We met Rabina Bakey in Kathmandu, before starting the Tamang Heritage Trail. We chose to spend our time in Kathmandu living with her and her family. Initially, we were supposed to stay with them for a couple of days but ended up in living with them for a total of more than two weeks. What made me choose their homestay was the fact that I read on her homestay description that she is a Newari. So I wanted to find out more about her and the Newari culture.
Who are the Newaris?
Newaris are a distinct ethnic group in Nepal. They are different than the other minorities due to their Mongoloid and Caucasian roots. They are the original inhabitants of the Valley of Kathmandu. And they used to represent the majority in the Valley. But now they are barely 30% of the valley’s population. What is striking about the Newari culture is their belief system. Although initially, the Newaris were Buddhists, over time, the Hindu influence reached them. Nowadays, they call themselves half Buddhists and half Hindus.
And they have also adopted the Hindu caste system, but with different caste sub-groups. That’s because the system has two structures, with two competing castes in the lead. On the one hand you will find the protectors of Hinduism and on the other hand, the ones protecting the Newar Buddhism. The Newaris have also kept their language, Newari, which is different than Nepali.
The Kumari – The Living Goddess
But the most striking aspect of the Newari culture is the Kumari, the Living Goddess that protects and watches over the entire country. In Nepali, the word Kumari means virgin girl. The Kumari represents the supreme female deity, the great goddess Taleju, who is a version of Durga, the protective mother of the universe.
All Newaris worship the Kumari, and people believe that she is all-seeing, all-knowing. She has the power to cure illnesses and to bless people. I had once read a National Geographic article about the Kumari, and that’s what got me hooked. There is, however, a serious debate about the Kumari, given that she is chosen at a very young age (sometimes at three years old).
When she becomes a Kumari, she gives up her usual life; she is not allowed to go outside except for special occasions. She can only eat a specific food, her family has to perform some pujas for her, and she has to obey a series of traditions. However, she must never bleed. The moment a single drop of blood comes from her body, she can no longer be a Kumari. The problems arise after she is no longer a Kumari, as it is difficult for young girls to readjust to the normal life.
Learning about the Newari culture from Rabina
But leaving the Kumari aside, let’s learn a bit about the life of a Newari woman and how the Newari culture has influenced her life.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where were you born?
I was born in Bhaktapur, Nepal, in a Newar family. I belong to a middle-class family, and I am fortunate to be able to say that I have very lovely parents that have always been supportive of their kids. (Bhaktapur is one of the three royal cities of the Kathmandu Valley, together with Kathmandu and Patan. It is a small city located at only 12km east of Kathmandu and thanks to its well-preserved temples and rich culture; it is one of Nepal’s UNESCO sites.)
Currently, I live in Kathmandu together with my husband and our two lovely little girls.
What did you study? Did your parents encourage you to pursue your studies?
When I was younger, there used to be differences between boys and girls regarding schools. This was something found in most communities and cultures, not only in the Newari culture. As such, parents didn’t always send girls to school, and if they did, they would send them to public schools. However, boys were sent to private schools. Nowadays I know that people send their daughters to private schools, but this was very rare when we were kids.
My parents, but especially my mother, supported my sister and me and sent us to private schools. My mother has always been my number one inspiration and motivation. Because I know she put a lot of effort for us to have a proper education. We were the first girls in our hometown area that went to private boarding schools. I know that it wasn’t easy for our parents to send us to school because boarding schools are costly. But this made us learn hard and make them proud. Both my sister, Kalpana, and I used to be the first ones in our class. And boarding school helped us learn English, an essential aspect in Nepal given the number of foreigners visiting our country.
After high-school I started taking French lessons, being encouraged by one of my friends who was studying French. So I enrolled in the Alliance Francaise classes in Kathmandu. And I also decided to study tourism, respectively hotel management, and get a master’s degree in the tourism sector.
What do you work now?
Currently, I work in the tourism sector together with my husband. Although I studied hotel management, I did not get a chance to work in a hotel. This is because while I was studying, I started working in a well-known French trekking agency in Nepal. So my career in tourism began with trekking, and I remained focused in this area.
The French language helped me a lot as I decided to take the DELF exam after I got my bachelor’s degree. And because I got the highest mark at DELF, I was offered a great job opportunity at the French Embassy in Nepal. After the contract with the embassy ended, in 2008, I started my trekking agency, which I now run together with my husband.
Unfortunately, after the 2015 earthquake, the number of tourists in Nepal dropped severely. This made me decide to start a new business, respectively to turn our home into a homestay. So today, besides running our trekking agency, I also started a homestay and welcome guests in our house. We love to interact with different people, so I enjoy having the homestay program running.
What is life like in Kathmandu? How is it to live there compared to Bhaktapur?
Life in Kathmandu is not easy. I can say that it is very different from living in the Nepali villages or even from Bhaktapur. For example, in Bhaktapur, we didn’t have to lock our doors. Neighbors would take care of each others’ homes. We felt we had a lot of things in common with the people living around us; there was a feeling of happiness and support around us. But in Kathmandu it’s different. Here, we do not know each other; there is little or no interaction between people. Everybody is too busy earning money.
Yes, the capital city has a lot of opportunities compared to other places. But at the same time, the people’s morality is lower. In Kathmandu, life is harder, and people don’t interact as much with each other.
