Newar Traditions: A Ceremony Called Life

Features Issue 90 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

A little Newar girl is put into a darkened, locked room for 12 days in her home. During this time, she can not interact with the opposite sex, even including male members of her own family. She is not allowed to have salted food and she cannot look at herself in the mirror or comb her hair. The room is often darkened by boarding up the windows, allowing no sunlight to seep in. For 12 long days the only company the young girl is allowed are female family members and female friends.

When this seemingly strange Newar tradition known as gufa (cave) or barah (twelve) was known to the modern world, it created an uproar among human rights and women’s rights activists.

To my sister this sounds strange, because she experienced the barah and considers it one of her favorite childhood memories. She is now a student of social work, but looking back she remembers having a great time playing with her friends inside the gufa room. She does not understand what the fuss is about. The tradition of barah is an ancient Newar ritual to mark the coming of age of young girls. It exists alongside many other traditions that punctuate and landmark a Newar person’s life. Compared to most of them, the barah ceremony comes relatively later in a young girl’s life. Right from a Newar child’s birth, to the inevitable passing on, a large number of traditional ceremonies, some of which have become obsolete, celebrate the joy of life in various ways.

A newborn child, as soon as he or she can be taken out of the house, is taken for a visit to the family jyotish, a priest whose duty is to inspect the child’s stars and warn the family of any troubles the child might be prone to, against which precautions should be taken. If there are negative omens, then the jyotish recommends a suitable puja ceremony in the child’s name, to ward of any evils. This ceremony usually takes place during the nwaaran or naming ceremony. The nwaaran ceremony can occur anytime after two days from the child’s birth. The ceremony includes a huge puja done in the baby’s name during and after which family and friends gather to celebrate the occasion. The naming of the baby is usually done with respect to any advice given by the jyotishi, but increasingly this custom has become obsolete with people understandably and excitedly choosing a name beforehand.

The next ceremony in the child’s life takes place when he or she is six months old. At six months of age, the child is fed his first grains of rice, the staple food of Nepal. This ritual is known in Nepali as annaprasan or rice feeding (or jankoo in Newari). The child is readied in red and gold traditional clothing since the ceremony usually takes place at a temple.

Most Newars worship both Buddhist and Hindu deities and, like the Hindus, they believe that dedicating the beginnings to lord Ganesh is auspicious. That is why the annaprasan takes place in front of a sukunda that has the image of Ganesh carved on it. Some perform the annaprasan at Ganesh temples situated in the neighborhood or at the popular ones located at the outskirts of Kathmandu.

A popular temple for the ritual is the Jal Binayak temple in Chobhar, right on the lap of the gorge where in mythology Manjushri cut down a hill with his mighty sword and drained the lake that was Kathmandu valley. The ceremony of feeding rice mixed with a little cow’s milk from a silver spoon to the baby. All members of the family feed the child in turn. In an associated ritual, the baby is offered a silver coin, a piece of fruit and a pen or pencil, on a plate. Family members wait to see which article the child will touch or pick up first, as a sign of the direction the child’s life will take. A silver coin represents a desire for prosperity, a pencil represents a desire for education and food represents a desire for materialistic pleasures. For a girl child this particular ceremony takes place when she is five months old.

Strangely, for reasons unknown and out of traditions handed down from generation to generation, the first birthday of the child is not celebrated by Newars. The second birthday, called a nidanbunhi is, however, a big deal. Family members gather to mark the child’s birthday where another puja is performed for the child’s wellbeing. The child is literally showered with Newari treats made out of wheat and chaku, a sweet, dark, concentrated extract of sugarcane, called yomari, plus til (sesame seed) and money, all of which is then donated to the needy. This act represents, once again, the warding off of evil spirits from the child’s body and is also a way of getting the blessings of people for the child. The fourth birthday called pyadanbunhi is also celebrated in similar fashion. After this, every birthday is celebrated normally with puja ceremonies and other usual celebrations.

