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Language, caste, religion and territory: Newar identity ancient and modern

  • David N. Gellner

The newars are the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley, a bowl-shaped plateau about fifteen miles across at a height of approximately 4,000 fest in the Himalayan foothills. It is a plateau in that the major rivers in the immediate area (the Trisuli and the Sunkosi) pass it by at a much lower level. The Valley is surrounded by a rampart of hills rising to 7 or 8,000 feet; according to local belief and myth, and according to geology, the Valley was once a lake. Its soil is exceptionally fertile by Himalayan, or indeed any, standards. Thanks to this, and to the Valley's strategic position astride trade routes to Tibet, it has a long and distinguished history. Written records (inscriptions) begin in the fifth century A.D. and give evidence of a high and literate civilization derived from the Indian plain. The inscriptions are written in a chaste and pure Sanskrit not met with in later periods, but the place-names reveal that the bulk of the population spoke an ancient form of the presentday Newars' language, Newari (Malla 1981 (1). Whereas most of the rest of Nepal remained thinly inhabited and rustic till the modern period, the Kathmandu Valley was able to support a division of labour and a sophisticated urban civilization impossible elsewhere in the Himalayan foothills between Kashmir and Assam.

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