Birdsong: Where do we get our bird names from?Folklore and human interactions with species give us some unique sounding names.
A few weeks ago, academic (and a long-time columnist at this paper) Deepak Thapa had pointed out the Sanskritisation of local place names in an excellent article. I was surprised to learn (and I am sure many others felt the same) that the Bagmati river was originally called the Nwakhu—‘mouth-river’ or ‘murmuring river’, as the intellectual Kamal Prakash Malla has added—in Nepal Bhasa. Malla’s original paper breaks down the three stages of Sanskritisation—or perhaps the process could be called ‘Khas-ikaran’ here—that has allowed indigenous names to be claimed by later day rulers. The most prominent example of ‘Khas-ikaran’ would be the Chomolungma—‘mother goddess’—being reduced to ‘Sagarmatha’, a vapid name conjured by a Khas historian on the ‘basis of a very dubious etymological interpretation’.
Last week, in the Ranibari community forest adjacent to the Shangri-La Hotel in Lazimpat, I came across a board that listed out the birds that could be found here. The board lists out both the English as well as the Nepali (I’d call it local language, for some of the names seem to have non-Sanskritic roots) names, and there are some unique ones. Here’s a sample: the Large Cuckooshrike is called ‘Latushak Virahichari’; the Black Drongo is the ‘Kaalo Chibe’; and the Black-lored Tit is the ‘Pandu Chichilkote’—the only logic for the latter name I can think of is that ‘Pandu’ also means the colour yellow in Sanskrit (as the Pandavas’ father in the Mahabharat was called), which the bird is streaked with. The Red-vented Bulbul is the ‘Jureli’—perhaps because of its mohawk-like crest (or is it the other way around?). Some names are a direct translation from English: the Green-billed Malkoha is the ‘Harit Malkauwa’. And some are onomatopoeic—the Great Barbet is the ‘Nyauli’, whose calls resonate through the hills every spring onwards, while its smaller cousin the Blue-throated Barbet is the ‘Kuthurke’, named for the ‘kutr-kutr’ call that erupts in our woods once the weather gets warmer. Then there is the outlier—the ‘Dhobini Chari’, or the ‘Washerwoman Bird’, the Nepali name for the ubiquitous Oriental Magpie Robin. Did the name come from its presence near streams and brooks? But the bird is equally at home in scrub forests and gardens, too. Why, then, the washerwoman tag?
These names intrigued me. Why is a particular species—even the ‘bhangera’, or our house sparrow—called so? A little investigation led me to a folk tale that explains the roots of the Nyauli and the Kuthurke and begins with a song collected by anthropologist Corneille Jest: ‘nyauli chari/byauli/kuthurke chara/byaula/sabai chari milijuli/aafnai gharma jaunla’—‘The Nyauli is the bride/The Kuthurke is the groom/All the birds will come together, will go to our homes’. The folktale concerns a girl who married without her parents’ consent, and in turn, was cursed she could never return home. The girl and her paramour were reborn as a Nyauli and Kuthurke bird respectively, but the Nyauli insisted on returning home, while her lover asked her to wait for her parents’ permission. ‘This is the reason why, along the river, one can hear: "nyauli, nyauli", I am sad. I am sad!, and her lover answering: "pakh-pakh-pakh" Wait! wait! wait!’
Jest’s paper lists out a few other etymological roots of bird names. The most recognisable is the Kaphal Pakyo bird, more commonly known as the Koel or the Indian Cuckoo. The Hoopoe’s Nepali name, Phapar Chara, ‘signals that the buckwheat, phapar, is ready to be harvested,’ while the Red Billed Blue Magpie, with its distinctive long tail, is called—a little unimaginatively compared to the other names—‘Laampuchhre’, or the Long-tailed Bird. Most birds, in Jest’s paper, are also associated with farming activities. Hence, the magnificent Crested Serpent Eagle ‘calls the rain with its song “supi-supi”’, and is called the Kagalkui; the Karang Kurung bird, or the crane (which one, but?), signals that ‘the pumpkins are ripe’; and the Seto Jureli, the Himalayan Bulbul, warns humans of an approaching leopard.
I’d hazard that almost all local bird names (and animals too, perhaps) would have a story behind them, but time and the need to identify species by their English names, both for scientific purposes and to find common ground, have eroded their roots. And while very few would be interested today in pursuing the roots of such names, I’d also hazard that their etymology will tell us a lot more about the way people and cultures in Nepal have perceived their surroundings. Such a study will also go beyond bird watching or ornithology; it would be an interdisciplinary approach that creates space both for the species as well as man’s interactions with them.
This brings me to a place name whose roots I had long searched for—especially because the same word exists in two entirely different languages. In the US, the Mustang is a feral horse whose name comes from the Spanish for ‘wild’, ‘stray’, or ‘ownerless’. The Mustang region of Nepal, however, is a corruption of the Tibetan word ‘sMon-thang’, pronounced usually as ‘Mondang’, which means ‘flat land of aspiration’ (and Mustang is relatively flat, compared to the Himalayan ridges around it). Once again, as historian Ramesh Dhungel suggests, ‘Khas-ikaran’ by the Jumleli Indo-Aryan kings turned sMon-thang into Mustang.
And thus, through no connection except a corruption of the word from its original language, a wild horse in the United States has the same name as a trans-Himalayan region.
What do you think?
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