Preservers of Newar Culture Jyapus of the Valley

Features Issue 62 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

The  Jyapu community  is the  most active among the  Newars of Kathmandu valley. From farming to pottery and from playing music to taking part in festivals, their activities are invaluable to Newar  culture. The  Jyapu community  is the  most active among the  Newars of Kathmandu valley. From farming to pottery and from playing music to taking part in festivals, their activities are invaluable to Newar  culture.

Every morning, in the little, old town of Thimi, Gyan Bahadur Prajapati starts his day by putting out the freshly made pots in the sun for drying. He then takes a break for a smoke. He of course, doesn’t smoke cigarettes. He brings out his hookah, which is known as bajaan in his native Newari and Tamaakhu in Nepali. He sucks in through the pipe and the smoke is filtered through the water—it’s relaxing. He started smoking at the age of 19 and is now 56 years old. Soon, he’s back at work, beating the pots with a wooden hammer to make them hard and strong. “Most of my pots are bought by people who want to make offerings to the Harati Mata in Swayambhu,” he says. “We bring mud from Bode, but we also buy from the people who bring it from Satungal at about NRs 600/- a tractor load,” he adds. Other times he works on his wheel to make all kinds of pots and little vessels to hold offerings. He also makes flowerpots, but most of his products are for religious purposes. He shows us the sack loads of these vessels he has made.

Gyan Bahadur has four sons, but none of them have taken up pottery as a profession. One makes sweaters like the one Gyan Bahadur is wearing (a gift from the son to the father), another works in an office in Kathmandu, a third runs their shop selling pots and the fourth stays home doing odd jobs. He laments, “There used to be many Jyapus doing pottery, but the young people these days don’t want to do it any more.” His immediate neighbor, Gyan Maya Prajapati stress the point: “There are less than half the number of potters compared to some years ago.” The whole neighborhood known as a tole is made up of Prajapatis and most seem to be involved in making pots. They roast the pots right there in the large courtyard where we can see a mound of sand covering the straw and pots. The straw fire smolders and smoke seeps out from the many holes in the sand. The wet pots take two to three days to dry in the sun and roasting takes up another five days.

Gyan Bahadur spends his entire day making pots. But when planting season comes, he is off to the fields engaged in his other occupation as a farmer. Unlike some other Jyapus who grow vegetables as well, he only grows rice and wheat. “I am only busy during planting and harvesting. Rest of the time I make pots,” he explains. Other farmers spend much of their time weeding where they grow vegetables. Asked when he will plant wheat since rice has already been harvested, he says,” When the mud in the fields dry up, we will start planting.” Farming goes on as always, but when it comes to pottery, there is a shortage of suitable mud, which is why it is brought all the way from Satungal near Thankot.

The Newars are said to be the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, but their origin remains obscure and has been the topic of much debate. Their language however, belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese family with no similarities to Nepali, except for borrowed words. Their physical features too are a mixture of Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid ancestry.

Among the various sub-castes existing within the Newar community, the Jyapu people have carved a definite niche for themselves. They have a long history of playing numerous roles in society from that of masons to musicians as well as of farmers and artisans. Because of their rich culture and their diverse occupations, this community holds a significant place amongst the many communities living in Kathmandu Valley.

“The word Jyapu in the Newari language comprises of two words, jya and pu,” explains Ramesh Maharjan, a professor in Patan. “Jya means work and “pu” derives from puwanka Yayimha which means ‘to complete the work one sets out to do’.” A Jyapu therefore means one who can work. The word rightfully denotes this hardy community residing all over the valley. However, with time the Jyapu community from the three districts of Kathmandu valley: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur have advanced and grown in different directions.

The Jyapu community is divided into three castes: Dangol, Maharjan and Singh. All the Jyapus within the three districts that comprise the valley, also fall in one of these castes, each of which has numerous sub-castes. Although they are primarily farmers, this community in earlier times was classified by the various kinds of work they did. The Singhs were the wealthiest of the three castes owning large tracts of land, and they still hold substantial properties in and around the valley. The authority to measure land within the valley was given to the Dangols by Nepali royalty, a job that in those times called for physical strength and honesty. They are also known as Amin, a term that denotes significant social standing in the Jyapu community. The Maharjans were mostly farmers, and a large number of them are still engaged in agriculture.

