On the Roots of the “Shrestha” Clan

The following blog was posted as a comment (by Vikool Shrestha (Hada)) to one of my previous blogs on the relevant topic. The insight on the story is very interesting. However I cannot ascertain any credibility to the story presented below as I’m not an expert in the history/origin of any ethnic groups. I’m not sure if the story is merely anecdotal or based on any proven research. Therefore I’m open to critics and experts on the field and request to rectify, elaborate or comment of the topic.

As you may know, up until the Malla rule until the 18th century, Shresthas (or Syasya: in Newari) were seen as the Kshatriya equivalents of Newars and in general, Nepal. Atleast the higher Shrestha families of today like Malla, Hada, Roy, Pradhan, Rajbhandari, among others claimed to be direct descendants of not only Malla, but also Khas (Western Nepal), Rajput (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh), Karnatak (Southern India) ancestry. These people till today refer to their Newar caste not as “Shrestha” but “Chatharia” or “Thakoo”. Chatharia/Chathariya here is a corruption of the word Kshatriya, and “Thakoo” being Thakur, the ruling/warrior caste group in Hindu societies. Pradhan (Singh) Hada, Raya, Chauhan (now referred as Amatya), Raghubanshi (Rajbanshi) have Rajput genealogies going back not more than 500-700 years. The Mallas come from the Magadh area (present day Bihar), and have connections with the Khas Malla, Sen, Chand kings, of which many still live there and are under present Thakuri caste. Karmacharya (tantric priests who are believed to be degraded Brahmins), many original Shrestha (not the caste but specific surname who were warriors) along with few occupational castes like Kulu, Khadgi, Kasain (butchers) families claim to have come from Karnataka in South India along with Adi Sankaracharya in the past 800 years.

Along with these “newer” additions to Newar nation, some of the older (pre 1200s) ruling Licchavi and Thakuri families (these ruled before Mallas) were also included in the Shrestha division. Although still considered Kshatriyas, these “older” clans were clearly seen as lower than the “newer” additions of the Rajputs, Karnatak, Khas bloods of the newer Malla ruling class. These people are believed to be the prime progenitors of present day people who are called “Shrestha”. Not all Licchavis and Thakuris were turned into Shrestha though. Most of the common folks of that time were turned into sat-Sudra, working as farmers and agriculture as their main occupation, they are the present day Jyapus (farmers.) When the Mallas came into power, they made the few rich Lichhavis into “Bharos”, powerful, rich merchants. Unlike Chatharia whose primary occupation was as courtiers and rulers and who were barred from anything related to business or trade, these Shresthas were the primary carriers of business and trade, Vaishya equivalents. Those who made a ton of money also climbed up the social ladder and got their sons and daughters to marry with Chatharia families, thus raising their caste status altogether.

Also, in the past 600 years, all other groups of people like Terai’s Kayasthas, Thakurs, along with the Jaishi Brahmins, the Joshis, were mixed into this pot of a truly mixed Syasya: caste. After the unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the previously mentioned “Chatharia or Thakoo” had no option but to marry outside of their circle and marry with the rich Shrestha, Joshi, Karmacharya et al.. thus further mixing the pot even more. Even till today, they prefer to marry within their traditional Chatharia caste status families only like Malla preferring only Amatya, Pradhan, Hada, or Karmacharya preferring the Guruba/Karmacharyas or Joshis.

So question here is, although Shrestha/Syasya: caste seems to have a largely Indian descent, why do many look Mongoloid? There is no doubt that there has been a huge amount of racial intermingling within Newars (especially within Syasya: caste) Caste rigidity happened only in 1400s during Jayasthiti Malla’s rule. Before that there was no pronounced rule into marrying someone else of another race. Since Newars at that time did their primary trade with Tibetans, it is without a doubt that the rich Syasya: had TIbetan concubines, or gave away their daughters to rich TIbetan traders. The Udaya caste of Newars (Tuladhars, Bania, Kansakar, etc) were the Buddhist counterparts to these Shresthas. They too were traders and merchants, and they too had Tibetan wives. But unlike the Hindu Shresthas where having a Tibetan wife (not just concubines but true wives) was looked downed upon and discouraged, The Udayas continued this practice up until the Ranas and brought back many of their half-Tibetan children to be fully incorporated in Newar society.

