Continents, countries, regions, localities…

Wage Differences Across the Republic of Georgia

The GeoStat data page on the Republic of Georgia includes information on the Average Monthly Remuneration in Business Sector by municipality. As Georgia is divided into many municipalities, mapping these data helps reveal the level of economic differentiation across the country (assuming that the data are accurate). As the resulting map shows, income levels in the business sector vary widely across Georgia, with a low of 301 Georgian Lari a month in Shuakhevi in the southwest to a high of 1,814 Lari a month in Bolnisi in the south-center-east. (The current exchange rate is 2.56 Lari to a US dollar).


Overall, the geographical patterns found on this map are vague, with high-, middle-, and low-income municipalities scattered across most reaches of the country. But some patterns can be discerned. The area in and around Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and by far its largest city, is a relatively high-income area, as would be expected. The Black Sea cities of Batumi and Poti also have relatively high levels of (business) income, the former noted for its tourism-based econony and the latter for its port facilities. But Georgia’s other main urban-focused municipalities (Kutaisi, Rustavi, Gori, and Zugdidi) do not rank high. To some extent, this low showing reflects the industrial decline of the post-Soviet period. As the Wikipedia articles on Kutaisi and Rustavi explain:

Kutaisi was a major industrial center before Georgia’s independence on 9 April 1991. Independence was followed by the economic collapse of the country, and, as a result, many inhabitants of Kutaisi have had to work abroad. Small-scale trade prevails among the rest of the population.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved disastrous for Rustavi, as it also caused the collapse of the integrated Soviet economy of which the city was a key part. Most of its industrial plants were shut down and 65% of the city’s population became unemployed, with the attendant social problems of high crime and acute poverty that such a situation brings.

In contrast, several primarily rural municipalities have relatively high rankings. Sitting at the top is Bolnisi, an ethnically distinctive area. Its population is primarily Azerbaijani speaking (63%). Its capital, also called Bolnisi, has an unusual ethnic history. Home around 10,000 people, Bolnisi city was established by German (Swabian) immigrants in 1818, who called their new town Yekaterinenfeld. These migrants developed the agrarian and agro-industrial infrastructure of the region, which may contribute to its current prosperity – along with gold mining. As explained in the Wikipedia article:

The main occupations of the colonist Germans were viticulture, horticulture, fruit growing and cattle breeding. At the same time, irrigation, underground drainage and irrigation canals were constructed in Yekaterinenfeld, as well as wine, cognac and cheese factories, and leather and furniture factories. The town’s contemporary economy is mostly agrarian with the notable exceptions of a winery, brewery, and a gold mine in the nearby village of Kazreti.

Several other primarily rural municipalities with relatively levels of business income have strong tourism sectors. These include Mestia in the mountainous northwest, famed for both its natural beauty and its unique architecture. As the Wikipedia article on the town of Mestia notes:

Despite its small size, the townlet was an important centre of Georgian culture for centuries and contains a number of medieval monuments, such as churches and forts, included in a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The townlet is dominated by stone defensive towers of a type seen in Ushguli and Mestia proper (“Svan towers”). A typical Svan fortified dwelling consisted of a tower, an adjacent house (machubi) and some other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.

Kvareli, a high-income municipality in Georgia’s mountainous northeast, also has a number of tourism attractions, and is noted for its wine production. In west-central Georgia, high-income Kharagauli is the gateway to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Nearby Zestafoni, another relatively high-income municipality, is another important wine-producing area, and is also the site of a large ferro-alloy plant that processes manganese ore. The ore is mined in adjacent Chiatura municipality, which also posts relatively high business-income figures.

These are obviously just preliminary observations, based on casual reading. Much more research would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I was also unable to find any possible reasons for the low levels of business income in such municipalities as Vani and Shuakhevi.

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1

(Note to Readers: As I have been invited to give a talk at an academic conference on the Black Sea region to be held in Batumi, Georgia in early June, I will be blogging extensively on this part of the world over the next two months. I begin today by posting several simple economic maps of the Republic of Georgia.)

The Republic of Georgia is a middle-middle-income country; according to the IMF, in 2022 its per capita Gross Domestic Product (in Purchasing Power Parity) was just below the global average (19,789 current international dollars for Georgia as compared to 20,886 for the world.) As country-level economic figures obscure regional variation, I looked for a map of “per capita GDP in Georgia by region” but did not find one. After some searching, I did locate an English-language version of a site called “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” that provides the data that can be used to make such a map. (Unfortunately, there are some minor informational discrepancies on this site; I used the “comparison of regions” feature rather than the map-based information portal, but I do not know which one has more accurate or up-to-date information.)

My main reason for making this map was to see if there is a significant economic distinction between eastern and western Georgia. As will be explored in later posts, these two halves of the country have very distinctive histories and geographies. I expected to find the highest levels of economic development in and around Tbilisi, located in the central part of eastern Georgia, which is by far the largest city in the country. I also expected to find a relatively high per capita GDP figure for the Adjara region in the southwest, where the tourist-oriented city of Batumi is located. Otherwise, I had no expectations.

The GDP map that I made, posted below, does show Tbilisi as having a significantly higher level of economic development than the rest of the country. Adjara also has a higher level of per capita GDP than the national average, although not by much. Overall, the map reveals Georgia as having relatively minor economic differentiation by region. Overall, the western part of the country has slightly higher per capita GDP figures than the eastern half, with the exceptions of Tbilisi and the region just to its north (Mtskheta-Mtianeti).

Regional per capita GDP figures can be misleading, however, as they do not necessarily reflect average income levels. Fortunately, the “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” website also has data on the “Average Monthly Remuneration of Employed Persons.” Mapping this information also shows relatively low levels of differentiation across the country, but in this case eastern Georgia comes out slightly ahead of western Georgia.

In both maps, the western region of Guria is shown as having Georgia’s lowest economic figures. Guria’s relatively low level of economic production might seem to defy the stereotype of the region in Georgian popular culture, which emphasizes the ability of its inhabitants to accomplish tasks very quickly. As noted by Bedisa Dumbadze in an article in Georgian Journal:

The explanation of the region’s name “the land of restless” is absolutely suitable for Gurians. Their smart and comical character is well-known throughout Georgia. The inhabitants of the area are thought to be relatively fast in contrast to the inhabitants of other regions. They have special habit of doing everything in a very fast manner. Sometimes it is really difficult to understand what Gurian person is talking about because they speak really fast. There are many jokes about Gurians always being in a hurry. As a result, they manage to do everything in a very short period of time.

Finally, I use the same data source to make a map of unemployment rates by region. As can be seen, Georgia as a whole has a high level of unemployment, with figures varying widely from region to region. I was surprised to see that Tbilisi has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Even more unexpected was the relatively low unemployment rate it the eastern region of Kakheti, which is shown as having relatively low economic indicators on the other two maps.

I hope to reach a better understanding of these patterns as I continue to learn about the Republic of Georgia. I also want to see if clearer economic patterns might emerge through more fine-scale mapping. The data source that I used today also has information at the municipal level. As Georgia is entirely divided into 76 separate municipalities, such a map can be constructed for the entire country. Making this map will take some time, but I hope to be able to post it within the next week or two.

