The 26.6 million population of Nepal is as intricate and eclectic as its topography. Nepali or Nepalese are descendants of migrants mostly from India, Burma, Tibet and Yunnan. A multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, Nepal was said to have more than 100 castes and ethnic groups according to its 2001 census. Each caste is proud of its heritage and has distinct culture and traditions.
The mountainous highlands are sparsely populated, while the outer Terai region and a part of the midlands house a large chunk of the country’s inhabitants. Kathmandu in the midlands is the capital of the country and despite being a small area has the highest density of population.
The castes in Nepal are based largely on occupation, further distinguished by their customs and traditions. Both Indo-Aryan and mixed Indo-Mongoloid comprise a majority of the population and consist of castes such as Chhetri, Bahun, Newar, etc. The Mongoloids include the castes of Magar, Gurung and Rai.
The Khas or Chhetri Hindu caste comprised farmers in villages as well as soldiers. The Brahmins (or Bahuns) were the traditional Hindu priests. Magars historically are farmers and masons, while the Tharu clan is the largest group in the Terai. The archetype denizens of Kathmandu are the Newars while Tamangs inhabit the hills and work as farmers or sherpas.
Nepal is multilingual with Nepali being the official language. If you are travelling in the valleys of Kathmandu and Pokhara, or trekking along popular circuits, you will be able to get by with English.
Nepalese cuisine, known as the food of the Himalayas, is a culmination of the country’s diverse topography, ethnicities and climate. The traditional Hindu eating etiquettes are still heavily instilled in the countryside, albeit not much among the educated and urban Nepalis. Guests and tourists should try and conform to the traditional dietary customs, unless told otherwise by their hosts. Eating with your right hand and not touching other’s utensils are common practices.
Nepali food is simple and subtle in flavour and is prepared by a unique fusion of common ingredients and spices. The Nepali staple consists primarily of rice, wheat, corn, lentils coupled with fresh vegetables and meats. Although each region has its own characteristic cuisine, a typical Nepalese meal eaten throughout the country is dal-bhat-tarkari or simply dal-bhat. Dal is a lentil soup flavoured with spices, served over boiled rice (bhat) and accompanied with curried vegetables (tarkari). Common garnishes include mouth watering pickles and lip-smacking chutni (thick paste made from fresh condiments). This dish can be also complemented with meat preparations. Festivals are the best time for you to sample some of Nepal’s finest culinary creations, especially Newa cuisine.
Other Nepali dishes influenced by the Indo-Tibetan culture include Bhutuwas (stir-fried meats or vegetables), Choylas (grilled meats marinated in seasoned mustard oil), Sekuwas (grilled meats or vegetables), rotis (bread assortments), momo (stuffed dumplings), Thukpas and Chow-Chows (Himalayan stewed and stir-fried noodles), Chiya (spiced or regular tea), and many more.
Most of the festivals celebrated in Nepal are religious Hindu occasions and may last from one day to several days. The festivities revolve around dance, music and decorations as well as a variety of local delicacies.
Dashain is the longest and most pivotal festival of Nepal. A 15 day grandiose affair, it is the most auspicious festival in the Nepalese annual calendar. It falls around September to October, starting from the bright lunar fortnight and ending on the day of full moon. Dashain is also popularly referred to as Dushhera in India. Following Dashain, another significant celebration is the festival of Tihar (Diwali in India). Known as the “festival of lights”, it is one of the most dazzling of all Hindu festivals. The Goddess of wealth, Laxmi, is commemorated on this day.
The Machendrajatra festival, dedicated to Hindu Shaiva Siddha, is celebrated by many Buddhists in Nepal as a main festival. Buddha Jayanti is celebrated in May/June to mark the birthday of the Lord Buddha. Maha Shivaratri is a festival dedicated to Lord Shiva. Amusingly, during Maha Shivaratri locals blithely consume drinks and smoke charas (cannabis). Shree Panchami falls in February and is celebrated as the birthday of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. This day is also dedicated to the martyrs of Nepal and hence celebrated as Martyr’s Day. There are many more local festivals celebrated with vigour in different regions.
The first civilisations in Nepal prospered around the 6th century B.C. and were concentrated in the Kathmandu valley where today’s capital is located. In circa 563 B.C., Prince Siddhartha Gautama was born in this very region and went on to become the founder of the Buddhist faith.
In the mid-18th century the Gorkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah, who had fled India following Mughal subjugation, unified what is now present-day Nepal as his kingdom. Under Shah and his successors, Nepal’s borders expanded as far west as Kashmir and as far east as Sikkim (now part of India). A commercial treaty was signed with Britain in 1816 after hostilities with the British East India Company. In 1923, Britain recognised Nepal as fully independent. After being ruled by the prime ministerial Rana family between 1846 and 1951, the king proclaimed constitutional monarchy.
