The Newari Caste System

A standard anthropological definition of caste is Berreman’s: “Castes are ranked endogamous divisions of society in which membership is hereditary and permanent.”(1972:198) The term caste is of Portuguese origin. In the early days of European colonial expansion the word casta was used by the Portuguese to designate the hereditary classes (castes) they encountered in Indian society. Etymologically, it is related to the Portuguese word casto, pure, unmixed, and to the English word chaste.[1] The Newars use the word jati, or jat, which signifies: i) caste in the same sense as in Berreman’s definition; ii) race; iii) lineage; iv) tribe; and v) varna.[2] The Newars are presently divided into a large number of castes as defined by Berreman. Although absolute endogamy is not observed, it is a widely held ideal through which one prefers to see oneself.

Caste has been known as an element in the social structure of the Nepal valley since the Licchavi period (A.D.300 - ca. 879), although in the early periods it was probably less rigid and encompassed only Brahmans and other groups who had migrated to the valley from the south. The Newar caste system has had its own development apart from the caste system of the Parbatya castes and that of the Indian plains. According to popular belief and various historical sources the Newar caste system was first codified in the Nepalarastrasastra by Sthithi Malla in the l4th century.[3] According to Ram,[4] Sthithi Malla, with the aid of five Brahmans from the Indian plains, divided the population of the valley into four classes and sixty-four castes, and the Sudras were divided into 36 tribes.[5]

However, one source deviates from this and says that Sthithi Malla divided the population into 36 tribes. This is the Vamsavali translated by Hasrat, which states that Sthithi Malla (read “tribe” as “caste”):

...allowed his subjects to sell or mortgage their hereditary landed property whenever occasion required it

...distinguished and classified 36 different tribes according to their trades and professions

...annulled the custom which was established by his ancestors of punishing delinquents with beating and abusive language and in lieu of it substituted fines

...made a ceremony for the people to carry the corpse of their Rajah in a sort of litter preceded by the 36 tribes playing on different sorts of music

...constituted for each of the 36 tribes a separate masan or place for burning their dead and the corpses were decreed to be conveyed by four men preceded by musicians

... constituted a fine for all such persons as follow the profession of others, as if a blacksmith follow the profession of a goldsmith, he shall be fined.(Hasrat 1970:55-56)

This is apparently inconsistent with the Vamsavali published by Wright,[6] which lists the 64 castes and mentions the division of the Sudras into 36 tribes. It seems that the Vamsavali translated by Hasrat[7] refers to the Sudras, an interpretation which would resolve this contradiction. Full clarity will not be obtained until the original text, authored by Sthiti Malla’s Brahmans, has been penetrated.[8] If, indeed, it exists at all, according to Slusser:

...the complex system of subcastes that ordain Valley social behaviour must be viewed as the product of centuries of gradual accretion, not a sudden imposition by law. Significantly, Sthitimalla’s own annals make no mention of these undertakings; nor do they refer to the panel of Brahman pandits who are supposed to have helped him. As with the spurious lineage of Maithili kings, we owe the story, it seems, to a nineteenth century fabrication, or at least embroidery.(Slusser 1982:59)

I do not have the possibility of evaluating the accuracy of Slusser’s statement; it may be right or wrong.[9] Nevertheless, modern Newars believe that Sthithi Malla, aided by Brahmans from India, gave the country laws and instituted the caste system, and there are good reasons to regard the fourteenth century and Sthithi Malla’s laws, mythical or not, as a turning point in the valley’s history. The laws indicate that the caste system in the fourteenth century became a legalized institution sanctioned by Royal authority, that profession (i.e., division of labour) was one of the guiding principles when establishing the division of the population into castes, that taking to another caste’s profession became a crime, that the caste system was to be supported by prescribing different customs for different castes (sumptuary laws, etc.),[10] and that the economy had reached a stage where it was regarded by the rulers as a necessity to make inherited property alienable.[11]

Today many of the castes mentioned in the Vamsavalis as defined by Sthithi Malla are extinct, and I shall not go deeper here into the significance of Sthithi Malla. Later references to the caste system are found in the l9th century literature written by British residents and travellers. Oldfield classifies the Newars into sixty-eight “hereditary classes” (i.e., castes). Other works dealing with caste among the Newars are Levi’s Le Népal, Nepali’s The Newars, Chattopaday’s History of Newar Culture, Rosser’s Social Mobility in the Newar Caste System, and Toffin’s Intercaste Relations in a Newar Community.[12]




Change in the Newari Caste System

There have been great changes from the times of Sthithi Malla up to the present day conceptions and practices. One change is that many of the earliest castes, according to Sthithi Malla’s laws as accounted for by Wright,[13] no longer exist as recognized social entities. Some such as the Byanjanakara and Surabija are extinct, whereas others have merged; e.g., Kansyakara and Tuladhara are now joined in a large caste known as Uray. Then, the former caste (jati) names serve as surnames.

A second change is that the Newars have become integrated into the larger, multiethnical Nepal since l768. Nine decades after the conquest the newly created polity received its first legal code, the Muluki Ain, in 1854. The Muluki Ain instituted different laws for different castes, and it classified the Nepalese people into five broad groups: 1) the cord-wearing high caste Hindus (Tagadhari jat), 2) non-enslavable drinking castes (Namasinya Matwali jat), 3) enslavable drinking castes (Masinya Matwali jat), 4) castes from which one could not accept water but whose touch was not so polluting that one needed purification after having been touched by them (Pani na chalne chhoi chito halnu na parne), and 5) castes from whom one could not accept water and whose touch was so polluting that purification was required if one had been touched by them (Pani na chalne chhoi chito halnu parne).[14] Thus:

...the people of Nepal Valley, who after their absorption into a new political entity 1768-69 A.D., became reduced to a distinct ethnic group called the Newars. Their integration into the vertical social order of the Legal Code of 1854 A.D. was done by taking into cognition just one of the traits of their cultural life, while ignoring others. The use of liquor in the ritual life of the Newar even among their high castes has been made the basis for lumping them in the social category of the liquor drinking ethnic groups.(Sharma 1983:17)

In other words the Newars were classified as a rather low caste by the Parbatyas. However, “[n]otwithstanding... the position of law as stated in the ‘Muluki Ain’, the Newars are accorded a better social prestige at the actual inter-personal levels of relationships by the hill Hindus, as far as their higher castes are concerned.”(Sharma 1983:18) According to Höfer, the Muluki Ain was indeterminate concerning the higher strata of the Newar caste hierarchy, as some of the high caste Newars (Shrestha and Brahmans), although wearing cords, also drank alcohol. Apparently the Deo Brahmans (“Dew Bhaju”) were acceptable as cord-wearers, whereas most Newars were classified as “Non-enslavable Alcohol-Drinkers”. The Muluki Ain is not clear as to which Newar castes were enslavable, with the exception of those from whom one could not accept water.[15]

A third and recent change is the tendency towards levelling between the castes. Recent legislation (1963/4/12) making all citizens, at least theoretically, equal in legal matters has drastically diminished the significance of caste and many persons and families of low caste origin assume the name Shrestha as their caste name rather than the traditional Dobya (washerman), Citrakar (painter), Naye (butcher), Nau (barber), etc.

The legal code promulgated in April 1963 amended certain sections of the old Muluki Ain and removed certain

... provisions based on essentially nonegalitarian, traditional Hindu social concepts. Discrimination on the basis of caste was forbidden, intercaste marriages were legalized, polygamy was prohibited, and women were guaranteed certain rights with regard to divorce and marriage previously denied them. August 17, 1963, the date of the enforcement of the new Legal Code, was celebrated in Kathmandu, with untouchables assuming a prominent role in the festivities.(Joshi & Rose 1966:474)

However, four months later the Special Complaints Department of the Palace Secretariat

... announced that the caste system itself had not been abolished. The new Legal Code, it was explained, ‘seeks only to introduce equality before the law’. The position was made quite clear in the next sentence: ‘Those who indulge in actions prejudicial to the social customs and traditions of others will be punished.’(Ibid.)