The (Temporary) Rebirth of California’s Once-Huge Tulare Lake?

The southern half of California’s vast San Joaquin Valley is almost never depicted as a desert nor is it officially classified as one. But it clearly is a desert by climatological criteria. Most of the San Joaquin Valley gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, with much of the southern valley receiving less than seven, and it has an extremely high rate of evaporation from late spring through early autumn. But with abundant water flowing from the adjacent Sierra Nevada range, the southern San Joaquin Valley is a verdant, intensely cultivated land. Before the late 1800s, it was the site of the third largest freshwater lake entirely within the United States (as measured by surface area). But when the rivers that formerly flowed into Tulare Lake were diverted into canals to irrigate crops, the huge lake disappeared. Today, the former lakebed is highly productive farmland with only a few small seasonal wetlands providing natural habitat.

As the paired maps posted below indicates, the extent of Tulare Lake varies greatly in different cartographic depictions. This is because the lake itself varied significantly in size on both a seasonal and multi-year basis. As Tulare Lake did not drain in most years, it would expand in winter and spring and then contract through summer and early fall. It would also grow to an especially large size in wet years and shrink dramatically in dry ones. In particularly wet years, the lake would rise high enough to drain to the sea through the San Joaquin River, thus flushing out any accumulated salt and ensuring that its water remained fresh.

A shallow and nutrient-rich lake, Tulare was extremely productive. The Yokuts people who lived around its shores were reputed to have had one of the highest levels of population density of any indigenous American ethnic group. For several decades after the gold rush, Tulare’s aquatic resources from were shipped in huge quantities to San Francisco. As the Wikipedia article on the lake notes:

Even well after California became a state, Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped through Hanford to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pod turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Turtles in Tulare Lake were so abundant that they were even fed to hogs. Today the western pond turtle is classified as a vulnerable species, suffering from competition with invasive exotic turtle species and undermined by the loss of habitat.

Environmentalists occasionally dream about bringing back Tulare Lake, emphasizing the vital habitat that it once provided and contending that its revival would be a relatively easy way for California to store excess runoff. Such a scenario, however, is extremely unlikely. Not only is the former lakebed highly productive farmland, but it also contains the city of Corcoran, home to some 22,000 residents.

But regardless of human plans and desires, Tulare Lake will probably reappear this spring, if only for a short period, owing to the extremely heavy precipitation that has been experienced this winter in the southern Sierra. Tulare County has already seen levee-breaks and the flooding of several towns, and water is now beginning to accumulate in the old lakebed. Local flooding could easily persist as snowmelt begins in April or May. Noting such factors, a recent article by Dan Walters claims that “It’s almost certain that Tulare Lake will once again spring to life.” Walters concludes by arguing that, “the probability is generating some hopeful, if unrealistic, speculation that state and or federal governments could buy up the lakebeds fields and bring back to Tulare lake permanently.”

This season’s reborn Tulare Lake will probably evaporate over the course of the summer, which will almost certainly be hot and bone dry – as is always is in the San Joaquin Valley. But if California enters a multiyear wet cycle, which is possible although not probable, winter and spring drainage could become a big problem for the farms and towns of the Tulare Basin. The city of Corcoran well known for its continual subsidence, dropping in elevation by about two feet a year due to the overuse of groundwater. Subsidence has already created major headaches for Corcoran. As noted in The Science Times,

The town levee had to be reconstructed for $10 million after the casings of drinking-water wells were crushed, flood areas changed, and the town levee had to be rebuilt. The situation has increased homeowners’ property tax bills by around $200 a year for three years.

Another powerful storm is slated to slam into California on Tuesday, March 21. Like most of this year’s major storms, it will be most pronounced in central and southern California, largely missing the normally much-wetter northern third of the state. More than 48 inches of additional snow is expected in the southern Sierra, which drains into the Tulare Basin. Thus far this winter, the southern Sierra has received an astounding 268 percent of average annual snowfall.

As can be seen on the map posted above, the northern and central parts of the Sierra have also received much higher-than-average amounts of snow this winter, but not to the same extent as the south. This pattern is highly unusual and was not expected. Until recently, the eastern Pacific was under La Niña conditions, which usually means a drier than average wet season, especially in Southern California. By winter 2024, El Niño conditions may assert themselves, which usually means a wetter than average winter for southern and central California. If so, Tulare Lake might fill up yet again.

The Astounding Rise of the Dutch Farmer-Citizen Movement

The Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely populated and urbanized countries. But it is also a farming powerhouse; by some measures, the Netherlands is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter by value, following only the United States. The Netherlands manages to profit so handsomely from farming in such a crowded land by focusing on the intensive production of high-value crops.

By many measures, the Netherlands’ agricultural system operates in an environmentally responsible manner. In 2019, the World Economic Forum lauded the country as a leader in efficient and sustainable agriculture. But Dutch farmers, like almost all others, are responsible for some environmental degradation, which the government of the Netherlands is now eager to reduce. Pronounced opposition is generated in the process. Recent restrictions on nutrient runoff and a ban on neonicotinoid insecticides have been viewed by most Dutch farmers as a threat to their livelihoods. In 2019, a new Dutch party, the Farmer-Citizens Movement, emerged to represent the country’s agricultural sector. This party seeks to enact a “Right to Agriculture Act,” wants to reduce the power of the European Union over Dutch farmers, and is wary of climate mitigation policies. It is generally regarded as a center-right to right-wing populist organization.

In the Dutch provincial election of March 15th, 2023, the Farmer-Citizen Movement achieved a shocking victory, not only coming in first place nationwide (with more than 19 percent of the vote), but also achieving a first-place showing in every province. In the same contest, all the Netherlands’ established parties saw major losses. The only other significant party experiencing a gain was the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren; PvdD), which took almost 5% of the vote nationwide. Intriguingly, these two growing parties are situated at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, particularly when it comes to agricultural issues. Caroline van der Plas, leader of Farmer-Citizen Movement, has stated that the Party for Animals is one of her party’s two main enemies, the other being Wakker Dier, an animal-welfare organization that seeks to end factory farming.

The recent Dutch election attracted a great deal of interest in the country. According to NL Times, “The turnout stood at 57.5 percent, higher than 2019’s already high 56 percent … [and] likely [to] be the highest since the late 1980s.” Its results have generated much analysis, if not soul-searching, among the leaders of the Dutch political establishment. According to EuroNews, the election represented a “resounding rebuke to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling four-party coalition.” As the NL Times reported:



Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the BBB’s massive victory “a very clear cry to politicians” and a “very clear relevant signal” from the voter. Rutte told ANP he does not yet know how to interpret this cry. He needs more time to think about it. Sixteen hours after the first results is too early for a “full-fledged analysis,” he said.

