All about Nepal

The grand tour of Nepal - all you need to know

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Know about Nepal

Most people have heard about Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, at one point or another. Nepal, however, is a country not known to everyone. Found between the high Himalaya and the steamy Indian plains, it is a land of snow peaks and Sherpas, yaks and yetis, monasteries and mantras, and the ultimate goal for mountain lovers.

 

The Basics

The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal is a landlocked central Himalayan country in South Asia. The country borders with China in the north and India in the south, east and west and has a population of 26,4 million people. Nepal has a Monsoonal climate with four main seasons. From June to September, heavy monsoonal rains are present with clouds often obscuring mountain views. Clear skies and warm days make autumn the peak season (Oct – Dec) with thousands of people trekking up the Everest and Annapurna regions. From January to March cold temperatures are experienced with heavy snow fall in higher regions. The second-best time to visit and trek the mountain regions is from April to June when the weather is dry and warm, with an abundance of blooming flowers in the Himalayas. Temperatures range from -10 to 5ºC in winter and 30 – 40ºC in summer.

Nepal has seen rapid political changes during the last decades. A monarchy for hundreds of years, it was declared a republic in June 2008. The president of the Government is Bidhya Devi Bhandari. The country hosts the permanent secretariat of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which it is a founding member. It is also a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Bay of Bengal Initiative.

The great biological and cultural diversity of present-day Nepal is matched by its linguistic diversity. Nepal boasts a variety of living languages, many of which are remnants of the traditional Asiatic cultural fusion in the region. The official language is Nepali, which is related to Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages, and is normally written with the Devanagari script. Despite this, a large percentage of the population speak another language as their mother tongue such as Tharu, Newari and Sherpa, and may only speak little Nepali. English is widespread among educated Nepalis although learning a few basic words of Nepali is rather useful. Moreover, Hindi is also widely understood and even spoken, especially in the south of the country.

History

The history of Nepal began in, and centres on, the Kathmandu Valley. Over the centuries, Nepal’s boundaries have extended to include huge tracts of neighbouring India, and contracted to little more than the Kathmandu Valley and a handful of nearby city-states. Found between the Tibetan plateau and the plains of the subcontinent – the modern-day giants of China and India – Nepal has long prospered from its location as a resting place for traders, travellers and pilgrims. A cultural mixing pot, it has bridged cultures and absorbed elements of its neighbours, yet retained a unique character.

Nepal’s recorded history kicks off with the Hindu Kiratis. Arriving from the east around the 7th or 8th century BC, these Mongoloid people are the first known rulers of the Kathmandu Valley. Around the 2nd century BC, the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka visited Lumbini and erected a pillar at the birthplace of the Buddha. His Mauryan empire played a major role in popularising Buddhism in the regions. Buddhism faded, and Hinduism reasserted itself with the arrival from northern India of the Licchayis. Between the 4th and 8th centuries, they ushered in a golden age of cultural brilliance. The chaityas and monuments of this era can still be seen at the Changu Narayan Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site north of Bhaktapur, and in the backstreets of Kathmandu’s old town.

The golden age of creativity arrived in 1200 with the Mallas. During their 550-year rule, the Mallas built numerous temples and splendid palaces with picturesque squares. It was also during their rule that society and the cities became well organized, religious festivals were introduced, and literature, music and art were encouraged. After the death of Yaksha Malla, the valley was divided up among his sons into three kingdoms: Kathmandu (Kantipur), Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon) and Patan (Latipur). Around this time, the Nepal as we know it today was divided into 46 independent principalities. One among these was the kingdom of Gorkha with a Shah ruler. The rivalry between the three kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley found its expression in the arts and culture, which flourished in the competitive climate. The outstanding collections of exquisite temples and buildings in each city’s Durbar Square are testament to the huge amounts of money spent by the rulers to outdo each other. Some of these buildings include the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the Rani Pokhari pond and the Temple of Taleju.

