Nepal's History and Religions

Nepal is a rich and complex mix of different cultures and traditions, melded over thousands of years into a unique whole. For the western traveler there is much that is familiar, and many surprises. Family and religion are of paramount importance, and are constantly reflected throughout the culture. Nepal moves to a different rhythm than the West.

The notes here are meant only to tantalize you into visiting this amazing place. Some book references are included at the bottom of the page, including our own book, Streets of Silver, Streets of Gold, a book of walks in historic Kathmandu.

Nepal's Historic Tradition - A Collision of Cultures

Kathmandu has long been a magnet to peoples, with it's highly fertile soil, pleasant climate, and ancient holy sites. Stone tools are occasionally found which make it clear that Man had discovered the ancient lakebed which is the Kathmandu Valley at least 30,000 years ago. It seems likely that many of the holy sites and local deities still worshipped were established by these peoples in great antiquity.

Little is known of these neolithic people today. The forces which shape modern Nepal arrive on the scene about 1,000 BCE, in the form of waves of immigration from the west and the east. In the west, the Khas, an Indo-Aryan people, probably related to the "aryans" who arrived in India 1,500 years earlier, settled in western Nepal and had a capital or important city in the western part of the Kathmandu Valley.

Somewhat earlier Tibeto-Burman people known as the Kirat had settled in the East of Nepal, and had also arrived in the valley. Their state is mentioned in many old chronicles, and King Yelambar of Nepal is reported to have taken part in the the battle recorded in the epic, Mahabharata (possibly 8thC BCE).

By about 300 AD a dynasty of the Licchavi family had established itself in Kathmandu. The Licchavis were part of the waves of immigrants from the south, which were to continue for the next 1,000 years. In many ways this was the great flowering of Nepal, and the remaining artifacts of this time are wonders of craftsmanship and artistic merit.

After 500 years of Licchavi rule, a "dark" period occurs, of which records are very limited. This seems to have been time of stagnation and close cooperation with powerful States in northern India. From the 10th to 12th centuries local power began to assert itself, possibly again by intermarriage with immigrants the south and west; and by the 12th century the Malla dynasty arose. Destined to rule in "interesting times", the Malla Kings held sway for 600 years, though the Valley was often divided into warring states, with three Kings on the throne for much of that time. Most of the great architectural heritage of Nepal and amazing craft works in wood and metal dates from the Malla times.

Also in the 10th and 12th centuries, immigration from the north became an important part of Nepal's cultural mix. Early in that period the Sherpas moved south from the Tibetan Plateau and settled amidst the great mountains in Nepal's north. Two centuries later, the Tamangs, remnants of Ghengis Khan's cavalry, settled in the north and east. In recent years, Tibetans fleeing from the Chinese occupation have settled in the north of the country as well.

In the 18th century the Khas people of the west of Nepal, augmented and interculturated by immigrants from the south, united under King Prithvi Narayan, and in a series of politically and militarily brilliant manouvers he siezed control of all three "States" in the Valley and reunited Nepal. His dynasty ended in 2008 when Nepal became a republic. The last king of Nepal, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, luves in Kathmandu today as an ordinary citizen. The Shah dynasty rule was partially interrupted from the mid-1800s to 1951 by a series of hereditary Prime Ministers who dominated the Kings and exercised autocratic rule. The monarchy was restored in 1951, and Nepal has been a full democracy since 1990, except for a brief period of royal rule in 2005 and 2006.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the repeated influxes of people into Nepal is that it all happened relatively peacefully. Except for a one-week incursion of Moghul troops from India in the 14th century, there has never been an "invasion" as such. Instead, in what in hindsight seems typically Nepalse, each new group was incorporated into the society, enriching it and adding to the complex fabric.

Hinduism and Buddhism: 1+1=3

The religious structure of Nepalese society is formally Hindu; but here and only here the interplay of peoples and their religious traditions has produced a rich fusion of Hindu and Buddhist faiths. It is common for both Hindus and Buddhists to worship at the same shrine, for many gods and saints are cross-overs, often known by a different name but holding the same attributes.

The original inhabitants of the valley were animists, a tradition which survives in the multitude of spirits, demons, local deities, and stones which receive dutiful worship to this day. The Aryan groups from the west were probably responsible for the early Hindu traditions, worshipping the God Shiva in the manifestation of Pashupati, Lord of the Beasts.

The rise of Buddhism in India in the 5th through 3rd centuries BCE was to have a lasting effect on Nepal. Many Nepalese (thought few scholars) believe the Buddha himself visited Kathmandu. It is possible that Ananda, the Buddha's greatest disciple, visited the city of Patan, which even then was a cultural center. More certain is the 3rd century BCE visit of the Indian emperor Ashok to the birthplace of the Buddha southern Nepal. Several Buddhist reliquary mounds, called Stupas, in and around Patan date to that time and are attributed to him, probably in error.

Buddhism swept Nepal in succeeding centuries, and though the Licchavi Kings were Hindu, they paid respect to their heavily Buddhist subjects. Both Hindu and Buddhist traditions adapted from the pre-existing animist practices and from each other. Indeed, in the medieval period, when both religions' practice adopted mystical, Tantric traditions, they were almost indistinduishable.

But the continuing pressures of immigration from the south, who were mostly high caste Hindus and hence firmly wedded to the caste system, and of a Hindu autocracy brought worship of both Shiva and Vishnu to the fore; and by the time the Malla dynasty ascended (12th century), the heyday of Nepalese Buddhism had passed. Except in the north of the country, where Sherpas and other northerners maintained their Buddhist tradiiton, Nepal became a more overtly Hindu country, including the introduction of a highly formalized caste system in the 14th century.

By that time, however, the Buddhist influence was permanent. Even today many Buddhist groups live in the Valley, and the living Goddes of Kathmandu (whose annual blessing of the king was a deadly serious annual rite) is chosen from among Buddhist metalworkers.

The Nepal you will experience as visitors, and the temples, Stupas, and shrines you will visit reflect this complex heritage. Let us show it to you and help you to interpret what you see.

Book References

These are references to the country and to trekking. There are also many beautiful coffee-table books of pictures, but we think you can take equally good photos if you just come visit!

General Guides
All of the major guidebook series have a Nepal guide, and all of them are good introductions to the country. Excercise your taste: some people prefer the budget travelers' bible, the Lonely Planet series, and some like the upscale Fodor's series or the beautiful pictures in the Insight guides.

Trekking Books
There are two especially good trekking books: The Lonely Planet's Trekking the Nepal Himalaya by Stan Armington, and Trekking in Nepal by Stephen Bezruchka (The Mountaineers Press). Both have very detailed information about different trekking regions and routes, and both offer greater cultural insight than the general guides. The Rough Guide to Nepal by Dave Reed, while not quite a trekking book, has a lot of useful information for the visitor and is much more than a general guide.

About Nepal
John, the marketing director for Friends in High Places, has written a book of short walking tours in Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur: Streets of Silver, Streets of Gold.

Other books are hard to find outside Nepal, but we'll be happy to help you locate them when you're here.

Nepal Mandala - A Cultural Study of the Kathmandu Valley Mary Slusser
Ancient and Medieval Nepal Rishikesh Shaha
Ethnic groups of Nepal and their ways of living D.B. Shrestha and C.B. Singh
The Festivals of Nepal Mary Anderson
Gods and Goddesses T.C. Majupuria and Rohit Kumar
Fatalism and Development Dor Bahadur Bista