Newar caste system

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The Newar caste system is the system by which Newars, the indigenous people of Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, are divided into groups on the basis of their hereditary occupations. Although first introduced in the time of the Licchavis, the Newar caste system assumed its present shape during the medieval Malla period.[1]

Distinguishing features[edit]

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.[2] Therefore, while Brahmans (or Dev-Bhajus) 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 Shresthas 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.[1]

Therefore, the Hindu Brahmins and Buddhist Vajracharyas occupy the highest position in Newar society.[3] This is followed by the Hindu Chhathariya nobility and the Vaishya merchant and traders castes. Newar caste logic stratifies the Uray and the Panchthare Shresthas as the core Vaishya (alternatively Baisya) of Newars who are highly specialized in trade and commerce.[4] 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.[5] 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.[3] This group include among them highly differentiated and specialized castes - agriculturalists, farmers, potters, painters, dyers, florists, butchers, tailors, etc. - métiers needed in the daily lives of the Newars or for their cultural or ritual needs.[3]

History of Subjugation by Khas rulers[edit]

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.[3] 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, Tribhuvan Pradhan, was beheaded in a court intrigue in 1801 A.D.[1] 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 Bahuns", 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.”[6] It was only in 1863 A.D. that 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.[7] 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 Chhathari Shresthas the status of “pure” Chetris.[8]

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.[7]

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, all essentially of the Vaishya varna, but this is not the perception of the Newars themselves.[5] 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.[9]

Inside the Castes[edit]

Within the Hindu Newars, there are the Newari Brahmins who are on top of the Newar social hierarchy. The Rajopadhyaya serve primarily as family priest for the Hindu Newars. The Bhatta, Mishra and Jha Brahmins who serve as temple priests are later additions to the Newar nation. Most Newars, as well as they themselves, do not consider them as being Newars. The second group corresponding as the Kshatriya varna is the Shrestha, meaning noble, which includes the old Newari aristocracy and upper class.[10] Within the Shrestha community there are three hierarchically ranked groups which describe themselves as Chha-thare, Panch-thare, and Char-thare, literally "six"-, "five"-, and "four"-grade Shresthas. The Chha-thare are the highest class among them and in fact consider themselves above almost all Newars. They do not call themselves "Shrestha", but use their family or clan names, the main ones being- Pradhan, Malla, Pradhananga, Munshi, Joshi, Maskey, Rajbanshi, Rajbhandari, etc.[4] They claim descent from Kshatriya kings from the south, most of whom entered Nepal Valley during the Malla era, and indeed many trace their roots to Malla royalty and/or the nobility during the Malla era. The term "Chathariya" is a corruption of the word "Kshatriya" which immediately brings to mind another element of status classification. The Chha-thari Shresthas do follow many traditions very similar to those of the Chhetris. [3] The Acharya or Achaju (alternatively Karmacharya, Gurubacharya) hold prominent and respected position within the Newar society. They serve as traditional Tantric priests of Taleju, the guardian deity of the Malla kings, as well as various other Tantric temples of Kathmandu valley.[11] While the Chha-thare Shresthas are the Newari aristocrats, Panch-thare Shrestha are those who have been drawn from multiple economic and social backgrounds, especially from successful merchant and commercial families. Presently, many Panchthare Shresthas opt to write "Shrestha" instead of their traditional family surnames indicating their specific job positions. Char-thare Shresthas are even lowered in the social status compared to the Chha-thari and Panch-thari and consists of those from lower castes who have successfully entered or established a Shrestha status.

Similarly, the Buddhamargi castes can be broadly divided into four major groups —

(1) Gubhaju-Bare, consisting of two sub-groups, viz. the Gubhajus or Bajracaryas, and Bares or Shakyas.

(2) Uray, consisting of seven main subgroups, viz Tuladhar, Kansakar, Tamrakar, etc.

(3) Jyapu group, consisting of several sub-castes, viz Maharjan, Dangol, Prajapati, etc.

(4) Ek-thar caste groups, especially Sayami, Kau, Naye, Chitrakar, etc. in which groups other than those in the above three groups can be placed.

Of these four groups the first two—the Gubhaju-Bare group and the Uray group—form the core of the Buddhamargi Newars. 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.[10] 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. The Uray/Udas group is composed of the castes of hereditary merchants and artisans. 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]

Exclusive religious preference disappears from the next occupational caste which consists of people who form the majority population among the Newars - the farmers - who are collectively called the Jyapu. Jyapu literally means "competent worker" in the Nepal Bhasa language. Some of the prominent sub-castes within this group are Maharjan, Dangol, Suwal, Duwal, Singh, Prajapati, etc.[3] 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 rather low 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.

Also, there are other myriads of non-Jyapu occupational castes such as Manandhar, Chitrakar, Ranjitkar, Nakarmi, Mali, Karanjit, Tandukar etc. who perform highly specialized hereditary occupations.[3]

Marriage customs[edit]

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[edit]

During Malla Period, the Newars were divided into hierarchical clan groups by occupational caste, readily identified by surnames. In the past, the upper caste people used to look down upon the lower caste. Such a division of people created a rift in the society which has rendered the mention of caste as a taboo.

