Newa: Caste System

The Newar caste system is the system by which Newars, the historical inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley, are divided into groups on the basis of Vedic varna model and divided according to their hereditary occupations. First introduced in the time of the Licchavis, the Newar caste system assumed its present shape during the medieval Malla period. The Newar caste structure resembles more closely that of North India and Madheshis than that of Khas ‘Parbatiya’ in that all four varna (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra) and untouchables are represented.

Distinguishing features

Unlike the traditional Hindu caste systems prevalent in Khas and Madhesi societies, the existence of Buddhist “ex-monks” from ancient times in the Kathmandu Valley added a “double-headed” element to the Newar caste system. Therefore, while Rājopādhyāya Brahmins occupy the highest social position in the Hindu side, the Vajracharya (or Guru/Gu-Bhajus) form the head among the Buddhists. For Hindu Newars, Brahmans had formal precedence with Kshatriyas, which included the royal family and the various groups now known as Srēṣṭha who ran the administration of the Malla courts. For Buddhist Newars, Vajracharyas, and the Shakyas (collectively called “Bare”) was followed by the Uray, the Buddhist lay patrons or Upasakas, who were most typically involved in trade.

Therefore, the Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist Vajracharyas occupy the highest position in Newar society. This is followed by the Hindu Kshatriya nobility (Chatharīya) and the Vaishya merchant and traders castes. Newar caste logic stratifies the Uray and the Pāncthariya Srēṣṭha as the core Vaishya (alternatively Baisya) of Newars who are highly specialized in trade and commerce. The Brahmins are higher in caste status than the king not because they are more powerful, but because of their superior ritual status. The Brahmins were like all other specialized service providers, except that they were considered higher to others in ritual purity.

The distinction between Hindu and Buddhist is largely irrelevant from here onward as the castes occupying the Shudra grouping do not differentiate between the either and profess both the religions equally and with great fervor. This group include among them highly differentiated and specialized castes – agriculturalists, farmers, potters, painters, dyers, florists, butchers, tailors, cleaners, etc. – métiers needed in the daily lives of the Newars or for their cultural or ritual needs. The division into Hindu and Buddhist castes has not been regarded by Newars as a serious cleavage, since both groups share the same basic values and social practices and are in close accord in their underlying religious philosophy. Many Newars, in fact, participate in many of the observances of both religions.

The Newar castes, Buddhist as well as Hindu, are no less pollution-conscious than the Khas and the Madhesis. Caste endogamy, however, which has been one of the main methods of maintaining status in India, is not strictly observed in Nepal by either the Newars or the Khasas. The strictest rules governing the relations between members of different castes are those pertaining to commensality. Boiled Rice and Dal (a sauce made of lentils), in particular, must not be accepted from a person of lower caste. Other rules further restrict social inter-mingling between the castes, but they tend to be treated more casually.

History of Subjugation by Khas rulers

The most successful attempt at imposing the caste system was made in the 19th century by Jung Bahadur Kunwar who was very keen to have his own status raised. He became the first of the Ranas and his task was to establish the legitimacy of Ranas and secure his control over the land. He succeeded in introducing the caste system to a much greater degree and rigidity than Jayasthitimalla, the Malla king had done just over five hundred years before him.

With the advent of Khas domination since Nepal’s unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769 A.D. the center of power shifted from the Newar noble families to these power -and land- hungry rural nobility whose core values were concentration of power at home and conquest abroad. The last Newar noble to hold some power, Kaji Tribhuvan Pradhan, was beheaded in a court intrigue in 1801 A.D.

The Newars, as a block, were reduced to the status of an occupied subject race, and except for a loyal family or two they were stripped of their social status and economic foothold. Even Newar Brahmins who had been serving as priests for Newars lost ritual status vis-a-vis the “Hill Brahman”, the Parbate Bahuns, of the Khas people community. The old Newar upper caste, the Shrestha, were also reduced to Matawali status. Till 1804 A.D. no Newar was admitted in civil service. The Legal Code “Muluki Ain” promulgated in January 1854 A.D. classified the entire Newar community—irrespective of its internal stratification—as an “enslavable alcohol-drinking caste.”

