A Little Geography
Within a short distance, Nepal’s topography changes from the alluvial Gangetic plains suitable for agriculture to the frozen wastes of the Himalayan mountains. Between the two extremes lie the middle hills and the lesser mountains consisting of the Churia range and the Mahabharat lek as they are known. There are several inner Himalayan valleys with desert conditions such as the upper Kaligandaki and Bheri valleys located at altitudes above 3,600m.
The Upper Himalaya ranges from 4,000m above sea level to 8,848m above sea level. It occupies 15% of the total area of the country and within this region lie eight of the fourteen highest peaks in the world exceeding 8000m. They are: Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna. The high Himalaya is extremely cold, windy and inhospitable while the region immediately below them are inhabited but the land is far less fertile than the lower Himalayas. Thus, cultivation is minimal in this region. However, it is the mountains that attract the bulk of tourists who arrive in Nepal for trekking and mountaineering.
Middle Hills & Lower Himalaya
The middle hills and Lower Himalaya form the largest part of the country and also has the largest population. Occupying 68% of the country, it enjoys a temperate climate and the land here is far more fertile than in the upper Himalayan region. At the high end, the Mahabharat range reaches an altitude of around 4000m above sea level while the Churia range is lower in comparison. In this region lies the capital, Kathmandu and some of the popular tourist destinations such as Pokhara and Tansen.
The plains of Nepal are known as the Tarai and they occupy 17% of the land, stretching from the far-west to the far-east covering the entire southern part of the country. The lowest altitude in this region is known to be 70m above sea level. With a sub-tropical climate, the land here is exceedingly fertile and produces the bulk of the food grains for the country’s population. Along this belt lie the Chitwan National Park, Bardia National Park, Shukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve and the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve which harbor an amazing variety of wildlife including endangered species such as the elusive Royal Bengal tiger, the One-horned rhinoceros and Gangetic dolphins along with rare species of birds.
Nepal experiences 4 seasons:
Spring (Mid Feb – April),
Summer (May – Aug),
Autumn (Sep – Nov) and
Winter (Dec – Mid- Feb).
The climate changes rapidly from the sub-tropical Tarai to the cool dry temperate and alpine conditions in the northern Himalayan ranges within a short span of 200 km. In the Tarai, which is the hottest part of the country, summer temperatures rise above 45°C. The climate here is hot and humid. In the middle hills, the summer climate is pleasant with temperatures around 25°C – 27°C.
The winter temperatures range from 7°C to 23°C in the Tarai and sub-zero to 12°C in the mountainous regions, hills and valleys. The northern Himalayan region has an alpine climate with temperatures reaching below -30°C. The valley of Kathmandu has a pleasant climate with an average summer and winter temperatures of 19°C – 27°C and 2°C – 12°C respectively.
A bit of history and economy
Prehistory and early history
Nepal’s rich prehistory consists mainly of the legendary traditions of the Newar, the indigenous community of Nepal Valley (now usually called Kathmandu Valley). There are usually both Buddhist and Brahmanic Hindu versions of these various legends. Both versions are accepted indiscriminately in the festivals associated with legendary events, a tribute to the remarkable synthesis that has been achieved in Nepal between the two related but divergent value systems.
References to Nepal Valley and Nepal’s lower hill areas are found in the ancient Indian classics, suggesting that the Central Himalayan hills were closely related culturally and politically to the Gangetic Plain at least 2,500 years ago. Lumbini, Gautama Buddha’s birthplace in southern Nepal, and Nepal Valley also figure prominently in Buddhist accounts. There is substantial archaeological evidence of an early Buddhist influence in Nepal, including a famous column inscribed by Ashoka (emperor of India, 3rd century BCE) at Lumbini and several shrines in the valley.
A coherent dynastic history for Nepal Valley becomes possible, though with large gaps, with the rise of the Licchavi dynasty in the 4th or 5th century CE. Although the earlier Kirati dynasty had claimed the status of the Kshatriya caste of rulers and warriors, the Licchavis were probably the first ruling family in that area of plains Indian origin. This set a precedent for what became the normal pattern thereafter—Hindu kings claiming high-caste Indian origin ruling over a population much of which was neither Indo-Aryan nor Hindu.
