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.