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.  


Lichen-Eating Across the World, and Among the Lichenophilic Limbu of Eastern Nepal

Lichen are one of the most ubiquitous forms of life, found in some of the Earth’s most inhospitable environments. We have long known that lichen are composite organisms, formed from the symbiosis of fungi and either algae or photosynthetic bacteria. Recent research shows that they can be more complicated, sometimes composed of several species of multicellular fungus as well as different kinds of algae and many kinds of bacteria. Single-celled fungi are also sometimes involved; a widely reported 2016 study was summarized in one headline as, “Yeast emerges as hidden third partner in lichen symbiosis.”

 Some 20 percent of fungi species can “lichenize,” or incorporate algae or cyanobacteria to reap the benefits of photosynthesis. The Wikipedia article on symbiosis in lichen includes this quip by naturalist Trevor Goward: “lichen are fungi that have discovered agriculture.” Goward takes this idea several steps further on his own website: “lichens are fungal greenhouses; lichens are algal farmsteads; lichens are ecosystems; lichens are organisms; lichens are emergent property.”

Lichen produce and store carbohydrates, and as a result can be an important source of food for animals, most notably reindeer (including caribou) and northern flying squirrels. They are seldom eaten, however, by people. Although only a few kinds are poisonous, many have compounds that can cause unpleasant effects. More important, the carbohydrates that most lichen produce are indigestible by human beings. But some are both digestible and nutritious. Yet over most of the world, edible lichen are eaten, if at all, only as a famine food. Perhaps this will change. One food specialist now touts lichen as a possible survival resource for a post-apocalyptic future.

Historically, the main areas of widespread lichen consumption were Scandinavia, East Asia, and the Pacific Northwest of North America. In northern Europe, mis-named Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) was once widely consumed, “cooked in many different ways, such as bread, porridge, pudding, soup, or salad.” Its bitterness can be removed by boiling and its carbohydrates are easily digestible. But as Scandinavians gained access to more diverse foodstuffs, Iceland moss dropped out of their diets. As the Wikipedia notes, “It is not in great demand, and even in Iceland it is only occasionally used to make folk medicines, and in a few traditional dishes.”

Among many indigenous societies of the Pacific Northwest, a horsehair lichen called wila (Bryoria fremontii) was gastronomically important. Care had to be taken in gathering it, as B. fremontii sometimes contains vulpinic acid, toxic to human and most other mammals. Evidently, even the edible specimens produce a carbohydrate that is largely indigestible by people. If so, why would wila have been such a highly desired foodstuff? According to the Wikipedia, “It is theorized that these peoples may consume the lichen because when it is cooked with other foods, it may capture carbohydrates from these other foods that would otherwise be lost in the fire pit method used to cook it, increasing the carbohydrates by 23 to 122%.”

Globally, the most widely consumed lichen are the so-called rock tripes, grouped together in the genus Umbilicaria. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They are edible when properly prepared; soaking extensively and boiling with changes of water removes the bitterness and purgative properties.” In North America, Umbilicaria has generally been a famine food, but in parts of East Asia one variety is consumed on a regular basis, known as iwatake in Japanese and seogi beoseot in Korean. In Japan, traditional iwatake gathering was an arduous process (see the illustration below). This form of lichen is also valued for its medicinal properties. The Korean gastronomic website Maangchi emphasizes its health benefits:

Seogi-beoseot (rock ear mushrooms*) are a rare, precious Korean ingredient that’s prized for its medicinal properties. It’s found high up on rocks deep in the mountains, and is kind of in the shape of an ear, which is probably where it got its name. It’s picked from the rocks, dried, and sold in small quantities. It’s hard to find outside of Korea. [*Despite its Korean name, seogi-beoseot is not a mushroom.]

Among the world’s few lichen-eating cultures, one stands out above all others: the Limbu and related Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A recent article in the Kathmandu Post explores this Limbu proclivity:

The Limbus, an indigenous people from Nepal’s eastern hills, have interesting and unique food traditions. Wild edible lichen, known as yangben, is the community’s signature speciality. Limbus cook yangben with meat, especially pork, to make a variety of dishes. And one of the most loved delicacies is yangben-faksa, pork with lichen. Another popular dish is blood sausage, known as sargemba or sargyangma, which is made by adding lichen to minced meat…

Several different kinds of lichen are grouped together as yangben by the Limbu. A few scientific studies have been conducted on their consumption. In one research project,

Three lichen species …., Parmelia nepalensis, Ramalina farinacea, and R. conduplicans, were chemically analyzed to assess their food value. The lichens were found rich in carbohydrate, fat, crude fibre, and minerals. Their carbohydrate and protein contents were comparable to that of rice. If cooked mixed with other food, these lichens will provide various minerals in sufficient amount and add carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fibre.

Another study examined the “use of seven species of lichens belonging to four families” among several ethnic groups of eastern Nepal. Along with the Limbu, the Sherpa were found to be decidedly “lichenophilic.” Among these groups, one kind of lichen is used extensively to treat wounds; another is hung above the entryways of houses due to the belief that it “wards off evil spirit and maintains peace at home and among family members.”

According to the Kathmandu Post, yangben consumption is spreading to other ethnic groups in Nepal, leading to overharvesting. As it characteristic of lichen in general, growth is slow. The same article also notes that, “there are others who believe that the dust from vehicles that ply the roads built through rural forests have also barred the lichen from flourishing.” This thesis may have merit, as lichen are highly sensitive to air pollution. Lichen health is often used to gauge pollution severity; an organization called UK Air Pollution Information System (APIS) has even developed a mobile “lichen-app” that uses “lichens to assess atmospheric nitrogen pollution effects.”

Although the consumption of lichen has spread from the Limbu to neighboring ethnic groups, other Limbu delicacies seem unlikely to find much appeal outside their homeland. Consider, for example, wachipa, which probably tastes better than it sounds: “Wachipa is a special dish made by cooking rice, minced local chicken meat along with burnt downy feather follicles and offal. It has a unique bitter taste and aroma that you get from firewood roasted meat.”

As a final note on lichen, my quest to find maps of their distribution and used by humans was partially frustrated by the existence of the “map lichen,” or Rhizocarpon geographicum, which dominated most searches. As described by Wikipedia, “the map lichen is a species … which grows on rocks in mountainous areas of low air pollution. Each lichen is a flat patch bordered by a black line of fungal hyphae. These patches grow adjacent to each other, leading to the appearance of a map or a patchwork field.”

I am not sure how map-like map lichen actually are, but they can be strikingly beautiful.

  GeoCurrents will run one more article on the Limbu before turning to the recent Czech election.