views updated


LOCATION: Nepal(KathmanduValley)
POPULATION: 1,245,232 (Census of Nepal 2001)
LANGUAGE: Newari; Nepālī
RELIGION: Mixture of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism, and older animistic beliefs


The Newar are the indigenous population found in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. The name Newar has no ethnic implications, but refers to the mixed peoples of both Mongoloid and Mediterranean stock who have settled the region over a period of more than 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the Newar have evolved a distinctive culture that has come to be seen by many as typically Nepālī.

The beginnings of Newar civilization may date back as far as the 8th or 7th century bc, when the Kathmandu Valley was conquered by the Kirati tribe. Since then, many peoples have settled the area, each making its own contributions to Newar history and culture. In the years following ad 300, for example, the Licchavis brought the Hindu caste system to the peoples of the Kathmandu Valley. Some of the Malla kings (from the 13th to the 18th centuries) were great patrons of art and literature. The Gurkhas gained control of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. Using the valley as a base of power, in the next few decades they succeeded in establishing the outlines of the modern state of Nepal. The term Newar is derived from Nepal, and the Kathmandu Valley, the heart of Newar territory, remains the political and cultural focus of the kingdom to this day.


Newars make up roughly 5.5% of Nepal's population, or some 1,245,232 people (Census of Nepal 2001). Allowing for natural increase, the current population is estimated at just over 1.4 million. More than two-thirds of this number are concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley. The remaining Newar are found spread through the eastern and western hill (Pahar) zones and the belt of lowlands in southern Nepal known as the Terai.

The Kathmandu Valley is one of the largest of a series of Himalayan valleys that lie between the foothills and the high ranges of the Great Himalaya. Formed by an ancient lake-bed, the valley is an amphitheater roughly 24 km (15 mi) across and about 1,300 m (4,300 ft) above sea level. The climate is very pleasant, with average temperatures ranging from 10°c (50°f) in January to 26°c (78°f) in July. Most of the 140 cm (55 in) of annual rainfall falls during the summer monsoon period from June to September. South of the Kathmandu Valley, the Mahabharat Lekh mountains bar the route to the Terai and the Ganges Plains. To the north, visible from many places on the valley floor, tower the snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas.


Newari, the mother tongue of the Newar, is a Tibeto-Burman language. Several dialects of Newari are spoken in the Kathmandu Valley, with the standard form being that of Kathmandu. There are numerous loan-words in Newari, the result of a long history of contact with Sanskrit, Nepālī, and other Indo-Aryan languages. Today, Newari is written in Devanagari, a script used to write Sanskrit, although several alphabets derived from ancient Indian systems of writing have been used in the past. Many Newars also speak Nepālī, which is used for official purposes and for inter-group communication. Although other groups in South Asia who speak Tibeto-Burman languages have given up their mother tongues, the Newar appear to be committed to preserving Newari as their language.

Newari is one of the few languages of Nepal to possess a distinct literature. Early works in Newari were translations from Sanskrit, but by the 14th century ad, Newari histories started appearing. There is a tradition of Newari literature dating to that time, a tradition that is being maintained by modern writers such as Dhushwan Salami.


Newars share Nepālī myths and traditions such as those relating to the origins of the Kathmandu Valley and the founding of the sacred shrine of Swayambhunath. There is, however, an unusual story in the Newar Buddhist literature that bears a resemblance to the biblical account of the creation of mankind. According to this legend, the earth was originally uninhabited by humans, but half-male/half-female creatures from the Abode of Brahma used to visit the earth. One day, Adi Buddha (the primordial Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism, the sect of Buddhism that reveres Buddha as divine) created in these beings a longing to eat some of the earth, which tasted to them like almonds. Once they had eaten earth, they lost their power to fly back to their home. Doomed to remain on earth, they ate fruits for sustenance. This aroused in them strong sexual urges that resulted in the earth being peopled with humans.


Newar religion is a mix of Mahāyāna Buddhism (the sect of Buddhism that reveres Buddha as divine), Hinduism, and older animistic beliefs. Buddhists are essentially monotheistic (believe in one god), but Newar Buddhists also recognize the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu, and other Brahmanical deities. (Brahma is the Supreme Soul revered in Hinduism.) Newars visit and worship at both Hindu and Buddhist temples. Images of Hindu goddesses, for instance, are found at the sacred Buddhist stupa (shrine) at Swayambhunath. Newar Buddhists have castes, or a hierarchy of social classes, just as Hindus do, with the Gubhaju being the equivalent of the Brahman priestly class. Likewise, Hindu Newars share Buddhist practices such as the worship of the living goddess, Kumārī . Of great significance in everyday life are numerous lesser godlings and their female counterparts, the latter known by terms such as devi or mai (mother). These are often served by priests from the lower castes, and their worship involves blood sacrifice and offerings of liquor. Surviving animistic beliefs may be seen in the Newars' veneration of frogs, snakes, and other animals. The Newars believe in the existence of witches skilled in the black arts and in demons, ghosts, and evil spirits that haunt cremation grounds and crossroads. Priests and magicians are called upon to deal with this spirit world.


