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Gods, Men and Territory (Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley)

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Item Code: NAM962
Publisher: Manohar Publishers And Distributors
Author: Anne Vergati
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 9788173040788
Pages: 260 (29 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The Newars who live in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal are well known for their urban civilisation as well as for the social organisation of their territory, which they have conserved for centuries. The author shows that for the Newars there exists a complex relationship between gods and men and also that their notion of territory is inextricably linked with the sanctuaries and temples, where gods have precise sites. Even though political power has always been in the hands of the Hindus, the co-existence of Hinduism and Buddhism since the fifth century-and the influence of Tantrism later on has given rise to a complex pantheon. The sanctuaries and temples are not merely decorative, they are functional as well. Each festival takes place around a temple and these mark out the territory the Newars inhabit.

The Newar town not only has a religious centre but a political centre as well. For instance, at Bhaktapur the royal goddess Taleju is the political figure head and the goddess Tripurasundari the religious figure head. The royal goddess Taleju being the sovereign deity of the town, it is obvious that the political centre has primacy over the religious centre. The seats of the deities within a territory are situated in concentric circles.

About The Author

Anne Vergati is a Research Fellow at the National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris, and a member of the Laboratory of Ethnology and Comparative Sociology at the University of Paris X. She has taught at Tribhuvan University in Nepal and at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisation in Paris. She has done intensive fieldwork in Kathmandu Valley and more recently in Rajasthan. She has published articles in leading journals of India and Europe.

An Approach to Newar Society

In the introduction which follows I describe briefly my field- work experience in Nepal and then introduce a set of research papers that were the result of this fieldwork. Published one by one over fifteen years they have been brought together here, because, when read as a whole, they present, I think, an overall picture of some of the essential features of Newar society. They highlight some of the basic themes of Newar culture.

Shortly after completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Paris X, at Nanterre, I went to Nepal, for the first time, in 1974. I went to Kathmandu to teach at the newly created Department of Sociology at Tribhuvan University, at Kirtipur. I went to Nepal with enthusiasm because I had read the writings of the great French orientalist Sylvain Levi and those of A. David Neel and I was anxious to see the country. At that time I had little knowledge of the intellectual life of Kathmandu and it was only much later that I realized to what extent the creation of a department of sociology at the University of Kirtipur represented an innovation in the life of the country. The department had in fact been created in 1973 under the impetus of the British Council, the cultural section of the local British Embassy. Teaching was in English and those who came to my lectures belonged to a certain intellectual elite and most of them were members of the higher castes. They had the impression that sociology was a very abstract subject and their questions were almost always focused on its practical uses: in what way could sociology further development? Did it offer a livelihood or grants for travel abroad? Later, I realized that there was a considerable difference in the academic scenes between India and Nepal, between the two capitals, Delhi and Kathmandu. In India, since the beginning of the twentieth century or even earlier there had been a tradition of teaching and research work on social matters. In Nepal, such research had begun only twenty years or so before I arrived there. After 1950 quite a number of Nepalese scholars were indeed trained in social sciences and economics in Indian universities and some went to America and Great Britain. In Nepal, as in many other Asian countries, it was only the sociology of development which provoked the interest of local scholars. For members of a caste society the analysis of the concept of social hierarchy proved difficult: that sociology is only interesting if it can be applied is an attitude which exists in Nepal even today.

I was immersed at once in my work at the University. This put me in contact immediately with a considerable number of very helpful and courteous young Nepalese from differing social backgrounds. If, to me, everybody was new, I was new to most people. In this new world everything was different: the climate, the food, the combination of mountain scenery and tropical vegetation the way of life of the local people. On their side as well as mine, there were therefore innumerable questions to be asked: and the answers were not always easy to formulate in terms which could be grasped by both parties to the dialogue which ensued. It was only twenty years ago that Nepal had been “opened” up to the outside world. If, for centuries, commercial and cultural links had opened Nepalese eyes to Indian civilization, Russia, Japan, the United States of America and Europe were little known to the students I met at Kirtipur.

I was impressed by the natural beauty of the Kathmandu Valley. I was also fascinated by the architecture and art of the Valley’s monuments and buildings. So I wanted to learn more about the people who had created them. However, there were few publications concerning the Newars, the principal inhabitants of this Valley, whose ancestors had raised these buildings. Fortunately, among my students was a young Newar called Bal Gopal Baidya. Sociology was new to him as he had previously studied economics abroad. He answered my inquisitive questions about his family by taking me to his house in Bhaktapur from where his family originated and by introducing me to several family members and even distant relatives. I remember very clearly that, when he began to tell me about his family, he led me to the site of his lineage’s deity. There he explained its importance and how necessary it was that it should remain in the same place. From my first contact with him I realized Bal Gopal was atypical. As he had been trained in economics outside Nepal and belonged to a family whose members were traditionally doctors, his outlook was much less parochial than that of many of his contemporaries.

In those days, Bhaktapur was still relatively sheltered from the deluge of social and administrative change which was falling with increasing force on all the Valley. To me, its narrow paved streets, its large public squares and its old brick buildings were a reminder of what I had read about the towns of medieval Europe. Life was still lived at Bhaktapur in a traditional and fairly leisurely manner. It is true that many foreign tourists arrived by bus or taxi every morning from Kathmandu but they never stayed in Bhaktapur for more than a few hours. They always wandered around the same places taking photographs: and by four 0’ clock in the afternoon most of them had already left the town. Even in the eastern part of Bhaktapur, where the Germans were repairing and renovating some building in the Dattatreya area, there were few foreigners who stayed over night. The atmosphere was completely different from that in Kathmandu where Freak Street was still, in those days, a mythical heaven for Western hippies.

