Newar caste system
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 occupations. Newar caste system assumed its present shape during the medieval Malla period.
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 Brahmans (or Deo-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') is 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 Newar Kshatriya nobility and the Vaishya merchant and traders castes. Newar caste logic stratifies the Uray and the Panchthare Shresthas as the core Vaishya (alternatively Vaishaya) of Newars who are highly specialized in trade and commerce. 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, etc. - métiers needed in the daily lives of the Newars or for their cultural or ritual needs.
The Newar caste system may be called Kshatriya- centric because the entire system exists around the personage of the king. 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 are like all other specialized service providers, except that they are considered higher to others in ritual purity. Unlike other contemporary South Asian class systems, the Newar system still features the king prominently in his ritual obligations in the various festivals and functions throughout the annual religious calendar. He still mediates between the gods and his subjects; in this respect, as the representative of divinity, he is considered divinity itself.
The most successful attempt at imposing the caste system was made in the 19th century by Jung Bahadur Rana 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 four hundred years before him. He decided to put the majority of Newar speaking people into a single caste category called 'Matawali' meaning liquor drinkers. 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. 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. 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.
Inside the Castes
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 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 Acharya or Achaju (alternatively Karmacharya, Gurubacharya, Pithacharya) 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. The second group corresponding as the Kshatriya varna is the Shrestha, meaning noble, which includes the old Newari aristocracy and upper class. 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, for example, Pradhan, Malla, Pradhananga, Munshi, Joshi, Mool, Amatya, Maskey, Rajbanshi, Rajbhandari, etc. 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 appears to be a corruption of the word 'Kshatriya'/Chhetri which immediately brings to mind another element of status classification. The Chha-thare Shresthas do follow many traditions very similar to those of the Chhetris. 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-thare and Panch-thare 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, Awale, Prajapati, etc.
(4) Ekthariya 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. 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.
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, 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 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.
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.
Partners must belong to different descent-group lineages within the same caste, living outside of the large urban areas. Among the Shresthas, since they are subdivided into three grades, one's marriage partner must be from the same grade as well.
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.
In some areas the rule of 'seven generations' of descent is also observed; members who fall within the common descent group of seven generations are restricted from intermarriage.
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 the list of Newar castes, their traditional occupations, with the most common surnames and their respective hierarchical positions during Malla period.
|Caste/(Jat)||Traditional Occupation||Personal Surname/(Thars)|
|Brahman||Hindu Priests||Rajopadhyaya, Sharma - Referred to as "Deo Bhaju/Deva Brahman", *Purohit for all Hindu Newars
Karmacharya - Referred to as "Acharya, Achaju", Tantric temple priests (intermarry between Rajopadhyaya and Chhathariya level)
|Royal Family, Nobles, Courtiers
||Malla, Pradhananga - Descendants of Malla royal family
Pradhan, Rajbhandari, Amatya - Nobles, descendants of royal and military advisors
Joshi - Astrologers and assistant priests
Shrestha proper - Mixed offsprings of Chhathare and Panchthare, Administrators, Traders and Merchants
Thimi Shresthas, Dhulikhel Shresthas - Traders and Merchants
various other thars.
|Bare/Banra||Buddhist Priests||Vajracharya - Referred to as 'Gubhaju'. Priests (Purohit) for all Buddhist Newars
Shakya - Referred to as 'Bare'. Temple priests and traditionally gold and silver smiths
|Traders and Merchants, Craftsmen||Tuladhar, Baniya - Merchants
Sikarmi (Sthapit), Awa - Wood worker, carpenter, mason
Tamrakar - Copper-smiths
Kansakar - Bronze-smiths
Sikhrākār - Roofer
Sindurākār - Wood carver
Rajkarnikar - Confectioner
Shilākār - Stone carver
|Jyapu||Farmers||Maharjan, Dangol - Majority population in Lalitpur, Bungamati, Kirtipur
Suwal - Bhaktapur Hindu Jyapu
Awale - Bricklayers and makers
Pahari - Farmers from valley outskirts, *not accepted as Jyapu by some
Kumhal/Prajapati - Potters, *not accepted as Jyapu by some
various other thars.
|Khusa||Palanquin bearers||Khusa, Tandukar|
|Nau||Barbers||Napit (They provide purification rituals to Deo Brahman - Jyapu jats)|
|Bha||Funeral Duties||Karamjit, Bha|
|Gathu||Gardeners||Bammala, Mali - Providers of flowers for worship|
|Pun||Painters||Chitrakar - Painters of various deities, houses and temples|
|Pulu||Funeral torch bearers||Pulu|
|Jogi||Musicians and tailors||Kusle, Kapali|
|Naye||Butchers and musicians||Khadgi, Shahi (They provide purification rituals to Sayami - Halahulu jats)|
|Kulu||Drum-makers and cobblers||Kulu|
|Pode||Fishermen, sweepers, traditional executioners||Pode, Deola|
Adapted from Rosser Colin, 1966, "Social Mobility in the Newar Caste System", pp. 68–139, in, Fürer-Haimendorf C., ed., 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.
The Newar Caste System According to Hierarchical Position(Gurung, 2000:39)
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