That is the near past. However if you look over two to three thousand years of history, it is a fact that those original settlers were undoubtedly of Mongol origins. Up until the past 2000 years, Nepal Valley was ruled by Kirants who are believed to be the forefathers of today’s Tamang, Sunuwar, Rai and Limbu people. There isn’t sufficient research on this, but it can be fairly assumed that even though defeated, some of these people stayed back after Licchavi conquest. Then, the new Aryan people from the south intermixed with the existing Mongol people to form the first true “Newar” population. Again, this was all before the caste rigidity and rules that prevented people from marrying people of other race or caste. There are sub-groups within Jyapus for example who claim to be descendants of Mahispals and Gopals. There are castes like Malakars/Mali and Tepe/Byanjankar who claim to be true descendants of those remaining Kirants. The Manandhars of Kathmandu claim Greek descent (apparently from one of Alexander’s soldier). But it is evident in the faces of all Newar castes and people that the past 3000 + years of Nepal Valley’s history has brought a good amount of intermixing and intermingling of people. People aspired to reach the Shrestha status, and especially the Chatharia status. An example of this is a thar called “Sainju” or “Sayenju” which is currenly a Chatharia status thar, but it can be assumed that wasn’t so in the past. The meaning of this thar ‘Sayen’ or “Sain” = Bhote/Tibetan and “Ju” = honorific ‘sir’. So these people were originally believed or seen as Tibetans (or related to Tibetans in some way so could be Tamang or Kirant.) With good fortune, fate, or pure determination they rose up the social hierarchy (just like how Jang Bahadur changed his caste status from Khas to Rajput.) The only racially “pure” people within Newars have to be the Rajopdhyaya Bajyes, the “real” Brahmins of Kathmandu who came to Nepal in the 1400s and degraded the already existing Karmacharyas and Joshis into Kshatriya status. They have maintained their caste status and racial homogeneity by marrying within their Rajopadhyaya clan only.

Yes these historical insights should always be seen as anecdotal stories because with history there is always the point of exaggeration or mere legends that has been passed on from generations. The evidence I have at least at my personal expense is my family’s genealogies (both paternal and maternal.) Among the Newas many financially stable or religious-minded families used to have genealogies of their families dating back hundreds of years (my mom’s side goes back almost  600 years.) But the question again is whether these are to be taken as 100% facts. It’s a fact that the Ranas for example altered much of their ancestry through these very genealogies. In Nepal especially your status in society comes from the power you have, and if you have power, you have others at your expense. Also, the stories I shared were stories told to me by my grand parents and older relatives with their own account and experiences.

The other stories are merely based on the accounts I’ve read from a LOT of studies through the internet (I’m an anthropological and history nut.) There are also shared personal experiences (like the one about Sainju, and the marrying rules, and my elders’ take/beliefs/understanding on caste backgrounds.) Again not scientific at all, but in the traditional way of one generation to next kind of stories. But again, at individual levels, if you look at a Newari face it is evident that there is a genetic intermixing. I hate to generalize but just a sweeping look at Tuladhars or Shakyas or Shrestha families show that there is slightly more Tibetan influence. Again if you look at Bhaktapur’s other castes there are more darker, with more ‘Indian’ facial features like coarser hair, rounder eyes, better defined nose, etc. The Rajopadhyayas look almost like Madhesi people to be honest or Pahades. So just by looking at the features one can deduce assumptions which match in many cases with their historical/anecdotal evidences.

And several old texts including the Swayambhu Puran mention about how different people entered Kathmandu in different times – all later combining to be the Newars of today. Things like Licchavis or Mallas originally coming from India or Rai and Limbus being descendants of the Kirantis are taken as historical facts, not mere assumptions. Studies done my MANY people throughout the years also link to the things I’ve said above. But again, unless proven by genetic studies (and even with that I don’t think a 100% true picture can ever be painted) all claims, studies should be seen with a grain of salt I suppose. But this is all damn interesting don’t you agree? And stories like this must be shared to more people because 99% of us don’t know about our glorious history.