It was Prithvi Narayan Shah, ruler of the kingdom of Gorkha, who led a movement that ended up unifying Nepal in 1769.  During his kingdom he moved the capital from Gorkha to Kathmandu and established the Shah dynasty, which ruled from 1769 to 2008. In the early stages of his kingdom, he recognized the threat of the British Raj in India and dismissed European missionaries from the country which led to Nepal remaining in isolation for more than a century. The death of P. N. Shah in 1775 set in motion a string of succession struggles, infighting, assassinations, feuding and intrigue. Jung Bahadur took the title of Prime Minister and changed his family name to Rana. The Ranas became a second royal family within the kingdom and ruled for more than a century until they were overthrown in a democracy movement in the 1950s. King Tribhuvan was reinstated as the Head of the State and by 1959 a new constitution was issued and the first democratic elections for a national assembly were held. Despite the win of the Nepali Congress Party and the formation of a government, it was soon dissolved again.

After many years of struggle when political parties were banned, in 1990 the People’s Movement initiated. Paving way for democracy, the King accepted constitutional reforms and a multiparty parliament was established with the king as the Head of State and an executive Prime Minister.

Despite this, the years that followed were still a struggle with the establishment and abolishment of multiple democratic Parliaments. It wasn’t until 2006 that the then Prime Minister signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement 2006 committing to democracy and peace for the progress of the country and people. In 2008, Nepal was declared a Federal Democratic Republic, abolishing the 240-year-old monarchy. Today’s government consists of a President as Head of State and a Prime Minister as Head of the Government.

 

Regions and Geography

As of 2015, Nepal is officially divided into 14 administrative zones and 7 provinces (Koshi, Janakpur, Bagmati, Gandaki, Lumbini, Karnali and Far West). Despite this, Nepal is more commonly divided into the following regions:

  • Himalayas. Considered the roof of the world, it includes the famous Mount Everest, the Annapurna region, Langtang National Park and The Great Himalaya Trail. Numerous sightseeing, trekking and other adventure sport opportunities can be found here.
  • Kathmandu Valley. Home to the cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bahkatpur, it is the heart of Nepal and a crossroad of cultures with numerous sacred temples and monuments.
  • Middle Hills. The Hill Region forms a geographic mid-land between the Terai and the Himalayas. It is mostly between 700 and 4.000 metres altitude and includes the scenic Pokhara valley, a popular base for activities in the area.
  • Tarai. This region is usually split into Western Tarai and Eastern Tarai. In the Western side of the Tarai mountain the Royal Chitwan National Park and Bardiya National Park can be found, whereas the Eastern side is home to Nepal’s second largest municipality, Biratnagar.

Most of Nepal’s landscape consists of mountains. Some of the Himalaya’s most iconic and accessible hiking can be found here with treks to Everest, Annapurna and beyond. “Tea-House Trekking” is the easiest way to trek as it doesn’t require support and Tea Houses have developed into full-scale tourist lodges. In remote areas, facilities available are less extensive and are therefore often visited as organised groups including a guide, porters and full support. Progress is being made in Nepal however, and tea-houses are becoming more available in all of these areas. Nepal also offers you the chance to raft down the Nepali river or bungee jumping into a bottomless Himalayan gorge as well as canyoning, climbing, kayaking, paragliding and mountain biking. Despite the fact that the mountainous regions seem to be the most popular destination in Nepal, the South offers a good alternative. It comprises many national parks with jungle and many animals. Safari lodges can be found here and wild trips to remote Bardia or Koshi Tappy can be organised.

 

Main Cities (and attractions)

Other travellers prefer to see Nepal at a more refined pace by strolling through the medieval city squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Even after the 2015 earthquake, Nepal remains the cultural powerhouse of the Himalaya. The Kathmandu Valley in particular offers an unrivalled collection of world-class palaces, hidden backstreet shrines and sublime temple art.

