Early Influences on Nepal

Ancient lion statue from bhaktapur durbar square nepal
Ashraful Arefin photography / Getty Images

Neolithic tools found in the Kathmandu Valley indicate that people were living in the Himalayan region in the distant past, although their culture and artifacts are only slowly being explored. Written references to this region appeared only by the first millennium B.C. During that period, political or social groupings in Nepal became known in north India. The Mahabharata and other legendary Indian histories mention the Kiratas, who still inhabited eastern Nepal in 1991. Some legendary sources from the Kathmandu Valley also describe the Kiratas as early rulers there, taking over from earlier ​Gopals or Abhiras, both of whom may have been cowherding tribes. These sources agree that an original population, probably of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity, lived in Nepal 2,500 years ago, inhabiting small settlements with a relatively low degree of political centralization.

Monumental changes occurred when groups of tribes calling themselves the Arya migrated into northwest India between 2000 B.C. and 1500 B.C. By the first millennium B.C., their culture had spread throughout northern India. Their many small kingdoms were constantly at war amid the dynamic religious and cultural environment of early Hinduism. By 500 B.C., a cosmopolitan society was growing around urban sites linked by trade routes that stretched throughout South Asia and beyond. On the edges of the Gangetic Plain, in the Tarai Region, smaller kingdoms or confederations of tribes grew up, responding to dangers from larger kingdoms and opportunities for trade. It is probable that slow and steady migration of Khasa peoples speaking Indo-Aryan languages were occurring in western Nepal during this period; this movement of peoples would continue, in fact, until modern times and expand to include the eastern Tarai as well.

One of the early confederations of the Tarai was the Sakya clan, whose seat apparently was Kapilavastu, near Nepal's present-day border with India. Their most renowned son was Siddhartha Gautama (ca. 563 to 483 B.C.), a prince who rejected the world to search for the meaning of existence and became known as the Buddha, or the Enlightened One. The earliest stories of his life recount his wanderings in the area stretching from the Tarai to Banaras on the Ganges River and into modern Bihar State in India, where he found enlightenment at Gaya -- still the site of one of the greatest Buddhist shrines. After his death and cremation, his ashes were distributed among some of the major kingdoms and confederations and were enshrined under mounds of earth or stone called stupas. Certainly, his religion was known at a very early date in Nepal through the Buddha's ministry and the activities of his disciples.

Glossary of Terms

  • Khasa: A term applied to the peoples and languages in the western parts of Nepal, closely related to the cultures of northern India.
  • Kirata: A Tibeto-Burman ethnic group inhabiting eastern Nepal since before the Licchavi Dynasty, just prior to and during the early years of the Christian era.

The Mauryan Empire (268 to 31 B.C.)

The political struggles and urbanization of north India culminated in the great Mauryan Empire, which at its height under Ashoka (reigned 268 to 31 B.C.) covered almost all of South Asia and stretched into Afghanistan in the west. There is no proof that Nepal was ever included in the empire, although records of Ashoka are located at Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace, in the Tarai. But the empire had important cultural and political consequences for Nepal. First, Ashoka himself embraced Buddhism, and during his time the religion must have become established in the Kathmandu Valley and throughout much of Nepal. Ashoka was known as a great builder of stupas, and his archaic style is preserved in four mounds on the outskirts of Patan (now often referred to as Lalitpur), which were locally called Ashok stupas, and possibly in the Svayambhunath (or Swayambhunath) stupa. Second, along with religion came an entire cultural style centered on the king as the upholder of dharma, or the cosmic law of the universe. This political concept of the king as the righteous center of the political system had a powerful impact on all later South Asian governments and continued to play a major role in modern Nepal.

