Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Newar are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas in Nepal 

Newars form a linguistic and cultural community of primarily Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicities following Hinduism and Buddhism. They have developed a division of labor and a sophisticated urban civilization not seen elsewhere in the Himalayan foothills. They have continued their age-old traditions and practices and pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture, and civilization of Nepal. They are known for their contributions to culture, art, literature, trade, agriculture, and cuisine. Today, they consistently rank as the most economically and socially advanced community in Nepal. So who are they let us know more about them.

Origins and History:

The term “Newar” 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”.

Newar are the historical inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley and its surrounding areas in Nepal
Italian Jesuit priest Ippolito Desideri (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The different divisions of Newars had different historical developments. The common identity 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 in time were either Newar or progenitors of Newar. So, the history often correlates them to the history of the Kathmandu Valley prior to the establishment of the modern state of Nepal.

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Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Kathmandu Durbar Square in 1850’s

Communities of Newar:

They form an ethnolinguistic community distinct from all the other ethnic groups of Nepal. They are divided into various endogamous clans or groups on the basis of their ancient hereditary occupations, deriving their roots in the classic late-Vedic Varna model. Although first introduced in the time of the Licchavis, the present Newar caste system assumed its present shape during the medieval Malla period.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Members of Newar community (Image Credit: Republica)

Building Economy of Kathmandu:

For centuries, Newar merchants have handled trade between Tibet and India as well as exporting locally manufactured products to Tibet. Trade, industry, and agriculture have been the mainstay of the economy of them. 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 in Kathmandu valley.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Newar Traders and Merchant in Lhasa, Tibet ( Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The Religion of Newars:

Religiously, the majority of Newars can be classified as both Hindu and Buddhist. According to the 2011 Nepal Census, 87.38% of the Newars were Hindu and 10.74% were Buddhist. A minority are Christian. From the 17th century onwards, Catholic Christian missionaries of the Jesuit and Capuchin religious orders established hospices at Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhatgoan, the capitals of the three Malla Kings of Nepal who had permitted them to preach Christianity. Later Newar Christians converted by these missionaries took refuge in India, settling first in the city of Bettiah and then later moving north to Chuhari.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu

Language of Newars:

The language of Newars 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-European languages like Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Maithili. They are bound together by a common language and culture. Their common language is Nepal Bhasa. Nepal Bhasa is the term recognized by the government.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Nepal Bhasa Newspaper showing Queen Elizabeth and King Mahendra

It already existed as a spoken language during the Licchavi period and is believed to have developed from the language spoken in Nepal during the Kirati period. Inscriptions in this language emerged in the 12th century, the palm-leaf manuscript from Uku Bahah being the first example. It 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.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu

Script and Literature:

Nepal Bhasa is one of the five languages in the Sino-Tibetan family with an ancient literary tradition. Literature in Nepal Bhasa began as translation and commentary in prose in the 14th century AD. Classical Nepal Bhasa literature is represented by all three major genres—prose, poetry, and drama. Most of the writings consist of prose including chronicles, popular stories, and scientific manuals. Poetry consists of love songs, ballads, work songs, and religious poetry. The ballads of Sitala Maju, about the expulsion of children from Kathmandu, Silu, about an ill-fated pilgrimage to Gosaikunda, and Ji Waya La Lachhi Maduni, about a luckless Tibet trader, are sung as seasonal songs.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Sitala Maju

Nepal Bhasa script is a group of scripts that developed from the Brahmi script and are used primarily to write Nepal Bhasa and Sanskrit. Among the different scripts, Ranjana, Bhujinmol, and Prachalit are the most common.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
Newari Script (Image credit: Republica)

Art and Architecture:

The Newars are the creators of most examples of art and architecture in Nepal. Traditional Newar art is basically religious art. Their devotional paubha painting, sculpture, and metal craftsmanship are world-renowned for their exquisite beauty. The murals on the walls of two 15th-century monasteries in the former kingdom of Mustang in the Nepal Himalayas provide illustrations of their works outside the Kathmandu Valley. Stone sculpture, wood carving, repoussé art, and metal statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities made by the lost-wax casting process are specimens of Newar artistry.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
A Newar Working

There are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 2,500 temples and shrines in the Kathmandu Valley that illustrate the skill and aesthetic sense of artisans. Fine brickwork and woodcarving are the marks of Newar architecture. Residential houses, monastic courtyards known as baha and bahi, rest houses, temples, stupas, priest houses, and palaces are the various architectural structures found in the valley. Most of the chief monuments are located in the Durbar Squares of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, the old royal palace complexes built between the 12th and 18th centuries.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu
An ultimate example of Newari Architecture

Conclusion:

Unlike other common-origin ethnic or caste groups of Nepal, they are regarded as an example of a national community with a relict identity, derived from an ethnically diverse, previously existing polity.

Newar: The Original Residents of Kathmandu

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