The Newar people are the traditional inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The term Newar is an etymologically identical to Nepal (Gellner 1995:4). They are a product of ethnic and cultural mixing between North Indian ancestry and Tibeto-Burman language (Mackenzie n.p.). The Newars are divided by religion, caste, locality, and dialect, making the Newar peoples a complex group of people. Most Newars are Hindu, however the culture is a mingling between Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the 2001 census, Nepal was 81.8% Hindu, 11% Buddhist, and the remainder is a combination of Kirat, Christian, Jains, and Sikhs (Central Bureau of Statistics 29). From this data it is important to understand the influence the Hindu tradition has on Nepal. The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is both simultaneously competitive and ecumenical (Gellner 1995:3).
The history of the Newar people begins in the fifth century, when the “people of Nepal”, naipalah, populated the area (Gellner 1995:3). However, the term Newar only came into existence in mid-seventeenth century, where the term was used to refer to the politically dominant members of society or ksatriya groups (Gellner 1995:3). The Licchavi period saw the first appearance of monarchial state and associations with high Indian culture in the Kathmandu Valley (Gellner 1995:6). The area was settled due to the uniquely fertile soil in the Kathmandu Valley, which was at one point the bed of a lake, and benefits also included a temperate climate, and control over trade routes between the plains and Tibet (Gellner 1995:6). In the valley both Hinduism and Buddhism were supported by the ruling class, made up of ksatryas, patrons of brahmans (Gellner 1995:7).
The Licchavi period preceded the Thankuri and Malla Period; it is the Malla period that accounts for traditional Newar culture (Gellner 1995:7). The Malla period is marked by a division into three kingdoms: Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur (Gellner 1995:9). The kings of each region did not see themselves as Newari, but rather as descendants of Rama and the sun, establishing their connection to Hinduism (Gellner 1995:9). Furthermore, in each of the three kingdoms the rulers sought to make their subjects adhere to Hindu norms, both in relation to ritual pollution and death rituals (Gellner 1995:9).
Most Newar castes hold their own myths regarding their origins. An example of this is where higher castes, such as ksatriyas, hold the belief that the later the arrival in the Valley the higher the status. These castes claim to have been kings in earlier dynasty, or courtiers to incoming kings (Gellner 1995:5). Other castes, such as the Rajkarnikars (or Sweet-Makers) claim to have descended from brahmans in India (Gellner 1995:5). The Kathmandu Valley plays host to a diversity of racial origins, and different physiognomies both within and between castes.
Newari is a Tibeto-Burman language, belonging to socio-linguistic family from Northern India, which is known for its borrowing between other Indo-European languages (Gellner 1995:5). The tradition of borrowing continues today, despite nationalistic efforts. This can be seen in that most Newari men and the emerging generations are bilingual in both Nepali and Newari (Gellner 1995:5). Language is important to the study of Hindu Newars through its connection to Sanskrit. Much like India, Sanskrit is the language of scripture for both Hinduism and Buddhism (Gellner 1995:5). Sanskrit, various Prakrits, Persian, Hindi, Nepali and English have profoundly influenced Newari, this is a reflection of linguistic borrowing (Gellner 1991:2).
The construction of the caste system shapes both the macrostructure of society and the micro-reality of everyday life. The Newar people are involved in two caste systems: they have their own system that both separates and unites them internally, and the long-standing caste system of Nepal (Parish 4). The state caste system is used to unite tribes, castes, different religions, and social organizations to create political and administrative convenience. One of the results is the reconstitution of Buddhist and Hindu identities in relation to one another (Parish 4). The Newar specific caste system hails from historic times of Newar kings, beginning in the Licchavi, but fully forming in the Malla period (Gellner 1995:9).
