Traditions of Newar Buddhist Culture

- Mr. Ratnakaji Bajracharya


(This is the english summary of the paper in Newari presented during the "Newa Buddhist Culture Preservation seminar" in 1993.)

  1. Origin of Newar Buddhist Culture

  2. Rituals for male child

  3. Rituals for female child

  4. Death rituals

  5. Buddhist literature

  6. Caryagita

  7. Carya Dance

  8. Vrata

  9. Festivals

  10. Conslusion


Origin of Newar Buddhist Culture

            Newar Buddhist society is based on the profound principles of Sravaka, Mahayana  and Vajrayana entrenched in the conception of tolerance, compassion and moral behaviours.

            Nepal constitutes of multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic culture. It has integrated practices  of spiritualism and materialism in order to enhance one's lifestyle by means of various educational methods.

            When we observe the tradition of Newar Buddhist culture, we cannot but accept the importance of the Swayambhu Puran˙a  text. Because it is believed to be the history of the formation of Newar Buddhist culture in Kathmandu Valley.

            According to this text, this Valley was once a great lake called Naga daha. A lot of religious practitioners and great masters visited this pleasant and sacred lake.  Buddha Vipashvi with his disciples from the Kingdom of Bandhumati visited here and offered the seed of the lotus flower at the centre of the lake from Jamaco hill. After six months, a thousand petal lotus appeared with a dazzling light on it. This light began to spread around the Kathmandu Valley and beyond thus making the Valley far more enchanting land than ever before.

            Later on, Buddha Sikhi, Buddha Bisvabhu and other Buddhas of the past with their entourage of disciples paid visit to Swayambhu, the self-existing successively.

            After that, great Guru Manju Deva, an emanation of Great Bodhisattva Manjusri paid visit to Lord Swayambhu and he cut the gorge near Covar hill to drain the lake and made it a habitable land for settlement. With the help of surrounding villagers, he created Nepal Mandala by  establishing a city called Manjupattana. He appointed Dharmakara as the first king of Nepal Mandala.

            Under the leadership of king Dharmakara, many artistic monuments and Viharas  were constructed. In the course of time, Buddha Krakucchanda with his entourage of disciples came to the Kathmandu Valley from the city of Kshemavati.  He went to the northern hill of Kathmandu called Siddhi Fulacco  mountain and ordained his disciples with many instructions on Yoga, Paramita  and other related doctrines. The name 'Vagadvara'  became famous as it is the outcome of the power of Buddha Krakucchanda's speech.

            Next, there is the vivid description of the visit of past Buddha like Kanakamuni, Kasyapa and Shakyamuni  in the Valley.

            During Kashyapa Buddha's visit to Kathmandu, king Pracanda Deva of Gaur  country after paying a visit to Swayambhu, had become a master of Tantric doctrines. He was initiated into the secrets of Vajrayana Buddhism by Bhikshu Gunakara. Later king Pracanda Deva  was renamed as Shantikara Acarya  according to Vajrayana  doctrines. With a view to eliminate various obstructions, disasters and inauspicious elements he founded five monuments called Agnipur, Patalapur, Basupur, Nagapur  and Shantipur  as the retreat centre where many enlightened beings meditated. He built Swayambhu Jyoti Rupa  in the form of a great Caitya.

            The Bodhisattva practices are given a high respect and status in Nepal. The word Bodhisattva  is  referred  as a realized being and the works done out of compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings is called Bodhisattva practice. There are innumerable stories and legends of Bodhisattva practices described in Pali and Sanskrit literature. Among the chief Bodhisattvas, the eight stand prominent. They are Bodhisattva Manjushri, Vajrapani, Maitreya, Gaganaganja, Samantabhadra, Akashagarbha, Sarva Nivarana  and Kshitigarbha. All the devotional practices concerning these Bodhisattvas have been the main stream of our Buddhist culture. This includes the devotional practices concerning the life span, eradication of diseases, elimination of untimely death, acquisition of an offspring and other worldly goals too.

            In this process the practices of observing Upos˙adhavrata, sevenfold worship and other rituals in the sacred sites such as Swayambhu, Janabahal, Patan, Covar, Nala, Namo Buddha and other places are the very basis of Newar Buddhist culture. Apart from these practices, there are many life cycle rituals which are being performed by Newar Buddhists.

