For instance, women from Sunakothi often marry into other villages, and in Sunakothi there are women who have their parental households in Thecu, Khokana, Bode, Harisidhi, and Patan.


[21] Toffin 1977:122.


[22] Toffin 1977:135.


[23] Toffin 1976:337-38.


[24] Rajendra Pradhan is in a Ph.D. program at the University of Delhi. The focus of his research is on Newar ritual and social structure. I am most obliged to him for giving me access to some of his data.


[25] Pancamrita is a sacred substance used for purificatory purposes. It has five components derived from the cow.


[26] Ratna Kaji is a Vajracharya (Buddhist priest) by caste and profession. He is also known as a Newari writer and a teacher of Tantric dances. I am grateful to Siddhartha Man Tuladhar who has translated R.K.Varjacharya’s work from Newari and Sanskrit to English on my behalf.


[27] However, this is rather esoteric knowledge mainly held by the priests. Generally, people do not know what the ghasa represent, and if asked, will say that they are necessary, connected, or devoted to the deities. Occasionally they will even say that the ghasa represents “blind culture,” i.e., rituals performed without the participants having any knowledge of the meanings that may once have lain in the rituals.


[28] Vajracharya R.K., N.S.1102:3.


[29] Vajracharya R.K., N.S.1102:18-24.


[30] Vajracharya R.K., N.S.1102:48-49.


[31] The quote is in Sanskrit and is taken from the Baughangik Shastra.


[32] Vajracharya R.K., N.S.1102:5-6.


[33] Ortner 1978:131-37.


[34] Evans-Pritchard 1967:127-148.


[35] C. Vajracharya is also a member of the priestly Vajracharya caste. The paper Nasa, twansa wa ritithinta jigu jatoya vibhajan, in P.Kangsakar, Gwoyeswa, Kathmandu N.S.1102, represents her M.A. dissertation. I am indebted to Siddhartha Man Tuladhar who has translated her paper from Newari to English on my behalf.


[36] However, as an “ethnic joke,” I heard that in a certain foreign land the people stuff a pot with human faeces and, in the end, obtain one large maggot which is eaten.


[37] Rosser 1966:105-134.


[38] See Das 1982:114-131 for a discussion of the analytic applicability of the distinction between the sacred and the profane in Hindu culture.