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Annapurna Mountain

Annapurna Mountain

Kathmandu Swayambhunath Temple

Kathmandu Swayambhunath Temple

Kathmandu Boudhanath Stupa

Kathmandu Boudhanath Stupa

Annapurna Peak from Pokhara

Annapurna Peak from Pokhara

Nepal the Himalayan State

Nepal

Rolling down from the highest, coldest mountains of the Himalaya to green hills and valleys and then to plains, Nepal is a country molded by its geography. Ridges and rivers split the country into small pockets of livable earth, connected to one another by tenuous roads, often impassable for parts of the year. Wedged between India and China, Nepal is located on the frontier of several civilizations, its landscape refracting their many cultures, all of which come together in the country’s political and social center, the Kathmandu Valley. A closed kingdom until 1951, Nepal now greets travelers with a rapidly developing tourism industry and the ubiquitous welcoming gesture of Namaste.

The Media

Nepal’s English media is nowhere near as developed as India’s. The Rising Nepal and the Kathmandu post are daily newspaper published in English. The Rising Nepal is essentially a governmental mouthpiece that comes out in Nepali edition as well. The Post is independent and focuses more on business; the differences are subtle. The independent is a weekly newspaper that lives up to its name. The monthly magazine Hemel covers South Asian issues intelligently and thoroughly. The international Herald Tribune, Time, and Newsweek are widely available in English-language bookshops in Kathmandu as are several Indian Papers.

Nepal has been infected with the same satellite TV craze as in India. So TV beams in the BBC or CNN, along with rock videos, Hindi films and American drivel. Nepal has several FM radio station, which broadcasts mostly English and a little Nepalese and Hindi music.

Food and Drink

Dal, bhat and tarkari is the startle food of most Nepalese as it is for people in large part of north India. Indeed, Bhat, the word for cooked rice is often used as synonym for khana. A great variety of rice exist in Nepal, ranging from the deliciously light basmati to the red rice that turns pink when cooked. Dhalo is a rice paste often eaten by poorer families. You will have to get away from the touristy restaurants if you want this bland staple for yourself. Food in Nepal is different from the Indian food, with the exception of some Tibetan dishes which have made on to their way on to their Nepalese dining table. Ravioli – like Momo and Thuppa are soup made with noodles are popular dishes. 

The most popular breads in Nepal are chapattis, identical to their Indian counterpart. Western food is also commonly served in tourist restaurants in Nepal. Nepalese don’t really eat breakfast but again tourist restaurants and hotels take care of this. As in India, vegetarians should have no trouble finding delicacies to their taste. Due to Hindu religious beliefs, buffalo meat is only served instead of beef.

Milk is an important staple food of the Nepalese diet. That is often served hot-handy, because it is saved to drink once it has been boiled. Yogurt is popular forms the bases for lassis, which are the same as in India, and a Newari delicacy. Chia (Tea) is served hot with lot of sugar. The coffee craze hasn’t hit Nepalese much. Fruit juice is yummy if overpriced and “cold drinks” are the widely available alternative to the tap water. Alcohol is consumed in Nepal primarily in the form of beer, which is locally produced and quite tasty (especially when cold) and Chang, a handmade Himalayan brew. Raksi is a stronger version of Chang that bears a resemblance to tequila in both taste and potency.

History

Despite being wedged neatly between India and China, Nepal has produced a history and culture that differ greatly from its neighbors and is as diverse as the land itself. The country’s insularity is closely correlated with the accessibility of specific regions. Thus the Terai lowlands were influenced by Indian culture and history. The central hills and the muffin-tray of mountain valleys, including Kathmandu, have tended towards independence but not isolation, and in the heart of the mountains, life has progressed without much outside influence at all.

Much of Nepal’s early history is shrouded in myth and mystery. Stone-age settlers probably arrived around 200,000 BC, but things get hazy after that. In 543 BC, Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would be Buddha, was born in the Terai. Three hundread years later, the Buddhist emperor Ashoka came to the land that spawned the man who spawned his faith, installing one of his famed pillars at Lumbini and leaving behind a daughter, Charumati, to found the village of Chabahil, in the Kathmandu Valley. It is that valley which is the historical heartland of Nepal and the source of its greatest cultural traditions. Most of what is known of Nepal’s early history comes from the Kathmandu Valley, and the name “Nepal” originally referred only to the valley. The early kingdoms of Nepal never expanded far, however, content to guard their strategic position and control the closest adjacent lands.

