If you don’t believe in heaven, then visit Nepal.
This often repeated Napali phrase isn’t just a canned expression to increase tourism; it is a statement rooted in deep respect and tremendous beauty for the country of Nepal.
Your first sight of Nepal may leave you speechless, whether the great quantities of temples, churches, monasteries and other religious buildings, or the hustle and bustle in the streets and the number of people and animals socializing on every corner of the narrow cobble-stone lanes.
Slotted in between giant neighbors, Nepal's small space contains a staggering diversity of landscapes and cultures and forms a travel destination of legendary stature.
Nepal is a nation in between. Strung along the glittering length of the central Himalayas, its narrow breadth spans one of the most dramatic geographical and cultural transitions on earth. From the heat and dust of the Terai to the wind-scoured wastes of the trans-Himalaya, Nepal is both the buffer zone and the point of contact between the disparate worlds of the Indian subcontinent and Sino-Tibet. Its own character has been forged by mountain and jungle landscapes, Hindu and Buddhist religions, Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan ethnicities, and northern and southern architectural, artistic and culinary traditions. This is also a country straddling the space between medievalism and modernity, democracy and despotism, war and peace.
Long locked away from the outside world, Nepal is often found on the “must do” bucket lists for travelers, and the name Kathmandu alone is enough to make travel plans. The country is home to eight of the world's ten highest mountains, and since the mid-20th century the Himalayas have drawn adventurers to test their mettle on sky-scraping summits.
Fun Fact: The Nepal flag is the only national flag that is not quadrilateral in shape. It is made of two triangles. The triangles are said to represent Hinduism and Buddhism. They also represent the Himalayan Mountains.
The sheer scale of the Himalayas, formed from a collision between two huge slabs of the earth's crust-, is illustrated in one simple fact: the summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, is made up of limestone originally laid down in the depths of a turbid sea. The Himalayas stretch some 1,500 miles across Asia, from northern Pakistan to southeast China. They stop the rivers for a time, forming great lakes within the ranges.
Today, thousands of trekkers arrive each year to traverse the high-altitude homelands of Sherpas, Gurungs and Tamangs. The lower hills have become and adventure playground for climbers, kayakers, rafters and mountain bikers. There is more to Nepal than mountains. The country is speckled with palaces and temples, showcases for rarefied traditions in woodcarving, sculpture and metalwork. In the steady lowlands of the south, forests and vast expanses of riverine grassland are the setting for some of Asia's finest national parks.
Fun Fact: Himalaya means "Abode of Snow", and the mountains are sometimes seen as an embodiment of Himavat, the Hindu god of snow and the father of the goddesses Ganga, who takes the form of the River Ganges, and Parvati, the wife of Shiva. The abominable snowman, also known as the yeti, is a legendary apelike creature that is believed to frequent the high valleys of Nepal.
THE PEOPLE OF NEPAL
For such a small country, Nepal is diverse in its ethnic make-up, from ancient tribal societies to refugees from neighboring lands.
Nepal’s ethnic make-up is as complex and convoluted as its geography. The country is home to a grand tangle of languages, cultures and origins, wrapped around the high ridges and deep valleys. There are around 100 different ethnic groups, and a similar number of languages and dialects.
While the older generation in Nepal clings tightly to traditional customs and ways of living, the younger generation of Nepalese desperately wants to move the country out of its historical poverty and into the developed world. Traditionally, Napali people have lived on large plots of land and earned their livelihood through rice production.
Another big difference can be seen in the way some Nepali people view the “tourist attraction” of Everest. Sherpas (Nepali people from the mountainous region) have always been involved in escorting foreigners up the face of Everest. The younger generation sees this as a big opportunity. However, the older generation views it as disgraceful, since Mt. Everest is considered sacred.
The culture of Nepal is generally very warm and friendly. In Nepal, people refer to one another in familiar terms such as didi (older sister) bahini (younger sister), daai (older brother), and bhaai (younger brother).
Fun Fact: About 90% of marriages in Nepal are arranged and the bride and groom will usually not meet or see each other before the wedding day. Although, “love” marriages (choosing your own partner) are becoming slightly more popular.
Mountain People: In the northernmost mountain areas most of the peoples share a loosely Tibetan heritage and linguistic culture. These peoples are often known as Bhotiyas, derived from the archaic term for Tibet, Bhot, but they encompass numerous individual ethnicities, including the most famous of all Nepal's ethnic groups, the Sherpas.
