The official name of Nepal is the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal (“Sanghiya Loktantrik Ganatantra Nepal” in Nepali). The word Nepali is used as an adjective and to describe the nationality and language of the main ethnic group in Nepal. Nepali is both singular and plural. Nepalese describes citizens of Nepal and is often used interchangeably with Nepali. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Being a citizens of Nepal — Nepalese — means that a member of any ethnic group that lives in Nepal is Nepalese. The term Nepali generally refers to the dominant language of Nepal and to people who have historically been associated with the kingdom of Nepal. In many respects it has come to mean the Nepali-speaking Hindus of Nepal and doesn’t include members of other ethnic groups or people that speak a language other than Nepali as their first language. By this line of reasoning a Sherpa is Nepalese but not Nepali. Some people, however, use Nepalese and Nepali interchangeably. In some definitions Nepali is singular and Nepalese is plural and both Nepalese or Nepali can be adjectives and nouns.

The name “Nepala,” referring to a frontier Himalayan kingdom, appears in inscriptions in India from the A.D. 4th century. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding areas apparently gave their name to the country; the terms "Nepal," "Newar," "Nepar," and "Newal" are phonetically different forms of the same word

Nepal used to Formal Name: Kingdom of Nepal (“Nepal Adhirajya” in Nepali). When Nepal abolished its king and royalty around the same time it incorporated Maoists into the government the country changed its formal name to the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” . Nepal is named for the Kathmandu Valley, where the nation's founder established a capital in the late eighteenth century. Nepali culture represents a fusion of Indo-Aryan and Tibeto-Mongolian influences, the result of a long history of migration, conquest, and trade.

The capital of Nepal is Kathmandu (Kathmandu). Nepal became independent in 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah unified a number of states in the Kathmandu Valley under the Kingdom of Gorkha. Nepal recognizes National Unity Day (January 11) to commemorate this achievement.

Brief History of Nepal

Available evidence of Nepal’s distant past is scant, but the earliest inhabitants were likely of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity and lived in small settlements with little political centralization. Small kingdoms and tribal confederations controlled various areas of the Terai Region in the south. Among these groups was the Sakya clan, whose most renowned member was Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, born in Lumbini in 563 B.C. Many historians believe the Kathmandu Valley’s first rulers were the Gopals or Abhiras, followed by the Kiratas,who reigned until around A.D. 400. By the 4th cent. A.D. the Newars of the central Kathmandu valley had apparently developed a flourishing Hindu-Buddhist culture.

The Licchavis ruled from the late fifth century to approximately A.D. 750. Kings (“maharajas”) of the Licchavi Dynasty ostensibly were both absolute political and moral authorities but had little influence on their subjects’ lives. Their control over their territory and citizens relied on nobles who controlled private armies and large landholdings, and who in turn often influenced the royal court. In addition, village and caste councils often managed local administrative issues and had far greater ideological influence over subjects than Licchavi kings. [Source: Library of Congress, November 2005 **]

From the 8th–11th cent. many Buddhists fled to Nepal from India, and a group of Hindu Rajput warriors set up the principality of Gurkha just west of the Kathmandu valley. Although a Newar dynasty, the Mallas, ruled the valley from the 14th–18th cent., there were internecine quarrels among local rulers. These were exploited by the Gurkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah, who conquered the Kathmandu valley in 1768. [Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]

During the late 18th-early 19th centuries, the principality of Gorkha united many of the other principalities and states of the sub-Himalayan region into a Nepali Kingdom. Nepal retained its independence following the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16 and the subsequent peace treaty laid the foundations for two centuries of amicable relations between Britain and Nepal. (The Brigade of Gurkhas continues to serve in the British Army to the present day.) In 1951, the Nepali monarch ended the century-old system of rule by hereditary premiers and instituted a cabinet system that brought political parties into the government. That arrangement lasted until 1960, when political parties were again banned, but was reinstated in 1990 with the establishment of a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