The Kiratis, a dynasty of northern Mongol ancestry, may have ruled the Kathmandu valley during the first millennium BC and introduced Buddhism to the area.

A new dynasty emerged from the Kathmandu Valley in 1200 when the Mallas came to power. Though their beginnings were shaky, they ushered in the best years of Kathmandu valley culture and ruled for over 500 years. Unlike earlier Hindu kings the Mallas imposed Hindu laws on the valley, dividing the Buddhist Newaris into 64 occupational castes. After 1492, the kingdom was divided between his three children. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur became rival city-state, and internal competition sharpened the Malla family. All three kingdoms reached new heights in urban planning and art – the great wooden screened temples and cobbled Durbar squares of the valley date from this time.

The small hill state of Gorkha, 50 kms west of Kathmandu, was under the rule of the Shahs, the most ambitious of the many immigrant Rajput clans that had come to western and southern Nepal between the 14th and 16th centuries, driven out of India by Muslim invaders. In 1742 King Prithvi Narayan Shah ascended the throne of Gorkha, and within two years he set out to conquer Nepal’s richest region, the Kathmandu Valley. After a 25 year war of attrition, the three cities surrendered. Prithvi Narayan Shah did not stop at Kathmandu; his Gorkha army proceeded to conquer the eastern Terai and Hills. Soon Prithvi Narayan implemented the closed-door policy that would keep Nepal isolated until the 1950s.

Eventually in during mid 18th century, there was hostility with the English East India Company which led to war. Although Nepal could not defeat Britain, the Anglo-Nepalese War was not the easy victory the British expected. In spite of superior numbers and weaponry, the British were routed by Nepalese soldiers, who held their hilltop forts and charged with their Khukuri knives. It took the British two years to break through and defeat Nepal. The treaty of Seagauli imposed in 1816 defined Nepal’s boarder.

The years following the war with British saw little progress. Finally on 14th September 1846, a powerful minister was murdered. When the queen assembled the entire royal court in the Kot (army headquarters courtyard) to find the culprit, the personal guards of General Jung Bahadur, the cabinet minister for the army, surrounded the Kot and opened fire, killing thirty-two of Kathmandu’s most powerful nobles. During the next few hours, after a secret agreement, the queen appointed Jung Bahadur prime minister.

Jung Bahadur took the title of Rana and under this name his family would keep its iron grip on Nepal for 105 years. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 was a chance for Nepal to flex its muscles and also win British support. Jung Bahadur sent 10,000 men to aid the British, and in return the British gave back the Terai lands they had taken in 1816. The British befriended Nepal, and especially the Rana regime. Indian Independence in 1947 gave Nepal a new neighbor to deal with. In 1947 Nepali congress was formed and democratic forces started raising their voice. The king, the prime minister and Nepali Congress leaders met in Delhi where Nehru engineered the Delhi compromise of 1951. The Rana regime was over. The king would now preside over a government of Ranas as well as popularly elected leaders.

Religion in Nepal

Nepal’s Religions mixture reflects its position as a cultural crossroads between India and Tibet. Although theirs is the only country in the world with Hinduism as its state religion, most Nepalese follow some mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, with plenty of local traditions thrown in for good measure. Asked if they are Hindu or Buddhist, many Nepalese will say they don’t know or they’re “both”. The fact that the Nepalese can at once follow 33 million Gods and religion that originally recognized no gods at all baffles many visitors, but it seems to work nonetheless.

In general, the mountainous northern regions of Nepal close to Tibet tend to be Buddhist, while the Terai lands close to India are Hindu. The hilly areas in between (including the Kathmandu Valley) have gone the furthest synthesizing the two.

Hinduism

Hinduism first came to the Kathmandu Valley and other parts of the Nepalese hills around the 4th - 5th Century AD, with the advent of the Licchavi dynasty. Also, because Hinduism was introduction to the hills by conquerors, it has long been Nepal’s religion of status; Brahmins and chhetris have long been at the top of the social hierarchy. Various Nepali Hindu Legal reforms long ago tried to work the lower-class Buddhists into an occupational caste system; the practice has taken hold socially, although few Buddhists truly recognize the legitimacy of a caste system.

Shiva is perhaps the most popular Hindu god in Nepal; he is a fitting lord for this mountainous land, since he began his career as a Himalayan wanderer. He commonly appears in Nepal as “Bhairava” or “ Bhairab”, a terrible ghoulish figure who chases away demons, but he is also referred to as Mahadev and worshipped out of love as the benevolent lord of animals, Shiva is Nepal’s patron deity, and Nepal is often referred to as Pashupatinath Bhumi (“Land of Pashupatinath”). The temple of Pashupatinath near Kathmandu is the most important Hindu site in Nepal.