The electoral map of the 2023 provincial election in the Netherlands reveals precisely what one would expect: the Farmer-Citizen Movement had its best showing in provinces with relatively low population density and its worst in those of higher density. It might be surprising, however, that it did as well as it did in such thickly settled areas as North and South Holland and Utrecht, taking more than 13% of the vote in all three. But as the agricultural map of the Netherlands posted below shows, even these provinces have a significant amount of highly productive agricultural land. The Farmer-Citizen Movement also finds some support among Dutch urban dwellers; the national economy of their country, after all, rests heavily on its agricultural sector.

Intriguingly, the electoral returns of the Party for the Animals show very little geographical variation. I started to make a map of its vote by province, but abandoned the quest when I realized that it would reveal almost nothing. This party’s vote-share was almost the same in agrarian Drenthe (4.5%) as in highly urban South Holland (4.7%).

As the 2023 Dutch election indicates, Europe is experiencing a political realignment in which the division between rural and metropolitan areas figures more prominently than it did in the past. The same tendency is found in North America. Climate politics will almost certainly intensify this divide. It will be interesting to see how such a realignment plays out in coming elections.

GeoCurrents Outline Maps and Outline-Map Generator

I have often been frustrated when looking for outline political maps to use in teaching and blogging. It is easy enough to find serviceable outline maps of continents and of conventional world regions (such as the Middle East). It is difficult if not impossible, however, to find them for areas of the world that span continental and world-regional boundaries. As a result, I decided to make my own high-resolution world outline map that can be used to generate outline maps centered on any part of the world. I have spent much of the last month working on this project, and I am now ready to begin sharing the fruits of my labor with the public. This post introduces this project. (Note that the maps of Africa in the previous GeoCurrents posted were all made in this manner.)

The generator map used to make the outline map posted below was done in Keynote, the Apple version of PowerPoint. To make it, I traced out every country, major dependency, and sizable island, generating shapes that can be clicked on and manipulated in different ways. Later this week I will make the Keynote file, as well as a PowerPoint version of it, available for download on this website. Before doing so, however, I want to explain how this map can be used to make outline maps for any part of the world. This post covers the simplest level.

To make the outline map posted above from the underlying generator map, I simply deleted the CIA base map, filled the shapes with color (white), copied the shapes, and then inserted them on a light-blue truncated oval. The map of the islands of Southeast Asia posted below was made simply by taking a screen shot of a segment of the map posted above, enlarging it, and then putting a frame around it. As can be seen, the scale of resolution on the resulting Southeast Asia outline map is serviceable but far from ideal. A much sharper image can be made by using the generator map itself. I have demonstrated the scale of resolution available here with the second map below, showing Indonesia and environs. Making the latter map was a little more complicated, in part because each island and country outlines in the generator map had to be clicked on and selected separately.  All of this will be explained in a later post.

I have also made separate Keynote slides with labels for all countries, larger dependencies, and seas and oceans, all of which are all situated in their proper positions. One can thus simply copy the information from one of these label-slides and then insert it on the unlabeled outline map to make an outline map with labels. Using the label slide in the Keynote and PowerPoint files (to be released later), one can easily change the size, font, color, or position of any of these labels. To make a labeled regional map, one can simply selects the appropriate labels and insert them on a segment of the world outline map. Note that higher-resolution map of insular Southeast Asia with labels for seas with the generator map itself; this will be demonstrated in a later post.



As the generator map is based on the CIA world political map, it shows the political vision of the U.S. State Department rather than that of the United Nations; Kosovo is thus depicted as a separate country rather than as a region of Serbia, the Golan Heights is depicted as part of Israel rather than of Syria, and Western Sahara is shown as part of Morocco rather than as a political entity in its own right. I have, however, placed dash lines to show the division between Morocco and Western Sahara and to show the areas of Kashmir that are claimed but not controlled by India. All U.S.-recognized sovereign states are shown (I think!) except Monaco and the Vatican City; oceanic countries (such as Tulavu) that are too small to trace out are depicted with small stars. The Palestinian Territories, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, are outlined but labeled in italics (as “PT”) to indicate that they do not constitute a sovereign state according to The U.S. State Department. For the same reason, Taiwan is also labeled in italics.

I continue to find small errors and slightly misplaced boundaries on the original generator map, and as a result I am continually refining it. But I have reached a point where I think that the map is good enough for public release. If anybody finds any errors or infelicities on this map, please let me know!

I will also be constructing new sets of label overlays for the generator map, including ones of dependencies, capital cities, and large cities. These overlays will be released as they are completed. I am also making similar regional generator maps based on physical maps that show terrain. I find making such maps useful for teaching, as I can highlight the boundaries of a given country and then talk about the physical characteristics of it that are apparent in the base map. The first of these physical-regional generator maps should be available for release within a few weeks.

Africa’s Questionable Expansion of Regional Political Organizations

Africa is noted for cooperation among its many countries. All African states belong to the African Union (AU), although four are currently suspended due to recent military coups (Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea). Owing in part to the AU, and its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, Africa has few conflicts among is internationally recognized sovereign states, although it has many conflicts within them. The AU defines Africa broadly, seeking to promote solidarity and cohesion across both the continent and the nearby island countries of the Atlantic and Indians oceans.

The African Union also seeks to promote economic growth and cooperation among its member states, mainly through on its ambitious New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). A cornerstone of NEPAD is the creation and strengthening of Regional Economic Communities (RECs), groups of neighboring countries designed to foster economic integration. In theory, such smaller organizations can cooperate more effectively than the union as a whole. The eight officially recognized RECs (mapped below) are described as the “building blocks” of the AU and its grand developmental vision. In addition, six other African political-economic blocks have not received official AU recognition. (Four of these unofficial groups are depicted in the final map in the series posted below; note that the Indian Ocean Commission also an includes France, which is not shown on the map, although two of its overseas departments, Mayotte and Réunion, are.)

Although economic cooperative among neighboring countries can help propel economic and social development, the utility of Africa’s RECs is questionable. Several of them continue to add new members, becoming unwieldly in the process. Overlap is now pronounced. Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that hardly manages to govern itself, now belongs to four of these “communities.” Barely functional Somalia belongs to three and has applied for membership in a fourth. Several of the RECs have expanded well beyond the regions that supposedly define them. Consider CEN-SAD: The Community of Sahel-Saharan States. As can be seen on the map posted below, its original members were all located in the Sahara-Sahel belt, a region faced with many similar environmental and economic challenges. But CEN-SAD now includes countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone that are far removed from the hyper-arid Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel located immediately south of the great desert.

The main problem with Africa’s regional-political approach to economic development is that it is relatively expensive and requires a lot of attention from governmental officials who might be better off focusing on domestic issues. Such complications are noted in several relevant Wikipedia articles. The one on the RECs mentions that “multiple and confusing membership creates duplication and sometimes competition in activities, while placing additional burdens on already over-stretched foreign affairs staff to attend all the various summits and other meetings.” The article on the New Partnership for Africa’s Development has more pointed wording:

More recently, NEPAD has also been criticised by some of its initial backers, including notably Senegalese President Abdoulaya Wade who accused NEPAD of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and achieving nothing. Like many other intergovernmental bodies, NEPAD suffers from slow decision-making, and a relatively poorly resourced and often cumbersome implementing framework. The great lack of information about the day-to-day activities of the NEPAD secretariat—the website is notably uninformative—does not help its case.