The main festivals of the Kathmandu Valley are inter-caste celebrations held at particular locations. These include many jatras (e.g., Indra Jatra, Macchendra Jatra, and numerous festivals for Bhairava), when images of the deities are carried through the streets in procession. Rituals often include the sacrifice of buffalo or goats, and the festivals are always accompanied by the lavish consumption of rice, meat, liquor, and home-made beer. Gai Jatra, when cows are decorated and led through the streets in a parade, is a festival of particular importance to Hindu Newars, as the cow holds a sacred place in Hinduism. A second category of observances includes the worship of clan gods as well as festivals of the Hindu calendar, such as Holi (the worship of Krishna) in the spring and Divali (a festival of lights that, in some areas, marks the beginning of the new year) in the fall. As with other Nepālīs, Dasain (Dasahara, a Hindu festival ) is an important occasion marked by animal sacrifices. Newar practices differ slightly from other communities, however, and their offerings are made to the goddess Talleju.


The birth of a child is a joyous occasion among the Newar, with a son being particularly welcome. A midwife from the barber caste (Nau) attends the birth, cuts the umbilical cord, and completes certain important rituals. Two names are given to the Newar child, one by the astrologer (Joshi) based on a horo-scope, and the other by the family. Around the age of seven months, a first-feeding ceremony (known as Maca Jankwa) is held in the presence of family and priests. Childhood is a carefree time for Newari children, but they are soon initiated into adult life. Before they reach puberty, young girls are "married" to the god Narayan in the Ihi ritual. Dressed as a bride, a girl undergoes the symbolic rituals of a typical marriage. As a result, she will never (in theory) be a widow, and divorce in a real marriage thus becomes a mere formality. The puberty ceremony for Newar girls is called Barha. The initiation ceremony for boys is called Kayta Puja, and among the higher Hindu castes, it is often accompanied by the putting on of the sacred thread, a rite viewed as a symbolic rebirth. Buddhists require a boy to put on saffron-colored clothes and lead the life of an novice monk for a period of four days. After this, he resumes his normal life as a full-fledged adult of his community.

An unusual feature of the Newar life-cycle rituals is a series of ceremonies (Bura Jankwa) marking the attainment of old age. The first of these ceremonies is observed when a man reaches 77 years, 7 months, and 7 days (an age few reached in the past). In the last of these rituals, held at 99 years of age, a man enters his house through a window on the top floor (he is placed on a wooden shrine that is hoisted up by ropes). This is symbolic of going to heaven.

Death ceremonies generally follow Hindu or Buddhist rites, although there are some differences in specific practices. Unlike other Hindus, Newars offer pindas (cakes made from barley) to the soul of the deceased before cremation. Musicians from the Nau (barber) and Jyapu (farmer) castes accompany the procession to the cremation ground, which is usually on the banks of a river. Following ceremonies presided over by priests, the chief mourner—usually the eldest son—walks three times around the pyre before setting it alight. Death-pollution rituals are performed for a period of 10 to 12 days, and the mourning period ends with a feast and a purification ceremony (ghasu).


When Newars meet, they use the typical Nepālī word of greeting, "Namaste," accompanied by the joining of hands, palms together, in front of the body.


In the Kathmandu Valley, Newars are engaged in agriculture, trade, and many traditional service occupations. The Jyapu is the farming caste, while Shresthas and Udas are merchants. Other artisan and service castes include barbers (Nau), potters (Kumha), blacksmiths (Kau), and sweepers (Chami). Almost all Newar settlements in the Kathmandu Valley are built on plateaus above the general level of the valley floor. Houses are built of brick and may be several stories high. Their roofs are of slate or tile, and angled wooden beams support the overhang of their eaves. Houses line the streets and alleys of towns and villages with no gaps between them, their brick walls pierced by many windows, doors, and perhaps a veranda overhanging the street. Houses are often built around squares (chowks) that may have temples built in the middle. Elaborately carved windows and wooden doors adorn the houses of the Newar aristocracy. Patan and Bhaktapur are medieval cities with many fine examples of traditional Newari architecture.