The introduction of political democracy, albeit different in form from Occidental, has led to a wide distribution of egalitarian ideas which are quite contrary to the ideas of caste and hierarchy based on birth station. Nevertheless, caste is still significant, and there are many rules regulating commensality between the castes which are still widely observed.

Relations Between Different Castes

Below I shall describe and analyze some of the rules and traditions which are related to the caste system, particularly those pertaining to food. The data for this comes from my own field work in Sunakothi and in Kathmandu. I shall also quote some relevant works from the literature. Initially, I shall present two tabulations of the Newari caste system. The first gives the names of the castes and their traditional, hereditary professions. The second lists their names and hierarchical positions. It is difficult to measure with certainty, but this list seems to represent Newari consensus rather well. Several of my informants have given me the same rankings when asked to rank the castes. However, there are, in fact, more castes in Newari society than those listed here, and one may argue that some are subgroups, or subcastes, of greater, well-known castes. The Newari caste system is considerably more fluid and, especially in the middle regions, more ambiguous concerning the ranking, than will appear from a conventional list.


Castes, Traditional Occupations, Surnames[16]






Traditional Occupation


Personal Surname



Deo Brahman

Family Priests

Raj Uphadhaya


Bhatta Brahman

Temple Priests



Jha Brahman

Temple Priests




Family Priests and




Temple Priests




Gold and Silver Smiths

Sakhya, Bhikshu



Merchants, Courtiers,

Shrestha, Malla, Joshi,




Pradhan, Raj Bhandari,




     Amatya, Raj Vamsi,

 and others



Merchants and


Tuladhar, Tamrakar,




Kansakar, Awa, Sikarmi,




Madi-karmi, and others




Maharjan,  Dungol,Duwal,




Sapu, Kabhuja,

Musa, Lawat




Kumale, Prajapati







Palanquin Bearers

Khusa, Tandukar











Funeral Duties, Dying

Karamjit, Bha




Bammala, Mali












Putwar, Dali







Funeral Torch Bearers








Musicians and Tailors




Butchers and Musicians

Kasain, Khadgi







Fishermen and Sweepers

Pore, Deola




Chami, Camkhala






I have taken this table from Rosser (1966). However, it has certain deficiencies, mainly that it, in some instances, lists the Nepali caste names as “surnames” (e.g., Manandhar, Kusle, Kasai, Mali). Indeed, caste names are often, but far from always, used as surnames, for instance, in government forms. Thus, a member of the caste known as Jugi in Newari and as Kusle in Nepali may call himself Kusle in public contexts which involve interaction with non-Newars. It appears that with time, the Nepali names have gained on the Newari: e.g., the Saymi refer to themselves as Manandhar and the Naye call themselves Kasai. The caste which probably has gone furthest in this regard is the Shrestha, which in Newari is known as Sheshyo but is referred to even by Newars as Shresta to the extent that Shrestha rather than Sheshyo appears in lists over the castes compiled by foreign anthropologists.


The Newari Caste System According to Hierarchical Positions[17]




Hindu Newars:

Buddhist Newars:

I Priestly castes:

Deo Brahman

Vajracharya (Gubhaju)

II High castes

Chatharia Shrestha

      Bare (Sakya)



Panchtharia Shrestha

      Uray (Udas)


III Upper lower:

Jyapu (Maharjan, Dungol)






Purified by the Nau




IV Low lower


Citrakar, Kumal, Gathu, Nau, Ceepa, Saymi,

Purified by the Naye




V Unclean

Duyyea, Balami, Sanga Bha

Lamaju castes: La chalne maju





Naye, (Kasai)









VI Untouchable



Thiyemaju castes:



Pore, Kullu








Halahulu (Harahuru)























The Newar caste system has several layers: the high priestly castes; the burghers (Vasya), traders, and craftsmen; clean service castes from whom the higher castes may accept water; and “unclean” service castes from whom higher castes may not accept water. At the bottom are the untouchable castes who work with leather and sweep the streets. According to the ancient varna model the four varna were produced from the primordial man Purusa. The varna are 1) Brahman, 2) Khatrya, 3) Vaysya, and 4) Sudra. Hindu myth tells how the four varna were created from different parts of the body of Purusa.[18] The Brahmans were made from the mouth, the Khatrya from the shoulders, the Vaisya from the hips, and the Sudras from the feet of Purusa. Each of the varna is associated with certain characteristics: the Brahmans are associated with the head and with thinking and speaking, the Khatrya with physical prowess and fighting, the Vaishya with lust and trade, and the Sudra with service. The varna model is in a sense a prototype for the caste system, though the latter in reality has very little to do with it.[19] The Newars tend to think that the caste system was institutionalized in the valley by Sthithi Malla. Nevertheless, the varna model is sometimes applied to the Newar caste system. If questioned about varna in Newari society the Newars themselves will popularly classify the priestly castes into the Brahman varna, the Shrestha into the Khatrya varna, Bare and Uray into the Vaishya varna, and the castes from the Jyapu and downwards as Sudra. However, the Parbatya tend to lump the Newars together into two categories: Vaishya and Sudra. The former are represented by the Newars who live in bazaars, the latter by the farmers. Parbatyas are also aware that there is a third group, the lamaju, from whom one does not accept water.[20] For all practical purposes the distinctions of varna lack significance in Newari society, and, indeed, also in the greater Nepalese society, as few people adhere to the roles and functions prescribed to them by the varna model. Most Brahmans and Khatrya (Chetri) are farmers, not priests or warriors. Although the distinctions of varna lack significance, the distinctions of caste are highly significant.

Purity of caste is, according to Greenwold, established by ritual initiations, known as sanskaras. Caste depends on birth, but it also depends on ritual purity, which is acquired by passing through certain rituals. Thus, a person born of high caste parents does not automatically become a member of this caste. To be born into the caste is only a prerequisite to become an accepted member of the caste; full membership is acquired by purification in subsequent steps.[21] As the Newars regard birth as polluting, one is born polluted and is purified only after the Macabu benke rite has been completed. Then, throughout life one is required to pass a number of life cycle rituals: Ja nakégu, Bare chuigu or Kyetapuja (for boys), Ihi (for girls), etc. Marriage, Vivaha, is also regarded as an initiation which among the higher castes (those above the Jyapu) entitles one to participate in certain secret Tantric rituals, and for the aged there are the Jyajanko ceremonies. At the life cycle rites a Gubhaju or a Brahman priest officiates, and those are also considered the most pure, as they have undergone most rites. Going down the caste hierarchy, the Shrestha and the Bare are considered less pure, followed by the Uray and so on. However, certain castes do not have access to a pure priest, as the latter conceives them as too polluting to associate with. The higher castes have their body-purification rituals performed by the Nau, down to the Jyapu. Those lower than the Jyapu have them performed by the Naye and those below the Kau do not have access to a Vajracharya or Brahman priest for their domestic rituals.[22] The result is that the high castes perform many purificatory rites, whereas the low do not.[23]

There is also another principle which is closely related to a caste’s standing in the hierarchy: namely, the more a caste by tradition works with polluted things, the lower its rank will be. And inversely, the less a caste handles polluting matters and the more it handles sacred matters, the higher it will be ranked. Subsequently, sweepers (Pore), who take care of others’ refuse, and cobblers, drum makers (Kulu), and butchers, (Naye) who handle leather and the bodies of dead animals, are ranked among the lowest, whereas priests, astrologers, and courtiers, whose refuse is handled by others, are among the highest. The priests are the highest as they perform most purificatory rituals and pass several initiations that members of other castes are not entitled to.

