South Asia: Nepal and Bhutan

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE In the novel Lost Horizon, James Hilton described an imaginary mountain valley called Shangri-La, hidden high in the Himalayas. He wrote, “The floor of the valley, hazily distant, welcomed the eye with greenness; sheltered from winds . . . completely isolated by the lofty and sheerly unscalable ranges on the further side.”

Shangri-La was an earthly paradise: a land of peace, harmony, and beauty, where hunger, disease, and war did not exist. Hilton located this mythical land somewhere in Tibet, but it could just as easily have been in Nepal or Bhutan. Although neither of these countries is a paradise, both are remote lands of great beauty and peace.

Mountain Kingdoms

Nepal and Bhutan share a number of important characteristics. Both are located in the Himalayas, a factor that has had a great impact on their history and economic development. Both also are kingdoms with strong religious traditions.


The main geographic feature of Nepal and Bhutan is their mountainous landscape. Each country consists of a central upland of ridges and valleys leading up to the high mountains, with a small lowland area along the Indian border. The towering, snowcapped Himalayas run along the northern border with China. They are craggy and forbidding and have steep mountain passes and year-round ice fields. The world's tallest mountain peak, Mt. Everest, is located there.

The rugged landscape of Nepal and Bhutan has isolated the two countries throughout their histories. Their mountainous terrain and landlocked location—neither country has access to the sea—made them hard to reach and difficult to conquer and settle. China controlled Bhutan briefly in the 18th century. In the 19th century, Great Britain had influence over both countries because of its control of neighboring India. But Nepal and Bhutan generally remained independent and isolated. In fact, until the past few decades, foreigners rarely entered either country.


For much of their history, Nepal and Bhutan were split into small religious kingdoms or ruling states. Hindu kings ruled in Nepal, while Buddhist priests controlled Bhutan. In time, unified kingdoms emerged in both countries, led by hereditary monarchs who passed the throne on to their heirs.

Today, the governments of both Nepal and Bhutan are constitutional monarchies—kingdoms in which the ruler's powers are limited by a constitution. In Bhutan, the king is still the supreme ruler, while in Nepal the king shares power with an elected parliament. Both governments face difficult political challenges, including the need to balance the interests of their two powerful neighbors, China and India. Both countries also face difficult economic challenges.

Developing Economies

Decades of isolation and difficult topography have limited economic development in Nepal and Bhutan. Now each country is trying to find effective ways to promote economic growth.


Nepal and Bhutan are poor countries with economies based mainly on agriculture. Because of the mountainous terrain, neither country has much land suitable for cultivation. Most farm plots are small, soils are poor, and erosion is a problem. Farmers create terraces on the mountainsides to increase the amount of farmland and limit soil loss, a process you read about in Chapter 9. Common farm products include rice, corn, potatoes, and wheat. Common livestock are cattle, sheep, and yaks—longhaired animals related to the ox. In Bhutan, the government has promoted the growing of fruit for export and has tried to improve farming practices.

The timber industry is very important to both countries, although deforestation is a problem. The forests of Nepal are being cut down at a rate of about 1 percent a year. But some valuable timberlands remain. Around 70 percent of Bhutan is still forested. A growing manufacturing sector of the economy includes wood products, food processing, and cement production. Most trade for both countries is with India.


One of the fastest growing industries in Nepal is tourism. Tourists come from around the world to visit the valley of Kathmandu, the capital, and to climb the Himalayas. Hotels and restaurants, transportation, and other services have grown to meet the needs of the tourist industry. But tourism is a mixed blessing. It has damaged the environment, particularly on mountain slopes, where increased trash and pollution have been most noticeable.

Mountains of Bhutan and Nepal

Bhutan, which offers many of the same natural attractions as Nepal, has taken a different approach to tourism. Concerned about the impact of tourists on national life, Bhutan regulates the tourist industry. It allows only limited numbers of visitors and keeps some areas of the country off-limits. Even so, tourism is providing increasing revenues to Bhutan and offers significant economic potential for the future.

Rich Cultural Traditions

Visitors to Nepal and Bhutan come not only for the spectacular mountain scenery but also for a glimpse of the rich cultural traditions of the Himalayan people.


Various ethnic groups inhabit the Himalayan region. In Nepal, the majority of the people are Indo-Nepalese Hindus whose ancestors came from India many centuries ago. These groups speak Nepali, a variation of Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-Aryan language. Nepal also has a number of groups of Tibetan ancestry. Among them are the Sherpas. These people from the high Himalayas are the traditional mountain guides of the Everest region.

The main ethnic group in Bhutan is the Bhote, who also trace their origins to Tibet. Most Bhotes live in two-story houses made of wood and stone. The families live on the second floor, while the first floor is reserved for livestock. Bhutan also has a sizable Nepalese minority in the southern lowlands. The Nepalese have preserved their language and customs, even though the government of Bhutan has tried to assimilate them into national life.


Religion is a powerful force in both Nepal and Bhutan. Although the great majority of Nepalese are Hindus, Buddhism also has deep roots in Nepal. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha,was born on the borders of present-day Nepal and India in the sixth century B.C. Buddhist teachings initially took hold in Nepal but were later replaced by Hinduism when Hindu rulers came to power.

Today, Hindu practices still show traces of Buddhist influence. Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan. The people practice a Tibetan style of Buddhism, which includes the use of mandalas— geometric designs that are symbols of the universe and aid in meditation. Early communities in Bhutan were organized around large fortress-monasteries, which are still found in many parts of the country. Also scattered around the countryside are small shrines that were built to house sacred relics and are excellent examples of Buddhist architecture.


Folk art and festivals are an important feature of Himalayan culture. Artisans make beautiful metal bells, swords, and jewelry, and carve intricate wooden sculptures. They also weave colorful textiles from silk, cotton, and wool. During festivals in Nepal and Bhutan, musicians play traditional songs on flutes, drums, and long brass horns. At the same time, people in elaborate costumes perform dances based on religious stories. Bhutan is also famous for its archery competitions. This tradition goes back to ancient times, when Bhutanese warriors were known as the finest archers in the Himalayas.

In this section, you read about life in South Asia's mountainous north. Next, you will learn about life in the southern islands.