Newars marry within their own caste, but lack the clan structure and strict rules of clan exogamy (marrying outside one's group) associated with other Hindu groups. Descent is patrilineal (traced on the father's side), and the phuki (a term meaning "brother" but usually applied to cousins and their families) defines what is essentially an exogamous lineage. A man may not marry a woman who is related to him through blood for seven generations on both his father's and his mother's side. Thus the cross-cousin (i.e., father's sister's daughter, or mother's brother's daughter) marriages found among the Gurungs, Bhutias, and other Nepālī groups are not permitted. Marriages are typically arranged, although urban youth are increasingly choosing their own mates. Marriage ceremonies are elaborate and may last for the better part of a week. The groom sends the bride's mother a gallon of milk as a symbolic act of repayment for her having suckled his future wife. Following the wedding, the young couple moves in with the husband's family. The extended family is typical of Newar society. Just above the level of the family is an important Newar socio-ritual organization known as the guthi. Guthis are associations often-although not always—based on common descent and organized for religious, social, and public-service purposes.


The traditional dress of Newar men is the same as that of all Nepālīs. It consists of tight-fitting trousers (suruwa) that flare out to a very loose fit around the upper thighs and seat. Over these is worn a blouse-type shirt (laa) tied with string on one side of the chest and falling to mid-thigh, with a cloth belt tied around the waist. Newar women wear the parsi , a garment like a sārī except that it is wrapped around the waist rather than having one end over the shoulder. With the parsi is worn the misa-laa , a long-sleeved blouse that fastens at the side of the chest; the jani , a wide sash tied around the waist; and the ga or scarf. The Indian sārī and blouse are also popular with Newar women. Young men typically wear Western-style shirts and pants.


The Newar follow the Nepālī habit of eating two main meals a day. A light breakfast of tea and snacks may be taken, but the first heavy meal of the day is consumed in the late morning. This typically consists of boiled rice, lentil curry, and one or two dishes such as potatoes and green-leafed vegetables. This meal is accompanied by pickled chilies, radishes, or other condiments. The second main meal of the day is eaten after sunset and is similar to the morning meal but may include some meat dishes. Buffalo, goat, and chicken are eaten, although pork is avoided, as is yak, which is considered as on a par with the cow. The momocha , a steamed, meat-filled pie much like the Tibetan momo, is popular among the upper castes. Sweet dishes are also popular and tea is drunk at any time of the day. Liquor, mostly brewed at home from rice, is indispensable in Newar social as well as ritual life.


Education levels in Nepal are low, with more than one-third of the adult population having no formal schooling. Literacy among the general population over 15 years old is only 45.2% (2001), but for women it is only 27.6%.

The education system in Nepal is characterized by large disparities in primary and secondary school attendance. School attendance rates are higher among boys, residents of urban areas, and children from wealthier households. Among the Newar, some 88% of households have children in primary school, while 52.3% have children in secondary schools-both values considerably higher than those for Nepal as a whole. This no doubt reflects the fact that the bulk of the Newar live in the Kathmandu Valley, where access to educational institutions is easier than in the rest of the country.

The 10 years of the Maoist insurgency have played havoc with the education system in Nepal. "The situation with regard to education has become so bad that it will take several decades to restore what we had achieved before the conflict started," said Dipendra Roka, a schoolteacher in Salle village in Rukum district, about 300 km northwest of the capital, Kathmandu. Like many rural hill districts, Rukum has experienced very low school attendance since the conflict started, due to abductions by rebels who have often forced students and teachers to march to the remotest parts of the district to attend their cultural and "revolutionary orientation" programs. Most schools in the district are also running out of books, other teaching materials and even decently-built classrooms, as the government has failed to use the education budget to maintain infrastructure and supplies, local teachers say.


Buddhist stupas (shrines) dating to the 3rd century bc are all that is left of the early cultures of the Kathmandu Valley, but numerous magnificent stone sculptures survive from the subsequent Licchavi period. Malla rule ushered in another era of artistic achievement. Under the Mallas (13th to 18th centuries), Newar artisans carried woodcarving, metal work, and stone sculpture to new heights. This work can be seen in temples, palaces, and courtyards throughout the Kathmandu Valley. In the late 13th century, a Newar architect introduced the Valley's distinctive multi-tiered, pagoda-style roof into Tibet, and from there it spread to East Asia. Tibetan influences on Newar art can be seen in the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur, a mid-18th century gilded copper gate considered the single most important work of art in the valley. Newari painting is religious in nature and encompasses the illuminated manuscripts of the 11th century to more recent Tibetan-style thankas (painted scrolls). Kumārī is the classical dance form of the Newars, and folk songs and dances play an important role in Newar life.


Newars have traditionally been involved in agriculture, commerce, and crafts, and these remain their main occupations today. With the modernization of Nepal, however, many have found their way into government, administrative, professional, and clerical occupations. An expanding tourism industry has also created opportunities for employment.


