Newars people of Katmandu
The Newars of Kathmandu
Newars are the original inhabitants of Kathmandu valley. Newars have their own Newari language and script, and their customs and cultures are unique amongst other Nepali ethnic groups.
Originally only concentrated within Kathmandu, King Mahendra resettled many Newari families to different parts of the country to introduce cultural diversity in the country. As a result, there are pockets of Newar settlements in Bandipur, Tansen, and many other towns and cities in Nepal.
Newars were originally farmers and traders. The soil of Kathmandu was very rich, and the farmers enjoyed great harvests every year. Newars are also one of the most culturally advanced ethnic groups. It is said that since they were blessed with enough to eat, they could divert a lot of their free time in arts and crafts and festivals. Newars also probably have the most number of festivals compared to any other ethnic group.
The original Newar traders traveled to Tibet to trade in salt, foodstuff and artifacts. Most of these traders had two homes, one in Kathmandu and another in Tibet, and subsequent dual families. This might be the reason that some, but not all, Newars have Mongoloid features.
All the ancient structures and artifacts that one sees while exploring Kathmandu have Newari roots. Their craftsmanship was much appreciated, and even the Gorkha kings took with them Newari artisans to refurbish their original palace in Gorkha. Arniko, a Newari craftsman and architect, was invited to China in the 13th century by the then emperor Kublai Khan to make stupas for their Buddhist temples. Arniko’s most renowned creation can still be seen today at the White Stupa of Maioying Temple in Beijing. In recognition of his genius, Arniko’s statute was also installed by the Chinese in the same temple.
Some Newars are Hindu, some are Buddhist, but both respect and even share each others’ religious festivals. For example, the famous Living Goddess, or Kumari, is a Hindu goddess, but the little girl who is chosen to be Kumari is always taken from the Shakya community, who are Buddhist Newars. Similarly, Swayambhu and Harati Mata both share space in the same temple complex, even though they belong to different religions. The Buddhist Newars observe festivals of Dashain, which is a Hindu festival. In practice, both types of Newars live together in the same localities with minimal differences, and their religious difference in non existent.
Just like the larger Hindu community of which Newars are a sub set, they have their own intricate caste systems which are not apparent to the casual observer. It is like any social group, with leaders and followers. Though not of major concern today, this divide was very pronounced, and marriages between two different types of Newars were almost impossible.
The surnames of Newars denote their social standing and also the work they do. Surnames end with ‘kar’, similar to ‘smith’ in English, denoting what profession they are engaged in.
Besides the culture and crafts, Newars in Nepal are famous for one more ability – to throw lavish buffets. Newari food is very popular in Kathmandu, enjoyed by both Newars and non Newars alike. Newars enjoy their feast so much that there is a saying in Nepali ‘Gurung bigryo moj le, newar bigryo bhoj le’, which means the downfall of the Gurung because he’s after pleasure, the downfall of the Newar because he’s after feasts.
The staple of all Newari feasts is beaten rice, called chiura in Nepali and baji in Newari. This beaten rice is also a popular snack, and is widely consumed by a majority of office goers as their day time meal in the hundreds of small neighborhood snack bars around town.
The Newari feasts are famous for the spicy vegetables and many different varieties of meat. Practically none of the animal part is thrown away, except the claws of chickens and hooves of goats and buffalo. These feasts are also never complete without the famous aila, which is a made by fermenting rice, and is very much reminiscent of tequila. Thon is the Newari beer, a milky white liquid made by fermenting rice, and consumed in large quantities during festivals, social gatherings and during the planting season.
Rice planting is a community affair in Nepal, and very labor intensive. To deal with this task, the field is filled with all family members, friends and neighbors helping each other out to plant their seedlings. The host of the day usually prepares a good meal with generous quantities of thon to those who helped out.
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