Greenwold has obtained statistics on the caste composition of Kathmandu (A.D.1970-72) which show that 90.26% are clean caste households, whereas 9.74% are “unclean.” Of the clean caste households 71.38% are served by the Nau and 18.88% by the Naye.[24] These numbers can be assumed to be largely representative for the whole Newar population of the valley. I have cited them here, because they emphasize the majority-minority relationship between the “clean” castes and the “unclean,” which may explain why change is slow to come. The severely humiliated make up only ten percent of the whole population. Then, instead of revolting, those who are in the middle-ranked levels tend to try to raise their status by assuming the name Shrestha and by refusing to accept boiled rice from castes lower ranked than the Shrestha, rather than abandoning the idiom of organization based upon caste as an ideal model for society.

The priestly castes are divided into two major castes on the basis of religion. The Deo Brahmans are Hindu priests and trace their origin to Maithili society in Bihar from where they are said to have come with the Malla kings.[25] Indeed, it is not uncommon to meet such Brahmans who deny that they are Newars and instead try to pass as Parbatya Brahmans. They are a dwindling number, and according to Nepali,[26] they have difficulties in finding mates without breaking the Newari incest taboo, which stipulates that at least seven generations should have passed before one may marry a cognate. The Vajracharya, the Buddhist priests, on the other hand, is a comparatively large and significant caste. Many of them are practicing priests. One question which for long has occupied scholars is why they, for all practical purposes, act as a caste, as this is in contradiction to the traditional Buddhist tenets.[27] Neither of the priestly castes accepts boiled rice from the other, though in the past the Vajracharya did accept boiled rice from both the Uray and the Bare castes.

The Sakya and the Vajryacharya are closely related. The main differences are that the Sakya traditionally were fine smiths, whereas the Vajracharya were priests (often called Gubhaju) and have been ordained as such through the Acha luigu rite. In Patan this is still the case. However, in Kathmandu the Gubhaju have had the ambition to establish themselves as a separate priestly caste according to Brahmanical models. This development began under the Rana regime, when Brahmanic Hinduism was actively promoted. Then, writes Rosser, who did his field work in 1956 and 1957 and published in 1966, “...about forty or fifty years ago Gubhaju families began to avoid the arrangement of marriage with Bare families, and today in Kathmandu, though they still occur, such marriages are rare.”(1966:126) Simultaneously the Gubhaju began to refuse to initiate the sons of Bare fathers through the Acha luigu rite and argued that only the sons of Vajracharyas can be thus initiated, although some of the Bare were descendants of Gubhajus whose families had not been able to afford the Acha luigu rite. According to the latters’ argument there should be no bar to intermarriage. Hence, in Kathmandu, the Gubhaju and the Bare tend to be regarded as two castes, though not without protest from the Bare and the Uray.

The Shrestha caste is divided into two groups: Chatharia and Panchtharia. The Chatharia Shresthas are regarded as the Newar aristocracy and contain several subgroups within the caste. Some of the more well-known are Malla, Pradhan, Raj Bhandari, Achar, and Amatya. It seems as if the Chatharia are the descendants of former rulers, and that many of them have an ancestry tied to India. The Panchtharia are less elevated, and the group has had an influx of Jyapus and other castes who claim the status of Shrestha. The former were the aristocrats in Malla society. The latter are oftentimes Jyapu who have adopted the practice of passing as Shrestha.[28] The Chatharia are recognized by their use of surnames such as Pradhan, Raj Bhandari, and Malla, whereas the Panchtharia tend to call themselves Shrestha only.

The Uray caste has traditionally been the backbone of Newari trade and craftsmanship. The caste is numerous in Kathmandu and in Patan, where they tend to live in the very heart of the bazaar. They belong to the Buddhist group of castes. The Urays generally refer to themselves by their traditional occupational names; well-known Uray names are Tuladhar, Kansakar, and Tamrakar, lit., weigher, brass worker, and copper worker. Highest in status are the Tuladhars of Asan tole in Kathmandu, who are most well-to-do, as they have their businesses in the heart of the (according to Newari consensus) very best bazaar in Nepal.

The Jyapu were traditionally farmers and are divided into a large number of subgroups. The Jyapu make up a large proportion of the Newars in the valley. According to Oldfield they constituted half of the Newar population in the nineteenth century.[29] There are no reliable statistics available on the size of the Jyapu group today. However, it seems that it still constitutes the greatest caste. In the past they used to refer to themselves as Jyapu in official documents, but nowadays they have come to regard the term Jyapu as somewhat derogatory and prefer to call themselves Maharjhan, Dungol, and even Shrestha. Within the Jyapu group there are several subcastes which are ideally endogamous. Thus, according to Nepali, the Jyapu of Bhaktapur, who identify themselves as Hindus, do not intermarry with those from “other regions, the reason being that the Buddhamargi Jyapus eat food cooked by the Vanras [Bare and Gubhaju] in addition to their low profession as palanquin bearers.”(1965:167)[30] This gives an indication that the Bhaktapur Jyapu regard themselves as ritually superior to the Vajracharya and the Bare castes. Nor do the Jyapu of Pyangau intermarry with those from Thecu and other nearby villages, or accept boiled rice from them.[31]

Downwards in the hierarchy below the Jyapu are found the Citrakar, who are ranked higher than the others in the “low lower” caste groups, because in their hereditary occupation as painters they learn how to paint the Gods and Goddesses. They oftentimes possess detailed knowledge about Tantric mythology and symbolism. They are also given mantras, sacred private verbal formulas, by the priests.

The Kumals are potters and are mainly found in Thimi. The Gathu are gardeners who grow and market flowers and vegetables. Ritually they are significant, as they are closely tied to the Naudurga cult. Through their guthi societies, they impersonate the Gods by wearing masks and other paraphernalia and by being obsessed. The Nau are barbers, while the Saymi are oil pressers. The latter are often referred to as Manandhar and are reputed to have been raised in their ritual status up above the water line, due to close association to the former Rana regime.

In the next group, from whom the groups above do not accept water, one encounters the following: the Duyyea[32] who are living on the periphery of Newar society; the Balami who are also peripheral; the Sanga who were formerly washermen; and the Bha who are dyers and previously were receptors of death pollution, as they used to eat a part of the skull of the deceased of the highest castes, in the process taking over the deceased’s sins.[33] According to Toffin, the Bha still do so in Panauti.[34]

The Naye are the Newar butchers, and the Jugi are tailors and musicians who play at weddings and at festivals. The Jugi are also ritually indispensable, as they receive the Nhaynbhu (seven plates with food) at the seventh day after a demise. The Jugi are considered descendants of Yogis who are thought to have married, and their cult is that of the “nathas,” i.e., they worship deities whose names end with “nath,” such as Pashupatinath, Svayambhunath, Mukthinath, and Kedarnath. Most important to them is the cult of Gorakhnath.[35] The untouchable castes at the bottom of the hierarchy are sweepers and scavengers. The Pore (sweepers) also act as pujaris (priests) in certain temples.

The castes listed above have various traditional interrelationships, although these do not involve all of them. The higher a caste is, the more hereditary links it will have to the lower castes which are necessary for the fulfilment of one’s ritual obligations. Thus the high caste group, including the Uray, will have such relationships with the Jyapu (who carry messages and gifts between the households at life cycle rituals, etc.), with the Nau (who perform body purification rituals at life cycle rites), with the Naye (who blow horns in the funeral procession), with the Pulupulu (who carry torches in the funeral processions) and with the Jugi, because they are thought to maintain contacts with the dead. The Jugi are also specially fed at the seventh day after a demise in the patron household. The Jyapu will have fewer non-caste members involved in their ritual life. In Sunakothi only the Nau and the Jugi are regarded as essential, apart from the priest. There is also a great deal of local variation. For example, in Sunakothi every “hearth” gives a minor amount of grain to the Naye (for butchering services), to the Bha (to finance the Bha’s worship of Karunamaya), and to the Lampathi (a ritual specialist who averts hailstorms). Below the Jyapu the Naye, instead of the Nau, will perform body purification down to the Naye caste itself. The Pore, the sweepers, are only encountered in the cities. In the recent past they were paid in grain from each household to keep the streets clean. Now, they are paid by the municipal governments, the Nagar Panchayats, instead. However, it is possible that they still clean some yards for payment in grain or cash. On that I have no reliable data.