Creating such regional organizations is a tempting and understandable developmental strategy. Doing so makes it seem as if African leaders are deeply committed to peace, international cooperation, and economic betterment. But such a strategy can easily be overextended, with rapidly diminishing utility as the number of organizations and their geographical coverage increases. It would seem that such a situation has been reached in Africa.

The World’s Three Great Archipelagic Realms, and the Difficulties in Determining What Counts as an Island

When lecturing on early modern history to Stanford students the other day, I remarked that there is nothing on the earth like insular Southeast Asia, with its many thousands of islands ranging in size from huge to tiny. In terms of archipelagic scope, only the Caribbean can compare, I noted, although its islands are much smaller and many fewer in number. And Southeast Asia’s island realm becomes much larger still if one were to include the nearby island clusters of Melanesia (the Bismarck Archipelago and the Solomon Islands).

That evening, however, I realized that there is another great archipelagic realm, that of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. I tend to neglect this region largely because its population is so small. Greenland, almost all of which is ice covered, has only some 56,000 inhabitants, while the many islands of the Canadian Arctic counts only around 23,000. But as can be seen in the table of large islands posted below, insular Southeast Asia and the Arctic Archipelago are of comparable scope, whereas the Caribbean is distinctly smaller.

If one is concerned, however, only with the sheer number of islands, another archipelago arguably occupies the top ranking. These are the islands of southwestern Finland, sometimes called the Turku Archipelago, whose scenic specks of land are scattered across a relatively small span of water called the Archipelago Sea. As noted in the Wikipedia article on this area:

The Archipelago Sea is a part of the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland, and the Sea of Åland, within Finnish territorial waters. By some definitions it contains the largest archipelago in the world by the number of islands, although many of the islands are very small and tightly clustered. … The total surface area is 8,300 square kilometres (3,205 square miles), of which 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) is land. … The number of the larger islands of over 1 square kilometre (0.4 sq mi) within the Archipelago Sea is 257, whilst the number of smaller isles of over 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) is about 17,700. If the number of smallest uninhabitable rocks and skerries is accounted, 50,000 is probably a good estimate. In comparison, the number of islands in the Canadian Arctic archipelago is 36,563. Indonesia has 17,508 islands, according to the Indonesian Naval Hydro-Oceanographic Office. The Philippines has 7,107 islands.


Finland’s archipelago does not look particularly impressive on most maps, owing to the tiny size of most of its islands. But at the level of resolution increases, more and more islands appear almost everywhere one looks. I have illustrated this point with several Google Maps excerpts, posted below.

As the Wikipedia article on the Archipelago Sea indicates, it is difficult to determine the total number of islands in any body of water, as it depends on the size limit used to differentiate an island from a mere rock or other exiguous area of (generally) dry land. This can be a politically charged matter, as the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea grants every country a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone around all its islands, but not around all its rocks.

Such definitional complexities can also give rise to some odd headlines. Just this week, several news agencies announced that Japan had “discovered” some 7,000 new islands in its own waters. But this was much less a matter of discovery than a definitional change coupled with precision mapping. As explained by Scripps News:

The country recounted the number of islands in its territory for the first time in nearly four decades, and found it has over 7,000 more than initially believed. Using digital mapping, the Geopolitical Information Authority of Japan determined it had a total of 14,125 islands. That’s 7,273 more than Japan’s Coat Guard counted in 1987. The definition of “island” is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, but there isn’t an international agreement on how nations count their islands. Overall, Japan detected more than 120,000 different pieces of land, but only considered the ones that had a circumference over one-tenth of a kilometer — about 328 feet.

By this measure, Japan has more islands than the Philippines. But if the Philippines where to reexamine its own island endowment, I imagine that it could come up with a higher number.

California, the Californias, and the Possible Loss of Far Northern California to Greater Idaho

In English, the word “California” is almost always restricted to the U.S. state of the same name, excluding the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. To include these areas as well, the term “the Californias” is used. Wikipedia has an informative article on this concept, detailing its history and including the two maps posted below. But the idea of “the Californias” is seldom encountered. A Google image search of “the California’s map” returns hundreds of images of the American state and almost nothing depicting the two Mexican states, let alone maps of the three Californian polities combined. Google even hesitated to search for this term, first showing an array of images of “the Californians.” A Neeva search gave much better results, showing many historical maps as well as a few contemporary ones that join California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur.

This erasure of the broader meaning of the term “California” is unfortunate, as it obscures some important history. The place name originally referred to the peninsula of Baja California, and was only much later applied to the area that now constitutes the U.S. state. This restricted California was first depicted by European mapmakers as an island, as it took a long time for cartographers to determine that it was a peninsula. Maps showing California as an island are of interest to both historians of cartography and map collectors. Stanford University is fortunate to house the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection: California as an Island, which includes 800 items.

The idea that the three Californias constitute any sort of a unit has had little if any salience ever since the United States annexed “Alta California” in 1847. Interestingly, however, there was a brief period during the Mexican revolution when some Mexican leftists nurtured dreams of reunion and reconstitution. As explained in the Wikipedia article:

The reunification of the Californias or Greater California is the irredentist idea of a united California often consisting of modern-day California, Baja California, and Baja California Sur, or largely based on the former lands previously governed by the province of Las Californias (1767-1804), including much of the American Southwest. There were fears during the Magonista rebellion of 1911 from both Americans and Mexicans of a Magonista expansion into California from, then Magonista-controlled, Baja California that would establish anarcho-communism across the Californias and inspire rebellions from indigenous Californians against the US and Mexican governments.


Rather than being reunited with the south, there is a far greater likelihood that the American state will itself be partitioned. Proposals to divide California have a long history and occasionally attract political interest and media attention, although the chance of actual division remains remote. But there is growing animosity toward the state government in many of California’s more rural and conservative counties, particularly those in the far north and northeast. As Sacramento stresses its environmentalist credentials and seeks to quickly reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels, such secessionists attitudes can be expected to intensify.

California is by no means alone in experiencing such regional tensions. In neighboring Oregon, many primarily rural eastern counties have voted to leave the state and join Idaho, which would generate an enlarged state to the east dubbed “Greater Idaho.” This proposal is currently being considered in Idaho’s legislature. Most experts, however, think that the chance of this happening is slim if not negligible, as it would need approval by the legislatures of both Idaho and Oregon as well as the U.S. Congress. But as political polarization increases, agitation for such a political-geographical realignment could intensify.

Although the Greater Idaho movement is currently focused on annexing Eastern Oregon, many of its adherents have larger ambitions. The maps collected on the Greater Idaho webpage show several versions of the would-be expanded state, some of which extend to the Pacific Ocean in what is now southwestern Oregon. Some also include far northern and northeastern California. Merchandise advertising Greater Idaho on mugs, T-shirts, and sweatshirts usually include a sizable chunk of California.