The Mauryan Empire declined after the second century B.C., and north India entered a period of political disunity. The extended urban and commercial systems expanded to include much of Inner Asia, however, and close contacts were maintained with European merchants. Nepal was apparently a distant part of this commercial network because even Ptolemy and other Greek writers of the second century knew of the Kiratas as a people who lived near China. North India was united by the Gupta emperors again in the fourth century. Their capital was the old Mauryan center of Pataliputra (present-day Patna in Bihar State), during what Indian writers often describe as a golden age of artistic and cultural creativity. The greatest conqueror of this dynasty was Samudragupta (reigned ca. 353 to 73), who claimed that the "lord of Nepal" paid him taxes and tribute and obeyed his commands. It still is impossible to tell who this lord may have been, what area he ruled, and if he was really a subordinate of the Guptas. Some of the earliest examples of Nepalese art show that the culture of north India during Gupta times exercised a decisive influence on Nepali language, religion, and artistic expression.

The Early Kingdom of the Licchavis (400 to 750 A.D.)

In the late fifth century, rulers calling themselves Licchavis began to record details on politics, society, and economy in Nepal. The Licchavis were known from early Buddhist legends as a ruling family during the Buddha's time in India, and the founder of the Gupta Dynasty claimed that he had married a Licchavi princess. Perhaps some members of this Licchavi family married members of a local royal family in the Kathmandu Valley, or perhaps the illustrious history of the name prompted early Nepalese notables to identify themselves with it. In any case, the Licchavis of Nepal was a strictly local dynasty based in the Kathmandu Valley and oversaw the growth of the first truly Nepalese state.

The earliest known Licchavi record, an inscription of Manadeva I, dates from 464, and mentions three preceding rulers, suggesting that the dynasty began in the late fourth century. The last Licchavi inscription was in A.D. 733. All of the Licchavi records are deeds reporting donations to religious foundations, predominantly Hindu temples. The language of the inscriptions is Sanskrit, the language of the court in north India, and the script is closely related to official Gupta scripts. There is little doubt that India exerted a powerful cultural influence, especially through the area called Mithila, the northern part of present-day Bihar State. Politically, however, India again was divided for most of the Licchavi period.

To the north, Tibet grew into an expansive military power through the seventh century, declining only by 843. Some early historians, such as the French scholar Sylvain Lévi, thought that Nepal may have become subordinate to Tibet for some time, but more recent Nepalese historians, including Dilli Raman Regmi, deny this interpretation. In any case, from the seventh century onward a recurring pattern of foreign relations emerged for rulers in Nepal: more intensive cultural contacts with the south, potential political threats from both India and Tibet, and continuing trade contacts in both directions.

The Licchavi political system closely resembled that of northern India. At the top was the "great king" (maharaja), who in theory exercised absolute power but in reality, interfered little in the social lives of his subjects. Their behavior was regulated in accordance with dharma through their own village and caste councils. The king was aided by royal officers led by a prime minister, who also served as a military commander. As the preserver of the righteous moral order, the king had no set limit for his domain, whose borders were determined only by the power of his army and statecraft--an ideology that supported almost unceasing warfare throughout South Asia. In Nepal's case, the geographic realities of the hills limited the Licchavi kingdom to the Kathmandu Valley and neighboring valleys and to the more symbolic submission of less hierarchical societies to the east and west. Within the Licchavi system, there was ample room for powerful notables (Samanta) to keep their own private armies, run their own landholdings, and influence the court. There was thus a variety of forces struggling for power. During the seventh century, a family is known as the Abhira Guptas accumulated enough influence to take over the government. The prime minister, Amsuvarman, assumed the throne between approximately 605 and 641, after which the Licchavis regained power. The later history of Nepal offers similar examples, but behind these struggles was growing a long tradition of kingship.

The economy of the Kathmandu Valley already was based on agriculture during the Licchavi period. Artworks and place-names mentioned in inscriptions show that settlements had filled the entire valley and moved east toward Banepa, west toward Tisting, and northwest toward present-day Gorkha. Peasants lived in villages (grama) that were administratively grouped into larger units (dranga). They grew rice and other grains as staples on lands owned by the royal family, other major families, Buddhist monastic orders (sangha), or groups of Brahmans (agrahara). Land taxes due in theory to the king were often allocated to religious or charitable foundations, and additional labor dues (vishti) were required from the peasantry in order to keep up irrigation works, roads, and shrines. The village head (usually known as pradhan, meaning a leader in family or society) and leading families handled most local administrative issues, forming the village assembly of leaders (panchalika or grama pancha). This ancient history of localized decision making served as a model for late-twentieth-century development efforts.

