Sunday, 14 April, 2024

A Valley Of Misnomers


Aashish Mishra


“Once upon a time, there were three water pitchers at Indra Chowk,” 63-year-old Narendra Shrestha recounts the story he used to hear from his grandmother. “This led to the place being called Swongha:, Swon meaning three in Nepal Bhasa and Gha: meaning pitchers,” he continues. “Over time, the ‘S’ disappeared and the place got named Wongha.”
There is also another fable associated with the name, as Shrestha shares. “Wonta means east and Gha: means pitcher so pitchers placed in the eastern part of the city became Wongha.”
Shrestha still lives in and calls the place Wongha. But his children and grandchildren don’t. For them, as for many others, the area is Indra Chowk. “Somewhere, somehow, the name got changed to Indra Chowk and became the default. The original ‘Wongha’ disappeared.”
Around 260 metres to the north of Wongha is another place that has lost its original name – Waa Syaa Dya, better known today as Bangemudha. But why Bangemudha is a question that baffles Chandra Ranjitkar, owner of a local utensils store nearby. “If the name had to change, Waa Syaa Dya should have changed to Dant (Teeth) Devta like how Nhyapa Syaa Dya became Kan Devta in Kupondole. The Bange Mudha (a tilted piece of wood) is a fringe element. Yet, non-locals chose to highlight that instead of the main God?” Ranjitkar asks, opining, “Calling the place Bangemudha is like seeing a bus and calling it wheels.”
Most of the native names of places in Kathmandu Valley were in Nepal Bhasa. But gradually, as Nepali became the dominant language, these indigenous names transformed to conform to the changed social milieus. Some got corrupted, like the dental Tekhu becoming the palatal Teku or Simana Muga becoming Sinamangal; some were translated, like the Nhyapa Syaa Dya becoming Kan Devta or Lun Hiti becoming Sundhara and some were changed completely, like the aforementioned Waa Syaa Dya becoming Bangemudha. And as the names changed, the history they carried was lost.
“Locations were not named arbitrarily. There were meanings behind them. The names were designed to reflect specific characteristics, to transfer knowledge and to give identity. Losing the names means losing all this,” says Suresh Shakya.

Historical Elements
As a tourist guide, Shakya explores and records historical elements of specific locations, including their names, so he can explain them accurately to his clients.
Nowhere is this loss of identity more apparent than in Boudha, Shakya says. Boudha, or Boudhanath, was a name given in the 1960s by the Panchayat government to Nepalify the stupa which was originally called Khasti Mahachaitya. But, in doing that, they eclipsed its origins.
“Khasti derives from two words – Khasu and Ti,” Shakya explains. “Khasu means dew and Ti means drops,” he continues. “It is said that Kathmandu was reeling under a severe drought when the large Buddhist shrine was being built. Hence, the people collected water from the dewdrops.”
“If legends are to be believed, the Mahachaitya was built in the Lichhavi period (400 to 700 CE). Now imagine how advanced our civilisation was that we had the knowledge and the resources to harvest winter dew nearly 1,500 years ago. The name Khasti conveyed this; the name Khasti carried this much backstory. What does the name Boudhanath carry?” Shakya questions.
Elaborating further, Shakya says that Kathmandu Valley itself is a misnomer. It gives needless priority to a single city (Kathmandu) which itself was named after a single structure (Kasthamandap). “In Nepal Bhasa, the Valley is called Swo: Ni: Ga: meaning three pure cities, pointing to Yen, Yala and Khwopa – the Newari names for Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur respectively. Naming the entire valley Kathmandu was an effort by the rulers to prioritise the seat of their capital.”
Similarly, in a 2018 opinion article about native names published in an online news portal, botanist Dr. Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha shared that cultural expert Satya Mohan Joshi once revealed to him how Khichapokhari was the corrupted form of ‘Khechayeke Pukhu’ with ‘Khechayeke’ meaning the act of waking the gods up in the morning by playing music. “The name which once meant awakening the gods got changed to the pond of dogs,” Shrestha noted the drastic changes in meaning even small linguistic corruptions can bring in the article.
Tourist Guide Shakya does not believe that all these changes solely came about as a result of the rise of Nepali language in Kathmandu. “Some did but not all,” he says, arguing that the Shah and Rana rulers deliberately intervened to have many important names changed in an attempt to suppress indigenous culture and identity.
“In the Rana years, it was illegal to write in Nepal Bhasa and teaching the language was punishable by imprisonment. Many old books were confiscated by the state and the natives of Kathmandu were harassed for their tongue,” Shakya explains, adding, “This contributed heavily to decline of the Ranjana script and is the reason why not many in the Newa community can read or write in their traditional hand.”
Similarly, Nepal Bhasa and other indigenous languages of the country were once again criminalised in the Panchayat years and Nepali was pushed upon the population, purportedly to create a unified nation. Locations were forcefully and unnaturally labelled. “The government consciously avoided Newa prefixes and suffixes like Bun, Chhen and Nani and chose to translate them into Nepali while recording addresses.
However, the officers doing these translations were not from the Newa community. So, they translated inaccurately and haphazardly,” Shakya shares.

True Citizens
Shrestha remembers his parents being reprimanded by an officer at the then Nagar Panchayat for referring to New Baneshwor by its original name Khuntu. He also has childhood memories of hearing King Mahendra call it unpatriotic to refer to Kathmandu Valley as Nepal Mandal and its native language as Nepal Bhasa. “Our teachers used to tell us in schools that Nepal was a country that extended from Mechi to Mahakali and Nepal Mandal was an antiquated terminology. We were also led to believe that Nepali was the language spoken by ‘true citizens of Nepal.’ We grew up hearing that our tongue was inferior and a hindrance to development. That is why many Newa families [including mine] do not teach children Newari these days. I know it is wrong but it is something the community was forced to internalise over the past century,” Shrestha links the loss of names to the state’s wider campaign to eradicate the Newa ethnicity and dialects.
In his aforementioned 2018 article, Dr. Shrestha describes how native place names are more adjectives than nouns, not just in Kathmandu but all over the country. As translated from botanist Shrestha’s article which was originally published in Nepali: “Some place names highlight an important day of the week – Mangalbare (Tuesday), Bihibare (Thursday) and Sanishchare (Saturday); some emphasise a local animal – Gaindakot (Rhino) and Gaur (Gaur); some present an indigenous plant – Salyan (Salla/Maire’s Yew) and Kavre (Kavro) while some may describe appearances or legends – golden land (Sun sari bhumi) on the banks of Koshi named Sunsari and the land of seven enemies (Sat satru ko desh) named Saptari.”
“If the original names cannot be revived then at least they need to be documented,” Ranjitkar adds. “Because losing them would mean losing a part of the valley and its inhabitants.”

(Mishra is a TRN journalist)