Sunday, October 9, 2011

Passport Series: Nepal: Part 1: Country Background

This month’s Passport Series focuses on Nepal! Nepal is the birthplace of Buddhism and home to the tallest mountains in the world! Follow us throughout the month of October as we learn about Nepal’s background, its microfinance sector, and Kiva’s presence within its borders.


The first civilizations in Nepal existed around the 6th century B.C. , and were confined to the fertile Kathmandu Valley where the present-day capital of the same name is located. UNESCO declared the Kathmandu Valley a World Heritage Site as of 1979. The modern nation of Nepal, as we know it today, did not exist until the middle of the 17th century, when the many separate kingdoms in the region unified under the Shah Dynasty.

A glimpse of the Himalayas from Kathmandu: Photo Credit - Claudine Emeott

Nepal was ruled by monarchies through out most of its history. The mid-20th century began an era of moves towards the democratisation of Nepal. The 1990s brought the Nepalese Civil War (1996–2006), a conflict fought between government forces and the insurgent forces of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The situation for the Nepalese monarchy was further destabilised by the 2001 Nepalese royal massacre, in which Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed ten people, including his father King Birendra, leaving the throne to his younger brother.

In 2008, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly formally abolished the kingdom, declaring in its place the establishment of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. The Communist Party won the largest number of seats in the Constituent Assembly election held that year. Nonetheless, political tensions and consequent power-sharing battles have continued in Nepal to this day.


Map of Nepal: Photo Credit - CIA World Factbook

Nepal is a landlocked country that lies between India and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China. Nepal is made up of three main geographical areas: the Mountain Region, the Hill Region, and the Tarai Region. All three parallel each other, from east to west, as continuous ecological belts, occasionally bisected by the country's river systems. The Tarai region is located along the country’s southern border, and is partly forested, partly cultivated. North of the Tarai, Nepal’s landforms rise into the hill and mountain ranges, including the the towering Himalayas, ultimately reaching the Tibetan Plateau. Nepal’s Himalayan range includes Mount Everest (29,035 ft; 8,850 m), the tallest mountain in the world, and many other peaks higher than 8,000 m.

A terraced hillside in Southern Nepal: Photo Credit - Claudine Emeott


Nepal's gross domestic product for 2010 was estimated at over $35 billion. Agriculture accounts for about 33% of Nepal's GDP, services comprise 53% and industry 14%. Agriculture employs 75% of the workforce, the services sector 18% and manufacturing/craft-based industry 7%. Agricultural produce – mostly grown in the Tarai region – includes tea, rice, corn, wheat, sugarcane, root crops, milk, and water buffalo meat. Industry mainly involves the processing of agricultural produce, including sugarcane, tobacco, and grain.

Hand-made jewelry in a Nepalese market: Photo Credit - Claudine Emeott

Nepal’s workforce of about 10 million people suffers from a severe shortage of skilled labour. About half of the population live below the international poverty line. The spectacular landscape and diverse, exotic cultures of Nepal represent considerable potential for tourism, but growth in this hospitality industry has been stifled by recent political events. In an effort to stimulate the tourist industry, Nepal's Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation has created launched an initiative known as "Nepal Tourism Year 2011". This national effort includes a large international marketing campaign and increased government funding to develop infrastructure such as airports and hiking trails.

A Nepalese woman harvesting coconuts: Photo Credit - Claudine Emeott

People and Culture

Nepal's population has grown from 9 million people in 1950 to 29 million in 2010. Nepali, is the official national language. It is derived from Sanskrit, and is written in Devanagari script. Buddhism was the dominant religion in ancient Nepal. Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who would later achieve enlightenment as Buddha and spawn Buddhism, was born c. 563 B.C. in the Kathmandu Valley. Starting in the 12th century, Buddhism largely gave way to Hinduism, reflecting the increased influence of India on the region. Today the overwhelming majority of the Nepalese population follows Hinduism and the Hindu god Shiva is regarded as the guardian deity of the country.

A shrine to Shiva and Parvati in Durbar Square, Kathmandu: Photo Credit - CIA World Factbook

The Newa are the indigenous people of Nepal and currently comprise about half the population of the Kathmandu Valley and 6% of the population overall. They speak Nepal Bhasa, a language belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family, but their culture has been strongly influenced by Indian religious and social institutions. The Newars are remarkable craftsmen. They developed the country’s unique building style that successfully blends influences from India, China and Tibet, with carved wood beams and pagoda-like temple roofs. Many of the old palaces and temples in Kathmandu are the work of Newaris and their rich traditions of woodcarvings and stonework continue to this day.

Folklore is an integral part of Nepalese society. Some traditional stories are rooted in the reality of day-to-day life, illustrating the diversity of cultures and lifestyles of the Nepalese people, while others tell tales of ghosts and demons, reflecting the spiritual and mythological world. Many Nepalese folktales are enacted through the medium of dance and music.

The eyes of Buddha gaze out over the dome of the Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu: Photo Credit - CIA World Factbook

Nepal's flag is the only national flag in the world that is not rectangular in shape. There are many explanations for the design of the flag; it has been said that the two right triangles originally symbolized the Himalayan Mountains but today they are understood to denote Hinduism and Buddhism. The color red is said to represent the rhododendron (Nepal's national flower) and is said to be a sign of victory and bravery, the blue border reportedly signifies peace and harmony. The moon is believed to represent the serenity of the Nepalese people and the shade and cool weather in the Himalayas, while the sun has been said to represent both the aggressiveness of Nepalese warriors and the heat and higher temperatures of the lower parts of Nepal.

Nepal’s national flag: Photo Credit: CIA World Factbook

Stay tuned this month for an exploration of Nepal's microfinance industry and a look at Kiva's work in this magical country!