Nepal is very mountainous and hilly. Roughly rectangular in shape, about 650 kilometer long and about 200 kilometer wide, Nepal is the third biggest country in South Asia, with an area of 147,181 square kilometer of land. Nepal is a land-locked country, surrounded by India on three sides and by China's Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet) to the north.
It is separated from Bangladesh by an approximately fifteen kilometre - wide strip of India's state of West Bengal, and from Bhutan by the eighty-eight kilometre-wide Indian state of Sikkim. Due to its confined geographical position, Nepal is almost totally dependent on India for transit facilities and access to the sea-that is, the Bay of Bengal. .
Despite its small size, Nepal has great physical diversity, ranging from the Terai plain the northern rim of the Gangetic Plain situated at about 300 meters above sea level in the south - to the almost 8,800-meter-high Mount Everest, locally known as Sagarmatha (its Nepali name), in the north. The country is commonly divided into three broad physiographic areas: the Mountain region, the Hill region, and the Terai region. All three parallel each other, from east to west, as continuous ecological belts, occasionally bisected by the country's river systems.
The Mountain region or Parbat is situated at 4,000 meters or more above sea level to the north of the Hill Region. Some of the world's highest peaks are located in this region. The region is sparsely populated, and whatever farming activity exists is mostly confined to the low-lying valleys and the river basins, such as the upper Kali Gandaki Valley.
South of the Mountain range is the Hill or Pahar region. With altitudes ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 meters, this region includes the Kathmandu valley, the country's most fertile and urbanized area. Two major ranges of hills, commonly known as the Mahabharat Lekh and Siwalik Range (or Churia Range), occupy the region.
Although the region is geographically isolated and has little agricultural potential, the region has been historically the political and cultural centre of Nepal.
The Kathmandu valley and the lower hill regions are densely populated. South of the Hill region, stretching along the Nepal-India border is the Terai region. It is a lowland tropical and subtropical belt of flat, alluvial land. Commencing at about 300 meters above sea level and rising to about 1,000 meters at the foot of the Siwalik Range, the region is the life line of the country.
Rivers rising in the Himalayas emerge in the Terai and continue southward, some of them becoming tributaries of the Ganges in northern India. The region is susceptible to flooding, which occurs regularly with the summer monsoon runoff from the mountains. The fertile soils of the Terai make it the richest economic region, both in terms of farm and forest land. It has become the most coveted internal destination for the land hungry hill peasants. Nearly half of the country's population lives in this region.
According to 2003 estimate, Nepal has a population of 26.5 million with 13:58 million males and 12.88 million females. Since the 1950s, population has been rising at an average rate of more than 2 per cent per annum. The major factor contributing to the increase of population is high birth rate, decline in the infant mortality rates and increase in the average life expectancy.
The 2003 estimates put the birth rate of Nepal at 32.46 births per 1000 population, whereas the death rate stands at 9.84 deaths per 1000 population. There is a geographic variation in the population growth. It is observed that the western part of Nepal gained more population as compared to the eastern part both in the mountainous and Terai region.
The central part of the Hill region has also recorded the highest growth of population. This trend of population growth started in the 1970s and is likely to continue in future also. The highest densities were recorded in Kathmandu, followed by Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Dhanusha districts. The mountainous regions, however, have low population densities.
As a result of rapid population growth, there has been a progressive deterioration of the ratio of people to cultivable land. In the Hill region, population pressure has led to the depletion of forest cover for crops, fuel, and fodder.
The forest cover in the Terai region is also rapidly vanishing with the migration of the land hungry hill people. Since the 1950s, the government of Nepal has emphasised control the population growth by integrating planning programmes with the programme of general health and welfare of the mother and child, encouraging two children per family norm, promoting women health and education and improving the status of women in the society.
Ethnicity and Caste
Nepal is a nation said to be "materially poor but culturally rich". Because of its geographical location, Nepal has been a meeting point of races. From India came the Indo-Aryan or Caucasoid peoples, and from Tibet came Mongoloid or Tibeto-Burman peoples. The Mongoloid racial groups generally reside along the eastern part of Nepal.
The Sherpas and Tamangs belong to this stock. They generally practice Buddhism. The Indo-Aryans predominantly inhabit the western part of Nepal. There is a mixture of both these races in central part of Nepal. Some prominent ethnic groups here are the Newars, Rais, Limbus, Gurungs, and Magars. Nepali people can be broadly categorized into two main cultural groups: Parbatias (hill people) or Gorkhalis and the Madhsias.
The Parbatias belong to the mountain culture of Nepal that is the hill valley culture which has been a syncretism of two religio-cultural streams - Buddhism from Tibet and Hinduism from India. The Madhsias, on the other hand, belong to the culture of the plains, that is, the culture of the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The two groups differ in their language and dress with the Parbathis speaking Nepali and the Madhsias speaking the dialects of Hindi, that is, either Maithili or Bojpuri or Awadhi.
