With its ancient culture and the Himalayas as a backdrop, the landlocked Kingdom of Nepal has for many years been the destination of choice for foreign travellers in search of adventure.
With the world's highest mountain, Everest, and spectacular scenery and wildlife, the country has become a popular destination for tourists.
It also boasts a distinctive Hindu and Buddhist culture. But it faces a number of environmental challenges such as deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats and vehicle pollution in the capital, Kathmandu.
In 1951, the Nepalese monarch ended the century-old system of rule by hereditary premiers and instituted a cabinet system of government.
Reforms in 1990 established a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. A Maoist insurgency, launched in 1996, has gained traction and is threatening to bring down the regime.
In 2001, the Crown Prince massacred ten members of the royal family, including the king and queen, and then took his own life.
In October 2002, the new King dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet for "incompetence" after they dissolved the Parliament and were subsequently unable to hold elections because of the ongoing insurgency.
The country is now governed by the King and his appointed cabinet, which has negotiated a cease-fire with the Maoist insurgents until elections can be held at some unspecified future date.
A short history of Nepal
The Valley of Kathmandu - inhabited originally by settlers from Tibet - became an important centre of Buddhist culture.
It was under control of Tibet since sixth century until the first principalities came to existence in the eighth century.
In the eleventh century the feudal Kingdom of Nepal was founded. In 1484, the joint rulers divided the state into three kingdoms, named after their capitals Bhaktapura (Bhatgaon), Banikapura (Banepa) and Kantipura (Kathmandu).
In 1546, an additional division created the kingdom of Lalitapura (Lalitapatan).
During the 17th century, Banikapura was annexed by Bhaktapura.
During the 17th century, Gorkha came into existence. The last ruler of Gorkha unified the Kingdom of Nepal under the Shah (Saha) dynasty in 1768. [The country is also frequently called the Gorkha Kingdom, the source of the term being "Gurkha" used for Nepali soldiers.]
Though it became a nominally tributary of China in 1792 (until 1908), since 1816, Nepal was a de facto British protectorate (which lasted until 1923).
In 1846, the Rana family gained power, entrenched itself through hereditary prime ministers, and reduced the monarch to a figurehead. In 1923, Nepal regained full independence.
[Nepal includes the Kingdom of Mastang, which was since 1380 under alternating suzerainty of Tibet and Jumla (in 1789 replaced by Nepal). The ties to Tibet ended in 1856, to bring Mastang formally under the suzerainty of Nepal. A treaty in 1961 confirmed its inclusion within Nepal.]
In 1950, the two leading opposition movements merged into the Nepali Congress. King Tribhuvan fled to newly independent India and the Congress staged a coup in 1950 against the Rana regime, which led to the formation of Nepal as a quasiconstitutional monarchy in 1951.
The royal family reassumed power and the monarch, assisted by the leaders of fledgling political parties, governed the country. During the 1950s, efforts were made to frame a constitution , based on a British model.
Between 1951 and 1952 and between 1953 and 1955, Matrika Prasad Koraila was prime minister. In 1959, under King Mahendra, the first democratic elections for a National Assembly were held.
The Nepali Congress Party - a moderate socialist group which won the elections - leader Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala formed the government, though eighteen months later, the king dismissed his government and appointed Tulsi Giri as prime minister.
The king promulgated a new Constitution in 1962. The new Constitution established a "party less" system of panchayats (councils) which the king considered to be a democratic form of government closer to Nepalese traditions.
[As a pyramidal structure progressing from village assemblies to a Rastriya Panchayat (National Parliament), the panchayat system enshrines the absolute power of the monarchy and keeps the king as head of state with sole authority over all governmental institutions, including the council of ministers and the Parliament.]
Mahendra was succeeded by Birendra in 1972. In 1980, after agitations, slight reformations of the panchayat system were confirmed in a referendum in 1980.
Protests that erupted again in 1990 were initially dealt with severely.
Later that year, the king dissolved the panchayat system, lifted the ban on political parties and released all political prisoners.
Lokendra Bahadur Chand of the Rashtriya Prahatantra Party (National Democratic Party, RPP] followed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai from the NCP formed interim governments. Nepali Congress won an absolute majority in free and fair polls in 1991 and Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister.
After the 1994 polls, the Nepal Kamyunist Parti (Ekikrit Marksvadi ra Leninvadi) (Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist], UML) with Man Mohan Adhikari formed a minority government.
The leaders of the Maoist United People's Front started a violent insurgency in 1996. The UML governments were followed by coalition governments led by Sher Bahadur Deuba (NCP, 1995-1997), Lokendra Bahadur Chand (RPP, 1997), Surya Bahadur Thapa (1997-1998) and Koraila.
In 1999, the Nepali Congress Party won the elections and formed a government under Bhattarai (1999-2000), Koirala (2000-2001) and Deuba (2001-2002).
In 2001, crown prince Dipendra killed his father and the king's brother Gyanendra was proclaimed king. That year peace talks between the Maoists and the government were unsuccessful and the Maoists resumed their violent insurgency.
The king declared a state of emergency, approved by the Parliament. He dismissed Deuba in 2002 and retained full control of the Army and government, appointing Chand (then non-partisan) prime minister.
After demonstrations, Chand quit in 2003 and Surya Bahadur Thapa was appointed prime minister. Talks with the Maoists failed and after protests, the king re-appointed Deuba in 2004. Deuba was again sacked in a royal coup on Feb 1, 2005 when King Gyanendra, after dismissing his ministry, imposed emergency, gagged media and took absolute control of the kingdom. Soon, he installed a new ministry under his chairmanship.
Population: 25.7 million (UN, 2004)
Area: 147,181 sq km (56,827 sq miles)
Location: Between China and India; contains eight of world's 10 highest peaks, including Mount Everest - the world's tallest - on the border with China
Climate: Varies from cool summers and severe winters in north to subtropical summers and mild winters in south
Major language: Nepali
Major religions: Hinduism (official), Buddhism
Life expectancy: 60 years (men), 60 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Nepalese rupee = 100 paisa
Main exports: Carpets, clothing, leather goods, jute goods, grain
GNI per capita: US $240 (World Bank, 2003)
International dialling code: +977