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Nepal is a very beautiful country. It is land of Mount Everest and birth place of Lord Buddha. Nepal - the land that beckons every visitor to experience its magical attractions. Wild and untamed terrain, mighty mountains from where rises eight highest peaks in the world, and the famous hospitality of her friendly people.

Vitality of the Nepalese culture stems from a tradition that stretches far back in time and is constantly preserved. Our history is bound up with the tumultous events that have shaken Asia. Explore Nepal's untouched nature and special features of its culture.

nepal

At the outset, it has to be mentioned that the history of ancient Nepal is the history of Kathmandu Valley. There are two reasons for this. One is the lack of historical records for other parts of Nepal and the other is that the colorful past of this beautiful valley easily outdazzles what is known about elsewhere. There is also the fact that the name of the country is taken from the what Kathmandu used to be known in earlier times - Nepal valley.

The tale of Kathmandu dates back to the time when the Gods communed with mortals. A glimpse into that period can be found in the Buddhist chronicles that tell of the coming of the Manjushree Bodhisattva from China to worship Swayambhu. As the legend goes, Swayambhu, a manifestation of the Adhi Buddha, the primordial Buddha, was a brilliant flame emanating from a lotus flower that rested in the midst of the lake Nagarad. From atop distant Mandapgiri (now Nagarkot), Majushree gazed at this wondrous sight and decided to worship this flame more closely. By going to the lowest hill in the southern part of the valley and slicing a portion of it with his Sword Of Wisdom, he drained the lake, thus creating the Chobhar Gorge (which till today drains the rivers of the Kathmandu Valley). The valley with its fertile soil appeared, and Manjushree proceeded on his mission to worship the Swayambhu, which had rested upon the small hillock of present-day Swayambhu.

Manjushree is then said to have founded the city of Manjupatan, which was located midway between Swayambhu and Gujeshwori (near what is today the Kathmandu airport), and proclaimed his disciple Dharmakarma as the ruler of that city. It was also during this era that Krakuchanda Buddha, Kanak Muni Buddha and Kashyapa Buddha visited the Kathmandu Valley to worship Swayambhu and Gujeshwori.

Aware that Kaliyug, the Dark Age, was drawing near, Kanak Muni Buddha sent Prachanda Deva, King of Gaur (Bengal), to cover the flaming image of Swayambhu since only such an act would preserve it from the gaze of the sin-ridden world. So, Prachanda Deva built a stupa encasing the sacred flame of Swayambhu.

Later, Prachanda Deva sent his son Shakti Deva to enthrone their cousin Gunakama Deva as King of Nepal. Gunakama's reign saw a great famine afflict the kingdom but with aid from the Goddess Shantishree, he was able to overcome that disaster. The last king of this dynasty was Singhakhetu and, in his reign, the country flourished in both trade and commerce. It is said that the kingdom even conducted trade with places as far away as Singhaladeep (Sri Lanka).

The demise of Gunakama's dynasty saw a succession of rulers from the provinces of India such as Bengal and even from as far as Madras rule Kathmandu. The most renowned was Dharmadutta of Kanchipuram who is said to have built the Pashupatinath Temple. Boudhanath may have been built by Dharmadutta's second successor.

Then came the Ahir or Abhir Dynasty who were a race of cowherds. There were eight kings in this line, the first being Bhuktaman and the last Yaksha Gupta. Owing to pastoral disputes, this dynasty was then replaced by another Abhir dynasty of shepherds. This second Abhir dynasty had a succession of three kings and their rule ended when Bhuban Simha was defeated by the Kirati invaders.

The Kiratis: The Kiratis were a tribal hill people who came from the East. (The Ramayana mentions them as being dwellers of the north-eastern Himalayan region.) The Kirati invasion of the Kathmandu Valley occurred sometime around 700 BC. The most famous among the Kirati rulers was Yalambar - the first of them.

Jitadassi, the seventh king, is said to have helped the Pandavas during the great war of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. It was also during the reign of Jitadassi that Gautama Buddha was said to have visited the Valley. The Kiratis' rule saw a succession of 29 kings until Gasti, the last of them, was defeated by the Licchavis at around AD 200.

