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ETHNONYMS: Newā (in Newari), Newār (in Nepali)


Identification. Most likely, the word "Newar," in use since the seventeenth century, is derived from the word "Nepal" and originally denoted the residents of the Kathmandu (or Nepal) Valley without regard to their ethnic affiliation.

Location. Today, more than half of the Newars live in the Kathmandu Valley located at 27° 30 to 27° 50 N and 85° 10 to 85° 30 E. Most others live in commercial or administrative centers in the hills and the Terai Plain.

Demography. According to the census of Nepal in 1981, the number of people speaking Newari as their mother tongue was 448,746 (3 percent of the total population of Nepal). Newars are also found in Darjeeling, Sikkim, and Bhutan and lived in Lhasa, Tibet, before 1959.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Newari language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman Family. It has many classifiers and postpositions but is not tonal. Having a long history of contact with Indic languages such as Sanskrit, Maithili, and Nepali, it has many loanwords, especially from Sanskrit. The standard Newari is the Kathmandu dialect. Others are the Bhaktapur, Dolakha, and Pahari dialects. Newari is written in Devanagari script. There were several old Newari scripts derived from Indian alphabets.

History and Cultural Relations

Indian influence has been immense on the Newar culture and society. The oldest attested dynasty of the valley was the Licchavi dynasty (a.d. 464 to the ninth century) under which Indianized civilization developed with Buddhism and Hinduism, elaborate architecture, and Indic arts and crafts. Although the Licchavi rulers claimed an Indian origin and all the inscriptions of this period were in Sanskrit, the existence of non-Sanskrit words indicates that the bulk of the population consisted of people who later became the Newars. In the following transitional period, esoteric Vajrayana Buddhism with its monastic institution flourished and many new ritual elements were introduced. The Newar culture grew more distinct and full-fledged during the Malla period (1200-1769). In this period, Muslims conquered north India and caused many Hindus and Buddhists to flee to Nepal. With the help of Indian Brahmans, King Sthitimalla (1382-1395) is said to have codified the caste system and encouraged social stability. Nepalese Buddhism lost its source of inspiration in India, became more ritualized, lost celibate monks, and accepted the caste norms. Influence from Tibet increased around the century, but the trend toward Hinduization was stronger. Written Newari was used in the translation of religious texts and the writing of chronicles and literature of various genres. After Yaksamalla (1428-1482), who expanded the territory and supported the valley culture by donations and construction, the kingdom was eventually divided into the three small kingdoms of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, which frequently quarreled with each other. This situation favored the Gorkhas to the west, a politically powerful group whose core consisted of Nepali-speaking high castes. They conquered the Kathmandu Valley in 1769 and established the present Shah dynasty. Under the Ranas (1846-1951), who set aside the Shah kings and monopolized power, the Newar culture was repressed. Unlike the former immigrants, the Gorkhas did not merge with the Newars. This led to the strengthening of Newari identity. Although Nepalization has been proceeding, many Newars still retain their culture and language.


Most Newari settlements are built on elevated ground surrounded by agricultural fields. They appear to be urban with clusters and rows of brick buildings of three or more stories that often surround paved courtyards or border on narrow lanes. Kathmandu (235,000 people), Lalitpur (80,000), and Bhaktapur (48,000) stand out politicoeconomically and in terms of population. The populations of typical Newari settlements range from about one thousand to several thousand, though Kirtipur and Thimi are smaller. Newari settlements abound with temples and other religious places that form a sacred microcosm. These settlements are each divided into two major parts (e.g., upper and lower parts, male and female halves, etc.), which in some cases are named after the main temple in each part. This dichotomy is expressed in ritual processions, mock battles, distribution of socioreligious groups, and buildings. Major settlements have politicoreligious centers and are protected not only by surrounding walls but also by the temples of eight goddesses and other religious Structures placed in proper directions. The agricultural population forms the majority in most of the Newar settlements except for modern Kathmandu and commercial towns outside the valley. A considerable commercial population can also be found in many settlements near the hills such as Sankhu, Capagaon, Lubhu, Banepa, and Dhulikhel, which are trade centers connecting the valley with points outside. Villages Between these and the central cities are more agricultural. In some rural settlements, the Jyāpu (farmer) caste forms the overwhelming majority. Others have a multicaste structure.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture, commerce, and crafts have been the main sources of livelihood for the Newars. In recent years, there has been an increase in employment in government offices, schools, various companies, and construction work, mainly due to the Development of the valley as a center of politicoadministrative activity, as well as tourism and commerce. Small shops and rice-flour mills are common even in rural areas. The main crop is rice, grown during the monsoon (June-September) in irrigated fields. Wheat, potatoes, and pulse in the dry season, vegetables, and maize are secondary crops. Since the 1960s improved varieties of rice, wheat, and maize have been introduced) and are cultivated with chemical fertilizers. Although some farmers now use hand tractors (cultivators), many still cultivate with a short-handled hoe called ku. Plowing is not popular, perhaps because it is not well suited for sloping fields. Agricultural labor from outside the household is recruited through the systems of bwalā (reciprocal exchange), gwāli (help without any direct repayment) and jyāmi (daily paid work). The last form has become more popular these days.

