Nepal

It is Nepal’s unique landscape, it’s cultural diversity, but above all it’s unforgettable people which make it such a fascinating country.  It is among the ten poorest nations in the world but the Nepalese enjoy their lives, and nowhere else will you see so many smiling people as in Nepal.  Hinduism and Buddhism are United here in an almost inseparable unit, and provide a unique diversity of festivals and rituals.

With an 800 km chain of peaks forming its northern boundary with Tibet, Nepal abounds in incredible mountain scenery that you can enjoy at a pace and level of activity that suits you.  There are few places in the world where you walk for days, or even weeks, through stunning mountain landscapes, secure in the knowledge that you find a hot dinner and a place to stay at the end of the day.

History

The history of Nepal is essentially the history of the Kathmandu Valley, the political, emotional and spiritual Centre of the country. Its flat stage ringed by rugged mountains has seen political scheming and bloody intrigue of the highest magnitude, as well as the quiet drama of centuries. History remains a living process embedded in ancient practices that are alive and well today.

The Kathmandu Valley’s history is closely connected with the Newar ethnic group, which also gave the country it’s name.  The Newar were the original occupants of the valley.  They gradually mixed with other ethnic groups and finally, partly as a result of the introduction of the caste system in the fifth century A.D., developed an independent and unparalleled culture.

Legend and Reality

Once upon a time, say the ancient chronicles, the Kathmandu Valley was a vast lake rimmed by mountains (and indeed this is confirmed by geology).  It was called Nag Hrad ‘Tank of Serpents’, and magical snake-beings called nagas guarded treasure lying at the bottom.  In the middle of the lake grew a thousand-petalled lotus flower.  On this blossom appeared the original Buddha – the so called Adi-Buddha – as Svayambhu, or “he who exists through himself”.  Aeons passed; then the Bodhisattva Manjushri came from the north, and with a single stroke form his Sword of Wisdom, cut a gorge in the mountain wall ringing the lake.  The waters rushed out, leaving the flat and fertile bowl that remains today.  A visible sign of this sword-stroke today is the Chobar Gorge, through which the holy Bagmati River flows.  It then flows on to north India, where is empties into the Ganges.

Licchavi dynasty (300 – 879 AD)

Early histories continue in this mythical vein, with tales of gods who roamed the valley as humans.  Legends then focus into historical facts with the advent of the Licchavi dynasty (AD 300 – 879).  Perhaps related to Indian rulers of the same name, these Kings where tolerant, non-sectarian rulers, supporting both Buddhist and Hindu temples and endowing the Valley with many fine sculptures and delicately carved Shrines and Stupas.  By this time the Valley had become an important Himalayan trading centre.  The wealth amassed from trade and farming nurtured a rich culture, fertilised by diverse influences from across Asia.  Standing on the border between the great cultures of the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia, the Valley has historically served as a bridge, channelling and transforming influences and adding it’s own unique contributions.  It has woven diverse cultural and religious strands – Indian, Himalayan, Tibetan, a hint of Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Tantric – into a rich tapestry all of it’s own.

The Valley also became an important centre of Buddhist study.  In the courtyards of Patan, Indian, Tibetan, Nepali and Chinese scholars and monks met and exchanged knowledge.  After the Muslim invasion of the late 12th century wiped out Indian Buddhism in it’s homeland, the Valley served as a refuge for fleeing Buddhists and a safe haven for ancient texts and traditions.  Later Muslim raids on India drove successive waves of Hindu refugees into western Nepal.  Intermarrying with local women, they moved slowly eastwards, playing an increasingly important role in politics and culture.

Thakuri (circa 879-1200AD)

There is a shortage of documentation in connection with what is generally referred to as the Thakuri Period.  Thakuri, a word from Sanskrit, means “distinguished ruler” and was used as a name of honour.  According to written sources, during this period the valley was ruled by various houses of Indian Princes.