An insurgency led by Maoists broke out in 1996. During the ensuing 10-year civil war between Maoist and government forces, the monarchy dissolved the cabinet and parliament and re-assumed absolute power in 2002, after the crown prince massacred the royal family in 2001. A peace accord in 2006 led to the promulgation of an interim constitution in 2007. Following a nationwide Constituent Assembly (CA) election in 2008, the newly formed CA declared Nepal a federal democratic republic, abolished the monarchy, and elected the country's first president. After the CA failed to draft a constitution by a 2012 deadline set by the Supreme Court, then-Prime Minister Baburam BHATTARAI dissolved the CA. Months of negotiations ensued until 2013 when the major political parties agreed to create an interim government headed by then-Chief Justice Khil Raj REGMI with a mandate to hold elections for a new CA.

Elections were held in 2013, in which the Nepali Congress (NC) won the largest share of seats in the CA and in 2014 formed a coalition government with the second-place Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) with Nepali Congress (NC) President Sushil KOIRALA serving as prime minister. Nepal's new constitution came into effect in 2015, at which point the CA became the Parliament. Khagda Prasad Sharma OLI served as the first post-constitution prime minister from 2015 to 2016. OLI resigned ahead of a no-confidence motion against him, and Parliament elected Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) leader Pushpa Kamal DAHAL (aka "Prachanda") prime minister. The constitution provided for a transitional period during which three sets of elections – local, provincial, and national – needed to take place. The first local elections in 20 years occurred in three phases between May and September 2017, and state and federal elections proceeded in two phases in November and December 2017. The parties headed by OLI and DAHAL ran in coalition and swept the parliamentary elections, and OLI, who led the larger of the two parties, was sworn in as prime minister in February 2018. In May 2018, OLI and DAHAL announced the merger of their parties - the UML and CPN-M - to establish the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which is now the ruling party in Parliament.

Timeline of Nepal’s History

Around 563 B.C. The Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) is born in Lumbini, in the Terai region of Nepal. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]

400-750 A.D. Licchhavi kingdom in power in Kathmandu.

1100-1484. Khasa Malla kings rule in western Nepal.

  1. Malla kingdom divided; the 3 kingdoms of Kathmandu, Bhadgaon, and Patan are established.

  2. Nepal emerges as a unified state under the leadership of Prithivi Narayan Shah, who has waged his campaign from Gorkha in midwest Nepal. For the next half century, the economy is geared towards military expansion pursued by successive Shah rulers and their administrators.

1791-92. War between Nepal and China.

1814-16. Nepal is at war with Britain; hostilities are ended with the Treaty of Sugauli, which reduces the territory of Nepal.

  1. Jang Bahadur establishes hereditary Rana rule.

  2. The country's first legal code is proclaimed.

  3. Nepal goes to war with Tibet, which results in duty-free privileges for Nepalese traders and payment of tribute from Tibet.

  4. Treaty of Friendship is signed with Britain, confirming the independence of Nepal and a special relationship with the British Empire.

1950-51. The first democratic revolution takes place in Nepal, leading to the end of the Rana regime and the rehabilitation of the Shah dynasty. The government signs the Treaty of Trade and Commerce with India.

  1. Nepal is admitted to the United Nations.

  2. The first 5-year plan of economic development is drawn up.

  3. The first general elections are held in Nepal. The Nepali Congress Party is elected to government with Bishweswor Prasad Koirala as prime minister.

  4. Important revisions are made to the Trade and Transit Treaty with India. King Mahendra dismisses the elected Nepalese government and imprisons political leaders.

  5. The Panchayat system is established. The Land Reorganization Act and a new legal code are established.

  6. King Mahendra dies and is succeeded by King Birendra.

  7. A national referendum votes to support the Panchayat system.

  8. Nepal becomes a founding member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

  9. Failure to renegotiate the trade and transit treaties with India results in economic disruption.

  10. Popular protests led by the Nepali Congress and the United Left Front Coalition lead to the establishment of multiparty democracy.

  11. General elections are won by the Nepali Congress. Girija Prasad Koirala becomes prime minister.

  12. The Communist Party of Nepal (UML) wins mid-term elections and forms a minority government under Man Mohan Adhikari.

  13. A coalition government is formed under Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress.

1997-98. Successive coalition governments take power following the collapse of the Deuba government.

