Newar; In Nepal Bhasa: नेवार; endonym: Newa: Nepal Bhasa: नेवा, Pracalit script: or Nepami, are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas in Nepal and the creators of its historic heritage and civilisation. Newars form a linguistic and cultural community of primarily Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicities following Hinduism and Buddhism with Nepal Bhasa as their common language. Newars have developed a division of labour and a sophisticated urban civilisation not seen elsewhere in the Himalayan foothills Newars have continued their age-old traditions and practices and pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture and civilisation of Nepal.
The Kathmandu Valley and surrounding territories constituted the former Newar kingdom of the Nepal Mandala. Unlike other common-origin ethnic or caste groups of Nepal, the Newars are regarded as an example of a nation community with a relict identity, derived from an ethnically-diverse, previously-existing polity. Newar community within it consists of various strands of ethnic, racial, caste and religious heterogeneity, as they are the descendants of the diverse group of people that have lived in Nepal Mandala since prehistoric times. Indo-Aryan tribes like the Licchavis and Mallas (N) from respective Indian Mahajanapada (i.e. Licchavis of Vajji and
Malla (I)) that arrived at different periods eventually merged with the local population by adopting their language and customs. These tribes however retained their Vedic culture and brought with them their Sanskritic languages, social structure and Hindu religion, which was assimilated with local cultures and gave rise to the current Newar civilization. Newar rule in Nepal Mandala ended with its conquest by the Gorkha Kingdom in 1768. Newars are known for their contributions to culture, art, literature, trade, agriculture & cuisine.
Today, they consistently rank as the most economically, politically and socially advanced community of Nepal, according to the annual Human Development Index published by UNDP. Nepal’s 2011 census ranks them as the nation’s sixth-largest ethnicity/community, with 1,321,933 Newars throughout the country.
Origin of the name
The terms “Nepāl”, “Newār”, “Newāl” and “Nepār” are phonetically different forms of the same word, and instances of the various forms appear in texts in different times in history. Nepal is the learned (Sanskrit) form and Newar is the colloquial (Prakrit) form. A Sanskrit inscription dated to 512 in Tistung, a valley to the west of Kathmandu, contains the phrase “greetings to the Nepals” indicating that the term “Nepal” was used to refer to both the country and the people.
The term “Newar” or “Newa:” referring to “inhabitant of Nepal” appeared for the first time in an inscription dated 1654 in Kathmandu. Italian Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733) who traveled to Nepal in 1721 has written that the natives of Nepal are called Newars. It has been suggested that “Nepal” may be a sanskritization of “Newar”, or “Newar” may be a later form of “Nepal”. According to another explanation, the words “Newar” and “Newari” are colloquial forms arising from the mutation of P to W, and L to R. As a result of the phonological process of dropping the last consonant and lengthening the vowel, “Newā” for Newār or Newāl, and “Nepā” for Nepāl are used in ordinary speech.
For about a thousand years, the Newar civilization in Central Nepal preserved a microcosm of classical North Indian culture in which Brahmanic and Buddhist elements enjoyed equal status Snellgrove and Richardson (1968) speak of ‘the direct heritage of pre-Islamic India’. The Malla dynasty was noted for their patronisation of the Maithili language (the language of the Mithila region) which was afforded an equal status to that of Sanskrit in the Malla court. Maithil Brahmin priests were invited to Kathmandu and many Maithil families settled in Kathmandu during Malla rule. Due to influx of people from both north (Tibet) and south (Bihar) who brought with them not only their genetic and racial diversity but also greatly moulded the dominant culture and tradition of Newars.
The different divisions of Newars had different historical developments. The common identity of Newar was formed in the Kathmandu Valley. Until the conquest of the valley by the Gorkha Kingdom in 1769, all the people who had inhabited the valley at any point of time were either Newar or progenitors of Newar. So, the history of Newar correlates to the history of the Kathmandu Valley (or Nepala Mandala) prior to the establishment of the modern state of Nepal.
The earliest known history of Newar and the Kathmandu Valley blends with mythology recorded in historical chronicles. One such text, which recounts the creation of the valley, is the Swayambhu Purana. According to this Buddhist scripture, the Kathmandu Valley was a giant lake until the Bodhisattva Manjusri, with the aid of a holy sword, cut a gap in the surrounding hills and let the water out. This apocryphal legend is supported by geological evidence of an ancient lakebed, and it provides an explanation for the high fertility of the Kathmandu Valley soil.
