According to the local legends, the word 'Nepal' originated from the name of a sage called 'Ne,' who established himself in the Nepal Valley (popularly called the Kathmandu Valley now). The word could also have originated from the name of an indigenous community of Nepal - Newar community. What we see today as this roughly rectangular, small land-locked country squeezed between the modern day giants of India and China, is a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-racial and multi-cultural country with a long and rich past that dates back to 11000 years! The history of Nepal is broadly divided into 3 parts i.e. Ancient, Medieval and Modern.
Pre-history and Ancient Nepal
Our knowledge of the prehistory of Nepal mostly comes from the Hindu and Buddhist versions of the legendary traditions of the Newar community, an indigenous community of Nepal residing in the Nepal Valley (now Kathmandu Valley). This community, today popular among tourists for its ethnic jewellery, has played a major role in building Nepal as a nation.
Buddhist History of Nepal
Gautama Buddha was born in Lumbini, a province at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains in the Terai plains of southern Nepal, and a World Heritage site since 1997. A famous column inscribed on a pillar erected in Lumbini by the Indian Emperor Ashoka, in the 3rd century BCE is evident of the early Buddhist influence in Nepal. Although there is no evidence to prove that Ashoka went there himself, oral histories narrate the story of him visiting Kathmandu Valley and erecting four stupas around Patan.
The Kiratis and the Lichhavis
The recorded history of Nepal starts with the Kiratis, who arrived from the East in the 7th or 8th centuries BCE and are the first known rulers of Nepal. At the beginning of the 4th century CE, the Kiratis were overthrown by the Lichhavis - the first ruling family with Indian origins. Nepal flourished under the Lichhavis, who laid the foundation of Kathmandu's architecture and much of its culture. Two of the UNESCO cultural heritage sites of Nepal, the Changu Narayan Temple near Bhaktapur and the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu are legacies of the Lichhavis.
Going by the popular legends, the origin of this world famous temple lies in a mound. A cow roamed around this mound and offered it her milk every day. This strange routine was noticed by a herder. Out of curiosity, he dug the spot, to discover a linga with faces of Shiva carved on it. This Linga emitted a very bright light. Later, a shrine was built, dedicated to an incarnation of Shiva, Pashupatinath - the protector of animals.
Mallas and the Golden Age
If Lichhavis laid the foundation of Nepal's culture, it was the Mallas who ushered in a golden age of cultural brilliance. In their 550 years of rule, they built many temples and palaces, encouraged literature, art and music, and introduced dramatic chariot festivals of Indra Jatra and Machhendranath. They also united the whole valley and codified its laws, which were strongly influenced by Hindu principles, like that of the caste system. Yaksha Malla, in the 15th century, divided the kingdom among his three sons, thus creating the kingdoms of Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur (Bhadgaon).
The legend surrounding the Indra Jatra Festival
According to the popular folklore, Lord Indra once visited Kathmandu disguised as a peasant collecting flowers for his mother. He was caught while plucking flowers and was soon captured by the people. In his long absence, his mother got anxious and came down to Kathmandu, only to find him captured, with his legs and hands tied up. People soon found out the truth about Lord Indra and were quite embarrassed. Consequently, they asked for forgiveness and started celebrating Indra's visit with grand feasts, chariot processions, singing and dancing. This festival is celebrated to this day in Nepal, every year in August or September.
Conquest of the Gorkha ruler
Numerous independent principalities also existed in the 15th century. One of these principalities, called Gorkha grew quite powerful in the 18th century, so much so that the Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah posed a challenge to Nepal Valley. He finally conquered the valley in 1769, moved his capital to Kathmandu and established the Shah Dynasty (which ruled over Nepal till 2008!).
Extreme ethnic and linguistic diversity in Nepal made things difficult for the Shah rulers, who wanted to establish a centralized control. The crisis of succession followed by the death of Prithvi Narayan Shah further aggravated the problems. As a result, in the 19th century, Shah Rulers were reduced to mere figureheads, and the real power went into the hands of powerful families like the Rana family. The period that followed experienced the process of democratization - with the introduction of democratic elections and a constitution.
The years that followed were definitely not rosy as there were huge protests in the form of the people's movement, followed by the Maoist uprising and a failed experiment with democracy. In 2008, Nepal was declared a Federal Democratic Republic, abolishing the 240-year-old monarchy in the state. Nepal has definitely come a long way, though its struggle with modernization still continues.
Now that you are familiar with the past of the country you are going to visit, your future trip would be way more interesting and meaningful. So go travel time, visit those temples and stupas, observe the indigenous communities, walk through the old paths and touch the intangible past!