Medieval/Malla Society

Introduction to Medieval/Malla Society

The Malla period in Nepal’s history was marked by several distinctive features that shaped the society of that time. The caste system underwent expansion, resulting in complex social divisions based on food, lifestyle, and occupation. King Jayasthiti Malla played a significant role in determining caste status.

Society was organized around occupational divisions, with ruling classes belonging to the Kshatriya group. Language development saw the emergence of the Newar language, and diverse marriage practices were prevalent. The period witnessed a flourishing joint family system, and the Malla kings were known for their luxurious lifestyle and cultural patronage. Various festivals and customs played a significant role, and literature, arts, and architecture thrived during this time.

Features of Malla/Medieval Society

Caste System Expansion: The caste system in the Malla period expanded from four castes and eighteen sub-castes to four castes and thirty-six sub-castes. This led to complex social divisions based on food, lifestyle, and occupation.

Caste Determination: King Jayasthiti Malla played a significant role in determining caste status by bringing Brahmins from India to categorize the descendants of Newars and Madheshis. Caste determined various aspects of life, including birth, marriage, death rites, village, residence, and clothing.

Occupational Division: Society was organized based on occupations, with the ruling classes belonging to the Kshatriya group. Different sub-castes emerged, such as Acharyas, Vaidyas, Shresthas, Bajracharyas, Shakyas, and various occupational groups like Tuladhar, Baniyan, Carpenter, Tamrakar, and Kanshakar.

Language Development: Over time, the Newar language emerged as a result of the blending of dialects spoken by various tribes that entered the valley. The influence of Sanskrit declined, and Nepali language dominance increased during the time of Laxmi Narasimha and Pratap Malla.

Marriage Practices: The Malla period saw diverse marriage practices, including child marriages, remarriages, widow marriages, polygamy, and the practice of Ihi (bell marriage). Polygamy was common among kings and noble families, and the practice of sati (self-immolation) existed but was not compulsory.

Joint Family System: The Malla period witnessed a flourishing joint family system. However, the increase in the number of families led to internal conflicts, resulting in the disintegration and division of joint families.

Royal Luxuries and Cultural Patronage: The Malla kings and the royal family were known for their luxurious lifestyle and patronage of the cultural sector. They actively participated in dancing, singing, and festivals, and built temples to promote Hinduism. Nepal was renowned as the “city of temples” during this period.

Festivals and Customs: Various festivals were celebrated during the Malla period, including Bajrayogini, Bhairava, Krishna Jatra, Indra Jatra, Dashain, Tihar, and Ghode Jatra. Pilgrimage sites like Bagmati, Bishnumati, and Gokarna were visited during auspicious occasions. The society’s daily livelihood relied on agriculture, with crops like rice, wheat, barley, corn, and millet being essential for sustenance.

Caste System of Malla Society

During the Malla period, people were categorized into four varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras, similar to ancient times. Brahmins held a high position in society and were responsible for teaching scriptures and delivering sermons. They were expected to follow Sanatan Dharma and maintain an honorable reputation. Brahmins were highly respected and considered sacred. Killing a Brahmin was regarded as a grave sin. If Brahmin committed a serious crime, they were either banished from the country or subjected to public humiliation.

Kshatriyas were considered influential in Malla society. Their primary role was to engage in adventures and protect the community. This tradition of Kshatriyas ruling as kings in Nepal continued from ancient times. The Malla kings of the valley proudly identified themselves as Suryavanshi Kshatriyas, while Shahvanshi kings were regarded as Chandravanshi Kshatriyas. Kshatriyas were also known as Thakur or Thakuri.

Vaishyas were primarily engaged in business, but during the Malla period, they were also active in governance. They served as ministers and feudal lords. Ramavardhan, a notable figure from the Jayasthiti Malla period, proudly called himself a Vaishya. The Mahapatras of Kantipur were also Vaishyas, and the Thakuris of Nuwakot referred to themselves as Vaishya Thakuris.

The primary role of Shudras was to provide various services to society. The term “Shudra” likely originated from the word “Seva” meaning service. During the Malla period, Shudras were divided into two groups: those who carried water and those who didn’t. According to Tantric religion, even the non-water-carrying Shudras served as priests for the gods. However, Shudras continued to face social exploitation during the Malla period.