Prince Birendra succeeded to the throne in 1972 and ruled till June 2001 when his son, Prince Dipendra, shot him and members of the royal family dead in the infamous ‘Royal Palace massacre’. It is believed the family’s disapproval of Dipendra’s choice of a bride was the reason behind the carnage, although many remain speculative till date. Consequently, Prince Gyanendra, the younger brother of King Birendra, was crowned king. In 2005, he assumed full executive powers by dismissing the government to squelch the violent Maoist movement. In 2008, Nepal was declared a federal republic, thereby abolishing monarchy. Despite this, Nepal continues to be fraught with political tensions and power usurping conflicts.
Nepal’s climate runs the conventional gamut of spring, summer, monsoon, autumn and winter. Altitude plays an influencing role; northern summers are cool and the winters are harsh, while the summers in the south are warm and winters mild.
The monsoon showers descend upon Nepal in mid-June and carry on till September. Muddy roads, landslides, clouds obscuring the Himalayas and flooded rivers render this season inopportune for excursions.
October marks the onset of the dry season. Plush and green countryside, glistening mountains, crisp air and dulcet weather make for sinfully delectable travel. This is also the peak season for trekking as you will never see the Himalayas in greater splendour. You will also get to partake in the biggest Nepalese festival of Dashain during October, followed by the Tihar festival.
December and January enjoy cool weather and clear skies, although it gets punishingly cold at high altitudes. The mountains are enveloped with snow and most high altitude treks are shut down. The days can get warm under the beaming sun in the southern parts of the country, reaching 20ºC or more. The February to April fraction of the dry season is another great time to travel around the country, especially the central and southern tracts. The famed Nepalese rhododendrons bloom with full hearted vigour.
May and June can get very hot in the mid and southern regions, especially the low-land Terai where maximum temperatures exceed 40ºC. The capital Kathmandu enjoys milder weather, with average summer temperatures ranging from 19ºC to 35ºC.
The landlocked kingdom of Nepal is located in South Asia between China in the north and India. Nepal’s progressive altitude, starting from 60m above sea level in the Terai region to 8,848m on the peak of Mount Everest, endows it with diverse topography. Along the rising altitude, you’ll stumble upon a jigsaw of plains, ridges, valleys, rolling hills, and mountains. The country can be broadly demarcated into three geological regions that run parallel to each other.
The southernmost Terai region forms 17% of the country’s surface. These lowland plains are abundant in valleys, lush forests and wildlife. Nepal’s lowest point, the Kechana Kalan at an altitude of 60m, lies in the Jhapa district of the eastern Terai. Three major Himalayan rivers course through these plains - Kosi, Narayani, and the Karnali.
The midland hill realm ranges from 800m to 4,000m in altitude, with the climate metamorphosing from subtropical to alpine. The Mahabharat range (1,500m to 3,000m) cradles the beautiful and populated valleys of Kathmandu and Pokahara to its north. The hills take up about 65% of Nepal’s land area.
The majestic Himalayan range (above 3,000m) forms the roof of Nepal and covers 16% of the country’s area. This region comprises eight of the fourteen 8,000m peaks of the world, including the highest at 8,848m, the Mount Everest. The other summits Nepal shares on its border with China are Kanchenjunga (8,586m), Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8,463m), Cho Oyu (8,201m), Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Manaslu (8,163m) and Annapurna (8,091m). Vegetation in this heavenly but inhospitable zone is sparse.
Religion and its manifestations are ubiquitous in the Nepali society. Mythologies of Hindu gods and goddesses abound in this country and cultural values are grounded on the doctrines of holy epics such as the Gita and Ramayana. With several shrines dotting the villages and the chimes of temple bells resounding in the crisp mountain air, the aura of piety is resplendent. Women, men and children flock to their neighbourhood worship houses and offer prayers by chanting lyrical hymns and lighting heady incense sticks.
Hinduism and Buddhism are the two main religious faiths, with the former being followed by more than 80% of Nepali dwellers. Lord Shiva is regarded as the guardian deity and the legendary Pashupatinath Temple on the riverbanks in Kathmandu is one of the most significant Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world, attracting throngs of worshippers every year. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nepal is believed to be the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the founding father of Buddhism. The birthplace of Lord Buddha is Lumbini in the Rupandehi district, which now serves as a holy Buddhist pilgrimage site and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Buddhism is also the paramount religion of the mountainous region, which is thinly inhabited by quasi Tibetan peoples, such as the Sherpa.
Many other religions co-exist in the country, such as Islam, Christianity, and Mundhum.