The Kathmandu Valley
The valley of Kathmandu is a fertile plain some twenty miles long. It is densely populated with about 1,500 inhabitants per square mile. A trade and cultural center for the entire region and capital of Nepal, Kathmandu is the commercial and administrative center with a population of almost 400,000. It contains over 2,000 temples and shrines dedicated to a variety of religions and is home to many diverse peoples, indeed no less than 36 languages and dialects may be heard in its streets.
This ancient city has historically revolved around the Pagoda of Kasthmandap (The House of Wood). Located near Durbar Square in the heart of Kathmandu, this building marked the intersection of the area’s vital trade routes. Modern Kathmandu is actually two distinct cities with different styles of architecture. The “Old City” lies to the west and flanks the Tundhikhel, a large open field used primarily as a parade ground. The newer area to the east, where modern and western architecture is rapidly growing and new building surrounding the old and new cities and Patan across the river to the south, is expanding to form a very large metropolis.
To the west of Kathmandu, in the shadow of the Annapurna Massif, lies the small town of Pokhara. Its secluded subtropical valley is overlooked by the awesome Macchapucchare, or Fishtail Peak. Only open to outsiders for a very few years, the town’s growth has been fast and rather haphazard, but it is a confirmed favorite of travelers due to its serene lake and phenomenal views of the Himalayas.
The earliest inhabitants of the Nepal Valley were the Kirats around the 8th century B.C., but the later Newars provided the legends that have formed an integral part of the tradition of Nepal. Of paramount importance to Nepal’s history is Lumbinv, the birthplace of the Buddha. There exists definite archaeological evidence of very early Buddhist influence from the third century B.C. The first documented dynasty is that of Licchavi, which was founded in the 4th century A.D. These were a people originally from the plains of India and of the Hindu religion who created strong trading ties with Tibet and a vital commercial and cultural center in the Nepal valley.
The tenth to the eighteenth century, during the rule of the Malla dynasty, is known as the Middle Period. The first legal and social codes were introduced that were based on Hindu principles. Earthquake and invasion were to leave their scars in the 14th century, but the civilization with its walled towns, paved roads and already entrenched caste system was to withstand invasion by Muslim hordes, division and rivalry between factions and the rule of feudal lords. The Third Malla Dynasty in 1372 saw the dawn of a more settled and secure period. The arts of sculpture and wood carving flourished and territory was acquired, but on the death of King Tayasthiti Malla, division of the kingdom between his children soon caused further disruption and eventually war, which was to last for two centuries.
Sophisticated agricultural methods and new crops introduced during the 17th century improved economy and trade in Nepal. The Malla Dynasty had left a legacy of division resulting in the conquest of Kathmandu by the Shah rulers of Ghorka (located between Pokhara and Kathmandu). The new rulers, while expanding their base, clashed with Tibetan troops and asked for help from the British East India Company, who at that time (1792) were establishing British Rule in India. Help was too late in coming, however, and Nepal was invaded by Chinese troops who exacted regular tribute to the Chinese emperor which continued until 1912.
At the beginning of the 19th century a trade agreement was signed with the British. Nepal then steadily expanded its borders which resulted in disputes with the British. The “Treaty of Friendship” in 1816 actually resulted in loss of territory for Nepal and checked further expansion. In retaliation for this treaty (in which they had little choice) the Nepalese closed their borders to foreigners and established a standing army. Gurkhas, the soldiers of Nepal, were so impressive they have formed an important addition to the British Army through two world wars and many other fields of action.
During the year of 1846 Tung Bahadur Rana, an army general, took advantage of unrest at the palace and had himself declared the Prime Minister and later Maharajah. He established a century long oligarchy which was much influenced by England. Some reforms were instituted, but the standard of living of the rulers contrasted blatantly with the life of most of the inhabitants of Nepal.
After World War II many major events took place worldwide, some of which had profound effect on Nepal. India, freed of British rule, expanded its borders to the Himalayas. China annexed Tibet, causing a massive influx of refugees into Nepal. Tensions within the government between democratic and authoritarian factions and interference from India resulted in the removal of the despotic Ranas and the return, with India’s backing, of the rightful King Tribhuvan.
During the reign of his son, King Mahendra, a parliamentary system and a constitution were established but were terminated within a year (in 1960) as usurping the power of the monarch. A new constitution with limited powers and under the control of the sovereign was instituted in 1962. In 1979, under the rule of King Birendra, rioting broke out in Kathmandu and a referendum was ordered to determine a system of government. Elections were held and the constitution was amended, though the king was to continue to have a great deal of authority and to rule the people much as before.
The valley had for eons been the home of the gopalas, or cowherds, and of transient tribes. When the Mallas came to power in 1200, they brought their artisans and master builders who created the early monasteries, temples and houses which may still be seen today. Early Newar settlements were located on ridges, leaving valuable bottom land for agriculture. Houses were of tile and brick and the streets were paved.
During the 18th century the Gorkhas united Nepal and established their capital at Kathmandu. The medieval town they built is the core of the modern-day city. The labyrinth of streets and alleys has both an aesthetic and functional order with surprise glimpses of beautiful facades, fountains and statuary at every turn. The details are overwhelming where centuries of artists, carpenters, sculptors and builders have expressed themselves in every nook and cranny.
The center of Kathmandu, Durbar Square, has over fifty monuments and temples within its confines and during festivals is the place where the whole valley seems to congregate. Even when there is no festival the square teems with children, vegetable hawkers, farmers, sellers of cheap goods and the rickshaw and taxi traffic of the city.
