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Kathmandu Culture Guide
Kathmandu Culture Guide - TravelPuppy.com
The Newars

Although considered a small ethnic group in national terms, the Newars are estimated to be about 3-quarters of Kathmandu's population and exert a cultural influence in Nepal far beyond their numbers. Some savants portray the Newars to be offsprings of the Kiratas, who controlled the Kathmandu Valley between the 7th century BC and the 2nd century AD, others say they go back even further than that. The Newar community has had to absorb succeeding waves of overlords, immigrants, traders and supplanters ever since, causing a complex cultural matrix.

The centuries of influence by foreign governors have emphasized the uniqueness of Newar culture. The Newars have maintained a persistent artistic flowering for 1,500 years. Under the Lichhavis they produced acclaimed stone carvings, and under the Mallas and Shahs they have been extremely good at making wood, metal and brick. They are widely regarded as the inventors of the pagoda, and it was a Newar architect, Arniko, who led a Nepali delegation in the 13th century to introduce the technique to the Chinese. The pagoda style of stacked, strut-supported roofs finds unique expression in Nepali (Newar) temples, and is visible in the overhanging eaves of Newar houses.

The shape of their settlements goes right to the roots of Newar civilization: farming and trade. As farmers, they build their villages in compact, urban nuclei to preserve the fertile cropland of the valley. As traders, the Newars build their houses with removable wooden shutters, so that the ground floor can double as a shop. Spread out the shortage of land in the valley, Newar traders have colonized lucrative crossroads throughout the country, producing lively bazaars wherever they go.

Above all the Newars are consummate city-builders. The main building block of old Newar cities is the bahal (or baha) - a set of buildings joined at right angles around a central courtyard. Kathmandu is honeycombed with bahal, many were firstly built as Buddhist monasteries but have turned into residential use during 2 centuries of state-sponsored Hinduism. (Bahal architecture was applied to palaces too, as a look at a the map of Durbar Square will demonstrate.) Another Newar invention is the guthi, a community trust based on caste or kinship links that handles the upkeep of temples (mandir) and fountains (hiti), arranges cremations, organizes festivals and, indirectly, ensures the transmission of Newar culture from one generation to the next. Guthi have been in the decline since the 1960s; however, when land reform deprived them of much of their income from holdings around the valley.

Newars are instantly noticed as they carry heavy loads in baskets suspended at either end of a shoulder pole (nol), whilst other Nepali hill tribes carry things on their backs, supported by a line from the forehead. You can always tell a Newar woman by the fanned pleats at the front of her sari; most men have abandoned traditional dress, but some still wear distinctive waistcoats.

Newars usually speak amongst themselves in Newari (known amongst purists as Nepal Bhasa), a Tibeto-Burman language with many words from Nepali. There are several Newari-language newspapers published in Kathmandu. With the government repression over, Newari has gone through a massive revival since the 1990 restoration of democracy, with schools offering courses and Radio Nepal broadcasting Newari programming. However, Newari and other minority languages are still a source of controversy in Nepal. In 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that the Kathmandu city government couldn't declare Newari an "official" language.