Nepal is a collision zone.
The towering Himalaya Mountains attest to the colossal tectonic force of the Indian Subcontinent as it plows into mainland Asia.
Nepal also marks the collision point between Hinduism and Buddhism, between the Tibeto-Burmese language group and the Indo-European, and between Central Asian culture and Indian culture.
It's little wonder, then, that this beautiful and diverse country has fascinated travelers and explorers for centuries.
Capital and Major Cities:
Kathmandu, population 702,000
Pokhara, population 200,000
Patan, population 190,000
Biratnagar, population 167,000
Bhaktapur, population 78,000
As of 2008, the former Kingdom of Nepal is a representative democracy.
The president of Nepal serves as chief of state, while the prime minister is head of government. A Cabinet or Council of Ministers fills out the executive branch.
Nepal has a unicameral legislature, the Constituent Assembly, with 601 seats. 240 members are directly elected; 335 seats are awarded by proportional representation; and 26 are appointed by the Cabinet.
The Sarbochha Adala (Supreme Court) is the highest court.
The current president is Ram Baran Yadav; former Maoist rebel leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) is Prime Minister.
According to Nepal's constitution, all of the national languages can be used as official languages.
There are over 100 recognized languages in Nepal. The most commonly used are Nepali (also called Gurkhali or Khaskura), spoken by nearly 60 percent of the population, and Nepal Bhasa (Newari).
Nepali is one of the Indo-Aryan languages, related to European languages.
Nepal Bhasa is a Tibeto-Burman tongue, part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Roughly 1 million people in Nepal speak this language.
Other common languages in Nepal include Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Gurung, Tamang, Awadhi, Kiranti, Magar, and Sherpa.
Nepal is home to nearly 29,000,000 people. The population is primarily rural (Kathmandu, the largest city, has less than 1 million inhabitants).
Nepal's demographics are complicated not only by dozens of ethnic groups, but by different castes, which also function as ethnic groups.
In total, there are 103 castes or ethnic groups.
The two largest are Indo-Aryan: Chetri (15.8% of the population) and Bahun (12.7%). Others include Magar (7.1%), Tharu (6.8%), Tamang and Newar (5.5% each), Muslim (4.3%), Kami (3.9%), Rai (2.7%), Gurung (2.5%) and Damai (2.4%).
Each of the other 92 castes/ethnic groups make up less than 2%.
Nepal is primarily a Hindu country, with more than 80% of the population adhering to that faith.
However, Buddhism (at about 11%) also exerts a lot of influence. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born at Lumbini, in southern Nepal.
In fact, many Nepalese people combine Hindu and Buddhist practice; many temples and shrines are shared between the two faiths, and some deities are worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists.
Smaller minority religions include Islam, with about 4%; the syncretic religion called Kirat Mundhum, which is a blend of animism, Buddhism, and Saivite Hinduism, at about 3.5%; and Christianity (0.5%).
Nepal covers 147,181 sq. kilometers (56,827 sq. miles), sandwiched between the People's Republic of China to the north and India to the west, south and east. It is a geographically diverse, land-locked country.
Of course, Nepal is associated with the Himalayan Range, including the world's tallest mountain, Mt. Everest. Standing at 8,848 meters (29,028 feet), Everest is called Saragmatha or Chomolungma in Nepali and Tibetan.
Southern Nepal, however, is a tropical monsoonal lowland, called the Tarai Plain. The lowest point is Kanchan Kalan, at just 70 meters (679 feet).
Most people live in the temperate hilly midlands.
Nepal lies at roughly the same latitude as Saudi Arabia or Florida. Due to its extreme topography, however, it has a much wider range of climate zones than those places.
The southern Tarai Plain is tropical/subtropical, with hot summers and warm winters. Temperatures reach 40°C in April and May. Monsoon rains drench the region from June to September, with 75-150 cm (30-60 inches) of rain.
The central hill-lands, including the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys, have a temperate climate, and are also influenced by the monsoons.
In the north, the high Himalayas are extremely cold and increasingly dry as the altitude rises.
Despite its tourism and energy-production potential, Nepal remains one of the world's poorest countries.
The per capita income for 2007/2008 was just $470 US. Over 1/3 of Nepalis live below the poverty line; in 2004, the unemployment rate was a shocking 42%.
Agriculture employs more than 75% of the population, and produces 38% of GDP. The primary crops are rice, wheat, maize, and sugarcane.
Nepal exports garments, carpets, and hydroelectric power.
The civil war between Maoist rebels and the government, which began in 1996 and ended in 2007, severely reduced Nepal's tourism industry.
$1 US = 77.4 Nepal rupees (Jan. 2009).
History of Nepal:
Archaeological evidence shows that Neolithic humans moved into the Himalayas at least 9,000 years ago.
The first written records date back to the Kirati people, who lived in eastern Nepal, and the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley. Stories of their exploits begin around 800 B.C.
Both Brahmanic Hindu and Buddhist legends relate the tales of ancient rulers from Nepal. These Tibeto-Burmese peoples feature prominently in ancient Indian classics, suggesting that close ties bound the region almost 3,000 years ago.
A pivotal moment in Nepal's history was the birth of Buddhism. Prince Siddharta Gautama (563-483 B.C.), of Lumbini, forswore his royal life and devoted himself to spirituality. He became known as the Buddha, or "the enlightened one."
In the 4th or 5th century A.D., the Licchavi dynasty moved into Nepal from the Indian plain. Under the Licchavis, Nepal's trade ties with Tibet and China expanded, leading to a cultural and intellectual renaissance.
The Malla dynasty, which ruled from the 10th to 18th centuries, imposed a uniform Hindu legal and social code on Nepal. Under the pressure of inheritance fights and Muslim invasions from northern India, the Malla were weakened by the early 18th century.
The Gurkhas, led by the Shah dynasty, soon challenged the Mallas. In 1769, Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the Mallas and conquered Kathmandu.
The Shah dynasty proved weak. Several of the kings were children when they took power, so noble families vied to be the power behind the throne.
In fact, the Thapa family controlled Nepal 1806-37, while the Ranas took power 1846-1951.
In 1950, the push for democratic reforms began. A new constitution was finally ratified in 1959, and a national assembly elected.
In 1962, though, King Mahendra (r. 1955-72) disbanded the Congress and jailed most of the government. He promulgated a new constitution, which returned most of the power to him.
In 1972, Mahendra's son Birendra succeeded him. Birendra introduced limited democratization again in 1980, but public protests and strikes for further reform rocked the nation in 1990, resulting in the creation of a multiparty parliamentary monarchy.
A Maoist insurgence began in 1996, ending with a communist victory in 2007. Meanwhile, in 2001, the Crown Prince massacred King Birendra and the royal family, bringing the unpopular Gyanendra to the throne.
Gyanendra was forced to abdicate in 2007, and the Maoists won democratic elections in 2008.