  1. General elections bring a new government under Krishna Prasad Bhattarai of the Nepali Congress. He is replaced by Girija Prasad Koirala the following year.

  2. The Crown Prince Dipendra opens fire on a family gathering at the royal palace, killing 9 members of the royal family, including the king and the queen. Dipendra dies of a self-inflicted wound. Widespread mourning and rioting accompanies the ascension to the throne of Gyanendra, the surviving brother of the late king.

Themes in Nepal’s History

Many of the ethnic groups that settled in Nepal were escaping from somewhere else. There is evidence that people from Southeast Asia settled in the Himalayan region as the Han dynasty in China expanded outward in the first millennium B.C. The migration of groups from northern India to Nepal, driven by various waves of Muslim invasions, particularly in the 14th century, are well documented.

Trade has traditionally been very important in Nepal. Key passes on major trade and caravan routes between China and India were located in Nepal. Certain kingdoms and ethnic groups grew rich from the trade. Trade that passed through the Kathmandu Valley helped make the Newars rich and powerful. Control of these routes allowed the first Shah king to gain enough wealth and power to conquer all of Nepal in the 18th century. The salt trade in which Tibetan salt was traded for lowland grain was important for the local people.

Through much of its history Nepal was isolated from outsides by mountains and malaria. China and India regarded it as a convenient buffer state between them. The British and independent India afterwards regarded Nepal as a buffer state within their sphere of influence. According to the Encyclopedia of Buddhism: “Like most of the Himalayan region, the valley called Nepal was a frontier zone until the modern state's creation in 1769. The area absorbed and interpreted Indic cultural influences from the south and, later, from the Tibetan region to the north. The main cultural influences are the early Indic traditions in the Kathmandu valley, the Tibetan Buddhist lineages originating from the Tibetan plateau, the Newar-supported Mahayana traditions, and the recently imported Theravada tradition.” [Source: Encyclopedia of Buddhism, The Gale Group Inc., 2004]

Nepal was never colonized. It has traditionally been linked with northern India. In the 3rd century B.C. the great Indian Mauryan King Ashoka built a stupa in what is now Nepal. As early as the fourth century, Hinduism and the Gupta style of art had found a place were also imported into Nepal. Buddhism and Hinduism continue to have a large following there today.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The geographic distribution and diversity of ethnic groups in Nepal reflect the migrations of groups displaced by or escaping adverse sociopolitical conditions in central, southern, and southeastern Asia. The military and administrative consolidation of the Gorkha regime in the eighteenth century united the eighty or so ethnically varied principalities in the region and asserted an orthodox, Hindu sociopolitical and religious order. This led to the legislative designation of singular ethnic groups such as the Tamang, which often encompass diverse peoples. The formation of the nation-state of Nepal and its need for resources of grain and labor also forced the expanded settlement of the region and led to migrations of families to India to escape the demands of the state. [Source: Alfred Pach III, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Geography of Nepal

Landlocked and Sandwiched between two the or world's most powerful nations — China and India — Nepal is a mountainous country covering 56,136 square miles (147,181 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of North Carolina. The border with India extends for 1,750 kilometers. Some 17.1 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this arable land is in valleys and along the mountains in the Himalayan foothills and along the flat Ganges Plain near the Indian border. About 14.5 percent of Nepal is covered by pastureland and 16.9 percent by forests and woods. The remainder of the country is made up of mountains and high barren plateaus.

Nepal — formerly a Hindu Himalayan kingdom — is made up of three major regions: 1) the Terai (or Tarai), a strip of jungle and wetlands with tigers and elephants located along the flat Ganges Plain in the south; 2) the Himalayan foothills in the middle, which are often referred to as the Middle Hills; and 3) massive glacier-encrusted Himalayan region in the north. The Himalayas run east to west across the northern part of the country and the great mountain range acts as a rain barrier. On the southern side of the Himalayas are forests, areas of lush vegetation and grasslands. On the northern side the landscape is desolate and barren like that of Tibetan plateau which merges into the Himalayas. In Nepal, there are 32 peaks over 7,600 meters and 250 over 6,000 meters. Between some of these peaks are deep chasm-like valleys.

