Religion in Nepal - The Repository of Ethnic Mosaic
Nepal, the abode of the Himalayas and the mighty Mount Everest, since time immemorial has witnessed the origin and development of many world religions. Although it was officially a Hindu nation until 2007, people of varied faiths have lived in harmony in Nepal for hundreds of years.
Read on to know more about the various religions that exist in Nepal currently, their history, their beliefs and practices.
Hinduism is the dominant religion in Nepal with around 81% of the population being Hindus. This is well evident from the many Hindu temples spread throughout the country. Legend has it that a sage named Ne Muni was the one to introduce the religion in Nepal in prehistoric times, living in the Himalayas and teaching his doctrines. He also chose the first ever king of Nepal - Bhuktaman and laid the foundation of the Gopala Dynasty. The country is believed to be named after him. The double triangular Nepali flag with sun and moon is also believed to be given to the people by Lord Vishnu.
Legends apart, most of the dynasties that had ruled Nepal for centuries - Lichhavi, Simroun, Thakuri, Suryavanshi, Malla and Shah, had Hindu kings, thus leading to an overwhelming expansion of the religion in the country over the years. Hindus in Nepal are polytheistic just like Hindus elsewhere and celebrate numerous festivals throughout the year such as Dashain & Tihar (Nepali equivalent of Durga Puja and Diwali), Gaijatra, Fagun Purnima (Holi), Krishna Janmashtami, etc. The Pashupatinath and Budhanilkantha are some of the well-known Hindu temples. Janakpur in Nepal is considered by many to be the birthplace of Sita and hence is another holy place.
Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal have shared many of their places of worship, having found similarities in each others' religious beliefs and practices - the Muktinath Temple is one such. They celebrate some common festivals like Buddha Jayanti and Indrajatra. In fact, there are many people who practice both the religions.
The religion of Buddhism traces back its roots to the country, with Lumbini in Nepal being the birthplace of Lord Buddha. His clan, the Shakyas helped in the initial spread of Buddhism in the Kathmandu valley and thereafter, the religion flourished during the reign of emperor Ashoka, then during the Lichhavi period and during the Malla dynasty until 1769 CE. After this period the Shah dynasty took over in Nepal and Buddhism gradually declined with much of its practices being absorbed in Hinduism. The Rana dynasty between 1846 to 1941 saw the religion reaching a rock bottom with Buddhist monks being banished from the country. Subsequent to that during the reign of Shahs, efforts were made to revive the religion and Buddhism again started gaining prominence.
At present around 9% of the total population of Nepal practices the religion and three main schools of thought can be observed - Tibetan, Newar and Theravada Buddhism. Swayambhunath and Boudhanath are two of the most popular Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Nepal, with the latter even being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to these, the country has numerous other Buddhist monuments and monasteries.
After Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam is the next most practised faith constituting around 4.4% of the total population. The first ever Muslims to have arrived in Nepal comprised of Kashmiris, Persians, Afghans and Arabians who worked as courtiers, counsellors and musicians of Nepali kings, traders, manufacturers of guns, and also trainers of Nepali soldiers in the use of arms and ammunition. In later years, many of these people escaped on the fear of being persecuted by Hindu kings, while many others arrived in the country fleeing the revolt of 1857 in India. The present-day Nepali Muslims are actually descendants of these people and some other Kashmiri merchants who arrived as late as the 1970s and Tibetan Muslims who arrived in the country post-1959 after the Communist takeover in China.
Most of these people now live in the Terai region in south Nepal and have cultural similarities with North-Indian Muslims. There are a number of mosques in Nepal, Kashmiri Takia Mosque in Durbar Marg being the oldest. The Raki Bazaar in Indra Chowk is named after the Iraqi merchants who settled here during medieval times.
Kiratism is an ancient religion that is said to have originated in Nepal. The indigenous Himalayan tribes of Limbu, Rai, Sunuwar and Yakkha are followers of this faith. Also known as Kirat Mundhum, Kiratism involves worship of ancestors, nature, sun, moon, wind, fire, main pillar of their homes, and Gods like Sumnima-Paruhang and Tagera Ningwaphumang, and combines beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, Shaivism and animism.
Each of the four tribes has their own religious texts and some distinct beliefs, rituals and traditions. They celebrate festivals like Udhauli and Ubhauli marking the onset of the winter and summer seasons respectively and accordingly the migration of birds and animals to the warmer south or cooler northern regions. Sometimes Dashain and Tihar are also celebrated along with some sect-wise specific festivals.
Kiratis have a long and ancient history and they find their mention in Hindu epics like Vedas and Mahabharata. Historians have confirmed that Kirati kings have ruled over the Kathmandu valley for nearly 2000 years, even prior to the Lichhavis. But despite such a long and rich history, Kiratis at present comprise a meagre 3% of the Nepali population residing mostly on the eastern parts.
In Nepal there are around 380,000 reported Christians (1.4% of the population), most of them being evangelical Protestants and very few Catholics. The reason for this small share is that Christians had been officially banned in Nepal for a long period of time until 1951. They started entering Nepal in 1951 and the first church of Nepal - The Ram Ghat church in Pokhara - was built in 1952. Subsequent years saw the formation of many Christian missionary organizations who built hospitals and made efforts to develop education and rural areas. However, conversion or influencing people to change their faith remained illegal, so the church did not develop much until 1990 when the situation improved with the introduction of multi-party democracy in the country.
It has been said that Christians of Nepal have been victims of religious violence and faced discrimination in the Hindu-majority country. Christianity still continues to be a controversial religion in Nepal and it is believed that the actual population of Christians in the country is much higher than what is reported.
The remaining 0.9% of the Nepali population is made up of Sikhs, Jains, Bahai's, Jews and atheists.
Sikhism in Nepal was initiated in 1516 with Guru Nanak Dev visiting the country, meditating and preaching there. In later years, many more Sikhs entered the country fleeing from the British and settled there. At present, there are nearly 7000 Sikhs in Nepal who worship in two of the Gurdwaras in the country. The Nanak Math in Kathmandu is another holy site for Nepali Sikhs.
Currently, there are around 4000 Jains in Nepal who form the Jain society and worship in the Jain temple in Kathmandu. Members of both the sects in Jainism - Digambar and Svetambara are allowed to worship there. The roots of Jainism in Nepal can be traced back to as early as 300 BC, when Bhadrabahu - the last acharya of the unified Jain sangha, went to the country for penance and stayed there for twelve years preaching the teachings of Lord Mahavira.
The Bahá'ís are a minority religion in Nepal with hardly 1500 people. However, despite this religious minority, there is no denying the contribution of the Bahai's in the social upliftment of the country. They have engaged themselves in women empowerment schemes, rural development programmes and formation of schools and clinics. Nepalis started converting to Bahá'ísm in the 1950s following the entry of some of the followers of the faith to Nepal and a United Nations conference in Colombo.
Nepal does not have any native Jews. The practice of the religion began only in 1986 with the embassy of Israel in Kathmandu organizing a 'Passover' - a traditional Jewish celebration and holiday, for the Israeli people travelling to the country. Later on, the first Chabad House opened in Kathmandu in 2000 which was a centre for hosting events and services involving the local Jewish community and Jewish tourists. Two other such houses opened in Pokhara and Manang in 2007 and 2010.
The country at present is a secular state and all the residents are given the freedom to choose and practice whatever religion they wish to. Tourists of all religions, caste, creed, ethnicity and nationality are accepted in the country with open arms.