The Tamang: The most numerous of all Nepal's mountain peoples are the Tamang. The men and boys traditionally dress in loincloths and long black tunics. In winter, they wear short-sleeved sheep-wool jackets, frequently with a khukri knife thrust in the waistband. Women wear above-the-ankle saris of home-made cotton and blouses adorned with ornaments and jewelry.
The Thakalis: Bridging the gap between Tibet and the Indian subcontinent, many of Nepal's mountain peoples have a long history as traders and middlemen.
The Sherpas: Of all Nepal's myriad ethnic groups, only one has found international fame, its name a byword of prowess and resistance to the rigors of the altitude in which they live. Many people are unaware that "Sherpa" is even an ethnicity, mistakenly believing that the word is simply the professional tag for high-altitude guides and porters.
Fun Fact: The first tourists to Nepal, equaled a total of 600 admitted in 1951. The number has since grown to an annual total of around half a million and tourism has become a cornerstone of the Nepalese economy.
Nepal's cuisine draws on influences from north and south and encompasses a diversity of dishes, from hearty mountain broths to delicate Indian-style desserts.
As with everything in Nepal, the local cuisine draws on influences from either side of the Himalayas, and then creates something distinctly Nepalese from these differing cultures. In wayside tea stalls and elaborate palace restaurants the length of the country there is a combination of influences from India, China and Tibet. Cuisine is often defined by altitude: the staples change as the continent rises towards Himalayan heights, from tangy Indian pickles and trace of Mughal influence in the Terai, to pounded barley and butter tea in the trans-Himalaya.
Because Nepali people believe that cows are sacred, they do not eat beef. The local cuisine is largely vegetarian. It is customary to eat and deal with food with your right hand. They use their left hand to wash themselves after being to the toilet. Note that most Nepalese eat with their hands, forks and spoons are not very common.
Nepal's distinctive architecture naturally draws on numerous influences from outside its borders, while at the same time maintaining an original style all of its own. Nepal's architecture runs the gamut from the wattle-and-daub of the steamy Terai to the rammed earth walls and poplar-wood roofs of the bleak Tibetan Plateau. Nepalese architectural designs are the product of the climatic condition of Nepal, influences from neighboring countries and religions. The architecture can be categorized into three styles: Shikhar, pagoda, and chaitya style of architecture.
Fun Fact: The yellow colouration smeared across the bone-white domes of the great stupas at Boudhanath and Swayambhunath is a wash of thin yellow clay which is splashed on to the monuments during festivals to make the dome resemble a lotus flower.
Shikhar style of architecture comes to Nepal from India. The unique characteristics of Shikhar style are the structure with several towering and tapering tops with golden pinnacles. This structure is constructed mainly using stone. Generally, this architectural design is used for Hindu shrines but there are also cases of structures with Buddha statues. The Mahabauddha temple of Patan is an example of Shikhar style of architecture.
Pagoda style of architecture is a result of the climatic condition of Nepal. The unique characteristic of this style is multi-storied, mainly constructed with bricks and clay, and wooden column to support the structure. An important part of this structure is Tudal, above the main entrance, which is carved with different subjects. All the woods used in this structure are beautifully carved to showcase the artistic creations.
The Chaitya style of architecture comes from the influence of Buddhism. The unique characteristic of this style is that it has a hemispherical dome at the base. Above this dome is the rectangular object painted with eyes and nose along with the third eye and then umbrella-like disc around the central single pillar and on top of that is the pinnacle. The dome consists of images of five Dhyani Buddhas and prayer wheels are installed near the dome which encircles the Chaitya.
The Durbar squares, which are the ceremonial gathering places at the heart of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, feature neat ranks of temples, and have planned cities that have grown around them in a tangle of alleys and overhangs. Newari urban dwellings are usually clustered around interlocking courtyards (chowks) terraces. Typically, the houses are two or three stories, and where the ground floor is not used as a shop or a workshop it remains unused with a low door flanked by two small windows. The walls are built of the small rectangular red bricks that set the color scheme of old Nepalese towns, while the windows are framed by intricately carved wood and shuttered with delicate latticework. The living area of a house is marked by a special window consisting of either three or five bays known as tikejayal.
ARTS & CRAFTS
Nepal has a long history of arts and crafts, from religiously inspired paintings and metalwork to traditional dance rituals and folk music. Reflecting Nepali culture, undergoing transformations that were influenced by religion, politics, social conditions, and events such as natural disasters, Nepali Arts has evolved immensely over the years.