The Licchavis:

The advent of the Licchavis brought in the first golden era of Nepali art and culture. They were also the ones who introduced the Hindu caste system into the Valley. Among the 48 Licchavi rulers, Mana Deva I, who ascended the throne in AD 464, was a ruler of considerable talent and abilities. He consolidated the kingdom in all directions with his powerful army and political tact. Besides this, he was also a patron of the arts. Pagoda-roofed structures came into vogue. Sculptors fashioned exquisite images of their Gods and Kings. It was during this same period that the temples of Changunarayan, Vishankunarayan, Sikhornarayan, and Ichangunarayan were built. Other notable masterpieces include the Reclining Vishnu of Budhanilkantha, the gilting of the roof of Pashupatinath Temple, the struts of Hanuman Dhoka and the Basantapur Tower, the Uku Bahal in Patan, and, the Indreshwar Mahadev Temple at Panauti.

The Thakuris:

Amsuvarma, of the Thakuri lineage, ascended the throne in AD 605 upon the death of his father-in-law Shivadeva, a Licchavi king. According to the travelling Chinese monk Huen Tsang, Amsuvarma had attained high military and literary glory. Of his palace at Deopatan, Huen Tsang says that it was seven stories high and ornamented with gems and pearls. Amsuvarma made matrimonial alliances with both his powerful neighbors of the north and the south. To Tsrongsten Gompo, Tibet's powerful ruler, he offered his daughter, Bhrikuti, and to the Indian Prince, he offered the hand of his sister. (It was Bhrikuti, along with a Chinese princess, who converted the Tibetan king to Buddhism, thus heralding the advent of the religion the country was to later become famous for. Bhrikuti is considered the Green Tara of the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon while the Chinese princess is known as the White Tara.)

After the death of Amsuvarma in AD 629, power reverted to the Licchavis once again for a considerable period of time. It was only in AD 879 that the real Thakuri Dynasty was founded by Raghadeva. To commemorate this event, Raghadeva established the Nepal Sambat Era, a calendar which is still followed by the Newars of Kathmandu Valley and is running in its 12th century.

The reign of the Thakuris has been considered the Dark Age in the history of Kathmandu on account of much strife and turmoil during this period and that included the ravages of multiple foreign invasions. But trade and commerce still flourished and cities and settlements grew.

Another king, Gunakamadeva, who ruled from AD 949 till AD 994 deserves special mention. It was he who introduced the important festivals of Indra Jatra, Macchendranath Jatra, and Krishna Jayanti. But more importantly, Gunakamadeva founded Kantipur, today's Kathmandu.

The Mallas:

In AD 1200, King Arideva assumed the title of Malla, and the dynasty of the Mallas ruled Kathmandu Valley for a total period of 568 years. At one time, during the reign of King Yakshya Malla (1428-1482), the Valley's territorial gains had extended north as far as Digarcha in Tibet, Gorkha to the west, Morang to the east, and southwards up to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.

The early period of the Malla rule saw peace and tranquility with a great deal of progress in all spheres of life. Though the Mallas were Vaishnavite and Shaivite Hindus, they showed tolerance towards other religions too. Endowments were made to Buddhist temples and monasteries. Muslims were allowed to settle in the Valley although they were forbidden to convert others. Even a Roman Catholic Mission of the Capuchin order was allowed into Kathmandu and granted land by royal decree.

The Mallas were benevolent patrons of the arts and it was during their reign that a renaissance of the arts flourished. Traditionally passed down from father to son, the skills of the artisans were at a high level of proficiency. Further developments evolved with new ideas being acquired from neighboring kingdoms. These craftsmen excelled in stone-carving, wood-carving, brick-making, metalwork, and painting.

The Fame of Arniko

In the 13th century, Arniko, a Newar architect and master craftsman of Bhaktapur, was invited to build a stupa in Tibet at the request of Kublai Khan. Word had reached the ears of the Mongol emperor about Arniko's prowess as a master builder. Soon, after the initial assignment, Arniko was conscripted into the Court of China as "The Controller of Imperial Manufacture."

Other Newari craftsmen were also invited to Tibet and China. On their return, they brought back a new style which was a fusion of their original Newari style combined with Tibetan (Chinese) art. An example of this style is seen in the Golden Gate of Bhaktapur, which was built in 1754. It has Tibetan and Chinese motifs inlaid among the periodic designs.

Communes of Clay:

Bricks were the main components used in construction. The Newari builders had devised a method of strengthening regular fired bricks by mixing oil to the clay. Called chikau uppa (or telia eet in Nepali) meaning "oiled brick," this novel technique brought about stronger and longer-lasting constructions. Houses, temples, streetwalks and courtyards were all constructed with this brick.