Family Life
The Jyapu community has much in common with the other Newars residing in the valley. Family life is one such aspect. The birth of a baby in a Jyapu family is followed by ceremonies similar to those practiced by most Newar families. Four days after its birth, the baby is named and a ceremony called Byanku is held. A child can be named in many ways. For example, some babies are named after the day they were born on. A baby born on Wednesday would be named Buddha Narayan. The word Buddha comes from Buddhabar, which is the Nepali name for Wednesday and Narayan is a God that the Jyapus are particularly attached to.

Feeding the child his/her first grain of rice, which is the main food of the Nepali people is also a much-practiced ritual. Commonly known as Anna Prashan, which translates roughly as “eating grain”, it is celebrated in other Newar and Jyapu families alike as Janku. On this occasion, the baby is taken to a place of worship where he/she is fed rice in small amounts. The ritual also involves putting a silver plate with objects such as a pencil, an exercise book, gold, silver, money, pieces of straw, a brick and a handful of soil in front of the child. The family waits in anticipation as the child picks up an item from the plate. This act is believed to hint at the child’s inclinations in life and takes place after a boy child is six months old and five months in case of a girl. A small party follows the rituals. The second birthday is marked by a ceremony called a Nirbunhi. Special Newari sweet dish called Yomaris are made in Jyapu homes and distributed to all family members and friends. The child is decorated with a garland of these sweets as he/she takes part in his birthday rituals.

As the young children come of age, both sexes take part in different coming of age ceremonies. For the girl child, these ritualls are the Ihi and the Barah ceremonies. The first ritual involves the symbolic marriage of the young girl child with a bael fruit, also known as Bel Biwaha, or “marriage with a bael fruit”.

A Barah ceremony is the second marriage that the girl child participates in, where she is married to the Sun god. This ritual takes place when the girl is eleven years old. Preceding this,the girl is made to spend twelve days in a room with only female company and no exposure whatsoever, to natural light or the opposite sex. On the last day of the Barah ceremony, she is taken outside the room and made to look at the sun before looking at any male face. This final act according to Hindu culture reinforces the purity of the girl and her loyalty to her husband, as she has not looked at anyone of the opposite sex for twelve days. The significance of these seemingly bizarre rituals is that the girl child can never be truly widowed, even after the death of her husband. (Also see ‘Barah’ in Living in Nepal)

The Jyapu boys also have their own coming of age rituals known as Keta Puja. These rituals are seldom done for one child at a time. A number of young boys of the same age take part in this ritual together as a group. Dressed as monks for the day, they go about receiving alms from relatives. They also go through what is known as Nhe Pala Thigu when they take seven steps before a Ganesh temple. After taking seven steps, the boy tries to run away and his mater  nal uncle tries to catch him. If the uncle fails to catch him, the boy has to become a monk for life. A feast follows this ceremony to celebrate and mark the entry of these young boys into adolescence.

More lavish and joyous feasts can be seen at a Jyapu marriage. The Jyapu people are widely known for organizing the most appetizing feasts amongst the Nepali people. They also make their own liquor for their celebrations and homemade alcohol from rice, called thwon, is a must-have at all occasions. Along with this they also make aila, which is a strong alcoholic beverage commonly served during feasts.

Apart from the food and liquor at Jyapu marriages, there are certain dos and don’ts regarding marriage. “Although discrimination among the Jyapu people is almost non-existent, some discriminatory customs have managed to survive,” says Ramesh. “For instance, a Jyapu man from Kathmandu will not normally marry a girl from Bhaktapur or Patan.” Similarly, men and women from Patan and Bhaktapur also mostly marry within their own close-knit societies.

The Koncha Khin is a traditional musical instrument that is played during Jyapu weddings. It is a drum that is played all the way to the bride’s home as the groom’s family walks to retrieve her from her house. Music is a very important part of all Jyapu celebrations. There is hardly an occasion in the Jyapu community that does not involve music and marriage is no exception to this custom.

Lifestyle and Festivals
Jyapus of Kathmandu are also known as masters of the Dhimey Baja, a traditional style of music that until recently was played only by members of this particular community. Only a Jyapu could beat the drums, clang the cymbals, and play the flute that are a part of the Dhimey ensemble. These long-held beliefs are slowly dying out as music lovers who belong to other communities are also learning to play the Dhimey, but not without a fight. “The Dhimey has an interesting history,” says Gopal Dongol, a Dhimey player. “According to traditional belief, this music first originated in the valley as an instrument for chasing away cows from one’s crops.” Gradually, the Dhimey developed into Mu Dhimey and Yalaypwo Dhimey.

