Until 1951, there were almost no secular schools in Nepal, as the autocratic hereditary prime ministers, the Rana family, feared an educated population would contest their rule. Even after 1951, most schools were concentrated in the Kathmandu valley, with extremely limited access to government schooling in outside areas. In the culturally Tibetic Himalayas, however, there was an indigenous system of education established centuries earlier that has continued to serve children in this border region: the gonpa, or monastery, school. For more than a thousand years, the gonpa schools were the only source of formalized learning in the high Himalayas, beginning with instruction in the Tibetan alphabet and progressing to the study of classical Tibetan Buddhist texts. According to the most recent statistics, there are 2,179 registered gonpas in Nepal and it is estimated this represents only 50% of the monasteries in the country. They are, therefore, a crucial access point for education in some of the most remote regions.
With the implementation of federalism, the government seeks to mainstream religious schools into the government education system, thereby adding the secular, state-mandated curriculum with the religious instruction historically taught at monastic schools. Furthermore, even outside the monasteries, Tibetan is the written language and Buddhism is the religion of much of the Himalayas, a fact only recently reflected in government curricular production. In order to reach these monastic and Himalayan schools, the Nepal Buddhist Federation (NBF) wrote two sets of Tibetan language textbooks that begin to bridge this gap between secular and religious education. One is a series of Tibetan language and grammar textbooks, from the pre-primary level to Class 10. The other is a Tibetan medium social science textbook, from Class 1 to 8, followed by Class 9-10 Buddhist philosophy textbooks.
The spyi tsogs rig gnas, or social science, textbooks conform to the government standards while incorporating the clothing, landscape, architecture, food and religious culture familiar to the Himalayas. The monastic authors also explained how they gradually incorporated more Buddhist elements as the textbooks advanced, culminating in the switch from social science to Buddhist philosophy in their Class 9-10 textbooks. Given the tight time frame in which they were written (the first five classes of textbooks were produced in less than two years), the textbooks are a remarkable achievement and an important step in providing culturally relevant curriculum to Himalayan youth. Prior to their textbooks, Himalayan children only had access to Nepali language books based on the culture of the Hindu hills.
The central problem for the NBF remains distribution. When I walked into their office, there were waist-high stacks of textbooks lining the walls. Many of the monastic and Himalayan schools requiring these textbooks are closed from Kathmandu for half the year. Even when the snows have not sealed the mountain passes, many of these communities can only access the capital after more than a week’s trek followed by days of bus travel; each book to reach these remote villages must be carried in by a person, horse or yak.
The significant issue of distribution aside, these textbooks mark an important shift in the history of curricular development in the country. By reflecting the language, culture and religion of Himalayan children back to them in the curriculum, these textbooks validate them as important members of Nepal. We can hope that the implementation of federalism will bring with it expanded distribution of such textbooks and support for similarly culturally relevant educational projects in the future.