Besides the three principal cities, other settlements grew around the Kathmandu Valley. Fortresses were set up at strategic points to serve as defence outposts which also provided protection to the farming community spread all across the Valley. Others grew up along the flourishing trade routes. Wary of attack by bandits and foreign invaders, people built their houses in close clusters, often on higher ground and these were further fortified by high walls.

Lalitpur:

The renaissance during the Malla era saw further development in the craft of image-making. Stone carvings of the earlier times gave way to metal craft. All the spires of important temples and shrines were crowned with gold; this technique of gilting involved a chemical compounding process. Skill in metal craft reached a high degree of excellence and Patan, or Lalitpur (city of arts) became the centre. The best example of that period can still be seen today in the 14th-century Kwa Bahal, the Golden Temple. Tibetan pilgrims who came on pilgrimage to this site were so enraptured by the sight of it that they called it "Yerang" meaning "Eternity Itself."

Bhaktapur:

While the artisans of Patan excelled in metalwork, the artisans of Bhaktapur pursued the traditional craft of stone and woodcarving. Evidence of their excellence is still visible today as one observes the 55-Windowed Palace, the Peacock Windows, and the Nyatopola Temple - all built during the reign of King Bhupatindra Malla.

It is believed that Bhupatindra Malla was brought up by a carpenter since his step-mother had ordered to have him killed to make way for her own offspring to become king. He is considered to be among the ablest rulers of Bhaktapur. He was also a contemporary of Shah Jahan, the Indian emperor who built the Taj Mahal. In all likelihood, it is possible that Bhupatindra Malla was inspired by the Moghul Emperor and his sense of grandiose art.

Paubha - Newari Paintings:

From the 11th century, religious manuscripts were being embellished with paintings. The earliest of these were inspired by Buddhism. Drawn on palm leaf strips, these simple ink sketches were accented with basic natural colors. After the 15th century, paper began to replace the leaf.

The Newars also had a miniature form of painting till the 14th century that was distantly related to the Indian Pahari School. Thereafter, that form gave way to scroll painting. Like the craftsmen, Newar painters had also been invited to Tibet to paint murals and scrolls in the monasteries. Tibet was then a prosperous trading country. Traders traveling the Silk Route brought in merchandise from other kingdoms and this provided an opportunity for the artists from Kathmandu to study the arts of the other parts of Asia. As a result, they were able to incorporate their own and other styles into the traditional Tibetan art and evolve a whole new genre. When the Newar artists returned back to their Kingdoms once more, they used their knowledge to create splendid works of art in Kathmandu Valley.

Political Strife:

King Yakshya Malla, who ruled from AD 1428 to 1482, was reckoned to be the bravest and most distinguished among all the Malla kings. It was during his reign that the kingdom grew to its largest extent, as has been mentioned earlier, and, like his predecessors, he was a great patron of the arts. Besides that, he was also a benevolent ruler who gave alms to the poor and improved the living conditions of his subjects by building canals and waterways for farmers. But prior to his death he committed a grave mistake that was to bring to an end the glorious age of the Malla Empire.

Yakshya Malla divided his kingdom among his sons, and so for a hundred and fifty years onwards, the independent kingdoms of Kantipur, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Banepa were perpetually embroiled in petty disputes and squabbles among each other. This internecine struggle finally led to the demise of the Mallas, beginning in 1768 when the conquering king of Gorkha, Prithvi Narayan Shah, captured Kantipur (Kathmandu) on the day of the great Newari festival Indrajatra.

Modern Nepal:

The nation-state of Nepal was the creation of King Prithvi Narayan Shah (of whom the present king is a direct descendant). Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha, campaigned to unite the various kingdoms that dotted the geographical area defined by modern Nepal. The conquest of Kathmandu Valley, which took a total of ten years of planning, siege and diplomacy, was the highlight of his conquests. The work begun by King Prithvi Narayan was continued by his descendants. At the greatest extent the Nepali (then known as the Gorkhali) Empire covered an area that was at least a third more than its present confines.

Around this time, Nepali expansionism came into conflict with the British, who were themselves busy with their own empire-building spree. The two forces met in a series of battles that culminated in the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. The Treaty reduced the recently expanded Nepali kingdom by a great deal but after that Nepal was left alone.

The lull that followed the ceasing of external hostilities, however, saw a series of internal conflicts begin. These power struggles were the result of the polarizing of authority between the then king Rajendra Bikram Shah's multiple queens who supported different aristocratic clans in their proxy fights.