Rituals for male child

           For male child a ritual called Bratabandha around the age of 5 or  6 years is performed. In case of Shakyas and Bajracharyas, Cudakarma  ceremony is performed. He becomes a Buddhist monk for the duration of four days, begs alms door to door and finally disrobes again to become a lay devotee practicing Vajrayana  and Mahayana  disciplines. After taking master initiation he became a Vajracharya, a master of Tantric doctrines.

Rituals for female child

            Around five or six years of age, a ritual called Ihi is to be performed in front of a Caitya for every female child. When they grow up and commence their menstruation, a ritual called 'Barah'  is performed. This is also called the method of conception (skt. garbhadhana). The female child in this ritual is  kept in a dark room for about 12 days and she is generally taught about domestic sciences during the period. They  play various forms of games for entertainment. After the completion of the 12 days retreat, a ritual fasting concerning Surya Mandala  is performed.

            When a female child grows up to be a young lady it is but natural to have a marriage relation to lead a conjugal life. Newar Buddhists perform marriage ceremony with great pomp and splendor and consider it the most important life cycle ritual.

            When parents are aged 77 years, a ritual called Bhimaratharohana  is performed for the long life and the elimination of worldly disturbances.

            Numerous festivals, charity acts, worship ceremony, dances etc. are performed among Newar population as a form of entertainment as well as a means of accumulation of merit and wisdom.

Death rituals

            When a person dies, numerous rituals are involved in getting the corpse out of the house to cremate it. The corpse is covered with a special red coloured cloth and put in a wooden frame(Kota). A death procession is followed by Guru Vajracharya and other relatives reciting Durgatiparishodhana Dharani. When they reach the cemetery, sons of the family usually offer water to the deceased and cremate the corpse by offering fire ball. Following the cremation, there are various rituals to be performed after four, seven, eight, thirteen, forty five days, six months, annually and biannually.

            In order that the deceased one may not be reborn in one of the lower realms, these meritorious practices are being performed by Newar population till today.

Buddhist literature

            The Buddhist literatures are extant today in numerous languages such as Pali, Prakrt, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Simhala, Burmese, Thai, Newar and others. After the Parinirvana  of the Buddha, the Sangha was divided into various sects. With a view to collect the words of the Buddha in an authentic way, many Arahanta Bhikshus  hold a council for the first time to confirm the Buddha's teachings  in Magadhi language. This was later called Pali language. So they collected the words of the Buddha in the form of Tripitaka. These scriptures became famous in Theravada Buddhist tradition.

            Later on, the Buddha's words were collected in Prakrt dialect by the people of hilly regions. It was called Buddhist Sanskrit. Most of the Mahayana scriptures can be found in this language. Among them 'Nine Scriptures' stand prominent and authentic Buddhist scriptures which give us the teachings on Bodhisattva practice. They are as follows:

            1.         Arya Asta Sahashrika Prajna Paramita

            2.         Arya Saddharma Pundarika Sutra

            3.         Arya Suvarna Prabhasa Sutra

            4.         Arya Samadhi Raja Sutra

            5.         Arya Gandavyuha Sutra

            6.         Arya Lankavatara Sutra

            7.         Arya Dasha Bhumisvara Sutra

            8.         Arya Lalitavistara Sutra

            9.         Arya Tathagata Guhya Sutra

            Apart from these nine Sutras, there are numerous literatures concerning Avadana, philosophy, Tantra  and Dharan˙ił. Within Avadana  literature,the following Avadanas  are popular :

            1.         Avadana Sataka

            2.         Divyavadana

            3.         Bhadra Kalpavadana

            4.         Mahavastu Avadana

            5.         Vicitra Karnika Avadana

            6.         Avadana Kalpalata and others

            In these literatures, we can find the legends concerning the Buddha's previous lives which throw light on the working of laws of karma  and behavior. It contains the common instruction applicable to both Hinayana  and Mahayana.

            It is to be noted that Lord Buddha delivered his teachings on Mantrayana  at Dhanyakataka  mountain. Among Tantric Buddhist literatures, texts like Guhyasamaja, Manjushrimulakalpa, Gyanodaya, Samvarodaya, Karavira, Yogamvara, Vajravarahi, Durgati Parishodhana Tantra  have paramount importance in Newar Buddhist literature.

