NEPAL HAS BEEN A KINGDOM for at least 1,500 years. During most of that period, the Kathmandu Valley has been Nepal's political, economic, and cultural center. The valley's fertile soil supported thriving village farming communities, and its location along trans-Himalayan trade routes allowed merchants and rulers alike to profit. Since the fourth century, the people of the Kathmandu Valley have developed a unique variant of South Asian civilization based on Buddhism and Hinduism but influenced as well by the cultures of local Newar citizens and neighboring Tibetans. One of the major themes in the history of Nepal has been the transmission of influences from both the north and the south into an original culture. During its entire history, Nepal has been able to continue this process while remaining independent.
The long-term trend in Nepal has been the gradual development of multiple centers of power and civilization and their progressive incorporation into a varied but eventually united nation. The Licchavi (fourth to eighth centuries) and Malla (twelfth to eighteenth centuries) kings may have claimed that they were overlords of the area that is present-day Nepal, but rarely did their effective influence extend far beyond the Kathmandu Valley. By the sixteenth century, there were dozens of kingdoms in the smaller valleys and hills throughout the Himalayan region. It was the destiny of Gorkha, one of these small kingdoms, to conquer its neighbors and finally unite the entire nation in the late eighteenth century. The energy generated from this union drove the armies of Nepal to conquer territories far to the west and to the east, as well as to challenge the Chinese in Tibet and the British in India. Wars with these huge empires checked Nepalese ambitions, however, and fixed the boundaries of the mountain kingdom. Nepal in the late twentieth century was still surrounded by giants and still in the process of integrating its many localized economies and cultures into a nation state based on the ancient center of the Kathmandu Valley.
Nepal took a fateful turn in the mid-nineteenth century when its prime ministers, theoretically administrators in service to the king, usurped complete control of the government and reduced the kings to puppets. By the 1850s, a dynasty of prime ministers called Rana had imposed upon the country a dictatorship that would last about 100 years. The Ranas distrusted both their own people and foreigners--in short, anyone who could challenge their own power and change their position. As the rest of the world underwent modernization, Nepal remained a medieval nation, based on the exploitation of peasants and some trade revenues and dominated by a tradition-bound aristocracy that had little interest in modern science or technology.
After the revolt against the Ranas in 1950, Nepal struggled to overcome its long legacy of underdevelopment and to incorporate its varied population into a single nation. One of the early casualties of this process was party-based democracy. Although political parties were crucial in the revolution that overthrew Rana rule, their constant wrangling conflicted with the monarchy's views of its own dignity and with the interests of the army. Instead of condoning or encouraging a multiparty democracy, King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev launched a coup in late 1960 against Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala's popularly elected government and set up a system of indirect elections that created a consultative democracy. The system served as a sounding board for public opinion and as a tool for economic development without exercising effective political power. Nepal remained until 1990 one of the few nations in the world where the king, wielding absolute authority and embodying sacred tradition, attempted to lead his country towards the twenty-first century.
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