The specialists were traditionally paid in grain and still are to some extent. In Sunakothi the Brahman and the Bha were in the fields at the very harvest collecting their shares, whereas the Nau paid a visit in the evening to fetch his. Boiled rice from the Uray and the Jyapu may be acceptable to these lower castes. However, it is generally not offered. In the past the Gubhaju priests accepted boiled rice from their clients in the Bare and Uray castes. However, this became subject to conflict, and presently the only caste which by unambiguous custom accepts boiled rice from other castes is the Jugi, who are served boiled rice at the Nhaynbhu, the seventh day after a death. The Jugi may eat it on the spot, as it is served at the gate or in front of the door, or they may bring it home to make beer from it. The Jugi, who are ritually regarded as “Yogi” (ascetics), are given rice thus, because they are thought to stand in a special relationship to the dead. Indeed, they are given a share of every feast except Chatta which is prescribed by custom to be private and even secretive (guhya), i.e., no one outside one’s household is invited.[36] Presently, however, the Jugi households are becoming increasingly reluctant to come to receive the Nhaynbhu. They regard it as derogatory to come to eat boiled rice from another caste, as it marks their inferior status. However, if they do not go, they put the shares they receive from the other feasts at stake, as their patrons may argue that if they do not come at the Nhaynbhu, they need not come on other occasions either. If the Jugi do not come to a Nhaynbu, the food is set out anyway, and is then eaten by stray dogs and other animals.

The Vajracharya and the Brahman (some households employ both categories of priests some only one) are also paid in grain, though gifts of money and various objects of daily use (especially at Sraddhas) are also common. Here, it is notable that unhusked rice (wa) and uncooked rice (jaki) are not pollutable. No regard is taken of who has handled it. But once it is cooked, it is highly sensitive to pollution to the extent that it can be polluted merely by being seen by a lower caste person.


Hierarchy, Exclusion, and Inclusion

There are two important barriers regarding food. Most groups ranked above the lowest castes in the caste hierarchy refuse to accept water from the lowest. The lower group is known as lamaju, lit., “water will not do.” It contains two categories. The upper is “touchable” and consists of Duyyea, Balami, Sanga, Bha, Naye (Kasai), and Jugi. The lower group contains the “untouchable” castes and is referred to as thiyemaju, lit., “touch will not do.” This group contains the Pore, Kullu, Chyame, Harahuru; they are regarded as “untouchable” by the castes ranked above them. These barriers are definite and inflexible, and they apply to all castes above the water line. Furthermore, whereas the “clean” castes may freely accept water from each other regardless of their hierarchical positions, the lamaju castes do not. A lower lamaju caste may accept water from a higher lamaju caste, but the latter will not accept water from the former.[37] The second barrier is concerned with boiled rice (ja). It is established whom one accepts, or refuses to accept, boiled rice from. The general rule here is that accepting rice implies that one, in terms of caste, is of equal or possibly lower status than the giver. The resulting pattern is that the Shrestha will accept rice from a Brahman, but not from a Jyapu. The Brahmans, provided they are orthodox and follow the traditional rules, will not accept rice from anyone but a Brahman. The Jyapu, on the other hand, will accept rice both from the Brahman and the Shrestha, but not from the Citrakar.[38]

These rules have a tacit importance in daily life. The interdictions concerning rice-eating with castes lower than one’s own certainly do give expression to the borders between the castes, but the Newars, generally being a polite people, rarely make this explicit. Most Newars avoid offering boiled rice to persons who might refuse to accept it, rather than risk making explicit the relations of caste and hierarchy, which are often experienced as painful and embarrassing. Instead, one will offer the ritually neutral baji.[39] That is to say, if one wants to eat together with other castes, one eats baji. Such intercaste commensality is indeed quite common within the Newari caste system. However, this applies to Newars, not to the Parbatyas who are ritually classified as non-drinking castes. The non-drinking castes are called tagadhari jat, cord-wearing, and are regarded as having been born twice. At Newari meals, and particularly better feasts, alcoholic beverages (beer and spirits) are commonly served. Buffalo meat is also invariably served at large feasts. These items are strictly prohibited to the tagadhari jats. Hence, these castes rarely, if ever, take part in traditional Newari feasts. In modern Nepal, however, a dinner may be served to well-wishers from these castes at weddings and similar occasions, and then no items which are ritually prohibited to them will be served. For example, the rice served will have been prepared with clarified butter, which makes it ritually neutral unless served by members of “unclean” castes. Such dinners are a recent phenomenon and, by the urbanites, are referred to as “buffet dinners.”

In the past high caste persons who had broken the interdictions against eating boiled rice with lower caste persons would have to perform patya[40] (purification) or to risk becoming outcastes. I believe rapid change has occurred here since the introduction of egalitarian ideas. The propensity to undergo purificatory rites after having mixed with lower castes has diminished, as there are no longer any sanctions from the government on such behaviour. In the past infringements upon the caste rules were at times, if serious or particularly notorious, handled by the government courts, which could order certain behaviours of the castes.[41] The Rajah was also entitled to lower or increase a caste’s status vis-à-vis other castes.[42] There are also some instances where there is an institutionalized reversal of the traditional rules. Thus, members of the untouchable sweeper caste Pore act as priests in many of the valley’s most important temples. According to Nepali (1965), at the annual festival of “Bisen” (Bhimasen?) Devi and Balkumar in Kirtipur a buffalo is sacrificed. “The buffalo’s head is not severed but only a cut is made on the neck so as to let the blood gush out. Each of the five or six Kasais [Naye, Newar butchers] attending to the sacrifice take a palmful of blood and sprinkle over the twelve stones inside the temple. This is known as Nitya puja.”(1965:351) The following day feasts are held, and “[t]he important point to note about these feasts is that the guthiar of the Kasai [Naye] caste is given the honour of occupying the first place, a privilege which in a communal feast goes to the Thakali of one’s own patrilineal group.”(Nepali 1965:353) Apparently, the Nayes’ roles as executioners of the sacrifice bring them so close to the deity that this, for the occasion, lifts them from their normal low position, as butchers, to a higher one. Nepali does not describe the contents of the feast. However, I believe an inquiry would show that baji and not boiled rice is eaten at it. Nevertheless, the Nayes’ seating position of maximal honour is remarkable and significant.

The higher Buddhistic castes are exceptions from the rule that a higher caste should not accept boiled rice from a lower. The Gubhaju and the Bare dine with one another and intermarry freely to the extent that one may argue that they are de facto one caste, if one takes caste endogamy as the crucial criterion to determine caste borders.[43] The main difference is that traditionally the Gubhajus (Vajracharya) were priests, whereas the Bare (Sakya) were goldsmiths. In the past even the Uray, the caste that comes next after the Bare downwards in the hierarchy, would also dine (i.e., eat boiled rice) with the Gubhaju and the Bare. Indeed the Gubhaju even used to accept boiled rice from the Uray at domestic ceremonies in the homes of the Uray at which they officiated. However, this did not imply equality[44] between the two castes as the Gubhaju would invariably sit at the head of the line, i.e., in the foremost position. Furthermore, to feed Brahmans to gain merit is an ancient custom on the sub-continent. Possibly the Vajracharyas’ acceptance of boiled rice from their inferiors, in terms of caste, should be understood in that context.[45]

The Vajracharya and the Bare still accept boiled rice from the Uray at the Samyaka ceremony, which is held every twelfth year. The most recent observance was on Magh 1 B.S.2035 (May 15, 1980 A.D.). On the main day of the Samyaka all the Vajracharya and Bare of Kathmandu attend the rites. It is their privilege to attend the Samyaka, as they are the priests of the Uray. The Vajracharya and the Bare sit in the same line (bhoyejhol) as the Dipankarbuddhas (images of deities), and they do eat boiled rice (ja) served by the Uray. Only Vajracharya and Bare sit in the line: members of other castes are explicitly not allowed into it. The serving is done by different subgroups of Uray, such as Tuladhar, Kansakar, Sthapit, and these have an internal division of labour, distributing boiled rice and other “ghasa” to the Dipankar Buddhas, the Vajracharya, and Bare.[46] Significantly, although the Vajracharya do accept boiled rice from the Uray at the Samyaka, they sit in their own line, jhol.