The god Vishnu is also the object of a large devotional cult. A cosmic “preserve”, Vishnu has repeatedly stepped in to save the universe from calamity. In Nepal he is often called Narayan; this name of Vishnu comes from his role in the Hindu creation myth, in which he sleeps on the cosmic ocean while the creator god, Brahma, sprouts from his navel. As in India, the goddesses are worshipped in Nepal, and Nepal’s grandest festival, Dasain, is held in honor of Durga. Nepal also holds a special for Annapurna, goddess of abundance and distributor of food and grain. The goddesses are all considered separate individuals but as consorts of the male deities each also embodies the female aspect of each god. Due to the Tantric influence in Nepal, This female Shakti is often considered as the more powerful and active force in the cosmos.

Buddhism

Lumbini, where Buddha was born about 560 BC, is within the borders of present day Nepal. Although Siddhartha Gautama left Lumbini and spent most of his time in India, his doctrines eventually returned to the land of his birth, spreading much further in the country than the Terai area where he was born. Buddhism is now one of the country’s main religious traditions.

Buddhists in Nepal follow the Mayahana School, which differs in many ways from the Thervada School. The Mahayana school developed as a popular new sect around the first century AD and came to be pre-dominated in India, Tibet, and other parts of East Asia. The more orthodox Theravada school continued in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia. While Buddhism in India was subsumed by Hinduism, a particularly Indian-influenced Mahayana Buddhism remained in Nepal, which is what is practiced today. The Northern mountainous areas of Nepal have strongest Buddhist traditions, while in the hills a Hindu-Buddhist synthesis is more common.

Mahayana Buddhism initially developed after a disagreement over the Vinaya in the Buddhist communities. The Mahayana doctrines de-emphasized the individual quest for nirvana and instead stressed the need for acquiring compassion for all beings. One of these doctrines was the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom. Furthermore, the Buddha became no longer just an enlightened human being in the Mahayana Tradition; instead of he becomes a cosmic bodhisattva having many incarnations or emanations. A bodhisattva is one who vows to put off his enlightenment for the sake of saving all sentient beings, a concept which plays an important role in the Mahayana tradition unlike in the Theravada tradition, which emphasizes the individual attainment of nirvana. A number of bodhisattvas are worshipped along with the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism. 

Tibetan Buddhism

A unique form of Buddhism developed in Tibet, where Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist tradition were mixed with the indigenous religion, Bon. Even though Buddhism was brought to Tibet through Nepal, the Tibetan tradition has in turn influenced Nepal, and due to the occupation of Tibet by China there are many actual Tibetan Buddhists around as well. Prayer wheels and prayer flags, used to blow the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum over the mountaintops, are ubiquitous. The beliefs of the Tibetan Buddhism, though different rituals and imagery are used. The Buddha is divided into five aspects: the Dyane or meditating Buddha’s, who represent the Buddha, reflected in each of the elements (earth, water, air, and space). Tibetan Buddhism is also noted for its monastic tradition; it is estimated that before the Chinese invasion. 25% of Tibetans belonged to some religious order. Of the 6000 Tibetan monasteries that were once in Tibet, only a few remains. The rest were destroyed in the Chinese occupation. Tibetan Monasteries are headed by the teachers called lamas, addressed by the title Rimpoche (precious one), who are believed to have cultivated wisdom over many lifetimes, transmitting their realization to each reincarnation. The reincarnation of a lama is usually identified by means of astrology, consulting the Tibetan oracle, and also by having the young candidates identify the former lama’s possessions.

Tantra

Some forms of Tibetan Buddhism are classified as Vajrayana; another sect apart from the Mahayana and Theravada schools. The major symbols of Vajrayana are the vajra or dorje and ghanti, representing the male element of compassion and the female element of wisdom. Vajrayana has inherited much of its cosmology from the tradition of Tantra, a medival cult in eastern India that worshiped the female power of Shakti. The Hindu Tantric tradition espoused a non-dualistic philosophy and used specific methods to help people go beyond dualistic thought. Polar opposites were no longer seen as external objects opposed to one another. They were, rather, seen as the dual manifestations of consciousness. In this light, the true nature of desire and mind could be realized by transcending opposites. Thus, in the Tantric Tradition in India, there were rituals which prescribed the usually proscribed eating of meat, fish, and parched grain, the drinking of alcohol, and the enjoyment of sexual intercourse as means of transcending dualities.

