Nepal Geographical Map, source : (nepaltourismdirectory)
Nepal is the culturally diverse Himalayan nation, was going through the 2nd phase of its crucial local level polls, the first to be held in the country in two decades. Despite threats from some ethnic groups boycotting the elections, this phase saw a voter turnout of 70.5%, slightly lower than the 71% seen in the 1st phase held in May, but substantial nevertheless by any standards of people’s participation. This sign of the cementing of the democratic process amidst political turmoil in the country is particularly encouraging given that the country saw a transformation from a ‘Hindu kingdom’ into a ‘secular and inclusive democratic republic’ only recently, in the 2006-2008 periods .
But, Nepal’s problems are not just related to its ethnic diversity or political multiplicity. Landlocked, largely mountainous and sandwiched between the two large countries of China and India, its economic resources are limited, and it depends on its neighbors for trade, economic growth and infrastructure development. The aspirations that led to a long struggle, sometimes peaceful, often violent, to move towards a government that gave a greater say to the common man, are yet to be fulfilled. It will require acumen from, and a shared vision among, its new rulers, and stability in the lives of its citizens, to satisfy the restive population – all factors that are not easy to find in Nepal today.
So, where does Nepal go from here? Will its experiment with democracy succeed or will its people soon start wishing for things to go back the way they were under the royal family? What lessons can the country’s new elected rulers learn from the many martial and hereditary ones who have come before them? These answers are not easy to figure out. But, a good place to start looking for them is to understand the country’s rich history. Many of the challenges Nepal faces today find their genesis in the country’s eventful past – perhaps some solutions could be found too if we were to spend some time examining it.
While the many cultures and religions that have interacted over centuries to develop the fabric of modern Nepal make the country rich with plurality, this very fact also makes a coherent study of the country’s history a little difficult. Groups of people from different lands, often from India and China/Tibet, have settled in different parts of Nepal, and held sway there at different points of time. A more practical way, then, is to focus on the Kathmandu Valley, which includes not only the capital city, but also cities of such historical importance as Bhaktapur and Lalitpur (historically Patan), and has been the region with the strongest influence on the country’s fate for at least 2,000 years.
It is widely agreed that the history of Kathmandu Valley, and hence that of Nepal itself, can be divided into three clearly demarcated periods.
Some claim that tools from the Neolithic period found in the Valley point to continued inhabitation of these lands from at least 11,000 years ago. Early ancestors of the Tharu and Kusunda people were probably the original inhabitants of the Valley, moving to these parts from the west.
Slightly more substantive early references to the people from the Valley and the lower hill regions of the country come from ancient Indian classics like the Mahabharata. These references not just give an idea of the Valley’s antiquity – at least 2,500 years – but also point towards a shared culture, including many commonalities with modern Hinduism, between the people living higher up in the Valley and those living in the Gangetic Plains of India.
The mention of parts of Nepal in Buddhist and Jain texts chiefly establishes the existence of territorially independent states in this region by the time Gautam, Buddha was born in Lumbini in southern Nepal, ruled by the Shakya clan, around 500 BCE. Buddhism was also a major shared element between India and Nepal, and later Tibet.
The first recorded history of Nepal, instead of occasional references on the periphery of important events happening elsewhere, would begin with the Kirati people. These Mongoloid people are believed to have arrived in the Valley from pre-Buddhist Tibet around the 7th or 8th century BCE, and shared some animistic customs with Hindu traditions. Yalambar, a king mentioned in the Mahabharata, is believed to have been a Kirati king. The rule of the Kiratis also saw the spread of Buddhism from India to Nepal and further east, first under the influence of the Maurya Empire (c. 322 BCE – 187 BCE) and then the Kushan Empire (1st to 3rd centuries CE).
The rule of the Kiratis came to an end at the beginning of the 4th century CE, when their king Gasti was defeated by a branch of the Licchavi clan from Vaishali, Bihar. The Sanskrit-speaking, Hindu Licchavis inspired a re-emergence of Hindu traditions in the Valley and the movement of the Kiratis towards the east.
