Nepal is a diverse country with around 125 different ethnic groups and 123 different languages. Before I arrived, I assumed everyone was Nepali and spoke Nepalese. While that is kind of true, there are a variety of different ethnic groups. Further, among each ethnic group there are subgroups. I’ve been lucky enough to make friends belonging to all different ethnicities, and each one speaks about their heritage with pride. I wanted to shed some light on all of the different groups, so I’ll be starting a series about the different ethnicities within Nepal. This one, I’m happy to announce, is about the Newari Caste which is dominant in the Kathmandu Valley.
I chose to write about the Newar caste because I spend most of my time in Kathmandu. With the only international airport, it’s the first place most tourists experience, and it’s the capital of the country. Not to mention, a large majority of my friends are Newari and have agreed to answer all of my questions. A special shout out to them for taking the time to share their culture with me and my readers.
Who are Newari people and where did they originate?
Newari people are a mix of Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Burman ethnicities. The Indo-Aryan groups came from India and simulated into the existing Tibeto-Burman culture. While the original language and culture survived, the Indo-Aryans brought over Hinduism and the social structure of the caste system. Newars are now the sixth largest ethnicity in Nepal.
Where do they live in Nepal?
The Newar community can be found within the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur are the main areas, however, in modern times they can be found throughout all of Nepal. Other large communities outside of Kathmandu include Palpa, Bandipur, and Butwal.
What is the Newari caste famous for?
The Newari caste is famous for its artistry. When the caste system was in effect, they often had jobs in architecture, sculpting, painting, wood carving, pottery making, etc. To get a first-hand look, head to any of the three famous Durbar Squares. The one in Patan is my personal favorite. The details in the architecture is absolutely incredible. You can also see traditional Newari work if you’ve visited a store that sells Thangka paintings.
Newars are famous for the Malla Dynasty who ruled during the “Golden Age” which lasted 600 years. To this day, Newars are also known for being businessmen and working in government administration.
What religions are they?
Newars are predominantly Hindu or Buddhist. Since the original cultures were a mix of Indo-Aryan (India is predominantly Hindu) and Tibeto-Burman (Tibet and Burma are both predominantly Buddhist), both religions survived.
What festivals are unique to Newari culture?
Mha Puja is a day celebrated during the popular Tihar festival. While Tihar is celebrated by most of Nepal, Mha Puja is only celebrated by Newari. During Tihar, each day represents a different thing. Most foreigners have seen viral photos of dogs being worshipped, however there is also a day for crows, cows, and brothers. In Newar culture, one day is dedicated to oneself and is called mha puja or “self-worship day.” This generally takes place in November. Each person cleans themselves, their home, makes beautiful mandala designs on the ground, and celebrates.
Gai Jatra, also known as the “cow festival,” is another Newar festival. If a family member passed away during that calendar year, then young children dress up in their honor and walk down the streets and gather in Durbar Square in remembrance. On the way, strangers will give them treats or candy. It’s not a somber day, but it’s also not extremely cheerful. It’s a way to show that many have lost family and that no one is alone. The day is meant to comfort those who have experienced loss. In Hindu culture, cows are gods, so paper cutouts of cows will be made to carry during the festival. Gai Jatra takes place around September or October.
Indra Jatra is another Newari festival which is popular in Kathmandu. It usually falls in September and marks the beginning of Autumn and the upcoming festivals of Dashain and Tihar. You’ve got to love a culture that has a festival to celebrate upcoming festivals. During Indra Jatra, you can witness the famous Kumari (Living Goddess) in her chariot. At night, there are masked dancers in the streets who dance to the music of drummers. The festival lasts 8 days!
What are the best Newar restaurants?
Finding good authentic cuisine in another country can be hard. Luckily my friends recommended a few different places to try. Bhumi is located in Lazimpat, Kathmandu. Newa Lahana and Sasaa Newari Restaurant are both located in Kirtipur. Haarati Newa Restaurant is just north of Thamel. Temple View is located in Bhaktapur Durbar Square. Last but not least, Honacha is located in Patan right next to Durbar Square.
What Newari food should everyone try?
Samay Baji is a popular Newari dish during festivals and feasts. It’s not an everyday meal, but is great to try if you want to experience Newari culture. It’s a plate full of a variety of food (similar to dal baht) including bara (type of bread), beaten rice, potato curry, soy beans, boiled egg, and usually a very spicy meat (often buffalo).
Haku Choila is grilled buffalo meat. You can also try chicken which is my favorite. This is considered a snack, although for me it always feels like a full meal. It’s extremely spicy and is often served with beaten rice.
Chatamari is the Newari version of pizza. I think it’s a bit more like a savory crepe. It’s good to order as an appetizer and share with friends. It consists of a thin rice crepe and toppings which vary from vegetable to minced meat.
Yomari is a dumpling with a sweet filling inside. I actually have not had the chance to try one, but now it’s on my list of things to order when I get back to Kathmandu. I’ve seen them on menus but never really knew what they were. This can be eaten as a snack or dessert.
Bara is a type of savory bread and is described as a Nepali pancake. It’s made from lentil flour making it a healthy choice. You can get different types of bara like egg bara, chicken bara, or buffalo bara. It’s perfect for dipping in curries or eating as a side dish or snack.
Kwati is actually my favorite Newari food. It’s a five bean soup/curry. I tried it at Bhumi restaurant and really loved it. I could eat it as a soup or dip some egg bara in it. It has a great flavor and was perfect to order along with other snacks.
Are there stereotypes about Newari people?
It’s a popular belief that Newari people love to party. Considering how there’s a festival to celebrate the upcoming festivals, it’s not too hard to see why this stereotype exists. Even a small reason to celebrate can turn into an epic party in Newari culture.
I’ve also been told that Newari people can be considered a bit snobbish although I’d prefer the word proud. Newari people are proud of their culture and love to share it with others. Although some might consider this a negative or see it as bragging, I actually appreciate it. They’ve kept their traditions and cultures alive for a thousand years. Being proud to share their culture with others helps preserve it.
What does Newari music sound like?
Since Nepali is the national language of Nepal, and most people speak Hindi or English as a second language, Newari is not widely spoken anymore. Newari also has different dialects and someone who speaks Newari in Patan may not easily understand someone who speaks Newari in Bhaktapur. Because of this, Newari music isn’t exactly mainstream. That being said, you can check out these two songs on YouTube to get a feel for it.
What is the best way to experience Newari culture as a tourist?
My friends all agreed on this one. The best way to experience Newari culture is to stay in a Newari homestay in Patan, Bhaktapu, or Kathmandu. Spend some time with a family, preferably during festival season. Learn to cook, learn the traditions, and see everything first hand. I know from experience that Newari people are warm and kind and are more than willing to share their culture with you if you’re willing to learn.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.