There is much that Tantra has in common with the Hindu traditions of Shakti and yoga, and it may be more proper to say that it is a different religion altogether.  From the 7th through the 9th C in India, Tantra became quite popular throughout India as a part of both Hinduism and Buddhism. In line with its thunderbolt-and-bell symbolism, scared gestures, pattern, and mantras, Vajrayana Buddhism couples the Dyane Buddha’s and the major Bodhisattavas with Tanras, female consorts who have much more power and strength. These figures are often depicted engaged in sexual intercourse, symbolic of the harnessing and reconciliation of dual energies.

Indigenous Tradition

Aside from the great religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, Nepal has its own collection of indigenous deities. Hindu and Buddhists both worship these local gods, regardless of the religion they claim to follow.

In the Kathmandu Valley a unique practice persists in the worship of the Kumari, a young girl recognized as an incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Durga. The chosen living goddess stays secluded in a palace for her entire childhood until she reaches puberty or sheds blood, when she reverts to the status of a mortal. The Newaris also worship Macchendranath, the god born of a fish who is identified both with Lokesvara, Shiv’s form as “Lord of the World”, and Avalokitesvara, a bodhisattva. Macchendranath’s towering chariot makes his festivals pretty conspicuous. The Newari crafts men of the Kathmandu Valley have also turned the hero Bhima from the Mahabharata epic into their patron deity. Also prominent in the valley is Manjushri, the valley’s creator god, who is associated with the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati. Manjushri used his sword to cut into the valley wall and drain out its primordial lake; he continues to use it to slice through ignorance.

Outside the Kathmandu Valley various ethnic groups preserve many of their local beliefs in spite of the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism. In general, these larger religions have taken charge of good and evil, right and wrong and other such concerns, while local gods are worshiped in order to ask for good harvests and healthy children. Animal sacrifices to the gods are common. The leaders of many of Nepal’s local religions are shamans, who mediate between the human and supernatural world.

The Arts

Visual Arts

In art, as in many things, Nepal has long been at the intersection of various influences often trading artwork with India and Tibet, absorbing their styles in the process. But whatever Nepal has taken from other countries it has adapted into styles of its own. The Newari artisan caste of the Kathmandu Valley is largely responsible for this. Art in the Terai has been very closely connected to India. The Kathmandu Valley, however, has produced one of South Asia’s greatest regional styles. Unfortunately, many made of wood and other short-lived materials. But many of the valley’s masterpieces nevertheless remain, still found in their original setting. Much like Indian art, Nepalese art has generally been inspired by religion, executed by anonymous craftsmen, and paid for by kings. In Hindu temples especially, originality was not the point; a temple was meant to approximate a cosmic ideal.

Architecture

The oldest remaining structures in the Kathmandu Valley are Stupas, scared mounds of the earth layered with plaster through the ages. Stupas usually mark Buddhist holy places or enclosed relics, but being large hemispherical bumps, they are not very interesting architecturally. Nepalese Stupas, typified by the Kathmandu Valley’s gargantuan Boudha Stupa, have distinctive symbolism on the square, golden spire at their top; these Chakus are usually painted with the eyes of Buddha, surveying the four cardinal directions, and a number “1” to represent the unity of all things. Stupas are usually accompaind by Chaityas, small stone shrines that contain mantras or pieces of scripture.

The Kathmandu Valley’s greatest architectural achievements have been the wood and brick pagodas, which may have evolved from elaborated Chakus found in Stupa Architecture. Nepal is viewed as the birthplace of the pagoda; a 13th Century architect named Amiko is said to have exported the Pagoda to Kublai Khan’s China, from where the rest of Asia adopted it. Most of Nepal’s pagodas are Hindu Temples, built around a central sanctum housing the temple’s deity. This sanctum is made of brick, with intricate carved wooden doors, window frames, and pillars. The pillars and struts on the outside support the multitier, sloping square clay-tile roof. The upper portions of the temple are not separate stories; they are left deliberately empty, since nothing should be above the deity. The whole structure usually sits on a multi-level stone base with terraces, often resembling a step pyramid. 

The Newaris also planned and built bahals, blocks of rooms around rectangular courtyards. These compact community units formed monasteries or blocks of houses in the cities. Bahals are designed to be perfectly symmetrical, with identical windows on the right and left sides; the main doors and windows usually appear along the central axis of the group.