Apart from the four varnas mentioned above, the Malla period society comprised numerous castes and sub-castes based on occupation, which were used as surnames. For example, during the reign of Jayasthiti Malla, the title of “Mulmi” was given to the Minister and “Mahath” to the Prime Minister. These titles eventually turned into surnames. Similarly, those who protected the king with a sword were called “Khadgah,” and those who worked in the king’s storehouse were known as “Rajbhandari.” The surnames “Amatya,” “Pradhananga,” “Vaidya,” “Joshi,” and others during the Malla period were formed based on ancient business practices.

Literature, Arts, and Architecture

Sculptures during the Malla period encompassed various mediums such as stone, metal, and wood. Temples, palaces, Buddhist Viharas, Stupas, and Chaityas showcased these magnificent sculptures. Statues of deities were predominantly made from sandstone.

Metal idols were also highly regarded during the Malla period. Metal idols related to Buddhism, such as Vasundhara, Tara, Padmapani Avalokitesvara, Avalokitesvara, and those of Hinduism like Vishnu, Lakshmi, Indra, Ganesha, Bhairav, and Kuvera, gained fame during this time. Wooden idols of the Malla period showcased remarkable craftsmanship.

Pauwa painting, a distinctive form of Malla painting, held a special place. It involved creating pictures on cloth, known as Pauwa pictures, which were of two types: Pat and Mandal. The main deity was placed in the center of the Pauwa picture, surrounded by other lesser deities. Tantric or symbolic symbols were often placed at the center of mandala pictures.

During the Malla period, notable pagoda-style temples were constructed in Nepal, some of the Prominent of such Uniquely constructed Temples are the Taleju Bhawani Temple of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur and the Nyatpole Temple of Bhaktapur.

Taleju Bhavani, the goddess of the Malla kings, was initially established in Bhaktapur. King Ratna Malla of Kantipur later established Tulja Bhavani near his palace. King Mahendra Malla of Kantipur built a grand pagoda-style temple for Taleju.

Nyatpole, a five-storied temple built by Bhupatindra Malla in Bhaktapur, is renowned in the Newari language as Nyat Pau (Nyatpole). While it has five floors, the most significant part is the lower section where the goddess idol is enshrined.

Changunarayan, mentioned in the various Inscriptions of the Lichhavi period, underwent restoration during the Malla period. Maharani Bhuvanalakshmi is believed to have renovated this temple. Another notable pagoda-style temple is the Aradhyadev Pashupati Temple, situated on the banks of Bagmati. Although it has an ancient history, it is thought to have been built by King Dharmadatta(mythical) and later restored by Queen Gangarani.

The Shikhar-style stone temple of Patan (Krishna Mandir), built by Siddhi Narsingh Malla, stands as a unique example of Malla period architecture. With twenty-one pillars resembling small domes attached to a large hill, it is called the Shikhar style. Other Shikhar style temples include Brahma in Pashupatinath, Vatsaladevi temple in Bhaktapur, Shiva temple in Indrachowk in Kathmandu, and Lho Deval in Kirtipur.

Although there are no prominent temples built in the Mughal style during the Malla period, Rani Vrishabhanukumari of Tikamgarh constructed a palace expansion in 1968. This palace, built by King Siddhi Narsingh Malla of Lalitpur, features Narasimha, Panchmukhi Ganesha, and Hanuman statues on the right and left sides of the golden gate.

The Tripura Royal Palace, located in Bhaktapur, is described by Dr. Purushottam Lochan. It includes a temple of Karmacharyas in Sukuldhoka village, featuring the Tripura Sundari Devi temple with three golden Gajurs, a thirty-five feet high chowk, Peetha, and Chotol. The temple’s main door is adorned with two inscriptions, one from 1410 A.D.) and another added during the temple’s restoration in 1554 A.D. Tripura Royal Palace was considered a place of Tantric learning.

The Tripura Royal Palace existed until the reign of Rayamalla, after which it was destroyed. According to Gopal Raja Bansawali, this palace was a continuous structure with bastions on each floor, divided into three squares.

