Hierarchy Among Castes

Certain foods and customs immediately related to food reflect the social structure of Newari society. These foods and customs have a communicative content. Positionally, the food culture, in some instances, convey messages about the positions of various groups and actors in their relationship to one another. This is, for instance, clearly expressed in whom one accepts boiled rice from. Those one accepts it from are generally recognized as higher in terms of caste ranking: to ask whom a caste will accept boiled rice from is an appropriate method, provided the answers are honest, to determine the caste’s relative rank vis-à-vis other castes. In the case that the answers are less honest, they will reveal that particular caste’s positional ambitions, e.g., the Gubhajus` claim that they did not eat rice with the Uray. Furthermore, among castes whose relative hierarchical rank is not unambiguously established and contested by other castes, one will (then) find that people generally do not accept rice from those who are on an equal or similar level, when one belongs to different castes, whereas one may accept boiled rice form those who are indisputably of higher rank. In this regard the Buddhist castes seem to have had different customs in the past, which is indicated by the boiled rice meals the Gubhaju priests used to share with the Uray. Nevertheless, at such meals attended by members of several castes the hierarchical relationships were expressed by the seating order.

The same principle applies to the acceptance of water, though the water is a less fine-tuned measurement of caste status and aspirations among the “clean” castes above the water line. Groups are either above or below this line, and those above generally accept boiled water from each other. However, the castes below the water line do not accept water from one another, and thus the acceptance of water will measure their relative status or self-assessments. However, foods boiled in water sometimes become subject to the rules that apply to the boiled rice (ja): i.e., the boiling in water makes them susceptible to pollution.

Thus, in the context of caste the boiled rice is a negative marker which delineates do-nots, barriers between castes, and the ordained limits on commensality. It is significant by being avoided by proscription. The significance lies in its very absence. It is also noteworthy that the indisputably most eaten food, the boiled rice (ja), is most intimately connected with these interdictions; thus, the prescription that boiled rice should not be eaten with other castes is an effective method to separate the castes. The same is valid for water, though to a lesser extent, as water is taken by the high castes from low “clean” castes without positional implications.

Obviously, the ideal of caste endogamy has a close analogy in the food culture. The barriers between castes not only maintain endogamy, but also limit commensality over the caste borders. In this regard the injunctions concerning food constitute some of the very “mechanisms” Berreman[1] says that the caste systems provide, and which distinguish the castes and keep them apart from one another. Other principles, e.g., ritual duties and interdependency, division of labour, land tenure, patron-client relations, etc., are at work integrating them. However, this must not be taken as a simple analogy, implying that those with whom one eats rice are sexually permitted. Firstly, marriages do occur over the caste borders, and there are instances when men have married women of lower caste and are not supposed to eat boiled rice cooked by their wives. Furthermore, if this injunction is observed, certain forms of marriages by high or middle caste level men with women of lower castes are accepted (as long as they do not belong to the “unclean,” lamaju and thiyemaju castes), although such marriages are subject to various difficulties. Secondly, within the caste, the group that may eat boiled rice together, there are various other social categories based upon kinship with clearly defined positions and obligations in their relationships. Most of these are non-marriageable: only part of the endogamous group, ideally the caste, is marriageable to the individual.


Food And The Social Order Within The Caste

Moving from the issue of caste and inter-caste relations into the caste, one encounters other significations and ritual usages of food.

Firstly, one finds that the eating habits are rather informal in the family’s daily rice meals. This is in sharp contrast to the rigid interdiction against eating boiled rice with other castes; those with whom one eats rice are one’s near and dear ones, and little impression management is maintained. In Goffman’s sense[2] the kitchen (and dining room) can be said to be the “backstage” of family and household life, in relation to other households. In contrast to the interdiction against eating rice with other castes, which announces exclusion, eating rice within one’s own caste announces inclusion and “belonging.” This contrast can be expressed as oppositions:


eating rice together

    not eating rice









Secondly, in ritually significant contexts, one finds that the positional ideal structure of the family and the household is expressed in the food, too, and particularly in the mannerisms observed when eating it. At sacrifices, choyala bhu, and other domestic rituals strict seniority is observed in the seating order and the order in which the food is served. Furthermore, one finds that in the most important rituals within the family, the phuki, and, in the case of Sunakothi, the village, the shares are saved for those who, according to custom, should have attended a feast but could not. Two central values in Newari culture are thus expressed: i) hierarchy in accord with seniority, and ii) cohesion within the family, the phuki, and the village. Here, it may be argued that the customs provide both models of and for the social order. Hence, they are in a sense metaphorical. The degree to which these customs provide either models of or models for the social order is variable and dependent upon the household’s composition, economy, and degree of traditional-mindedness. Some households conform to the model to the extent that it may be regarded as a model of the household. In others the reality may be so far away from the model that the latter serves rather as a distant ideal than as a model.[3] Indeed, in some households the observance of the rites which imply deference to the seniors, cohesion within the phuki, etc., may be just conformism to tradition, without any bearing on the actual social relations.