The Malla Dynasty (1200 – 1768AD)

The cultured kings of the Malla Dynasty sponsored much of the splendid art and architecture that remains today, and also instituted many current customs and festivals.  The dynasty began with Jayasthithi Malla (1365-95), a wise and powerful king who arranged the Newari people into 64 castes with multiple subdivisions.  By 1382 he had consolidated his rule over the separate kingdoms of the Valley.  His grandson, Yaksha Malla, was another paragon of virtue and wisdom, but on his deathbed in 1482 he divided the Valley among his sons, sowing the seeds for future discord.

For the next three centuries, three dangerously jealous dynasties squabbled over control of the Valley.  Most often the arguments revolved around the lucrative trade route to Tibet.  Political rivalry flared into occasional fighting, but it also spurred the kingdoms into productive competition in art and architecture.  Each sought to sponsor a more lavish Temple, a more exquisitely carved stone bath, more and higher shrines.  Efforts focused on the Durbar Squares across form the three principle palaces, where veritable forests of temples and shrines sprouted in stone, brick and wood, embellished with vast quantities of precious metals.

The Malla kings also supported popular culture, sponsoring public dance performances and instituting the great chariot festivals of the three cities which continue to this day.  They prided themselves on the their culture, studying music

 

Geography

With an 800 km chain of peaks forming its northern boundary with Tibet, Nepal abounds in incredible mountain scenery that you can enjoy at a pace and level of activity that suits you.  There are few places in the world where you walk for days, or even weeks, through stunning mountain landscapes, secure in the knowledge that you find a hot dinner and a place to stay at the end of the day.

 

Culture

Customs and traditions differ from one part of Nepal to another. A conglomeration lies in capital city Kathmandu where cultures are blending to form a national identity. Kathmandu Valley has served as the country’s cultural metropolis since the unification of Nepal in the 18th Century.A prominent factor in a Nepali’s everyday life is religion. Adding color to the lives of Nepalis are festivals the year round which they celebrate with much pomp and joy. Food plays an important role in the celebration of these festivals.

Religion:
Nepal was declared a secular country by the Parliament on May 18, 2006. Religions practiced in Nepal are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Sikhism, Bon, ancestor worship and animism. The majority of Nepalis are either Hindus or Buddhism. The two have co-existed in harmony through centuries.
Buddha is widely worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus of Nepal. The five Dhyani Buddhas; Vairochana, Akshobhaya, Rathasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi, represent the five basic elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether. Buddhist philosophy conceives these deities to be the manifestations of Sunya or absolute void. Mahakaala and Bajrayogini are Vajrayana Buddhist deities worshipped by Hindus as well.

Hindu Nepalis worship the ancient Vedic gods. Bramha the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, are worshipped as the Supreme Hindu Trinity. People pray to the Shiva Linga or the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva in most Shiva temples. Shakti, the dynamic element in the female counterpart of Shiva, is highly revered and feared. Mahadevi, Mahakali, Bhagabati, Ishwari are some of the names given. Kumari, the Virgin Goddess, also represents Shakti.Other popular deities are Ganesh for luck, Saraswati for knowledge, Lakshmi for wealth and Hanuman for protection. Krishna, believed to be the human incarnation of Lord Vishnu is also worshipped widely. Hindu holy scripts Bhagawat Gita, Ramayan and Mahabharat are widely read in Nepal. Vedas, Upanishads and other holy scriptures are read by well learned Brahmin Pundits during special occasions.