Copper Coin of Jishnu Gupta (c. 622-633) of the Nepalese Lichhavi Dynasty (Source: Wikipedia)
Much about the rule of the Lichhavis has reached us through preserved chronicles and many stone inscriptions. The political system involved a ruler, known as the ‘Maharaja’, who was aided by a prime minister to oversee the other ministers and the military, a system that was to carry over several centuries. This period, lasting till the 9th century, saw a number of important
developments, the most remarkable being in trade and architecture. The former was also a result of the emergence of a strong and stable kingdom in Tibet, leading to wide-ranging cultural and economic ties between the two. Signs of the architectural brilliance of the period can be seen in the monuments and stupas at the Changu Narayan Temple, near Bhaktapur, and in the old town of Kathmandu.
The rule of the Licchavis set a number of traditions that were to be followed many times over in later years:
- Hindu rulers, with claims to high-caste origins in India, ruling over a population a large part of which was neither Hindu nor Indo-Aryan in origin.
- The nature of the dynasty’s origin, and continued relations with kingdoms in India, also meant that Indian influence on Nepal’s culture persisted.
- This was also the first time when the Valley made use of its strategic position between two much larger regions and saw prosperity through trade with Indian and Chinese people.
The rule of the Lichhavis was followed by that of the Thakuris, who claimed Rajput origins. The first Thakuri ruler is believed to be Amsuvarman, who succeeded his Lichhavi father-in-law and ruled from 605 to 621 CE. After his reign, the Lichhavis continued in power, till Raghava Deva regained power for the Thakuris in 879 CE. This also marked the beginning of the Nepal Era lunar calendar, still followed by the Newar people.
Interestingly, Amsuvarman’s daughter Bhrikuti, whom he got married to the Tibetan king Songsten Gompo, is supposed to have played an instrumental role in getting Gompo converted to Buddhism. This single event was the chief catalyst for the religion’s spread across Tibet.
The rule of the Thakuris, and some other clans and sub-clans, continued till the late 12th century, but the records from this period are surprisingly few, even though this period is known for a number of major events. For instance, the Thakuri king Gunakamadeva, who ruled from 949 to 994 CE, is credited with establishing Kantipur, the precursor to modern-day Kathmandu.
This veritable ‘dark age’ came to an end with the rise of the Mallas at the end of the 12th century, which also marks the beginning of the Middle Period in the history of Kathmandu Valley.
The Malla clan, whose name means ‘wrestler’ in Sanskrit, are believed to have been forced out of India, and find mention in Hindu and Buddhist literature of the time. Ari Malla was the first king to establish his rule in the Valley in the 12th century, ushering in a period of relative stability that lasted till the late 15th century.
An important difference between the Licchavis and the Mallas, both of whom were devout Hindus, was that the former had a more egalitarian approach when it came to their interaction with non-Hindu subjects, while the latter were more stringent in imposing Hindu values and social codes on all subjects. This was particularly true for the regime of the great Malla king Jayasthiti, who ruled from 1382 to 1395. Jayasthiti Malla also united the Valley, codified its laws, which included the caste system.
The first half of the rule of the Mallas, which lasted till 1482, was marked by a devastating earthquake in 1255, decimating almost one-third of the population, and a Muslim invasion from Bengal less than a century later, which, though brutal for the still recovering region, did not leave a lasting Islamic impact. This was also the period when Nepal exported the design of the pagoda to Buddhist Lhasa and Mongol Beijing, leading to a profound change in the temple architecture of Southeast and East Asia.
Jayasthiti’s grandson Yaksha Malla divided the Kathmandu Valley into three independent principalities for his sons in 1482: Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu. This division of the Valley led to periodic struggles for control of the surrounding hill areas and the lucrative trade routes with Tibet, marking a period of greater instability, and counter intuitively, more prosperity, that lasted for the next 300 years.
Taleju Temple at Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu
(By Manjariz – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, wikimedia
A beneficial aspect of this perpetual state of rivalry was that it found expression in art and culture, financed by a long period of prosperity as a result of the trade in products like wool, silk, salt and musk with Tibet. Gilded pagodas, ornate palaces, and some of the most prominent existing landmarks of Kathmandu, like the Hanuman Dhoka complex (built under Pratap Malla, who ruled 1641 to 1674) or the Kumari temple (built under Jaya Prakash Malla, 1736-1746, 1750-1768) all flourished in this competitive climate. The Malla kings proclaimed themselves to be reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu, and the ever-increasing religiosity of the kings was very likely a way to shore up their positions in the eyes of their subjects.