Industrial Arts. Crafts for which the Newars are famous are image casting in bronze, brass, copper, etc. and the making of ornaments and repoussé. Potting, weaving, wood carving, straw weaving, mask making, etc. are also popular. Potting in Thimi and oil pressing in Khokna are examples of localized caste-oriented work.

Trade. Newars are known to other ethnic groups of Nepal as sāhu or "shopkeepers." Both within and outside the valley, there are many Newar merchants. Kathmandu Valley was an important midpoint in the trade between India and Tibet. Carried out by merchants of high castes, it brought great wealth, which supported the high culture of the Newars. Although trade with Tibet ended in 1959, Kathmandu has been expanding as part of an international market in which Newar merchants are active participants.

Division of Labor. Both men and women work in agriculture and in shopkeeping. In agriculture, men use the hoe and women transplant rice. Child rearing and domestic work are mainly done by women. Both sexes weave. Sewing is a caste-specific job. The eldest male (thakāli ) in each social group presides over its rituals, with the help of his wife. Newar Society is divided into many occupational castes. There are both Buddhist and Hindu castes, though the distinction is not clear in many cases. The main Buddhist castes are: Gubhāju (in Sanskrit, Vajrācārya), Buddhist priest; Bare Sākya, gold- and silversmith; Udāy (Udās), artisan; and Jyāpu (Maharjan), farmer. Among the Udāy there are, among others, Tulādhar, merchant; Kamsakār, bronze worker; and Tām-rakār, coppersmith, castes. Main Hindu castes are: Bramhu (Brahman), Hindu priest; Syesya (Srestha), merchant, clerk, etc.; and an unclean caste called Jugi (Kusle, Kapāli), tailor, musician. There are Hindu Jyāpus and Buddhist Syesyas also. Some examples of the castes below Jyāpu are: Kumhā (Prajapātī), potter; Nau (Nāpit), barber; Kau (Nakarmi), blacksmith; Sāymi (Mānandhar), oil presser; Pu (Citrakār), painter; Chipá (Rañjitkār), dyer; Nāy (Kasāi), butcher; Kullu, drum maker; Po (Pode, Dyalā), fisherman, sweeper; Cyāme (Cyāmkhala, Kucikār), sweeper; and Hārāhuru, sweeper. Not all the members of a caste engage in their caste-specific occupation. In some castes, caste occupations are not clear-cut. There is much variation among castes in the extent to which caste occupations are followed. Some members of Nepali-speaking Damai (tailor) and Kāmi (blacksmith) castes serve Newars. Division of roles by caste is more complex and actively observed in festivals. Remuneration for caste services is made in kind, in cash, by feasting, or by giving the usufruct of land. In terms of population, the Jyāpus outnumber others and the Syesyas follow. There are a considerable number of Buddhist priests but fewer Brahmans. The populations of lower castes are small in most cases.