Trade in Kathmandu

One of the most striking features of present-day Kathmandu Valley is its vibrant urbanism, notably at Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhadgaon (also called Bhaktapur), which apparently goes back to ancient times. During the Licchavi period, however, the settlement pattern seems to have been much more diffuse and sparse. In the present-day city of Kathmandu, there existed two early villages--Koligrama ("Village of the Kolis," or Yambu in Newari), and Dakshinakoligrama ("South Koli Village," or Yangala in Newari)--that grew up around the valley's main trade route. Bhadgaon was simply a small village then called Khoprn (Khoprngrama in Sanskrit) along the same trade route. The site of Patan was known as Yala ("Village of the Sacrificial Post," or Yupagrama in Sanskrit). In view of the four archaic stupas on its outskirts and its very old tradition of Buddhism, Patan probably can claim to be the oldest true center in the nation. Licchavi palaces or public buildings, however, have not survived. The truly important public sites in those days were religious foundations, including the original stupas at Svayambhunath, Bodhnath, and Chabahil, as well as the shrine of Shiva at Deopatan, and the shrine of Vishnu at Hadigaon.

There was a close relationship between the Licchavi settlements and trade. The Kolis of present-day Kathmandu and the Vrijis of present-day Hadigaon were known even in the Buddha's time as commercial and political confederations in north India. By the time of the Licchavi kingdom, trade had long been intimately connected with the spread of Buddhism and religious pilgrimage. One of the main contributions of Nepal during this period was the transmission of Buddhist culture to Tibet and all of central Asia, through merchants, pilgrims, and missionaries. In return, Nepal gained money from customs duties and goods that helped to support the Licchavi state, as well as the artistic heritage that made the valley famous.

The River System of Nepal

Nepal can be divided into three major river systems from east to west: the Kosi River, the Narayani River (India's Gandak River), and the Karnali River. All ultimately become major tributaries of the Ganges River in northern India. After plunging through deep gorges, these rivers deposit their heavy sediments and debris on the plains, thereby nurturing them and renewing their alluvial soil fertility. Once they reach the Tarai Region, they often overflow their banks onto wide floodplains during the summer monsoon season, periodically shifting their courses. Besides providing fertile alluvial soil, the backbone of the agrarian economy, these rivers present great possibilities for hydroelectric and irrigation development. India managed to exploit this resource by building massive dams on the Kosi and Narayani rivers inside the Nepal border, known, respectively, as the Kosi and Gandak projects. None of these river systems, however, support any significant commercial navigation facility. Rather, the deep gorges formed by the rivers represent immense obstacles to establishing the broad transport and communication networks needed to develop an integrated national economy. As a result, the economy in Nepal has remained fragmented. Because Nepal's rivers have not been harnessed for transportation, most settlements in the Hill and Mountain regions remain isolated from each other. As of 1991, trails remained the primary transportation routes in the hills.

The eastern part of the country is drained by the Kosi River, which has seven tributaries. It is locally known as the Sapt Kosi, which means seven Kosi rivers (Tamur, Likhu Khola, Dudh, Sun, Indrawati, Tama, and Arun). The principal tributary is the Arun, which rises about 150 kilometers inside the Tibetan Plateau. The Narayani River drains the central part of Nepal and also has seven major tributaries (Daraudi, Seti, Madi, Kali, Marsyandi, Budhi, and Trisuli). The Kali, which flows between the Dhaulagiri Himal and the Annapurna Himal (Himal is the Nepali variation of the Sanskrit word Himalaya), is the main river of this drainage system. The river system draining the western part of Nepal is the Karnali. Its three immediate tributaries are the Bheri, Seti, and Karnali rivers, the latter being the major one. The Maha Kali, which also is known as the Kali and which flows along the Nepal-India border on the west side, and the Rapti River also are considered tributaries of the Karnali.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
LOC. "Early Influences on Nepal." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/ancient-nepal-overview-121072. LOC. (2020, August 26). Early Influences on Nepal. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-nepal-overview-121072 LOC. "Early Influences on Nepal." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-nepal-overview-121072 (accessed June 18, 2021).