Nepal is a landlocked country in South Asia. To the north lies Tibet, Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China, and India is on all other sides. The Himalaya mountain range runs across Nepal's northern parts, and eight of the world's 14 highest mountains, including the highest, Mount Everest, are within its territory.
Nepal came to be in its present form after unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah on December 21, 1768. The Shah dynasty, originated at Gorkha, a district south-west of present capital Kathmandu, ruled the nation for 239 years and eight months. Before 2006, Nepal was called a kingdom and the only nation in the world. On May 28 at 23:25 NST, the newly elected constituent assembly declared it to be the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
Its recent history has involved struggles for democratic government with periods of direct monarchic rule. From 1995 until 2006, Nepal suffered from a civil war between government forces and Maoist guerrillas of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). As a part of a peace process to end civil war and restore democracy, on May 18, 2006, Nepal was declared a secular state by the Interim Parliament of Nepal. On December 28, 2007, the interim parliament passed a bill and declared Nepal to be a federal democratic republic. The first meeting of the constituent assembly implemented that declaration on May 28, 2008.
Populated by more than 60 ethnic groups united by the norms and values of the country of the most hospitable people with their unforgettable greeting of NAMASTE.
Different ages stand face in the form of the historians, towering mountains tempt the mountaineers, trekkers and sight seers and thrill the adventurous, tumbling and rushing rivers challenge the rafters; biodiversity attract researchers and common people alike, ethnic, social and culture structures attract those interested in the human affairs; tranquility of the country as a whole captivates those who meditate in peace. In short, Nepal has something to offer to everyone.
Location and area
Stretched east to west in the southern slopes of the Himalayas, Nepal is a small landlocked country located between 260 22” and 300 27” north latitude and 800 4” and 880 12” east longitude. Shaped almost like a rectangle, it borders with People’s Republic of China in the north and India in east, west and south. Breadth varies from 145 to 241 kilometers north-south.
Land of lofty Himalayas and deep valleys, fertile Tarai and green hills, stumbling rivers and lakes, tropical heat and piercing chill, dense forest and vast grass lands, dazzling sunshine and dark caves, torrential rain and prickly sun, colorful merry festivals and calm severe meditatiob – Nepal is a country of extremes.Most diverse contrasts are found in the small stripe of land with the average length of 550 miles and average width of 120 miles. A few kilometers north of the lush green Tarai and the tropical forests, there are beautiful green hills and a few kilometers north to it there are mighty, majestic and lofty Himalayas, the abode of snow. One need not travel much to face different climatic genes.
This, as a whole creates the most congenial environment for bio-diversity. As a result, the most beautiful birds of the world, the majestic tigers, mighty elephants, trundling rhinos, death emitting cobras, rare musk deer, snow leopards, Himalayan panda and many other species co-exist with the amazingly large number of plants varieties.
The country can be tentatively divided into three geographical regions running east to west: • The Himalayan region • The Mountain Region and • The Tarai Region
1. The Himalayan Region:
This region covers the mountain range whose altitude starts from 4,877 meters up to 8848 meters above the sea-level. Along with Sagarmatha (Mt Everest), the region includes eight of the 14 peaks of the world which exceed the altitude of 8,000 meters above the sea-level. They are (a) Mount Everest (8848m.), (b) Mt Kanchenjungha (8586m.), (c) Mt Lhotse (8516m.), (d) Mt Makalu (8463m.), (e) Mt Cho Oyu (8201m), (f) Mt Dhaulagiri (8167m) (g) Mt Manaslu (8163m) and (h) Mt Annapurna 1 (8091m)
With sparse human habitation, most of the areas have a wild landscape. Undisturbed tranquility of the nature rules over the land.
2. Mountain Region:
This area lies between 610m to 4,877 m above the sea-level and accounts for nearly 64 percent of total land area of the country. Along with the Mahabharata and Churia mountain ranges, this region has many longitudinal fertile valleys formed by principal rivers. Kathmandu valley is also situated in this region. This broad hill complex region is extensively cultivated and has been the area of traditional Nepalese settlement since long back.