Thirdly, food may express status variations outside the traditional positional ranking based on caste, seniority, and gender. What is expressed is entirely related to situational contexts: by accepting boiled rice from a lower caste person one may demonstrate one’s friendship or submission (if the food giver is politically or economically important); one’s lack of prejudice; or one’s modern egalitarian outlook. Seating a guest in the front position of the line when he should, according to the rules of seniority, sit lower in the line; placing one who should normally sit high in a low position; or serving watered down or exceptionally good beer are means of giving messages about the guests standing in the household. Thus, there is a limited freedom of play for individuals and households in breaking the traditionally prescribed rules. Nevertheless, the meanings thus conveyed build upon the latter, which are, indeed, prerequisites for the former. Newari food culture can thus be said to be analogous to the “deep play” in Balinese cook fighting, analyzed by Geertz:[4] underneath the visible surface, complex meanings concerning one’s standing may preoccupy the participants.

When it comes to the phuki one again finds that food and seating orders express the ideals of agnatic solidarity, cohesion, and deference to the elderly. Among the Jyapu, this is particularly obvious in the si ka bhu rite and in the annual worship of the Digudyo; among the higher castes these ideals may also be seen in the annual worship of the Agamdyo and the subsequent feasting. Phukis may, of course, also be close on an informal level. Sitting in the same line implies solidarity and cohesion, and seniority order in the line expresses the hierarchy according to age and the youngers’ deference to the elders. In regard to married daughters and affines, the exchange of food is one of the many things which tie the women and their conjugal relatives to the womens’ parental households. Among the Jyapu, a number of food items are sent to wish longevity to their husbands and brothers. These items are provided by the wife’s parental household, while the husband’s, her conjugal household, provides the corresponding items to her brothers; in this context certain food items have clear-cut significations (See chapter V).

Furthermore, at marriages food exchanges are important in the exchange of women. The wife-givers receive betel nuts which are distributed among them by the bride according to the degree of relationship to the bride. Among the Uray, three categories emerge: i) distant relatives who only hold the betel nuts and then return them, ii) close relatives who keep the betel nuts that were received, and iii) those who receive putugoye. These are the very closest. At the groom’s household the bride again distributes betel nuts to the groom’s kinsmen (phuki), and one thus accepts the bride into the patrilineage. Here sitting in the same line as the bride while eating rice is also important as a means of marking her acceptance into the phuki.

Moreover, the bride and her brother maintain a close relationship, and in due time the brother becomes her childrens’ maternal uncle, who is expected to provide her children with a nearly second home and various ritual services. Concerning food, he will provide her children with chusyamusya (if girls) at the Baratayegu, or (among the Jyapu) a goat for sacrifice at the Kyetapuja. At a Jyapu marriage he will provide his nephew with pajukhu (rice and beer) for his in-laws-to-be. His niece will, if he can afford it, be given a she-goat for milk. Moreover, custom bids the departing bride to have her last boiled rice (ja) before marriage in her maternal uncle’s household. The bride’s brothers, her future childrens’ maternal uncles, (and other kinsmen) may even joke with the groom (among the Uray) by preparing the nan mari kosi with a surprise. The maternal uncle is crucial in all life cycle rites and in some he is the very agent who bestows adult (householder’s) status on his nephew by putting a cap on his head and money in his hands. These customs emphasize the special relationships between brothers and sisters and between Ego and the maternal uncle, which are characterized by the absence of hierarchy, whereas in the parental, or conjugal, household Ego is subject to the strict rules of obeyance and hierarchy, according to the rules of seniority within the household and, in some instances, the phuki.[5]