Within the category of the Parbathis there are a number of cultural collectivities like the hill Hindus, Newars, Tamangs, Kiratis, Gurungs, Magars and Limbus, Sherpas, Sunwars, Sunthals and Thakalis.
The Hill Hindus are largely the people of Indian origin and have migrated to Nepal around the fourteenth century.
They are large in number but are widely dispersed. Although the hill Hindus and the Terai Hindus follow the same religion, they differ in their language and culture.
Like the other people of the hills, the hill Hindus speak Nepali and share hill culture, but the Terai Hindus speak one of the dialects of Hindi and are under the influence of the culture of the plains. Among the hill Hindus, Chhetris and the Brahmins are the dominant castes.
They constitute about 15 per cent and 12 per cent of the population of Nepal. The Takuri sub-caste of the Chhetris constitutes the ruling elite of the country. Both the royal family and the Ranas, who ruled Nepal for more than a hundred years, are of the Chhetri caste. The Brahmans provide the country's intelligentsia.
The Newars are the indigenous people and are concentrated in and around the Kathmandu Valley. The Newars who are about three per cent of the population have their own language called Newari. They were originally Buddhists, but a large number of them have adopted several aspects of Hindu caste system. The Newars trace their ancestry to the Lichavi rulers and have been prominent in Nepali society as merchants and government administrators. They have a high rate of literacy.
The Magars, who constitute over seven per cent of the population of the country, are the largest indigenous ethnic group of Nepal. They speak Magar, Kham and Tarali languages. Chiefly residing in the western and central parts, they have close affinity with the Gurungs.
Those living in the north practice Buddhism while those in the south have adopted Hindu practices. The Magars traditionally engaged in subsistence agriculture, pastoralism and day labour. Like the other martial ethnic groups from the hills of Nepal, such as the Gurungs, Rai of Kiratis, the Magars are prominently represented in Nepal's military, as well as in the British and Indian Gurkha regiments.
Tamangs and Kiratis are about five and three per cent of the population respectively. The Gurungs, Limbus, Sherpas, Sunwars, Santhals and Thakalis are small in number accounting for one to two per cent each of the population. These groups traditionally practiced a form of Lamaist Buddhism which mixes Buddhist tradition with pre-Buddhist practices of Bon religion.
Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, and the king is looked upon as the protector and is deified as the earthly manifestation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. This central place of Hinduism in Nepal's political set up has been accepted by all segments of the population. Before the advent of the Gorkha rule in the 18th century, Buddhism was a flourishing religion in the region.
The Gorkha rulers projected Nepal's distinct identity as Hindu state. The Hinduisation of the kingdom was completed by the Rana rulers who brought the various ethnic groups into the Hindu social hierarchy through the Civil Code of 1854. 'The codification and standardisation of religious and social practices led to the assimilation of many ethnic groups into the dominant Nepali culture. A vast majority of today practice a syncretic blend of Hinduism, Buddhism and/or animist traditions.
They worship the same gods/goddesses and celebrate some festivals commonly. With the introduction of democracy, many ethnic and minority religious groups have started asserting their group identities. The impact of tliese identity movements is reflected in the Celisus reports of 1991 and 2001.
People identified as Hindus decreased from 86.5 per cent to 80.6 percent. The 2001 census identified 11 per cent of the population as Buddhists and 4.2 per cent as Muslim. About 3 per cent of the population follows the indigenous Kirant Mundum religion. Christianity is practiced by less than 0.5 per cent of the population.
There are 125 different documented languages spoken in Nepal. These belong to two distinct language sub groups - the Indo-European and the Tibeto- Burman languages. Nepali, the national language of Nepal, was formerly known as Gurkhali or Khaskura. It belongs to the Indo-European language subgroup. It is written in Devnagiri script. Maitlhili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Tharu, Danuwari and Majhi are the second group of languages belonging to Indo-European language subgroup, which are spoken by the people residing in the Terai. The languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language subgroup are spoken by the ethnic groups residing in the mountainous areas.
Tibetan language and its dialects are spoken by the Sherpas and the Bhotiyas or Tibetans residing in Nepal. Apart from these two families of languages some minor language groups are also found. They are Satar, which belong to the Munda family and Dhangar, which belong to the Dravidian family.
In 1951, the National Education Commission set up by the government recommended the use of Nepali as the medium of instruction in all schools. Since then, the government has used every means possible to unite the kingdom under one language. By the 1990s, an overwhelming majority, nearly two thirds of the people, were speaking the language. However, for many minorities and ethnic groups, language has become a powerful means to achieve their political ends - to have a due share in the central decision making process.
Since the introduction of multiparty democracy in the 1990s, they have launched democratic struggles to oppose the dominant role of Nepali language and demand equal status for all languages. Several local government institutions have already begun to use local languages as official languages. The government has recognised some languages such as Hindi, Newari, Gurung, Ljmbu, and Gorkha as national languages.