Status of Newar Buddhist Culture


- Kedar Shakya


(This is the summary of the paper presented in Newari during the 'Conference on the Buddhist Heritage of Nepal Mandal' in 1998.)

  1. Background

  2. Contribution of the Shakyas

  3. Spread of Shakyas

  4. Inclination towards religion and culture

  5. Tradition of Chudakarma

  6. Practice of observing festivals

  7. Problems

  8. Conclusion



            From the study of the history and culture of Nepal from the ancient times to the present day, the Shakyas of the Kapilvastu republic and the spiritual thinking of Lord Buddha has laid the foundation of our culture and religion. This culture and religious tradition has not only occupied an important place in the evolution of human civilisation but has also helped to develop a distinct lifestyle.

            Kapilvastu, the republic of Shakyas, was very powerful in sixth century B.C. Prasenjit, the king of the Koshala,  requested the Shakyas of Kapilvastu for the hand of a girl for marriage with the specific intention of establishing matrimonial relation with the lineage of Lord Buddha. Since then, Shakyas were proud of their lineage. After a prolonged discussion, the Shakyas Sangha decided to give in marriage Basabha Khatiya, the daughter of Nagmunda, a slave working for Mahanama Shakya, cousin of Lord Buddha.

            King Prasenjit was pleased with the marriage and made her the queen. But, at last, Prince Vidudabha born the womb of the slave girl became a tool of the massacre of Shakyas and destruction of beautiful Kapilvastu.

            Some years before the Parinirvana  of Lord Buddha, i.e, around 491 B.C. or 486 B.C., Vidudabha attacked too republics Kapilvastu and Devadaha (Koliya) and massacred a large number of people. At that time, Shakyas of Kapilvastu and Devadaha made an escape from  their homelands. Some Shakyas in a group came to the Kathmandu Valley. Shakyas in groups also went to Pipalivana, Rajagriha, Vaishali, Videha, etc for shelter.

            But, wherever they went, they took with them their religion. From 1000 B.C. to 100 - 200 A.D. the Kathmandu Valley was ruled by the Kings of the Kirata dynasty. They were indigenous people of Nepal. The  Kirats moved from the Himalayan range to the east and west of Kashmir through the Irravady river. Altogether 29 Kirat Kings ruled in Nepal. As Shakyas Kapilvastu and Devadaha came to the Kathmandu Valley during the reign of Kirat Kings, made the Valley their permanent home, they were the indigenous people of Nepal. When Ananda, the disciple of Lord Buddha came to Nepal along with some businessmen of Sravasti, he met some Shakyas in the Valley.

            Around the fifth century before the Christian ear, the Kirats of the Kathmandu Valley began to call themselves Nepa. Lord Buddha came to the Kathmandu Valley at the time of Jitedasti, the sixth or seventh king of Kirat dynasty. This was the time of Lord Buddha’s sixth Barshabasa (summer retreat). According to Rahul Sankrityayana, the time of Lord Buddha’s visit was 523 B.C. Similarly, during the reign of Sthumko, the 14th king  of Kirat dynasty, Emperor Ashoka was ruling in Magadha. When Emperor came to Nepal, the Kirata king was very much afraid and he moved to a forest at Gokarna and lived there constructing a secret  palace there. The city of Patan was founded by Ashoka. He also constructed tour stupas in four corners of Patan representing four ages. The chaityas can still be seen. It is believed that charumati, the daughter of Ashoka, married Prince Devapala of Nepal. The city established by him is still famous by the name of Deopatan. Charumati constructed a vihar near Deopatan and made Buddhism popular among the genral public.

            According to another legend, the Kirantic king Sthumko extended a warm welcome to visiting Emperor Ashoka of Magadha. Emperor Ashoka propagated Buddhism in Nepal. The above mentioned legend that Kiranti King Sthumko was afraid of Ashoka does not sound convincing. Emper Ashoka had come to Nepal to have teh Darshan (glimpse) of Swayambhunath. There is no reason why king Sthumko should be afraid of Emperor Ashoka who only wanted peace and friendship. There  is also no reason why Emperor Ashoka should take a revengeful attitude towards the Kiranti rule. But, it sounds logical that Emper Ashoka constructed the city of Patan and made Devapala, his son-in law, the king of that city to lend support to the propagation of Buddhist culture in Nepal.