3. Tarai Region:
This region forms a low flat land belt and includes the most fertile land and dense forest areas of the country. It accounts for 17 percent of the total land area of the country; it has the width of 26 to 32 kilometers and its altitude does not exceed 305 meters above the sea level.
Nepal is also divided into five development regions:
(1) Central Region (Madhyamanchal) (2) Eastern Region (Purwanchal) (3) Far-Western Region (Sudur Pashchimanchal) (4) Mid-Western Region (Madhya Pashchimanchal) (5) Western Region (Pashchimanchal)
Climate and Rainfall
The climate of the country is not uniform in all the regions. It varies from region to region. In Tarai, summer and late spring temperatures range around 400 C. Autumn and Spring temperatures runs somewhere around 280 C. In winter, temperature in the Tarai varies from 230 C to 70C. While the central valleys experience average maximum temperatures of 120C and minimum temperature below the freezing point. At higher elevations, much colder temperature prevails. Kathmandu valley experiences a very pleasant and equable climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 270 C to 190 C and 200 C to 100 C, respectively.
Though the history of Nepal as a modern nation is of recent past, the history of its people dates back to centuries. Nepal has a long and a glorious past, traced back to thousands of years before the birth of Christ. However, scientifically reliable documents that are available now date back only to the 5th century AD, when the Lichhchavis ruled the kingdom. We have to be content with various legends about the earlier periods until more authentic documents are found. Legends say that the very first dynasty to rule the valley of Kathmandu was Gopala dynasty ousted by the Abhiras, in turn, were chased away by the Kiratas. Then came the rulers of Lichhavi dynasty, improving the economy and making great contribution for the development of the art of building temples, images and palaces. Remains of temples, palaces and images of the period are found scattered in the valley of Kathmandu and some of them are renovated.
After the Lichhavi period, another important era in Nepalese history is the Malla dynasty, that came to the power in around 13th century AD. Innumerable temples, palaces, idols and carvings that are preserved in the valley, speak of the excellence in art and architecture during that period.
In addition, a famous Malla King Jayasthity Malla introduced some social systems and practices, which were re-formative of that time. However, after the death of Yakshaya Malla, the country was divided, followed by a state of anarchy that paved the way for its eventful unification by King Prithivi Naryan Shah, the Great, of Gorkha.
After Prithivi Naryan Shah ascended the throne of Gorkha, events in the history took a different turn. He conquered various warring principalities and laid the foundation of modern Nepal. Around 1767 AD he was reigning over the territories which more or less constitute the boundaries of present Nepal. After Prithivi Naryan Shah, the campaign of unification was given continuity by his younger son Bahadur Shah and was launched once again by the Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa. However, the expansion came to a halt when Nepal came into conflict with British India Company and signed the treaty of Sugauli in March 1816 AD.
Another crucial chapter of history began after the emergence of Janga Bahadur Rana to power in 1846 AD. He established himself as the most powerful Prime Minister of the country or as a de factor ruler and made the Prime Ministership as hereditary. Till today, his descendents write their surname as JBR.
The revolution of 1950 brought an end to the autocratic Rana regime and democratic system was introduced. Multiparty parliamentary system was practiced for some years but the system came to an end when King Mahendra imposed party-less Panchayat system in 1960 AD. The democratic movement of 1990 reinstated the multi party and democratic constitution of the kingdom was promulgated on Nov 9, 1990.
Now Nepal is a stalwart of global peace and disbarments. Nepal is a member of the UN and the founding member of South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Nepal’s population of about 25 million is ethnically complex. Census taken by the Central Bureau of Statistics states that there are 61 (presently 59) ethnic groups of people, speaking different dialects. However, most of the ethnic groups can be broadly divided into two groups: Indo-Aryans or Indo- Nepalese and Tibeto Mongolians or Tibeto Nepalese. Historically, the people of the former group entered the territory of Nepal during the period of Muslims conquest in the Indian sub-continental and the latter came to Nepal across the Himalayas passes from the North and they inhabited the Himalayan valleys and slopes. The Rais, Limbus, Gurung and Tamang, who belong to the later group make-up the well-known troops of the Gurkhas.
