“State holiday on Indra Jatra is a great achievement for Sikkim Newars”

Dr Bal Gopal Shrestha is a celebrated cultural anthropologist, writer and a journalist. His published works on Newars, Hinduism, Buddhism, ethnic nationalism, Maoist movement in Nepal and the Nepalese diaspora have drawn wide acclaim.

Dr Shrestha has been a Jan Gonda fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies [IIAS], Leiden [2001-02], offered by The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amsterdam. He was also awarded the Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund by the University of Cambridge [2003].

Between 2004 and 2006, DrShrestha was a research fellow at the Centro IncontriUmani, Ascona, Switzerland. He also taught Politics of South and Southeast Asia at Leiden University [2006-07]. In 2009, he joined the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford, where he has been carrying out research on the Nepalese diaspora in the UK and Belgium.

Born in Sankhu, a small town near Kathmandu, he is now based in The Netherlands. He has done extensive research on the Newari community of Sikkim and has published his book “The Newars of Sikkim” [2015], which has, in a short span of time, become a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about the community.

On the eve of IndraJatra, he spoke to SummitTimes about his book and the community at large:

How are the Newars different from other Nepali communities?

The difference lies in the culture - the language, traditions. All Nepalese diaspora communities have their own specialty. Newars are no different. The common link between all is the fact that they had their ancestral roots in Nepal.

Any special traits of this community you found unique during your research in Sikkim? How would you analyze the community’s contribution to the Sikkimese society?

There are many but the usage of surname as ‘Pradhan’ is the most common. The caste divided Newarihierarchy in society is not seen in Sikkim whereas it is prevalent in Nepal, which is a good sign as there should be no division on the basis of caste. The Newars played a prime role in the advent of the Nepalese in Sikkim and Darjeeling asNewari traders were one of the first people from the diaspora to settle in this part of the world.

Like you said, most Newars use the surname ‘Pradhan’ in Sikkim and in Darjeeling hills. Why?

There are many theories regarding this.LaxmidasPradhan, one of the first Newar traders to settle in this region, got this title from the British government who then gave the title to be used by all Newars. However, another theory suggests that during the Rana regime, to hide identity,Laxmidas escaped to Sikkim by changing his surname.

What is the significance of ‘IndraJatra’?

This particular festival is very significant in Kathmandu. Jatras act as a unifier of all communities especially caste ridden Newari society. Also in Sikkim, it is a state holiday which I think is a great achievement for the Newari community there.

What in your opinion is the way forward for the community in Sikkim and Darjeeling hills?

The prime identity of the Newars is our language which is under threat - in Nepal due to government apathy and in India due to lack of awareness. In Sikkim, the government should be lauded for its effort to give official recognition to not only Newari but various other languages of the Nepalese. This momentum should continue and more youths should learn the language.

continue and more youths should learn the language.