18 thoughts on “On the Roots of the “Shrestha” Clan

  1. Interesting post about the origin of Shrestha and other castes. This post explains that the reference the writer got was from his grand father and others read on Internet but I don’t think that’s the real thing. Some of it may be real but we need evidence of where the source came from like the internet links where the writer found about it. Being a Shrestha myself my grand mother told me a different story about how we came. If you could provide more evidence on it would be good so we could do research together. However, the stories told by ancestors can be twisted or not lied about for various reasons. But I would be wonderful if the writer provides the reference so we could be sure about it.

  2. I agree, yes, please tell us more about this history that we never get to learn about. Thanks so much for sharing. Btw 600 years of history from mom’s side, would you mind sharing that three. It will be wicked cool!!!!!

  3. Very interesting to read this article or “story “. Having read this article,in my opinion, what we talk and behave each other regarding castes system is full of nonsense. Looks like every single caste had already been mixed and mingle. In addition to this, there are people marrying to other different part of world now days. What will be the future caste????Therefore, I believe there is now only one caste”HUMAN “

  4. I liked your research but I disagree the fact that jyapus are sudra’s which is not. They are not Sudra or untouchables in fact they preserved the newari culture, art, and customs from generation to generation if you are from the Kathmandu valley then u would have known that they have majority in valley in among newars how can u call them Sudra. Infact they don’t even came in this groupism either. They are more towards Buddhism then Hinduism. To prove this point They have priest as bajracharya not rajupdya. Still your research is very helpful to everybody who is interested to know about newari people.

  5. I am really fascinated with your article. It’s such interesting to know about our ancestors and their history.I am also history loving person. I always thought like why my face looks so Mongolian . Now I think I got my answer because my mother’s family belongs to Sainju clan and I think my mother’s gene is more influential in my DNA. Now I can relax and sleep with satisfaction. Thank you very much for your precious Information. Please provide us more information regarding this type of anthropology related subject.

  6. Interesting read. Agree with previous commentors that it would be good to have at least some sources mentioned. But there are a couple of things that came to mind which I think would be worth keeping in the back of our minds. First, is the interplay of memory and what we call “history”. To what extent we can rely on memory as a source is still highly contested. Just from our personal experience we know how memories can change/distort over time and how much of it is actually a choice (as is the choice of what not to remember). Secondly we have to keep the issue of bias (or agenda) in mind. This is not a criticism, it is something we can’t ignore and the post is excellent for what it is.

    Now moving on to the issue of Newa history, I think we should also think of other facets of Newa other than just purely features, skin tone and roots of surnames. There is the big issue of language. We know for a fact that it falls within the broader Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burmese language families. Why is this the case and why is there so little influence on the language from the south if indeed some newari ancestry goes all the way down the subcontinent to even south India.

    Secondly, as much as we try and distinguish between hindu and buddhist Newars, at least from personal experience I think this is far more fluid for many Newari families. Buddhism also seems to be central to Kathmandu’s origin myth and history. As for the whole “caste” system within Newars I believe this is something that came about fairly recently (a few hundred years) with the whole Hindu wave which followed after the Mughal conquest in India. I think Dor Bahadur Bista has documented this pretty well.

    Similarly in terms of religion, I think tantra and tantricism has much deeper roots, history and influence in Newari culture and practices than “hinduism” per se. This too is something that probably needs to be looked into deeper and considered. Lastly, and maybe more trivially, I think we need to better understand our obsession with buff… hahah. This is pretty unique to Newars, and I think we’d find at least some clues if we really dig into how it is that buff became such an important part of our cuisine when many other groups consider it too close to our holy cow.

    So this probably isn’t just purely questions to ponder on the roots of “shrestha clan” but more about who the newars are in general but without understanding these foundations I think it is difficult to really start talking about “clans” since there is going to be little context.

    Looking forward to other similar pieces and thoughts. Thanks again.

