In December, on the day when the moon is at its fullest, the Newas celebrate Yomari Punhi, essentially a rice harvest festival. Also known as Dhanya Purnima (in Sanskrit), the festival is observed by offering rice to the goddess of grain, ‘Annapurna’, and making a sweet delicacy ‘yomari’—a steamed rice flour dumpling filled with chaku (jaggery taffy) and sesame seeds or with khuwa (evaporated milk solids) and shredded coconut.
On this day, families get together to make yomari, and young people go around the neighbourhood singing, asking for yomari—an act known as ‘yomari phonegu’ or ‘tyachim tya phonegu’. People make various shapes of yomari, including shapes of gods and goddesses such as Laxmi, Ganesh, Kubera, and Saraswati, and place it in the bhakari—a large grain basket used for storing—as an offering to the gods, thanking them for a good harvest. In the town of Sankhu, locals also take out a procession for god Ganesh; and in Harisiddhi, locals perform a masked dance.
Locals have different versions regarding the origin of the yomari. One legend has it that a couple in Panchal (today’s Panauti) prepared this form of confection and distributed it to their neighbours. The neighbours loved the confection and hence named it yomari—the Newa word ‘ya’ translates ‘to like’ and ‘mari’ to ‘roti or flatbread’. The legend goes that Kubera, the god of wealth, who had come to the village disguised as a beggar was also given yomari. He was very happy with the couple’s generosity and blessed them with wealth and prosperity. He told the couple that anyone who prepares yomari with the shapes of gods and goddesses on the full moon day will be blessed with wealth and prosperity. Since then, it is believed that the Newa community started celebrating the festival.
But historians have different stories to tell. According to the book ‘Social History of Nepal’, the Bhasa Vamsavali found in Kathmandu Valley mentions that the people of Kathmandu started making yomaris from the time of Amshuverma, from 6th CE.
The authors of the book—Tulasi Ram Vaidya, Tri Ratna Manandhar and Shankar Lal Joshi—suggest that Newas might have adopted the culture from the Tibetans and even further north, Korean, which also prepare yomari-like sweets.
But it is more likely that yomari has its roots in the modaka, a similar Indian sweet—rice flour dumplings filled with jaggery and coconut. Modaka is considered one of the most ancient sweets in India. According to Indian food historian KT Acharya, the sweet may date back to 200 BCE. In the Indian plains, the sweet is prepared annually during Hindu festival Ganesha Chaturthi as an offering to god Ganesha, the god of prosperity and well-being. The teardrop-shaped modaka is believed to be beloved sweets of Ganesha.
A Ganesh temple at Ticchugalli, Patan, has a statue of tichhu (shrew), the vehicle of God Ganesha, holding modaka—its master’s favourite delicacy. And maybe the word yomari is coined for the very reason of being God Ganesh’s beloved sweets.
It is well known that culture doesn’t thrive in isolation. And it wouldn’t be wrong in surmising that some Newa sweets are adopted or influenced by sweets found in the southern neighbour, India. Some other Newa sweets such as jeri and halwa have roots to Persian sweets that travelled via India.
While the origin of the yomari might be linked to the modaka, the way the yomari is shaped and its filling make it unique to Newa culture. Newas use chaku (pulled jaggery taffy) instead of jaggery, and artfully mould the delicacy into a unique teardrop shape without the pleats as in the Indian modaka.
People also have different hypotheses on the yomari’s shape—some refer to it as a fish and others as gajur or shrine of a temple. It has also been linked to a citrus fruit Jambhara (in Sanskrit), known as tahsi in Newa and bimiro in Nepali language, which bears a similar shape. This citrus fruit, Citrus medica, is considered an old and original citrus species from which other varieties of citrus cultivar arose.
In Newa culture, tahsi is worshipped as a deity during Mha puja—a festival for worshipping of the self, which earlier was the ‘worship of fetus’, according to Sanskritist and Scholar Gautam V Vajracharya. Newas also worship tahsi during Mohani Nakha or Dashain. This yellow autumnal fruit represents longevity, wealth, prosperity, and fertility.
The fruit holds cultural religious significance in both Hinduism and Buddhism. In Hindu tradition, women who wish to become pregnant also worship Jambhara, an alternative Sankrit word is bijapura, meaning seed-filled. The Buddhist version of the god of wealth Kubera is known as Jambhala, the name derived from the citron fruit jambhara. The Jamabhala is often depicted with him holding a teardrop-shaped fruit in his hand.
Yomari is also eaten on occasions other than Yomari Punhi in Newa society. Parents feed pregnant daughters yomari and also prepare the delicacy to celebrate even-numbered birthdays of children until they turn 12.
During Yomari Punhi, people also make mayo and bayo yomari: mayo, filled with black lentils, symbolises the female sexual organ, and bayo, filled with chaku and sesame seeds, symbolises the male sexual organ. The two are a symbolic representation of two sexes. Even the ‘yomari phonegu’ practice is considered to be the meeting of loved ones and seeking romance.
While yomari epitomises the rich Newa culture, the chaku is the culture’s soul. Chaku is jaggery taffy, an essential item eaten during the first day of the month Magh (December-January), known as Ghya Chaku Sanhlu in Kathmandu. Yomari Punhi occurs around winter solstice and Ghya Chaku Sanhlu marks the end of extreme winter. During the peak of winter, chaku gives energy and keeps the body warm.
To make the chakku, sugarcane jaggery is boiled until caramelised. Then the warm sticky mass is pulled and stretched laboriously hundreds of times which then becomes the smooth, glossy chaku. The stretching and pulling changes the colour of the jaggery from dark to brown, makes it glossy, and aerates to make it light, brittle and chewy. Caramelisation helps in creating this light bitterness that balances the sweetness of jaggery.
Jaggery is one of the oldest forms of sweeteners and was produced in the Indian subcontinent for hundreds of years, likely before 600 BCE. Even the word ‘sugar’ and ‘candy’ has etymological roots to its Sanskrit word ‘sakkara’ and ‘khand’. Historical narrative suggests the existence of sugarcane plantation fields in Kathmandu—the Kathmandu’s location ‘Tukucha besi’ came from the Newa word for sugarcane, and its other name ‘Icchumati’ too, in which icchu is sanskrit word for sugarcane. Tokha, a Newa settlement north* of Kathmandu city, is popular for making chaku; its name ‘tu-khya’ means sugarcane-field in Newa language. (*correction: south)
There aren’t many historical accounts that track when and how the culture of chaku was developed or introduced in Kathmandu Valley. But the culture of making jaggery and crystallised form of sugar might have come from India, and the know-how of making taffy (fanid in) probably originally came from Iran. If so, how did the Newas adopt the culture? Is the tradition of making yomari with chaku and khuwa and nuts originally of Newa origin? We don’t know, yet.
What we do know is that yomari and chaku are culinary delicacies that define Newa food culture. And they are more than just festive sweets. Such food items are linked to people’s religion, culture, beliefs, way of life, history, and even their identity. There is so much more to Nepali food’s history, and its connection to people and places—all waiting to be explored.
This article has been updated to correct a fact in the third para from the last. Tokha is a Newa settlement north of Kathmandu city. An earlier version of this article inaccurately mentioned it as a settlement south of the city.