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.
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
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
valley. As traders, the Newars build their houses with removable
wooden shutters, so that the ground floor can double as a shop.
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.
noticed as they carry heavy loads in baskets
suspended at either end of a shoulder pole (nol),
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
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"