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The Newars (An Ethno-Sociological Study of a Himalayan Community)

The Newars (An Ethno-Sociological Study of a Himalayan Community)
Item Code: NAM338
Author: Gopal Singh Nepali
Publisher: Mandala Book Point, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9789994655274
Pages: 512 (24 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 655 gms

About the Book

The Newars of Nepal are a people with a high degree of material culture and a distinctive social organisation. Though stray references on them are available from the pioneering accounts of Levi, Hodgson, Oldfield, K.P. Chattopathyaya and others, there has been no systematic ethno sociological study on the subject, Dr. Nepal’s monograph, which earned him the Ph.D. degree of the Bombay University, makes an attempt to fill in this gap.

Written in the best traditions of sociological studies, the author, who has had the benefit of being trained under Dr. G.S. Ghurye, the doyen of Indian sociology, uses the functional approach and the descriptive method to advantage, as in particularly evident in his religion and kinship.

The monograph derives additional dimensions of interest on two points: while on the one hand it seeks to study the Newars and their interaction with various other ethnic groups of the politically significant cis-Himalayas region, the work, on the other hand, stimulates scholarly of certain culture-traits between the Newars and the distantly-placed Nayars of Malabar.


About the Author

Gopal Singh Nepali was born in Kathmandu in 1926, but brought up and educated in India at Varanasi and Bombay. He took his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Bombay. He taught as assistant lecturer at Sir J.J. College of Architecture,Bombay and as lecturer in Sociology at the University of Gorakhpur before joining Banaras Hindu University,Varanasi as lecturer in Sociology in 1963.

Dr. Nepali retired from the department of sociology.Banaras Hindu University professor on Jan. 31. 1986. He was also then holding the directorship of Centre for the Study of Nepal. Banaras Hindu University. He was subsequently appointed professor at the Centre for Himalayan Studies. University of North Bengal (West Bengal),where he worked for two years.

Dr. Nepali was a Professor at the Department Of Sociology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu for eight years.

This reprint of the book “The Newars” in the series of Mandala Book Point’s publication is to acquaint Its readers with the society,culture and religion of the entire Himalayan belt to protect and preserve the heritage through the medium of printed books.



The Newars had attracted my attention as early as the days when I was a student of M.A. They are a distinct community in the cis-Himalayan region with a high degree of material culture and a complex social organization,which set them apart from others.

However, very little has been studied in the past about these people. In the 19th century some European scholars like Brian Hodgson, H. A. Oaldfield, Col. W. Kirkpatrick and a few others had collected a good deal of data on them, but there is still dearth of literature on the subject. Moreover, these writers were not trained anthropologists or sociologists. Perhaps the only work that can be said to be of some sociological value is a paper by Professor K. P. Chattopadbyaya, entitled History of the Newar Culture (JRASB. vol. IXX, 1923). But this is. However, a collection of facts available from published literature. Professor Chattopadhyaya himself had then felt the need for a detailed monograph on the Newars based on actual field work. The present work which is the outcome of a field investigation that I carried out in the Valley of Kathmandu in 1957-58, I believe, fulfils that need in a small way.

Originally, the material as presented here was collected for the preparation of my Ph.D. thesis, submitted to the University of Bombay in 1959, under the guidance of Dr. G. S. Ghurye, now Emeritus Professor of Sociology. The material as it stood in the thesis-form had to be cut down to the requirements of publication.

During field work, I became a participant-observer, without ignoring the other techniques of gathering data, whenever I could profit by them. Though the Valley of Kathmandu as a whole was my field, I concentrated particularly on the town of Kathmandu and the village of Panga for an intensive study of urban and rural differences. Three hundred families were sampled from these two areas for a detailed study of marriage and the family among the Newars. Furthermore, to find out the regional variations in Newar socio-cultural life, field observations were made in Tarai and the hills with an eye on the process of interaction between the Newars and the ethnic groups among whom they live.