Bhaskar Malla of Kathmandu (r. 1700-1714) dressed in Mughal style (Source: Wikipedia)
This period also saw influence from the Mughal rule in India, not just in the artistic and sartorial areas, but also in the practice of Persian terminology for administrative work, use of firearms and the introduction of a system of land grants in exchange for military service. To balance this Indian influence, the three Malla kingdoms began sending presents to the Qing ruler in Beijing, who began to look at Nepal as a tributary state thereafter.
While the Mallas were the longest ruling dynasty of Nepal, being in power for almost 600 years, the second half of their rule was also marked by the existence of many smaller principalities spread on both sides of the Valley. Most of these ruling families had fled to Nepal after the Muslim invasions in India, and claimed high-caste Hindu origins and, in some cases, ancestral relationships with the Malla clan too. Among these almost 50 independent and semi-independent principalities, one that had a real lasting contribution were the Khasas, or Western Mallas, who rose to prominence in the 13th and 14th centuries and were based in the far west. The Nepali language that acts as a binding force in the country today was a product of this kingdom.
Most of these realms minted their own coins and maintained standing armies. A delicate balance between these principalities and the three Malla ones in the Valley lasted for an impressively long period, before a leader rose in the tiny hilltop kingdom of Gorkha, located about 100 km east of Kathmandu. And thus came the end of the Malla rule, beginning the next chapter in Nepal’s history.
Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of Gorkha, had realized that the continued existence of so many small rival principalities was unviable and launched a long campaign, lasting more than 25 years, to displace the Mallas and unify Nepal. Finally, in 1768, on the day of the Indra Jatra festival, he was able to seize control of Kathmandu, establishing the Shah dynasty, which claimed descent from the Rajput royal family of Chittor in Rajasthan, India. Prithvi Narayan, thus, became the first ruler of a unified Nepal.
The Shah dynasty’s campaign to annex the principalities of Nepal continued after Prithvi Narayan Shah’s death in 1775, and went beyond the present borders of the country, into Sikkim, Kumaon and Garhwal, all the way up to the border of Punjab. Its insatiable army was halted only after it met with a defeat with the Chinese in Tibet in 1792. Its far-reaching borders, stretching from Kashmir to Sikkim, were also curtailed when it lost to the British in the fierce first Anglo-Nepali War, and the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli laid down the country’s modern boundaries.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah (Source: Wikipedia)
The few conflicts with the Gorkha army on this difficult terrain had made the British realize the futility of trying to colonize the country, and let it stay independent, with only a British resident posted at the capital. It turned out that these few British officials were among the very few foreigners who were able to set eyes on Nepal for a long time, as after the ignominy of the 1816 defeat, the country cut itself off from most foreign contact, all the way up to 1951.
Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for the Shahs to squander the goodwill Prithvi Narayan Shah had earned among the common people. Many nobles of Nepal had anyway been unhappy with the dynasty for making them cede their fiefdoms, but the later Shah rulers also alienated the general population with their rule, which was ineffective at best, and downright unhinged in the worst cases. Several members of the nobility tried to wrest control from the Shahs rulers, two of whom were minors when they came to power, with the Thapa family (1806-1837) and, more importantly, the Rana family (1846-1951) notable for the extent to which they succeeded.
The founder of the Rana dynasty, Jung Bahadur Rana, was a prime minister under Rajendra Bikram Shah, and was related to the Thapas. After a long series of intrigues and maneuvers, he was able to orchestrate the massacre of hundreds of the most important men of the kingdom at a festival celebration, and get the king to abdicate in favor of his son, Surendra Bikram Shah. Beginning 1846, the Ranas ruled Nepal in all but name, while the Shahs only remained the nominal heads, till 1951.
