Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Newar Buddhist Priests, who belong to the guthi of Taleju and Kumari, carrying out purification rituals in front of Kumari House in Hanuman Dhoka Durbar Square © Monalisa Maharjan

Indigenous Practices of Heritage Conservation: The Guthi System of Kathmandu Valley

Newars, the indigenous people of Kathmandu Valley, have a unique and sustainable way of safeguarding tangible and intangible cultural heritage through an association of people known as guthi. This ancient practice can be traced back to the fifth century CE, and it continues to have an organic link with the society and cultural heritage today. Guthi responsibilities range from simple everyday rituals to take care of temples; organize big events like chariot processions and traditional mask dances; and teach music. They also support social functions by integrating young people into a caste-based society.

Guthi is based on a caste system as well as a local system in its functions. Until just a few decades ago, most people in Nepal practiced only those professions given by the caste. People were goldsmiths, farmers, priests, carpenters, and other professions; accordingly, their surnames denoted their occupations. But things have changed; today, people can practice any occupation they wish to, even if their surname still signifies the professions of the old days. Also, while many people live outside the boundaries of ancient city in Kathmandu Valley, the guthi continue to be based on the ancient traditions of the family. Nowadays, many things have changed in terms of locality and caste-based professions, but the structure of the guthi has largely remained the same, with people belonging to their respective castes and performing their functions accordingly. Several guthi were required to be in their respective occupations if they were to be part of society. These guthis included sana guthi, which carried death rituals, and twa guthi, who taught music to young boys and helped integrate the youth into the community. Many people nowadays are leaving these guthi due to the strict nature of these guthis, and preferred modern and independent lifestyles by the younger generations. Even though many people are still a part of these guthi, many guthi are also loosening their strict nature as a way of retaining members.

Manandhar guthi during the Bahumata processions. Manandhars traditionally made oils from mustard seeds. © Monalisa Maharjan
Other guthi, guthiyar (member of the guthis), took care of the temples and organize festivals, but these guthi members were not just priests but also farmers, sweepers or other members of the society too. The unique parts of this guthi were the land endowment to these temples and the rituals the guthi performed in return for income for the guthi family. In ancient times, when people or royals built temples, stone sprouts, or rest houses, they kept land endowments for repairs, restoration, and rituals. The purpose of the endowments varied, from small rituals like offering betel nuts to the temple to organizing big festivals. The land endowments were related to religious piety, as people believed that the offerings would bring good welfare and bless families over the ensuing seven generations. In addition the land endowments were also used for avoiding land confiscation during times of political turmoil, as it was considered a grave sin to revoke the guthi land.

Since the society was agrarian and the land of Kathmandu Valley was very fertile, land endowments were a perfect fit, leading to numerous festivals, temples, and monuments. Priests, sweepers, craftsmen, and others were paid on the agricultural products or piece of land for the service they provided. Most festivals and rituals follow the agricultural calendar. For example, during monsoon season, when there will be lot of work in the fields, there are no festivals or celebrations.

The guthi system continued for several generations uninterrupted, even though there were no strict instructions for the guthi members regarding their functions, and guthi members did not get anything except for being part of it. Still each guthi knew their responsibility of taking care of temples or organizing festivals. But the dynamics of guthis are changing and some guthi have even ceased to exist. The fate of guthi started to change in 1769 when the Malla kingdoms of Valley went to the Shah kings and created a power shift.

After eighteenth century, the new rulers used guthi land to fund wars. Later vast lands were used to build the palaces for the Ranas inspired by the European architectures and the gardens. When it came to the later half of the twentieth century, guthi land was used by the Nepal government for official buildings, hospitals, and even airport. In 1964, the government nationalized all guthi land and formed guthi corporations in return; the corporation started to fund rituals, festivals, and other events. This corporation was bureaucratic and based on a top-down management style, which was much different to the traditional grass-roots form of guthi management. These new approaches destroyed the way of safeguarding the heritage of Kathmandu Valley. The people in the guthi corporation did not understand the nature of traditional guthi or its functions. Much of the income generated from the land funded staff salaries. At the same time, a lot of land was lost due to embezzlement. The traditional guthi still get the same about of money they used to get decades ago despite high rates of inflation during the same period. These circumstances have caused many guthi to stop their functions, which has led to the extinction of many mask dances and rituals.

On a positive note, most of the traditional festivals celebrated in Kathmandu Valley are still done by traditional guthi as well as temples are still taken care by the traditional guthi members in turn. The irony is the unique centuries old practices are not recognized well in formal heritage conservation in Nepal. Community participation, which is often in conversation about heritage conservation practices, was already being implemented in the guthi system. The serious need is to build on the practices that already exist not necessarily to introduce completely new forms of heritage conservation strategies. If we look closely at the heritage conservation in Nepal, traditional community-oriented heritage conservation and formal heritage conservation are running parallel and have not yet converged. The most urgent need is to recognize the importance of the guthi system before it is swept away from modern Nepali society.