In the 1920s a conflict erupted which is not yet fully settled. Then, the Gubhaju began to refuse to accept boiled rice from the Uray. Their officially stated reason for this was that a significant number of Uray had bowed down to, and accepted food from, a Tibetan lama who was preaching in the Kindol baha. And, as the Tibetans were regarded as semi-untouchable,[47] the Gubhaju argued that they could not accept rice from the Uray any longer. There were also other reasons, though these were made less explicit: firstly, the Tibetan lama’s conversions threatened the vital interests of the Gubhajus; secondly, the Rana regime of Chandra Shamser was anti-Buddhistic in its outlook and actively promoted Brahmanism and adherence to the idiom of caste which inspired the Gubhaju to aspire to a relationship towards their clients modelled after Brahmanical concepts that the Uray were not prepared to accept. The conflict has led to a substantial loss for the Gubhaju, as they were dependent on their Uray patrons and vulnerable to the sanctions of the latter.[48] Even nowadays, the relationship between the Uray and the Gubhaju is somewhat strained, and there is still ambiguity concerning the question of whether the Gubhaju eat or do not eat rice in Uray households.

This conflict indicates that Hinduism and its subsequent “casteism” have been on the increase in the valley and that there has been a historical development away from a society in which caste played only a minor role, towards increasing emphasis on hierarchy and caste.[49] Key points in such a development would be the Licchavi period when there may have been castes in the valley, although no caste system seems to have encompassed the whole population. A second important point would be Shankaracharya’s visit to the valley, mythical or not, when Brahman priests were established at the Pashupati temple. During the medieval period Sthithi Malla established the caste system, which became law in the valley of Nepal. Then followed the Gorkha conquest and the subsequent influence of the Parbatya Brahmans. This culminated during the Rana regime, when the bulk of the Newars, according to the law, became classified as a matwali jat (1854 A.D.), and the Rana’s suppression of Buddhism and promotion of Hinduism prevailed. The trend was only broken in the fifties when the Rana regime was ousted. Since then, democracy and egalitarianism have been promoted.

The importance of the consumption of food and water as marking the castes’ status vis-à-vis one another was also explicit in the part of the Muluki Ain regarding untouchability, which was in force up to April 12, 1963. Below I will provide an illustrative citation:



The lowest caste is that of Chyamkhalak, since (its members) take food left over by all other castes, from Upadhyaya to Pode.[50]


The caste of Pode is higher than that of Chyamkhalak, since (its members) take food left over by other castes, but not by the Chyamkhalak caste. The caste of Badi is higher than that of both Pode and Chyamkhalak, since (Badis) do not take food left over by Podes and Chyamkhalaks.[51]


The caste of Gaine[52] is higher than that of Badi, because (Gaines) do not take anything from the hands of Badis and maintain themselves by singing, dancing and begging.


The caste of Damai is higher than that of Gaine, because (Damais)[53] do not take food touched by Gaines...


Children begotten by Sarkis from Kami women, or by Kamis from Sarki women, belong to the Kadara[54] caste. Damais take water from their hands, but (Kadars) do not do so from the hands of Damais. The caste of Kadara is therefore higher than that of Damai. ...


The leather-working caste of Kulu is higher than these 7 castes, because (Kulus)[55] do not take cooked rice or water from their hands, and have not begotten any children from girls belonging to these 7 castes, and also because (Kulus) have been undergoing expiation in the customary manner in the event of their taking cooked rice and water touched by Damais, Kamis and Sarkis[56], or of being involved in sexual relations with them.(Emphasis mine) (Regmi 1970b:52)

This is a direct translation of the law, and it is interesting to note that the acceptance of food from other castes is the very criterion used to rank the castes. They are higher or lower in relation to one another “because” or “since” they do or do not accept food or water from other castes. However, the law was a Rana creation and in a sense an imposition on the Newars, whose “untouchable” group was here ascribed its rank among non-Newari “untouchables.”

The interdictions concerning the boiled rice can be said to mark excluding borders, alienation in terms of identity and commensality. However, even though these rules are rarely made explicit, the boiled rice still has an important symbolic significance. At the same time as the boiled rice marks exclusion, it also marks inclusion, identity, and closeness. In the past this was also legally expressed by the Muluki Ain: A man belonging to a thread-wearing caste who had intercourse with an untouchable woman was sentenced to a 100 rupee fine, if it was discovered and brought to court. Then, the offender was sent to the nearest places of pilgrimage and granted expiation, whereafter he was again sociable to his caste’s members. But, if he had also taken boiled rice or water from the hands of the woman, his property was confiscated and he was imprisoned for one year. If he had also eaten boiled rice with members of his caste he was imprisoned for one and a half years. Furthermore, a ban was imposed on accepting rice or water touched by him, and he was joined to the woman’s caste.[57] However,

[i]n case any person reports in advance to a government office or court that he will commit sexual intercourse with a woman belonging to a caste water touched by whom cannot be taken and thus be degraded, or so reports after already committing such sexual intercourse and being degraded before anybody has made the report, without involving others (in the taking of cooked rice or water touched by him), and in case he is not proved to have so involved anybody, his property shall not be confiscated, nor shall he be sentenced to imprisonment. He shall only be joined to the caste of the woman and let of.(Regmi 1970b:55)[58]

The implication was that, to eat boiled rice with a low caste person was not only polluting to the offender, but the pollution also extended to other members of the caste who ate rice with the offender; thus, in the Muluki Ain a person’s personal and group identity is closely related to and identified with those with whom one eats rice.

Indeed, boiled rice is perhaps the most significant food, as it is both the basis of the morning and the evening meal and that most circumscribed by ritual conceptions and rules. One rarely, or never, eats boiled rice with outsiders, and one generally avoids eating it outdoors. Rice “ the most pre-eminent food, the most likely one to be defiled, which has to be cooked with greatest care: it will be defiled if a low caste person even looks at it.”(Toffin 1978b:464) It is generally not served at Newari feasts, except at a few, and then it has an explicit symbolic meaning. Instead, boiled rice is eaten in the privacy of the kitchen, or the adjacent eating room, upstairs.

The importance of the boiled rice in marking inclusion into the caste is obvious in the rite Ja nakégu (lit., to cause to eat boiled rice), which is the rite that marks that the child has taken a further step towards becoming a full member of Newari society. It is also known as Maca janko. At this rite the child is made to eat boiled rice for the first time in its life. And, among some castes (e.g., the Uray) the child is given its name. From this day the child is one step closer to full membership in its caste. This is expressed in that “those who have not eaten rice” are buried without much ceremony if they die, whereas, those who have eaten rice (i.e., those who have passed the Ja nakégu rite) are cremated in the same way as older members of the caste, though on a smaller scale; for example, the si guthyars come to carry the corpse.

A second example of inclusion into the caste, marked by the boiled rice, is the Kyetapuja and Ihi. Those ceremonies are held for boys and girls between five and twelve years of age. The Kyeta puja marks the boys’ entry into the caste; after having passed this rite they become marriageable. Kyetapuja is observed by all “clean” castes and by the castes one cannot take water from but that are “touchable,” although among Bare and Vajracharya it is known as Bare chuigu. The Ihi is a symbolic marriage of the maiden girls to “God,” whereafter they also are marriageable. Before these ceremonies have been performed for the children, they are regarded as having “no caste,” and they are then allowed to eat anything. Indeed, it said that in principle they may even accept boiled rice from the “untouchables.” However, having passed these ceremonies they become subject to all the rules that apply to adult members of their castes. Nepali has pointed out the great significance the Ihi rite has, as it reportedly is necessary for young Newar girls to have passed it in order that they may marry; when the ceremony was neglected by some migrant Newar communities, it had the consequence that they could not marry their daughters to Newars from the Nepal valley.[59] That is to say that, to some castes, the Ihi is crucial to establish a girl’s identity as an adult member of her caste. However, among the Jyapu in the southern parts of the valley only approximately 25% of the girls were thus ritually married.

