Newar Household Items: Everyday Wonders

Features Issue 96 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

The Newar people are the original settelers of Kathmandu’s valley, their culture is rich in its blending of mysticism and everyday life, this is most evident in their daily household items such as the ‘kaan’ and ‘sukunda’. But it doesn’t end there, science and smart thinking is part of their way making them vkeen problem solvers. This article describes just some of their customs and traditions many of which are still clearly visible throughout the valley and beyond. - PK
Amongst the crowd of devotees walking slowly in a line around the Karunamaya temple in Kirtipur, a few take a moment to look up at a collage of kaans plates attached high on the walls. Small and big, darkened by time or glinting in the morning sun. all have names engraved on their surfaces. The names are of departed loved ones and these plates have been attached here with the belief that offerings to the gods and goddesses at these temples will reach the deceased. As visitors and devotees walk out of the temple premises, others enter, some of them again with their eyes raised to the kaans plates.

Newars believe that kaans, an alloy made out of copper and tin, is pure enough to cross over to the otherworld. Hence, when a loved one passes away, plates made out of kaans are attached in loving memory of them to a select temple’s walls.

A mythical notion that has found a place in Newar mindsets, it is one of literally hundreds still believed and practiced even among younger generations. Kaans items such as plates and saucers are also household items of everyday use for many Newars. Such is the mixture of myth and reality in Newar lives. Mythical reasons for everyday activities, an inclination to a spiritual life, a sense of communal living and close knit families, all mold the life of a Newar.

Newars never tire from praising Newar culture. Their upbringing and sense of belonging to their community makes them a part of Newar culture as much as Newar culture is a part of them. As a Newar myself, growing up in a Newari household has been a blessing. Right from birth, through adolescence, in marriage and till death, a Newar lifetime is a celebration of life itself.

The culture has its own language, its own traditions and its own set of values. Conservative by modern standards, Newar people have sought to exercise freedom through discipline―a discipline borne of a glorious past, a history rich by any standards in art and culture and a habit of hard work and simple living.

The History of the Newars of Nepal
The written history of Nepal begins with the dynasty of Gopal and Mahispal. The Gopali people are still found in Tistung, Palung and in nearby villages. According to research, Gopali people still follow Newar culture and speak the Newar language. This indicates clearly that Newars were the first rulers of Nepal. Over time, however, many immigrants came to Nepal from surrounding places and adopted the Newar language and culture, thus effectively coming to be known as Newars. The cultural and linguistic diversity among Newar people is owed to this.

The Newar golden age peaked in the 17th century when the valley consisted of small city-states. At that time Nepal was a vitally important trading link between southern Tibet and the northern Indian plains. The valley’s visible history is inextricably entangled with the Malla kings. It was during their reign, particularly in the 1600’s and 1700’s, that many of the valley’s finest temples and palaces were built. Most ruling dynasties in Nepal have had the sense to recognize the richness of Newar culture and sought to use it to their advantage in various ways, such as through art, architecture and the celebration of various festivals.

The unification of Nepal in 1768 by Gorkha’s King Prithvi Narayan Shah signaled the end of Kathmandu Valley’s fragmentation. Nepali, an Indo-European language spoken by the Khas of western Nepal, replaced Nepalbhasa (Newar language) as the country’s language of administration.

After Prithvi Narayan Shah declared Kathmandu the capital of the country, owing to its central location and fertile land, people from all over Nepal started to flock into the valley. Since then, Kathmandu has remained the cultural and historical center of the country.

The Newars were among the original residents of the valley. They are a deeply religious people and are mostly Hindus and Buddhists. These hard-working and friendly people, in the valley and wherever they have settled around the country, have primarily been farmers and artisans. It is perhaps this amalgamation of a farming culture and of art that has allowed the Newar community to emerge as culturally rich and artistically diverse. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that mention of the Newars of the valley crops up just about as easily as Kathmandu is brought up when talk is of celebrations and rituals. The Newars are famously said to use every excuse for a celebration, a fact that is reinforced by the majority of holidays on the Nepali calendar that are linked to Newar festivals.

