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Nepal is often characterised as a nation caught in two different worlds, having one leg in the sixteenth century and another in the 20th century.
PTI | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON FEB 01, 2006 06:22 PM IST

Land-linked between India and China, Nepal is the meeting place of central and south Asia, and as such is a country replete with tremendous cultural, linguistic, social, geological, and biological diversity.

Nepal is often characterised as a nation caught in two different worlds, having one leg in the sixteenth century and another in the 20th century.

At once a time machine and a magic carpet, Nepal sweeps you along crooked, ancient streets flanked by irregular, multi-roofed pagodas, stupas and stone sculptures, and into rooms cluttered with horror-eyed masks, spinning prayer wheels, trippy thangka scrolls and Tibetan carpets.

Muttered chants, esoteric tantric hymns and Nepalese music hang in the air, whether it be the twang of a four-stringed saringhi or the plaintive notes of a flute.

Art: The cultural heritage of Nepal, particularly contributions made by the Newar of Kathmandu Valley to sculpture, painting, and architecture, is a source of great pride. Hindu and Buddhist religious values have provided the basic source of inspiration to Newar artisans. The themes of most artistic works have been primarily religious; the lives of the gods, saints, and heroes and the relationship of man to society and to the universe are expounded in sculpture, architecture, and drama. In Kathmandu Valley some 2,500 temples and shrines display the skill and highly developed aesthetic sense of Newar artisans.

Music: Music and dance are favourite pastimes among the Nepalese. Religious ceremonies require the use of drums and wind instruments preserved from ancient times. Important in most religious and family occasions are devotional songs that have elements of both classical and folk music and that have been used by some contemporary musical revivalists in their attempt to bridge the gap between the two. The government-owned Radio Nepal broadcasts programmes in Nepali and English. The country's first television station, at Kathmandu, began broadcasting in 1986.

Food: Nepal's food is surprisingly dull given that it lies at the intersection of the two great gastronomic giants India and China. Most of the time meals consist of a dish called dal bhat tarkari which is a combination of lentil soup, rice and curried vegetables - hardly the makings of a dynamic national cuisine.

On the other hand, Nepal has adapted famously to Western tastes, markedly evident in Kathmandu's smorgasbord of menus: Mexican tacos; Japanese sukiyaki; Thai chocolate; Chinese marshmallows; onion and minestrone soup; borscht, quiche and soyburgers; and some of the best desserts - apple and lemon pies, almond layer cakes, fruit cakes - found anywhere in the world. To wash any (or all) of these offerings down, try a lassi (a refreshing mixture of curd and water), the locally produced beer or chang, a Himalayan home brew made from barley.

Awareness: Newspapers and periodicals are published in Nepali and in English. Newspapers are frequently sensational in tone and are poorly staffed and financed. Gorkha Patra, published by the government, occupies a commanding position in the Nepalese press. Nepalese newspaper readers rely on the foreign press, particularly Indian newspapers, which are flown daily into Kathmandu, for more sophisticated coverage of world and national news.

After 1960, King Mahendra required newspapers to obtain official clearance for all reports of political activity. Subsequently, the government increased its censorship, and in 1985 the publication of many newspapers was suspended. In 1990, reflecting the change in the country's political climate, freedom of the press was restored.

Social status: There was no doubt among observers that only an increasing flow of foreign aid and loans had kept Nepal from bankruptcy.

Yet there seemed to be little to demonstrate suggesting that the aid had alleviated mass poverty and uplifted the society as a whole.

Unemployment among the educated was partially addressed through the continued development of government jobs, but such development resulted in bureaucratic redundancy and, in fact, hindered economic development.

Furthermore, such a strategy had only a limited ability to reduce the mass unemployment and underemployment that typified Nepal's society.

Widespread unemployment and underemployment, which fuelled poverty, further were exacerbated by continued rapid population growth.

Despite a long-term and vigorous family planning programme, the population has been growing at an increasing rate.

The people: The large-scale migrations of Mongoloid groups from Tibet and Indo-Aryan people from northern India, which accompanied the early settlement of Nepal, have produced a diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious pattern. Nepalese of Indo-Aryan ancestry comprise the people of the Tarai, the Pahari, the Newar, and the Tharus--the great majority of the total population.

Indo-Aryan ancestry has been a source of prestige in Nepal for centuries, and the ruling families have been of Indo-Aryan and Hindu background. Most of the Tibeto-Nepalese groups--the Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Bhutia (including the Sherpa), and Sunwar--live in the north and east, while the Magar and Gurung inhabit west-central Nepal.

The bulk of the famous Gurkha contingents in the British Army have come from the Magar, Gurung, and Rai groups. The principal and official language of Nepal is Nepali (Gorkhali), spoken in the Tarai and the mid-mountain region.

Nepali, a derivative of Sanskrit, belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European family. There are a number of regional dialects found in the Tarai and mountain areas. The languages of the north and east belong predominantly to the Tibeto-Burman family.

These include Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Sunwar, Tamang, Newari, and a number of Bhutia dialects, including Sherpa and Thakali. Although Newari is commonly placed in the Tibeto-Burman family, it was influenced by both Tibeto-Burman and Indo-European languages.

In Nepal, a vast majority of the population is Hindu, but a small percentage follows Buddhism or other religious faiths. Hindus and Buddhists tend to be concentrated in areas where Indian and Tibetan cultural influences, respectively, have been dominant.

Almost all Nepalese live in villages or in small market centres. Outside of Kathmandu, there are no major cities. Smaller urban centres (Biratnagar, Nepalganj, and Birganj) are located in the Tarai along the Indian border, and Pokhara is situated in a valley in the mid-mountain region. In addition, a few townships--such as Hitaura, Butwal, and Dharan--have begun to emerge in the foothills and hill areas, where economic activity has developed.

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