There are some other relativity smaller ethnic groups which are the aboriginals of the country. They are Austric and Dravidan. In addition, there are many nomadic tribes in the hills and Tarai who have now submitted to the agrarian system.
All these Nepalese people are friendly, kind and hospitable irrespective of the differences in the religion faith, ethnicity and culture.
Nepali is the official language and the major lingua franca. However, many other languages are spoken in the country. For the majority of the population, Nepali is the mother tongue and Maithali, Bhojpuri, Tamang and Newari follow it. In addition to these languages, many other languages and dialects are spoken in the country.
Religion and Culture
Nepal also has unique religious combination. All sects co-exist adopting universal brotherhood. This is manifested in the act of worshiping common deities and celebrating festivals belonging to different religious groups. Hindus and Buddhists visiting the same places of pilgrimage is not rare sight in Nepal. This serves as a fine example of fellow feeling.
Broadly speaking, culture of a society is the summation of all the achievements that receive the form of heritage. In other words, it includes all the things that plays role in the making of the collective mental structure and value system. Culture encircles all the things that are related with life: religion, philosophy, creative movements, art, music and so on.
Nepali way of life has a long and uninterrupted tradition. Nepali culture is one of the most ancient cultures of the world. It has a unique place in the history of world civilization. The other important aspect of the Nepali culture is that it is culture of the various races dwelling within the territory of the kingdom. Many anthropologists and even lay-men are interested in Nepali culture because it offers an interesting of culture pluralism.
While observing the unbroken tradition, it becomes necessary to study the factors responsible for the preservation of the culture. Physical isolation of the kingdom is considered to be the most important of all other factors. The dense forest of the Tarai and the difficult mountains of the Himalayas isolate the kingdom with the rest of the world. As a result, the kingdom was not ravaged by frequent foreign invasions and was unknown to the foreigners in the past. Nepalese people enjoyed a state of undisturbed peace throughout most of Nepali history. Hinduism and Buddhism have taken a course of undisturbed growth and development in Nepal.
What Nepal borrowed from India kept on growing and developing in congenial environment in Nepal whereas the same heritages had to face shattering invasions in India. For example, Nepal Buddhism survived owing to Nepal’s physical isolation from Indian landmass. Monastic character of Buddhism was weakening in India. This process was brought near extinction by the revitalization of Hinduism and later it was brought near extinction by the hordes of Muslim invaders pouring down from central Asia into northern India in the 13th century. Many Buddhists scholars and preachers fled to the safe territories of Nepal and continued their religious practices. The kingdom’s remoteness made it a safe heaven. Buddhism in Nepal, however, lost its monastic form in the traces of the Buddhism India of the historic time. Pagoda style that was replaced by other styles in India was still used in building temples in Nepal in the 17th century.
Another salient feature we have mentioned earlier is the harmony in diversity. What we now call Nepali culture, is the combination of most diverse of cultures and traditions. The most remarkable thing about the combination is the absence of discordance, rather great forces of synthesis. Hinduism can be taken as a good example of such processes. Deities such as Ganesh (described by the Hindu scriptures as the elephant headed son of Lord Shiva and Parvati), Bhairava (the Hindu deity representing Lord Shiva’s destructive force), Kumari (the living Goddess), Saraswoti (the Goddess of learning and arts), Vajrajogini and Mahakali are worshiped by the Hindus, Buddhists and many other religious groups here. There are common rituals practiced by Hindus and Buddhists. They have now lost the sectarian distinctiveness. For example, practitioners of both the religious take part in Machhendranath Rath Jatra, the chariot procession of Machhenranath, who is described as `Bodhisatwa. “Avalokiteswora Padmini” is worshipped by the Buddhists and as Gorakhnath’s preceptor Machhendranath by the Hindus.
Another significant aspect about Nepali culture is the amalgamation of Tibetan and Indian culture. Such amalgamation is the result of the intermediary position occupied by Nepal in the historic times. The passes of Kyrong and Kuti to the northwest and northeast of the kathmandu valley had been the easiest routes to Tibet since the ancient times. The merchants and the cultural entrepreneurs of Nepal, Tibet and India used the routes regularly until 1907 AD. Some historian is to the opinion that Tibeto- Nepali relations first started during the reign of Srong-tsan-sgam-po, who introduced the system of dynastic rules and laid the foundation of Buddhism in Tibet. Legends considered to have been invented around the 10th century state that he married the Nepali princess, Bhrikuti, who took with her things related with Buddhism as nuptial gifts.