Below is a list of Newar castes, their traditional occupations, with the most common surnames and their respective hierarchical positions during Malla period.[12][13]

Caste (jat) Traditional occupation Personal surnames (thars) Notes
Brahman Hindu priests Rajopadhyaya, Sharma Referred to as Deo Bhaju or Deva Brahman, Purohit for Hindu Newars
Jha, Mishra, Bhatta Referred to as Maithil or Tirhute Brahman; not accepted as Newars by some
Karmacharya, Gurubacharya Referred to as Acharya, Achaju, Kshatriya/Chhathariya-status Tantric priests (intermarriage between Rajopadhyaya and Chhathariya)
Chhathariya Srēṣṭha, Shivamargi Royal family, nobles and courtiers Joshi Astrologers and assistant priests; Kshatriya/Chhathariya-status, not accepted as Brahmans
Malla, Pradhananga Descendants of Malla royal family
Pradhan, Rajbhandari, Amatya Nobles and royal descendants, military advisors and ministers
Vaidya Traditional Ayurveda physicians
Maskey, Kayastha, Rajbanshi, Patrabansh, Lakhey, Dhaubhadel, Hada, etc. Courtiers and administrators
Pāñcthariya Srēṣṭha, Shivamargi Administrators, traders and merchants 'Shrestha' proper Mixed offspring of Chhathari and Panchthari
Mulmi, Nyachhyon, Madhikarmi (Halwai), Bhaju, Kacchipati, Sivacharya, etc. Traders and merchants
Thimi Shresthas, Dhulikhel Shresthas, outside Valley Shrestha Traders and merchants
Banra, Bare 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, Udaya, 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 Farmers Maharjan, Dangol Majority population in Lalitpur, Bungamati, Kirtipur
Singh, Suwal Hindu Jyapu from Bhaktapur
Awale, Awa Bricklayers and brick makers
Shilpakar Woodsmiths
Pahari Farmers from valley outskirts; not accepted as Jyapu by some
Kumhal, Prajapati, Kumah Potters; not accepted as Jyapu by some
Sayami Oilpressers Manandhar, Sayami
Khusa Palanquin bearers Tandukar
Nau Barbers Napit Providers of purification rituals to Dev Brahman - Jyapu jats
Kau Blacksmiths Naka:mi
Bha Funeral duties Karanjit, Bha
Gathu Gardeners Bammala, Mali, Malakar Providers of flowers for worship
Tepe Cultivators Byanjankara, Tepe
Pun Painters Chitrakar Painters of various deities, houses and temples
Duhim Carriers Putwar, Dali
Balami Fieldworkers Balami
Pulu Funeral torch bearers Pulu
Cipa Dyers Ranjitkar, Ranjit
Jogi Musicians and tailors Darshandhari, Kusle, Kapali
Naye Butchers and musicians Khadgi, Shahi Provider of purification rituals from Sayami - Halahulu jats
Kulu Drum-makers and cobblers Kulu
Pode Fishermen, sweepers, traditional executioners Pode, Deola, Pujari, Nepali
Chama:khala Sweepers Chyame, Chamkhalak
Halahulu Sweepers Halahulu


  1. ^ a b c Whelpton, John (2005). A history of Nepal. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-521-80470-7. 
  2. ^ John Whelpton. "A History of Nepal". Cambridge. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h People of Nepal - Dor Bahadur Bista
  4. ^ a b Levy, Robert I. (1990). Mesocosm Hinduism and the Organization of a Traditional Newar City in Nepal. University of California Press. 
  5. ^ a b Fisher, James F. (1978). Himalayan anthropology: the Indo-Tibetan interface. Walter de Gruyter. p. 487. ISBN 978-90-279-7700-7. 
  6. ^ Dr. Kamal P. Malla. "Vestiges of Totemism in Newar Society". 
  7. ^ a b Acharya, Baburam (1969). Nepal, Newar And The Newari Language. Regmi Research (Private) Ltd. p. 13. 
  8. ^ Dr. Kamal P. Malla. "Vestiges of Totemism in Newar Society". 
  9. ^ Bal Gopal Shrestha. "Castes Among Newars. The Debate between Colin Rosser and Declan Quigley on the Status of Shrestha". Retrieved 17 November 2013. 
  10. ^ a b Gellner, David (1986). Language, caste, religion and territory: Newar identity ancient and modern. Cambridge University Press. 
  11. ^ Fisher, James F. (1978). Himalayan anthropology: the Indo-Tibetan interface. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 978-90-279-7700-7. 
  12. ^ Adapted from Rosser Colin, "Social Mobility in the Newar Caste System", pp. 68–139, in, Fürer-Haimendorf C., ed. (1966), Caste and Kin in Nepal, India and Ceylon: Anthropological Studies in Hindu-Buddhist Contact Zones. London and the Hague: East-West Publications, pp 85–86. ISBN 9780856920196.
  13. ^ The Newar Caste System According to Hierarchical Position (Gurung, 2000:39)