Nepal. Land of fantasy, ancient traditions, graceful religion — and 8 of the world’s 10 highest mountains, including the highest point on Earth. Land also of poverty, hardship, and natural disaster. Sandwiched between India and China — notably, Tibet, its two greatest influences, the society is multi-ethnic — with a culture uniquely its own. A land inhabited by humans for 55,000 years, its first significant cultural influence was Tibetan-Burmese, who migrated to the region 4 millennia ago. Modern Nepal began as such in the 18th century under a Gurkha king, and the legendary soldiers have had their own role in the culture of this country. Democracy began to replace monarchy by 1940s but took hold only in 1991, while a battle for Communist governance instead morphed into a civil war from 1996 to 2006 — including a massacre of the royal family in 2001. The country became fully democratic in 2006, with a new constitution…and in the 2017 election, the Communist party won by a wide margin.
In the 7th century B.C.E., a prince in Nepal’s southern region was born, who would later renounce his royal heritage and become the Gautama Buddha. While Buddhism plays a role in the Nepalese culture, Hinduism is the country’s primary religion with more than 81% adherence; Islam has also ruled the land on several occasions through history representing a third, though significantly lesser, cultural influence. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Nepal’s constitution, though nationalists protest against secularism and advocate for a return to theocracy. A majority of traditions and festivals in Nepal are Hindu in origin.
Nepal has a young culture, with a median age of 26 for females and 22 for males, and only an estimated 4.4% over the age of 65 — with life expectancy, though steadily increasing, of 69 years. Infant mortality in rural areas is one factor, as access to healthcare is limited and poverty high, though overall the country’s rate has decreased significantly in the past 20+ years. Natural disasters have also contributed to the mortality rate. With at least 26 distinct caste / ethnic groups, the society is quite diverse; as well, Nepal has had a history of welcoming immigrants and refugees from neighboring countries.
Nepalese are hard-working people, of necessity — and poverty remains an issue, while the caste system maintains an elite class. Income inequality is high, the top 10% owning more than 26 times the wealth of the 40% at the bottom — a likely factor in the recent overwhelming vote for the Communist party. The nation’s current development model is widely considered a failure as the income gap continues to widen at an alarming rate.
One of the most intriguing Nepalese traditions is that of the kumari: a prepubescent girl who, selected by sacred process, serves for several years as a representative of the ‘living goddess’ or divine female energy (devi) as found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. She is completely sheltered in a temple for this purpose; her feet must never touch the ground, she is worshipped as an icon at several public religious festivals per year — and when she begins puberty, the next kumari is chosen to take her place. Some of the cited detriments to this tradition include the effects on the girl’s psyche, in rising to a position of exultation even by her parents — and then returning to normal life, often with difficulties in socialising with her peers; while parents and others may attend to her education during this time, she is outside of the school system for several years and often has difficulty returning. Until recently, former kumari were not permitted to marry, though this is changing. Still, it is considered an enormous honour to be chosen.
The culture of Nepal is the culture of storytelling, or so it is said — folktales and myths, gods and demons. The arts, from music and dance to visual and performance to literature and poetry, are all strongly represented in Nepalese culture — often connected to religious tradition, though, since mid-20th century, with a lively modern and secular art scene as well. Nepal is a country, like India which surrounds it on 3 sides, that explodes in colour — a riotous display that celebrates life and the natural beauty of Nepal. Protest art, with themes of social and political issues, is also well represented.
Nepal is a traditionally patriarchal society in which men dominate nearly all aspects of society. With a 66% literacy rate overall, and a tradition of home-schooling with formal education only for the elite, Nepal’s girls have long been left behind. The status of women today is steadily improving since the 1990 constitution guarantees basic rights, though primarily in the few main cities and far less in rural areas. Rates of rape, domestic abuse, and sex trafficking are high, with insufficient legal protection. Improvements include laws that permit females to inherit, own property in their own names, divorce, seek legal abortion, and secure citizenship for her children under her own name / family registry. Every level of government has a 20% minimum quota for female participation, with parliamentary seats at a minimum 33%.
The smaller villages, even in the suburban regions of the capital, Kathmandu, see a much more traditional lifestyle with distinct gender roles. Nepalese cultural values include tradition, as well as interdependence, companionship, hospitality and loyalty in this collectivist culture. Family ties and personal relationships, as in much of Asia, are the social, political, and commercial glue. Patience and tolerance, as well as trustworthiness and dependability, are also highly valued and supported by the religious influences.
In Hofstede’s cultural schema, a comparison of Nepal to its two gigantic neighbors and strongest influences demonstrates that Nepal is more collectivist (70%) than India (52%) but less than China (80%). Further, Nepal scores at 65% for power distance (hierarchy), lower than either India (77%) or China (80%), and is equal to India for risk-taking (60%), with China slightly higher (70%). Overall, Nepal’s culture is modernising in these past 3 decades, though their civil war which only ended in 2006, and the major earthquake destruction of 2015 with only half of the reconstruction completed to date, have minimised this progress. These recent traumas, while accepted in a society well known for fatalism, nevertheless continue to represent post-trauma / post-conflict challenges for the Nepalese people.