I will give yet another example of the inclusion, or identity, expressed by boiled rice from the Uray caste of Kathmandu. For centuries this caste dominated the trans-Himalayan trade from the Indian plains to Tibet via the Nepal-Valley. The Uray are devoutly and outspokenly Buddhist. Nevertheless, they are part of the Newari caste system and have practices in this regard which are very similar to those of the Hindus. In terms of wealth they were, and still are to some extent, one of the mightiest Newar castes. The trans-Himalayan trade was extremely important in their economy but came to a virtual standstill after the political events in Tibet in l959 which resulted in the closure of the border.[60] During their trading missions to Tibet the Urays often stayed in Tibet for years and frequently married Tibetan women. However, as generally only the men went to Tibet, there was no intermarriage between the Uray women and Tibetan men. The offspring of the intermarriages between Uray men and Tibetan women received caste status according to gender: boys became classified as Uray and were accepted into the caste, whereas girls became classified as Tibetans and were not accepted into the caste. If an Uray brought his Tibetan wife with him back to Nepal, she could live in his household (generally a joint family), but neither he, nor his Uray relatives could eat boiled rice cooked by her, as she was never accepted as a full member of the caste. Nor could she, at least in principle, enter the kitchen. However, in practical life she may have done so. In Hindu society a great difference between publicly held attitudes and practice is often encountered. Lionel Caplan also accounts for how high caste husbands of tribal or Newar women in a Nepali bazaar claim they do not eat food cooked by their low caste wives.[61] One may suppose that what is really going on is a rather extreme form of impression management. Such marriages are only tolerated with women from whom one may accept water; and, indeed, although against the general norms, when they do occur, the husband may not accept rice boiled by his wife. However, this interdiction only applies to boiled rice and can be circumvented by mixing the rice with clarified butter (ghyö). Such rice is not regarded as boiled rice. Steamed rice, haja, is also acceptable from lower castes or a lower caste wife. It is the boiling in water by a person of a caste lower than one’s own that makes the rice polluted and unacceptable.[62] The Jyapu from Thecu and Bulu who have married girls from Pyangau, an endogamous subcaste regarded as lower and from whom one thus cannot accept boiled rice, have dealt with this problem in another way: two fireplaces are built, one for the husband and one for the wife.[63] Thus, to have intercourse with a woman of different caste — provided she is not of the groups from whom one does not accept water — is quite acceptable, although not regarded as desirable. However, accepting boiled rice from her, being “rice commensable” with her, was regarded as polluting and, in some instances, even punishable.[64]

From the days of Jang Bahadur Rana’s legal code (1854), when the Uray traders returned to Nepal, they were obligated to purify themselves from the pollution incurred by their commensality with Tibetans. For five days a returning merchant was obliged to eat only one meal a day (vrta) and visit five different rivers to perform ablutions (one river each day); finally, he had to visit the Raj Purhuit, the Royal priest, for Patya. The Raj Purhuit would charge the trader according to the latter’s success in his business. A successful trader would have to pay a large fee, whereas a poor trader would get away with a small fee.[65] The Raj Purhuit would also issue a certificate of accomplished purification and scatter some holy water (jal) over the trader. Later, at a feast, the trader would serve boiled rice to other members of his caste. Then, the trader would not serve all the food, but at some point in the meal he would serve only the rice to his family and phuki, who thus accepted “to take rice from his hands.” The domestic part of the rite was known as Nibenke, literally “clean passage rite.” The visit to the Raj purhuit was introduced by the legislation of 1854. Possibly, the Nibenke ritual is considerably older.

Among the Jyapu and among other upper castes such purificatory rites were probably more commonly observed in the past. In 1959 Nepali noted that “[a]fter the work of [rice] transplantation, the Newar peasants [i.e., the Jyapu] undergo the purificatory rite called ‘sinja Benke’. The belief involved in it is that during the transplantation period, a person’s caste is polluted, as he has to eat his mid-day feast along with others, ignoring caste distinctions.”(Nepali 1965:46) This practice is today unknown to the Jyapu. Furthermore, although there is still a heavy emphasis on purification on certain occasions, e.g., after birth, at a girl’s first menses, at death rites, and after journeys, purification after mixing with other, particularly lower, castes is nowadays not so commonly practiced, but it does occur. Lapses in this regard are not officially punished. If purification is performed or not is dependent on the degree of orthodoxy in one’s household and the rank of one’s caste. The members of the higher castes seem to have a greater propensity to perform such rites.

The significance of the boiled rice to mark acceptability in terms of caste purity is also apparent in the wedding rites of the Uray. On the second day after the bride’s arrival in the groom’s household, following the Nichaybhu rite (see chapter VII), a feast called Ja bhoye (lit., boiled rice feast) is held. In this feast only the phukis (patrilineal kinsmen) and the in-married wives are allowed to participate: the mhayemaca (the household’s married daughters) and their husbands are excluded from the line. The phuki will sit in line and eat rice with the bride. It is crucial that they attend, because eating rice together with the bride marks their acceptance of the bride into their society. If they do not attend for some valid reason, their shares will be saved and given to them later. But, if there is a dispute concerning the bride’s caste status, they may refuse to attend for this reason, thus marking that she is not accepted into their society. The phrase accept “into their society” are the words my Uray informants used to describe this. Indeed, the very purpose of the rites is to include the bride into the phuki’s “society” (see chapter VII); and there have been instances when they have refused to come. Then, provided the bride is of “clean” caste status, the man’s family and the groom himself may claim that they do not accept rice from the bride’s hands. If one does so, one will not be made an outcaste if one is believed, but if one is not believed, one may become excluded from eating meals containing boiled rice with one’s caste fellows. This ban should ideally fall on the whole household. However, in reality, it seems that the household does not become “outcaste.” Instead, the effect may be that one ceases to eat boiled rice in the guthis the household belongs to, rather than making the malefactors outcastes. This is the reason that boiled rice is no longer served at certain meetings of the guthis.[66] According to my informants considerable change is occurring in these matters. Breaches of the rules against inter-caste commensality that forty years ago would have made the malefactors “out caste,” and which would have polluted all members of the household, may today pass without sanctions.

The boiled rice also marks inclusion (in Sunakothi) by being eaten at the Si guthis’ annual feasts. The Si guthis are funeral societies to which all Newar households are affiliated. The task of the Si guthi is to handle matters of death. At a demise the guthyars’ take care of many practical details, organize the procession to the ghat (cremation ground), etc. Membership is generally restricted to one caste: every caste has one or several Si guthis.[67] Membership in a Si or Sana guthi is also crucial in terms of caste status; membership in a certain Si or Sana guthi marks that one is an accepted member of the caste that the guthi is tied to, which is of great significance for social climbers.[68]

There are also a number of other food items which have significance in marking caste borders. These are particularly takha (meat jelly), gorma (hide jelly), and sanyakhuna (fish-meat-soup jelly). These foods cannot be accepted from castes lower than one’s own. For instance, in the traditional Uray marriage, the groom’s household used to give a special feast for friends and well-wishers from the Shrestha caste, which regards itself as a higher caste than the Uray. This feast was known as Sheyshya bhoye, i.e., Shrestha feast. Most items served at the other feasts in connection with the marriage bhoyes were also served at this feast except for takha, gorma, and sanyakhuna.[69]

