How Nepal’s history may be its greatest strength after the earthquake

Story highlights

The people of Nepal are proud of their resilience, authors who have lived there say

For decades, Westerners have gone to Nepal for seeking enlightenment or adventure

The earthquake has damaged many of the temples and buildings that are a cornerstone of Nepalese society

CNN  — 

Nepal is a small country known for a big mountain, but its national identity is based in something else: A history of never being conquered or colonized.

No foreign country, including Britain, has been able to subdue the country during its roughly 2,000 year history, historians say. The British tried in the 19th century but, after failing, they ended up recruiting soldiers from Nepal to form the Gurkha regiments, whose fighters were known for being fierce and fearless.

“They take a lot of pride in their history of never being conquered,” says Elizabeth Enslin, author of “While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal.” “It’s really a formidable country. It wouldn’t be easy to conquer.”

But now, the Nepalese face a formidable enemy: nature itself. A magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck last Saturday, killing more than 7,000 people. International aid agencies have been streaming into the impoverished country to offer help, but one resource for survival may be the resilience of the Nepalese people themselves, some say.

Nepal has gone through seismic changes that have nothing to do with earthquakes,” says Dan Szczesny, author of “The Nepal Chronicles: Marriage, Mountains and Momos in the Highest Place on Earth.” He lived in Nepal and married a Nepalese woman.

He says the Nepalese people have a history of dealing with national tragedy.

A country rocked by upheaval

The country has experienced constant political upheaval. Eight members of Nepal’s royal family were murdered by a drunken prince in 2001. Both the parliament and the monarchy have been dissolved in recent years. It’s been rocked by a Maoist revolution and an impasse over forming a constitution. Today, it is ruled by a Prime Minister and governed by a parliamentary system.

“They’ve seen a lot of changes,” Szczesny says.

What Westerners, though, tend to see in Nepal comes through a more romanticized lens. It is a country where Westerners usually go to find something or climb something.

It’s been called the “Rooftop of the World” because it is the home to Mount Everest, the highest mountain on the planet. One of the country’s biggest money makers is tourism, and Westerners have been going to Nepal to climb Everest for years.

Global trekkers also go to Nepal to gaze at the temples of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, or to search for the elusive snow leopard. Look at the travel guides to Nepal, and you’ll invariably see the same images: rugged, snow-capped mountains; water buffalo grazing in rice fields; tanned, leathery smiling faces amid idyllic pastoral landscapes.

Kathmandu, in particular, has become a destination for global trekkers. It became part of the hippie trail in the 1960s as Western youths traveled east for enlightenment – or drugs, or both. Rock stars such as Cat Stevens (who now goes by Yusuf Islam) and Bob Seger wrote songs about Kathmandu; there’s even a place in Kathmandu known as “Freak Street” that’s notorious for attracting Western stoners.

“If you are a seeker who has an open mind and you want to experience a mysticism completely outside anything you’ll find in the West, Nepal is a good draw,” says Szczesny, author of “The Nepal Chronicles.”

He says it’s a place where people derive their happiness from relationships, not wealth. Family, community, food – Nepalese people often impress Westerners not so much by what they say but how they live, he says.

“They show people that not having physical things doesn’t mean that you are unhappy with your life,” Szczesny says. “That’s terribly attractive to searchers from a capitalistic society who are used to attaining stuff to be happy.”

The source of their national strength

But make no mistake – poverty is pervasive and it has shaped the culture, others say.

The lack of material goods has built in a sense of shared responsibility among the Nepalese, says Enslin, who moved to Nepal where she married, gave birth and lived in the country’s remote plains.

Beggars or wandering holy men would often come by villages for food; rarely did they get turned away, she says.

“It was just your duty to go out and get rice and put it in the begging bowl,” Enslin says. “It’s just what you do. There’s this sense of duty and service. No matter what the conflict of the day is, there’s a time you have to come out and be a good neighbor.”

The traditional Nepalese resilience is also grounded in their sense of humor. It’s a tough place to live with a tough history. Humor makes it all bearable, she says.

“When I was going through hard times, there was always someone who was going to come and try to cheer me up with silly jokes,” Enslin says. “There’s a great love of laughter. They try to buck you up to feel better to get through the hard times.”

Enslin, who has followed the earthquake, mourns the loss of life. She also mourns the loss of Nepal’s cultural past. The earthquake has destroyed many of the temples, places where the Nepalese people traditionally gather to worship, play cards and people watch.

“Those temples are irreplaceable,” Enslin says. “They are part of their national identity.”

Yet there is something else that is a part of the Nepalese national identity that even a massive earthquake may not be able to destroy: The same resilience that kept a tiny country from being swallowed by much bigger and more powerful countries.

“They’ve lasted this long; they’re going to get through this,” Szczesny says. “They have the strength to do it because that’s the type of people they are.”