 

Kathmandu

internship NepalKathmandu is the capital and cultural centre of Nepal. The city is also headquarters of the Central Development Region of Nepal and the gateway to tourism in Nepal. It has the most advanced infrastructure of any urban area in Nepal, and its economy is focused on tourism. Strolling through the backstreets, Kathmandu’s timeless cultural and artistic heritage still reveals itself in hidden temples overflowing with marigolds, courtyards full of drying chillies and rice, and tiny hobbit-sized workshops. Swayambhu (The Monkey Temple) is found on a hill overlooking the city with a large stupa and other Buddhist and Hindu iconography. It is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country and, apart from the ancient carvings in every available space, it is also crowded with monkeys. The temple is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu’s sister cities, Patan and Bhaktapur, are integral to Kathmandu’s cultural heritage, tourism industry, and economy. Therefore, the UNESCO World Heritage Site lists all three cities’ monuments and attractions together under one heading: the Kathmandu Valley – UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Patan

interning in NepalOnce a fiercely independent city-state, Patan is now almost a suburb of Kathmandu, separated only by the murky Bagmati River. Even after the 2015 earthquake, Patan’s Durbar Square remains the finest collection of temples and palaces in the whole of Nepal. As a destination for connoisseurs of fine arts, the city is filled with wood and stone carvings, metal statues, ornate architecture, including dozens of Buddhist and Hindu temples, and over 1.200 monuments. The city is also known for its rich tradition of arts and handicrafts. Many religious festivals take place in the city each year. One of these is the Buddha Jayanti festival which marks the birthday of Lord Buddha. Adventurous travellers can also find many opportunities for trekking, mountain biking, rafting, aerial exploration of the Kathmandu Valley and mountaineering.

 

Bhaktapur

internship BhaktapurBhaktapur is an ancient city and is renowned for its elegant art, fabulous culture, colourful festivals, traditional dances, and indigenous lifestyle of Newari community. The city gives the feeling of prehistoric times. Lots of Bhaktapur’s greatest monuments were built by the then Malla rulers. Unfortunately, many were destroyed during the earthquake in 2015, including some in the Bhktapur Durbar Square. Since then, the city has been heavily restored and nowadays the city has more temples per square foot than Patan or Kathmandu. There is even an entrance fee for visitors to further restoration and maintenance. Cultural life is also on display. Along narrow alleys, artisans weave cloth and chisel timber, squares are filled with drying pots, and locals gather in courtyards to bathe, collect water, play cards and socialise.

 

Culture

The culture of Nepal is rich and unique, and its heritage has evolved over the centuries. This multi-dimensional heritage encompasses the diversities of Nepal’s ethnic, tribal, and social groups, and it manifests in every aspect of Nepali culture.

 

Architecture

Nepal was historically one of the least urbanized countries in the world, but urbanization is accelerating, especially in the capital. The Kathmandu Valley is known for pagoda-style and shikhara temples, Buddhist stupas, palaces, and multi-story brick houses with elaborately carved wooden door frames and screened windows. Although the largest and most famous buildings are well maintained, many smaller temples and older residential buildings are falling into disrepair. During the British rule in India, the Rana rulers incorporated Western architectural styles into palaces and public buildings. Rana palaces convey a sense of grandeur and clear separation from peasantry. Rural architecture is generally very simple (one or two stories), reflecting the building styles of different caste and ethnic groups, the materials available and the climate.

 

Gender Roles and Marriage

Gender division can still be found in Nepal. Labour is usually divided by gender: whilst men are far more likely to work outside the home and perform heavier agricultural tasks and often engage in trade, portering and other work outside the village; women tend to stay at home and cook, take care of children, wash clothes and collect firewood. Women often describe themselves as “the lower caste” in relation to men and generally occupy a subordinate social position, but freedoms and opportunities available to women vary widely by ethnic group and caste. However, gender roles are slowly shifting in urban areas, where educational opportunities have become increasingly available to both men and women and there are women working in some professional positions. Children and older people are a valuable source of household labour.

Nepal is patrilineal and patrilocal and arranged marriages are the norm in the mainstream culture. Because marriages forge important social bonds between families, when a child reaches marriageable age, the family elders are responsible for finding a suitable mate of the appropriate caste, educational level, and social stratum. However, love marriage is gaining in popularity in the cities, where romantic films and music inform popular sentiment and the economy offers younger people economic independence from the extended family.