In 1863 A.D. a majority of the Newars were upgraded to “non-enslaveable” community, after Jung Bahadur’s content at Newars’ administration of public offices during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The most drastic change came only as late as 1935 A.D. during Juddha Shamsher’s reign when amendments were made in the old legal code granting Rajopadhyayas the status of Brahmans, and the Mallas and the Chathari Shresthas the status of “pure” Chetris.

They were, of course, not admitted in the army till 1951 A.D. –the year when the festival of Indra Jatra discontinued to be celebrated as “the Victory Day”—commemorating the conquest of the valley by the Gorkhali army. Economically, the position of the Newars was weakened by the diversion of Tibet trade from the Chumbi Valley route since 1850s A.D. and the competition with the Marwaris became all the more stiff since the end of the World War I. Although Jung Bahadur and his descendants were well disposed to a few clientele Newar families, the 104 years of their family rule was not a golden age of Newar social history. It was only those clientele Newar families patronized by the Ranas who succeeded in upgrading their social and economic status by imitating new norms of the Rana durbar. They succeeded in producing the required social credentials to prove that the Mallas and Chathari tharghar (families of noble extraction) alone were “pure” Shresthas.

As a consequence, among the Newars, caste has become more complex and stratified than among the non-Newar group. This latter group may consider all Newar people to be equally Matawali and other inhabitant Janajati of Nepal, all essentially of the Vaishya varna, but this is not the perception of the Newars themselves. Newar can never be considered as a single homogeneous caste. It has a highly stratified and systematic system of caste division which the Newars abide by strictly, even till present time as is evident by many Newars’ castes and their respective professions.

Historical Relation to other non-Newar Nepalis

Historically, Newars in general divided non-Newar Pahade (hill) Nepalis into two groups: Sae(n) and Khae(n). Mongoloid peoples, thought generally to have Tibetan connections, are called “Sae(n)” This term is said to derive from an old Newari term for a Tibetan or, according to some, for Lhasa. For the non-Mongoloid hill ‘Khas’ tribe of the west who are of North-Indian Indo-Aryan heritage, and are in large part associated with the Gorkhali invaders, the term Partya or hill-dweller is used in polite reference.

The ordinary term, considered pejorative, is “Khae(n)” derived from their tribal designation Khas. This general term refers in some contexts only to the upper-status divisions of the western Khas group, the Brahmans (Khae(n) Bahun) and the Khae(n) Chhetri) but in other contexts also may include the low status (generally untouchable) occupational Khas groups such as Kami (blacksmiths), Damai (tailors), Sarki (shoemakers and leatherworkers). Furthermore, other non-Mongoloid hill groups who may be of dubious historical Khas connections, such as the Gaine, are included as Khae(n).

For Newar Brahmans, Partya or Khae Brahmans and Chetris are only water-acceptable. The Chatharīya and Pañcthariya accept water and all foods except boiled rice and lentils from them. Jyapu and lower clean occupational groups accept water as well as boiled rice and lentils from them. Conversely, those Khas (North Indian Indo-Aryan) groups untouchable to the Partya Brahmans and Chetri themselves are also untouchable for the Newars. The Sae(n) were generally treated as water-unacceptable by Brahmans. The Chatharīya and strict Pañcthariya accepted water (but not boiled and salted foods) from them. Most, but not all, Jyapu accepted all food except boiled rice and lentils from them. The residual group, neither Khae(n) nor Sae(n), are Muslims and Westerners, and these are generally treated as untouchable by the highest levels, and water-unacceptable by those below them.

For the higher Parbatiya castes (Bahuns and Chetris), the higher twice-born Hindu castes (Brahmans, Chatharīya and Pañcthariya) exist in a kind of “separate but parallel” status with respect to the high caste Parbatiya. The remaining castes all fall under the rubric of matwali or “liquor-drinking.” From the Khas Brahman-Chhetri point of view this large middle-ranking group includes most Newar and other Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples. Members of this group are touchable and water acceptable.

Similarly, Newar untouchables and the clearly water-unacceptable but touchable groups (such as Naye and Jogi) are also untouchable or water-unacceptable to the Partya Brahmans and Chetris. These rankings reflect the rankings and ambiguities of the Muluki Ain, the attempt to legislate a Nepalese national status system. Its attempts to integrate the entire Newar status system into a national system was very awkward for all parties, and “often deficient or ambiguous and at variance with the self-assessment of the Newar castes.”

