ALTERNATE NAMES: Nepalese
POPULATION: 21.5 million
LANGUAGE: Nepālī (Gorkhali) is official language; over thirty-six other languages and dialects
RELIGION: Hindu; Buddhist; Muslim; Christian; Jain
Nepal is unique in the region of South Asia that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka because it is the only country of any size to have maintained its independence. Nepal was never a British colony.
The Kathmandu Valley is the political and historical heartland of Nepal. There were cultures centered there as early as the eighth or seventh century BC . Indian inscriptions dated to the fourth century AD refer to a kingdom called "Nepala" in the Himalayan Mountains. The birth of modern Nepal can to be traced to the eighteenth century. The Gurkhas, a warlike people, are thought to have been princes fleeing Muslim persecution in western India. They established themselves in the mountains of what is now western Nepal in the mid-sixteenth century. In 1768, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ninth king in the Gurkha dynasty, conquered the Kathmandu Valley, where the capital of modern Nepal, Kathmandu, is located.
Disputes over its southern border led Nepal (ruled by Gurkhas) into conflict with the British in India. Defeat during the Anglo-Gurkha war (1814–1816) saw Nepal's expansion halted and its borders fixed in their present locations. From 1816 to 1951, Nepal did not allow foreigners to enter—its borders were closed.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Nepali National Congress called for the establishment of a democratic government. A new constitution was proclaimed in 1990. This created a true parliamentary democracy, legalized political parties, and made provisions for a popularly elected legislature. The first general election under the new system was held in May 1991. As of 1998, King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev continued to rule as a constitutional monarch, but without much power.
Nepal is a landlocked state on the northern mountain rim of South Asia, the region that includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. Its inhabitants number 21.5 million people, living in an area of 56,139 square miles (145,391 square kilometers), roughly the size of Iowa. Nepal extends 500 miles (800 kilometers) in a generally east-west direction, but it is only approximately 80 to 140 miles (125 to 225 kilometers) wide in the north-south direction. The country is surrounded on the east, south, and west by India. China lies to the north.
Nepal is truly a mountain kingdom, with a quarter of its land over 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) in altitude. The only lowland of note lies in the extreme south, where the country extends into the plains near the Ganges River. The Terai is a narrow belt of land that was at one time a swampy, malaria-infested forest about 25 miles (40 kilometers) wide, but is now home to over a third of Nepal's population, much of its agriculture and industry, and several government wildlife reserves.
North of the Terai, the land rises to an elevation of 2,450 to 4,900 feet (750 to 1,500 meters), before descending to a series of east-west running valleys known as duns . From the duns, the terrain rises steadily toward the main ranges of the Himalayas. The Nepal Himalayas contain eight peaks over 26,200 feet (8,000 meters), including Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,028 feet (8,848 meters). Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, and Annapurna are among the better-known peaks of this group.
The Kathmandu Valley lies north of the Mahabharat Lekh ranges at around 4,300 feet (1,300 meters) above sea level. It is the cultural and historical heart of Nepal, containing the modern capital of Kathmandu, and the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur.
Nepal's climate and vegetation reflect the country's wide range of elevations. The Terai experiences an average temperature in June, the warmest month, of 95° F (35° C), while winter temperatures drop to 50° F (10° C). Rainfall is received during the summer monsoon, with amounts varying from 80 inches (200 centimeters) in the east to 40 inches (100 centimeters) in the west. As one moves northwards into the mountains, temperatures decrease and rainfall increases. Above 13,100 feet (4,000 meters), the climate is alpine, with short summers and long, severe winters. The higher elevations are under snow year-round.
The peoples of southern Nepal are like their Indian neighbors. Caste (social classification) remains the prime factor in relations. (For more information on castes, see the chapter on India in Volume 4.) There is considerable freedom of movement and intermarriage across the border between Nepal and India.
The term "Newar" is used to describe the inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley regardless of their ethnic origin. Peoples of Mongoloid descent include the groups who traditionally have served as Gurkha soldiers. Technically, there is no single ethnic group called Gurkha, the name being derived from soldiers of the Kingdom of Gorkha whose ruler conquered the Kathmandu Valley in the eighteenth century.
The northern mountain belt is inhabited by the Sherpas who are closely related to the Tibetans.
Nepal's ethnic diversity is accompanied by linguistic diversity, with over thirty-six languages and dialects currently spoken by the Nepali people. Groups in the northern mountain belt speak languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burmese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. These include Tamang, Magar, Rai, and Limbu. Sherpa and Thakal are Bhutia dialects virtually indistinguishable from Tibetan. Newari, a Tibeto-Burman language written in the Devanagari (Hindi) script, is spoken in the Kathmandu Valley. Nepali (also known as Gorkhali) is spoken by 58 percent of the population and is the country's official language. An Indo-Aryan language related to Hindi, it is also written in the Devanagari script. Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Maithili are widely spoken in the Terai.