Despite their xenophobic foreign policy, the Rana prime ministers, who reigned from 1846 to 1951, developed a fetish for the European Neoclassical look; parts of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square seem like they belong in Trafalgar Square. The Ranas Never Made this style of building popular, but with their change of taste they cut off patronage for many of the Kathmandu Valley’s traditional crafts, causing their decline. Modern architecture in Nepal consists of utilitarian brick and concrete block.

Sculpture

Early sculpture in the Kathmandu Valley was highly influenced by north Indian stone sculpture. Newari artisans of the Licchavi period made of devotional images of Vishnu and the Buddha that strongly resembled the work of the Mathura School, although they gave it a distinctly Nepalese rhythm. We know from written accounts that wood sculpture flourished at this time, but none of it has survived. 

Stone sculpture in Nepal reached its zenith in the seventh, eighth & ninth century but virtually disappeared after the tenth century. Metal became the medium of choice  for medival Nepalese sculpture, under the influence of eastern & southern India. In the 17th & 18th century Tibet began to influence Nepalese sculpture. Newari artisan made bronze images of tantric aspect of the Buddha, these were exported to Tibetan Monasteries & many bronze Sculptures usually identified as Tibetan actually made in Nepal. Nepalese artist of the Malla period also created fantastic wood sculptures, usually as architectural ornaments. Wood carving were used in temple roof struck & spectacularly ornate  wooden window grills which often depict plant & animal forms. 

In the last two centuries the craft of bronze casting, & wood carving in Nepal had declined due to lack of patrons. Foreign funded restoration projects have recently given sculptors some business, however, tourism has created some demand as well, although it encourages the mass production of cheap of low quantity works rather than the creation of master pieces. 

Painting

The earliest from the Kathmandu valley appear on palm leave manuscripts: A few of these have survived from as far back as 10th century. Not common in Nepal today are Tibetan Thankas, which are integrated scroll printing. During the medieval period a Newary style of Thanka emerged called a Paubha, painted on coarse cloth than a Tibetan Thanka & without the landscape background that Thankas borrowed from Chinese art. Late paintings in Nepal heavily influenced by the miniatures of the Indian Mughal & Rajasthani style. 

Music

Nepalese music is simply relegated to professional performance & cultural festivals; it flourished as much or even more in everyday life. Styles & occasions for performance are numerous as ethnic religion, religious & tribal identities. Some sounds are as culturally & regionally ground as the richest man planting songs of women in the fields, while reflect dialogue exchange with Indian or Tibetan musical culture. Hindu & Buddhists religious tradition provide inspiration & performance occasion for many style of music. The ritualistic music of the Sherpa’s & other Bhotiyas derive much of its characters from the ancient Tantric verses as part of meditation exercises, and on sacred occasions such hymns often accompany monks performing esoteric ritual dances. Bhajan, like a musical puja is a hymn version of sacred music.

The continued presence and influence of Indian classical music harkens back to the days when it was the rage in the courts of Malla Kings the Rana prime ministers were such zestful patrons of Indian classical musicians that they banned Nepalese folk performances from their courts.

Music of the traditional and ubiquitous Panchal Baja ensembles bring jubilant accompaniment to wedding, procession, and temple rituals. The Gaines, a caste of musician storytellers, accompanying them on the sarangi, spreading news between villages. Once patronized by local chieftains to recount their glories, these musicians’ repertories today favour Hindu sacred songs and epics, folk ballads and political commentary and propaganda.

Several traditional hill style of music still exists. Most popular is the Maadal-based music of the western hills. The Jyapu farming caste developed an upbeat rhythmic style involving many percussion instruments, including the dhime and the use of woodwinds to accompany nasal singing. The selo style, originally of the Tamangs, but happily shared by others, keeps gregarious beat with the damphu.

Dance

Nepalese dance, be it folk or classical usually concerns the dramatic retelling of sacred stories from Buddhism and Hinduism. The Newaris of the Kathmandu Valley are the chief exponents of classical dance, with elaborate festive mastered dances. Newaris performances enter into a trance to become vessels for the embodiment of gods. Sporting elaborate costumes and omately painted paper masks; they gyrate and gesture with emotion and precision. On the 10th day of the Desain festival Naua Durga dances of Bhaktapur perform the region dance-drama of goddess Durgas’ victory over the buffalo demon. During the Indra Jatra festival, troupes of all kinds perform Sawo Bhaku sword dance, which represent the demon Lakhe and various incarnations of Vishnu.

The ritualistic pulse of Tibetan Buddhism also emerges music, dance and dramatic forms in festivals, ceremonies and scared rites.

Map of Nepal

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