For the Newar girl child, the next big day is bel vivaha, or the marriage of the little girl with the fruit of the Bel tree (of the species Aegle marmelos). This seemingly strange tradition can take place at any time after the girl turns two. If there are other little girls of that age in the family or neighborhood, a group marriage ceremony may be held, where each little girl is dressed up and traditional rites and rituals are performed for marrying her off to a fruit! The belief is that since men can be unfaithful, the girl’s first marriage should be one in which unfaithfulness cannot occur. (No Bel fruit is going to run off with someone else!)

The eccentricities do not end here though, because next is the barah ceremony mentioned earlier, which is actually the girl’s second marriage, this time with none other than the sun! The barah is observed for girls between the ages of 11 and 13, just at the point of entering puberty. The sun is considered an avatar of Brahma, the creator of the universe, and after keeping the girl in a darkened room for 12 days as a symbolic form of purification, the first male person the little girl faces when she emerges from the room is the sun.

The ceremony that marks the first day of the barah ceremony, begins with a puja to help find an auspicious time for the barah to formally begin. During barah, female relatives as well as friends visit the young girl inside the barah room (euphemistically called the gufa, or cave). And although in older days, perhaps because there was no television, the idea was that the young girl would not see any member of the opposite sex for the entire duration of the ritual. Today, however, the confusion caused by whether or not watching a member of the opposite sex on television should be considered as breaking the rule, is for the family to decide. And as obsessed as most young girls at that age are with the ‘idiot box’ it is no surprise then that most families allow having a television to keep the girl company. On the second to the last day of the ritual, there is a special occasion where cotton dolls, or khyak in Newari, sort of a Nepali version of a voodoo doll, are made and are placed with pebbles. It is believed that these khyaks come to life inside the room on the last night and play with the pebbles! Since the 12th day of the ceremony requires the girl to fast until she views the sun god, the last meal of the ceremony is fed to the girl in the wee hours of the final night.

On the final day of barah, and similar to the bel-vivaha, the girl is dressed up in red and gold colors with jewelry. This may be the appeal for little girls who enjoy this tradition enormously, while being married off traditionally and in all seriousness to the sun. The idea behind such absurd sounding marriages is actually quietly romantic. By marrying a little girl to a bel fruit and then to the sun, Newar traditions ensures that even in the unfortunate death of the girl’s husband in life later on, because of her prior marriages, the girl will not be deemed a widow, a title that was looked upon with great disdain and intolerance by older societies. These traditions may therefore have been designed by the Newars to save their little girls from scornful treatment by the community. From what I have heard, most Newar girls do not complain, even today.

Newar boys are somewhat less privileged in this regard. There are no multiple marriages for them, but there is a ceremony practiced by most Hindus called the bratabandha. The Newari equivalent is called barahacchuigu. Most Newars in Nepal follow Buddhism. The influence of Hinduism as a religion and as a way of life, however, is very strong. Thus, many Buddhist families eagerly engage in Hindu festivals such as Dashain and Tihar. There are many references in texts of both religions about each other, which point out sharply to their peaceful co-existence since older times. It is only natural then that the two religions had major influences on each other. While Bratabandha is a coming of age ceremony which is mandatory before marriage for Hindus, for Newars the similar ritual is more about the opportunity to experience the life of a Buddhist monk, a bhichhu.

The barahacchuigu ceremony sees the boy observing life as a monk for four days. During these four days, he is dressed as a monk and has to live off alms, which he collects on visits to the houses of family and friends. He cannot taste salt for the entire time and his head is shaved, as is the norm for monks everywhere. A puja organized by the community’s co-operative society called a guthi marks the beginning of the barchhuigu ceremony. On the second day, as the boy’s paternal aunt stands by with a silver plate, a barber shaves the boy’s hair, allowing some strands to fall onto the plate she is holding. For her services throughout the ceremonies, it is tradition for the guthi to present the aunt with clothes and gold. Other rituals follow where each boy participating in the barahacchuigu is given a monk’s name, followed up by being dressing up in traditional orange robes, as worn by actual Buddhist monks. After this, the young monk is made to take steps on lotus leaves, signifying the first steps taken by the Buddha. The young boys, along with others of similar age from the community, parade around the neighborhood, formally announcing the beginning of their life as a monk.