Music also plays a big part in festivals like Pahanchare. Along with major Hindu festivals such as Dashain and Tihar, Pahanchare is a celebration that holds more significance for Jyapus. It is one of the most important festivals for the Jyapus of Kathmandu, and the feasts and festivity surrounding it are truly grand. Pahanchare involves the worship of Lukumahadya, which means the hiding Maha Deva, the Hindu God. There is a very interesting story behind celebrating Pahanchare that the Jyapu folk love to tell.

It so happened that Maha Deva, blessed another deity with the power to turn anything the deity touched to dust. The deity decided to turn his powers on Maha Deva himself and chased him down from the Himalayas to a Jyapu’s house. The Jyapus were celebrating the end of the harvest season by dining on homemade delicacies and liquor. Maha Deva decided to hide in the Jyapu’s house and join in the celebrations. Hence, in almost all Jyapu neighborhoods, it is customary to have an idol of a Maha Deva seemingly hiding away beneath the ground. Pahanchare is the day when this hiding Maha Deva idol is worshipped.

Taking out the Dhunjey is another time when music is played with gusto. The Dhunjey is simply a bamboo pole that was supposedly used by people in earlier times to make noise and disturb Lord Buddha’s meditation. Not all places with Jyapus are allowed to take out this procession and the ones that are, more than make up for it with the enormity of the
celebrations. During most festivals, we also Jyapus wearing three distinctly colored caps. The colors are red, yellow and green. “This custom was started with a rather practical idea to identify one group of Jyapus belonging to one neighborhood from another group in the huge crowds that gather at these festivals,” explains Gopal. The red cap wearing Jyapus are those that worship the Kankeshori, the yellow-capped Jyapus worship Bhadra Kali and the green cap wearing Jyapus are the ones that hail from the Wotu area. These caps are mostly seen when they come out to take part in the Ghode Jatra festivities in Tudikhel each year.

Modern Jyapus
With the passing of time however, many of the Jyapus have started to choose other vocations such as business, carpentry, photography, and even politics, excelling equally at each of these fields. Bijay Maharjan is one such Jyapu, who decided to take up physical education, a field foreign to family traditions. “After I completed school from Budhanilkantha, I realized I was more interested in sports and pursued an education in this field,” recalls Maharjan. He joined Budhanilkantha School again, this time as a teacher, and worked to educate students towards developing a strong interest in sports alongside the school curriculum. He obtained scholarships from the United Kingdom and Japan to hone his teaching skills in swimming and basketball, and presently heads the Physical Education Department in his old School.

Another Jyapu who decided to pursue a career in a new field is Biru Man Prajapati also known as DJ B-Man. Born into a Jyapu family, Biru Man was always interested in music and presently has a music shop in the heart of Kathmandu’s tourist center, Thamel. After winning the prestigious ‘Battle of the DJ’s’ competition, he is the most sought after DJ at present in the city’s growing party circuit. As a Jyapu, music is in his blood, and it has evolved leading to a flourishing career as a DJ, rather than just playing traditional instruments.

Trends such as these have seen a noticeable growth in Jyapus moving away from old Jyapu neighborhoods. The grand scale at which Jyapus celebrate every festival has sadly become a financial burden for many of them. It has driven them to new locations where they will have more control on their choice of expenditure. Many Jyapus especially from Khwopa, which is the Newari name for Bhaktapur, now reside in such places as Baneshwor in Kathmandu. These people still own land in Khwopa where they hire other people to do the farming.

However, the number of people still following tradition and pursuing Jyapu vocations like farming and pottery remain significant. The new generation of Jyapus who are educated, has taken the old trade of pottery to new heights, producing ceramics. They are no longer content just making pots and other vessels. They like to innovate and have been producing decorative pieces that are in great demand and find a market abroad.

As long as the youth continue to use their culture and heritage to their advantage, there are very slim chances that old Jyapu customs and traditions will die away. The Jyapus are an integral part of Nepal’s heritage and continue to enrich it. They are still the mainstay of the valley’s numerous, colorful festivals.