Identification. The term "Nepali" refers to any person born within the borders of the kingdom of Nepal or from a group considered historically or territorially indigenous to the kingdom. As an ethnonym, this term roughly encompasses but does not describe the particularities of the multiple Ethnic and caste groups that make up Nepal and have their own distinct ethnic identities. Through the cultural dominance of the state of Nepal following its emergence in 1769 and through a long history of political, economic, and cultural interactions between the peoples of this region, many ethnic groups share elements of a common pool of sociocultural attributes. Nevertheless, these groups also exhibit great variation in language, dress, and religion to the extent that certain groups on the northern and southern borders of Nepal are indistinguishable from the people of Tibet and north India, respectively. Nonetheless, there have been settlements in the foothills of the Himalayas since the fourth century B . C ., and there is mention of ethnic groups in this region in the early Sanskrit epic literature.
The name "Nepala," referring to a frontier Himalayan kingdom, appears on inscriptions in India from the fourth century A . D . Nepal emerged as a unified nation-state in the eighteenth century with the conquests of the Shah dynasty, which ruled the Thakuri principality of Gorkha in west-central Nepal. In the early nineteenth century, following the confrontations with the British in India and the subsequent forced relinquishment of appropriated lands, the current borders of the country became established within a longitude of 80° and 88° E, with India on its eastern and western borders, and within a latitude of 27° and 30° N with India to the south and Tibet to the north. The country covers an area of 145,954 square kilometers (slightly larger than Arkansas). Social change is occurring very rapidly in Nepal with the influx of tourists and imported goods, the opening of new roads, and an increasing interest and investment in education. The country now has many doctors, engineers, and agronomists, a number of whom have been trained in the United States or Europe. Simultaneously, many old and elaborate social and cultural traditions are declining. The major political and social developments that Nepal is now undergoing are effecting many changes throughout the country. It is hoped that these developments will address the crucial problems of poverty and unemployment, soil degradation, and overpopulation that are currently troubling the country.
Demography. The population of the country is estimated to be between 19 and 20 million people (1991). With the control of epidemics and an expanding population since the 1930s, the rate of population growth has reached 2.7 percent. At this rate, the population will double in twenty-seven years and further increase the already severe pressure on the arable land available for cultivation. This situation has led to an increasing migration from the middle hills and mountain regions of Nepal to the cities and to lower-altitude Terai in the south, which has been viable for settlement for the last thirty years following the eradication of malaria. Nevertheless, the majority of Nepalis (53 percent) continue to live in the middle hill region of the country.
Linguistic Affiliation. There are more than twenty-six distinct languages spoken in Nepal that are related to Indo-European, Tibeto-Burman, and Austroasiatic language families. Nepali, the lingua franca of the country and an Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, came to Nepal with Khas settlers who migrated into the western Himalaya region of northern India approximately 1500 B . C . The Nepali Language is also known historically and colloquially as Khas Khura and Gorkhali because of its association with the early settlers of western Nepal and with the Gorkha dynasty. It is the native tongue of well over half of the inhabitants of the country. Many more people speak Nepali as a second Language in administrative, commercial, and educational contexts. A number of important ethnic groups in the midland region of the country, including the Kathmandu Valley, speak Tibeto-Burman languages as their native tongues. Among this group are the first settlers and the architects of Nepal's cultural florescence in the Kathmandu Valley, the Newars. Other important ethnic groups such as the Tamang, Magar, Rai, and Limbu, who make up an important percentage of the population of the hills and mountain regions of Nepal, also speak Tibeto-Burman languages. There are a number of groups in the formerly malarial jungle valleys of the Siwalik and Mahabharat ranges in southern Nepal, such as the Tharu, Danuwar, and Darai, who speak languages that mix Austroasiatic linguistic elements with a number of words from North Indian and Tibeto-Burman languages. Along the southern plains of the Terai one also finds people whose languages (and customs) are indistinguishable from similar groups speaking Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Mithali in north India. Similarly, along the northern region of Nepal one finds various clusters of peoples (e.g., Sherpa, Manangi) whose language, religion, dress, and subsistence patterns closely resemble groups in Tibet, from which they had migrated during the last two millennia.