Customs:
The diversity in Nepal in terms of ethnicity again makes room for various sets of customs. Most of these customs go back to the Hindu, Buddhist or other religious traditions. Among them, the rules of marriage are particularly interesting. Traditional marriages call for deals arranged by parents after the boy or girl come of age.
Nepalis do not eat beef. There are several reasons for this, one being that the Hindus worship cow. Cow is also the national animal of Nepal. Another interesting concept among Nepalis is division of pure and impure. “Jutho” referring to food or material touched by another’s mouth directly or indirectly, is considered impure by Nepalis. Nepalis consider cow dung to be pure for cleansing purposes. During menstruation women are considered impure and hence, are kept in seclusion until their fourth day purification bath.Nepal is a patriarchal society. Men usually go out to work while women are homemakers. However, in cities, roles can differ. Most Nepalis abide by the caste system in living habits and marriage. Rural Nepal is mostly agrarian, while some aspects of urban life carry glitz and glamour of the ultra-modern world.

Food:
Nepal does not have a distinct cooking style. However, food habits differ depending on the region. Nepali food has been influenced by Indian and Tibetan styles of cooking. Authentic Nepali taste is found in Newari and Thakai cuisines. Most Nepalis do not use cutlery but eat with their right hand.The regular Nepali meal is dal (lentil soup), bhat (boiled rice) and tarkari (curried vegetables), often accompanied by achar (pickle). Curried meat is very popular, but is saved for special occasions, as it is relatively more expensive. Momos (steamed or fried dumplings) deserve a mention as one of the most popular snack among Nepalis. Rotis (flat bread) and dhedo (boiled flour) also make meals in some homes.

 

Wildlife

Mammals:
Nepal has 185 species of mammals found in various parts of the country. Found in Nepal’s dense Terai jungles are exotic animals like the Asiatic elephant, the one-horned rhinoceros, the Royal Bengal tiger among others. Also found here are the leopard, monkey, langur, hyena, jackal, wild boar, antelope, wild cat, wolf, sloth bear, chital or spotted deer and barking deer. Wild buffalo locally called “Arna” is found in the Koshi Tappu region. The western Terai jungles of Suklaphanta is home of the of swamp deer, while the endangered blackbucks are found in the Bardia region. Nepal Government has made an effort to preserve blackbucks by declaring an area of 15.95 sq. km. in Bardia as Blackbuck Conservation Area.

Nepal even has its own variety of dolphins found in the fresh waters of Narayani and Karnali rivers. The Himalayan region is also home to the elusive snow leopard and the red panda. Red panda, a rare sight because of its shy nature, may be found from Langtang region to Kanchenjunga region. Other mammals that live in high altitude areas are yak, blue sheep, Himalayan tahr and musk deer.  While otters are found in the Rara region north west, the Dhorpatan hunting grounds is home of the blue sheep and Himalayan tahr.

Reptiles:
Nepal has two indigenous species of crocodile: the fish eating gharial with the long narrow snout and the marsh mugger which is omnivorous, eating anything it can catch. A very successful breeding project has brought the gharial back from extinction. Some of the snakes found in Nepal are: cobras, kraits, vipers and the Indian python. Other reptiles found in the country are turtles and monitor lizards. Some of these reptiles can be seen in the Chitwan National Park and Bardia National Park.

Birds:
Nepal has more than 850 recorded species of birds. Amazingly, half of these birds can be seen in and around the Kathmandu valley alone. The hills around the valley especially Nagarjun, Godavari and Phulchowki are popular birding areas. Phulchowki at 2,760 m boasts about 90 bird species including the endemic spiny babbler, which was thought to be extinct until it was spotted in Nepal. Another rare species of bird, the red-headed trogan, was also sighted here in April 2000.
National parks like Chitwan and Bardia harbor a wide variety of birds too. In Chitwan, endangered vultures are being protected from contaminated food by establishing “Vulture Restaurant” which feeds them safe carcasses. The Koshi Tappu region is home to a large species of resident and migratory birds. It has about 26 varieties of ducks alone. About 485 species have been sighted here, including black ibis, honey kites, ospreys, black headed orioles, peregrine falcon, partridges, ruddy shelduck, storks, vultures and eagles among others.In the higher Himalayan region are found different species of the raptors and birds of prey. Nepal’s national bird, the Danphe or impeyen pheasant, is also found in the Himalayan region. A rare bird known as jerdon’s baza was sighted in Nepal. Over the past few years a conservation group has worked specifically in the Lumbini area to conserve the sarus crane.

