“The lapse of a few generations will probably see the total extinction of the Chepangs and Kusundas, and therefore I apprehend that the traces now saved from oblivion of these singularly circumstanced and characterized tribes…will be deemed very precious by all real students of ethnology.”
Brian Houghton Hodgson, the British Resident to the Court of Nepal and also a pioneering ethnologist, wrote so in his essay On the Chepang and Kusunda tribes of Nepal in 1848.
Hodgson’s prophecy came partly true last month when the dying Kusunda community lost its last fluent speaker. Gyani Maiya Kusunda, a native of Dang, passed away at her home in Lamahi on January 25. She was 85.
“Her grandchildren took her to hospital in Nepalgunj after she had breathing difficulties and kept vomiting, but we had to bring her back after the doctors couldn’t cure her,” said her nephew Dhan Bahadur Kusunda Sen.
Dhan Bahadur, who also chairs the Kusunda Development Committee, an alliance of Kusunda people across the country, described Gyani Maiya’s death as an irreparable loss to his community, which probably marks the beginning of the end of Kusunda identity.
After Rajamama Kusunda’s death in 2018, Gyani Maiya was the only fluent native speaker of the Kusunda language. Kamala Khatri, who survives her elder sibling Gyani Maiya, can speak the language, but not as fluently.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say her death marks the end of Kusunda identity,” said Uday Raj Ale, a non-native researcher who has prepared a handbook on Kusunda language and can speak it.
Gyani Maiya’s death is an equally big loss for Nepal and for all those interested in languages and cultures. Linguists believe Kusunda is very likely the sole survivor of an ancient aboriginal population inhabiting the region before the advent of Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan speaking peoples.
“It is probable that other aboriginal languages existed alongside Kusunda in that prehistoric period, but they have ceased to exist. Petroglyphs, inscribed on the walls of caves and rock overhangs, can still be found in many parts of Nepal, attesting to the presence of possible multiple aboriginal populations,” wrote David E. Watters in his book Notes on Kusunda Grammar: a Language Isolate of Nepal.
Watters and a team of Nepali linguists have prepared a Kusunda grammar book with the help of Gyani Maiya and a few other speakers.
The Kusundas, who claim themselves to be Ban Rajas (Kings of the Forest), are one of the most endangered ethnic communities and are scattered mainly in the western region of Nepal. According to the National Population Census, only 273 people identified themselves as Kusunda in 2011.
Until recently Kusundas, like Rautes, were leading a semi-nomadic existence, surviving mainly on birds, animals and plants found in the forest.
“Hunting has now become a thing of the past as everyone is well settled in community life. Aunt Gyani Maiya and my father grew up in the forest and were living as nomads until 1974,” said Dhan Bahadur.
Dhan Bahadur’s family also abandoned living off the forest as land ownership gained currency with the enforcement of the Land Acts 1964, which brought in thousands of new settlers to the foothills of western Nepal. This proved disastrous for nomadic people and disintegrated their social fabric.
“Once out of the forest, Kusundas did not settle in the same place,” said Dhan Bahadur. “Our population was low in the first place, but matchmaking became harder once we settled in towns, and marriage across the ethnic line became common. This gradually destroyed our identity, culture and language.”
The loss of the Kusunda language and identity is not an anomaly. According to UNESCO, every fortnight a unique language dies across the world when its last speakers die.
In Nepal, indigenous languages are even more vulnerable, thanks to the state’s deliberate efforts to turn a multi-ethnic country into a monoethnic state.
Since King Mahendra’s era, the state has paid little attention to preserving indigenous languages in its self-professed effort to promote “one language, one culture, one identity”.
“Kusunda language was fortunate in that it has been well documented, and we at least have a handbook, unlike many other languages,” said Ale.
Despite its size and relatively small population, Nepal is home to 123 languages, according to National Population Census 2011. Interestingly, this was a 33 per cent increase in the number of living languages reported in 2001, primarily because several dialects of Doteli, spoken in the western and far western regions, and some other languages were not previously enlisted as separate languages.
Many of Nepal’s languages are in danger of dying due to gradual loss in number of speakers, forcing new generations to shift to more popular and useful lingua franca like Nepali and English.
Linguists say at least three languages –Dura, Tilung and Kusunda – are no longer used by their native speakers. According to the Language Commission, as many as 37 languages of Nepal’s 125 languages require immediate attention to save them from extinction.
In recent years, however, there have been some efforts, especially by academics and non-governmental organizations, to preserve dying languages.
Mark Turin, an anthropologist who works on language death, wrote a grammar of Thangmi with an ethno-linguistic introduction to its speakers and their culture. At the time, Thangmi was spoken by fewer than 20,000 people and had never been written down before.
Ale, one of few experts on Kusunda language, has been running Kusunda language classes for Kusunda children with assistance from the Language Commission.
According to Lavdev Awasthi, chairman of the Language Commission, the commission was hashing out plans to preserve languages that are on the verge of disappearance by introducing them in school curricula, and by organising language classes.
Not all feel that the government is doing enough. Nagendra Kumal, former president of Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, said the state did not even spare the least efforts to save indigenous languages.
There is an immediate need to document and revive languages like Raute, Bote, Hyolmo, Dhuleli, Kusunda, especially ones without a written script.
Kumal expressed anger over the way the government was prioritising Nepali and some other foreign languages like Hindi and English at the cost of indigenous languages. Mandarin Chinese, for instance, was recently included in the national school curriculum.
For many young students who are speakers of indigenous languages, constitutionally guaranteed rights to be educated in their mother tongues exist only on paper.
Kumal, a former MP, says there are hardly any plans or policies, let alone funds, to revive and promote indigenous languages, and complains that the state’s bias against indigenous culture runs deep.
“Having said that, we indigenous people tend to love everything foreign and detest our own languages, cultures and traditions,” says Kumal. “How can you expect indigenous languages to survive when most schools punish students for not speaking English?”