The foot hills of the Himalayas contain a large number of fertile valleys, including the Kathmandu valley which is situated in a dried up lake basin. A significant portion of Nepal’s population lives in the middle hills region. Arable land is of a premium. On the sides of the hills and mountains in some places are rows of terraces which climb hundreds of meters.

In the highlands, people have traditionally settled in the mountain valleys where there is a steady source of water from melting glaciers and the rich alluvial soil in the flood plains. As the population has increased people have settled on the slopes of mountains, where the soil is less fertile and built terraces to keep soil from being washed away. The lowest places in the Terai are only 60 meters above sea level. The Terai was once thinly populated by a few tribal groups. But after the problem of malaria problem there was dealt with large numbers of Nepalis began settling there and it now is now home to large numbers of people.

Roughly rectangular in shape and about 800 kilometers (500 miles) long, Nepal is bordered on the west, south, and east by India, and on the north by the Tibet region of China. The Terai in the south is made up fertile alluvial plains, swamps, and forests that provide valuable timber. The main section of the Himalayas — including 8,848-meter (29,029-foot) -high Mt. Everest and eight of the world's eleven highest mountains — are mostly on or near the Chinese border. Many of Nepal's major rivers originate in Tibet. Central Nepal contains relatively high mountains. The Kathmandu valley is Nepal's most densely populated region and its administrative, economic, and cultural center. Nepal's railroads, connecting with lines in India, do not reach the valley, which is served by a highway and a bridgelike cable line. There are a few other modern highways.

Kingdoms and Power Centers in Nepal

Nepal has been ruled by succession of dynasties that back to the A.D. 4th century. The Licchavi dynasty, which ruled from the Kathmandu Valley from A.D. 464 to the 9th century, is regarded the oldest established Nepalese kingdom. Its founders were Chhetris (See Caste) who claimed to be Rajputs of northern Indian descent. Analysis of their language indicates they came from somewhere else or at least many members were from somewhere else.

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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

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. *

Ethnic Relations in Nepal

Mongolian tribes from the east called Kiratis settled in what is now Nepal in the 7th and 8th centuries B.C. Buddha was born in 563 B.C. in Lumbini in the Terai area of southern Nepal, according to by the inscription on the pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Asoka in 249 B.C.. .Hinduism flourished in the A.D. third and fourth centuries A.D. the Licchavis, an Indo-Aryan people from northern India, and after the migration of Hindus from India during the Mughal period. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: The Hindu Malla dynasties reigned in the Kathmandu Valley between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, encouraging tolerance toward Buddhism and an orthodox, caste-oriented form of Hinduism. Since unification in the late eighteenth century and through the hundred-year period of Rana rule, the culture of hill Hindus, Parbatiya, has been dominant.

“The birth of the nation is dated to Prithvi Narayan Shah's conquest of the Kathmandu Valley kingdoms in 1768. The expansionist reigns of Shah and his successors carved out a territory twice the size of modern Nepal. However, territorial clashes with the Chinese in the late eighteenth century and the British in the early nineteenth century pushed the borders back to their current configuration. To unify a geographically and culturally divided land, Shah perpetuated the culture and language of high-caste Hindus and instituted a social hierarchy in which non-Hindus as well as Hindus were ranked according to caste-based principles. Caste laws were further articulated in the National Code of 1854.

“By privileging the language and culture of high-caste Hindus, the state has marginalized non-Hindu and low-caste groups. Resentment in recent years has led to the organization of ethnopolitical parties, agitation for minority rights, and talk about the formation of a separate state for Mongolian ethnic groups. Despite ethnic unrest, Nepalis have a strong sense of national identity and pride. Sacred Hindu and Buddhist sites and the spectacular mountains draw tourists and pilgrims and give citizens a sense of importance in the world. Other natural resources, such as rivers and flora and fauna are a source of national pride.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (, Nepal Government National Portal (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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