Land Tenure. Most of the agricultural land is under the raikār or state-owned tenure, under which farmers can utilize land by paying a tax. Old land-tenure forms, bitta and jāgīr, have been changed to raikār since the 1950s. Some land is still owned as tax-exempt, such as land owned by socioritual organizations (guthi ) and land owned by temples, much of which is also ultimately controlled by the semigovernmental guthi corporation. The amount of land held by a farming household seldom exceeds one hectare. Tenancy exists only to a limited extent.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is patrilineal. Patrilineally related males call each other phuki, a term usually equated with dāju-kijā (brothers), but it is secondarily applied to brothers' and cousins' family members also. Those who call each other phuki form an exogamous lineage. The lineage members form a group to worship a common tutelary deity, digu dya (represented by crude or carved stones), to observe birth and death pollution, and to carry out many rituals together. They may form the core of a labor exchange group in rural areas. In urbanized areas, there is a trend toward digu dya-worshiping units, often called digu dya pūjā guthi, splitting into smaller groups. Agnates split ritually and socially are called bhu or bā phuki. Affines reciprocate by repeated prestations at life-cycle rituals and at some festivals.

Kinship Terminology. Contemporary cousin terms follow the Hawaiian system. Many terms are taken from Indo-Aryan languages.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is generally monogamous and Postmarital residence is virilocal. Polygyny is allowed in the absence of a son from the first wife. Caste endogamy is the rule. Contrary to what some authors claim, there are not all that many cases of divorce, intercaste marriages, or "climbing the [caste] ladder." Village endogamy occurs occasionally, but not in typical settlements. Cross-cousin marriage is forbidden. Marriage is usually arranged by parents who use a gobetween. Marriage by elopement is popular in some peripheral villages.

Domestic Unit. A patrilineal extended family in which married brothers live with their parents is the ideal type of Newar household. In actuality, there are situations in which demographic, economic, and social conditions prevent the formation of these extended households.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among the sons. Daughters are given a certain amount of the family property as kwasa in the form of utensils, furniture, clothes, money, etc. at the time of marriage.

Socialization. Although children are taken care of by many members of the family, mothers have very close ties with their children. A child is often fed from his or her mother's breast for more than three years. Physical punishment is not Common. Girls are required from the age of 7 or 8 to help in cooking, carrying water, and looking after small children. Boys are freer to play when small but they too work in agriculture, shopkeeping, etc. when the family is busy. Formal schooling has become more important recently.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The intercaste relationship, which is hierarchical, is expressed in commensality, marriage, and other behavior as well as in the division of labor. Within a caste, there are socioritual groups categorized as guthi. A guthi is headed by several elders, has a particular name and function, often owns land and other property, and holds feasts, which are hosted in rotation by the members. Some priestly and artisan castes had or have guthis to cover one large area and control members' occupations, marriage, and conflicts. In many other castes, funeral associations control the caste members. They may extend beyond the settlement boundary, depending upon the demographic condition of the caste concerned. Castes tend to live in different quarters or wards (twā ), which among some castes are given specific names. A quarter usually houses plural lineages, which may form a corporate ritual unit. There are many guthis of restricted membership to carry out rituals among higher castes. Musical groups and voluntary dance or drama groups are widely found both as intra-and intercaste organizations.

Political Organization. The present political system of the kingdom of Nepal is called the panchayat system, under which there are local administrative units called town panchayat and village panchayat with elected heads. Each of the Newar settlements comprises one or more panchayats or is combined with others to form one. In the Rana period, the village head was appointed by the higher authority. One or two higher castes are usually dominant and tend to monopolize village leadership.

Social Control. A sense of conformity is pervasive. Violation of norms sometimes ends in ostracism. Each social group is led by elders who assume their seats according to seniority based on generation and age; but other members who have prestige and ability may emerge as practical leaders. The panchayat system with elections has been gaining legitimacy.