Of late many Western scholars have been attracted by Nepal. And this is a happy augury for the study of the Himalayan peoples, the understanding of whose cultures has become significant politically as well. The results of some of these investigations, which cover the Newars also, have been published subsequent to the period of my field work. I have as far as possible attempted to refer to them so as to make due note of such facts as I had over-looked during my field work.

Readers' attention may be drawn to the restricted use I have made of the terms Gorkha and Parbate. The first term has passed on in common military parlance as referring to those ethnic groups from which soldiers are recruited, while the term Parbate is commonly taken to denote those who are hill-born. In contrast to such usages, I have used these terms alternately to designate as a whole the speakers of the Nepali language who include the Brahmins and Kshatriyas. This manner of usage is quite consistent with what the Nepalese take these terms to stand for.

I owe an immense debt to many organizations, institutions and individuals, who have made this work possible. Especially, I thank the University of Bombay for giving me a Research Fellowship for this study.

To my esteemed teacher, Dr. G. S. Ghurye, now Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Bombay, I owe the deepest gratitude for his valuable guidance without which this study would not have taken its present shape. As a humble token of my sense of gratitude, I have dedicated this book to him.

I would also like to record my thankfulness to Dr. K. M. Kapadia, Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Bombay, for the constant encouragement I have been receiving from him all these years.

Special thanks are due to Messrs. Purandas Shrestha, Ratandas Shrestha, the late Govinddas Shrestha, Viswanath Prasad Agarwal (of Messrs Ganpatrai Hanuman Prasad Firm), Poet Chitradhar, Thakurlal Manandhar, Kedar Bhakta Shrestha, Hari Bhagat Shrestha (of Panga village) and many other Newar friends who have helped me in a variety of ways.

Mr. S. Devadas Pillai, my friend and former research colleague, who has gone through almost the entire manuscript and the galleys and made valuable suggestions, especially in the second half of the book, has high appreciation from me.

My friend, Mr. L. A. Mehta, has helped me in many ways during my studentship and it is my pleasant duty to thank him.

This note of acknowledgements would be far more incomplete without a word of thanks to my enlightened publisher, Mr. G. S. Pohekar, who has always shown more than casual interest in the publication of this book.


Foreword to the Second Edition

Prof. Gopal Singh Nepali (18 January 1926 - 20 January 2002) is a well-known name among Sociologists and Anthropologists in South Asia while his book The Newars:An Ethno-Sociological Study of a Himalayan Community (originally published by United Asia Publications, Bombay, 1965) is regarded as a classic ethnography. The book is based on the author's field research undertaken during 1957-1958. Nepali was awarded a Ph.D. degree in Social Anthropology by the University of Bombay for an earlier version of this work in 1960. The Newars was reprinted in 1988 in Kathmandu but no copies of the book are available in local book-stores today. Therefore, in the recent past, students and others who wanted to read The Newars had to either borrow it or resort to obtaining photocopies! I feel happy that Mandala Book Point is now bringing out the second edition of this book because I am aware that many students and researchers in Nepal have continued to look for this classic ethnography.

GS Nepali, who started his teaching career at the University of Bombay (University of Mumbai) itself in 1960, spent more than half of his life educating and training young minds at various educational institutions. Nepali taught for a total of almost 40 years at various educational institutions including University of Gorakhpur, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and University of North Bengal in India and Tribhuvan University (TU) in Nepal. GS Nepali once confided to me that he was also invited to start a program in Sociology at TU just when he was completing his Ph.D. Accordingly he did come to Kathmandu and stayed here for some time. However, TU authorities were not able to set up the new academic program in question due to the unfolding of uneasy political conditions in the country just around that time. In the mean time, Nepali went back to India where he was offered a job in University of Bombay. Apparently the idea of starting a teaching program in Sociology and Anthropology in Nepal was also put on the back burner for a number of years.