Inside the Castes

(1) Rājopādhyāya Brahmins are on top of the Hindu Newar social hierarchy. Referred to as ‘Dhyo Brahman'(God Brahmin) or colloquially as ‘Dhyo Baje'(God Grandfather), these Brahmins with surnames Rajopadhyaya, Sharma, Acharya, Subedi, among others, serve as family priest (purohit) primarily to the Hindu Srēṣṭha clans. The Rajopadhyayas speak Newari language and have been the purohitas and gurus of the Malla kings. Their ranks have again and again been filled by immigrants from India, who nevertheless quickly integrated into the Newar society. The Rajopadhyayas still keep a strong tradition of Vedic and Tantric rituals alive, a fact exemplified for instance at the recent Lakhhōma, performed with contributions of the whole town of Bhaktapur.

(2) Maithil Brahmins or colloquially Tirhute Brahmin with surnames Jhā and Miśra serve as temple priests and are later additions to the Newar nation. Most Newars, as well as they themselves, consider them as being only partial Newars. The Tirhute Brahmins came to the Valley in the late Malla period and also during the early Shah period. They speak Newari and follow Newar traditions but always retained matrimonial and other relations with the Terai.

(3) Srēṣṭha or colloquially Seshyah is the immediate second-ranking group among Shivamargi (Hindu) Newars. They are the most dominant Newar caste that includes the old Newari aristocracy as well as the traditional land-owning and mercantile families. Within the Sresthas there are three hierarchically ranked, traditionally endogamous groups which describe themselves as i. Kshatriya or colloquially Chatharīya, ii. Pañchthariya or simply Shrestha, and iii. Chārtharīya. The Chatharīya or sometimes shortened to Chatharī are the high-caste Sresthas and the clans within this group correspond as Kshatriya varna since they claim descent from Suryavansha, Agnivansha, Chandravanshi houses of Kshatriya kings from the south, most of whom entered Nepal Valley during the Malla era, and indeed many trace their roots to Malla royalty or the nobility during the Malla era.[12] Many scholars argue that the local term “Chatharīya” is a corruption of the word “Kshatriya”, the traditionally warrior and ruling class of traditional Hindu soceities. They do not generally call themselves by the name “Shrestha”, but use their family or clan titles, the main ones being- Joshi, Pradhan, Malla, Pradhananga, Amatya, Munshi, Maskey, Rajvanshi, Rajbhandari, Rajvaidya, Rajalwat, etc. The Chatharīya do follow many traditions very similar to those of the Khas-Chhetris. The Acharya or Achaju (alternatively Karmacharya, Guruwacharya) hold prominent and respected position within the Newar society. They serve as traditional non-Brahmin Tantric priests of Taleju, the guardian deity of the Malla kings, as well as various other Tantric temples of Kathmandu valley. While the Chatharīya are the Newari aristocrats treated ritually as nobles, Pañchthariya are those who have been drawn from multiple economic and social backgrounds, especially from successful mercantile and commercial families and hence ritually seen as Vaishyas. Presently, many Panchthariya Shresthas opt to write “Shrestha” instead of their traditional family clan names indicating their specific occupations. Chārtharīya Shrestha are even lowered in the social status and consists of those from non-Srestha background who try to emulate or establish the Srestha (Chatharīya and Pañchthariya) status by pretending their norms or simply, in many cases, adopting the general caste-denoting surname like ‘Shrestha’ or in other instances ‘Joshi’, ‘Singh’, ‘Achaju’, or ‘Pradhan’. Pañchthariya and especially Chatharīya reject the claims of such pretensions and prevent caste endogamy and commensality with such groups. To these historically established and upper Srestha ranks, Chārtharīya’s efforts remain unacknowledged and hence are not counted among the Srestha fold.

Similarly, the Buddhamargi castes can be broadly divided into four major groups. Of these four groups the first two—the Gubhaju-Bare group and the Uray group—form the core of the Buddhamargi Newars.