Takha, sanyakhuna, and gorma are important food items. At least one of them is served at any large feast within the caste. Takha is the most commonly prepared, as it can be served at both auspicious and inauspicious feasts. Sanyakhuna is only served at auspicious feasts, e.g., marriages and Kyetapujas. Gorma is only known to the explicitly Buddhistic castes (Vajracharya, Bare, and Uray), and, quite remarkably, it occurs in Vajrayana ritual as “cow meat” (sala). Takha, sanyakhuna, and gorma take a long time to prepare. The cooking is started at least a day in advance. These three items can be classified as jellied. The jellying is accomplished by cooking meat with the bones for approximately 24 hours. The jellying is the critical point in the preparation, as it is dependent on the temperature. The Newars have no term for jellying, but refer to these food items as “frozen,” which reflects the fact that they can only be prepared during the cold season. There is usually much anxiety in connection with the jellying, as the dish is very expensive — often a whole buffalo can go into a takha — and the Newars sometimes tend to think that a feast stands or falls with these items.[70]

Halu (turmeric) is also subject to caste rules, though here the interdiction is limited to prohibiting its acceptance from the hands of the lamaju castes, i.e., the “untouchables.”[71]

Cooking vessels, water jars, and other household utensils are also subject to pollution rules. The utensils of the “clean” castes’ should not be touched by persons of lamaju status. The pollutability varies with the material. Clay and wooden utensils are destroyed if touched by a lamaju person, whereas vessels of any metal can be purified by washing them with ashes.[72]


Reflections of Caste and Hierarchy in City Planning and the Architecture of the Newar House

The idiom of caste and hierarchy is also expressed in Newar city planning and architecture. In the centre of the great Newar cities Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgau, the Royal palaces make up the heart. The palaces are surrounded by large open squares in which several temples are situated. Around the squares one will find the houses of higher Shrestha groups, priests (both Hindu and Buddhist), and Bare. The latter tend to live in bahals, large compounds which according to tradition were monasteries in the past. Usually, they have a temple in the centre of a quadrangle of three-storied houses. In the heart of the city one also finds wealthy merchant groups such as the Tuladhars (Uray) of Asan in Kathmandu. Thus, near the old city limit, or outside it, one finds “unclean” castes such as the Naye. Well outside the limit Pore and other “untouchable” groups are encountered. In smaller settlements fewer castes are encountered. Then, one will find the “pure,” the hierarchically highest in the centre of the village, whereas the Naye and the Jugi live separately. The wells and taps were also subject to caste rules. In the past there were strictly observed interdictions against lamaju castes taking water from the same taps as those of “clean” caste status. Thus there were separate sources of water for the lamaju castes.

The three-storied Newar house also expresses the idiom of caste, by spatially demarcating the hierarchical relations. In principle, only members of one’s own and higher castes may enter the top floor and the kitchen. Members of lower “clean” castes may come up to the second floor, and the lamaju castes (from whom one does not accept water) are not allowed above the bottom floor, if they are allowed into the house at all.



Above I have dealt with the relation of food to caste. Here, I have shown: 1) how certain foods and customs tied to them express hierarchical order among the Newar castes and alienate them from each other by prescriptions which prohibit them from eating certain foods together; and, 2) how these rules at the same time promote and express unity and identity within a caste. Most important in this context is the boiled rice, which, significantly, also is the most commonly eaten food. Although there are some exceptions, eating boiled rice together generally signifies shared caste identity while not eating it together by proscription marks caste differentiation and hierarchical distance.

There are strong indications that the caste rules were less rigidly observed in the distant past: “casteism” may have increased gradually throughout the valley’s history, culminating during the late Rana period when it scattered the traditional patron-client relationship between the Gubhaju and the Uray. With the advent of egalitarian ideologies, it has, however, declined, particularly since 1963, when the caste system’s legal basis was abolished.

The idiom of caste is not only expressed through rules concerning food and eating in patron-client relationships, in the city-planning, and in the disposition of the Newari house. Indeed, the idiom traditionally permeated Newari society, and food is only one way through which it is expressed.


[1] Onion, et. al. 1978:151 and Hellquist 1948. See Pitt-Rivers (1971:234) on the earliest etymology of the word “caste.”


[2] In Sanskrit, according to Apte’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary, jati has the following referents: 1) Birth, production, 2) The form of existence fixed by birth, 3) Race, family, lineage, 4) A caste, tribe or class (of men), 5) A class, genus, kind, species, 6) The properties which are peculiar to a class and distinguish it from all others, the essential characteristics of a species.(1922:219) There are also other referents, which, however, do not seem relevant in the context of caste.


[3] However, caste was not totally unknown among the Newars before Sthithi Malla. The Licchavi rulers were both Hindu and Buddhist, and Brahmans are known to have lived in the valley during the Licchavi epoch.(Regmi 1969:271-72, Jha 1970:173-75.)


[4] According to Rajendra Ram a committée of five orthodox Brahmans was formed. These represented three sets of Brahmanical traditions: the Maithili, the Kanyakubja, and the Bhatta. (Ram l977:200)


[5] Ram 1977:200. See also Wright 1877:182-87 and Nepali 1965:146-47.


[6] The Vamsavali published by Wright was translated for him by Munshi Shew Sahunker Singh and Sri Pandit Gunanand. Unfortunately the source is not precisely given: “[t]he work translated is the Vansavali [sic] or Genealogical History of Nepal according to Buddhist recension. The original manuscript, written in Parbatya with an admixture of Sanskrit and Newari, is in the possession of Professor Cowell.” (Wright 1877:vi)


[7] Hasrat has translated Padmagiri’s chronicle (Vamsavali), which is stored in the India Office Library, London (Hodgson Collection).


[8] According to Hasrat there are no less than thirty-four surviving documents from this period. Most interesting in this context seems to be “The institutions for the 4 varnas and 36 jatis” in the Hodgson papers (M/3/1061) in the India Office Library (Hasrat 1970:xlii, note 79).


[9] In Nepal the literate have informed me that the original text is available in Newari, but I have not been able to make a closer inquiry concerning the precise origin or character of this text.


[10] “To the low castes dwellings, dress and ornaments were assigned, according to certain rules. No sleeves were allowed to the coats of Kasai’s (Naye). No caps, coats, shoes, nor gold ornaments were permitted to Padhyas. Kasais, Podhuas and Kullus, were not allowed to have houses roofed with tiles and they were obliged to show proper respect to the people of castes higher than their own.”(Parenthesis mine) (Wright 1877:182-83)


[11] One may assume that landholding was radically different in the past. The mentioned reform indicates that land previously was inalienable. Subsequently, one may also assume that territorially based clans once were the units which controlled the land among the Newars’ ancestors. Such landholding has been the custom (known as kipat in Nepali) among other tribes of Tibeto-Burmese origins, in some instances, up to the present day: e.g., Tamang, Rai, Limbu, although the Tamang kipats have recently been abolished. Caplan has given an account over the complicated relationships which may be the result of kipat landholding in conjunction with immigration and changed social, economic, and political circumstances, etc. (Caplan 1970 passim.)


[12] Chattopadhyay 1980 (1923), Levi vol. I 1905:230-48, Nepali 1965:146-97, Oldfield vol. I 1880:177-88, Rosser 1966:68-139, Toffin 1978b:461-481.


[13] Wright 1877:186.


[14] Sharma 1983:17.


[15] Höfer 1979:135-139.


[16] This table is based on Rosser 1965:85-86.


[17] This table is based on Nepali 1965:150.


[18] O'Flaherty 1975:27-28.


[19] Foreigners, even scholars, sometimes talk about the four “castes” in India, thus confusing caste with varna. Indeed, according to Rig Veda 10:90, which is often cited, the four varnas are referred to as castes. However, there has never been a period in Indian history when there were only four castes, consisting of the varnas. Hindus popularly make a distinction between caste (jati) and varna. jati has more specific referents; it consists of the endogamous group one is born into, whereas classification into a “varna,” although dependent on birth, is also related to one’s caste’s occupation. In my opinion, the caste system may have its origins in the large scale migrations and the socio-religious politics of a reluctantly multi-ethnical India of the past rather than in the ideology of occupational specialization which is expressed in the (Rig Veda) varna model.