I know you come from a Newari family. Can you tell me more about the Newari culture?
Newari people are one of the ethnic groups in Nepal. They are quite distinct from the other ethnic groups due to their unique system of organization. In the Newari culture, there is also a caste system. As such, each Newari belongs to a particular sub-group ranked after the rules of the caste hierarchy. Legally, the caste system shouldn’t represent a problem. But in real life, the caste system is still present, and people live by its rules. Newars are known for the preservation of their culture, their tradition, and their dialect. We have kept our cultural dress, our customs, and even music systems. And besides this, we are known for being good in business and farming.
In the Newari culture, people hardly accept foreigners. This was one of the reasons for which I had problems with my marriage. My husband, Rishi is Chettris, a different caste than mine. As such, we had many issues because of our inter-caste marriage. But today, all of our family members have accepted our marriage and the fact that Rishi is a non-Newari. This was an essential step for us and an example of tolerance in my family.
So how about your wedding with your husband, Rishi? Was it different given that he is not from the same caste as you?
When we got married, we had been seeing each other for almost ten years. For us, it was difficult to get married even though my parents liked Rishi. But they couldn’t accept an inter-caste marriage; it is something that the Newari culture doesn’t easily allow. My parents were too afraid of the society, of what others might think of them because of giving their girl to another caste.
So, I decided to elope. I sneaked out of the house in one night, and the next day I went with Rishi to the temple to have the wedding ceremony. My parents were calling me many times, but I told them that I want to get married. They sent my sister to take me home, but I didn’t move a muscle. I was determined to get married. It was a struggle inside myself, but I don’t regret taking this step. My parents eventually accepted our marriage, and we had a small reception with family members. Nowadays, cross-marriage is more common even in the Newari culture.
Speaking about your marriage, how is life for a woman in Nepal? Do you feel discriminated in comparison with men?
I feel that for a woman life is more difficult. And after marriage, there are many responsibilities that she has to deal with. This is irrespective if she is a successful working woman or a housewife. So I believe that for the success of a woman, a man should support his wife. If the man does not support her, then her life is tough and painful.
We live in a society that is male-dominated. However, in nowadays, men are becoming more supportive towards their wives. For example, I feel proud of my husband. He motivates me a lot and helps me no matter what. He takes credit for the success I have in my life. I am one of the luckier women in Nepal that receive love and support from her husband. So yes, I am proud to say that I feel much more independent than others.
What is the faith found in the Newari culture? Do you consider yourself as a Buddhist or a Hindu?
Newari people are Hindus and Buddhists at the same time. In Buddhism, they follow Theravada, as well as Mahayana and Vajrayana. The philosophies are similar, but the practice of Buddhism is different than the Tibetan Buddhism. In Bhaktapur, people are mostly in Hindus, whereas in Patan they are mostly Buddhists. In Kathmandu, you don’t feel a clear delimitation; there is a mix.
Tell me about some specific Newari traditions.
There are many Newari traditions. But a significant one in the life of a Newari girl is the “Bel Bibah,” a symbolically arranged marriage. As such, in the Newari culture, a girl marries three times during her life. The first time, when she is very young, from age 5 to 9, or even 11, the “bel fruit” marriage is performed.
The bel fruit refers to the wood apple. And the ceremony symbolizes the marriage of the young Newari girl with the God Vishnu. The ceremony, which is performed on an auspicious day, is a very important moment for a Newari girl. The little girl is nicely dressed and taken for the rituals. The priests will perform a series of pujas (prayer rituals) and then the father will offer the girl’s hand in marriage. Read more about this tradition here).
Secondly, she marries with the Sun God. And finally, she marries a man. This tradition is significant as when her husband dies she will not become or people will not regard her as a widow. Because she is already married to two gods, who are immortal. So, technically, she will never be a widow. This is a huge difference from the Hindu tradition. In the Newari culture, after the husband dies, the wife will wear the weeds for one year (for example she will wear a white dress). After this period, she is allowed to wear even the color red, something that is forbidden in other cultures. This tradition is a way of protecting the woman in the society.
What is the role of the Kumari? What does the Kumari represent for you?
The Kumari is a living goddess who has great powers. She represents the power of love; she has sacrificed her life for purity, for world protection. The Goddess prevents our country from harmful things. People say that during the reign of King Pratap Malla (a tantric kind), he used to play with the living goddess from that period, a lovely girl. But one day he had negative thoughts about the goddess. She felt this and thus disappeared. In her absence, the country faced many problems, and the King was desperate to bring her back.
She returned as a young lady and ever since then one young girl is chosen to be the Kumari. She can only be a Kumari until the age of 12, until her first menstruation. It is a great honor for parents to have a daughter chosen as a Kumari, although after she retires she has to go back to having a normal life.
What is your advice for foreigners wanting to visit Nepal?
Nepal is a beautiful country, and a good choice for trekking, expeditions, as well as cultural tours. The giant mountains, the beautiful landscape, the different regional landscapes, the cultural diversity, they all are ingredients for an unforgettable trip. And most important, the people. The helpful and kind people of Nepal.
If you ever want to experience a Newari homestay, then try Rabina’s place. You will spend memorable moments together with her family, and they will make you feel like home.