After teaching in different universities in India, GS Nepali finally came to teach in Nepal and joined the Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology as a visiting professor in 1988, and continued to teach here until 1999. Even to this day he is fondly remembered by his colleagues and former students at TU as a teacher who was very knowledgeable on his subject, was always ready to help students and would spend many hours to discuss theoretical and methodological problems with them. I must also mention that two of the founding members of the Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology (CDSA) at TU were his students in Sociology at BHU during the late 1970s. They are Dr. Krishna Bhattachan and Mr. Phanindreswar Paudel who have been teaching Sociology at TU for more than three decades. GS Nepali also supervised many students thesis projects at the Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology during the 1990s. It is to be noted that some of those students of GS Nepali at TU laterset up "The GS Nepali Memorial Dissertation Award" in 2005 at the Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Prithvi Narayan Campus in Pokhara. Every year on January 20 the department holds a function in Nepali's memory and gives out the Award (in cash) to one student whose MA thesis is selected by the reviewers at the campus as the best among those completed during the preceding calendar year.

In the following section I want to briefly discuss about GS Nepali and his book The Newars. I will briefly mention about the theory and method used by Nepali in this ethnographic work, highlight some interesting issues discussed by Nepali in relation to Newars themselves as a community as well as their culture and society. I will also share my views about some important aspects of this work in the present socio-political context of Nepal (which may be of interest to students, researchers and others in dealing with issues of identity, social and cultural change or transformation and the like) and finally point out the usefulness or value of this book for students and researchers.

GS Nepali discusses the Newar social structure and culture from a functionalist perspective. We know that functionalism as propounded by Emile Durkeim, Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown was a predominant theoretical paradigm in Sociology and Social Anthropology until the 1950s when GS Nepali was a student and was undertaking his ethnographic investigation among the Newars. Moreover, his teacher and Ph.D. supervisor GS Ghurye who is regarded as a doyen of Indian sociology was himself trained under WHR Rivers in Britain and he had accepted the structural functional approach. In line with the functional theory, Nepali's discussion of the Newar community's society and culture is geared to make a point that the institutions, customs and practices satisfy the needs of the individuals and thereby help to maintain order and harmony in the society. His elaborate discussion of Newar ethnography with illustrations at times reveals his conviction as a functionalist that each of the institutions, customs and practices (Guthi, marriage and family, life cycle and other rituals, festivals, the feasts, etc.) are interconnected, play a part in maintaining the integrity of the social system while also functioning to satisfy the needs of people/individuals in the community.

The book stands out distinctly as a detailed social and ethnographic account of the Newars of Nepal, and as mentioned above, as a piece of research anchored on the functional approach that was in vogue in Sociology and Social Anthropology until the 1950s. Befitting an ethnographic study, his study methods included participant observation, sample survey, review of secondary sources, and other methods of obtaining information and data. His focus was primarily in Panga village and the town of Kathmandu for intensive study- in particular for comparing rural and urban differences in marriage and family patterns. GS Nepali not only discusses the life and culture among the Newars in Panga, Kathmandu, Dolkha, Tarai, or other parts of Nepal but also links them to peoples in Tibet and India besides resorting to historical accounts to deal with the question of the roots or origins of this community. That is, his research methodology can really be characterized as one of triangulation.

The Newar community is unique among the many caste/ethnic groups present in Nepal. As we learn from GS Nepali, the Newar community has its own caste hierarchy/structure-much more complex and elaborate than what can be found among the caste Hindus (a four-fold hierarchy) of Nepal. GS Nepali shows that there prevails a six-fold caste hierarchy scheme among the Newars and that the caste hierarchy is maintained even by the Buddhist Newars (see p. 150). Leaving aside the caste hierarchy scheme (and the inbuilt irrational and ill practices), I want to draw the attention of the readers to the question on the origins of the Newars of Nepal.

According to GS Nepali the origins of Newars is a controversial issue. He contends that "The origin of the Newars is a controversial question" (p. 27).He also states that "the Newars are a people of diverse origins as their traditions reveal" (p.34). The following excerpts further bolster his argument.