Contribution of the Shakyas

            The history of the development of Buddhist and its culture will not be complete without mentioning the contribution of Shakyas. The Shakyas of ancient Kapilvastu had made unique contribution to Tri-Ranta, i.e, the Buddha, Drama, and Sngha. As Shakyas had settled in the Kathmandu Valley cosniderable contribution in the development of Buddhist culture in Nepal.

            Buddhism and its practical aspects have their potential impact on layng the strong foundation of Buddhist culture. The presence of Swayambhu Mahachaitya, pagoda style temples, stupas, other monuments like Mahabaudha  has inspired to make religio-cultural aspects of Nepal gain in rich meanings.


Spread of Shakyas

            While dating the history of Nepal and the appraisal of the existing features of the Kathmandu Valley, the time of the reign of Kirata kings from 1000 B.C.  is counted as an authentic one. the Kiratas called  themselves Nepara around 5th century B.C.. If the historians are to be believed, Nepa was later to called Nepal. In the initial period of history, the Kathmandu valley was called Nepal. After the conquest of the Kathmandu Valley by Prithvinarayan Shah in the year 1768 A.D., Nepal was unified. The practice of calling the territory inside the four passes of the valley Nepal continued upto the later date.

            After the completion of the unification campaign of Prithvinarayan Shah i.e. around 1770-71 A.D., Newars of the Kathmandu Valley moved to the eastern or western parts of Nepal for employment and trading purpose. Shakyas and Vajracharyas, and other Newars who went  to the eastern parts of Nepal crossing Sanga pass settled in Bhojpur  and chairpur. Some Newars such as Shakyas, Dhakhwas, Tuladhar who did trading business in Lhasa, Tibet, voluntarily, made money and then returned to the Kathmandu Valley. But the Shakyas, Vajracharya, who went to the East, settled there permanently involving themselves in business. They, however, used to visit their ancestral home in Patan and Bhaktapur even though they have to walk for months. There are two reasons for this long journey. The Buddhists who migrated from here must perform Chudakarma of their sosn in the bahals or vihars of the Kathmandu Valley. This other reason is that they have to travel in course of trading business.

            Shakyas and Vajracharyas migrating to the west of Nepal shared the same fate. Those who went to the west settled in Palpa, Tansen and Pokhara  engaging in business activity. One of the principal reasons of migration was the incidence of teh epidemic at the time of the Rana Bahadur Shah. At that time. the parents of children suffering from small pox were driven out of the Valley. Those who were driven out by crossing the Sanga pass went cross Tamakoshi. They reached Tamakoshi by way of Banepa, Palanchowk, Dolakha, etc. But it is difficult to identify the caste of these people.


Inclination towards religion and culture

            Newar Buddhist who went to the East in the 18th century did not forsake their religion and culture. The rituals, behavioral pattern and customs they have adopted while in the Kathmandu Valley were followed by them uninterruptedly. This has been a considerable practical support of the preservation of Buddhism and its culture.

            As all the people of Newar Buddhist community of the Kathmandu Valley carry on. Mahayana and Vajrayana ritual activities, the people migrating to other places have adopted same rituals. In most of the cases, there will be achaitya in the locality of the Buddhists. The Buddhists worship the Buddha offering flowers and incense sticks. Chudakarma, Janku, Ihi-Barha  rituals that are representative of Buddhist culture and death rituals are still prevailing out of the these rituals, Chudakarma  is the first and compulsory part of Buddhist culture.


