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Newar Society (City, Village and Periphery)

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Item Code: NAM634
Author: Gerard Toffin
Publisher: Himal Books, Nepal
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9789993343950
Pages: 471 (40 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.0 inch x 6.0 inch
Weight 660 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

The Newar of the Kathmandu Valley form a highly complex society that cannot be reduced to an over-simplified and schematic presentation. Their caste system, comprising of more than 30 main hierarchical groupings, is one of the most sophisticated in South Asia. Besides the traditional high and low castes, it also includes a variety of castes of intermediate statue and a number of Vajrayana Buddhist groups.

This book is the outcome of a long commitment between Gerard Toffin and this brilliant civilization, extending from the early 1970s up to the present day it is based on several first-hand case studies undertaken among a number of caste groups, living not only in the cities but also in rural areas. The themes that emerge include: kinship ties and the complex association of the guthi type; the duality between centre and periphery; the salience of territorial affiliation and social boundaries; the enactment of social ties in religious performances; and the construction of ethnic identity.

Some peripheral groups, such as the Balami and the Pahari, and analysed here for the first time. The pace of changes over the last four decades or so is also dealt with, with particular emphasis on gender issues and the emergence of new caste associations.

Newar Society provides a comprehensive understanding of one of the major ethnic groups of Nepal, and should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in learning about this fascinating society that shaped the cultural landscape of the Kathmandu Valley.

About the Author

Gerard Toffin is Director of Research of National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Paris, and teaches Nepali civilization at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisation, Paris. He is an anthropologist with over 35 years of research on Nepal. Among his publications are Societe et religion chez les Newar du Nepal (Paris, 1984), Le Palais et le Temple: la fanction royale dans l’ancienne vallee du Nepal (Paris, 1997), Ethnologie. La quete de I’Autre (Paris 2005), and the two edited volumes, Man and his house in the Himalayas (Delhi, 1991) and Nepal, Past and Present (Delhi,1993). Prof Toffin delivered the Radhakrishnan Memorial Lecture in Oxford, 2000, and the Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture in Kathmandu,2005.

Gerard Toffin does not trudge a mono-track, one-village, one caste study in presenting and ethnography of the Newar. This is a much fuller book, providing a broader and a more comprehensive account derived from shifting perspectives of themes, settlement locations, and such variables as their caste groups. A life-time of dedicated work is revealed in this scholarly presentation.


When I started studying the Newar' of the Kathmandu Valley in 1970, we were only a handful of foreign scholars focusing on the subject. Hiroshi Ishii, an anthropologist from Japan, was carrying out his field- work in the village of Satungal, not far from Kirtipur. Bernhard Kolver and Niels Gutschow arrived in Nepal at about the same time as I did and selected Bhaktapur, a conspicuously Hindu city, as the base for their textual and architectural studies. Theodore Riccardi, a Sanskritist from Columbia University, occasionally came to Nepal for short periods; he was mainly concerned with the history and archaeology of the Kathmandu Valley. Father John Locke, a Jesuit missionary attached to St Xavier's School, Jawalakhel, had been interested in Newar Buddhism and particularly in the cult of the deity Rato Matsyendranath for a long time.

And, finally, Michael Allen, a social anthropologist from the University of Sydney, himself devoted to Newar Buddhism, chose to study the living goddess Kumari in 1973. That was about all of us, or nearly all. I actually chose to do research on the Newar after reading the book, The Newars, by Gopal Singh Nepali, who was teaching anthropology at the Department of Sociology in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, in the 1970s. I was fascinated by the lavish and outstanding culture of the Newar, the exuberance of their religion and rituals and the extraordinary complexity of their society, based not only on kinship, but also on the caste system and a specific type of multifarious association called guthi that forms the framework for organising numerous ritual activities. Newars, the principal inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, are some- times considered the indigenous people of this region. They clearly be- long to the Indic mainstream, but at the same time exhibit a clearly distinctive and unique culture. The uniqueness of this brilliant tradition was a legitimate object of curiosity, but also a challenging issue in the study of the overall process of Indianisation on the southern slopes of the Himalaya. How could the distinctiveness of this culture be explained when compared, for instance, with the Nepali-speaking Parbatiya Hindu castes (called khaymta by the Newar) who form Nepal's largest population group and exemplify another branch of the Himalayan country's civilisation?

All this raised a number of questions. Surprisingly, in those early days, Newars were less known, anthropologically speaking, than many of the Nepali ethnic groups from the hills, such as the Gurung, Sherpa or Rai. Nobody, for instance, had worked among the caste of Newar farmers called Jyapu, the largest group among the Newar and to some extent the backbone of Newar society. Another reason to explain my resolve was the fact that I had been appointed to the French Embassy, in Lazimpat, Kathmandu, and on a part-time basis to the Darbar School at Rani Pokhari for the sixteen months to come. Since communication with the other regions of Nepal was quite difficult at the time, I was in some ways trapped. I had little opportunity to trek in the hills to be able to get close enough to any other group living outside the Kathmandu Valley.