At the end of the four days, the young monk is allowed the choice of continuing to live the life of a monk as opposed to returning to normal domestic life. It might come as a surprise that there are an appreciable number of boys who choose the life of a monk and move away from home to live in a vihar, a Buddhist monastery. Before returning to domestic life, the boys take part in one last ritual where another puja is done and the strands of hair collected by the aunt are released at a holy confluence such as that of the Bagmati river for people living in the valley as an apology to the Buddha for ending the life of a monk and getting back to domestic life.

Interestingly, there is a similar alternative for girls who might prefer something other than spending 12 days in a darkened room during a barah. The young girl can opt to spend an equal or what has evolved to become an increasingly lesser number of days in a Buddhist nunnery. At such a vihar for nuns, the girls are assigned duties of cleaning, cooking and studying similar to the ones performed by adult nuns, or bhichhunis, who live there.

The next ceremony common to both boys and girls is marriage and the rituals performed are similar to most normal Hindui marriages. The Newar custom, similar to that of Hindus, is that the bride almost always leaves home at marriage and moves into her husband’s home and adopts her husband’s family name as her own. For a couple to move out on their own, however, is still frowned upon by most Newari families since Newar society is very close knit and it is expected that adult children will take care of their aging parents. Times are changing, and moving out has become  increasingly popular, with modern lifestyles of young Nepalese resulting in a clash with the more conservative lifestyles of their parents.

A marriage facilitator called a lamhi is paid to play cupid, to arrange most Newar marriages. This practice, too has been subject to change with the progressive increase in love marriages. Newar marriages, and in fact most marriages in Nepal, seldom end in divorce. And while the reason for this is open to debate, one undeniable truth is that most Newar marriages seem truly blessed, owed in part to a largely religious faith of the people involved and the feeling that the institution of marriage is a holy bond, the breaking of which would be a sin. Newar marriages are extravagant affairs with the entire community as extended family members turning up to be a part of the celebrations.

Upon reaching the age of 77 years and 7 months, each Newari man and woman is believed to start a new life, that of a living god. The jankoo ceremony that is performed earlier in their lives at the age of five or six months is performed again for the aged men and women, marking their second birth.

Life moves on and soon it is time to check out. In death as in life, Newars are a people who are very close knit in their communities. Large puja ceremonies take place in the event of a death in the family and almost all such ceremonies require the strict attendance and participation of guthiyaars, members of the community’s guthi. While its traditional role was to look after needy people in the community by promoting equality through festivals and various rites and rituals, the guthi still important in Newar society largely due to its mandatory role in almost all Newar functions. The deceased is cremated at a holy riverbank in Newar tradition and body is carried to the ghat on guthi members’ shoulders. While Shakyas and Bajracharyas forbid women to the cremation site, other communities of Newars let the female members of the deceased join the funeral procession. In fact, some even let the females take the lead in which case the women at the front fling grains of rice and coins along the way.

Meanwhile, the entire community turns out to support the family in their time of need. Without the presence of guthiyaars, there are instances where proceedings come to an eerie stop altogether. It is believed (and there are plenty of tales that every Newar has heard of to believe otherwise) that not performing rituals by the book at the time of a person’s death results in a disturbed spirit or aatma. To let the deceased’s soul rest in peace, no stone is left unturned in trying to perform every ritual correctly.

Newar lives and life crisis rituals are living examples of old world traditions in the Kathmandu valley. Most traditions of yesteryear are still carried out with enthusiasm and even children seem to know the basics about their rich culture. The preservation of this culture is yet to be fall into any kind of danger, and there are enough supernatural phenomena to chill the spines of those who do not understand.

Life is a journey, with the human body as a mere vessel. This is perhaps why, with entire communities as witness to their lives, Newar lives seem so charmed.

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be contacted at 9841.327.187