In 1846, Jung Bahadur Rana usurped power as prime minister with the help of one of the queens and arrogated the right of his family to rule by decree as prime ministers and relegated the monarchy to the backstage. This oligarchy of the Ranas, not unlike the shogunates of Japan, lasted for 104 years in which the post of prime minister was transferred from brother to brother.

During this time, the country was bled white by the Rana rulers in their quest for emulating the grandeur of the British.

Innovation of any kind within the country was disallowed and the people were kept on a tight leash. Criticism of their rule was brooked from no one, not even from within their own family. But the most notable feature of the Rana rule was that Nepal was kept in isolation throughout the long century of their power.

That ended in 1949 when the then King Tribhuwan (the present king's grandfather) took on the might of the Ranas and with the help of a popular armed revolt forced the Ranas to surrender power. Political parties then openly entered the Nepali political scene. The first post-1949 government was a coalition between the Ranas and the Nepali Congress, the party which had led the revolt.

The coalition floundered in no time due to a split in the Nepali Congress. After this followed a period of political instability with governments being successively formed and falling. It needs to be noted here that none of the governments constituted then had a popular mandate; their formation being purely a matter of the king's pleasure.

In order to end this uncertainty in the political scene, general elections were called in 1958. The Nepali Congress came to power with an overwhelming majority. But in 1960, King Mahendra, the present king's father, engineered what has been called a 'palace coup'. Moving swiftly, he had all political parties banned, the leaders, ruling as well as opposition, thrown into prison, power consolidated into his own hands and a political system called the partyless Panchayat system adopted.

It was through this political dispensation that King Mahendra and later the present King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah ruled Nepal for 30 years. All along political dissent was not tolerated. Things changed slightly after the 1980 national referendum which was called after a student-led unrest began to get increasingly violent. The referendum asked the people to choose between the existing partyless Panchayat system and a multi-party system and the partyless Panchayat system won 55 percent of the votes amidst charges of massive rigging.

But despite all efforts the Panchayat system was doomed to failure. In 1990, the Nepali Congress and the communists joined hands for the first time to try and overthrow the Panchayat system. During a campaign, at times bloody, that lasted a month and a half, it became evident that the Panchayat system could not last long. King Birendra, recognizing this fact, bowed to popular will and lifted the ban on political parties.

20 parties contested the May 1991 general election, which was won by the Nepali Congress Party with 37.75% of the vote over the Combined Communist Party (Communist Party of Nepal & Unified Marxist-Leninist Party) with 27.98% of the vote. The following years turned out to be both politically and economically unstable in Nepal, and in 1992 a general strike descended into violence between protesters and the police resulting in a number of deaths. In 1994 the Nepali Congress called a mid-term election, which left no clear winner and eventually led to a coalition dominated by the Combined Communist Party and with the support of the Nepali Congress. Fearing growing grass-root popularity for the communists the Nepali Congress soon withdrew its support and formed a new coalition. Continuing political instability throughout the rest of the 1990s resulted in the collapse of numerous governments and the constant switching of alliances between the major parties usually to further personal rather than political goals. Eventually in the 1999 elections the Nepali Congress Party formed a clear majority with the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party in opposition.

There followed a period of relative calm until on the 1st of June 2001, 7 members of the Royal Family including King Birendra himself, his wife and crown prince Dipendra were massacred in the Royal Palace in Kathmandu. Since no successor was left to take the crown Birendra's brother Gyanendra became King. The massacre spread large-scale unease and depression across the whole country.

Since the massacre of the Royal Family on June 1st 2001, allegedly by Prince Dipendra before shooting himself, Nepal has lived under a black cloud. The massacre happened sometime in the evening when the majority of the Royal family was present. The country went into severe shock and many countless conspiracy theories were thrown around. Many believe that the Prince went on a drink/drug enhanced rampage after being told by the Queen that he would be cast-out were he to marry the girl of his dreams.

Publicly, outward displays of anger dissipated, as people looked to the new King Gyanendra to lead them out of the crisis. Gyanendra's reputation as a shrewd businessman and take-charge leader went before him, as did the expectation that he would take a harder line against the Maoists and a more pragmatic approach to relations with India and China. Many took comfort in the knowledge that he had actually served as King once before: in 1950, the infant Gyanendra occupied the throne for three months during the exile of his Grandfather, Tribhuwan, in India. Others, however, darkly pointed to a legend in which the saint Gorakhnath warned the founder of modern Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, that his dynasty would last only ten generations after him. Gyanendra was the eleventh.