The rule of the Ranas was marked by intermittent steps towards modernity – a modern hospital, school and college in Kathmandu; abolition of sati and slavery; limited electricity and the first piped water system – but is identified more with the opulent lifestyle of the Ranas, stark in contrast to the medieval existence of a large portion of the common people, especially beyond the Valley. This was also the period when Britain formally acknowledged Nepal’s independence in 1923, and the kingdom, which had been known as Gorkha (after the original Shah principality), took up the name Nepal in 1930. By the time the 20th century moved to its halfway mark, India had gained its freedom, and China had experienced the Communist revolution and incorporated Tibet into its territory, making Nepal an important buffer zone between the two large nations. The time was ripe for another overhaul in Nepal.
1951 – 1991
Despite the Ranas’ unpopularity, and a simmering political movement against them inspired by the freedom struggle in India, the family had remained in power because of an alliance with the British. The departure of the British from India left the Ranas with no support. At the same time, the Shah family had stayed in Nepal as titular rulers, with no effective role, all this while. The then head of the family, King Tribhuvan, took refuge in the Indian embassy in November 1950, as part of a campaign to finally overthrow the Ranas. Around the same time, the Nepali Congress Party (NC), under BP Koirala, established a provisional government in Birgunj, a town on the Indo-Nepal border, and opened another front against the Ranas. With India’s intervention, a solution was found to the standoff, and King Tribhuvan returned to Kathmandu in 1951 to set up a new government, with members of the NC and the Ranas under him.
While King Tribhuvan passed away in 1955, the country continued its slow move towards democracy, by re-establishing relations with other countries, setting up a new constitution and having the first general election in 1959, after which BP Koirala became the prime minister. But, the persistent conflicts between the king and the government, made the cautious new ruler Mahendra decide that this new system didn’t suit the country, and dismissed the Congress government in late 1960, seizing real control instead of the ceremonial role that had been prescribed for him. In 1962, a party-less, indirect panchayat system was set up in Nepal, with the king appointing the prime minister and the cabinet, and keeping real power with himself.
After King Mahendra’s death in 1972, his British-educated son, Birendra, came to power, but the system didn’t see any significant change. The few impressive developments, like a massive increase in the number of schools or extensive road construction, were largely neutralized by a threefold increase in population between 1954 and 2004.
Meanwhile, rampant corruption and lack of accountability with the police and military forces fomented unrest among large sections of the society. It was around this period that a strong leftist movement began to take hold in parts of Nepal, seeking motivation from similar developments in countries like China, Vietnam and Cambodia. But, serious ideological differences also remained among the political class, reflected in the victory of the non-party system over the multiparty option in a referendum held in 1980.
King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah (r. 1972 – 2001) (Source: http://www.barbarapijan.com)
To ease off the building pressure, King Birendra still made an effort to liberalize the political system by permitting a direct popular election to the National Assembly, where members of even ‘illegal’ parties like the NC were allowed to contest on a ‘party-less’ basis.
1991 – 2008
Unfortunately, these half-hearted steps appeased no one. By 1990, as autocratic governments fell in many parts of the world, the coalition of centrist and moderate leftist opposition forces had managed to intensify the struggle against the existing system, called the Jana Andolan (people’s struggle) to such a level that the King had to give in, but only after violent reprisal didn’t work, and lift the ban on political parties, and appoint an interim government headed by NC’s KS Bhattarai.
A new constitution was promulgated in 1991, which provided for both a constitutional monarchy and a multiparty parliamentary system, and general elections were held in May 1991, with GP Koirala of the NC becoming the prime minister.
Girija Prasad Koirala, four time prime minister of Nepal (Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nepal)
Nepal’s woes didn’t come to an end though. The strong political divide across and within party lines, and ever-changing coalitions, led to prolonged instability and saw eight changes at the prime minster’s position in the next decade. Apart from the continued high rates of corruption and failure of the democratically elected government to deliver on its promises, this period also saw the unceremonious dismissal of a coalition government that had the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) as an important member. All these factors were instrumental in the rise of a more violent leftist group, CPN (M), in rural Nepal.
