This sleepy isolated little country has long seemed a storybook place, a passage to the far pavilions of the majestic Himalayas - a nation of smiling and compliant sherpas and placid chanting Buddhists that helped intrepid Westerners who sought a Shangri-La of the mountains, and of the mind.
The sweet story continued in 1990 when Nepal became a democracy. Dissidents who were moved by Chinese students at Tiananmen Square and by the fall of the Berlin Wall, forced their king - whose passions were volleyball and helicopters - to institute a multiparty system of free elections and free speech.
But today, as Nepalese go to the polls to choose their fifth government in five years, there is real trouble in the young democratic paradise.
A five-year old Maoist insurgency, a "people's war" in Western Nepal, has quietly been capturing the hearts and minds of villagers and intellectuals, and has been growing more rapidly than anyone imagined.
So potent is the Maoist rhetoric of revolution, with its echoes of the Shining Path in Peru in the 1980s, that even if the insurgency fails, it may change the entire complexion of the country in just a few years, experts say.
New element of violence
Indeed, Maoists' threats of violence during the elections, which they are boycotting, has forced the election commission to hold votes on two days - today, and May 17 - to maintain control. Though now underground in Kathmandu, the Maoists can shut down this capital city with labor strikes whenever they please. The Maoists' ongoing killings of police and select politicians are introducing a new dynamic of fear to the peaceful Nepalese, even while the movement has gained popular appeal.
"The way they [Maoists] have gained support is tremendous. No one believed it. They were underestimated for two years," says Gopal Siwakoti Chintan, a human rights lawyer in Kathmandu who consults for the United Nations. "Now they have political activity in 30 to 40 districts. They are out of control. The military now says it. The ruling party says it. Everyone says it."
The election pits the ruling Congress Party - a party reflecting the aspirations of the small middle class and ruling Hindu elite - against two Marxist parties, the Unified Marxist Leninists and the splinter group, Marxist Leninists, whose policies include the redistribution of land, and who represent a large underclass of tribal and ethnic groups, untouchables, peasants, and the poor.
The strong man in Congress is Prime Minister Ziriza Prasad Koirala. The rallying figure for the Marxists, the man who unified them, was the former prime minister, Manmohan Adhikari, who died last week in the midst of the campaign.
Since the early '90s, power in Nepal has shifted back and forth between the socialists and the Marxists. (The Marxists split last year over personal grudges and tactics.) Taking a cue from the Maoists, they all have been trying to "outradicalize" each other in the current election in a bid for votes.
Pundits in quaint and easygoing Kathmandu, with its cheerful strings of election banners, and its trekking shops and boutiques on "Freak Street" where Westerners hang out, say a clear majority by any party would bring stability to Nepal's 14 million people, 80 percent of whom are Hindu. Nepalese are bone-tired of corruption and scandals in Kathmandu, polls indicate, and a clear mandate could bring an overdue housecleaning.
Still, the main subtext of the elections is the Maoist uprising - caused by unhappiness among the 70 percent of Nepalese in the countryside who live below the poverty line in conditions that all parties agree are deplorable, and that, ironically, are felt more acutely in a new democracy where criticism is no longer suppressed, and where, for the first time, crime and law and order have become a problem.
Moreover, the Maoist reading of the people's immediate thinking, conditions, wants, and needs is proving more compelling than that of the bureaucracy in Kathmandu, the elite ruling Brahmans, or the residue of the Royalists from the monarchy who control much of the tourist industry.
In five years, the Maoists have formed an army, a paramilitary, a sophisticated political education system led by a formidable intellectual, Babu Ram Bhattarai, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist, which went underground after the ruling Marxists lost power in 1995.
Pockets of Maoist control
The Maoists militarily control four hill districts in the west, are about to control 14 more, and have grass-roots influence in nearly every part of Nepal. Their military wing, led by Puspa Kamal Dahal (known as Prachanda, he is in hiding), has recently appealed to bodies like the Red Cross and various international human rights commissions for recognition as an army under the Geneva Convention of 1947.
"This is a major election because the Maoists know what people want," says Mohandra P. Lama, a Nepal expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Whoever comes into power must deal with Maoist forces, because they are growing every day. You have two choices: You can deal with them militarily by force. Or you can isolate them by giving the villages something to work with that will satisfy them."
Just 15 miles northeast of Kathmandu, in the preserved medieval city of Bhaktipur with its dozens of pagoda-style temples and palaces, a young sanitation worker named Krishna says he is a Maoist but does not support an armed struggle until "more education of the people takes place. We aren't ready yet."
The question at present is whether, in the next few years, a ruling party can shift its policies of patronage, where a huge bureaucracy acts as a middleman between the government and the villages, and siphons off funds.
Four years ago when the Marxists were in power, a "Build Your Own Village" program gave money directly to villages, and proved enormously popular. But whether Congress or another party is ready to take this step is unclear.
So far, the government of Nepal, which defines the Maoists as terrorists, has only casually invited the Maoists for talks. The Maoists have ignored this. Yet in the future, as they gain strength, a more formal invitation may have to be extended that gives the Maoists legitimacy, but also brings public pressure on them to change their ways.