Here, I would like to maintain that food items are important in articulating the relationships between households, their phuki groups, and affines. The obligations that specific foods have to be sent, or given, on certain occasions serve to maintain a complex net-work of kinship relations. Metaphorically, food can be said to be the woof in the warp, the stuff that fills up the social structure, giving it substance. That is to say, that in traditional Newar society a large net-work of kinship relations was maintained, partly by the prescriptions that different categories of relatives were to participate in various rituals, which in many instances involved sharing or exchanging food. This codification and ritualization may emphasize and strengthen the relationship of kin; as the presence of various categories of kin in certain rituals is mandatory, so is their acceptance of certain ritual foods while sitting in the same line. Indeed, in certain rites a share of the food is saved for anyone who failed to attend, for a legitimate reason, as it is regarded as essential that all who belong to the social unit have their respective shares. Here, I am not persuing a “functionalistic” argument, implying functional equilibrium or “atomism.” I am simply saying that the food culture in Newari society expresses the norms of cohesion and unity within certain social groups, particularly within the caste, and that the participation in the ritualized feasting marks out and serves to maintain consciousness of the distinctiveness of these social units and relationships. Newari society has by several authors been noted for having a high degree of social control.[6] In the extension the ritualization of the social relationships may be part of the protective defences of a people who have found their traditional habitats over-run by others peoples.

In dealing with the guthis I have demonstrated how food is an important symbol in expressing the community of the local group, in marking its hierarchy and its relationship to the Gods, in marking the exclusivity in relation to other groups of a similar order, and, not least important, in providing a pastime for the guthyars. The guthis are essential in the social life of the Newars, as they provide some necessary services; they handle funerals, look after the mourners, and propitiate the Gods. The guthis regulate the religious life of the Newars, and the members are generally the elderly, who thus occupy an intermediate position between the Gods and the young. Indeed, the latter are dependent on the elderly for the performance of all important rites. It is also noteworthy that the Newari deities are anthropomorphic to the extent that one feasts the Gods, at the same time that one participates in a feast. Indeed, they are an essential part of Newari society. They are fed not only the first morsel at solemn sacrifices and at festival days, but at every meal the first drop of beer or spirit is also dedicated to them.


Different Hierarchical Principles

In this dissertation it has been demonstrated that hierarchy is important in Newari society, and that this is reflected in the food culture. One may distinguish three different hierarchical axes: i) seniority - juniority; ii) caste (high - low = pure - unclean); and iii) divine - hellish (swarga, benevolent gods, life, - narga, malevolent gods, death, evil spirits, titans). These hierarchical values are sometimes in contradictory situations. Then, caste seems to overrule the value of seniority, e.g., at feasts where the Gubhaju priest sits at the head of the line regardless of his age. Divinity seems to overrule both seniority and caste; e.g., the Jyapu of Sunakothi cannot even see the feast of the Gods of Ganadyo pyakhan (though the persons who impersonate the Gods are normally members of a lower caste, the Ghatu). In the Bala-kumari yatra the person who handled the most important deity sits before those who handled less important deities. At feasts with two castes among the participants, there may be separate lines, the higher will have the better positions: the priest sits first in the line, although he may not be the eldest present, while attending ceremonial feasts in the homes of Uray and Jyapu.


The Inner and the Outer

As pointed out by Allen,[7] the concepts of guhya and bahira, the inner or secret and the open and external, respectively, are central in newari society, and this is also expressed by food and the ritualia associated with it. Then, food also demarcates in and out categories: those prescribed to participate and those proscribed from doing so. Here food and participation in feasting seems to be crucial for the identity of the participants, particularly to mark the boundaries to other social categories. Thus, many of the ritualized feasts evoke dichotomies such as: caste - non-caste; guthyar - non-guthyar; initiated - uninitiated; and old - young. Each of these constitutes in and out groups.


Food Culture: a language?

In this dissertation I have demonstrated how food fills an important cognitive function in Newari society by demarcating and giving expression to social relationships. Several fundamental values which are prevalent in Newari society are thus expressed. On a structural level, hierarchy within and outside the caste is expressed in various ways; on an immediate level personal relationships may be expressed. Various foods and customs closely related to them give the actors messages concerning their standing in relation to one another. One may make an analogy to Bernstein’s work,[8] wherein he classifies speech codes on a continuum with restrictive and elaborate speech codes at either extreme. The former will be restricted in its expressive powers, contain positional messages, and base its arguments upon position: e.g., you must do this or that, “because your are a boy” (or a girl). The elaborate speech code is based upon intellectual understanding, as this speech code is used to manipulate and alter the world. It is the language of intellectual comprehension. Thus, one may infer that Newari food culture expresses positions. It announces social relationships of a positional character. One participates in a certain feast because one belongs to a certain category (e.g., phuki). People send gifts of food at child birth and marriages, because an affinal relationship exists. The maternal uncle provides the sacrificial animals at Kyetapuja, because he is the maternal uncle. The thakali sits on the ritual right, because he is the eldest; the noku sits next to him, on his left, because he is the second eldest; and so forth.

