“Nepal, pronounced nuh PAWL, is a country in south-central Asia. The highest mountain range in the world-the Himalaya-and a region of hills and valleys cover about 80 percent of Nepal. The Tarai (or Terai)-a flat, fertile river plain along Nepal’s border with India-covers the rest of the country.
Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal and its largest city. Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, rises 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) above sea level in the Himalaya on Nepal’s border with Tibet, a region in China.
About 45 percent of Nepal’s people live in the Tarai. The rest of the people live in the hills and valleys region or in the mountains. Patches of farmland lie among the mountains of Nepal. These cultivated areas account for only about 10 percent of the country’s mountainous area, but almost all of the mountain people live there. Nepal is poor and undeveloped. The country also has a high rate of disease and illiteracy.
Government. Nepal is a constitutional monarchy. A prime minister serves as head of the government. The king serves as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. Nepal’s parliament consists of a 60-member National Council and a 205-member House of Representatives. The people elect the representatives to five-year terms. Thirty-five members of the National Council are elected by the house, 15 members are elected by an electoral college, and 10 are appointed by the king. Members of the National Council serve six-year terms.
The king usually appoints the leader of the largest party in the house as prime minister. The prime minister heads a council of ministers, whose members are appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister. The council helps carry out government functions.
Nepal is divided into 75 districts for purposes of local government. Each district is divided into cities and villages. The people elect a committee and a committee head to administer each district, city, and village.
The Supreme Court is Nepal’s highest court. It consists of a chief justice and 14 judges. The chief justice is appointed by the king, upon recommendation of a constitutional council. The other judges of the Supreme Court are also appointed by the king, upon recommendation of a judicial council.
People. Most Nepalese are closely related to the peoples of northern India. Other Nepalese are of Tibetan descent. Still others are of mixed Indian-Tibetan descent. Most people live in small villages that consist of two-story houses made of stone or mud-brick.
About 80 percent of Nepal’s people earn their living through farming and related occupations. Most farms produce barely enough to support one family. Nepalese farmers trade any surplus crops they raise for such important items as kerosene and salt. Other Nepalese make their living as carpet weavers, clothing manufacturers, or craftworkers. Still others work as merchants, for the government, or in the tourist industry.
The Sherpas and the Gurkhas, two Nepalese groups, are known for their special skills. The Sherpas, a Himalayan people, have won fame as guides and porters for mountain-climbing expeditions. Sherpa men and women carry heavy loads up to high altitudes. Many Gurkhas serve as soldiers in the British or Indian army.
Hinduism is the official religion of Nepal. However, the Nepalese have combined the beliefs and practices of Hinduism with those of Buddhism. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Nepal about 563 B.C. The Nepalese people celebrate the festivals of both Buddhism and Hinduism, and Buddhist shrines and Hindu temples are considered equally sacred. Many of the people of Nepal also worship local gods and spirits and consult shamans (magical healers) in times of illness.
Nepal has few physicians, and such diseases as cholera, leprosy, and tuberculosis occur frequently. Since the early 1950’s, the government has greatly reduced malaria. This has enabled many Nepalese from the mountains to settle in the Tarai, where malaria used to be widespread.
Some Hindus in Nepal practice polygyny, a form of marriage in which a husband has more than one wife. Polyandry, the practice of a wife having more than one husband, occurs among some of the Tibetan groups in northern Nepal. In most such cases, the woman marries two or more brothers. The children who are born of such marriages regard the oldest husband as their father and his brothers as uncles.
Illiteracy ranks as one of Nepal’s most serious problems. For the country’s literacy rate, see LITERACY (table: Literacy rates for selected countries). Tribhuwan University is Nepal’s only university. It includes a main campus in Kathmandu and many other campuses in the country.
About half of the people speak Nepali-the country’s official language-as their native tongue. Most of the rest of the people use Nepali as a second language. Nepali is related to the languages of northern India. More than 50 other languages and dialects are spoken in the country.
Land and climate. Nepal has three principal regions: (1) the Himalaya, (2) the hills and valleys, and (3) the Tarai. Differences in altitude give each region a different climate. Each region also has its own kinds of plants and animals.
The Himalaya, in the north, covers much of Nepal. The mountains have long, harsh winters and short, cool summers. Steep river valleys cut through the glaciers and snow of the Himalaya. Forests cover the mountains up to the altitude of about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) above sea level. Only grasses, lichens, and moss can grow in the cold, dry air above this altitude.
Mountaineers in the Himalaya herd sheep. They also herd long-haired oxen called yaks. Some people claim that a mysterious creature called the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti, lives in the mountains (see ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN).
The hills and valleys lie south of the Himalaya. The valleys have a cool climate, and rain falls heavily in summer. Winters are chilly but dry. Farmers on the hillsides and in the valleys raise many crops. The region’s crops include corn, rice, millet, and wheat. The farmers of the hills and valleys tend herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. A wide variety of trees and bamboo grasses grow in thick forests in this region.
