A name to conjure withThe naming of places is no longer the prerogative of the state. Local units are choosing what they want to be called.
The sight of the Ganesh Himal tinged orange by the late afternoon sun and perfectly framed by the two ridges flowing down from the hilltops of Nagarjun and Shivapuri provides one of the most striking views of the Himalaya from the Kathmandu Valley. In the lap of that range, lies what sounds like the aptly named Aamachhodingmo Rural Municipality in Rasuwa district. Except that the place was not known as that when Nepal was restructured into 753 local bodies. In its wisdom (or ignorance), the Local Body Restructuring Commission had decided to call the new municipality formed by amalgamating the former VDCs of Goljung, Gatlang, Chilime and parts of Haku, Parbatikund Rural Municipality, after the eponymous pond within the municipal boundaries.
I first heard about the place in 2017, when news appeared of the newly elected municipal body voting to go for a name change, a concession that had been granted under the Local Government Operation Act. Even at first blush, it felt very right, for by no stretch of imagination does the place, tucked far away into the northwestern corner of the district of Rasuwa, bordering Tibet and Dhading, appear to identify with anything called Parbati. According to the municipal profile, Tamangs comprise 95 per cent of Aamachhodingmo. The second-largest are the Ghaley (3 percent), a group that occupies the intermediate space between the Tamangs and the Gurungs to the west, and in that part of the country generally identify more with Tamangs. Apart from the mandatory Dalit women representation in each of its five wards, all the elected officials are Tamang or Ghale.
The explanation provided in the profile about why the name had to be changed said it all: ‘Since more than 90 per cent of the residents in the area are Tamang/Ghale, the rural municipality was given a name in the Tamang language. Aamachhodingmo is so called because in the Tamang language, “Parbati” (the Hindu goddess) is called “Ama” (mother) and “kund” (pond) is called “chhodingmo”.’
In the discussion on the origin of place-names, The Oxford Handbook of Names and Naming says the following: ‘Place-names [are] cultural artefacts which arise from the interaction between language and environment.’ In the case of Aamachhodingmo, the collection of information to understand precisely that crucial interaction does not appear to have been done, or the official(s) responsible for coming up with names might have been able to ‘convince’ the locals about the suitability of agreeing to the out-of-place-sounding Nepali toponym, Parbatikund.
One other early instance where the renaming was quite complete was in Udayapur. Sunkoshi Municipality was renamed Limchunbung Rural Municipality not only to distinguish itself from three other Sunkoshi Municipalities in other districts, but also to reflect its own identity. ‘Limchunbung’ refers to a flower in the local Rai language.
Given how names of places have been outright distorted or appropriated with the active connivance of the state, I thought these two changes were only the beginning of an avalanche. It has been evident since the adoption of the 2015 constitution that despite all the chest-beating, particularly by Janajati and Madhesi activists, the provinces will not bear anything but the most generic appellations, something that has been clearly borne out in the case of the four provinces named so far.
But given the greater homogeneity at the local level, I had assumed that the dynamics would be different with these bodies. As it turned out, only 38 municipalities decided to adopt a different name than had been given by the Local Body Restructuring Commission. In many cases, the change was only cosmetic, having to do with differences in transliteration, while in others, the change of name was quite definite. Not having the time to go through all the municipal profiles to understand the significance of the new names, I confine myself to a few observations.
It should be accepted at the outset that with just 38 changes required, the Commission appears to have done a pretty good job of coming up with names acceptable to the locals since some measure of consultations would have taken place. I have my reservations about some of the names though and I give but two examples. In Jhapa district, there is this municipality called Buddhashanti, which sounds perfect since it encapsulates both Buddha and peace (shanti), definitely a plus point given the growing number of ‘Buddha-was-born-in-Nepal’ fanatics in our country. Buddhashanti is derived from the two former municipalities merged to form the new one, Budhabare and Shantinagar. In doing so, however, the famous, albeit quaint and quirky, meaning of Budhabare (‘bazaar on Wednesdays’) and its long history is now in danger of being lost forever.
Likewise, in Tanahun, my ancestral village is now within Shuklagandaki Municipality, which sits astride the Seti Gandaki. ‘Shuklagandaki’ is the Sanskritised variant of Seti Gandaki and one would have thought that federalism being the means to making more people identify with the state, the authorities would come up with a name that would resonate with everyone, not only with those with a cultural affinity towards Sanskrit. Seti Gandaki Municipality would have sounded more Nepali. For that matter, the name of any of the three previous entities that the new municipality covers, Dhorphirdi, Dulegaunda and Khairenitar, could have been chosen to retain that distinctly local flavour.
There are also new names that have a very different provenance and have to do with Nepal’s recent political history. One such is the Shahidbhumi Rural Municipality in Dhankuta. The Commission had called it Khalsa Chhintang Shahidbhumi, but the elected officials opted for Shahidbhumi (land of the martyrs) in memory of the infamous Chhintang massacre of 16 people in 1979 by the Panchayat government. It might sound grander but has lost all association with the event that produced the martyrs in the first place.
Most of those killed at Chhintang were cadre of the Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), the main rump of the current ruling party. The other rump, consisting of the Maoists, have not been outdone at all, with a municipality that stands apart from all the rest—Sunil Smriti Rural Municipality in Rolpa. The Commission’s original choice was Subarnawati, an odd one given its strong Sanskrit overtones in a municipality where Magars form the majority. The municipal officials, dominated by former Maoists, decided that since Subarnawati had neither history nor context, they would name it after a comrade killed during the conflict. Sunil Smriti (memorial) comes from Sunil, the nom de guerre of Kim Bahadur Thapa, who was shot dead by security forces from a helicopter towards the fag end of the ‘People’s War’. He must have been quite a leader since not only does his home village carry his name, his wife, Bagmati Chhetrini, is also the Vice-Chair of the municipality.
Only the future will tell how many of these place-names will stand the test of time and whether there will be further changes demanded of these and others as well. The ‘interaction between language and environment’ mentioned above is also one that remains very dynamic.
What do you think?
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