The shocking 2001 massacre of the royal family, which resulted in the death of King Birendra, and the perpetrator, Prince Dipendra, brought the remarkably unpopular King Gyanendra to power. His decisions to dissolve the government in 2002, and again in 2005 amid a state of emergency, only added to the growing impatience among many sections of the Nepali people. The Maoist insurgency, meanwhile, had grown into a full-blown civil war, and was causing additional strain on the already weakened economy.
In April 2006, after GP Koirala was elected to a fourth term as prime minister, a UN-mediated peace accord between the government and the rebels provided for temporary representation of the Maoists in the government, restricted the rebel army to camps, and required the army and the Maoists to confine a good part of their armaments to UN-monitored lock-ups. A new constituent assembly was to determine the extent of the king’s duties. This arrangement also fell through, when in 2007, the Maoists pulled out from the government, placing the immediate dissolution of the monarchy as a prerequisite for their involvement in any bargaining.
The monarchy was finally abolished, elections were held in April 2008, and the Maoists came to power, winning the majority under their new name Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
The next few years saw a repeat of what has become a patent feature of Nepal’s democratic system – unstable coalitions; and deep-running division over key policies, in this case the framing of the new constitution. The stalemate over the document was resolved in an unfortunate manner, when in a series of natural disasters – avalanches, landslides, floods, and eventually the catastrophic earthquake of April 2015 – prompted the different factions to sit together and finally approve the constitution in September 2015.
The new constitution, the seventh in Nepal’s history since 1948, proclaims the country as a federal democratic republic, with the executive rights resting with the Council of Ministers, and the President being the ceremonial head of state.
This has not meant that the country has finally moved to a perfectly peaceful path towards prosperity. As we noted at the start of this article, several ethnic groups continue to protest, often violently, the fact that their rights have not been protected in the new system.
The exact reasons for this feeling of under-representation in the democratic process, whether actual or perceived, find their origin in Nepal’s long history of interaction between the communities from the southern parts of the country (Madhesis) with the affluent communities of the Valley (Chhetris, Newaris and Bahuns). The Madhesis continue to have close relationships with communities from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India, and this often makes their integration into the Nepali way of life, whatever it might be, suspect. The hope for many of them was that, once the old system was overthrown, the traditional centralized way of policy making in Nepal would change in favor of a truly federal system that acknowledges the country’s extensive diversity. The belief that the new constitution does not grant them this has meant that Nepal continues to see often debilitating conflict.
The promulgation of the new constitution has only resulted in increasing polarization within the country, where instead of all factions uniting against the oppressive monarchy in the past, they now struggle against each other. But, in the light of much larger challenges faced by Nepal and its people, the bitterly divided groups will have to find a common ground to end the conflict and focus on development. The good thing is that a large part of the population, including in the Terai region, has shown that it is fed up of the decades of struggle the country has undergone, and are more interested in lasting peace.
One of the more immediate challenges faced by the country is to rebuild its infrastructure after the earthquake of 2015, which only compounded its already poor condition. Whether it is the monarchy and nobility that has been used to the good life, or the politician/government official, who transcends weak economic conditions to grab temporary power and wants to make full use of it within a short period, Nepal has had a long history of people at the top engaging in unrestrained corruption. Billions of dollars in aids have seen much of it siphoned off, with very little to show in the form of on-ground development. Controlling this deep-rooted corruption will take major effort.
(Source: World Bank)
If you look at Nepal’s GDP per capita, it might look worrisome in comparison with some of its South Asian neighbors. But, the thing to note is that its growth rate has improved in the last decade and a half. That it runs almost in parallel with a move towards greater democracy cannot be a coincidence. That is just one of the many benefits the country can reap from its slow, but assured, move towards democracy.
Geo-politically, Nepal has never been in a better position to benefit from its position – “a yam between two boulders” as Prithvi Narayan Shah, the unifier of Nepal put it. As China and India grow, both are eager to increase their political and economic influence in the region. While Nepal has traditionally been culturally and hence politically, closer to India, with the rising anti-India feeling, and the integration of the communist streams of thought into the mainstream, there has been a slight shift towards China in recent years. If it plays the balancing act well, Nepal, with its potential in areas like hydropower and tourism can benefit immensely. A well thought out FDI policy, as well as a judicious use of its natural resources, will go a long way in setting it on the path of development that China, and to a lesser extent, India have moved ahead on.