The term Newar is applied to designate a number of former ethnic groups who have, through centuries of interbreeding, been welded into a homogenous community with common traditions of language and other social heritage. It is therefore, a gross over-simplification to regard them as belonging to one single racial origin (p. 18) ... The traditions of the individual castes ... fully suggest that the present Newars are drawn from the Abhiras, the Kiratas, the Lichhavis, the Vaishya Thakuri and the Karnatakas, apart from the fact that there might have been some ethnic group which provided the foundation for the present Newar type (p. 27).

Citing Daniel Wright (History of Nepal, 1877:167) Nepali writes "The powerful chief, Nanya Deo who called himself a Karnatic prince is said to have brought with him the Newars as soldiers in his army" (p. 14). He goes on to talking about the similarities in physical, social/cultural and linguistic elements of the Newars with that of other peoples in south Asia-referring to objects like farm implements, place names, the ritual practices, language and vocabulary/words, etc.

He talks about cultural proximity of Newar community to the Nayars in South India as well as to the Tibetans in the North and the Khasis living in North- East India. Based on this argument made by GS Nepali one is likely to suggest that the north and south connections of the Newar people as followers of Hindu and Buddhist faiths may also be an artifact of their social and cultural linkages in the two directions in the past. GS Nepali's suggestions of links with Tibetans are made in terms of "dress" (p. 220), religion and culture (p. 330) including a possible practice of polyandry in the past (p. 283). The act of offering betel nuts to the guests and visitors is noted by him as having a similarity with Khasi custom. Citing literature on the Khasis, Nepali notes that "the Newar ritual of presenting betel nuts ('Gue-Sake-gu and Gue-Kae-bu') show similarity with a Khasi custom" (p. 33). Indication of polyandry as suggested by kinship terms and language of the Newars in Nepal, on the other hand, are regarded as suggesting links with Tibetans in the north of Nepal.

GS Nepali's discussion and arguments about the origin as well as ethnic and cultural affinities of Newars with peoples in India and Tibet as mentioned above are important points to consider in the context of the nature of contemporary debates and discussion in relation to identity politics and caste/ethnic questions in Nepal. For me, the question on the origin of the Newars raised by GS Nepali more than five decades ago has a clear message: anyone who is engaged in the debates or discourses on identity politics, ethnicity, aboriginality and the like should perhaps follow him while examining these issues in wider historical as well as biological, linguistic and cultural contexts before reaching any conclusions. If everyone including research scholars, students, activists and politicians were to adopt an approach similar to GS Nepali's in order to reach conclusions on such issues, we could be avoiding unexpected and impending social conflicts and problems in the country.



Various ethnic groups live in the hill region of Nepal. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two distinct groups according to their racial and linguistic affinities-the Gorkhas or Parbatias who speak an Indo-Aryan language,Nepali; and the speakers of Tibeto-Bur-man group of dialects. The Nepali speakers, according to the 1952-54 Census Report, numbered 40.14 lakhs forming 48.7 per cent of the country's total population. The Tibeto-Burman speakers total about 18.19 lakhs (22.1 per cent) and are divided into numerous mutually exclusive dialect-groups with their own respective cultural traditions. Barring the Newars, all of these Tibeto-Burman speaking groups have typical mongoloid physical characteristics and are comparatively on a lower state of culture. But the Newars stand out quite distinctly with a high level of cultural achievement, as represented by a complex civilization with an urban bias, which they have evolved in the Valley of Kathmandu.

The 1952-54 Census of Nepal puts the total population of Newars in the country at 3.83 lakhs of which, as many as 2.26 lakhs live in the Valley of Kathmandu. Thus they constitute 55 per cent of the population of the Valley of Kathmandu. It is still the centre of their cultural activities. It is their homeland to which they have the greatest emotional attachment. Before we deal with the question as to who are the Newars, it is necessary that we have a brief resume of the ecology of their habitat and its history.