            According to these Tantric texts, the various celebrations such as Cakrapuja, Ahoratra, Diks∏a Vidhana etc are being performed from time to time. They, sometimes, held Chatrisamvara(36 Samvara Puja), Kirana Dekha as the improtant Tantric practices.

            Furthermore, they draw the various deities of the Mandala  with sand powder, colour powder, dance with Caryagita  together with various musical instruments. They perform samadhi  and Yoga  and various stages of development and completion of the practices of various tutelary deities.

            As an evidence, many outstanding Buddhist masters such as Bandhudatta, Kuladatta, Sashvatavajra, Humkaravajra, Sunya Samadhivajra, Amoghavajra, Lilavajra, Vakvajra, Suratavajra and Manjuvajra had appeared in this Kathmandu Valley as master practitioners who composed the commentarial texts, the hymns and Caryagitas.

            According to Hevajra Tantra, a neophyte should be trained in the philosophy of Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Yogacara  and Madhyamika  doctrines before taking the Tantric  empowerments.

            Among the masters of the philosophies, the masters of Vaibhasika  doctrine were Sanghabhadra and Vasubandhu. After composing the texts like Abhidharmakosha and its explanation, Acarya Vasubandhu composed Saddharmapun˙d˙ariłka T˙ika, Vijnaptimatratasiddhi and many others.

            Famous Yogacara  Acarya Asanga composed Yogacara Bhumi, Mahayana Samparigraha and others where as Maitreyanatha composed great texts like Madhyanta Vibhaga, Dharma Dharmata Vibhaga.

            Madhyamika  Acarya Nagarjuna composed several texts among which the following works stand as prominent;  Madhyamika Karika, Vigraha Vyavartani, Suhrdalekha, Catustava, Sunyata Saptati, Yukti Sastika and others. These texts are said to be the authentic doctrines which substantiate the theory of middle path. In the similar manner, many outstanding Buddhist Masters such as Dingnaga, Dharmakirti, Aryadeva, Santideva have enriched the Buddhist Sanskrit literature with their excellent compositions.

            The Vajrayana  tradition was further enhanced and strengthened by the eighty four Maha Siddhas  who contributed numerous Caryagita, Sadhanas, rituals and other related works in the Licchavi  period (400-880 A. D.). It is to be noted that the tradition of copying the manuscripts was very popular in various Baha  and Bahi of Kathmandu Valley. This fact is supported by various colophons found in the end of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, this tradition has dwindled much in modern days.

            In this process, our ancestors enriched the Buddhist literature by translating them into their own mother tongue. Many manuscripts are extant in celebrated libraries viz Asa saphu kuthi, Abhilekhalaya and many others.

            After the introduction of printing press in the Kathmandu Valley, many people published important Buddhist texts in printed form, thus enriching the Buddhist literature. Among them late Pandit Nisthananda Bajracharya, Pandit Nadimananda Bajracharya, Mahaprajna published with great efforts the important Buddhist texts like Lalitavistara and others. Similarly the contribution of Pandit Ratna Bahadur, Pandit Dharmaditya and Jogmuni are also noteworthy. Furthermore, Late Pandit Asha Kaji Bajracharya contributed much to the Buddhist literture by publishing numerous translation and original works in Newari language. In this process, the contribution of Pandit Divya Vajra is also noteworthy.


            In Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, the Carya songs and dances are performed during highly advanced Tantric  practices and ceremonies in which the practitioner communicates with their tutelary deities like Samvara , Vajra Yogini during ecstatic meditation.

            Performing Carya dance in itself is a form of meditation in action, which involves the different hand movements, gestures and movements of feet according to the special Tala and Raga of Caryagita.

            Of course, the Caryagita  is the manifestation of the realization of unity of emptiness and skilful means. It is the instruction of the Guru which is to be practiced by his disciples through Carya dance.

            According to the Tantric Buddhist texts, the worship of Yoginis should be performed through dance, music and songs. That's the reason why Caryagita and dances are included in various Tantric Buddhist rituals.

            The origin of Carya songs can be traced in the tantric Buddhists texts such Catupitha Tantra  where one can find the Carya songs entitled "Tribhuvana Jvalita" and "Hum Hum Deha". Similarly in Hevajra Tantra, a Caryagita  called "Kolai"  is mentioned. 