(1) Gubhāju-Bare, consists of two sub-groups, viz. the Gubhajus or Vajrachāryas, and Bares or Shākyas. The Gubhaju (Vajracharya) and the Bare (Shakya) form the priestly functionaries. The Bajracharyas, who belong to the first group, are placed at the top of the hierarchy among the Buddhamargi Newars. They are the purohits or family priests. A special sub-group of the Gubhaju is called Buddhacharya who are traditional priests of Swayambhunath temple, the most sacred temple for Buddhamargis. Along with the Shakyas they have the right of hereditary membership of the bahas or viharas. The Shakyas, who are next to the Bajracharyas in the caste hierarchy, can also be called vihar priests. However, while the Bajracharyas’ exclusive occupation is priesthood, the Shakyas follow the hereditary occupation of goldsmiths.

(2) Urāy or Udās, consists of nine main subgroups, viz Tuladhar, Bania, Kansakar, Tamrakar, Sthapit, Shikhrakar, Selalik, Sindurākār etc. The Urāy/Udas group is composed of the castes of hereditary merchants and artisans.[18] The name ‘Uray’ is said to have been derived from the Sanskrit term “upāsaka” meaning “devout layman”. They are a prominent community in the business and cultural life of Kathmandu and have played key roles in the development of trade, industry, art, architecture, literature and Buddhism in Nepal and the Himalayan region. Some Udasas, like the Tuladhars, are among the most prosperous and wealthy people in Nepal, and used to have property interests in places like Lhasa, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and various other trade centres outside Nepal. They were the primary carriers of trade between Nepal and Tibet.

(3) Jyāpu group, consisting of several sub-castes, viz Maharjan, Dangol, Suwāl, Prajāpati, etc. Exclusive religious preference disappears from the next occupational caste which consists of people who form the majority population among the Newars – the farmers and agriculturalists – who are collectively called the Jyapu. Jyapu literally means “competent worker” in the Nepal Bhasa language and are numerically the largest group of Newar community. Some of the prominent sub-castes within this group are Maharjan, Dangol, Suwal, Duwal, Singh, Prajapati, etc. They have provided significant contribution to Nepali society and have been seen as the backbone of Newar community. Although believed to be the true descendants of the various original settlers of the Kathmandu Valley – Licchavis, Ahirs, Kirata, Gopalas, among others, the Jyapus were turned into a lower caste category during the Malla period. But the Jyapus remained united and never allowed themselves to pushed into the position of serfdom of slavery as many non-Hindu tribes in the plains were forced to do. They had a long history and strong internal social organization. They have been in control of the important means of production, namely the agricultural land, for generations. Jyapus are among the most progressive farmers in Nepal. Today, Jyapus have succeeded in placing themselves at the centre of Newar society, thanks partly to the growing popularity of the Indigenous adivasi discourse. Today, they picture themselves as the most genuine Newars, the epitome of their society and culture. Through their community organisations, they increasingly speak on behalf of all Newars.

(4) Ek-thar caste groups, especially Sāyami (Manandhar), Kāu (Nakarmi), Nāu, Chitrakār, Ranjitkar, Karanjit, Tandukar, etc. are other myriads of non-Jyapu occupational castes who perform highly specialized hereditary occupations.

Marriage customs

Marriage is, as a rule, patrilocal and monogamous. The parents traditionally arrange marriages for their sons and daughters, although with the modernization of Nepali society, an increasing number of young people choose their own partners.

Among the Shresthas, since they are subdivided into two general sub-castes, the higher Chhathariya and the lower Pāñcthariya, one’s marriage partner must be from the same grade as well. Rajopadhyaya and higher Shrestha clans also try to avoid “Sa-Gotra” marriages; marrying someone of the same gotra. Traditional families also get advice from family Jyotishi/Joshi for horoscope match-making. For most Newars, partners must belong to different descent-group lineages within the same caste. In some areas the rule of “seven generations” of descent is observed; members who fall within the common descent group of seven generations are restricted from intermarriage.

Buddhist Newars living in a baha – a residential quadrangle around a central court with Buddhist shrines and temples – consider themselves to be of common descent, making intermarriage a taboo.

Clan groups

Below is a list of Newar castes, their traditionals occupations, with the most common surnames and their respective hierarchical positions. Also listed is the approximate percentages [21] of the major castes of Newars sampled within Kathmandu Valley.