Relatively few maps of an enlarged Idaho include much of eastern Washington, another generally conservative area that is increasingly dissatisfied with the political environment of the state in which it is located. Eastern Washington is more densely populated than eastern Oregon or far northern California, and as a result its inclusion would greatly change the structure of an enlarged Idaho. Spokane is almost as a large as Boise and would therefore form a secondary core region of such a “greater Greater Idaho.” But if only eastern Oregon and northeastern California were to be included, Boise would still be the state’s main metropolitan area, and it would be much more centrally located than it currently is.

An Electoral-Geographical Paradox in Czechia? Not Really

In the January 2023 presidential election in Czechia (the Czech Republic), former army general Petr Pavel decisively defeated former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, with Pavel taking 58.33 percent of the vote to Babiš’s 41.67. Most political leaders and commentators in Western Europe and North America were relieved by this outcome. Pavel is noted for his strong pro-NATO and pro-Western views. He is also a social progressive. Finding inspiration in Scandinavian countries, he supports same-sex marriage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and increased economic redistribution. He also opposes the death penalty. Babiš, in contrast, has expressed skepticism towards NATO and is often regarded as having authoritarian tendencies. He rejects the European Union’s refugee policy, arguing that it is the responsibility of the Czech government to look after the interest of Czech citizens, and has made dismissive comments about his country’s Roma (or Romani) minority. In 2013, he won a satirical prize for the “anti-ecological comment of the year.” Babiš is also extremely wealthy and has been involved in a number a financial and political scandals.

Maps of the 2023 Czech presidential election show a distinct metropolitan/non-metropolitan divide. Although Pavel won the majority of the votes cast across most of the country, his level of support was significantly higher in the Prague metropolitan area, in Brno, Czechia’s second largest city, and in Plzeň, its fourth largest. Babiš, in contrast, did better in rural areas and those dominated by small cities. The one important exception was the metropolitan area of Ostrava, located in the northeastern part of the country. Ostrava is Czechia’s “rust belt,” a region formerly dominated by coal mining and steelmaking that experienced significant decline after the fall of communist rule. It is not surprising that the socially progressive, pro-Western candidate Pavel performed poorly in such an area.

The geographical patterns described above are similar to those found in recent elections in the United States and Western Europe. From an American perspective, Pavel would certainly be regarded as the more left-wing candidate and Babiš as the more right-wing one. But the situation is more complicated. Pavel, for example, describes himself as “right of center,” owing largely to his support for corporate interests and economic orthodoxy. The more populist Babiš, for his part, enacted some policies when he was Prime Minister that would generally be regarded as left-leaning, including increasing pensions and public-sector salaries. Many Czechs therefore reverse the “right-wing” and “left-wing” tags for the two politicians. Consider, for example, the map below, originally posted on Reddit Europe by the Czech commentator “Victor D.” Here the Prague region is mapped as almost always voting for right-wing candidate – as are the country’s other major cities, except left-voting Ostrava. Victor D. depicts rural areas and those dominated by small cities as habitually supporting candidates on the left. He understands that such categorizations run counter to those found in Western Europe:

Western Europeans please note: the usual European situation where cities are mainly left-leaning while the countryside is more right-leaning is reversed in Czechia. This is mainly because the left is, due to historical developments, seen as the “conservative” force in the country, while the right has been the driving force for change and reform. As a result, large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…”

It seems to me that the “usual European situation” is not reversed in Czechia: what is reversed is rather the meaning of the terms “left” and “right.” The connotations of these essential political categories have been in flux for some time in western Europe and especially in North America. The left historically found its main base of support in the working class, which generally opposes the economic interests of the elites but also tends to have somewhat conservative views on social and cultural issues. In recent decades, political parties previously identified as left-wing have turned more to affluent professionals, business leaders, and college-educated workers in the service sector, simultaneously losing support among the traditional working class. Put differently, traditional class politics in “the West” have declined in importance, whereas those associated with identity groups and social, cultural, and environmental issues have become increasingly central.

Such changes in political affiliation and categorization present major problems for communication. From the perspective of current political discourse in the United States, Victor D’s assertion that “large urban centres in Czechia are mostly leaning centre-right (liberal, progressive), while rural regions lean towards the left…” makes no sense whatsoever. But if the terms are defined in a different and most historical manner, they make perfect sense.

I have long been reluctant to use the term “liberal” when discussing politics, as the meanings of this term can be so different as to be diametrically opposed. In the U.S., someone now described as an “extreme liberal” sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum from a “neo-liberal,” whose views would be more accurately described as “paleo-liberal.” I now sometimes wonder whether even “left” and “right” have become so unmoored from their original meanings as to lose their utility as terms of analysis. But what could possibly replace them?  We seem to be stuck in a situation of fundamental paradox and ambiguity.

Problems Faced by Countries Directly Rooted in Conquest Empires

Several recent GeoCurrents posts have remarked on Nepal’s relatively low social and economic indicators, especially when compared with other environmentally and culturally similar regions in the southern Himalayas. Explaining why this is the case, however, has not been attempted. Nepal’s chaotic political environment and recent history of conflict no doubt play a major role. But could a deeper reason be lodged in the fact that the modern state of Nepal is directly rooted in the early-modern conquest empire of the Gorkhas? In such an empire, one group of people conquers and imposes its will on many other groups, creating profound resentment. Turning such a polity into a well-functioning nation-state, and especially a democratic one, can be a challenge.

To assess this thesis, it is useful to look at other modern countries similarly founded on relatively recent conquest empires. Although many countries could potentially be placed in such a category, I have limited it to eight states, including Nepal (see the map below). Each will be briefly examined here.

Ethiopia, in its currently geographical bounds, emerged in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the rapid conquests of the Kingdom of Abyssinia, or Ethiopian Empire, dominated by the Christian Amhara people. Although most of Africa was colonized by Europeans, quite a few of its peoples were subjugated by this indigenous empire. Not surprisingly, religiously and linguistically diverse Ethiopia continues to experience pronounced ethnic tensions, and has never successfully transitioned into a fully national state.

Saudi Arabia is a more recently created conquest state, emerging in the early 1900s. In 1902, the domain of the Saud family was limited to a small area near the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. Through a spectacular series of conquests over the next several decades, Ibn Saud had carved an extensive state that became known as Saudi Arabia. Although one could argue that Saudi Arabia was never an empire because its creation involved the conquest of other Arabic-speaking Muslim groups, the actual situation was more complicated. The austere Wahhabi sect that was, and still is, closely linked to the Saudi dynasty, was foreign to most of what is now Saudi Arabia. Especially to Twelver Shi’ites of the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia can still seem like an empire. But it is also true that generous social spending and rapid economic development have more generally transformed Saudi Arabia into a successful nation-state.