            Some Caryagita  are the songs of realization spontaneously produced out of their experience of bliss and emptiness. In some Caryagitas,  we can find the description of qualities of various tutelary deities made out of devotion. These Caryagitas  are also called Vajragita  which is to be sung as spiritual songs involving different musical rhythms called Tala  and Raga. In my collection of Caryagita  as many as 32 forms of Raga and ten forms of Tala  are found.

Carya Dance

            In Vajrayana  Buddhist tradition, there are many forms of Carya dances which are unlike secular dances of modern times, cannot be displayed or performed in the public platforms. These Carya  dances are to be performed on various occasions during Gan˙acakra celebration, Chatrisamvara Puja, initiation ceremony, Ahoratra Puja, Cakra Puja and others at secret shrines with  artistic hand gestures full of spiritual emotions. It involves various musical instruments called Kota, Payta, Cymbol, Vabhu etc. Thus this sort of dance is based on canonical texts, and is a form of meditation in itself. The date of origin of these dances can be traced back to the time of formation of Buddhist Tantras  itself. As a proof of this, we can cite these statements in Samvarodaya Tantra :

Nrtya Gita Samayuktam Vajrayogini Pujayet /


Also in Hevajra Tantra,

Vajradharmaistatha Buddhai Yoginibhisca Matrbhih /

Abhyam Gita Natyabhyam Giyate Nrtyateparam /

            In modern time, apart from Carya  dance, there are other two forms of dances in vogue. Firstly, there are dances which are heavily emphasized on divine form of deities such as the dance of As˙t˙amatrika  and other dances whice involve the expression of social structure are performed at public platfrorms as a form of entertainment. During Malla period (14th - 18th century), these dances seemed to have developed to a marked degree the then Malla  kings used to patronize these dances. In S┤aha dynasty too, late King Rajendra Vir Vikram composed a drama 'Mahasattva Pakhyana'  and was staged on different public platforms. These days the importance of these dances are not felt keenly as an object of cultural society but viewed only as an object of tourism market. This indeed is a sad thing.


            As a form of Buddhist spiritual practices, the Vratas are performed in honor of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, with special rules and regulations on food habits.

            In general, the aim of the Vrata / Uposadha  is to take precepts to abstain from ten non-virtuous actions of body, speech and mind. To perform ten virtuous actions is the main object of the Vrata.

            In Kathmandu Valley, there are many power places where these Vratas are performed. They are as follows:

            1.         Swayambhu

            2.         Bungamati

            3.         Twelve Tirthas

            4.         Eight Vitaragas  and others.

            Among many Vratas the Astami Vrata, Gatila Vrata, Dharmadhatu Vrata, Aryatara Vrata, Caturdasi Vrata are most popular. From time to time, the Manjushri Vrata, Pancaraksha Vrata, Surya Vrata, Astamatrika Vrata are also performed.


            Kathmandu Valley is said to be the land of festivals. People in the Valley are enjoying these festivals from generations to generations. There are innumerable festivals to cite. Only important festivals are listed below.

            1.         New Moon day of Vaisakha

            2.         Khai Sanlhu

            3.         Baisakha Purnima

            4.         Sithinakha

            5.         Nakwa Dishi

            6.         Gathamuga

            7.         Gunla Dharma

            8.         Panca Dana Gunapunhi

            9.         Jugacare        

            10.       Catha

            11.       Yenya Punhi

            12.       Gatila

            13.       Kati Punhi

            14.       Laxmi Puja

            15.       Mha Puja                                                                     

            16.       Kija Puja

            17.       Mukhastami

            18.       Sakimila Punhi

            19.       Yahmari Punhi

            20.       Sri Pancami

            21.       Holi Punhi

            22.       Lhuti Punhi


            Newar people are living their life observing various festivals, worshipping even the animals like dogs, cows, frogs and crows, giving values to their lives. As conservationists of environment, they highly regard the natural environment consisting of wells, lakes and water sprouts of the village and cities.

            If we think seriously about the Buddhist values behind these practices, we can find the notion of love, compassion, appreciation to meritorious works, and equanimity. These concepts are the important aspects of the Buddhist doctrines which bring us peace, prosperity and civilization to this world.

            At present, our traditional culture is going to be superseded by modern habit patterns. If we couldn't maintain our culture, it would be difficult to identify ourselves as Newars. It does not mean that we should maintain as it was before. It is our sole responsibility to preserve our heritage and culture for the very existence of identity as Newars along with the changing circumstances.