Art, religion and daily life are inextricably intertwined in the Kathmandu Valley, where images of deities preside over local water taps. The valley's tremendous artistic wealth was created by its original inhabitants, the Newars, who drew on the rich cross-cultural influences brought in by successive waves of traders, pilgrims, religious scholars and refugees. Motifs were adopted from Hinduism and Buddhism, while stylistic influences came from india, China and Tibet.
Most works of art were commissioned by wealthy patrons, for donation to a temple or monastery. Portraits of people are rare, but the gods are all-pervasive, according to iconographic canons that dictate a deity's pose and appearance, down to the smallest details. Creativity was expressed in the general composition and the skillful rendering of fine details.
Fun Fact: Paints made out of mineral and vegetable dyes are still used on traditional thangkas, as well as an abundance of gold-based paint on the more valuable works.
The rise of Nepal's Tibetan carpet trade, from a cottage industry to the country's single largest manufacturing business, is an amazing success story. Over the past half-century the carpet trade has transformed from a self-help scheme for newly arrived Tibetan refugees to an enormous industry. By the 1980s carpet exports were generating a third of Nepal's foreign currency earnings.
As well as carpets, Himalayan wool is also used to create pashmina shawls, a modern fashion item which is steeped in the history of trans-Himalayan trade. The secret of the pashmina is its combination of feathery weight and great warmth. It is woven of the fine wool of the changthangi goat of the high Himalayas. The wool was traditionally carried down from the high valleys by traders and woven into rich cloth in way-station settlements. Its alternative name, cashmere, is drawn from the original location of the industry, Kashmir, and early agents of the British Empire often scoured the mountains in search of the tricks of the trade. Workers spin the thread and weave the fabric on special wooden looms, often combining it with silk to add sheen, luster and durability. Dyed in brilliant jewel tones or subtle pastels, this luxury fabric is now used to create all types of clothing.
“MUST-DO” CULTURAL EXPERIENCES:
Bisket Jatra: The biggest and most boisterous of the Kathmandu Valley's many festivals, this New Year's celebration is marked by the progress of a huge chariot through the streets of Bhaktapur.
Holi: The Hindu festival marks the coming of spring, and sees tourists and locals alike cheerfully doused with color.
Prayers in a Tibetan gompa: The rumble of drums, the sounding of horns and the clashing of cymbals opens the daily recitations of Buddhist texts in monasteries around Boudhanath and Pharping.
A meal in a bhojanalaya: Whether a plate of steaming momos or a platter of dal bhat with unlimited refills, a meal amongst the locals in a humble eatery offers an authentic taste of Nepal.
A Kathmandu rickshaw: A journey through the teeming alleyways of Kathmandu's old quarters on the seat of a rattling cycle- rickshaw is an essential experience- but don't expect to get anywhere very quickly.
Carpets and crafts: From Tibetan carpet weavers to Newari metalworkers, Nepal is home to myriad artisans plying ancient trades and crafting the exquisite artefacts on offer in the boutiques and craft shops of the Kathmandu Valley.
READ MORE ABOUT NEPAL
House of Snow: An Anthology of the Greatest Writing About Nepal - If you can only manage to read one book about Nepal, it should be this one. This impressive anthology contains writings from Sir Edmund Hillary, Dervla Murphy, Lakshmiprasad Devkota, Michael Palin, Jeff Greenwald, Muna Gurung, Prawin Adhikari, Niranjan Kunwar and many others. SHOP NOW
Mustang Bhot in Fragments – This book is an account of the two trips that Manjushree Thapa took to Mustang. It is a combination of history and geography, offering interwoven stories about the Himalayan country. SHOP NOW
Shopping for Buddhas - This book takes the reader on a journey from the mountains to the labyrinthine alleys of Kathmandu in search of the perfect Buddha statue. In his search he encounters various amazing characters who give him an understanding of the life and times of the people of Kathmandu. SHOP NOW
A Season in Heaven: True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu - This book deals with the history and culture of Asia through the true stories of travelers who have taken the hippie journey right up to Kathmandu in the 60’s. Interviewed were travelers who went looking for enlightenment and peace and discovered a world that changed their lives forever. SHOP NOW
The Tutor of History - Manjushree Thapa is Nepal’s preeminent contemporary writer in English. She examines contemporary Nepali society, the clashes of old and new ways, the problems of development and the industry that it has generated, gender issues and other issues facing the economically poor new democracy. SHOP NOW
Into Thin Air - There are lots of books about Nepal mountaineering expeditions, but Jon Krakauer’s recounts the disastrous Everest climbing expedition that the author was part of in 1996, in which eight climbers were killed. Krakauer recounts his involvement in the expedition and where his mind and senses let him down during his struggle for survival. SHOP NOW