Even though Nepal has made considerable progress toward reducing poverty over the past years, it remains the poorest country in South Asia with wide discrepancies depending on geographic location, ethnicity, caste and gender. Not only infant mortality rates are a major concern, being among the highest in the region, also the high maternal mortality are alarming, resulting in a life expectancy for women which is considerably lower than for men. Gender disparities are also common when it comes to literacy: only 26% of Nepal's women are literate, compared to 62% of men. With this, inequality has risen to the highest level in South Asia and presents a major challenge to reverse.
In meeting these challenges, Nepal does have some significant assets: there is compelling evidence that the strength behind development in Nepal is highly concentrated at the community level, with impressive successes where local initiatives have been implemented. Hence, international volunteers that are getting involved in the projects Idex facilitates can be sure to make a difference and will have a unique, maybe even life-changing experience.
Moreover, Nepal has a lot to offer to the international traveler: surrounded by the great heights of the Himalaya, Nepal is a country of colorful cultures, ancient history, hospitable people, unique scenery and some of the best walking on earth. But trekking is not the only activity which draws visitors: exciting white-water rafting opportunities, mountain biking, and jungle-safaris on elephant-back in the Royal Chitwan National Park are further not-to-be-missed parts of the Nepal experience.
Pre 20th Century
Nepal's recorded history began with the Kiratis, who arrived in the 7th or 8th century BC from the east. Little is known about them, other than their skill as sheep farmers and their fondness for knives. It is generally assumed that they followed a mixture of Hindu and Tantric beliefs. During the same period, a new religion arrived in Nepal - Buddhism, created by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha and the prince of the kingdom of Kapilavastu, near Lumbini. By 200 AD, Buddhism was on the decline. The Licchavis invaded from northern India and overthrew the last Kirati king, re-imposing Hinduism and the caste system (which still continues today) and ushering in a golden age of Nepali art and architecture.
By 879, the Licchavi era had petered out and was succeeded by the Thakuri dynasty. A grim period of instability and invasion often referred to as the 'Dark Ages' followed, but Kathmandu Valley's strategic location ensured the kingdom's survival and growth. Several centuries later, the Thakuri king, Arideva, founded the Malla dynasty, kick-starting another renaissance of Nepali culture. Despite earthquakes, the odd invasion and feuding between the independent city-states of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, the dynasty flourished, reaching its zenith in the 15th century under Yaksha Malla.
The rulers of the western city-state of Gorkha had always coveted the Mallas' wealth and under the inspired leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah the Gurkhas launched a campaign to conquer the Kathmandu Valley. In 1768 - after 27 years of fighting - they triumphed and moved their capital to Kathmandu. From this new base the kingdom's power expanded, borne by a seemingly unstoppable army, until progress was halted in 1792 by a brief and chastening war with Tibet. The courage of the Gurkhas under fire is legendary. Many fighting forces around the world still maintain Gurkha regiments, including the British Army.
Further hostilities followed in 1814, this time with the British. After years of skirmishes over the ownership of the Terai, The Nepali forces were eventually brought to heel and compelled to sign the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which surrendered Sikkim and most of Terai, establishing Nepal's present eastern and western boundaries. Some of the land was eventually restored in return for Nepalese help in quelling the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
The Shah dynasty continued in power during the first half of the 19th century until the ghastly Kot Massacre of 1846. Taking advantage of the intrigue and assassinations that had plagued the ruling family, Jung Bahadur seized control by butchering several hundred of the most important men while they assembled in the Kot courtyard. He took the more prestigious title Rana, proclaimed himself prime minister for life, and later made the office hereditary. For the next century, the Ranas and their offspring luxuriated in huge Kathmandu palaces, while the remainder of the population eked out a living in medieval conditions. The borders of Nepal were sealed to foreigners until after WWII and the country receded into myth and legend.
The Rana's antiquated regime came to an end soon after WWII. In 1948, the British withdrew from India, and with them went the Ranas' chief support. Around the same time, a host of insurrectional movements, bent on reshaping the country's polity, emerged. Sporadic fighting spilled onto the streets and the Ranas, at the behest of India, reluctantly agreed to negotiations. King Tribhuvan was anointed ruler in 1951 and struck up a government comprised of Ranas and members of the newly formed Nepali Congress Party. The borders were also finally re-opened - the first foreigner to enter Nepal in a century was the Swiss explorer Toni Hagen in 1951.
But the political harmony was shortlived. After toying with democratic elections - and feeling none too pleased by the result - King Mahendra (Tribhuvan's son and successor) decided that a 'partyless' panchayat system would be more appropriate for Nepal. The king selected the prime minister and cabinet and appointed a large proportion of the national assembly, which duly rubber-stamped his policies. Power, of course, remained with only one party - the king's.
Cronyism, corruption and the creaming-off of lucrative foreign aid into royal coffers continued until 1989. The Nepalis, fed up with years of hardship and suffering under a crippling trade embargo imposed by the Indians, rose up in popular protest called the Jana Andolan or 'People's Movement'. In the ensuing months, detention, torture and violent clashes left hundreds of people dead. It all proved too much for King Birendra, in power since 1972. He dissolved his cabinet, legalised political parties and invited the opposition to form an interim government. The panchayat system was finally laid to rest.