The Valley of Kathmandu occupies the tract between the basins of the rivers Gandak and Kosi lying in latitude 27° 42' N and longitude 85° 36' E. The Valley is a low, flat and oval plain situated at a height of 4,388 ft. above sea level, and covers approximately an area of 218 square miles. All around it stand the high sand- stone ranges of the Himalayas. To its south lies the grand Mahabharat Range which is a continuation of the Sivalik Range; towards its north, stands the Sivapuri Range; while the Kakkani and Mahadeo pokhari Ranges seal it off from the western and eastern sides, respectively. Thus encircled by the high ranges which rise between five and eight thousand feet, the Valley presents a little world by itself, and in the past this kind of isolation was primarily responsible for the undisturbed flowering of the Newar culture.

The surface-level of the Valley is irregular. It is due to the two spurs that encroach upon the otherwise flat plain. The rivers have also been responsible for the alter-nation of high plateaux and low plains. The rivers, swift and swollen during the rainy season, have much cut up the soil along their banks resulting in their deep-lying beds, many feet below the surface level of the Valley. These rivers, numerous but dry during summer, are the life-line of the Valley. They form a net- work to drain the different parts of the region. Among these rivers, the main ones include the Bagmati, the Vishnumati, the Hanumante and the Manohara. Besides, there are a number of rivulets which act as feeders to these big rivers, but remain dry during the major part of the year. All these rivers and rivulets rise from the surrounding hills and make their way towards the central region of the Valley. The river Bagmati, after collecting waters of all these rivers, flows toward south, follows the base of the Chandragiri hill which is a part of the Mahabharat Range, and finally quits the Valley through a gorge at Phirping for her on-ward journey toward the Indian plains. These rivers are not at all useful for navigation. But they are of great importance for the inhabitants even though they have little irrigational value. They enter into the religious life of the people. Every river has its myth, tradition and folklore and these figure prominently in the cultural life of the Newars.

The geology of the Valley is little known. We have however, some information that the Valley differs in this respect from the surrounding hill-regions whose geological character is similar to that of the other parts of the Himalayas.The soil of the Valley is arranged into horizontal strata, containing no pebble. Beneath it occur beds of peat and phosphatic blue clays which provide the traditional manure. Geologists suggest that this could never have been possible without the Valley having been once a lake of standing water. Mineral ores are not found, though tradition refers to the existence of metal mines in the past.

The type of flora in the Valley and its surrounding regions is that of temperate forest of the Central Himalayan region. Within the Valley itself vegetation is much wanting, except in the hills of Swayambhu, Pashupati, Gokarna and the southern extremity of Bhatgaon. The trees that are to be mostly found in the Valley include Oaks, Maples and Pines. The bamboo trees are also found in abundance. There is, however, a comparative absence of fruit-trees. The tropical trees like mango, neem and bel are also rare. The absence of bel tree is to be especially noted though there is a great demand for its leaves as an offering to lord Pashupati; and its fruit as an essential ritual-object in the mock-marriages of the Newar girls. These things are largely imported from elsewhere. Tropical fruits like bananas, mangoes, tamarind, guavas, custard-apples and oranges are imported from the plains and from the Valleys of Noakot and Pokhara. Towards the southern vicinity of the Valley, the sal-tree is found in abundance, which supplies timber and fire-wood to the local population. These forests are, however, of not much use for commercial exploitation owing to want of navigable rivers.

With regard to fauna, the Indian type of animals are quite rare. Birds are plentiful. The reptiles are all of the Himalayan type. Fishes are rare. The wild animals include the Rhesus, Bat, Short-tailed Mole, Panthers, North- Indian Matir, Bears, Flying-squirrel, Nepal Rats, Magpie, Tree-pie, tits and vulture. Leopards are found in the surrounding jungles. A notable animal which abounds in the Valley is the Jackal. The mountain-fox and the wild dog are also reported to be found. Since lack of pasture does not permit a pastoral economy, milch-cattle are not found in abundance. Goats and buffaloes, which are consumed in the Valley are imported from the 'tarai'. To the south of the Valley, however, a large variety of fauna is found in the dense forest of the 'tarai'. These include tiger, wild elephant, rhinoceros, wild buffalo, antelope and the different species of the deer, among which the swamp-deer or 'Bara Singha' is especially notable. To the north of the Valley, a variety of fauna is found on the higher hills among which are the Yak, wild-sheep, musk-deer and Tibetan Raven.