Furthermore, historical records show that a number of scholars and preachers visited Tibet via Nepal. Taranath, the Tibetan historian, who visited India in the 17th century mentions about Vasubandhu (a great Yogacara philosopher of the 14th century) visiting Nepal. Similarly historical records also show that preachers such as Naropa, Darika, Ratnaraksita, Milarepa and many others visited Tibet via Nepal. Some of those preachers were believed to have played important role in the establishment of ka-guy-pa sect of Lamaistic Buddhism in Tibet. The name of the famous Nepali artist and architect A-ni-ko visited Tibet, was invited to the imperial palace of China and was honored by the emperor himself for his great skill. Chinese history verifies established fact of the history that coins of Tibet were minted in Nepal. The change of style in Nepali art during the Malla period is believed to be the result of such relationship. Tibetan influence is believed to be the force behind the emergence of new styles in thanka paintings and bronze casting in Nepal.
Having described in brief, some of the distinctive features of Nepali culture, we proceed now to describe historical and geographical aspects of Nepali culture. It is necessary to know the culture prevailing in the different periods of history and the history of Nepal’s geographical territories.
Foundations of the modern Nepal were laid in the 18th century by King Prithivi Narayan Shah. He is the one to start national unification campaign, continued by Bahadur Shah that culminated in the emergence of the modern Nepal. This process of unification brought about the political bond among different regions, which were in a way related with one another through cultural bonds. Cultural bonds are of great significance because they existed even before political unification. The flourishing culture of Kathmandu valley was a centripetal force. Surrounding areas, roughly equaling the territories of the modern Nepal, were very much influenced by valley culture, which is popular for its uninterrupted development. The land is glorified in various writings such as ‘Nepal Mahatmya’ ‘Pashupati Puran’ and ‘Swoyambhu Puran’, that were composed in Sanskrit in around 14th or 15th century. These chronicles, in a way, describe how the valley became habitable and how it saw the first dawn of civilization. The chronicles say that the valley was a big lake in the beginning. In the middle of the lake bloomed a huge lotus that heralded the emergence of Adi Buddha (the primordial Buddha). Later the lake was drained off by Manjushree (some Hindu scriptures say that all the work was done by Krishna). The chronicles further say that the mortal Buddha’s preceding Shakyamuni visited the valley and built pillars in Patan (the pillars are described in the chapter dealings with ‘Pilgrimage’). Although the authenticity of the facts presented by the chronicles is open to questions, they unfailingly show the fact that the valley was regarded as an important place by most of the people dwelling in the region.
Dealing with the spatial aspect of Nepali culture, two historical principalities must be mentioned here. They are Mithila and Kapilvastu. Mithila, whose kingdom was Videha came into focus when the valley was supposed being ruled by the Kirati dynasty. The state was at the peak of its eminence during the reign of King Janak, whose daughter Sita was married to Ram, the hero of the epic Ramayana. Some of the persons described by the chronicles and other literary works can be fictional characters. However, Buddhists literature found in Nepal describes Videha as a member of the Vriji confederacy. This establishes that Mithila was also not out of touch with the valley civilization.
Now, let us consider the Lumbini-Kapilvastu region. Lord Buddha was born in 563 BC in Kapilvastu where he spent 29 years of his life as a prince of the Shakya dynasty. In this period, Kaulya, Malla and Lichhavi dynasties were ruling in the neighboring states. Buddha himself is said to have visited the valley. Authenticity of such description is yet to be established. However, it is well established fact of the history that Malla and Lichhavi rulers of the Indian states in the neighborhood of Kapilvastu and many other Buddhists fled to Nepal upon invasions into their states. It suggests that Nepali culture of the period attracted them.