The Licchavi dynastic chronicles, supplemented by numerous stone inscriptions, are particularly full from 500 to 700 CE; a powerful, unified kingdom also emerged in Tibet during this period, and the Himalayan passes to the north of the valley were opened. Extensive cultural, trade, and political relations developed across the Himalayas, transforming the valley from a relatively remote backwater into the major intellectual and commercial centre between South Asia and Central Asia. Nepal’s contacts with China began in the mid-7th century with the exchange of several missions. But intermittent warfare between Tibet and China terminated this relationship, and, while there were briefly renewed contacts in subsequent centuries, these were reestablished on a continuing basis only in the late 18th century.
The middle period in Nepalese history is usually considered coterminous with the rule of the Malla dynasty (10th–18th century) in Nepal Valley and surrounding areas. Although most of the Licchavi kings were devout Hindus, they did not impose Brahmanic social codes or values on their non-Hindu subjects. The Mallas perceived their responsibilities differently, however, and the great Malla ruler Jaya Sthiti (reigned c. 1382–95) introduced the first legal and social code strongly influenced by contemporary Hindu principles.
Jaya Sthiti’s successor, Yaksha Malla (reigned c. 1429–c. 1482), divided his kingdom among his three sons, thus creating the independent principalities of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon) in the valley. Each of these states controlled territory in the surrounding hill areas, with particular importance attached to the trade routes northward to Tibet and southward to India that were vital to the valley’s economy. There were also numerous small principalities in the western and eastern hill areas, whose independence was sustained through a delicate balance of power based upon traditional interrelationships and, in some cases, common ancestral origins (or claims thereto) among the ruling families. By the 16th century virtually all these principalities were ruled by dynasties claiming high-caste Indian origin whose members had fled to the hills in the wake of Muslim invasions of northern India.
In the early 18th century one of the principalities—Gorkha (also spelled Gurkha), ruled by the Shah family—began to assert a predominant role in the hills and even to pose a challenge to Nepal Valley. The Mallas, weakened by familial dissension and widespread social and economic discontent, were no match for the great Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah. He conquered the valley in 1769 and moved his capital to Kathmandu shortly thereafter, providing the foundation for the modern state of Nepal.
The Shah (or Sah) rulers faced tremendous and persistent problems in trying to centralize an area long characterized by extreme diversity and ethnic and regional parochialism. They established a centralized political system by absorbing dominant regional and local elites into the central administration at Kathmandu. This action neutralized potentially disintegrative political forces and involved them in national politics, but it also severely limited the centre’s authority in outlying areas because local administration was based upon a compromise division of responsibilities between the local elites and the central administration.
From 1775 to 1951, Nepalese politics was characterized by confrontations between the royal family and several noble families. The position of the Shah dynasty was weakened by the fact that the two kings who ruled successively between 1777 and 1832 were minors when they ascended the throne. The regents and the nobility competed for political power, using the young rulers as puppets; both factions wanted a monopoly of political offices and power for their families, with their rivals exterminated, exiled to India, or placed in a subordinate status. This was achieved by the Thapa family (1806–37) and, even more extensively, by the Rana family (1846–1951). In these periods, the Shah ruler was relegated to an honorary position without power, while effective authority was concentrated in the hands of the leading members of the dominant family. Although intrafamilial arrangements on such questions as the succession and the distribution of responsibilities and spoils were achieved, no effective national political institutions were created. The excluded noble families had only two alternatives—to accept inferior posts in the administration and army or to conspire for the overthrow of the dominant family. Until 1950 and to some extent thereafter, Nepalese politics was basically conspiratorial in character, with familial loyalty taking precedence over loyalty to the crown or nation.
Society and Spirituality
- The Kshatriya caste- the warriors-represents 16% of the population.
- The Brahmins’ caste – those who study knowledge (normally), represents 13% of the population.
- The Tharu, the first inhabitants of the Terai, represent 7%.
- The Tamang, close to the Tibetans and the Sherpas, living north and east of Kathmandu, represent 6% of the Nepalese population..
- The Newar, the first inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley, constitute around 5% of the Nepalese population.
- The other main people of Nepal are the Gurung, 1.7% of the Nepalese, living in the Pokhara region, the Thakali, the Kiranti, and the Magar.
- The Sherpas, the ethnic group best known in the world for the ability of these people to carry heavy loads in the high mountains, represents only 0.5% of the population.