The changeover to democracy proceeded in an orderly, if leisurely, fashion, and in May 1991 the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal shared most of the votes.
The peace and quiet was disrupted when the Communists became increasingly frustrated with power-sharing, leading to the creation of several radical Maoist splinter groups. Then, in June 2001, the unthinkable happened. King Birendra, worshipped by many as a living incarnation of Vishnu, was killed in a dreadful massacre, along with most of the royal family. The killer was though to be King Birendra's son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who died shortly afterwards, apparently from self-inflicted wounds. Shady Prince Gyanendra, the brother of King Birendra, ascended to the throne. Whether or not Gyanendra engineered the royal massacre to bring himself to power is still a popular topic of debate across Nepal.
The first few years of Gyanendra's rule were fairly uneventful, though he continued the tradition of royal disregard for the people of Nepal and their elected officials. Facing growing neglect from the central government, many Nepalis turned to Maoism, sowing the seeds for revolution. In 1996, the Maoist leader Prachanda (The Fierce One) launched a nationwide rebellion against the government and monarchy, leaving Nepal in a state of virtual civil war. Tens of thousands of people have since been killed in fighting between rebels and government forces.
Since then, Nepal has discovered that establishing a workable democratic system is an enormously difficult task - especially when it is the country's first such system. The situation has been further exacerbated by a wafer-thin economy, massive unemployment, illiteracy and an ethnically and religiously fragmented population that continues to grow at an alarming rate.
Nepal's faltering steps towards democracy came to a sudden stop in 2002 when Gyanendra dissolved the government and appointed his own cabinet. Elections were postponed indefinitely and rebels used the political infighting as an opportunity to seize large parts of rural Nepal. One year later, in 2003, the appointed prime minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand also resigned, throwing the elected government into disarray. A ceasefire with the Maoists proved shortlived and when the king appointed another monarchist as prime minister, protesters took to the streets. That has largely been the pattern in Nepal ever since. Growing pro-democracy protests have been met by arrests of students and opposition politicians and Maoists have repeatedly blockaded all roads into and out of Kathmandu. The most recent ceasefire collapsed in January 2006 when a spate of rebel attacks on towns across Nepal killed hundreds. Nepal has effectively had no parliamentary democracy at all since February 2005, when the King declared a state of emergency. Since then hundreds of activists have been arbitrarily imprisoned and independent newspapers and radio stations have been closed down by government forces. Hemmed in by murderous rebels and a King who is increasingly a law unto himself, Nepalis are looking nervously towards the proposed general elections in 2007 to provide some resolution to the crisis.
Nepalese families are quite big. Normally there are grandparents, parents and children living under one roof and sharing the daily activities. As part of this community you should be open and try to help and involve yourself in tasks carried out at home. They are interested to show you their way of life. You could learn how to cook, to milk the buffalo or to work on the field (planting rice and vegetables). Additionally, you can support them by doing the dishes and cleaning your room. Sometimes you might just watch TV or play cards with the whole family.
Younger family members are especially interested to learn more about your family and culture. So, don't forget to bring some pictures and tell something about your life. Perhaps you even get the chance to cook and show how food is prepared in your country.
Most of the families have experience with volunteers and will give you all the necessary advice and support you need to feel comfortable. Some family members might speak English. In case you have any problems or you are not sure how to behave and what to do, feel free to ask them. Additionally, RCDP-Nepal members will visit you from time to time and you can address any problems to the office in Kathmandu by telephone or email.
Regarding moral values, religion and cultural issues Nepal can be very different from Ireland. Sometimes you might think roles are antiquated, but be careful not to judge their way of life, you are here to learn and to understand these people. Woman should be aware of the fact that their position in Nepalese society can't be compared to their position in western countries. Arranged marriages are normal and the role of women is confined to housewives and mothers. Nepalese people may have trouble understanding how you can travel alone, leaving your parents. Special roles for family life will apply regarding the religion (Buddhism and Hinduism). You will learn more about this and other aspects of the Nepalese culture during the orientation program at RCDP-Nepal at the beginning of your stay.
90% Hindu, 5% Buddhist, 3% Muslim, 2% other
Nepal has four distinct seasons. Spring from March to May, is warm with rain showers. Summer, from June to August, is the monsoon season. Autumn, from September to November, is cool with clear skies and is the most popular season for trekking. In winter, from December to February, it is cold at night, with fog in the early morning.
Because Nepal is quite far south in Latitude the weather is warmer and winter is much milder at lower elevations. The monsoon is determined by the Bay of Bengal. It is hot during the monsoon with rain almost everyday. During this season, trekking in most of Nepal is difficult and uncomfortable, the trails being muddy and infested with leeches. It usually does not rain for more that one or two days during the entire autumn and the winter season. In the winter, the mountains are covered with snow including some high hills. Mt. Everest itself is a huge black rock during the trekking season, which becomes snow-covered only during the winter.