Finally, in Nepal, as things change, they tend to remain the same in many ways. As we learn from its history, dynasties changed, but their proclivity to derive validity from Hindu norms of the superiority of higher castes continued; the rulers continued to ignore the common man, especially outside the Valley; and infighting among the ruling class often led to their downfall. These cycles tend to last for shorter periods as the ruled grow more impatient with the ineptitude of the rulers. Also, as the industriousness of the large number of immigrants from Nepal to other countries shows, the people are desperate for opportunities, and willing to work hard to improve their lot.
This can be an opportunity for Nepal if the political class lets go of its parochial attitude and works towards a common goal. Because if it doesn’t, the country might be in for another period of shake-up.
Some of the popuilar Historical places to visit in nepal:
- Everest and the Trek to Base Camp – Located in Kathmandu Nepal, it is the highest mountain in the world, reaches 8,848 meters (29,028 feet) height.
- Pashupatinath Temple – Pashupatinath road , Kathamandu.
- Bhaktapur – Royal Cities, just outside of Kathmandu. Nepal.
- Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve – Baglung district of Dhawalagiri Himalayan range.
- Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve – It is located close to Kamaladi in Kathmandu.
- Parsa Wildlife Reserve – It is located in the south central lowland Terai of Nepal, close to Narayangadh.
- Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park – It is 12 km away from the centre of the capital city, Sundarijal, Nepal.
- Shuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve – Mahakali, Nepal.
- Sagarmatha National Park – Since there are no roads, so you have to walk from the nearest airport. It is 2 days from Lukla.
- Langtang National Park – Nearest city is Kathamandu. – Nearest city is Kathamandu.
- Khaptad National Park – Fly from Nepalgunj to Dipayal and from there you can take local buses for Silgadhi.
- Dakshinkali Temple Nepal – Bhimsen Marga, Kathamandu.
- Shechen Monastery – The monastery is located between Nangdo and Dzogchen Monastery.
- National Museum of Nepal – Chhauni Road, Kathmandu.
- Kopan Monastery – Kopan, Kathmandu.
- Lumbini – Near Bhairawa, Nepal.
- Durbar Square – Kathmandu Nepal.
- Swayambhunath Stupa – Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
- Boudhanath (Stupa) – Kathmandu, Nepal.
- Tibetan Refugee Camp – Pokhara, Nepal.
- Visit Namche Bazaar.
- Phewa Lake -Pokhara, Nepal.
- Go Underground at Siddha Gufa – Cave in Bandipur – it’s a 25-minute walk downhill to Bimalnagar.
- Devi’s Fall – Pokhara in Kaski District, Nepal.
- Hanuman Dhoka – Kathmandu Square.
- Bardia National Park – Bardia, Bheri Nepal.
- Begnas Tal – Lekhnath, Nepal.
- Rupa Tal – located in the pokhara-lekhnath metropolitian municipality.
- Temple of Tal Varahi – 10 minute drive from Pokhara, located on an island in the middle of phew lake, it can be reached by a boat from Varahi ghat.
- Bindyabasini Temple – Situated on a hillock near busy old bazaar of pokhara.
- Old Bazar – Pokhara Nepal.
- Kathesimbhu Stupa – Kathmandu, Nepal.
- Khawalung Monastery – Kapan, Nepal.
- Thamel – Thamel, Kathmandu.
- White Monastery – Kathmandu Nepal.
- Asan – Kathmandu Nepal.
- Phulchoki, Ryale Nepal.
- Taudaha Lake – Kathmandu District, Kirtipur.
- Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu Nepal.
- Dharan – It is one of the important sub metropolitan city in eastern Nepal.
- Annapurna Conservation Area, Buses and taxis are easily available from Pokhara to Jomsom which lies north to the Annapurna Conservation Area.
- Annapurna Conservation Area – Buses and taxis are easily available from Pokhara to Jomsom which lies north to the Annapurna Conservation Area.
- Sightseeing Tour around Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, Patan Nepal.
- Chitwan National Park – Chitwan lies southwest of Kathmandu close to the Indian frontier.