  7. Singh is wrongly mentioned on Pradhan, Simha should be mentioned only for Thakuri, i.e. Pradhan, specially of Thamel. Surname, Pradhan was forcefully changed by King Prithvi Narayan Shah.

    • Which surnames are Thakuri among Newars? Only Pradhans and that also the Thamel Pradhans? What about Patan’s Pradhan and Malla?

  8. good research on our history.. well I’m also doing a research based on “newar rajputs” as I have some proof (family tree, sword) of my family being kshatriya suryabhanshi from chauhan clan of ajmer and delhi and would like to know about other newar rajputs too (those who have some proof) or those who can help me on this topic
    Email me at : nehalcrajb@gmail.com

  9. Worth reading. I’ve read the history of Newar by other researcher somewhere else and the evidences that researcher provided which to the great level matched with your evidence and logic.

  10. ..as I know.. Syasya is Chetri but Khas (like Parbate Khatri Chetri (KC ))..& Cha Thari newar wear Janai and some Syasya too wear Janai but not all Syasya ..so in Cha Thari Newar there are Syasya too.but all Syasya is not ChaThari..like in Parbate there are Tagadhari n Matwali KC &
    some KC are high clan..

  11. Very interesting. There are so many castes. mixed with “Shrestha”, like I am the descendent of “6 Pradhans” of Lalitpur and my in laws are Newa “Acharya” where as my father’s in laws are “Mulmi” of Lalitpur and they all are titled “Shrestha”. I think this was happened just to be saved from the wrath of the so called “Unification” of Prithvi Narayan. We have marriage relation with the Purohit of Taleju Temple of Kathmandu of our family ladies. Once, Nepalmandal Television programme hosted a pujari, who said that previously they were “Acharya” & were known of the Ayurbed medicine, but during the treatment of a Royal Family member, the then king killed him as punishment. So his descendent changed the surname into “Karmacharya”. As the writer said we should and I am also open to this topic to find the truth of our glorious history. My email is “shrestha1952@gmail.com”. In my view before Prithvi Narayan those who were living in this valley All were called “Newa”?

  12. Very interesting. There are so many castes. mixed with “Shrestha”, like I am the descendent of “6 Pradhans” of Lalitpur and my in laws are Newa “Acharya” where as my father’s in laws are “Mulmi” of Lalitpur and they all are titled “Shrestha”. I think this was happened just to be saved from the wrath of the so called “Unification” of Prithvi Narayan. We have marriage relation with the Purohit of Taleju Temple of Kathmandu of our family ladies. Once, Nepalmandal Television programme hosted a pujari, who said that previously they were “Acharya” & were known of the Ayurbed medicine, but during the treatment of a Royal Family member, the then king killed him as punishment. So his descendent changed the surname into “Karmacharya”. As the writer said we should and I am also open to this topic to find out the truth of our glorious history. My email is “shrestha1952@gmail.com”. In my view before Prithvi Narayan those who were living in this valley All were called “Newa”.

  13. Written in very broad strokes. Much of it is hypothetical history based on oral traditions and a limited number of written records. I would certainly agree on the general argument although the particulars need to be supported by data. What I would be interested in are the genealogies the writer talks about. I hope s/he publishes research papers on such records.

  14. Interesting post kha thwa, tara newah people are very much mixed you can tell by most newah peoples physical appearance. But we have to agree that majority of newah people are mongoloids but heavily influenced by indo aryan culture and language. Our language does fall into Tibetan – Bermese, and also our culture with music and music instruments we use, with old newah clothing designs, traditional dances, like Lakhey demon dance and the story which is similar to dances in Tibet they are like demons and guardians. Newah people are mixed with indo Aryans which are khas speaking people or any other descendents that came after invading the land of kirats. Newah people changed. Changed accepted Hindu religion while still some newah people preserving BUddhist teachings. Slowly people began speaking in sanskrit and also in Nepal bhasa adding some words which was sanskrit. 2017 how many young newah individuals can speak the language with no sanskrit used and speak full and the original newah bhay? We speak with hindi words added and we watch and listen all bollywood movies and wear and promote other cultures glory of course that explains disappearance of our newah culture.

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