A large number of scholars have since carried out research among the Newar. Restricting ourselves to anthropological studies alone, we may mention Anne Vergati, Axel Michaels, David Gellner, Declan Quigley, the late Robert Levi, Todd Lewis, Linda Iltis, Bruce Owens, and in recent times the late A.W. van den Hoek. Some Newar anthropologists them- selves have studied Newar culture, such as Rajendra Pradhan in his study of Kathmandu city, and Bal Gopal Shrestha on the subject of the Sankhu township and Newar diasporas.' Starting in the 1990s and into the present, a new generation of young anthropologists, mostly foreigners, has begun research on this old Kathmandu Valley ethnic group from various new viewpoints. Academic interest in this population has in fact grown exponentially in recent years. We now have many studies on the Newar, ranging from ethnomusicology to architecture and art, although their ancient literature and religious texts have not yet received enough cover- age.' Most of this research relates to Newar culture in its broader sense. Religion in the Kathmandu Valley, in particular, has fascinated a number of foreign scholars, probably because of its conservative and archaic aspects compared to religion in contemporary India.

As for social organisation itself-that is, kinship, the system of marriage, lineage organisation, power distribution among kin groups, guthi associations, territorially-based institutions, and the world of caste-I published a large volume entitled Societe et religion chez les Newars du Nepal in 1984. This book is based mainly on my fieldwork in the village of Pyangaon and the small city of Panauti. However, it was written in French, and thus not readily accessible to a large number of people. Contested Hierarchies (1995), the collective volume edited by David Gellner and Dec1an Quigley, to which I contributed two chapters, was a further important piece of work in the study of Newar society, stressing particularly its diversity and discussing some of my own theses. But much remains to be said on these subjects from a perspective other than the one adopted in that collective work. It also has to be noted that little attempt has since been made to bring together additional material on the agricultural castes and other groups that were not' sufficiently covered in that book or which are so far quite unknown academically.

Presentation of the book

The suggestion of bringing together a selection of my articles in a single volume and in English originally came from my friend and colleague Rajendra Pradhan of the Social Science Baha in Lalitpur. I quickly consented on the obvious grounds that it would be useful to present some of my writings in English for those who cannot read French. For the reasons underlined above, I decided to restrict the scope of such a book to Newar society and its constituents. I do believe that the material presented here• provides a better understanding of the social system of this population. I particularly have in mind the guthi associations, the ceremonial aspects of the caste system, the links between centre and periphery, and Jyapu farmer institutions, which will be dealt with at length in the following pages. Naturally, some aspects of religion will be investigated in this book, since ceremonial life holds a major significance for the Newar social order. To put it in quite simple terms, among the Newar, the profane cannot be completely dissociated from the sacred: the two spheres are intimately connected. In the future, however, I intend to devote a second collection of my works to the meanings and structure of the extremely exuberant rituals of the Newar, which, in many ways, have a logic all of their own.

The following thirteen chapters have been organised to illustrate the itinerary my research has taken, but in an order that is not chronological. Chronologically, I began by studying, during my spare time, the very introverted Newar village of Pyangaon, located near Chapagaon in Lalitpur District, in the southern part of the Kathmandu Valley. That was in 1970. The late Khem Bahadur Bista, who was teaching Nepali at the Oriental Languages Institute of the University of Paris at the time, had introduced me to the locality. For eight months (from September 1971 to April 1972), I was immersed in the daily life of this community, sleeping on the floor and eating with other members of the household in which I lived. Because of the difficulty the villagers had in pronouncing my first name, I was called Jilal. Two chapters of this book (4 and 5) are devoted to the social organisation of this extremely interesting mono-caste community and to its links with the surrounding castes. Afterwards, I under- took research on the Pahari (Chapter 8) and the Balami (Chapter 7), with whom the Newar farmers of Pyangaon are connected in one way or an- other. These two small population groups live on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley and sociologically stand between the categories of caste and ethnic groups.

In 1976, after several more visits to Pyangaon for verification and up- dating of material, I launched a second major sequence of fieldwork, this time in an urban context. Under the auspices of John Sanday (UNESCO) and Corneille Jest (CNRS), I decided to study the small town of Panauti in Banepa Valley, adjacent to the Kathmandu Valley basin. I stayed a long time in this pleasant, multi-caste locality bordered by two rivers, and studied the architecture, the caste system, ceremonial life and the local economy. At the time of my study, the inhabitants of Panauti numbered about 3,000, not too large a population to carry out an insightful and comprehensive survey of the 20 castes living in the city. Two chapters (10 and 11) that deal with the symbolic basis of the caste system rely on materials collected in this small trading centre.