The penetration of Indo-Aryan culture is believed to have continued for long. The process is found to have been stronger during the Lichhavi period, the earliest historically known period of the ancient Nepal. The convergence of different cultures into the mainstream took place. The religion, art, architecture social structure, politics and the social conventions of the periods bear the strong marks of the process of synthesis. The traces of such amalgamation, even with Tibeto- Burman culture can be found in the modern Newari culture too.
After the Lichhavi dynasty was ousted, Thakuri dynasty came into power in around 750 AD and it continued to rule Nepal until 1200 AD. Kathmandu valley was ruled by the Mallas who were defeated by Prithivi Narayan Shah in 1967-69 A.D. The Malla period also did not remain untouched from the influence of Indian states. The descendants of Nanyadev, who found Tirhut kingdom in around 1090, came to the valley later and occupied significant position in the Malla courts. Brahmins of Maithali were believed to have been brought here in the same period to work in the temples of Nepal. Contributions of the Mallas are noteworthy because Nepali art forms found new mediums such as bronze, painting and wood-work during that period.
Prithivi Narayan Shah’s conquest over the valley begins a different chapter of Nepali culture. It brought about the synthesis of the culture of Baise Raj (the confederation of 22 states) and Choubise Raj (the confederation of 24 states) which had roots in the culture of Khasa Kingdom of the Karnali and Gandaki region. Khasa kingdom with its capital as Sinja and Dallu were strong in 12th to 14th century. Significant part of the population of the region moved towards east and made several attempts to conquer the valley. The attempts failed then but their desire to get on with the valley civilization was fulfilled after Prithivi Narayan Shah succeeded in defending the Malla Kings of the valley. The defeat, however, was different in many respects. The culture contributed to enrich Nepali culture. The significant thing about the assimilation is that the language of Khasa and the valley culture with some modifications started growing together.
Having presented an introduction to Nepali culture, we proceed to describe some of the constituents of Nepali culture:
Religion is one of the factors that determine the way of the life. Religion has great significance in Nepal because it is the motivating force behind many activities of the Nepalese people. Religious philosophies and religious practice in Nepal are unique in the world. Tolerance in religion is one of the most remarkable features of Nepali culture. Nepal never witnessed religious riots.
Although Nepal is a small country, almost all the influential religions of the world exist here. However Hinduism was the state religion of the country and was known as the only Hindu kingdom of the world until recently. Majority of the people are Hindus. Buddhism and Islam come in the second and third position respectively. Most of those other religious sects, followed by ethnic groups, however, have the form of animism. They believe in a host of spirits or super natural beings, which are worshiped by those members of the community who are considered to have the power and skill for offering worships. Persons having the art of communicating with the super natural beings get respected in the ethnic communities. Such communities, however, do not make attempts to be different from the Hindus nor do the Hindus try to prove them non-Hindus. In fact, majority of the members of such communities takes part in the Hindu rituals and rites in one way or the other.
The followers of Hinduism can be roughly divided into three groups. They are: the Nepali speaking Hindus of the hills, the Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi speaking groups of the Tarai and the Newars of Kathmandu.
They all differ in customary practices, however, they have indisputable arrangement as regard to broader philosophical aspects of the religion. Such philosophical aspects are sustained by Vedas and Purans (religious scriptures).
Historians fail to give the exact date of the beginning of the Hindu religion in Nepal. However, there is a common belief that the Hindu penetration began right from the period when Vedas and Purans were composed in India. When we see the earliest historically known period of Nepal we find both the religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, to be equally strong and influential. Historical records of the Lichhchavi period show that Hindu rites and rituals were performed with the Brahmans well veered in Vedas and Purans. Those Brahmans do not seem to be different from the Brahmans of Gupta period in India. This Brahminic tradition was again strengthened by Jayasthiti Malla during the Malla period. Many religious acts are performed in the guidance of Parbate and Newar Brahmans even to this date. They had, and still have in many cases the unchallenged monopoly in the fields of astrology and medicine as well.
Buddhism is another important religion of the kingdom. As mentioned earlier, Nepal preserved the religion when it was in the verge of extinction in India. However, Buddhism took a different turn when it got changed as a result of its contact with Hinduism (all the changes may not have resulted from the contact). The main changes are: the loss of monastic order, the installation of the common deities and the celebration of many festivals in collaboration with the Hinduism.