Caste (jat) Traditional occupation Personal surnames (thars) Notes
Brahman (1.5%) Hindu priests Rajopadhyaya, Sharma, Acharya, Subedi, Shukla Referred to as Dhyo Bhaju or Deva Brahman, Purohit for Hindu Newars
Jha, Mishra, Bhatta Referred to as Maithil or Tirhute Brahman; generally not considered to be Newars
Chathariya (Kshatriya) Srēṣṭha, Shivamargi (12%) Royal family, nobles and courtiers Joshi Astrologers; also offsprings of Brahman-Srēṣṭha marriages; Kshatriya-status, not accepted as Brahmans
Malla, Pradhananga Descendants of Malla royal family
Pradhan, Rajbhandari, Amatya Nobles and royal descendants, military advisors and ministers
Maskey, Kayastha, Hada, Patravamsh, Rajvamshi, Rajkool/Lacoul, Mulepati, Lakhey, Raya, Rajalwat, etc. Courtiers and administrators
Rajvaidya Royal ayurvedic physicians
Karmacharya, Guruwacharya Referred to as Achaju/Acharya, Kshatriya-status Tantric Taleju priests (Pāñcthariya status in Bhaktapur[10])
Pāñcthariya Srēṣṭha, Shivamargi (14%) Administrators, traders and merchants ‘Shrestha’ proper Administrators; Traders and merchants
Madhikarmi (Halwai), Māka, Mulmi, Bhadra, Kachhapati, Banepali, Deoju, Nyachhyon, Bijukchhe, Sivacharya, etc. Traders and merchants
Malla Khacarā, Thaku, Lawatt, etc. of Sankhu Mallas of mixed descent
Thimi, Dhulikhel, Dolakha, Panauti “Shrestha”, etc. Traders and merchants
Banra, Bare (10%) Buddhist priests Vajracharya Referred to as Gubhaju; Priests (purohit) for all Buddhist Newars
Shakya Referred to as Bareju; Temple priests and traditional gold and silver smiths
Uray (5.5%), Udaas, Buddhamargi Traders and merchants, Craftsmen Tuladhar Merchants
Bania Herbalists
Sikarmi (Sthapit), Awa Woodworkers, carpenters, masons
Tamrakar Copper-smiths
Kansakar Bronze-smiths
Sikhrākār Roofers
Sindurākār Wood-carvers
Rajkarnikar, Halwai Confectioners
Shilākār Stone-carvers
Jyapu (~40%) Farmers Maharjan, Dangol Majority population in Lalitpur, Bungamati, Kirtipur
Suwal, Duwal, Basukala, Singh, Desar, Rajbahak, Rajthala, etc. Majority population in Bhaktapur; Hindu Jyapus
Kumhal, Prajapati, Kumah Potters
Awale, Awal Bricklayers and brick makers
Shilpakar Statue woodsmiths
Khusa, Tandukar Palanquin bearers
Nau Barbers Napit Providers of purification rituals to Dev Brahman – Jyapu jats
Pun Painters Chitrakar Painters of various deities, houses and temples
Kau Blacksmiths Nakarmi Iron equipment makers, specially worked on cast iron.
Bha Ritual funeral specialists for Hindu Newars Karanjit, Bha Also referred to as ‘Māhābrāhman’
Gathu Gardeners Bammala, Mali, Malakar Providers of flowers for worship
Sayami (5.5%) Oilpressers Manandhar, Sayami Also wine-makers
Tepe Cultivators Byanjankara, Tepe
Duhim Carriers Putuwar, Dali
Balami Fieldworkers Balami
Pahari Farmers Pahari, Nagarkoti, Nepali Farmers from valley outskirts; not accepted as Newars by some
Pulu Funeral torch bearers Pulu
Cipa Dyers Ranjitkar, Ranjit
Jugi/Dhobi (2.7%) Musicians and tailors Darshandhari, Kusle, Kapali, Sangat
Naye (5.8%) Butchers and musicians Khadgi, Shahi Provider of purification rituals for jats lower than Jyapu
Kulu Drum-makers and cobblers Kulu
Pode (2%) Fishermen, sweepers, traditional executioners Pode, Deola, Pujari, Nepali
Chama:khala Sweepers Chyame, Chamkhalak
Halahulu Sweepers Halahulu

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