Certain social and economic developments within the Newar communities of Nepal aided in bringing about prosperity to the entire populace. The small number of people living in the Kathmandu Valley could only do so much, so a culture of outsourcing was developed by past rulers to divide work among various regions. Thus Bhaktapur became well known for its pottery and Patan for its metallurgy. The outsourcing acted as an indicator of the prosperity of those times. “Can you imagine an entire town and its people focused on a single profession? It says a lot about the prosperity of the Nepal of those days,” says Anil Chitrakar.

Because the lifestyle of the Newars revolved around farming and art, the various items used in Newar households exhibit amazing practicality and smart design. From an age-old fermentation method to make strong home brewed liquor, to an ingenious door locking system, all showcase the historic creativity of the Newars.

Kaans: A Metal with History
Although Newars are not particularly associated with science as such, a lot of everyday traditions and habits are surprisingly science-savvy. Kaans is an alloy made of copper and tin. While the use of alloys in every day life is not uncommon around the world, having the knowledge associated with it is quite a rarity in early history. Kaans became the metal of choice for Newars and Nepali people in general in the early days due to several reasons, one of them being the unavailability of modern metals such as steel. Kaans also became popular because its production was cheaper and easier compared with other alloys. The use of kaans by royalty and in religious ceremonies assured its popularity and encouraged its use in daily life.

Eating and dining using kaans utensils as opposed to using clay or steel cutlery is regarded to be a healthy choice, a fact that is now reinforced by modern science. For Newars to somehow have had this knowledge and to have used it so extensively is a wonder on its own. The presence of copper in kaans accounts for its popular usage in households.

Kaans is very similar in composition to bronze, the most famous alloy of copper and tin that played a large role in the advancement of ancient cultures. Kaans is made by adding certain amounts of copper to bronze, which results in an alloy similar in composition to gun metal. The reason behind its popularity is because of the physical and chemical properties of its constituent copper.

Copper can be found in many kinds of food, in drinking water and in air. Because of this, we absorb different quantities of copper everyday by eating, drinking and even breathing. This absorption of copper is necessary since copper is a trace element that is essential for human health. In animals, including humans, copper is found in the bloodstream as a co-factor in various enzymes that help digest food. It is also present in copper based pigments. Too much copper is, however, harmful for human health.

Classically, in Eastern cultures, the best pots were made with a thick layer of copper for good thermal conductivity. These pots are best for the high heat, fast cooking techniques that are so much a part of most Newar kitchens.

Besides the Newar connection, the immensely popular Thakali meals in Nepal are all served using kaans cutlery. The Thakali people are a hilly region people comprising of sub-castes such as Tulachan and Sherchan, renowned for their excellent culinary skills at preparing the staple dish of the Nepali people, the inescapable dal-bhat !

Besides the use of kaans plates to remember the deceased in temples, its purity also makes kaans the only metal to be used at rituals when a Newar passes away.

Raksi parne bhada: Utensils to make alcohol
Because they are fond of merry-making and lavish feasts after farming season is over, home brewed liquor or aela is a Newar specialty enjoyed by valley residents. Made from a concoction of rice, wheat and water, it is the staple drink at all major Newar celebrations and ceremonies.

The origin of this historic drink is traced back to the heyday of the capital city. The rich soil of the valley and the small population of the entire country meant that there was more than enough supply of rice and wheat. The next harvest would bring in more of the same and the leftover produce from the year would almost always go to waste. It is even said that people would keep guard at their storage crops just to make sure that no-one would add to their already overflowing supplies! So, to avoid being wasteful, Newars started to make aela from it and the tradition has carried on to this day. The method of making this liquor has remained the same for decades. All utensils used in the preparation of aela are typical Newari household items.