While each ethnic group has its own folk traditions, all Nepalis share in the mythology of Hinduism and Buddhism. The Himalayas, for example, are regarded as the home of the gods. Here, in the "snow-abode" (hima-alaya), is Gauri-Shankar, the peak where the god Shiva and his consort, Parvati, dwell. Annapurna, with her many peaks, is goddess of plenty. Ganesh Himal is named for Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of Hinduism. In Indian legend, every rishi , or yogi, who possesses divine power has a retreat in the mountain vastness of the Himalayas.
Another legend has it that, at the beginning of time, the Valley of Kathmandu was a beautiful turquoise lake. On this lake floated a lotus flower, from which shone a magnificent blue light. This was a manifestation of Swayambhu or Adi-Buddha, the first incarnation of Buddha. The lake was so beautiful, and the flame so sacred, that the devout came from far and wide to live along its shores, to meditate, and to worship. One such devotee was the sage Manjusri, who came from Central Asia to worship the flame. Wishing to approach the flame more closely, he sliced open the valley wall with his sword of wisdom. The waters of the lake drained away and the lotus settled on the valley floor. At this site, Manjusri built a shrine that was to become the sacred site of Swayambhunath.
Nepal is the only Hindu kingdom in the world. However, although Hinduism is the official state religion, Nepalis are highly tolerant of other religious beliefs. Freedom of religion is enshrined in law, but it is illegal to actively try to make religious converts. The religious makeup of the population is: Hindu (86.2 percent), Buddhist (7.8 percent), Muslim (3.8 percent), Christian (0.2 percent), Jain (0.1 percent), and others (1.9 percent).
Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal have so influenced each other that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two religions. Both Hindus and Buddhists, for example, worship at the Buddhist shrine of Swayambhunath. In addition, religion in Nepal has absorbed other elements of other beliefs that give it a unique character. Animal sacrifice accompanies almost every ritual and ceremonial event in Nepali life.
The temple of Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is viewed as one of the most sacred in all of South Asia. It is one of the few Hindu temples from which non-Hindus are barred.
All the major Hindu and Buddhist celebrations are observed, as well as many that have their origins in ancient nature-worship beliefs. At the Seto Machhendranath festival held in Kathmandu in March, the image of the deity Seto Macchendra is placed in a towering chariot (rath) and pulled through the streets by hundreds of young boys. Gai Jatra is a festival when cows are decorated and led through the streets in procession. Many of the Buddhist festivals, such as the Mani Rimdu of the Sherpas, are accompanied by masked monks performing devil-dances.
One of the major celebrations of the Nepali festival year is Dasain, which is the Nepali name for Dasahara. It celebrates fertility and the victory of good over evil in the form of the goddess Durga's slaying of the buffalo-demon Mahisha. The festival lasts ten days, with numerous rituals and offerings to the gods. The ninth day of the festival is marked by the sacrifice of animals (chickens, ducks, goats, and buffalo) by every household, and by organizations such as the police force and military.
The secular holidays of Nepal include King Birendra's birthday (December 29) and National Democracy Day (February 19).
Hindu and Buddhist rituals and ceremonies are the most common. High-caste Hindu boy undergo the sacred thread ceremony (where a special cord is tied around the waist) as an initiation into adulthood. Among Buddhists, on the other hand, this initiation consists of boys adopting the saffron clothes and lifestyle of the novice monk for a short period. Both Hindus and Buddhists cremate their dead, except for important lamas (Buddhist spiritual leaders), who are buried. Some groups at higher elevations (where wood is not available) dispose of their dead by exposing the corpses to be consumed by vultures and wild animals.
The normal Nepali greeting is Namaste , said while joining one's own hands together, palms touching, in front of the body. A common greeting on the mountain trails is Khana Khaiyo , literally, "Have you eaten?" This greeting indicates the difficulties in obtaining sufficient food.
Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, a fact that is reflected in the nation's health and vital statistics. The average life expectancy at birth is fifty-three years. The leading causes of death are infectious and parasitic diseases, and respiratory problems. Infant mortality rates are high, amounting to 81 deaths per 1,000 live births. Fertility rates are also high, with 5.2 average births per childbearing woman in the population.
Nepalis are a rural people, with over 90 percent living in villages. These are usually clusters of houses sited on a hilltop or hillside, surrounded by agricultural land, and located near a source of water. Terracing of hillsides is quite common. Typical houses in the valleys are two-story, mud-brick structures with thatched or tin roofs. Stone and wood are the main construction materials in the mountain belt.