In Newar culture there is not so marked a difference between a village and a town as there is in India. Every Newar village has something of an urban character: the houses have two or three storeys and the population density is considerable. The three main towns in the Valley are clearly the consequence of the aggregation in each case of previously extant villages or smaller settlements. In Newari the word used by local inhabitants to designate a small or a large settlement is invariably des which, in Sanskrit or in Hindi, has a different meaning. Perhaps the most satisfactory English word for Newari des is “locality”. Several authors have recently emphasized this urban character of Newar civilization. Sylvain Levi, the first Western scholar to draw attention to it, and to compare Newar houses with those of Parisians, wrote: “The outstanding trait in the character of the Newar is his liking for society. A Newar never lives in isolation whether in town or village he likes to lodge, somewhat in the manner of the Parisian, in several-storeyed houses, even if this means living in cramped conditions. He knows how to enjoy all the pleasures which nature offers; he sings, he chants, he laughs, he is a shrewd judge of country; he likes to picnic in gay company in some shady spot near a spring or a stream, in the shadow of an aged sanctuary facing a friendly or a grandiose landscape.”

Besides getting to know Bal Gopal’s family, I had also met Thakurlal Manandhar, an erudite Newar scholar who lived near Bhimsen’s Tower in Kathmandu and who came often to the University. As his name indicates, his family were traditionally oil-pressers. So, for Manandhar, knowledge and its acquisition were not only a personal quest but also a means of social climbing. His learning enabled him to discuss on an equal footing with Vajracarya and Brahmins. Few citizens of Nepal could read and understand fifteenth or sixteenth century texts as he was able to do. He was much pre-occupied with the education of his sons so that they too, by their training, would maintain a certain social prestige. It was only slowly that I realized that, in Bhaktapur, Manandhars are considered to be of lower rank than they are in Kathmandu: Thakurlal often came to see me in Bhaktapur but he did not introduce me to his relatives who lived there. Both Bal Gopal and Thakurlal spoke English but I knew that to study Newar society I must learn Newari. My attempts to learn Newari’s rudiments must have exasperated Thakurlal because he himself was preoccupied with etymological problems and his own theories on Newar History and culture. I was later to edit, with the help of Professor Jean Filliozat and the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient his Newari-English Dictionary.

When I returned to Nepal, in 1975, after a six-month interval in Europe, I rented the upper part of a house at Bhaktapur. I was lucky enough to find as teacher a Newar Brahmin, Ramapati Raj Upadhyaya. He had a real gift for teaching, a veritable passion for it, but he knew no English. The beginnings were difficult but, even from the start he managed to make himself understood: he explained many things to me which I did not know. For some weeks he was very much on his guard and did not wish me to come to see him in his own house. He manifested a constant fear of being polluted and this made me understand what ritual purity really meant to him. Later on, however, I was very hospitably welcomed in his house by his wife and children. By then I had become accustomed to living on the floor and the absence of furniture had ceased to worry me. Once I had got past the cow which lived in the ground-floor stable, and as soon as I had climbed the ladder to the first floor, I was, as an honoured guest, given a cushion to sit on. When I stepped into the house I entered a new cultural world-from observing Hinduism I moved inside it.

However Ramapati Raj has never yet eaten in my presence. He was very strict in observing carefully the obligations imposed on a Hindu at mealtimes. He used to classify people according to what they ate. On one occasion, when he came to visit me at “my” house, he met a low-caste person who was already in the room: Ramapati Raj muttered that in his lifetime habits had changed and that such a meeting would have been impossible a few years previously.

Often, local people asked me why I was staying in Bhaktapur and what I was doing there. As they talked between themselves about me, I became the object of gossip if not of scandal, so I had to give a clear-cut reason for my presence and repeat it to everybody. I told the simple truth: I was there to study Newar lineage deities known as digu dyo. What made me choose this subject? In every-day conversations names and stories about deities were frequently mentioned; and I was particularly intrigued by references to kinship links between individuals and a certain category of deity: digu dyo. It seemed to me that all Newars with the same deity must have kinship links with one another. The name of the deity was kept secret but the site at which it was located was not. Obviously it was an extremely complex society and it was not easy to isolate a “social fact”.

Acknowledgements v
1Introduction: An Approach to Newar Society 1
2Digu Dyo: A Lineage Deity of the Newars 33
3The Image of the Divinity in the Lineage Cult among the Newars 52
4Social Consequences of Marrying Visnu Narayana: Primary Marriage among the Newars of Kathmandu Valley 62
5Taleju, Sovereign Deity of Bhaktapur 85
6The Religious Associations (Guthi) of Kathmandu Valley Temples 98
7Saivite Temples in Bhaktapur 131
8Ritual Planning of the Bhaktapur Kingdom 156
9The Killing of the Snakes or the Founding of the Town of Bhaktapur 167
10The Worship and Iconography of Dipankara Buddha in the Valley of Kathmandu 189
11The King as Rainmaker: A New Version of the Legend of Red Avalokitesvara 201
Bibliography 231

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