Afghanistan is directly rooted in the Durrani Empire, carved out by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the mid 1700s. A Pashtun project, the Durrani Empire forcefully brought many members of other ethnic groups, with different languages and cultures, under its rule. In the twentieth century, Afghanistan sought to transform itself into a national state in several different incarnations, with middling success. But Afghanistan’s continuing tensions and turmoil have some linkages with its imperial formation.

Modern Burma/Myanmar is firmly rooted in the Burmese Konbaung Empire and Dynasty (1752 to 1885). The first Konbaung ruler crushed the wealthy and sophisticated Kingdom of Pegu in southern Burma and subsequently almost wiped its Mon people off the map. Konbaung rulers went on the conquer the Shan states, Arakan, Manipur, and even Assam, severely threatening the British East India Company in Calcutta. Three Anglo-Burmese war followed, eventually reducing the entire empire to British imperial rule. But when Burma was reborn as an independent state in 1948, its leaders sought to reestablish ethnic Burman domination over non-Burman peoples, following Aung San’s pre-war slogan “our race, our language, our religion.” Ethnic rebellions immediately proliferated and continue to this day. Burma has never been able to turn itself into a solid nation state.

Iran has deeper and more complicated roots, but it was essentially formed by the Safavid Dynasty, which conquered the region that is now Iran, and more, in the early sixteenth century. The religiously driven Safavids turned Iran a Twelver Shi’ite country; today it is a Twelver Shi’ite theocracy. The Safavid state was a joint project of Turkic military power and Persian cultural and administrative capability, the combination of which continued to form the backbone of the Iranian state long after the Safavid Dynasty fell from power in 1736. Iran eventually turned itself into a relatively successful national state, but to its mostly Sunni Kurds and Balochs, and to many Iranian Arabs as well, it can still seem like a Persian empire.

Russian arguably became an empire in 1552, when Ivan IV (“the Terrible”) conquered the important Muslim state of Kazan, turning Russia into a multi-confessional, multilinguistic polity. Subsequent expansion brought many other non-Russian peoples under its imperial rule. Although the Bolsheviks rejected the very idea of empire, in many ways the Soviet Union that they created continued to function as an imperial state – as does Russia to this day. Ethnic conflicts, however, are not a major problem today. Crucial factors here include the fact that ethnic Russian form a solid majority (70 to 80 percent of the total population) and the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s political suppression.

China is the most complicated case. Its civilizational roots extend back for millennia, longer even than those of Iran. But the geographical expression of China today stems from the conquests of the Qing Dynasty and Empire in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Taiwan, viewed by Beijing today as an intrinsic part of its territorial domain, had never previously been under Chinese rule. The huge regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Manchuria all became firmly part of China owing to the power of the Qing. Ironically, the Qing were not themselves an ethnic Chinese but rather Manchus; their success in subjugating the vastly more numerous Han Chinese people resulted in their own demographic swamping and virtual disappearance as a people. Today, China forms a secure national state with relatively minor ethnic conflicts. Such stability stems from the demographic predominance of the Han people (92 percent of the population) and to the country’s rapid economic ascent. But to Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and others, China can still feel like an imperial state.

Many other countries, including the United States, have some imperial roots and are treated as empires by some writers. But for the eight countries mapped above, imperial roots are pronounced. It is probably not coincidental that none of them has a successful history of democratic governance.

Per Capita GDP in Nepal and the Rest of South Asia

The most recent GeoCurrents post compared Nepal with the other political units of the southern Himalayan region on the basis of the Human Development Index (HDI). Today’s post does the same in terms of per capita GDP. The map below shows the per capita GDP standings (in Purchasing Power Parity) in 2020-2021 of the independent countries of greater South Asia along with the states of India (and India’s two largest union territories). This map is problematic in that the data for the states of India and for the region’s independent countries are not completely comparable, as is explained in the map legend. But the general pattern is clear: Nepal continues to lag behind its Himalayan neighbors on this metric, just as it does in regard to the HDI. The gap between Nepal and the Indian state of Sikkim is stark, especially when one considers the close cultural and physiographic similarities of these two polities. Sikkim is actually more Nepali than Nepal, in that only 44.6 percent of the people of Nepal speak Nepali as their first language whereas 66.6% of those in Sikkim do (with only 6.9 speaking Sikkimese). It is also noteworthy that Nepal falls into the same category on this map as the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (demoted from state status in 2019). On the HDI map, Jammu and Kashmir has a significantly higher standing than Nepal. Finally, note that Pakistan scores much better in this regard than it does in terms of HDI.

The second map is limited to the states and larger union territories of India, showing their per capita GDP in PPP for 2020-2021. Here there are no problems with data comparability. What I find surprising about this map is the relatively low standing, compared to those of neighboring states, of Maharashtra and Punjab. Maharashtra is often considered to be India’s economic pacesetter, and it clearly has India’s largest GDP in total. Punjab, in earlier decades, stood near the top of the per capita GDP list of Indian states. It is interesting that Punjab has lagged behind its neighbor, Haryana. Together, these two states are the core area of India’s agricultural green revolution, and until recently they had more similar developmental indicators.

Bihar, not surprisingly, stands at the bottom of the per capita GDP list for India. Bihar comes in last place in almost every socio-economic indicator in India. I once quipped when teaching that Bihar has been described as India’s Mississippi, meaning that it is in the bottom position in almost everything. That statement deeply offended a student in the classroom from Mississippi, leading me to stop making such comparisons in the classroom.

It is also notable that the small state of Manipur in far eastern India comes in at a much lower ranking on the per capita GDP map than it does on the HDI map. Manipur, like its highland neighbors, has relatively high levels of education, which propels it into a higher overall developmental position than its economic figures alone would warrant.

In the classroom, I like to complement maps of per capita GDP with ones showing per capita income. Per capita GDP can be quite misleading, as regions that have high levels of economic output based on a few key economic sectors, such as mining, often appear much more prosperous than they really are. China’s region of Inner Mongolia exemplifies this problem. I therefore made a map of India showing per capita income based on the most recent data that I could easily find (2017-2018). As can be seen, however, this map is very similar to the 2020-2021 per capita GDP map.

Human Development Index Mapped for Greater South Asia and the Southern Himalayan Belt.

A recent GeoCurrents post on Nepal noted that the country has experienced less development than the rest of the southern Himalayan region, which was illustrated with an old map of per capita GDP. A more recent map of the Human Development Index (HDI) makes the same point: Nepal scores worse on this metric than either Bhutan or any of India’s Himalayan states.

The 2021 map of the Human Development Index (HDI) across greater South Asia shows the Himalayan belt in general ranking significantly higher than the adjacent lowlands of north-central and northeastern India. These results may seem paradoxical, as highland areas of rough topography are often much less developed than nearby areas of flat topography, which typically have much better infrastructure. But in many parts of the world, this generalization does not hold. As can be seen in the map below, the mountains of far-northeastern India have much higher levels of human development than the adjacent lowlands, whether in India, Bangladesh, or Burma. India’s small states along the Burmese boundary have relatively high HDI scores despite their rugged topography, problems with ethnic insurgency, and history of relative isolation. This seeming anomaly is partially explained by the educational focus of Christian missionaries in the region. Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya all have solid Christian majorities, while Manipur is almost half Christian and Arunachal Pradesh has a Christian plurality. Recent Indian infrastructural investments, along with the gradual reduction in insurgency, have also boosted human and economic development in the region.

