Nepal is an intriguing mix of ethnical groups that all have their own culture and traditions. Mariellen Ward travels around Nepal and discovers the diversity of Nepal culture.
When I checked into Swotha Traditional Homes in Patan, a city just south of Kathmandu, Nepal, I had no idea where I was. It was my first time in Nepal, and I really knew very little about Nepal culture.
Like many westerners, I was mostly aware of Nepal as one of the world’s best trekking destinations. Treks to Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna circuit are legendary. I was also aware of troubled political times in the past, and of course of the horrific earthquake in April 2015.
Nepal culture: skilled Newari in Patan and Kathmandu
But after spending three days in Patan (also known as Lalitpur), my eyes started to open to the complexity and nuance of Nepal culture, and the diverse ethnicities that call Nepal home. I learned that Patan is a Newari city – and Newaris are known to be excellent craftsmen. While their skills as wood carvers, metal workers, Thangka painters, potters, jewelers, and artisans of all kinds may have been endangered at one point, they are coming back to life, thanks to a resurgence of pride in their culture.
Nowadays, Patan is alive with the sounds of workshops and the sight of shops selling their wares. Streets, lanes, and courtyards all over Patan are filled with a dizzying array of locally produced statutes, paintings, utensils, carvings and more. Art galleries such as Yala Mandala , near Patan Durbar Square, showcase local talents and their own branded line of high quality products.
I talked to Yala Mandala founder Pravin Chakratri, who told me he had been working for 25 years to help revive the Newari artisan tradition, and restore their feelings of pride and dignity in their work. “Patan is now the Brooklyn of Nepal,” he said.
While in Patan, I ate at Newari House restaurant, and sampled a Newari vegetarian Thali meal. It was unlike anything I have eaten before. Unique, tangy spices and combinations, and a beautiful presentation on a golden Thali. I also began to notice when I saw men – usually older men – wearing the distinctive Newari cap. And I learned that Newaris carry loads by hanging them from a pole they carry across their upper backs. Very different than the way Sherpas carry loads using a band across their foreheads.
These are all small details and do not constitute a thorough knowledge of Newari culture by any means. But for me, learning about the local culture is a very important aspect of travel.
Nepal culture: a melting pot of cultural groups
As I travelled around Kathmandu, and in the Kathmandu Valley, I started to learn about other communities in Nepal. Though only about 10% of Nepalis are Buddhist, and the majority are Hindu, Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepali seem to effortlessly meld. You might see elements of Buddhism at a Hindu temple, and elements of Hinduism at a Buddhist shrine, for example. There’s even a ceremony where people are paired with someone from one of the other religions in Nepal – to bond, and learn about each other’s customs and traditions.
I learned a little about the Tamang people when I was in Nepal. They are indigenous inhabitants of Nepal who traditionally follow Buddhism. Tamang have their own distinct culture, language, and religion and are one of the largest indigenous populations in Nepal.
While trekking in the Kathmandu Valley, we stopped one night at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. With its hill top location, sweeping views of the Himalayas, and ornate décor, it really did feel as if we were in Tibet, if only for a moment – and especially when we sat in the temple and listened to the monks reciting prayers to the accompaniment of gongs, conch shells, and cymbals.
The Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery offers education, nutritious meals, and, potentially, a vocation as a monk to hundreds of underprivileged local boys. Watching them in their red robes – identical to those worn by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama – they seemed like fit, healthy, and typically playful boys.
Nepal culture: the Gandharba musicians
Back in Kathmandu, I went for dinner to a restaurant called Sarangi in Thamel. Sarangi is a stringed instrument and the restaurant is a social enterprise to support the Gandharba community. The Gandharba people were itinerant musicians and storytellers, and they both entertained and acted as messengers as they went from village to village. But in these times of mass communications, their livelihood has been threatened and their way of life curtailed. You can see them selling sarangi on the streets of Kathmandu.
Sarangi, the restaurant, employees people of the Gandharba community and trains them to work in the hospitality industry. It was started as a collaboration between the community and a group of social entrepreneurs from Australia.
Nepal culture: the Sherpas in the Everest region
There are many other ethnicities in Nepal. One of the most well-known are the Sherpas, who follow Buddhism. Sherpas are from the most mountainous areas of Nepal, and especially the east, where Mount Everest is located. They are renowned of course for their mountaineering skills and heritage, and are often hired as porters for mountaineering expeditions. The word Sherpa comes from Shar (east) and Waa (people) – or, people of the east. It does NOT mean porter.
After only a week in Nepal, I had just enough time to scratch the surface of Nepal culture and learn a little about the patchwork quilt of ethnicities that make up the unique nature of this Himalayan country.
Mariellen Ward is a Canadian travel writer and expert on travelling in India. She is an outspoken advocate for female solo travel. Her website Breathedreamgo is an award-winning travel site dedicated to transformative travel – the kind of travel that changes you, and has a positive impact on local communities and environments.