The Newars are a special case. Their stronghold is a valley – the Kathmandu Valley – which, while geographically located within Nepal’s hill region, has its own distinct climate and history. Newars are careful to distinguish themselves from other hill peoples, and although they’re an ethnic minority nationally, their majority presence in the pivotal Kathmandu Valley has enabled them to exert a cultural influence far beyond their numbers. An outsider could easily make the mistake of thinking that Newari culture is Nepali culture.
Many anthropologists believe that the root stock of the Newars is the Kirats, a clan who legendarily ruled the Kathmandu Valley between the seventh century BC and the second century AD. However, Newari culture has been in the making for millennia, as waves of immigrants, overlords, traders and usurpers have mingled in the melting pot of the valley. These arrivals contributed new customs, beliefs and skills to the overall stew, but they weren’t completely assimilated – rather, they found their own niches in society, maintaining internal social structures and traditions and fulfilling unique spiritual and professional roles. In time, these thars (clans) were formally organized into a Newari caste system that mirrored that of the Baahun–Chhetris and, still later, became nested within it. Thus Newari society is a microcosm of Nepali society, with many shared cultural traits and a common language (Newari), but also with an enormous amount of diversity among its members.
Newari religion is extremely complex; suffice to say that individual Newars may identify themselves as either Hindu or Buddhist, depending on their thar’s historical origin, but this makes little difference to their fundamental doctrines or practices. Kinship roles are extremely important to Newars, and are reinforced by elaborate life-cycle rituals and annual feasts; likewise, each thar has its role to play in festivals and other public events. A uniquely Newar social invention is the guthi, a kind of kinship-based Rotary club which maintains temples and rest-houses, organizes festivals and, indirectly, ensures the transmission of Newar culture from one generation to the next. Guthi have been in serious decline since the 1960s, however, when land reform deprived them of much of their income from holdings around the valley.
With so great an emphasis placed on social relationships, it’s little wonder that Newars like to live so close together. Unlike other hill peoples, they’re urbanites at heart. Their cities are masterpieces of density, with tall tenements pressing against narrow alleys and shopfronts opening directly onto streets. In the past couple of centuries, Newar traders have colonized lucrative crossroads and recreated their bustling bazaars throughout Nepal. Even Newari farmers build their villages in compact, urban nuclei (partly to conserve the fertile farmland of the valley).
Centuries of domination by foreign rulers have, if anything, only accentuated the uniqueness of Newari art and architecture. For 1500 years the Newars have sustained an almost continuous artistic flowering in stone, wood, metal and brick. They’re believed to have invented the pagoda, and it was a Newari architect, Arniko, who led a Nepali delegation in the thirteenth century to introduce the technique to the Chinese. The pagoda style of stacked, strut-supported roofs finds unique expression in Nepali (read Newari) temples, and is echoed in the overhanging eaves of Newari houses.
Newars are easily recognized. Traditionally they carry heavy loads in baskets suspended at either end of a shoulder pole (nol), in contrast with Nepali hill people who carry things on their backs supported by a tumpline from the forehead. As for clothing, you can usually tell a Newari woman by the fanned pleats at the front of her sari; men have mostly abandoned traditional dress, but some still wear the customary daura suruwal and waistcoat.