Literature flourished during the Malla Dynasty, with numerous books and literary works written during that period. The scholars and kings of the Malla era made unforgettable contributions to storytelling, poetry, drama, philosophy, and more. Notable kings like Jayasthiti Malla, Pratap Malla, Siddhinarsimha Malla, Srinivasa Malla, Jagajjorti Malla, Jagat Prakash Malla, Jitamitra Malla, Bhupatindra Malla, and Ranjit Malla played a significant role in the literary field.

Festivals of Medieval Society  

Ghanta Karna : This festival aimed to appease deities and prevent diseases. It was believed that illnesses were caused by ghosts and divine disasters. The festival involved burning logs outside towns and villages to ward off these supernatural influences. In the present day, it is celebrated by hanging three reeds in the shape of a triangle and collecting money. However, during the Malla period, it involved cleaning houses, feasting, and collecting taxes.

Gaijatra: Gaijatra festival was celebrated for a week following the full moon of Shravan Shukla. Shaiva and Buddhist followers celebrated it differently. Shaiva Margis created cow or cow-like images to commemorate the deceased and paraded them through the city. Buddhist visited Buddhist Viharas. Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur had their unique ways of celebrating this festival.

Indrajatra: Indrajatra was a traditional festival dedicated to worshiping Lord Indra. It was celebrated with great enthusiasm from Bhadra Shukla Dwadashi to the fourth day of Ashwin Krishna Paksha. The festival involved worshiping gods like Akash Bhairav, performing dances of gods and goddesses such as Mahakali and Dashavatar. Kathmandu Valley had special celebrations for this festival.

Dashain: Dashain festival revolved around worshiping Goddess Bhagwati. It spanned nine days, involving bathing, purifying the mind, and worshiping various shrines and deities. On Dashami, people received blessings from Shakti Bhagwati and dignitaries.

Tihar: Tihar, also significant during the Malla period, included special celebrations like Mhapuja on the day of Kartik Shukla Pratipada, which marked the change of the Newar Samvat calendar. Lakshmi Puja, Govardhan Puja, and Bhaiti were celebrated with grandeur during Tihar.

Other Aspects of Medieval Society

During the Malla Dynasty, the living conditions and food were well-documented. Foreign travelers noted that houses in both small and large cities had three to four stories, with artistically crafted wooden windows and doors. The roads were primarily made of bricks and stones, while Pati Pauwa, designated resting areas, were present throughout the city.

Pastor Ippolito Desideri, who visited the Kathmandu Valley towards the end of the Malla Dynasty, described the people’s food in his travelogue. Rice was the staple food, accompanied by dishes made from wheat, barley, duck, chicken, and duck meat.

The dress and makeup of the Malla period can be understood through paintings and sculptures. Pratap Malla’s attire, influenced by the Mughal Empire, featured a beard and turban. However, ordinary Nepalese clothing had its own distinctive style, including garments like Jama, Labeda Surwal, cholo, pharia, tied patuka, and khasto. Women adorned themselves with ornaments like Tai, Tuki, Vichkanni, while men wore Tika and Tripunda on their foreheads.

Entertainment during the Malla period involved various activities. Dancing, singing, and theatrical performances were enjoyed by both the king and the subjects. The Malla kings were skilled playwrights and actors themselves. Games such as chess provided entertainment, along with fairs and festive events. Celebrations like marriages and fasting were also sources of enjoyment.

Religious tolerance prevailed during the Malla period, with a close relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism. The king and the people embraced multiple religions, showing devotion to deities from various faiths. Even outside the Kathmandu Valley, religious tolerance was evident in regions like Karnali, where the Khas Malla king Krachalla respected both Buddhism and Shaivism.


In conclusion, the Malla period in Nepal’s history was marked by significant features that shaped medieval society. The expansion of the caste system resulted in complex social divisions based on food, lifestyle, and occupation

Society was organized around occupational divisions, with the ruling classes belonging to the Kshatriya group. Language development saw the emergence of the Newar language, and diverse marriage practices were prevalent. The Malla kings were known for their luxurious lifestyle and cultural patronage, fostering a thriving literary, artistic, and architectural environment.