Nepal, Land of Eternal Fascination
Elsie L. James
There is a Sanskrit proverb that states: "A hundred divine epochs would not suffice to describe all the marvels of the Himalaya." However, the lure of Nepal is not limited to its magnificent mountains. Its diversity extends to all aspects of lifegeography, flora, fauna, the charm of her friendly people, their culture and their traditions.
Did you know, for example, Nepal is home to twenty-nine varieties of rhododendrons and honors the red Rhododendron arboreum as its national flower? All parts of this magnificent tree (Laligras to Nepalis) are used in a multiplicity of ways. To some it's a source of medicine for a number of common human ailments. The wood is used for utensils and as a household construction material. Dead branches and dried leaves are fuel or compost. Juice from the crushed leaves poisons fish and rids bedding of bugs. The pickled flowers are a savored condiment. The blooms are also popular as a personal or household decoration and as religious offerings. Plants and People of Nepal by Narayan Manandhar, Timber Press, Oregon 2002)
Nepal is the only Hindu Kingdom in the world - a constitutional monarchy since 1991. What other country reveres the cow as sacred or considers them an acceptable form of payment for spiritual services rendered by local Hindu priests? Small wonder that bovines feel safe sleeping soundly in the middle of busy downtown traffic lanes. Who would dare run over them?
This land of unparalleled variety is condensed into a relatively tiny package. From the sub-tropical region of the Terai in the south through the temperate central foothills and up to the alpine heights of the mighty Himalaya, Nepal challenges all the senses of her visitors. A tremendous transition takes place as you travel from the southern border of Nepal, shared with India, to its northern boundary with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. In a relatively short distance of approximately 150 miles the elevation changes from 220 feet (66m) above sea level to the highest point on earth, Mt. Everest, at 29,028 feet (8708m). Truly there are six directions in Nepal - north, south, east, west, up and down!
Nepal is also a collage of more than thirty-five ethnic groups described by tribe, clan, caste and race (primarily of Indo-Aryan or Mongolian origin) each with their own unique language, culture and traditions. Originally, specific groups were found only in certain areas of the country, and those regions are still considered their traditional homelands even though travel and re-settlement has become more common in recent history. Nepali is the official national language and has become a uniting factor among the younger generations of Nepalese but ethnic dialects are still very much alive in everyday rural life.
The southern flat grasslands and sub-tropical forests of the Terai are the traditional home of the Tharu people. This rich agricultural area supports more than 47 percent of the approximately 24 million people in Nepal. The Tharu are a simple folk - peasant farmers, fishermen and hunters who have learned to exist in what was once malarial infested swampland and jungle. The Terai now produce most of the commercial agricultural products needed to feed the burgeoning population of Nepal.
The Middle Hills Region, lofty foothills of the gigantic Himalaya, is home to the majority of Brahmins, Chhetris, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Rais, Limbus and Tamangs and their cousins, the Thakalis. They tend to be the shopkeepers, lodge owners, urban businessmen, career military (the famous Gurkhas). Among them are educated professionals and sustenance farmers. Farmlands here are an extraordinary ladder of step-like terraces that ascend steep mountainsides up to 10,000 feet (3000m) or higher. There are no tractors or threshing machines in the Middle Hills, only lots of man and woman power. Life in the rural areas is a constant round of work for all generations of the family. There is little leisure time to enjoy their scenic surroundings except when one of the many Religious Festival Days gives them pause from work and cause to celebrate life. They do this with great enthusiasm. Lives are closely aligned to the rhythms of nature and the call of the land.
In the high Himalayan regions the dominant tribes are the famous Sherpa people of the Khumbu (Everest) area and the Manangis of the northeastern sector of the Annapurna region. Both clans are Tibetan in origin, primarily Buddhist in religious practice. Many of these people have become a relatively affluent segment of the population due to their involvement in trade/tourism. In the case of the Sherpa people, their fame as high altitude mountaineering guides and expedition members has brought many families prosperity.
While diverse in culture/traditions, language dialects, work and religious practice, Nepalis are united in their fervent love for their land and have a common sense of spirituality in everyday life. Spirituality permeates all facets of everyday life, whether one is a Hindu, Buddhist, Bon, Jain or believer in Shamanistic practice. Phases of the moon govern many aspects of religious practice. The scheduling of important events is kept in harmony with the cycles of nature and an auspicious time for celebrations is sought in consultation with astrologers.
A large variety of flora and fauna inhabit the dramatic landscape of Nepal. There are more than 6,500 species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Because of the vast differences in altitude there is hardly a time when plants are not blooming somewhere in Nepal. This glorious floral show reaches a peak in March and April when the rhododendrons burst into bloom on the steep Himalayan hillsides. At the same time, huge magnolia flowers appear looking like large white birds poised for flight on the bare branches. Brilliant red flame trees and bottlebrush trees, the delicate blue-mauve of the jacaranda and the spectacular poinsettias, each have their own charm and season. More than 300 varieties of orchids bloom during the year on the ground or clinging to tree branches. Many wild flowers, some familiar in our own forests and alpine meadows, are also found in Nepal.
Eight hundred species of birds, nearly 10 percent of the world's varieties are either resident or migratory species in Nepal making it a bird-watcher's paradise.
Large mammals are in residence but given the human populace intruding into much of their natural habitat, they tend to be elusive and there are few opportunities to view them in the wild. Thankfully, Nepal has an extensive network of national parks (8) and Wildlife Reserves (4), plus three conservation areas and a hunting reserve - unusual for such a small country. This has enabled the preservation of a larger number of endangered species, both plants and animals, than in any other part of Asia. The royal Bengal tiger, one-horned rhino, Indian elephant, snow leopard, spotted leopard and Himalayan bear are some of the large mammals protected in Nepal. Langur and rhesus monkeys and also several species of deer are common to Nepalese forests and highlands. In fact, rhesus monkeys are found in many urban areas, too.
The Annapurna Conservation Area Project sponsored by the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation began operation in 1986. Since then, great strides have been made in their effort to integrate nature conservation and community development. The ACAP concept has become a model for many conservation projects throughout the world. Their mandate states, "Our way of conservation is not a separation of people from nature. It is the empowerment of people as nature's protectors. We believe that conservation and development can be complementary to each other. The area inhabitants must feel responsible for their environment to conserve it, and they need information and tools for sustainable development. ACAP'S task is to help them live up to their role - as active protectors of nature and culture and builders of their own future."
Nepal, this fascinating land of gods and goddesses, is a daily celebration of life. A land where the reality of poverty is often dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and the quiet response, "Ke garne?" (What to do?) That's just the way it is!
Nepali people believe that all guests, whether invited or not, are "gods in disguise." That belief is symbolized in the traditional greeting and farewell when hands are clasped in a prayer-like fashion saluting the arriving or departing guest with "Namaste!" (meaning, "I salute the God within you.")
Next Spring, March 14 to April 3, 2004, a group of avid flower lovers from Canada and USA are planning a trip to Nepal for a "Walk through Nature's Garden". As part of that experience they will visit a small corner of the vast Annapurna Conservation Area Project with the primary purpose of seeing the spectacular blooming of one of the prime rhododendron forests. Just imagine steep hillsides clothed in 80-foot-high rhododendron trees in full bloom against a backdrop of icy Himalayan peaks! Most days will consist of half-day, guided treks with time in the afternoon to explore the local countryside, study the flowers, take photos and/or meet the local people. Overnight stays will be in local lodges. Porters will carry your gear.
Elsie James is a Humanitarian Service volunteer supporting a village school project in Nepal. She has eight years experience organizing and leading groups in Nepal.