[20] Indeed, the lamaju Newar castes were distinguished in the Muluki Ain. See below.


[21] Greenwold 1974b:118-123.


[22] Greenwold 1974b:103-104.


[23] The “untouchable” groups have to some extent their own culture, which differs from the high castes’ in that one is not subject to as many rules and prescribed behaviours as they are, i.e., the “untouchables” are more flexible. However, since the abolition of the caste system, they have tended to approximate the behaviour of the higher castes, as there are no longer sumptuary laws preventing them from so doing.


[24] Greenwold 1974b: 103-5.


[25] The general opinion among the Newars is that the Brahmans have come with the Mallas, though, so far, there is little research verifying this. Neither is there any which has contradicted the theory of migration from India.


[26] Nepali 1965:152.


[27] Greenwold 1974a, 1974b, Oldfield vol. II 1880:69-155, Chattapadhyay 1923, Allen 1973.


[28] See Rosser 1966:90-104.


[29] Oldfield vol.II 1880:148.


[30] According to Nepali (1965:167), the Jyapu are divided into two groups, the Sat-Sudra and Asat-Sudra. The former refers to the Hindu Jyapu of Bhaktapur, while the latter includes the Buddhist Jyapus. As this classification is not current or generally valid in present day Newar society, I leave it without comment. However, I can confirm that intermarriage between Bhaktapur and Patan Jyapus is exceedingly rare.


[31] Toffin 1978b:468-471.


[32] The Duyeeya are said to have been an untouchable caste once, whose status was raised by Prithvi Narayan Shah, as a reward for having helped him during his campaign against the Malla kings.


[33] Chattopadhyay 1980:5.


[34] Toffin 1979:250.


[35] Little is known about the Jugi’s cult or ancestry. See Briggs (1938) on the Yogis relationship to the cult of Gorakhnath.


[36] Chatta is observed one month before Dussein, and is thought to give an indication of how the Dussein will be; a good Chatta feast implies a good Dussein, etc.


[37] Höfer 1979:108.


[38] However, the Jyapus and many other Newars would have certain reservations against accepting rice from any Shrestha household, as it is a well-known fact among Newars, as well as among anthropologists since Rosser’s article in l966, that many Shresthas have different origins which may be quite low according to the caste system.


[39] In English baji is known as beaten or flattened rice. In Nepali it is known as chiura. It is made by first cooking and roasting the rice slightly; then it is beaten. In the past this work took up much of the womens’ time, but in the seventies electric machinery was introduced and quickly adopted, so nowadays one rarely sees it done by hand.


[40] Patya is “[t]he ceremony of readmission into the caste.” (Turner 1931:362)


[41] See, for instance, Rosser’s account of the Uray’s struggle in the courts to have it established that the Gubhaju in fact did interdine (eat boiled rice) with them in the past. (Rosser 1966:111-114)


[42] For instance, the Saymi were raised due to close relations to the Rana regime, and the Dueeya were also raised as a reward for helping Prithivi Narayan Shah in his conquest of the valley. (Nepali 1965:173-74)


[43] The offspring receives caste rank from his father. Thus Vajracharya mens’ sons begotten by Bare mothers may be initiated and become Vajracharya. The sons of Bare men with Vajracharya women become Bare. (Fürer-Haimendorf 1956:18)


[44] The Newar Buddhists have a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards the caste system. On the one hand, they assert that they are higher than the Jyapu and other castes which are usually ranked lower, i.e., they generally accept the consensus that most middle and upper castes share concerning the caste ranking. The lower castes sometimes do hold widely differing views. Furthermore, the Buddhists observe an internal ranking generally based on seniority. That is to say, their society is by no means egalitarian. However, on the other hand, they are well aware of the fact that Buddha did not propagate caste.


[45] In the literature I have had access to, I have not been able to date the interdiction against eating boiled rice with lower castes. However, according to Kane (1974 vol. II:786-8), Brahmans could in the past accept food from the three varnas, even from Sudras in some instances. But, on the other hand, in the ancient works there were extensive lists of persons (including Brahmans) from whom one could not accept food or sit with in the same line at meals, though the criteria were not based on caste but on character and deeds.


[46] Personal letter from Siddhartha Man Tuladhar 1984/8/22.


[47] The Newari term for Tibetan is syame, the Nepali is bhote. Both have derogatory connotations and are used to cover Tibetan speakers, as well as Tamang and other ethnic groups. These people are suspected of cow-slaughter, which is a crime in Nepal, and they are not accepted into the most important Hindu temples, e.g., Pashupathinath. However, in the Muluki Ain, they were not ranked among the “impure” castes, but as “Enslaveable Alcohol-Drinkers.”(Höfer 1979:45)


[48] Rosser 1966:105-134.


[49] According to Pradhan (1979:4) the high caste Hindus say that the Bare also take boiled rice from the Jyapu.


[50] Chyamkkhalak are sweepers and scavengers. Pore, also spelled in English as Pode, are sweepers. Upadhyaya is the highest Parbatya Brahman caste.


[51] Badi are musicians who perform for all castes.


[52] Gaini are also hereditary musicians.


[53] Damai are Nepali speaking tailors and musicians and they do not constitute a part of the traditional Newar caste system.


[54] The Kadara is a hybrid caste, sprung from two Nepali speaking (non-Newar) untouchable castes.


[55] The Kulu caste works leather and makes drums.


[56] These castes are Nepali speaking and do not belong to the Newari community. The Kami are blacksmiths, the Sarki cobblers.


[57] Regmi 1970b:55.


[58] Although this law no longer is in effect, sexual relations with the groups from which one could not accept water in the past are exceedingly rare. The cases I heard of among various castes led to complete ostracism. Not even the closest relatives would willingly acknowledge the existence of such persons, except in very confidential conversations. Instead, one tended to work on forgetting the deviant by never mentioning him (or her) and looking the other way at chance encounters, etc.


[59] See Nepali 1965:107.


[60] For an account of the Newars that remained in Tibet in the seventies, see D.B.Bista 1980.


[61] Caplan 1974:52.


[62] C.Vajracharya, N.S. 1102:26.


[63] Toffin 1978b:469.


[64] See Höfer 1979:73.


[65] According to Rosser (1966:106) the scale varied from six and a half rupees to half a rupee. Patya also had to be performed by those who had only visited the frontier and by Gorkha soldiers who were returning from service overseas.


[66] Here, I have deliberately left out the names of the concerned castes and guthis.


[67] However, there are certain exceptions. Certain Uray subgroups and possibly other Newar castes are affiliated to Jyapu Si guthis. Then the crucial guthi in terms of caste membership is the Sana guthi. In these cases the Sana guthi consoles the mourners etc, whereas the Si guthi performs the menial tasks at the cremation. In yet other cases, as accounted for by Nepali, the Si guthi and the Sana guthi are indistinguishable, i.e., the guthi that handles matters related to death can be referred to with either term. See, for instance, Nepali 1965:191-93.


[68] Rosser 1966:90-104. The relationship between guthis and caste will be discussed in chapter VIII below.


[69] However, even though many Newars, particularly Hindus, would readily admit that the Shresta caste is higher than the Uray, the Urays do not recognize this, and in their turn, they countered the Shresthas’ claim to a superior status by refusing to take these food items from them.


[70] Here, one can possibly find an explanation to the great importance attached to takha, sanyakhuna, and gorma, apart from their good taste and self-perpetuating tradition, in Mary Douglas’ theory that things which are classificatory anomalies (i.e., things that fall outside normal classificatory categories by being totally outside of them, or by having referents characteristic of several so being “neither” “nor”) tend to be either deified and celebrated or tabooed and avoided. Takha, sanyakhuna and gorma are, in a sense, such classificatory anomalies, as they are neither solid nor liquid but both. M.Douglas, passim, 1976. (1966)


[71] C.Vajracharya, N.S.1102:23


[72] Ibid.