Sports and games of the Newars tend to be of the indoor variety, many of them involving gambling. The upper classes enjoy chess and other board games. Cards are popular with both adults and young people. Young boys fly kites, play marbles, spin tops, and also play a game called khopi, which involves betting on a coin tossed into a scoop. Girls enjoy playing with dolls. Outdoor sports such as soccer are played in Kathmandu and other major cities.


Living where they do, Newars have access to the modern amenities offered by the city of Kathmandu and nearby towns. Government-controlled radio and television programming is available to those who can afford receivers. Theaters in the cities show movies, mostly Indian. Many Newar cannot afford modern entertainment, however, and turn to religious festivals and folk traditions of song, music, and dance for their recreation.


Many of the traditional handicrafts of the Newar focus on religious objects. Artisan castes are known for their skill in casting images in bronze, brass, copper, and other metals. Carving in stone and wood is also commonplace. Among the numerous items available are statues of deities, prayer wheels, thankas (painted scrolls), Nepālī khukhrīs (curved knives), and paper maché dance masks. More utilitarian crafts include weaving, pottery, and basketry.


Many of the Newars' social problems are typical of populations in other developing countries. It has been less than 50 years since Nepal, which was closed to the outside of the world since 1816, abandoned its policy of isolation. Despite efforts by the government, Newars are faced with problems of poverty, overcrowding, poor sanitation and inadequate health facilities. Political instability and problems with the structure of Nepal's economy (low levels of industrialization, a lack of mineral resources, a severe shortage of skilled labor, and heavy reliance on foreign aid) hinder solutions to many of these problems. Environmental problems are increasing, with the Kathmandu Valley facing severe air and water pollution.

In Nepal, there are certain groups of people who for historical, social, or cultural reasons have become, or remained poor, and the government of Nepal has classed these people as "janajatis" (similar to adivasis or "indigenous peoples" in India). Janajatis are defined as persons who have their own language and traditional culture and who are not included under the conventional Hindu hierarchical caste structure and are accorded reserved seats in terms of political representation, educational institutions, and jobs. There are umbrella janajati organizations such as Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), which are lobbying for more rights for janajatis to break the dominance of high caste Hindus (i.e. the Brahmans and the chhetris) in the country.

One problem facing the Newars, who are classed by the government as janajatis, is whether or not to take advantage of the benefit offered by this status. "Newars with their proud cultural history and economic status were never janajatis and will never claim that status," wrote Pradip Shrestha, a Newar, in the weekly Nepal Jagaran . Accepting Shrestha's views would mean giving up the "special arrangements for education, health and employment" that the Nepali Constitution promises for "economically and socially" disadvantaged janajatis.


Newar women's roles are both like and unlike those of women in patrilineal households in other cultures in South Asia. They have greater freedom than their Brahman and Chhetri counterparts in Nepal, but nonetheless occupy the same subservient status in society. Newar women's restrictions at menstruation—a time of impurity for higher caste Hindus—are considerably less. Menstruating Newar women can comb their own hair, and may continue to sleep in their usual place, although they sometimes go to another household woman's sleeping area to sleep. They can cook all foods except rice to be used for ceremonial purposes and can attend ceremonial family feasts, although they are not supposed to carry water or touch god images, sacred utensils, or priests.

Women are able to move outside the house with greater ease than Brahman and Chhetri women and also are able to start up their own businesses. Newar women cannot inherit property, but retain personal control over their dowry, often investing it in businesses such as money-lending or renting out livestock. There are women's organizations, such as the Kathmandu Federation of Business and Professional Women, which serve as forums to articulate the interests and problems of women in Nepal, particularly those related to working women.

Nonetheless, Newar women still fulfill the roles of running the household and bearing children, preferably sons to continue the lineage, which are so typical of women in South Asian societies.


Bista, Dor Bahadur. People of Nepal. 2nd ed. Kathmandu, Nepal: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1972.

Chattopadhyay, K. P. An Essay on the History of Newar Culture. Kathmandu: Educational Enterprise, 1980.

Lall, Kesar. The Newar Merchants in Lhasa. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 2001.

Nepālī, Gopal Singh. The Newars: An Ethno-Sociological Study of a Himalayan Community. Bombay: United Asia Publications, 1965.

Rose, Leo E. and John T. Scholz. Nepal: Profile of a Himalayan Kingdom . Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980.

Toffin, Gerard. From Kin to Caste: The Role of Guthis in Newar Society and Culture. Lalitpur: Social Science Baha, 2005.

Vergati, Anne. Gods, Men, and Territory: Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley. New Delhi: Manohar, 2002.

—by D. O. Lodrick