The Newar caste system is most easily described through the six blocks, or levels in hierarchy. Newar people speak of high and low castes, and the rank of each as described in the Bhasa Vamasavali (Gellner 1995:16). Block one is comprised of Brahmans, and the vajracarya and sakya castes combined, all priestly classes. The second block contains the chathariya and pancthariya castes. Blocks one and two are made up of those castes that are entitled to Tantric initiation using the sacred thread. Block 3 is comprised by the maharjans (farmer class). Block four is made up of several small castes including oil-pressers, dyers, blacksmiths, barbers, and painters. Block five includes the khadgi (butcher) and kapali (mortician) classes. Individuals from blocks one to four (“clean castes”) will not accept water from people in this caste, however their touch does not require ritual purification. The last block is made up of dyahla (street cleaner) and cyamkhalah (scavenger) groups. Other castes refuse to accept water from individuals in these castes and touching them requires purification. [All information on the block organization of the caste system from Gellner 1995, page 17.]
Interaction between castes occurs, however, as seen in the block system some interaction can result in ritual pollution. The caste system is an essential element to the maintenance of social structures in Newar society. Food exchange is an important aspect in determining ritual pollution. Food is divided into three categories that dictate which directions food can be taken and given (Ishii 111). Interrelations between castes are also governed by the physical structure of the village or town; this insures minimal interaction between the castes (Ishii 112). Inter-caste marriages also take place in Newar society, usually where the bride marries a caste lower than hers.
One of the main ways in which Newar culture relates to Hinduism is through its treatment of death. When an individual dies they become a preta and resides in relatives’ households before going to the kingdom of Yama. Essential death rites are performed to help the potentially dangerous spirit move on to pitr-loka (realm of ancestors). Newar Hindus of all castes are fascinated with death and are fixated with the dramatic consequences that can result from improperly performed funeral rites (Toffin 259).
Newar Hindu women in the Kathmandu Valley hold a high level of agency in Newari culture. This can be seen in particular through the relatively easy divorce practices for these women. For Newar women, leaving their family is as simple as walking away; her family can finalize the separation by sending betel nuts and reclaiming her dowry (Gellner 1991:14). Betel nuts can also be used as a way of avoiding ritual pollution in the case that her husband dies, this also allows her to remarry. The agency granted to women in the Newar population is connected to its history of collaboration with Tibetan people (Gellner 1991:8). Newar girls also partake in rites of passage, like their male counterparts. A mock marriage, ihi, can be done when a girl passes the age of five, seven, or nine; it is debated as to whom she is being married to, answers range from Visnu, to the bel fruit (Gellner 1991:9). The intent of the ceremony is to signify that the girl will never be a widow, even if her human husband dies; this therefore protects the girl from the stigma associated with being a widow (Gellner 1991:9).
For Newar Hindus marriage is affected by the caste system in which their society operates. For the upper castes, they must invite a Brahmana or Vajracarya to perform the ceremony, lower castes will invite a lineage elder (Gellner 1991:10). For each caste, there is a dichotomy between elaborate weddings with exchanges, feasts, and a marriage procession, and weddings where the bride simply comes to live with her husband without ceremony (Gellner 1991:9). In both instances, an exchange occurs where betel nuts are passed between families to symbolize the bride leaving her family and being introduced to her husband’s.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Central Bureau of Statistics (2001). Nepal – National Population Census 2001, Tenth Census. Nepal: Central Bureau of Statistics.
Gellner, David N. (1991) “Hinduism, Tribalism and the Position of Women: The Problem of Newar Identity” Man 26 (1). 105–25. Accessed February 4, 2016.
Gellner, David N., and Declan Quigley, et al. (1995) Contested hierarchies: A collaborative ethnography of caste among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Gellner, David N., and Max Weber (2001) The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levy, Robert I. (1991) “Nepal, the Kathmandu Valley, and Some History” In Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mackenzie, John (2005) “Newars.” Cassell’s peoples, nations and cultures. London, United Kingdom: Cassell.
Parish, Steven M. (1996) Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Von Rospatt, Alexander (2014) “Negotiating the Passage beyond a Full Span of Life: Old Age Rituals among the Newars” Journal of South Asian Studies. 37 #1 (March): 104-129
Whelpton, John (2005) A History of Nepal. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Related Research Topics for Further Investigation
Newar caste system
Role of women in Hinduism
Rites of passage
Hindu marriage rituals
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Article written by: Nicole Sommerfeld (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.