According to the Swayambhu Purana, Manjusri then established a city called Manjupattan (Sanskrit “Land Established by Manjusri”), now called Manjipā, and made Dharmākara its king. A shrine dedicated to Manjusri is still present in Majipā. No historical documents have been found after this era till the advent of the Gopal era. A genealogy of kings is recorded in a chronicle called Gopalarajavamsavali. According to this manuscript, the Gopal kings were followed by the Mahispals and the Kirats before the Licchavis entered from the south. Some claim Buddha to have visited Nepal during the reign of Kirat King Jitedasti. Newar reign over the valley and their sovereignty and influence over neighboring territories ended with the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley in 1769 by the Gorkhali Shah dynasty founded by Prithvi Narayan Shah.
Prior to the Gorkha conquest, which began with the Battle of Kirtipur in 1767, the borders of Nepal Mandala extended to Tibet in the north, the nation of the Kirata in the east, the kingdom of Makwanpur in the southand the Trishuli River in the west which separated it from the kingdom of Gorkha.
Trade, industry and agriculture have been the mainstay of the economy of the Newars. They are made up of social groups associated with hereditary professions that provide ritual and economic services. Merchants, craftsmen, artists, potters, weavers, dyers, farmers and other castes all played their part in creating a flourishing economic system. Elaborate cultural traditions which required the use of varied objects and services also fueled the economy. Towns and villages in the Kathmandu Valley specialized in producing particular products, and rich agriculture produced a surplus for export for centuries, Newar merchants have handled trade between Tibet and India . Besides exporting locally manufactured products to Tibet. Rice was another major export. Porters and pack mules transported merchandise over mountain tracks that formed the old trade routes. Since the 18th century, Newars have spread out across Nepal and established trading towns dotting the mid hills. They are known as jewelry makers and shopkeepers. Today, they are engaged in modern industry, business and service sectors.
Castes and Communities
Newars forms an ethnolinguistic community distinct from all the other ethnic groups of Nepal. Newars are divided into various endogamous clans or groups on the basis of their ancient hereditary occupations, deriving its roots in the classic late-Vedic Varna model. Although first introduced in the time of the Licchavis, the Newar caste system assumed its present shape during the medieval Malla period Artisan castes: The following are the “ritually pure” occupational caste groups: Balami (field workers and farmers), Bha/Karanjit (death ritual specialists), Chipā/Ranjitkar (dyers), Duhim/Putwar/Dali (carriers), Gathu/Mālākār/Mali (gardeners), Khusa/Tandukar (palanquin bearers/farmers), Kau/Nakarmī (blacksmiths), Nau/Napit (barbers), Puñ/Chitrakar(painters), Sayami/Mānandhar (oilpressers).
- Banra/Baré/Shakya: Buddhist temple priests and also traditionally goldsmiths.
- Brahmin: The two main groups are: Rajopadhyaya (Dyabhāju Brāhman or Bājyé) who are purohits for Hindu Newars, and Maithil Brahmin (Jhā Bajé) who are temple priests of Kathmandu’s various Hindu shrines.
- Chatharīya (Ksatrīya) Srēṣṭha: Kshatriya aristocratic bloc which includes Malla descendants, their numerous Hindu courtier clans (Pradhan, Pradhananga, Maskay, Hada, Amatya, Mathema, etc.) and few Kshatriya-status ritual specialists like Joshi (astrologers), Vaidya (Ayurvedic practitioners), Rajbhandārī (assistant priests and treasurers), Karmāchārya (Tantric priests), Kayastha (scribes), among others.
- Chyamé/Chama:khala: Traditionally fishermen, sweepers. A Scheduled Caste.
- Jogi: A caste associated as being descendants of the Kanphata Yogi sect. Also traditionally tailors, musicians.(Tantric priests)
- Dyala/Podé: Traditionally temple cleaners, fishermen, sweepers. A Scheduled Caste.
- Gubhāju/Bajracharya: Buddhist purohits and temple priests of Kathmandu’s various Buddhist shrines.