 

Arts and humanities

Nepal’s literary tradition dates only to the 19th century with Bhanubhakta Acharya’s adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana for a Nepali readership. The development of literature in Nepal has been hindered by heavy government control and censorship, which led Nepali authors and poets to seek publication outside of Nepal until the 1930s, when Nepal’s first literary journal called the Sharada created a more open venue for literary expression. Much of Nepali art is religious. Dramatic productions often focus on religious themes drawn from Hindu epics, although political satire and other comedic forms are also popular. There is a rich musical heritage, with a number of distinctive instruments and vocal styles, and music has become a marker of identity for the younger generation. Older people prefer folk and religious music whereas younger people, especially in urban areas, are attracted to romantic and experimental film music as well as fusions of Western and Asian genres.

 

Etiquette

The Indian culture has influenced many aspects of Nepali culture. People greet each other using the Namaste with palms together and fingers up instead of saying hello or goodbye. Feet are considered dirty and using them to point at people or religious icons is seen as disrespectful. It is also proper to take off your shoes before entering sacred monuments or residential houses. Just like in Indian culture, the left hand is also considered unclean by Nepali and it is considered insulting to touch anyone with your left hand. When in temples and other religious sites, walk clockwise. Also, many Hindu temples do not allow non-Hindus inside certain parts of the temple complex, so be aware and respectful of this fact. Also, avoid touching food that others will be eating and make sure you are invited before entering someone’s house. On the other hand, hospitality is very important, and guests are always offered food and are not permitted to help with food preparation or cleaning after a meal.

 

Some other cultural facts

  • The Swastika and David Star. Both symbols can be found drawn together and are purely Hindu symbols. The Swastika is a very sacred symbol in Hinduism representing auspiciousness; whereas the David Star, a hexagram, represents the emergence of the male and female with the upward triangle representing Shiva (the masculine side of God) and the downward triangle representing Shakti (the feminine side)
  • The Sand Mandala. Mandalas are displayed in every corner of the country and are a spiritual symbol of both Hinduism and Buddhism used for meditation. Its circle shape comes in different colours with meticulously painted patterns and symbols. The Sand Mandala is a special type of Mandala that takes several weeks to construct. It is used by Tibetan Buddhists for a one-time meditation and is destroyed afterwards, a way to commemorate the Buddhist highest value of detachment and the ephemerality of life and the world.
  • Living in the future. Nepal uses Lunar months and Solar sidereal year, so that they ended up 57 years beyond us.
  • The Stupa. A geometrical construction that stands in many squares across Nepal that consists of a dome that symbolizes the Universe and 13 pinnacles representing the 13 stages to enlightenment.
  • The world’s only non-rectangular flag. The shape of Nepal’s flag is the most unique in the world. Unlike others, it consists of two non-identical triangles symbolizing the Himalaya Mountains, including the Moon on the first part and the Sun on the other.

 

Nepali Cuisine

Indian and Tibetan styles of cooking have influenced Nepali food. Food habits differ depending on the region because of the multi-ethnic nature of Nepali society. Authentic Nepali taste is found in Newari and Thakai cuisines. Newari cuisine is quite distinct and relatively diverse compared to the other indigenous regional cuisines of Nepal whereas the cuisine of the Terai lowlands is almost the same as in adjacent parts of India. Some dishes, particularly in the Himalayan region, are Tibetan in origin and not at all spicy. Up in the Himalayan mountains, potatoes are the staple of the Sherpa people and the local dish of potato pancakes (rikikul) can be found anywhere. The regular Nepali meat is dal (lentil soup), bhat (boiled rice) and tarkari (curried vegetables), often accompanied by achar (pickle) or dahi (yogurt). It is essentially spiced lentils poured over boiled rice and served with vegetables cooked with spices. Curried meat is very popular, but saved for special occasions only as it is relatively more expensive. Momos (steamed or fried dumplings) are one of the most popular snacks among Nepalis as well as tea made with milk and sugar. Western, Thai, Chinese and Middle-Eastern food can all be found in the tourist districts of Kathmandu and Pokhara. Because Hindus hold cattle to be sacred, beef meat is forbidden but can still be obtained for a high price in some expensive restaurants. Pork is not eaten by upper-caste Hindus and, like in India, some communities and tribes are vegetarians and do not eat meat of any sort. Most Nepalis do not use cutlery and instead eat with their right hand, just like in Indian culture.

 

Nepal may be a small country by size, but it sure offers a wide range of activities, places to visit and cultural experiences. Be sure to include it in your bucket-list of destinations to visit.

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