From Lichhchavi period, Buddhism in Nepal had been Mahayanistic in it’s philosophical doctrines and theistic practices.
The ultimate goal of Mahayana is the salvation of the entire world through the attainment of Buddhahood. The other branch, Hinayana, on the other hand seeks the personal salvation. Mahayana is backed by the Madhyamika philosophy of Sunyata. This philosophy postulates the idea that the entire phenomenal world is a void. Another branch, Vajrayana was development later. Indrabhuti was the beginner of this sect. He reinterpreted the concept of void postulating the idea that the void changes into the experience of the eternal consciousness after the attainment of enlightenment. According to him, to experience Sunyata in this manner is to follow the ‘adamantine path’ or ‘adamantine vehicle’. The principal treaties of Vajrayana, whose symbol is Vajra or thunderbolt, are Guhyasamaj and Manjusri Mulkapala. These treaties give account of the basis of the various aspects of the religious sect. Furthermore, they describe the original Tathagata (Adi Buddha or primordial Buddha), five Dhyani Buddhas and the whole range of Vajrayana pantheon.
The latest phase of the development of Buddhism is dominated by tantras. The tantras do not depart from the basic principles of Buddhism but they emphasize the possibility of the attainment of Buddhahood through the performance of different rituals. According to this sect, there is a procedure on the way to the attainment of Buddhahood. The procedure includes the recitation of mantras (syllables considered to have mystical and magical power), the display of mudras (hand gestures considered to have cosmic significance), and the use of Mandalas (ritual diagrams depicting the positions of the cosmic bodies and deities). Various tantric treaties are composed making one or the other deity center of the cosmic bodies. However, the chief goal presented by the treaties of all types is the attainment of Buddha hood.
Practice of tantras seems to be mystic. Only those with special training can conduct such practices. The most interesting thing about such practices in that the practitioners meditate supposedly in the form of Buddha for the attainment of Buddha hood. Along with practices include the mode of Panchamakar, the five ‘M’s representing Mamsa (the animal flesh), matsya (Fish), Madira (liquor), Mudra (dance like gestures) and Maithuna (coition).
The religions described above are not the only religions of Nepal. Other various sects do exist in Nepal because the ethnic structure of the country is really complex and there is greater degree of diversity with regard the religious belief. We have to be aware of this aspect of Nepali religions in spite of the fact that almost all the ethnic groups of Nepal are under the influence of one or the other major religions described above. The study of religions is complete only when it is conducted in religion with the ethnic structure. Some of the ethnic groups will be described later.
Hindu cast system and customs
The earliest available historical document of Nepal describe the cast system was deep rooted in Nepali society during Lichhchavi period. The society was divided into four castes and a kind of hierarchy placing the Brahmans at the top was established. The second, third and the fourth position in the hierarchy were given to Khsetriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras respectively. Different occupations were prescribed for these casts.
Brahmans had the responsibilities of conducting worships and studying Vedas and Purans, Khsetriyas were to rule and perform martial duties, Vaisyas were the merchants and Sudras, the untouchables were to do the works that were considered to be of the inferior kind at the time. Different kinds of foods also were prescribed for the different casts. Brahmans were to abstain for meat, liquor and many other things and were suggested to eat only those things which matched with their meditative temperament and priestly duties. The rigid system was once weakened by various factors during a period between the Lichhchavi regime and Malla regime. However, it was reinvigorated by Jayasthiti Malla. Various historical documents and inscriptions show the existence of such system. Inscription of 1392 AD in Kumbheshwor, Patan, the inscription of Kochu tole, Farping (1406 CE) and the number of others mention the various aspects of caste system.
Other ethnic groups outside the system were also significant elements of social structure. However, caste ranks equating the status of Brahmans and Kshetriyas were not given to them. They were not strictly obtained by the system.
Now the discriminatory caste system is limited to religious rituals. Nepali society at present is guided by other broader humanitarian concerns. Cast discrimination is prohibited by the law of Nepal.