Conflict. In the late Malla period, there were frequent conflicts among the small kingdoms in the valley. Conflicts Between castes often led to the weakening of service relations. The best-remembered one is the prolonged Gubhāju-Udāy conflict, which was brought before the court and even needed the king's intervention. A mechanism to split a group Peacefully is absent in many cases; thus conflict, by creating fissures and splinter groups, helps maintain groups at an optimum size. Traditional social relations have been weakening in many respects recently.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Buddhism, Hinduism, and indigenous beliefs coexist and are mixed among the Newars. The main form of Buddhism practiced here is Mahayana or Great Vehicle "Way," in which the Tantricized and esoteric Vajrayana, Diamond, or Thunderbolt "Way" is considered the highest. Theravada Buddhism is not as popular but there has been a moderate resurgence in recent years. Hinduism has benefited from stronger backing for several centuries. Shiva, Vishnu, and related Brahmanical deities are revered, but more characteristic is the worship of various goddesses called by blanket terms such as mātrikā, devī, ajimā, and mā. Indigenous elements are seen in the rituals of digu dya, byāncā nakegu ("feeding frogs" after transplanting rice), beliefs about supernaturals, and many other customs. The Newars believe in the existence of demons (lākhe ), malevolent souls of the dead (pret, agati), ghosts (bhut, kickanni), evil spirits (khyā), and witches (boksi). Cremation grounds, crossroads, places related to water or disposal, and huge stones are their favorite haunting places. Mantras and offerings are used by priests and other practitioners to control and propitiate them.

Religious Practitioners. Gubhāju and Brahman are Buddhist and Hindu priests, respectively; they are married Householders, as only Theravada monks are celibate. Buddhist and Hindu priests officiate at household rituals, festivals, and other rites. Tantric priests or Acāju (Karmācārya), funeral priests or Tini (Sivacārya), and Bhā are graded lower. Astrologers are also connected with funerals in some places. In Certain localities, Khusah (Tandukār) serve the Nāy caste as their household priests.

Ceremonies. Main life-cycle rituals are: rituals at and after birth (macā bu benkegu, jankwa, etc.); two stages of initiation (bwaskhā and bare chuyegu or kaytā pūjū for boys; ihi and bārā tayegu for girls); wedding ceremonies; old-age celebrations (budhā jankwa ); funeral and postmortuary rites. There are forty or more calendrical rituals and festivals practiced in a single locality. Some, such as gathāmuga (ghantakarna ), mohani dasāī, swanti, and tihār, are common to all localities, but many other festivals are localized. Offering alms is an important religious act, of which the Buddhist samyak is the most festive. There are rituals repeated within a year. Nitya pūjā (daily worship of deities), sãlhu bhway (feast on the first day of each month), and mangalbār vrata (Tuesday fasting) are examples. There are also rituals of which the date is not fixed, which are performed only when necessary or proposed.

Arts. Newar artistic talent is displayed in architecture and sculpture. Inspired by Indian tradition, unique styles of palaces, temples, monasteries, stupas, fountains, and residential buildings developed. They are often decorated with wood carvings and equipped with stone or metal sculptures. Religious paintings are found on the walls, scrolls, and manuscripts. Music with drums, cymbals, wind instruments, and sometimes songs is indispensable in many festivals and Rituals. Most arts are practiced by males.

Medicine. Disease is attributed to evil objects, the ill will of mother goddesses, witchcraft, attack, possession or other influence of supernaturals, misalignment of planets, evil spells, and social and other disharmony, as well as natural causes such as bad food, water, and climate. People resort to both modern facilities and traditional medical practitioners. Among the latter are the jhār phuk (or phu phā ) yāyemha (exorcist), vaidya (medicine man), kavirāj (Ayurvedic doctor), midwives, bone setters of the barber caste, Buddhist and Hindu priests, and dyah waikimha (a kind of shaman). Popular treatment methods include brushing off and blowing away ill objects in the body (phu phā yāye ), reading or attaching mantras (spells), making offerings to supernaturals or deities, and using local herbal and other medicines.

Death and Afterlife. It is believed that the soul of the deceased must be sent to its proper abode through a series of postmortuary rites performed by male descendants. Otherwise, it remains in this world as a harmful pret. Two ideas about afterlife, that of Heaven and Hell and that of rebirth, coexist. Attainment of a good or bad afterlife depends upon the person's merit accumulated while alive and upon the proper performance of the rituals. The deceased are also worshiped and propitiated as ancestors.

See also Nepali


Gutschow, Niels (1982). Stadtraum und Ritual der Newarischen Städte im Kathmandu-Tal: Eine architekturanthropologische Untersuchung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Nepali, Gopal Singh (1965). The Newars. Bombay: United Asia Publications.

Slusser, Mary Shepherd (1982). Nepal Mandala: A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Toffin, Gerard (1984). Société et religion chez les Néwar du Népal. Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.


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