To the west of the square is an area called Maru Tole where the 12th century Kasthamandap still stands. Originally a meeting place, it was subsequently dedicated as a temple to Goraknath, whose sealed statue rests inside.
Another place of interest in this vicinity is the Fagannath Temple, a 17th century building known for its erotic carvings. Adjacent to this may be seen a huge relief of Black Bhairav, a fearsome god of horrendous appearance supporting a headdress and garland of human skulls and holding in its three pairs of arms an array of weapons and a severed head.
At the northwestern corner of the square lies the Kot, an open courtyard where in 1846 the forefather of the Rana Dynasty, Tung Bahadur Rana, massacred a good percentage of the aristocracy of Nepal prior to overtaking the country.
Northeast along the ancient diagonal “road to Tibet” lies the commercial center of Indra Chowk, traditionally used by the sellers of textiles, now a kaleidoscope of every kind of product and produce. The four and five-story elegant though time-worn houses look down upon the mass of brightly dressed shoppers, and the smells of the spices and the songs of caged canaries assail the senses.
However one may try, it would be impossible to describe all the temples and towers, shops and markets and all the other wonders of Kathmandu. It must be experienced in all its color and variety and inimitable style.
The Mountain People of Nepal
For centuries the Nepalese people have scraped a living from the unforgiving slopes of the Himalayas. They have grown their meager crops on precipitous terraces and cut the stabilizing trees from the slopes for their fires. But only 10% of the land in Nepal is suitable for crops and the removal of trees has caused erosion to assume catastrophic proportions.
Land reform in the mid-1960s was largely unsuccessful, so that in 1976 cooperatives were organized though these, too, are slow to effect improvement. One successful aspect of Nepalese country life has been the frequency with which new schools have been built, resulting in a literacy rate of 25% as opposed to the previous negligible percentage.
The Himalayan Trust, financed by Sir Edmund Hillary (the first person to conquer Mt. Everest), has been responsible not only for the building of schools, but for clinics, hospitals and landing strips. The health of the mountain people with their poor diet and smoky and unsanitary houses has benefitted greatly from these facilities.
Rural poverty is a major problem in Nepal. Lack of food, medical care and adequate shelter and sanitation are responsible for the high mortality rate, especially among the children. Many hill farmers cannot produce enough food to feed their families and must spend part of the year looking for part-time work which is hard to find. One answer has been to migrate to the more abundant Terai, which is now showing the strain of excess population, or to India where the situation is not much better. Population continues to grow at a staggering rate despite much loss of life. The awesome terrain preludes exploitation of the mineral resources of the Himalayas and what industry exists in Nepal is mainly restricted to the Terai.
Centuries of tree removal for domestic fires and building have created an erosion problem which has resulted in the loss of much necessary agricultural land in Nepal. Work is being done both by the government and outside agencies to encourage the villagers to plant and tend trees; new plantations may be seen, often the work of school children, protected by wind-blown prayer wheels to ensure their strong growth.
Nepal is primarily dependent on India for trade, a necessity which sometimes causes unease among the population. India, together with China and to a great extent America and Britain, have provided aid in many spheres from family planning to road building.
Buddhism is the primary religion of the mountains, but many ancient beliefs predominate. A melting pot of many races, cultures, languages and religions, the Nepali people coexist in relative harmony though often quite isolated from one another, especially outside of the towns.
The best known people of the Himalayas are undoubtedly the Sherpas — a name synonymous with the Everest expeditions. These are a people of the high mountains and, while some have found prosperity as trekking guides and mountaineers, the majority are poor, raising yaks and goats and trading throughout the mountains from India to Tibet. They subsist on grain and potatoes grown during the short season and tea flavored with yak butter. The houses are small with little ventilation and no sanitation. They migrated from Tibet centuries ago bringing their animistic religion, their prayer wheels and banners, and establishing shrines of stone tablets. The unique headdresses of horns and fans may be seen during ceremonials, together with incredible masks and embroidered costumes, as the village invokes the protection of the gods and deliverance from demons for another year. Gifts of flour and butter are given and, over all, the sacred smoke of juniper pervades the village.
Another group of mountain people are the Thakalis who originally were salt traders plying between India and Tibet. This group has found a certain measure of affluence by expanding into many fields as organized family groups, pooling resources and knowledge to successfully run construction companies and businesses. Their villages are visibly more prosperous, some even have running water.
The Tamang, or Horse Traders, are small farmers who excel in carpentry and basket weaving. Their gompas (monasteries) are Tibetan in style and very numerous, though some of the more northerly Tamangs follow the Bonpo religion which actually predates Buddhism in Tibet. Polygamy is sometimes encountered, being heavily dependent on the financial ability of the man to sustain an extended family.
The people of the temperate middle hills are often referred to as Gurkhas (from the kingdom of Gorkha), but this does not denote a single ethnic group. Included in this designation are the Magars, hill peasants with a definite reputation for skill in warfare. Found throughout the hills of central and western Nepal, they are a Tibeto-Burman race which have adapted totally to their present location. The caste system exists in Nepal incorporating the Brahmans, Chetris, the occupational castes and untouchables much as in India. However, many deviations have occurred, many for pragmatic reasons and are quite acceptable in the society.
Tibetan influences on Nepal can be traced throughout its history, but the refugees seen in Kathmandu fled there when China annexed Tibet. Many Tibetans have relocated near Pokhara. The Tibetan community in Kathmandu numbers around 12,000. There are several Buddhist monasteries near the Bodnath and Swayanbhunath Stupas. Southwest of Patan is Jwalkhel, the largest refugee camp and a center for Tibetan handicrafts.