In this sense, on the one hand, Newari food culture constitutes a language in certain context. However, on the other hand, it is not a language for intellectualization or for elaboration upon intellectual problems or ideas. Ritual foods may express, reflect or emphasize ideas about Newari social order, religion, and cosmology, but they are not used as a language to deliberate upon these matters. The messages conveyed by ritual foods are determined by the social context in which they occur. The “grammar” of ritual foods’ significations concords with the “grammar” of Newar social life. What is signified is the actors’ and groups’ positions and inter-relationships in terms of kinship, caste and guthi membership, although in some instances, foods may convey rather precise and differentiated meanings, i.e., giving betel nuts may signify “I marry You” and sending halved betel nuts to the house of the maternal uncle of a new-born means “A girl has been born.”


The Meaning of Individual Food Items[9]

There are certain foods which, depending on the context, do have clear-cut significations. Below I will summarize some of the messages which may be conveyed to the participants by certain individual food items:

Ja, the boiled rice, marks the caste’s status vis-à-vis other castes; it may express hierarchy, inclusion, and exclusion. Thus accepting ja may imply equality or inferiority, and serving it, superiority or equality. Here, one may note that it is served to deceased relatives in the last rites and in the subsequent annual Sraddha (though it may be replaced by barley), but generally not to Gods as offerings. Offering rice to the Gods, one will generally instead offer jaki or wa (uncooked and unhusked rice respectively), which are not pollutable. Eating it together signifies inclusion in the same group; not eating it together marks alienation, hierarchical superiority or inferiority, and exclusion.[10]

La, water, is crucial in intercaste relationships. It marks out the positions of the lowest ranked castes, which indeed are classified as those from which one does not accept water. When foods have been boiled in water, according to some informants, it becomes taboo to accept from any caste ranked lower than one’s own. I believe this may be related to the transformative powers of water. It is necessary in the process of making inedible grain into edible rice. Water is also crucial in worship. It is sprinkled on the Gods, it is sometimes used to bathe them in rituals, and it is used in various rituals as a purifying agent.

Goye, betel nuts, signify the contraction of and, in the past, also the breaking-up of, a marriage obligation and the differing relationships between the bride and her kinsmen, as well as her affinal relationship to her husbands phuki. The expressed analogy here is that the betel nut is hard and unperishable, and so should the relationship be between the spouses and the phukis who through marriage come into an affinal relationship. Furthermore, at childbirth the betel nuts sent to the maternal uncles household signify the child’s sex. Round (uncut) betel nuts represent the birth of a boy, flat (halved) nuts that a girl has been born. The analogy is here based on the likeness to the boy’s testicles and the girls vagina.

Lakha mari, the breads distributed at marriages, also express the relationship between the bride and her kinsmen and the relationship of them to the groom’s household, which provides the lakha. Furthermore, by the grading of the lakha and the distribution of the different grades to different relatives on the bride’s side, the bride’s relation to her relatives is expressed: the closer a relative is, the higher quality and the greater the quantity of lakha he or she will receive, and vice versa. Furthermore, the diminishing return of the lakha for subsequent marriages, as accounted for by Nepali,[11] marks the bride’s declining status subsequent to divorce. Indeed, after a third divorce, at the fourth marriage, the lakha provided by the third husband is not refunded to him by the forth.

Takha, sanyakhuna, and gorma mark that a meal is a feast and determines its reputation. Takha may be included in all better feasts, whereas sanyakhuna should only be included in auspicious feasts, i.e., it marks that a feast is auspicious. These dishes also mark caste status in the same way as the boiled rice (ja) does; preferably it should not be seen nor touched by persons of lower caste than one’s own. Gorma distinguishes the Buddhist Newars from others, as they are the only ones who prepare and eat it, which they are clearly aware of.

