Centrally located people of the country, the Newars are believed to be the most ancient inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley or the “Melting Pot”. Mostly following Buddhism and Hinduism, they have a complicated culture with festivities which can be seen all the year round. Mostly based in traditional business, this culture has enormous collection of ancient music and artisans as its products. They have a special year that indicates the culture to be 1127 years as they celebrate their new year on October according to lunar calendar. Mostly dependent on farming, arts and crafts as their profession, their rich festivals and cultural rituals and lifestyles are still visible to anyone entering the valley of Kathmandu, specially Patan, Kasthamandap and Bhaktapur cities.
John K. Locke who did a detailed research on Newari culture; especially through his book “Karunamaya” describing the cult of the chariot festival of Nepal has rightly stated:
“The original inhabitants of the Valley are Newars who still comprise about half of the population of the Valley. Here also there has been a meeting of races and cultures. The Newars have been active traders with the plains and with Tibet since the beginning of their history, and the Valley has provided a new home for refugees from India from the time of Buddha and the rise of the Mauryan Dynasty right down to the Indian Mutiny in 1857. While the refugees from north and south tended to settle on isolated hillsides and in the shelter of inaccessible valleys where, until the push for development and modernization of Nepal, they remained closed units, cut off from their neighbors of a different race and culture on the near-by ridges and in the valleys beyond.”
During the early periods the newcomers from north and south were integrated into the Newar society of the valley, they became Newars in process. This further contributed to the cultural fabric of Newar society. Therefore, “Newar” is not an ethnic term but a cultural term denoting the very rich and complex culture of the society of the valley.
In fact, the Newars were a ‘nation’ apart, until they merged into the larger Nepal formed during the eighteenth century by a large and powerful group that came from outside Kathmandu Valley. These later arrivals, the Shahs of Gorkha and other Chhetris and Brahmans, dominated the valley in short order and set about to unify the country politically, while the Newars underwent a significant process of change.
Today the term ‘Newar’ embraces people of both Mongoloid and Mediterranean physical types who speak both Nepali, an Indo-Aryan language, and Newari, a Tibeto-Burman language which includes some half a dozen dialects.
Because of the complexities in the composition of Newar society, scholars in the past have developed various interesting theories about their origins. The Newari language, although greatly influenced by Sanskrit, is still distinctly a Tibeto-Burman tongue. Although it uses Devanagri script today, it does have its own script as well. Sylvain Levi put forward the theory that Newars migrated to Nepal from “regions north of the Himalayas”.
Some other scholars suggest that the Newars may have originated in South India, with ties or distinct similarities to a Hindu community on the Malabar Coast called the Nair, or Nayar. This theory was probably based on the mere phonetic similarity of terms that describe them and one or two other coincidences of customs, not believing either of these theories complete. Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf draws his own conclusion that “the bulk of the Newar people had been settled in the Nepal Valley since prehistoric times.”
Regmi, however, speculates that the early Newars may have an ancestry connected with both the Kiranti and the Lichhavis, one-time rulers of the Nepal Valley.
During the course of history a considerable amount of cultural influence has been exerted on the Newar culture by various immigrant groups. These immigrants were ultimately absorbed into the Newar community. Of all the people who migrated to the Nepal Valley, the Malla Kshatriyas of India were the most distinctive.
Since most agree to the fact that the valley was drained by Manjushree who definitely had come down from north, it proves to the fact that the first settlement in the valley have been the Mongolians. There must have been other migrants from the south penetrating the huge jungles armed with malaria, settled in the valley or at its surface at the least which eventually led to a mixture of dialects and varied customs as Manjushree and his followers is believed to be a part of early Buddhism that represents compassion and definitely not . In due course of time, the civilization must have established a common name and hence the beginning of Newar civilization is estimated to be around the 6th century B.C. when the Kiratas, Kolliyas, Salmaliyas, Sakyas, Lichhavis and Shresthis combined to form the earliest known group of the Nepal Valley. The Mallas ruled from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, when they were finally replaced by the Shah Kings. The Mallas brought with them the influence of a Hindu socio-religious base. To an otherwise non-caste country they introduced the caste system after the fashion of the Indian Hindu caste hierarchy followed by the Indian immigrants to Nepal.
Today, the bulk of the Newar population is concentrated inside the valley in the large cities of Kathmandu, Patan, Bhadgaun, Kirtipur and half a dozen smaller towns. In addition, a fair number of Newars have settled in villages and markets outside Kathmandu Valley during the course of the last two centuries.
“A Newar has been defined as an inhabitant of the Valley of Nepal who speaks Newari”.
By - Rajesh Bajracharya
Karunamaya- John K. Locke
Various publications from Nepal Bhasa Academy
Nepal - A.P.N. Insight Guides