The climate of the Valley is excellent, resembling that of southern Europe, though from June to October the humidity is great.

There are four main seasons similar to those prevailing in India-winter, summer, autumn and spring. Winter starts in November when the temperature begins to fall considerably. During the months of December, January and February, when cold is severe, the air is cloudless and bracy, in the morning cold is excessive and visibility becomes poor due to mist till 10.00 or 11.00 a.m. During the day there is bright sunshine, pleasant to warm oneself in the sun. The nights are again very cold, there being, however, no snow-fall in the recent years.

After February, cold begins to decline and by the end of March spring ushers in. It brings blistering winds. This period is also very cool and one needs a blanket to cover oneself at night. During April, June and July, the Valley is comparatively hotter during the day and one starts perspiring while walking in the sun. But after sun set, and also in the morning, it is quite pleasant. The nights are again cool. Autumn ushers in by the end of August and continues upto mid-October. As stated earlier it is part of the cold season.

Monsoon brings heavy rains to the Valley. If the rains fail the local peasants fall into distress. The total annual rain-fall is 1,417.2 millimetres. Of this nearly half occurs during the months of July and August. During the rains the atmosphere is comparatively cooler so much so that one feels quite chilly even at mid-days. The lowest rain-fall (19.6 m.m.) occurs during the months of January, November and December.

Unlike in the past, the Valley is now linked with India both by air and land-route. Owing to the newly constructed metal road, about 70 miles in length, it has been rendered possible for jeeps and lorries to reach Kathmandu from the 'tarai' within a single day. This road rises roughly to a height of about nine thousand feet at Siva-Bhanjyang before the descent begins on the other side. Most of the merchandise goods are transported to the Valley by means of this road. In addition, four important towns in the 'tarai', namely, Nepalganj, Bhairava, Birganj and Biratnagar are connected with the Valley by air; and there are daily air services by means of which Kathmandu can be reached within half an hour. Besides, Kathmandu has also a regular air-service linking it with Patna and Calcutta. Such a new development in transport and communication has brought the inhabitants of the Valley much closer in space and time to the outside world.

On the northern side the routes which admit accessibility to Tibet are still most difficult. There are three passes, viz., Kuti (21,544 ft.), Rasua (6,000 ft.) and Mustang (14,700ft) which have always been the traditional gateways to Tibet. The Kuti pass is only 90 miles away from Kathmandu and is the shortest route to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Rasua is comparatively wider and, therefore, suitable for employing mules and horses for transport purposes. In 1782, the Chinese had invaded Nepal through this very pass. This route is still the most frequented one and the Tibetans use it for coming to Kathmandu in connection with both trade and pilgrimage.

To sum up, the main physical features of the Valley are that it is a great alluvial plain whose surface level has a gradual slope toward the central diameter; that the surface level is, however, not uniform; that it has a net-work of rivers which forms the drainage system of the Valley; that the soil contains phosphatic elements which are responsible for its high fertility; that its climate and temperature are excellent; that it has a heavy rainfall; that it has a valuable forest around it, which supplies timber and fuel; that it has no pasture which results in the scarcity of cattle-wealth; and finally that it is surrounded by the high ranges which gave it comparative isolation from the outside world in the past.




  Preface ix
  Preface to the Second Edition xiii
  Foreword to the Second Edition xvii
1 Introduction 3
2 Economic and Material Life - I 37
3 Economic and Material Life - II 64
4 Birth and Initiation 84
5 Death 124
6 Caste Organization 146
7 Guthi Organization 191
8 Marriage 198
9 The Family 232
10 Kinship 262
11 Newar Pantheon - I 286
12 Newar Pantheon - II 315
13 Festival - Community Events 343
14 Festivals - Domestic Events 381
15 Concluding Remarks 414
  Glossary 425
  Select Bibliography 454
  Index 464


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