Of the total number of plant species found globally, Nepal possesses 2.80 percent plants. Record from 2006 shows that Nepal has 6,391 flowering plant species, representing 1,590 genera and 231 families. Nepal’s share of flowering plant species is 2.76 percent of the global total compared to earlier records of 2.36 percent. Nepal’s share of pteriodophytes is 5.15 percent compared to earlier records of 4.45 percent.  There are 2,532 species of vascular plants represented by 1,034 genera and 199 families in the protected sites. Some 130 endemic species are found in the protected sites.

There are 399 endemic flowering plants in Nepal of which about 63 percent are from the high mountains, 38 percent from the mid hills, and only 5 percent from the Terai and Siwaliks. Similarly, the central region contains 66 percent of the total endemic species followed by 32 percent in the western and 29 percent in the eastern regions.

Medicinal Plants:
The Himalayas are famous for medicinal plants and have even been mentioned in the Aurveda. Many of the herbs and plants found in the Himlayas are used in traditional healing systems like Ayurvedic, Homoeopathic, Amchi etc. Some of these plants are even used for allopathic medicine. Medicinal plants are abundantly found in: the Terai region of Nawalparasi, Chitwan, Bardia, Dhanusha, mid hill region of Makhwanpur, Syangja, Kaski, Lamgjung, Dolakha, Parvat, Ilam, Ramechhap, Nuwakot, and the Himalayan region of Dolpa, Mugu, Humla, Jumla, Manang, Mustang and Solukhumbu.

Orchids:
In ancient Rome, Theophrastus, a student of Plato, was intrigued by the sight of a plant with a pair of roots. Orchis was the name he gave them, the Greek word for testicles. Worldwide, there are some 500 to 600 genera and some 20,000 to 35,000 names, the largest of all plant families, and out of this, Nepal has 57 genera (27 Terrestrials and 30 Epiphytic) with a few Lithophytes.Nepal is endowed with an incredible variety of orchids scattered across the country. Dedrobium is the largest species, followed by Habenaria and Bulbophyllum. Anthogonium, Hemipilia and Lusia are some of the other varieties amongst the nearly two dozen single species families.

 

Climate

Nepal has a Monsoonal climate with four main seasons – though traditionally a year was categorized into six distinct climate periods: Basanta (spring), Grishma (early summer), Barkha (summer monsoon), Sharad (early autumn), Hemanta (late autumn) and Shishir (winter).

Below is a general guide to conditions at different seasons:

  • Heavy monsoonal rains from June to September – the rains are generally lighter high in the Himalayas than in Kathmandu, though the mountain peaks are often not visible due to clouds. In the Kathmandu Valley & Pokhara – monsoon rains typically consist of an hour or two of rain every two or three days. The rains clean the air, streets, & cool the air. If you come, bring an umbrella, expect lower lodging prices & fewer tourists.
  • Clear and cool weather from October to December – after the monsoon, there is little dust in the air so this is the best season to visit the hilly and mountainous regions.
  • Cold from January to March, with the temperature in Kathmandu often dropping as low as 0°C (32°F) at night, with extreme cold at high elevations. It is possible to trek in places like the Everest region during the winter, but it is extremely cold and snow fall may prevent going above 4,000 – 4,500 metres (13,000 – 15,000 feet). The Jomosom trek is a reasonable alternative, staying below 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) with expected minimum temperatures about -10°C (14°F) (and much better chances of avoiding heavy snow.)
  • Dry and warm weather from April to June – there is an abundance of blooming flowers in the Himalayas at this time, with rhododendrons, in particular, adding a splash of colour to the landscape. Terai temperatures may reach or exceed 40°C (104°F) while Kathmandu temperatures are about 30°C (86°F). This is the best time to undertake mountain expeditions.