Nepal's mountainous terrain makes for difficult transportation and communications. Goods are often transported by pack animals or carried by porters over mountain trails. There are only 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) of paved roads. The rail system has only 63 miles (101 kilometers) of track and is of little economic significance. Royal Nepal Airlines, the country's air carrier, operates a schedule of domestic and international flights.
Social organization and family life differ among the various ethnic groups of Nepal. However, marriage between clans is practiced, with descent most commonly traced though the father's side. Hindus follow typical practices in terms of arranged marriages and the extended family structure. Monogamy is the norm, although some Tibetan-speaking peoples practice fraternal polyandry (two brothers may marry the same woman). Wife-capture is a practice among Tibetan-speaking groups. Customs concerning divorce and remarriage vary according to the community.
Nepali clothing reflects the variety of peoples and cultures in the country. Each community has its own particular styles of dress, although certain broad patterns can be seen. Peoples of the Terai are virtually indistinguishable from their Indian neighbors. Groups in the northern mountain belt wear Tibetan-style clothes. The traditional Nepali dress is typically worn in the middle hills region. For men, this comprises trousers that taper from the waist to tight-fitting legs. Over this is worn a blouse-type shirt that reaches to mid-thigh and is tied at the waist with a belt, and a Western-style jacket. The Nepali cap, with its peak offset from the center, giving it a slightly lopsided look, completes the outfit. Ex-soldiers wear the badges of their former regiments with much pride. Women wear blouses and saris (cloth wrapped around the waist and over one shoulder), and they adorn themselves with gold ornaments and jewelry.
Nepali food is generally similar to Indian cuisine. Rice, the staple cereal, is boiled and eaten with lentils (dal), and spiced vegetables. Beef is not available, but poultry, goat, and buffalo meat are consumed. Meat is consumed mainly on special occasions and at festival times. Rice, too, is often unavailable to the average rural Nepali family. It is replaced by a dough made by mixing flour with boiling water, which is eaten with one's fingers just like rice. A flat bread (chapati), which is dry-roasted on a hot skillet, is a staple of the diet in the Terai.
Over one-third of the adult population has no formal schooling. Literacy (the ability to read and write) is only 38 percent for adult men and 23 percent for adult women.
Traditions of music range from the sonorous chanting and huge horns, thigh-bone flutes, and conch shells of Tibetan sacred music to the songs and folk music of wandering professional troubadours. Dance forms include the classical kumārī of the Newars, and the masked devil-dances performed at Tibetan Buddhist festivals to scare off devils and demons.
Nepalis are overwhelmingly agricultural, with 93 percent of the labor force engaged in this sector of the economy. One unique tradition in Nepal, however, is military service in the Gurkha regiments of the British and Indian armies. The fighting abilities of the Gurkhas were recognized during the Anglo-Gurkha war of 1814–1816, after which they were recruited into the army of the East India Company. The Gurkhas have fought with distinction in campaigns around the world.
Another group that has carved out an occupational niche for itself is the Sherpas, who are well known as guides and porters for mountain-climbing expeditions.
Modern sports popular among Nepalis include soccer, cricket, basketball, table tennis and badminton. Despite the mountainous nature of the country, altitude and the rugged terrain make skiing impractical.
Most Nepalis are restricted to traditional forms of entertainment and recreation such as festivals, folk dances, and folk music. Radio Nepal broadcasts news and music, and for those who can afford television sets, Nepal Television commenced service in 1985. The cinema is popular in the cities, with most movies being supplied by India. Occasionally, Western films are shown. There is an ancient tradition of theater in Kathmandu.
Traditional Nepali crafts include woodcarvings, khukhris (curved knives), prayer wheels, musical instruments, and dance masks. The Nepalis still make their traditional crafts, but items are often made of lesser quality to sell to tourists.
Many of Nepal's social problems are related to poverty, overpopulation, and the nature of the country's environment. Only 17 percent of the country's land area is arable land, and Nepal has to import food to feed its population. Much of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture, but the numbers of farmers unable to meet their basic food requirements is growing rapidly. More than 40 percent of the population is undernourished. Poor transportation and natural hazards such as flooding, landslides, and drought intensify the problems of agricultural production.
Karan, Pradyumna P. Nepal: A Cultural and Physical Geography . Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1960.
Rose, Leo E., and John T. Scholz. Nepal: Profile of a Himalayan Kingdom . Boulder, Colo.: West-view Press, 1980.
Interknowledge Corporation. Nepal. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/nepal/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Nepal. [Online] Available http://travelguide.attistel.co.uk/country/np/gen.html , 1998.