"A Walk through Nepal"
Tokyo Keizai University
Faculty of Economics, 2nd year
I remember searching for sources about Nepal, hoping to be sufficiently equipped and knowledgeable about the country in order to have a smooth two weeks trip there. I know that Nepal is a country where religion plays such an important role, where spirituality is a major component of everyday life. Therefore, there would be definitely taboos that are better for me to know before going. From there, my studies about Nepal really started. I looked for, and took notes about every aspects surrounding Nepalese culture. I even elaborated some questions that I should ask the locals in order to grasp their own understanding about their culture. After a long period of preparation and anticipation, finally the day to start my new discovery had come and we took off to this journey. During these two weeks, staying with the locals all along, I tried to capture as much as I could, hoping that I could complete what I understood from my researches with actual ground experiences. In order to apprehend the cultural differences that I noticed between Nepal and the countries that I know of (Malaysia, China, Japan), I decided to articulate my report about my experience in Nepal around two axes. Which are the features of the country pertaining to its status as a South Asian developing country, and the features pertaining the influence the country received from neighboring India.
Part I: A poor South Asian country
Several features of Nepal and its culture are the characteristics of a country of his status as a developing South Asian country. Among them, I chose to deal with the reality of a country comprising several ethnicities and languages, and the consequences of poverty on the Nepalese lifestyle.
# Multi-ethnic & Multi-lingual country
Nepal, much like many South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, is a patchwork of ethnicities and languages, which can be related to Indians, Tibetans, or even Mongolians. In order to build a modern country, a common language for all of these people is required, usually called a “bridge language” or “vehicular language”. Just like how Mandarin language was imposed in the People's Republic of China despite the prominent use of some other Chinese languages (Cantonese for example), Nepal uses the Nepali language as a mean to communicate between all of its citizens. Nepali is derived from the Sanskrit language, and uses the same alphabet as this language. The Sanskrit language, from India, is used for the practice of Hinduism, and is a symbol of high culture, much like Classical Chinese is. As Malaysian Chinese, I'm well acquainted of the requirements while living in a multi-racial or a multi-cultural country, since I had to learn Malay language as every other Malaysian citizen. As a Chinese I learn also Mandarin, despite the fact that “Hokkien”, another Chinese language, is the main native language spoken at home by Malaysian Chinese in my hometown (Penang). In Maidan, a remote village located on top of a mountain that was the first village we visited during our trip, inhabitants are mostly from the Magar ethnicity. They speak Magar Bhasa or Kham Bhasa among themselves, and both of these languages are not mutually intelligible with Nepali. Languages differences from one people to another are very common, and Nepali is not the native language of most Nepalese people. On the contrary, Brahmins or Chhetris are examples of ethnicities having Nepali as their mother tongue. Therefore in Nepal, a person will adapt and get to learn the language of the environment they are living in, which must be surprising for people from countries with a single native language, such as Japan. A striking example of how environment, rather than ethnicity can play a role on the language people speak is the case of my closest Nepali friend who resides in Kathmandu. Despite the fact that she is a Magar she speaks only Nepali. While facing the Magars in Maidan, she sometimes couldn’t understand what they were talking about, considering that as a Kathmandu dweller, where multiple communities favors the use of a single, federating language, she only needs to speak Nepali. While for an isolated village, Nepali is far from being a first choice when it comes to daily communication. The situation of Chinese languages in Malaysia and Singapore translates that particular fact about languages: Singapore, given its small size and its important economic weight historically attracted Chinese from all coastal regions of China to a single city, thus favoring the use of Mandarin Chinese language as a mean to communicate between all the Chinese communities. In Malaysia however, the size of the territory and its diversity allowed an economic specialization by region (roughly: tin mining, rubber growing, or trade), which attracted different Chinese communities, impacting the language spoken at home in these different regions nowadays. For example, the trading port of Penang and the potential for rubber growing in the surrounding area attracted chiefly Hakka and Hokkien Chinese, while the tin mining city of Ipoh attracted mainly Cantonese Chinese. Closing my point, I would say that the use of languages in a particular country obeys to dynamics relating not only to one’s own ethnicity, but also to economic activity, demographics, which is the presence of several ethnicities, then geography, history and so on. And for this, Nepal was a major study case on the subject.
