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June 27th, 2004

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08:57 pm - Newars of the Kathmandu valley
Newar is not just one caste or community of people but the culture of the valley that has evolved over a long period of time and survived in its own way against political domination and foreign cultural invasion in the past centuries.

Newars, who used to be almost the entire population of Kathmandu Valley before the invasion of the Shah dynasty in 1768, are inheritors of the rich history and culture. Prior to the Gorkha conquest of the valley, the three neighboring cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhadgaon (Bhaktapur) were the capitals of autonomous Newar kingdoms. Even today the populations of both Patan and Bhaktapur are largely Newar. But present day Kathmandu plays host to a large number of migrants from different parts of the country and also the neighbouring countries.

The economy of the valley depended on the rice cultivation and the trade between India and Tibet. Reflecting on the fertility of the valley and its strategic position for trade between India and Tibet, it could be said that Newars were primarily farmers and traders. Sound economic position and the stable and strong Malla regime gave the people abundant time development of art, architecture and culture. This led to the growth of major urban complexes; the cities. The prosperity is still visible if we go to the Durbar Square.

Newars speak Newari, which is an independent language with its own script and a rich literature. It belongs to the Himalayan group of the Tibeto-Himalayan branch of the Tibeto Burmeli sub family of languages. It seems likely that the earliest stratum of the Newar population may have come from Tibet and then over a long period evolved into its present form through the inter-mingling of immigrant people, including indo-Aryans from the South.

In Nepal the historical research is still in its infancy and very little is known concerning the development of Newari culture and society. But there are very good grounds for believing that the Newars were Buddhist in religion. The ancient Newars were predominantly Buddhist but with the political domination of Hindu rulers, the Newar religion has grown complex with new practices and beliefs. Many Newars today practice Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism but they also have very strong faith in Hinduism and perform Hindu rituals of feast and fasting as well. There is no line of distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism among Newars.

But there is a queer division of Newars on the ground of caste introduced by a Malla king. The Newars are divided into levels corresponding to the occupation they are engaged in and their social position in defined accordingly. The highest class is of course the priestly class. Priesthood is handed down to the sons by their fathers. Shakya, Bajracharya become priests by birth. Then comes Pradhan, Joshi, Rajbhandari etc. who used to be recruited for governmental services and as the advisors to the king. Then there is the workers’ class. The farmers, artisans and craftmen belong to this class. There are untouchables who are supposedly the cleaners and butchers. The whole social structure of Newars is built on this caste system. With time and the changing mores the attitude towards caste system is definitely changing but even today we find many Newars pursuing their traditional occupation because it is assigned by their castes.

Today we find Newars scattered in various parts of the kingdom but they essentially originated in the valley. Newar is not just one caste or community of people but the culture of the valley that has evolved over a long period of time and survived in its own way against political domination and foreign cultural invasion in the past centuries. In today’s fast life we see that Newars are still finding time for jatras, pujas and social ceremonies with equal enthusiasm to continue their unmatched cultural heritage.

Ihi or Bel Sanga Bibaha

Normally Newar girls are married thrice in their lives. the first marriage is called “Ihi” (Newari) or “Bel sanga Bibaha” (Nepali). And then they are married to the Sun which is called “Bara Tayegu” (Newari) or “Gufa Rakhne” (Nepali). When they get into human conjugal relationship it’s actually their third marriage. These marriage ceremonies are conducted both among Buddhist Newars and Hindu Newars.

hi or pre-puberty rite among Newars

Before Newar girls reach their puberty they are married to the fruit of wood-apple tree called Bel. It is performed at the girls’s odd age like 5, 7, 9 before they start menstruation. Ihi is a two-day ceremony commencing with purification rituals and ending with “Kanyadan” of the girl by her father meaning “giving away of the virgin”. This Kanyadan ceremony corresponds with the Kanyadan performed in Non-Newar Hindu marriage. So Ihi could actually be taken as the first marriage of Newar girls expect for that they are married to an icon of Suvarna Kumar, the immortal God.
Ihi is regarded a very sacred Newari ritual and it’s a must for all Newar girls. The ceremony is conducted bya Priest called “Gubhaju” for Buddhist Newars and “Deobhaju” for Hindu Newars. The rite is held whenever sponsors are prepared to meet the considerable expenses. Though a number of girls are always jointly initiated, the scale can vary from just a few closely related members of the same caste to as many as three or four hundred drawn from a wide range of castes. Ihi is often held in conjunction with some other ceremony, such as old age ceremony.

The first day of Ihi is called dusala Kriya. On this day, early morning, the girls prepare at home with the purification bath and dress in new clothes and put on ornaments. The girls then assemble at previously purified courtyard accompanied by a senior woman of the father’s lineage. They all sit in a neat line around the edge of the courtyard. And then for the next couple of hours the priest, with the help of his wife, takes the girls through a sequences of ritual actions of purification. The second stage of the ritual is the worshipping of a beautiful image of Suvarna Kumara, the golden Bachelor son of Lord Shiva who stands near the center of the courtyard. The event of the day closes with mutual blessings.

The main event takes place on the second day. Once again the girls assemble in the courtyard. Now the girls are dressed elaborately in glittering bridal suit comprising of ankle length skirt, blouse and shawl. They put on more ornaments and red tika on their foreheads to give a bridal look. The day begins with purification rituals and proceeds to Kanyadan. The father gives the girl’s hand to Suvarna Kumara Kanyadan concludes with the giving of a set of clothes worn by married women to the girl by her parents.

So far there is no satisfactory explanation why Ihi is performed. Some simple explanation is that it is from various dangers, in particular the possibility of attack from malicious spirits. But by far the most commonly given reason is to protect the girl from the awful stigma of widowhood. Ihi links the girl in an eternal marriage with a God. Therefore the death of a mortal human spouse cannot deprive her of her married status thus freeing her from the custom of having to burn on one’s husband’s funeral pyre which was prevalent among Hindu communities a few centuries ago. Ihi rite also enforces the right of a widow’s remarriage in the Newar community, thus liberating the women from the Hindu orthodox viewpoint of one life one marriage system for women. Though the original rite seems to have been lost with the cultural invasion in Kathmandu Valley, Ihi is still performed among Newars with compulsion.

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