For centuries, Nepal remained divided into many principalities. Kirats ruled in the east, the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley, while Gurungs and Magars occupied the mid-west.
The Kirats ruled from 300 BC and during their reign, Emperor Ashoka arrived from India to build a pillar at Lumbini in memory of Lord Buddha. The Kirats were followed by the Lichchhavis whose descendants today are believed to be the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. During this period, art thrived in Nepal and many of the beautiful woodcarvings and sculptures that are found in the country belong to this era. With the end of the Lichchhavi dynasty, Malla kings came to power in 1200 AD and they also contributed tremendously to Nepal's art and culture.
However, after almost 600 years of rule, the kings were not united amongst themselves and during the late 18th century, Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, conquered Kathmandu and united Nepal into one nation. Recognizing the threat of the British Raj in India, he dismissed European missionaries from the country and for more than a century, Nepal remained in isolation. During the mid-19th century, Jung Bahadur Rana became Nepal's first Prime Minister who wielded absolute power. He set up an oligarchy and the Shah kings remained the figureheads. The Ranas were overthrown in a democracy movement of the early 1950s.
After the 21st century Jana Andolan, in a historic vote for the election of the constituent assembly, the Nepalese people voted to oust the monarchy system in Nepal and June 2008 marked the end of the Shah Dynasty (the royal family). Now, Nepal is formally known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal and the first president of Nepal, Dr. Ram Baran Yadav was sworn in on July 23, 2008.
Nepal covers an area of 147,181 square kilometers, and stretches 145-241 kilometers north to south and 850 kilometers west to east. The country is located between India in the south, east and west and China in the north. At latitudes 26 and 30 degrees north and longitudes 80 and 88 degrees east, Nepal is topographically divided into three regions: the Himalayas in the north, the hills consisting of the Mahabharat range and the Churia Hills in the middle, and the Terai in the south. The elevation is varied in the nation with the highest point being Mt. Everest (8848 m) in the north and the lowest point (70 meters above sea level) located at Kechana Kalan of Jhapa District. The altitude increases as you travel south to north. In the north, temperatures are below -40 degrees Celsius and in the Terai, the temperature rises to 40 degrees Celsius in the summer. During June, July and August, the nation is influenced by monsoon clouds.
The population of Nepal is estimated at around 30 million. Nepal has an assortment of races and tribes, having varied culture and tradition; living in different geographic regions; wearing various costumes and speaking different dialects. The people live under quite diverse geographic conditions, from low land in the south, northwards through the middle hills and valleys, to the high Himalayan alpine patches.
Nepal is a developing country with an agricultural economy. In recent years, the country's efforts to expand into manufacturing industries and other technological sectors have achieved much progress. Farming is the main economic activity followed by manufacturing, trade and tourism. The chief source of foreign currency earnings are merchandise export, services, tourism and Gurkha remittance. The annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about US$ 39 billion.
Eight out of 10 Nepalese are engaged in farming and it accounts for about 40% of the GDP. Rolling fields and neat terraces can be seen all over the Terai flatlands and the hills of Nepal. Even in the highly urbanized Kathmandu Valley, large tracts of land outside the city areas are devoted to farming. Rice is the staple diet in Nepal and around three million tons are produced annually. Other major crops are maize, wheat, millet and barley. Besides food grains, cash crops like sugarcane, oil seeds, tobacco and jute are cultivated.
Nepal's climate consists of dry season (October to May) and the monsoon season (June to September). Nepal is at its most beautiful at the very start of the dry season, from September to November, when the monsoon leaves the countryside lush and green.
Religious practices are an important part in the lives of the Nepalese people. Mythologies of various Hindu gods and goddesses are found in abundance in this country and cultural values are based on the philosophies of holy books like the Gita, Ramayana, etc.
People visit neighborhood shrines at dawn to worship the gods. Holding plates of rice, flowers, and vermilion powder, women perform puja by lighting incense, ringing the temple bell, and applying 'tika', a red paste, on their foreheads. Passersby stop at temples and show their reverence to the gods by spending a few minutes praying. Occasionally, groups of men sit near temples playing music and singing hymns until late into the night.
In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism are the two main religions. The two have co-existed for ages and many Hindu temples share the same complex as Buddhist shrines. Hindu and Buddhist worshippers may regard the same god with different names while performing religious rites.
Many religions like Islam, Christianity and Bon are practiced in Nepal in addition to Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of the earliest inhabitants like the Kirats still practice their own kind of religion based on ancestor worship, and the Tharus practice animism. Over the years, Hinduism and Buddhism have been influenced by these practices, which have been modified to form a synthesis of newer beliefs. As a result, visitors to this country may often find the religious practices in Nepal difficult to follow and understand. But this does not prevent one from enjoying the different traditional ceremonies and rituals of Nepalese culture. It is indeed a totally new experience of religious fervor.