In subsequent years, I did much research in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur, the three main cities of the Valley, focusing on some specific castes: the Citrakar painters and mask-makers (Chapter 1); the Rajopadhyaya Brahman priests, who, interestingly enough, often prefer not to consider themselves Newar (Chapter 2); and the Ranjitkar printers and dyers. I also carried out fieldwork in the village of Theco in Lalitpur District, collecting comparative material on Jyapu farmers to figure out whether or not Pyangaon was a totally unique village. I have become convinced that though it is to some extent atypical, Pyangaon is not set off from other rural localities of the region in any marked degree as far as social structure, religion and economic life are concerned.

In 1990, I started my last major sequence of fieldwork among the Newar, with the Jyapu farmers of the old quarters of the city of Kathmandu. Interestingly, among this group, I discovered a thoroughly fascinating system of social and territorial organisation, based to a large extent on ceremonial music, drums and cymbals, as well as on a mysterious god of music, Nasahdyah. I sometimes regret not having begun my research with this group since it would perhaps have been more profitable for me to have started with these farmers instead of settling in a very uncomfortable village far from Kathmandu, whose inhabitants spoke a different Newar from the one I had learnt in Kathmandu. In either case, though, there would have been similar difficulties: Jyapu farmers of that time-the end of king Mahendra's (1920-1972) rule-were nearly everywhere extremely reclusive and secretive, having little contact with foreigners. This was as true in Kathmandu as it was in Pyangaon. Unfortunately, the large amount of material I collected among these urban farmers has to date not been published. A sample of it is presented in Chapter 4 of this book as well as in part of Chapter 12. To put an end to this long programme of research, spanning more than 35 years and including nearly five years of fieldwork in the Kathmandu and Banepa valleys (besides my research among the western Tamangs and in Gulmi-Arghakhanchi), in 1998, I decided to start studying the remarkable changes that have been affecting Newar society as a whole over the last three decades. This research took the form of extensive day-long visits to numerous localities, mainly rural, all over the Kathmandu Valley. Some of the results of this ongoing project are presented here for the first time in Chapters 12 and 13.

The sequence in which the chapters have been ordered in this book inverts this chronology in a fundamental way. I have elected to open Newar Society with the three urban case studies assembled here (Citrakar, Rajopadhyaya and Jyapu of Kathmandu), instead of beginning with the rural Jyapu. My purpose in doing this is to start off with the centres, Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur, the three cities that were the capitals of the Malla kingdoms from 1620 to 1768-9, and that remain up to present times the chief urban nuclei of the Kathmandu Valley. In other words, I decided to deal first with the core of Newar society, the cities where intellectual, political and artistic resources have always been chiefly located; then to move out to the country, to the Jyapu villages which were formerly encompassed by one or another of these political centres; and finally to the outlying areas, the edges of the Kathmandu Valley, so far neglected by scholarship but which, I believe, should be of obvious interest to anyone seeking to understand the whole system. These three circles constitute important points of reference. By considering its periphery, this book introduces a new perspective on Newar society, one thus far ignored. For reasons that will shortly become clear, there were logical and theoretical advantages to organising the book along these lines. As for the last two chapters, which draw on some of my work on the recent changes, they concern both rural and urban areas.

When read as a whole, the chapters of this book, in my mind, present an overall picture of some of the essential features of Newar society. It is important to underline that most of the papers that have been grouped together here have been revised and updated for the present volume. Much additional material has been incorporated into the original papers in Chapters 4 and 5 (on Pyangaon village) and Chapter 6 (on the Pahari). Chapters 6, 7 (on the Balami), 12 and 13, i.e., a third of the book have never been published before.


Publisher's Notev
Notes on Conventions and Transliterationix
1The Citrakar: Caste of painters and mask-makers22
2The Social Organisation of Rajopadhyaya Brahmans49
3The Farmers in the City: The social and territorial organisation of the Maharjan (jyapu) of Kathmandu75
4A Secret Village: Social control and religion among the Swagumi120
5Inter- Caste Relationships in and around a Newar Villages163
6Territory, Death and Local Deities: The socio- religious structure of Maharjan villages190
7The Balami Wood- Cutters and Sellers: Caste or ethnic group?212
8A Peripheral Group on the Rim of the Kathmandu Vallely: The Pahari242
9From Kin to Caste: The Role of guthi in Newar society and culture289
10The Mwahni (Dasai) Festival and the Caste System316
11Funeral Priests and the Meaning of Caste339
12Constructing Identity in a Changing Context:359
The Jyapu Mahaguthi
13Gender and Social Change: Contesting the masculinity of musical instruments384
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