In the traditional Newar style home of long time Patan resident Gunna Maharjan in Bhairab Lachhi, we observed the ancient process. The procedure came easy to Maharjan and his wife as they worked mostly from muscle memory to skillfully prepare the aela drink. The primary ingredients of aela are cooked rice, dry beaten rice and wheat that have been fermented to a green color. These constituents of the brew are first crushed in a home made urn of sorts which is called a lucshi and hit by a long wooden mallet called an uga. In local Newari dialect, the mixture of these three in water in appropriate amounts is known as ka. This mixture is kept in a clay vessel for at least two months to ‘cook’. The set up for preparing aela at home consists of several vessels stacked one atop the other, each performing a specific function.

The bottom vessel is known as fwosi and is holds the ka. The fwosi is made out of copper and is made so that it can withstand high temperatures from a wood fire. Inside the fwosi, a patasi is set. The patasi too is made out of copper but its base is perforated with large holes through which the steam from the ka rises up. On top of the patasi is another copper vessel called a gullu used for collecting the alcohol. Finally at the top of this arrangement is a vessel with a conical base simply known as a bata (vessel) that holds water which is changed regularly. The steam from the ka rises up the patasi and settles on the bata’s base. This vessel is of prime importance as its conical shape helps to collect the condensed steam of the ka. As the water gets warm, the steam of the ka condenses and falls below to be collected in the gullu. This condensed steam is the much loved aela of the Newars.

Even today in Newar homes and small roadside restaurants all across the capital, aela is made by following the ancient method. Served with suitable Newari snacks, this amazing drink soothes many aches away. Besides for drinking, aela is also used by Newars as a powerful ointment for treating muscle pain.

Kney khapa: An Ancient Wooden Door
Only recently have modern appliances become visible in Nepal. Even today, in many of the Newar villages in the valley and its outskirts, a lot of people live in small brick houses strengthened by mud plaster with these small wooden doors. From the outside, these wooden doors do not seem extraordinary, but perhaps this is part of the clever design to fool intruders. Built out of strong, dry wood and incorporated with another age old design, these doors still keep intruders out.

Generally made up of two solid pieces of wood, depending on the kind available in the locality, the doors are also fairly common in old houses in Patan and Bhaktapur. Since the height of a room in an old house is typically under six feet, the doors too are about five feet tall and about three feet wide. The back of the door (the part facing inside) is fitted with two handle-like wooden pieces sturdily fitted to the door frame. A plank of wood is set between them to effectively ‘lock’ the door. A hole of considerable size is made into this central plank. The interesting part of the design is that if the door is accidentally closed, it can be opened from the outside by levering the plank through the hole in it, from the outside. The plank of wood with the central hole acts as a lock.

But if the door is to be closed for good, in older times at least, a long piece of iron bent into a curve at one end would be passed through the plank’s hole to act as a key. This prevents anyone from raising the log of wood through its central hole from the outside. The piece of iron, known locally as kney acts as a key in the design of the door. The hole in the log speaks volumes about the practicality of Newari design.

Newari weighing utensils
Though many Newars are farmers to this day, recent generations have ventured out and shown the country that they are equally adept at other professions. In older times, large amounts of rice and wheat would be stored in their homes after the harvest. Anil Chitrakar, an entrepreneur with a keen interest in anthropology and history, recalls: “I remember that an entire storey of my family house was a storage area for farm produce. There was a hole in the ceiling and the harvest was poured from the top into the room much like a tank storing water.” These types of storage areas are still seen in many old houses in and around Kathmandu although, today, they are seldom used for this purpose. Rather a large proportion of the season’s crops would be sold to cover other expenses. To facilitate trade and to ease private accounts, the Newars used their own measuring units for weighing rice, wheat, maize and other crops.

While nowadays, most measurements follow the metric system, the basic unit of measurement in Newar households was once the mana. An interesting part of this measurement system is that while modern day measurements consider mass while weighing in kilograms and tons, the mana is a system that considered the volume of the stuff. Half a mana is called a bamna and half of that was a chakanchhi; thus four chakanchhis equal a mana. Half of a chakanchhi is called a bachakna. Two manas are one nimna. Eight manas are equal to a pathi. To make analogies with the modern system of measurements, three manas are approximately equal to a kilogram. To measure the volume of certain amounts of crops, there are differently sized measuring containers that exactly hold all these named quantities. Therefore, if you wanted to buy a chakanchhi of maize, a Newar man would fill up a one chakanchhi–sized container with maize for you.