Tradition of Chudakarma

            After Mahabhiniskarma Prince Siddhartha went to Anoma river, took off his dress and ornaments and under want Pravajya (initiation) by cutting his hair by self. The act of undergoing Pravajya initiated by the Buddha has later been taken a part of Buddhist culture. In recent times, there has been a practice of Chudakarma  (tonsure ritual) at main bahas and bahas with witness of 10 Ajus ( senior men) following various rituals. Upto 1950-51, the Buddhist going out of the  Kathmadnu Valley used to come home to perform Chudakarma  and return home.

            In 1951, Bhikshu Shakya nauda representing the western zone and Bhikshu Subodhanenda representing the eastern zone had sought permission with king Tribhuvan to perform Chaudakarma outside the Kathmandu Valley. This was done at the initiative of Acharya Bhikshu Amritananda. After this, Chudakarma  was held at shri Shakya muni vihar at Taksar, Bhojpur in 1957 and at Karuna chaitya vihar in 1963. In chainpur, Sankhusabha, Chudakarma  was held at Bagaincha Tole, Buddha cahitya, in 1965. Chudarkarma was held at Swayambhu chaitya vihar of Dharma in 1971-72. After that, Chudarkarma  was performed. There is no obligation to go to the Kathmandu Valley to perform this vitual.

            Those who did not perform Chudakarma  due to upon for nearly a decade before and after the coming of democracy. The main reasons was poverty. the Buddhists with limited financial means found it difficult to travel to the Kathmandu valley from different places of Nepal for a month or two. The marriage of the sons and daughters not performing Chudakarma was not possible with the sons and daughters who  had performed Chudakarma..  Those who did not perform this ritual is considered social outcaste. This is a feudal system or custom which had the Newar society in its grip. The system became loose later on. Under the feudal system, those who did not perform Chudakarma    were branded as non- Buddhists. These people were forced to marry girls of non- Buddhist caste and they were considered non-Buddhist. This custom still holds true. In course of time, the ritual of chukdakarma became a dividing  line between Buddhists and non-Buddhists. There was no practice of performing Chudakarma of the son of Shakaya of Vajracharya who had married women of Newar caste which did not perform Chudaakarma. When these privilegge of Chudakarma, they were compelled to follow the Hindu ritual of Vratabandha.  The latter were not called Buddhists. This practice has to be examined in the present context.

            Shakyas must have taken this stand following the tradition prevalent in the Shakyas republic in  Kapilvastu. As mentioned above, this reminds of the bitter experience of mass slaughter by Prince Vindudabha of Koshala, the son of slave women as a result of Shakyas caste pride. But, at the present time, Vajracharya Gurus did Chudakarma of the sons of such poor parents at a chaitya of Vailochan. This is worth appreciation. In this regard, pandit Badri Ratna Vajracharya has taken an initiative. In fact, in view of the role of Shakyas in the preservation of Buddhism and Buddhist culture in Nepal, it is Justified that Shakyas and Vajracharyas should perform Chudakarma  of the son of Shakyas and Vajracharyas who have married women who were not Shakyas or Vajracharyas. This practice will help increase the number of Buddhists. Had this practice prevailed, it would have been easy to know the actual population of Bhikshus in Nepal. As our society is patriarchal, the ritual of Chadakarma is very much important to give a continuity to the patriarchal lineage.


Practice of observing festivals

            The Buddhist culture of the Newars going out of the Kathmandu Valley and setting in other places of the country can be identified simply on the basis of the observance of various festivals.