The densely populated lowland states of north-central India have the country’s lowest levels of human development, despite forming the historical core of South Asia. This area of low HDI also extends into the mostly lowland state of Assam in northeastern India. Somewhat higher levels of human development, however, are encountered in the lowland Bengali-speaking zone encompassing Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura. This area was until recently one of the poorest and least developed parts of South Asia, but it has experienced significant improvements in recent years. It is probably not coincidental that Bengalis have a well-deserved reputation for educational interest and intellectual engagement. To reflect the relatively high position of the Bengali-speaking zone in lowland northeastern South Asia, I have reconfigured the South Asia HDI map to depict Bengal as if it were a separate polity.

The partition of British India in 1947 was also a partition of Bengal, and the violence and economic destruction associated with it long held back the Bengali-speaking zone. A similar event occurred on the other side of South Asia, as the partition of British India was also a partition of Punjab. But here an entirely different pattern emerged. The parts of pre-partition Punjab that went to India (Punjab State, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh) have all experienced striking improvements in human well-being. The large Pakistani province of Punjab, on the other hand, has lagged behind, as has most of the rest of the country in which it is located. This pattern is not easy to explain. From 1947 to 1971, when Pakistan and Bangladesh formed one country, what was then West Pakistan was far ahead of what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on almost every economic and human-developmental score. But while Bangladesh experienced substantial improvements, Pakistan has struggled.

To illustrate the human-developmental gap between Pakistan and India/Bangladesh, I made another iteration of the HDI map that breaks down both Pakistan and India into their largest constituent units. I had to go back to 2019 to find easily accessible HDI data at this level, and I am not sure if the data are fully comparable. What the map shows, however, is stark, with Pakistani Punjab and most of the rest of the country coming in with scores much lower than almost any part of India. The extraordinarily low HDI figure for Balochistan is highly significant, helping explain the long-running insurgency of this resource-rich region.

Pakistan’s higher HDI values are found in the mountainous northern regions of the country. Other than tiny Islamabad, the country’s highest HDI levels are in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (areas claimed by India). Gilgit-Baltistan is noted for his extremely rugged topography and, until recently, its relative isolation from the rest of the world. It has, however, seen remarkable gains in education and social development more generally over the past several decades. Pakistani infrastructural investments, aimed at securing access to western China, have no doubt play a role. More important have been the developmental projects of the Aga Khan Foundation. Many of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Nizari Ismai’li Shia Muslims, a group headed by the Aga Khan. The Nizari Ismai’lis in general are a cosmopolitan, liberal, and well-educated people, and their leaders are keen to help their co-religionists in the most remote and rugged corners of northern Pakistan.

The final map in this post is the base map on which all of the other maps are constructed. Like all GeoCurrents maps, it is made in simple presentation software, Apple Keynote (equivalent to PowerPoint). Before long, I hope to make this map available for free on this website in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. It is a very simple matter to click on any of the units and change their color or their boundaries in any way one sees fit. Similarly, the place names can be deleted, and others can be added, very easily.

The Amazing Linn Atlas Animates the Expansion of the Gorkha Empire, Showing the Political Fate of the Limbu People

When writing my recent posts on the expansion of the Gorkha Empire of Nepal, I was frustrated by the lack of maps on the topic. Although Wikipedia articles on such subjects are usually richly illustrated with maps, that is not the case regarding the history of Nepal. Other go-to cartographic resources also came up empty. Then I turned to YouTube and discovered the little-known but very impressive Linn Atlas. This historical map animation site focusses on Southeast Asia and environs, but goes as far afield as the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great. Although one could criticize the Linn maps of South and Southeast Asia for portraying historical polities as neatly bounded unitary states, when they were usually somewhat spatially vague “mandalas,” with power dissipating with distance from the core, such an objection would miss the essential point: it is extremely difficult and often impossible to map such fluid political constructs. What the Linn Atlas does is done magnificently, with even microstates and their changing geographical expressions mapped at a level of detail that I would have thought unattainable.

I have extracted 2 frames from the Linn Atlas animation of the expansion of the Gorkha Empire to illustrate my point. The first shows the Gorkha polity when it was a tiny statelet, one of many ruled by the Khas people in what is now central Nepal. The second shows the situation when the expanding Gorkha Kingdom had completely surrounded the densely populated and pivotal Kathmandu Valley, then governed by three small Newar states. I have also used the Linn Nepal sequence to create my own map, which shows the expansion of the Gorkha Empire from 1743 to the time of its greatest territorial extent in 1814.

The initial frames of the Linn’s Nepal animation show the Limbuwan country as belonging to a kingdom called Vijayapur. (By 1771, however, this relatively sizable state is shown as having broken apart, its northern areas coming under the rule of an unspecified number of tiny Limbu kingdoms.) As “Vijayapur” is a Sanskrit term, one might assume that this state was ruled not by the Limbu people but rather by Hindus coming from outside the region. Professor Raja Ram Subedi, who taught at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, explained this complex situation in a brief undated article called “Historical Entity of Vijayapur State.

As Subedi noted, the Limbu and related Kirati peoples could defend their own tiny states: “The chieftains and people of Dasa Kirata were expert in archery, physical activities, military organization, building forts and agricultural works.” But they nonetheless came under the rule of a Hindu dynasty, the leaders of which were connected with the small state of Palpa located in what is now south-central Nepal. But as Subedi further explained, this did not entail the subjugation of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples:

Raja Vijaya Narayan Roy was an amicable as well as diplomatic ruler. He established cordial relations with the Kirata subjects…  . He made an alliance with Morey Hang, a chieftain of the Kirata, and appointed him as the minister (Dewan). With the help of the Kiratas, Vijaya Narayan Roy was able to repair the old fort of Bhatabhunge Gadhi and shifted his capital from Baratappa to that fort.

Subedi also noted that the Gorkha conquest did not initially change this situation:

After [the Gorkha ruler] King Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered Vijayapur, the separate entity of that state ended. But the privileges given to the Kirata chieftains tended to continue even after it was annexed to Nepal. Kiratas constituted majority in Vijayapur state. They set up local government. Only the sovereign power was vested in the center. Even after the unification of Nepal, local government tended to exist.

But as we saw in the previous post, local autonomy began to be whittled away in the mid nineteenth century and was eventually eliminated altogether, politically marginalizing the Limbu and other Kirati peoples.

Does Nepal’s historical origin as a conquest empire contribute to its modern political instability?  That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

Nepal’s Paradoxes of Nationalism and Historical Development: Why the Nepali Language Is Not the Nepali Language and Gurkhas Are Not Gorkhas

The past several GeoCurrents posts have examined the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal, asking why they are so little known, all but erased from the history of the region. The simple answer is what might be called the myth of the nation-state, which rests on the idea that the people of virtually all countries are firmly united by sentiments of national solidarity. Although Nepal today forms a reasonably coherent nation-state, achieving such unifying identity has been a prolonged and contentious process that has never reached full completion. It also entailed the conquest and political suppression of many formerly independent peoples. Not surprisingly, this process is downplayed if not denied in the national mythos of Nepal.