# Poor country
Nepal, with a HDI of 0.558 (as of 2016), is one the poorest country of Asia, a situation brought by the recently ended civil war. In addition to that, Nepal is restrained in its development potential by the fact it is a landlocked country. Which means it does not have an access to the ocean. It shares borders with only two countries: China, and India, and by "border with China", we actually mean a border made of the biggest mountain range in the world, beyond which only a sparsely populated region can be found (Tibet). As a result, Nepal has virtually but one option when it comes to international trade: India, which is also an emerging country. Therefore, it does not have the same prospects as, say, South-East Asian emerging countries, connected to global trade routes thanks to their access to the sea. Naturally that poverty impacts greatly the way of life of the Nepalese people. Right after our arrival in the country, in Kathmandu, we could witness the reality of extreme poverty. Homeless people are a common sight. Furthermore, infrastructure as a whole is imperfect: even in the city, it is often to have dirt roads. Utilities such as water, electricity or telecommunication networks are not yet efficient. Construction sites are literally everywhere, with deposits of construction materials on the side road. It is even possible to spot livestock on the streets. Even at the hotel, the standards for cleanliness are not as high as one would expect it. Meanwhile, the use of motorcycles is widespread and largely superior to the use of private cars, which is a feature of every developing country. However, beside Kathmandu, we had plenty of occasions to see another environment, the mountainside. Japanese people are well aware of this fact: mountains impose certain limitations on development. You can hardly build something, or grow something. Consequently, in Nepal, most of the economic activity is concentrated on cities in the valleys in the south of the country, while the mountainous north is quite undeveloped, with mainly villages and small towns. This two-speed development has a huge impact on the way of life of the people living either in the southern valleys, in big cities, or those living in the mountains. For example, in Maidan or Rinhera, villagers often serve foods coming from what they cultivate themselves. Which is the separation of production and consumption, in another words, the development of market economy cannot be seen. In their daily life, the meals that they take everyday are very simple, consisting of the same ingredients. Four days staying in the villages, 2 meals a day, and we took the same thing. As for me, I welcomed it more like a form of simplicity, a back-to-basics way of life, that we couldn’t achieve while living in the cities filled with the things and services that we could easily obtain. Thanks to this “alternative” experience, Nepal taught me that there is more than the comfortable lifestyle that people usually lead in developed countries, more than the usual drives animating people (best studies, best job, etc.). And even if poverty in Nepal is a challenge to its citizens, it was at least an insightful lesson about what truly matters.
Part II: Influence of India
From what I observed, Nepal can fairly be attached to the Indian cultural sphere, the same way Sri Lanka or Bangladesh would be. Indian culture has influenced Nepal in almost every aspects of its culture, a fact not so surprising considering that Nepal is bordering India. Among all the cultural features of Nepal influenced by India, I chose to speak about these two, considering their impact on the lives of the Nepalese people: religion, and the caste system.
Hinduism is the main religion of Nepal, followed by more than 80% of the population. Being from Malaysia, a country which counts an Indian minority originally from southern India, I had many encounters with Hindu temples in my own country. I also have Malaysian Indian acquaintances who follow that particular religion. However, significant differences can be pointed out with what I observed during my stay in Nepal. In Malaysia, Hinduism was brought along by Tamil people while migrating to this country, the same way Chinese brought Buddhism along with them. In a word, these two religions are imported elements to Malaysia, strongly tied to the culture of the people who brought them. Therefore, Hindu temples in Malaysia would resemble closely the architectural style of southern India, with the top of their temple being crowded with colorful figures, while Buddhist temples would follow a Chinese architectural style, with tiled rooftops, the extensive use of the red color, etc. For that same reason, it is not expected to see these religions mixed together, as they relate to two completely different cultural groups. Nepal, on the contrary, is at the very heart of these two religions, which both spawned in neighboring India. These are not imported elements as in Malaysia, but indigenous components. As a result, these religions are intertwined with the local culture to a point that I would hardly differentiate a Buddhist temple from a Hindu temple in Nepal, as they are both built in the Nepalese architectural style: dark wood, brownish bricks, etc. Even more so as one of my Nepalese friend told me that in some temples, entities from both religions were worshiped. Seeing two religions which on paper have nothing to do together being intertwined is not foreign to me though, as a Chinese. And it shouldn't be foreign to Japanese as well: indeed, Chinese religious practices draws from both Taoism and Buddhism, while Japanese see their religious practices being a blend of both Shintoism and Buddhism. Nepal taught me an important lesson however, namely that religious practices of people is much more complex than one would initially think, and is largely inter-dependent with the local culture where it is practiced, rather than a stand-alone set of teachings.
# Caste system
Though not the best legacy of Indian / Hindu culture, Nepal also had a caste system. Even if it is no more legally enforced, it still has some consequences on the Nepalese society. Indeed, most government and administration positions are still occupied by members of the higher castes. The same goes for business owners in the private sector. I had the occasion to witness the caste system reality before, during my trips to India, but didn't have the chance to understand its full extent. I did have that chance during my trip to Nepal since I could discuss to some members of the higher castes, among the Nepali exchange students. Caste systems are not unknown to Chinese and Japanese. Originating from China, the "Four Occupations" system (士農工商, or shinōkōshō in Japanese) did rank citizens into several groups depending on their role in society, as the title suggests it. Court officials, farmers, craftsmen and merchants, roughly. The Indian-style caste system in Nepal, however, is based on ethnicity, and is therefore much closer to the reality of minorities in China versus Han Chinese, or the former situation of Ainu or Ryukyan people in Japan. The caste system in Nepal is slowly being abandoned though, which might be accelerated with the economic development of the country.
By living in a single environment for a prolonged period, we tend to not notice anymore the fundamental features of this environment. It is when we get out of this environment and experience some others that we can point at things and name them. As for me, different from the Far East Asian cultural sphere that I know about, Nepal was this other environment. At any rate, I learned a great deal of things during my trip to Nepal. By witnessing this completely different culture and comparing it to those that I know of, I could draw similarities, establish parallels, and get to know better my own culture. Beyond these teachings, it was the occasion for me to discover a wonderful country, with breathtaking landscapes and warm people. I’ve met people, seen things, experience unusual situations, and I won’t forget any of these.