- Jyapu: Traditionally farmers and Janajati in origin and form the majority of Newar population inside Kathmandu Valley. Also includes Suwal, Basukala, etc. (Bhaktapur Hindu Jyapus), Kumhā/Prajapati (potterers and clay workers), Awalé (brickmakers), Sapu (descendants of Gopāl dynasty), etc. They are highly talented and have talents in music, art, dance, and all other antique Nepal(Newah) traditional instruments belong to them.
- Kulu: Traditionally leather workers. A Scheduled Caste.
- Nayé/Khadgi: Traditionally butchers . A Scheduled Caste.
- Panchthariya Srēṣṭha: Chief Hindu trader and merchant group including Shrestha (administrators and traders).
- Shilpakar:Wood Carving group, Relates with numerous historic wood art involved traditionally as Woodsmiths.
- Tamrakar: Trader and Merchant group traditionally involved as coppersmiths.
- Urāya/Udās: Chief Buddhist trader, merchant and artisan group including Tuladhar and Bania (merchants) Kansakar (bronzesmiths), Rajkarnikar
(sweetmakers), Sthapit, Kasthakar(architects/carpenters), etc.There are different types of castes amongst them.
According to the 2001 Nepal Census, 84.13% of the Newars were Hindu and 15.31% were Buddhist, but most of the Newars practice both Buddhism and Hinduism Out of the three main cities of the Kathmandu Valley which are historically Newar, the city of Patan is the most Buddhist containing the four stupas built by Indian emperor Ashoka. Bhaktapur is primarily Hindu, while Kathmandu is a mix of both. Generally, both Hindu and Buddhist deities are worshiped and festivals are celebrated by both religious groups. However, for ritual activities, Hindu and Buddhist Newars have their own priests (Rajopadhyaya Brahmins for Hindus and Vajracharyas for Buddhists) and cultural differences.
Religiously, the Newars can be classified as both Hindu and Buddhist. The major cults are Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism. The former is referred to as Buddhamarga, the latter as Sivamarga and vaishnava. Both creeds have been established since antiquity in the valley. Both Buddhamargi and Sivamargi and vaishnava Newars are Tantricists, Within the Newar community many different esoteric Tantric cults, both Buddhist and Saiva and vaishnava, are practiced. In this regard, cults of the Mother Goddesses and their consorts, the Bhairavas, are particularly important.
The most important shrines in the Valley are Swayambhunath (Buddhist) and Pashupatinath (Hindu). Different castes worship different deities at different occasions, and more or less intensively. Only the higher echelons in the caste system claim to be exclusively Buddhist or Hindu. The Vajracharyas, Buddhist priests, will adamantly maintain that they are Buddhists, and so will the Bare (Shakya) and the Uray (Tuladhars, et al.), whereas, the Dyabhāju Brāhman, the Jha Brāhman, and the dominant Shresthas will maintain that they are Hindus. Further down in the caste hierarchy no distinction is made between Buddhists and Hindus. Hindu and Buddhist alike always worship Ganesh first in every ritual, and every locality has its local Ganesh shrine (Ganesh Than). Although Newar Buddhism (Vajrayana) had been traditionally practiced in the Kathmandu Valley Theravada Buddhism made a comeback in Nepal in the 1920s and now is a common form of Buddhism among Buddhamargi Newars.
“Nepal Bhasa” is classified as among the Sino-Tibetan languages but it has greatly derived much of its grammar, words and lexicon from the influences of southern Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Maithili. Newars are bound together by a common language and culture their common language is Nepal Bhasa or the linguistic progenitor of that language. Nepal Bhasa is the term recognised by the government.
Nepal Bhasa already existed as a spoken language during the Licchavi period. Inscriptions in Nepal Bhasa emerged from the 12th century, the palm-leaf manuscript from Uku Bahah being the first example. Nepal Bhasa developed from the 14th to the late 18th centuries as the court and state language It was used universally in stone and copper inscriptions, sacred manuscripts, official documents, journals, title deeds, correspondence and creative writing.
In 2011, there were approximately 846,000 native speakers of Nepal Bhasa Many Newar communities within Nepal also speak their own dialects of Nepal Bhasa, such as the Dolakha Newar Language. Nepal Bhasa is of Tibeto-Burman origin but has been heavily influenced by Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit, Pali, Bengali and Maithili.