On the surface, Nepal has a reasonably high degree of common cultural grounding. More than 80 percent of its people are Hindu, with another nine percent following Buddhism. The national language, Nepali, is spoken across the country and serves as an effective common tongue, used in government, education, and the media. Nepali is the mother tongue of almost half the population, and that figure is growing.

But there is an interesting oddity concealed by the term “Nepali language.” The sixth most widely spoken language in the country is Nepal Bhasi, which literally means “Nepali language.” Yet this Sino-Tibetan Nepali language does not even belong to the same language family as the country’s Indo-European official Nepali language. Nepal Bhasi was the language of the original state(s) of Nepal; the names of both the country and its tongue were usurped by the Gorkha Kingdom (or Empire), which conquered and annexed Nepal in 1768. The modern country of Nepal, put simply, originated as a conquest empire, one that later sought to refashion itself as a modern nation-state. In so doing it has obscured the processes that brought it into being in the first place

The story of these extraordinary acts of cultural appropriation are not difficult to find, but they tend to be papered over. Consider, for example, the following passage, taken from the second paragraph of the Wikipedia article on Nepal:

The centrally located Kathmandu Valley is intertwined with the culture of Indo-Aryans and was the seat of the prosperous Newar Confederacy known as the Nepal Mandala. The Himalayan branch of the ancient Silk Road was dominated by the valley’s traders. The cosmopolitan region developed distinct traditional art and architecture. By the 18th century the Gorkha Kingdom achieved the unification of Nepal.


This passage is not incorrect, but it is misleading. The large, fertile, and strategically located Kathmandu Valley was the center of a smallish kingdom (or, at times, kingdoms) that had long been known as Nepal. Its dominant ethnic group, the Newar, spoke (and still speak) the Sino-Tibetan Nepali language, or Nepal Bhasa. The Newar were originally part of the Kirati group, which is now mostly confined to eastern Nepal. As a cosmopolitan trade-oriented people, the Newar welcomed other ethnic groups into their state and interacted with them extensively. Their language and culture were subsequently heavily influenced by Indic (Indo-Aryan) newcomers. Most of the Newar eventually converted to Hinduism (although about 10% follow Buddhism), and they adopted some elements of the caste system. To this day, the Newar “pride themselves as the true custodians of the religion, culture and civilisation of Nepal,” and they “consistently rank as the most economically and socially advanced community of Nepal.” But they lost their state and political independence in 1768, when they were conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire based to their west. The Gorkha spoke an Indo-Aryan language, and their kingdom was ruled and run by a Hindu military-administrative caste/ethnicity called the Khas, who had originated much earlier in the lowlands of India. Until the 1800s, they called their own Gorkha state Khas Desh (or Khas country). Later renamed the Chhetri, the Khas are Nepal’s largest group of people, forming 16.6 percent of the national population.

In 1743, under the leadership of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Gorkha Kingdom began to conquer and annex its small neighboring states, thus effectively becoming an empire. After defeating the much wealthier and more sophisticated Newar states in 1768, Shah transferred his capital to the Kathmandu Valley and assumed its name – Nepal – for his expanding empire. (“Newar” and “Nepal” are actually variants of the same term, “Newar” being the colloquial form and “Nepal” the learned one.) Shah then went on to conquer dozens of other small states, first moving to the east to subdue the Kirati people, and then annexing many Himalayan statelets in the west. The empire that he founded later encompassed extensive lands in what are now the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The language of the original Gorkha Kingdom was first called Khas Kura, after the ruling Khas caste, and was later referred to as the Gorkha language. In 1933 it was finally renamed “Nepali” by the state’s official publishing agency, which simultaneously changed its own name from “Gorkha Language Publishing Committee” to “Nepali Language Publishing Committee.” In 1951, the term “Gorkhali” (or Gorkha people) in the country’s national anthem was finally changed to “Nepali.” At this time, the appropriation of the term “Nepal” was complete.

It was not easy for the Gorkha Empire to defeat the Limbu people, who were well equipped to defend themselves. After a three-year war, a peace treaty was signed in 1774 that incorporated Limbuwan into the Gorkha Empire but allowed the Limbu people to retain extensive autonomy, thereby securing their loyalty. In the 1860s, however, new policies of cultural and linguistic suppression incited widespread Limbu rebellions against the state. In the early twentieth century, Limbu land rights came under attack. By the 1950s, the continuing erosion of local autonomy combined with assaults on traditional land tenure again incited insurgency. An ethnonationalist state agenda enacted under the slogan “one country, one king, one language, one culture” further angered the Limbu and other minority peoples.

 The expansion of the Gorkha Kingdom and the subsequent creation of the modern state of Nepal is generally portrayed positively as a process of national unification. One can make the case that it was a beneficial development that prevented the British East India company from gobbling up the many tiny states of the region. But the term “unification” might imply that it was a semi-natural process that brought together various peoples who already constituted a kind of nation in embryo. Seem from the perspective of the Limbu and other minority peoples, including the Newar, the creation of the modern nation-state of Nepal can be framed as less a process of unification than one of appropriation and (attempted) forced assimilation.

The expansionistic Gorkha Empire eventually come to blows with the British East India company. After the hard-fought Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816, the victorious British annexed roughly two-fifths of the Gorkha territory. (This annexation given rise to a rather feckless “Greater Nepal” movement that still hopes to reclaim these lost lands.) But unlike other defeated South Asian kingdoms that were transformed into dependent “Princely States” under the British Raj, Nepal essentially retained its independence. The British were so impressed by the fighting ability of the Gorkha soldiers, moreover, that they insisted on the right to recruit them for their own Indian army. These storied fighters, called Gurkhas, still play an important role in the militaries of the United Kingdom and several other countries; they also serve as U.N. peacekeepers. More than 200,000 Gurkhas fought for Britain in World War I. Some experts regard them as the world’s best soldiers.

But although the British continued to recruit Gurkhas, before long they were no longer actually Gorkhas. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, formerly called the Sepoy Mutiny, the British grew suspicious of high-caste Hindus, including the Khas who had formed the bedrock of the Gorkha army. According to the Wikipedia, military recruitment subsequently shifted to the Gurungs and Magars, indigenous Sino-Tibetan peoples who had been conquered by the Gorkhas. But the Encyclopedia Britannica (Fifteenth Edition) article on the Kirati Rai people tells a somewhat different story: “With the Limbu and Magar peoples, they supplied the bulk of the Gurkha contingent to the British Indian armies.”

 Nepal is a politically troubled country today, and its social-economic indicators lag well below those of other Himalayan polities, such as the independent country of Bhutan and the Indian states of Sikkim, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh. The historical processes outlined are a major factor in Nepal’s current plight.  


The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.