Even now in Newar households and in market places where Newar settlement is high, such as in Patan, many shopkeepers still use the mana system. Similar measurement standards have also been adopted by other residents of the valley.

The sukunda: An elaborate ritual oil lamp
A Newar man’s life is punctuated with religious ceremonies, every major event being auspiciously marked by a ritual. From a girl child’s entry into adolescence, a young boy’s bratabandha coming of age ceremony, where he is made to live the life of a monk for a week, to marriage and eventually at death, rites and rituals are very important for Newars who partake sincerely in their traditions. And because Lord Ganesh is worshipped before starting a journey or beginning a new venture, a sukunda which almost always has the impression of Lord Ganesh embedded into it, is always present at departure events, marriage being one of them. Lighting a sukunda is said to bring in good luck. Therefore, a silver sukunda must be used at all Newar ceremonies.

The sukunda is a hollow cup-like vessel, made with an image of Lord Ganesh on it, that has a small protruding plate at the top front that holds oil and a small cotton wick to light. It is backed by an array of serpents that provide shade to the image of Lord Ganesh sitting on the front of the sukunda. A popular myth tells us how Lord Shiva accidentally beheaded his son Ganesh. To console his grieving wife Parwati, Shiva arranged for the head of the first animal he could find and used its head to replace his son’s. The first animal sighted happened to be an elephant and so, nowadays, Ganesh is recognized by his elephant trunk and huge floppy ears. To make up for the mistake, Shiva ordered all earthlings to worship Ganesh before any other. The sukunda is also made out of an alloy of brass and zinc known locally as dhalaut which is known for its strength and resembles gun metal in composition.

Besides having religious significance, the sukunda was also used extensively as a light in homes without electricity. The light from a sukunda is also believed to spread positive energy and to be a good omen, so visitors to village homes were welcomed with a sukunda in hand. This serves two purposes: the light it sheds is a good omen and lights the way for the visitor to come inside.

The sukunda used in everyday rituals is made of dhalaut, but for special occasions like annual festivals and marriage ceremonies, silver is preferred. Both the silver and the dhalaut sukunda, and many other ritual objects are primarily made by Newar artisans. Today these artisans mostly live in and around Patan.

Modernity, it seems, is gradually taking its toll on many important historical and highly traditional art forms. Lately, however, a new generation of Newars has become interested in reviving a lot of the old art forms as seen in traditional style houses. A large number of restaurants and hotels also serve as small museums for everyday Newari art forms. One of them, Newa Chhen (Newari, meaning ‘Newar House’) on the way to Bangla Mukhi, a five minute walk from the famed Patan Durbar Square Museum, is a prime example of this revival. This traditional style house which also serves as a small lodge with a sunny garden has traditional items of use in Newar households on display all over its premises. The attic especially is a trove for such treasures with a lot of items displayed casually under ancient wooden rafters.

The use of unique household items that are a part of their culturally significant history is as important for the Newar people as it is for all Nepali people. While Newars remain closely bound to their heritage through these items, for the rest of us, it helps preserve these everyday wonders which form a huge part of Nepal’s cultural bloodline.

In the temple of Karunamaya in Chobhar, the long line of devotees filing into the temple to put up new kaans plates and pay their respects to loved ones never ceases simply because the cycle of life goes on. This is attested by the dearth of space on the temple’s walls which are already full of kaans plates. The kaans plates for the recently deceased are therefore being adjusted in the spaces between the old ones and wherever else there is any space left. It is indeed ironical to see how the kaans plates as symbols of love and remembrance towards those who have passed away represent so beautifully the new life being given to the old Newar household items.

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