The distribution of si expresses hierarchy according to seniority within the household, phuki, and the guthi. Within the guthis it may express the hierarchy of seniority, or, in some instances, the mystical power (and hierarchy) of the Gods. Among the Jyapu, the si distribution by the maternal uncle at a Kyetapuja is a special case, as the generally applied seniority order is ignored. This reflects and expresses the privileged and unrestrained relationship of the nephew to his maternal uncle. Among the Uray the si may also express one’s wish to rid one-self of sin; it simultaneously expresses the unity and cohesion of the group, as all who partake (presumably) wish to rid themselves of bad talk, bad smell, bad sights, etc., although one only partakes of the one piece of the si which represents bad talk, etc.

The pabhu, the provision of food by the former pala of a guthi to a new, again marks the cohesion of the guthi, and on a symbolic level extends the net-work of the guthi to include also the families of the guthyars.

Dhau, curd, denotes purity and is associated with masculinity, whereas dhuru, milk, is associated with femininity, as well as with purity. Both are used as purifying substances in pancamrita and pancagabya, and their sacred properties are inherent from the cow.

Dhau sagan, curd, and baji are sent or given ritually on various occasions. It is regarded as a good omen; and stretching this interpretation I believe it represents purity, and giving it a wish of purity for the receiver. Thus giving dhau sagan is to say “I wish You purity.”

Khe, egg, is used in some context to represent fertility and birth. The khe sagan contains: egg, meat, fish, spirits, and wa, to which a cloth is added. According to Pradhan[12] the khe sagan represents the five Ms of the left-handed way to salvation: sex, meat, fish, spirits, and divine signs (mudra) The cloth represents clothing. Thus giving sagan, may imply giving a wish for Tantric fulfillment: i.e., the mystic enjoyment of meat, fish, spirits, fertility and mastery of the divine sign language (power). Thus, the two types of sagan would be complementary: the dhau sagan would represent purity and restraint, whereas the khe sagan would represent fulfilment through Tantric indulgence.


Food as Symbol

It is noteworthy that the discussed food items are multivocal symbols: their signification varies with the context in which they occur. Indeed, food by itself has no significations but is given meaning by the cultural context. The significations it has are thus highly varied and sometimes based on analogies: the hard walnut represents luck, because luck should ideally be unbreakable; the round betel nut may represent testicles, etc. However, there are many instances where the signification is not based on analogies: e.g., in the ghasa (display food) the same food item may signify a different God in different ghasas.

Food has a high potential to become used in symbolic contexts as food is a primary ubiquitous need. Thus, the reason that food items constitute such prominent symbols in Newari society may be that they are “good to think with,” to paraphrase Levi-Strauss’ argument on “totemism”.[13] In addition, food is also good to spend time with. Indeed, the newars are renowned for their sumptuous feasting. The complexity of the symbolic conceptions are, of course, closely related to the complexities of Newari society. Here, what is particularly expressed is the highly positional and hierarchical character of Newari society.

In a larger perspective, one may conclude that in Newari society the ritual significance of certain foods and customs related to food in a Durkheimian sense reflect the social order of the Newars. The syntax of caste hierarchy, caste cohesion, inclusivity and exclusivity, of family solidarity and cohesion, of great respect and hierarchical submission to the elderly is all reflected in the food culture. However, as the hierarchical axiology is gradually giving way to egalitarianism, one may expect many of the customs examined in this dissertation to lose their significance and slowly fall into oblivion.

[1] Berreman 1968:336.


[2] Goffman 1978, passim.


[3] See Geertz (1973:93-94,95,114,118,123) for a discussion of models for and models of, respectively.


[4] Geertz 1973:412-453. See also Appadurai 1981.


[5] Turner (1974) has pointed out the relationship between “communitas” and maternal uncles in some African societies, arguing that “communitas” is related to the jurally weak etc. Fortes 1949:31 has pointed out that the maternal avuncular relationship “is an important breach in the genealogical fence enclosing the agnatic lineage: it is one of the gateways of an individuals social relations with other clans than his own”.


[6] Nepali 1965, passim. Haimendorf 1956, passim.


[7] Allen 1975:55.


[8] Bernstein 1972, passim.


[9] A more extensive list of food items is presented in appendix I: Foods of Ritual and Social Significance.


[10] The Vajracharya’s acceptance of boiled rice from the Urya is an exception, which perhaps may be traced to the ancient custom of feeding priests as an meritorious act.


[11] Nepali 1956:245.


[12] Pradhan 1979:16.


[13] Lévi-Strauss 1963. See also Ortner 1970 and 1973.