The Tarai lies in southern Nepal. It has fertile farmland. Farmers grow corn, jute, millet, mustard, rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and other crops. Livestock raised in the region includes cattle and water buffalo. The Tarai has a tropical climate. Its jungles and swamps provide a habitat for a variety of wild animal species, including crocodiles, elephants, deer, leopards, rhinoceroses, and tigers.
Economy of Nepal depends almost entirely on farming. Nepalese farmers attend small fairs and markets to trade their surplus crops for other items. Nepal has few railroads or paved roads. The lack of good transportation facilities in the country makes large-scale trade difficult.
Roads link Nepal with India, and Nepal trades chiefly with that country. Nepal exports carpets, clothing, rice, spices, and sugar. Principal imports include gasoline, kerosene, machinery, metals and metal products, and textiles.
Since the 1950’s, large amounts of foreign aid have helped develop Nepal’s economy. Several nations-including China, India, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States-have contributed money to Nepal. These funds have helped construct roads, maintain health centers, and start small industries. The Nepalese government spends about hundreds of millions of dollars annually on development projects. About half of this money comes from foreign aid and loans.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Nepal annually. Money spent by visitors from other countries has helped improve economic conditions in Nepal.
Nepal has deposits of such minerals as coal, copper, gold, iron, and mica. However, the country has few mines. Nepal’s greatest natural resources are its forests and rivers. The swift mountain currents have been harnessed to produce hydroelectric power, but most of the country still depends on firewood for cooking and heating.
History. Until the late 1700’s, Nepal consisted of a number of small, independent kingdoms. About A.D. 400, the Kathmandu Valley, where the Nepalese capital is now located, came to be called Nepal. Through the centuries, bands of conquerors, nomads, and refugees moved into Nepal. They came from Central Asia, India, and Tibet and were the ancestors of the Nepalese.
In the mid-1700’s, Prithwi Narayan Shah, a king from a small Nepalese kingdom called Gorkha, began a military campaign to unify the country. By the time of his death in 1775, he had conquered most of what is now Nepal. He took the title of king of Nepal, and his descendants have served as monarchs ever since.
In the early 1800’s, Nepal fought a war against the United Kingdom. Nepal had attempted to expand its boundaries into northern India. The British East India Company, a trading corporation, controlled much of India at that time, and British soldiers guarded India’s borders. The United Kingdom declared war on Nepal in 1814 after Nepalese troops attacked a British outpost.
The British expected an easy victory, but the Nepalese were accustomed to fighting in the mountains. Although the British initially suffered heavy losses, they defeated the Nepalese in 1816. After the war, the United Kingdom and Nepal became allies. The Gurkha soldiers of the Nepalese forces impressed the British, and the United Kingdom has recruited Gurkhas for its armies since that time.
In 1846, a political leader named Jung Bahadur seized control of Nepal’s government. He took the honorary title of Rana and declared that a member of his family would serve as prime minister from then on. The Rana family totally controlled the government until 1951. During this period, the king had no power. The Ranas dominated the army, imprisoned their opponents, and even killed rivals whom they considered dangerous.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s, opposition to Rana rule grew. A revolution began in Nepal in 1950. The revolution overthrew the government and restored the monarchy to power under King Tribhuwan Shah in 1951.
During the early 1950’s, the government attempted to create a democracy. King Tribhuwan died in 1955. He was succeeded by his son, Mahendra. Mahendra criticized the rivalry among political parties in democratic systems. In 1960, he declared that Nepal needed a political system that would suit its traditions. He dissolved the elected government and took over power. Political parties were banned. In 1962, he put into effect a constitution that established the panchayat system, in which most power is held by the monarch.
Under Mahendra’s rule, the government stressed economic development, tourism, road construction, and hydroelectric power. Mahendra died in 1972, and his son, Birendra, succeeded him as king.
In 1979, many Nepalese staged violent demonstrations, in part to demand a more democratic government. In response to the demands, Birendra allowed a national vote on the government system. By a narrow margin, the voters chose to continue Nepal’s system.
In 1990, violent demonstrations calling for more democracy broke out again. The king lifted the ban on political parties, and an interim government was formed. In November 1990, a constitution was approved that made Nepal a constitutional monarchy. In May 1991, democratic parliamentary elections were held in Nepal for the first time since the 1950’s.
In 1996, Communist rebels began fighting to replace Nepal’s constitutional monarchy with a Communist government. By 2001, rebels controlled a few rural districts and were active in many others.
In June 2001, King Birendra’s son, Prince Dipendra, killed the king and most of the royal family, then killed himself. The king’s brother, Gyanendra, assumed the throne.”
Contributor: Graham P. Chapman, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Geography, Lancaster University.