Facts About Nepal
Source: Library of Congress
Perched on the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains, the Kingdom of Nepal is as ethnically diverse as its terrain of fertile plains, broad valleys, and the highest mountain peaks in the world. The Nepalese are descendants of three major migrations from India, Tibet, and central Asia.
Among the earliest inhabitants were the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley and aboriginal Tharus in the southern Terai region. The ancestors of the Brahman and Chetri caste groups came from India, while other ethnic groups trace their origins to central Asia and Tibet, including the Gurungs and Magars in the west, Rais and Limbus in the east, and Sherpas and Bhotias in the north.
In the Terai, a part of the Ganges Basin with 20% of Nepal’s land, much of the population is physically and culturally similar to the Indo-Aryan people of northern India. People of Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid stock live in the hill region. The mountainous highlands are sparsely populated. Kathmandu Valley, in the middle hill region, constitutes a small fraction of the nation’s area but is the most densely populated, with almost 5% of the population.
With eight of the world’s ten highest mountain peaks–including Mt. Everest at 8,848 m (29,000 ft)–Nepal is a tourist destination for hikers and mountain climbers. Yet a worsening internal security situation and a global economic slowdown threaten the tourism industry. Figures from the Nepal Tourism Board show an increase in arrivals of 12.8% in 2004 but are well below numbers during 1999, the peak tourism year.
Religion is important in Nepal–Kathmandu Valley alone has more than 2,700 religious shrines. Nepal is about 81% Hindu. The constitution describes the country as a “Hindu Kingdom,” although it does not establish Hinduism as the state religion. Buddhists account for about 11% of the population. Buddhist and Hindu shrines and festivals are respected and celebrated by all. Nepal also has small Muslim and Christian minorities. Certain animistic practices of old indigenous religions survive.
Nepali is the official language, although a dozen different languages and about 30 major dialects are spoken throughout the country. Derived from Sanskrit, Nepali is related to the Indian language, Hindi, and is spoken by about 90% of the population. Many Nepalese in government and business also speak English.
Nepal ranks among the world’s poorest countries with a per capita income of just over $240. Based on national calorie/GNP criteria, an estimated 38% of the population is below the poverty line. An isolated, agrarian society until the mid-20th century, Nepal entered the modern era in 1951 without schools, hospitals, roads, telecommunications, electric power, industry, or a civil service. The country has, however, made progress toward sustainable economic growth since the 1950s and is committed to a program of economic liberalization.