The Newar are the indigenous ethnolinguistic group of Nepal's Kathmandu valley. According to Nepal’s 2001 census, the 1,245,232 Newar in the country are the nation's sixth largest ethnic group, representing 5.48% of the population. The main Newar language, Nepal Bhasa, is of Tibeto-Burman origin and 825,458 Nepalis speak Newar languages as their mother tongue.
The Newar have a rich and highly developed culture due to their long history of urban social development. Newar inhabitation of the Kathmandu valley is so ancient that it extends beyond recorded history into the realm of legend. Historians believe the Newar settled the Kathmandu valley in the early 3rd or 4th century AD. According to popular legend, the Kathmandu valley was a giant lake until the god Manjushree, with the aid of a holy sword, cut open the hills that surround the valley and drained the giant lake, allowing the Newar to settle the valley land. This apocryphal legend is supported by some geological evidence of an ancient lakebed and it provides an explanation for the high fertility of Kathmandu valley soil.
The earliest record of Newar rule from the 5th century AD Lichchhavi dynasty. The Lichchhavi dynasty ruled for at least 600 years, followed by the Malla dynasty in 12th century AD. Nepal Bhasa script is estimated to be at least 1200 years old. Nepal Bhasa inscriptions in an ancient manuscript, Nidan, from 901 AD and on a stone tablet from 1173 AD in the courtyard of Bajrayogini Temple at Sankhu, attest to the deep roots of Newar culture in the Kathmandu valley.
Newar reign over the valley and their sovereignty and influence over neighboring territories ended approximately 250 years ago with the conquest of the Kathmandu valley in 1769 by the Gorkhali Shah dynasty founded by Prithvi Narayan Shah. Even after the consolidation of the nation-state, the Newar remained a pivotal force in Nepali society as merchants and government administrators, rivalling Brahmin influence in Shah courts.
The Newar maintain a highly literate culture and their members are prominent in every sphere, from agriculture, business, education and government administration to medicine, law, religion, architecture, fine art, and literature. Newar architects are responsible for inventing Asia’s hallmark pagoda architecture. Newar devotional thangka painting, sculpture and metal craftsmanship are world-renowned for their exquisite beauty. The fine temples and palaces of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur are largely the product of Newar architects, artisans, and sculptors.
Newar practice both Buddhism and Hinduism. It is believed that the Newar were originally Buddhists but the long historical process of Sanskritization (adoption of Hindu rituals), led to the development of the Newar’s unique syncretic tradition. The Newar are divided into hierarchical clan groups by occupational caste, readily identifiable by surname, such as Jyapu (farmers), Shrestha (administrators), Rajkarnikar (confectioners), Vajracharya (Buddhist priests), Tuladhar (weigher craftsmen), Tamrakar (copper craftsmen), Manandhar (oil pressers), Shakya (goldsmiths), Ranjitkar(dye related workers), Nakarmi (blacksmiths), Kulu (drum-makers), Chami (sweepers), etc.
Music, Dance, and Food
The Newar are noted for their enjoyment of music, dance, and feasting. They are accomplished musicians with a large assortment of ritual and traditional instruments and an immense repertoire of traditional love songs, mask dances, satirical performances, etc. Newar feasts are lavish and indulgent affairs, especially wedding feasts, featuring a spicy assortment of fried, roasted, jellied and curried meats (buffalo, mutton, and chicken), various rice dishes, soups, vegetable curries, sweet fruits, yoghurt, and large quantities of beer and rice liquor.
Festivals and Rituals
Newar culture is very rich in pageantry and ritual throughout the year. Many festivals are tied to Hindu holidays, Buddha’s birth and the harvest cycle. For instance, an important Newar high holiday is Gunhu Punhi. During this nine day festival, Newar men and women drink a bowl of sprouted mixed cereals, receive doro (a ritual protection cord tied on the wrist by a Brahman priest) and then offer food to frogs in the farmers’ fields. On the second day, people who have lost a family member in the past year dress up as cows and parade through town, in the belief that cows help souls enter heaven. The last day of Gunhu Punhi is Krishnastami, birthday of lord Krishna, an incarnation of lord Vishnu.
Yanya Punhi is a holiday dedicated to the Hindu god king of heaven, Indra. The festival begins with the carnival-like erection of Yosin, a ceremonial pole, accompanied by the rare display of the deity Aakash Bhairab, represented by a massive mask spouting beer and liquor. Households throughout Kathmandu display images and sculptures of Indra and Bhairab only at this time of year. Finally, the Kumari, or virgin goddess, leaves the seclusion of her temple in a palanquin and leads a procession through the streets of Kathmandu to thank Indra the rain god.
Many rituals are related to the stages of life stages from birth, first rice-feeding, childhood, puberty, marriage, seniority and death. The complexity and all-encompassing nature of these rituals cannot be exaggerated. For instance, Newar girls undergo a Bahra ceremony when they reach menarche. Because menstruation is considered ritually impure, girls undergo ritual confinement for 12 days. Girls are separated from all males and from sunlight for 12 days while they are doted upon by female relatives. On 12th day the girl must pay homage to the sun.
Should a Newar man or women live long enough, there are five rituals, known as "janku", performed between the age of 77 and 106; specifically at the age 77 years, 7 months, 7 days; 83 years, 4 months, 4 days; 88 years, 8 months, 8 days; 99 years, 9 months, 9 days; and, finally, at 105 years, 8 months, 8 days. Afterwards, the full complement of life cycle rituals will have been completed, until the death ceremony.
- Nepal Population Report 2002 (http://www.mope.gov.np/population/chapter5.php)
- A Window to Newar Culture (http://www.jwajalapa.com)
- Newah Organization of America (http://www.newah.org/intro.htm)
- Art of Newar Buddhism (http://kaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu/nepal/nepal.html)
- Journal of Newar Studies (http://www.newah.org/newah.htm)
- Rastriya Janajati Bikas Samiti (http://www.nepaldemocracy.org/ethnicity/nationalities_of_nepal.htm)
- Nepal Ethnographic Museum (http://www.welcomenepal.com/emuseum.asp)
- Bista, Dor Bahadur. (2004). People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.
- Levy, Robert I. (1990). Mesocosm: Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. Berkeley: University of California Press.