            Tuladhars, Tamrakar, Udas and other Buddhists that line outside the Kathmandu Valley do not come into the fold of the people taking Buddhism and its culture  as an integral part of life. Out of these, the Newars of Taksar, Bhojpur adopt the culture and religion handed down to them by their forefathers. Yet, they fall  into the fold of Buddhism and Buddhist culture. But as most of the Newars like to marry girl of different caste, they are much more separated from the Buddhist culture. But, in recent years sons of Shakyas and Vajracharyas marrying women of different castes are called Shakyas and Vajracharya. The feudal as well as communal system that prevailed in Nepal almost 200 years ago has suffered a setback after the advent of democracy. The Shakyas of the Kathmandu Valley moving to the west as well as East of Nepal who married women of different caste did not allow their own sons and daughter born to there women and their own women to freely mix in their kitchen. Sometime before or after the establishment of democracy in Nepal. They looked them and took them separately. Their sons and daughters and women were not allowed to enter the kitchen. They were allowed food outside the kitchen. In the   context of their rigid social structure, there is no question of performing Chudakarma. This was the semi feudal social structure which imposed partiality or discrimination to own illegitimate children. This is simply to mention the sad fate of Shakyas and the Kathmandu Valley. Shakyas and Vajracharyas were the Newars whose number is high as far as concerned. Those Shakyas and Vajracharyas, whether in their original clan name or in subñclan name, are permanently settled in Bhojpur (Taksa), Sankrusabha (Chainpur, Khandbari),Taplejung, Morangs (Biratnagar, Arlabari), Sunsari (Dharan, Bayarbana, Chatara), Ilam. 

            Intellectuals, educated people and those serving the gonsnment or other jobs have returned to the Kathmandu Valley for permanent settlement Conscious and thinking people of Newar caste have been sticking to their religion and culture.

            The fate of Newar Buddhists going to the western parts of Nepal is almost the same. as that of the Newar Buddhists going to the past. Out of the Newar Buddhists settling in Nuwakot, Pokhara, Palpa, Butwal, Nepalgunj, are much more organised and they are keeping  their religion and culture alive.




1.         Major problem of Newar Buddhists going out of the Kathmandu Valley, as for as the preservation of their culture and religion is concerned, is the ritual of chudakarma.


2.         Lack of Vajrachary Gurus. Whatever Vajracharyas are there they do not know how to perform Buddhist rituals.


3.         There is degenerating trend in the preservation of Buddhist culture.


4.         There is a major problem as to whether the children of shakyas and Vajrachatyas who have already performed Chundakarma. elsewhere, will be allowed to perform the same ritual in their ancestral vihars. Whether the Shakyas and Vajracharyas pledging to observe the rules and regulation of the Sangha will be allowed to enter the Sangha. Serious discussion is required too solve this problem.


5.            Buddhist culture that is prevailing  and flourishing in the Kathmandu Valley is not to be found in Newar settlements outside the Valley. Even though it exists nominally, there is no continuity. Buddhist culture is disappearing because of the contraints posed by language problem among the Newar communities. In spite of this, there is no effort for revitalisation of the thinking process. Adequate knowledge is lacking for this.


6.            Shakyas and Vajracharyas who have gone out of the Kathmandu Valley for craftsmanship and trading business have been abandoning their traditional jobs of craftsmen. As they have to change their skill for income generation and to do jobs at hand, they have gradually forgotten their Buddhist culture and rituals. As the aged people have died, new generation of Newar Buddhists are hardly able to continue the traditional Buddhist culture. Therefore Buddhist culture is on the decline.


7.         It appears that in order to preserve the Buddhist culture, the use of Nepal Bhasha must be changed. Due to the replacement of mother tongue by Parbate (Nepali, the language of hill people) language, the culture itself is being displaced.



            Our behavioral  patterns and rituals are established in tune with the change in time and circumstance. The Buddhist culture cannot be promoted only from the caste considerations. It is not only  Shakyas and Vajracharyas who are practising the Buddhist culture. There are also other Buddhist castes like Jyapu, Manandhar, Chitrakar, Ranjitkar, who are spread in different parts of Nepal etc. Who fervently pursue Buddhist and its culture. They are called Buddhists not simply on the basic of chudakarma. The need of the hour is to move ahead with better understanding of the philosophy of Buddhism and thinking on the teachings given by lord Buddha.

            Lord Buddha never encouraged the caste system and the tradition founded on it. To wish the good and welfare of all sentient beings in the world and too follow the teachings of Lord Buddha is our main culture. those who distort it and follow the wrong tradition will never be called Buddhists.