The Royal Massacre on that fateful day gave the Maoists the opportunity they had been looking for. They were able to feed off the anti-monarchy sentiment that was brewing and gave people an outlet to show their dissatisfaction. They quickly stepped up their offensive with renewed attacks on government positions in the countryside and even some minor bombings in the formerly safe Kathmandu Valley. Within six weeks, they had provoked a fresh crisis by holding several dozen police officers hostage in the western district of Rolpa. The then Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala received permission from the King to send army troops to the rescue, but it was his last act. Within days, he was brought down by a no-confidence motion and was replaced by Sher Bahadur Deuba (it was under Deuba's previous administration that the Maoists had declared war). Deuba quickly negotiated a ceasefire and persuaded the Maoists to enter peace talks. Up to this point there had been a good deal of sympathy for the Maoists, both from common people and intellectuals, although this was in no small part due to the complete lack of trust in the mainstream political parties. This passive support evaporated rapidly in the summer of 2001, when it began to appear that the rebels were negotiating in bad faith. Reports of continued intimidation and extortion suggested that they were merely playing for time. These suspicions were confirmed in November, when the Maoists abruptly withdrew from the peace talks and, two days later, launched co-ordinated attacks on several locations, killing more than 200 soldiers and civilians. It was the highest death toll since the insurgency began, and the first time that the rebels attacked army positions. Hardest hit was Salleri, not far from the Everest region; a few weeks later the rebels bombed the Lukla airstrip, used by Everest trekkers.

Government reaction was swift. The King declared a state of emergency – suspending civil liberties such as freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, and giving the government broad powers to arrest suspects and impose curfews. Taking its cue from America's war on terrorism, the government officially declared the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) a terrorist organisation and warned that any found helping them would be prosecuted as terrorists. In the first few months of the emergency, the government imprisoned 5000 people, including more than 100 journalists. The government was without doubt pinning its hopes on a military solution to the Maoist problem.

The spring of 2002 actually saw an escalation in the scale and deadliness of their attacks, with major battles fought in the western districts of Achham and Dang, as well as a growing campaign of destruction of dams, telecommunication facilities and other infrastructure.

King Gyanendra dismissed the government in October 2002, calling it corrupt and ineffective. He declared a state of emergency in November and ordered the army to crack down on the Maoist guerrillas. The rebels intensified their campaign, and the government responded with equal intensity, killing hundreds of Maoists, the largest toll since the insurgency began in 1996. In Aug. 2003, the Maoist rebels withdrew from peace talks with the government and ended a cease-fire that had been signed in Jan. 2003. The following August, the rebels blockaded Kathmandu for a week, cutting off shipments of food and fuel to the capital.

King Gyanendra fired the entire government in Feb. 2005 and assumed direct power. Many of the country's politicians were placed under house arrest, and severe restrictions on civil liberties were instituted. In Sept. 2005, the Maoist rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire, which ended in Jan. 2006. In April, massive pro-democracy protests organized by seven opposition parties and supported by the Maoists took place. They rejected King Gyanendra's offer to hand over executive power to a prime minister, saying he failed to address their main demands: the restoration of parliament and a referendum to redraft the constitution. Days later, as pressure mounted and the protests intensified, King Gyanendra agreed to reinstate parliament. The new parliament quickly moved to diminish the king's powers and selected Girija Prasad Koirala as prime minister. In May, it voted unanimously to declare Nepal a secular nation and strip the king of his authority over the military.

The Maoist rebels and the government signed a landmark peace agreement in November 2006, ending the guerrilla's 10-year insurgency that claimed some 12,000 people. In March 2007, the Maoists achieved another milestone when they joined the interim government. Just months later, in September 2007, however, the Maoists quit the interim government, claiming that not enough progress had been made in abolishing the monarchy and forming a republic. They agreed to rejoin the interim government in December, when Parliament voted to abolish the monarchy and become a federal democratic republic.

In April 2008, millions of voters turned out to elect a 601-seat Constituent Assembly that will write a new constitution. The Maoist Party won 120 out of 240 directly elected seats.

If any doubts over the intent of Nepal to move into the future still lingered, then these were put aside in June 2008 when the deposed King Gyanendra finally left the Royal Palace gates, leaving this beacon of Nepalese Monarchy to transform itself, almost overnight into a museum.

To be continued.....

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