Tag Archives: Iman Singh Chemjong

Google’s ngram reveals a few historical facts about Nepal

Nepal in English books (1500-1790AD)Google’s ngram allows anyone to mine English textbooks scanned by Google to track dynamics of words in the Western world since 1500AD. I decided to spend this Sunday afternoon to mine English textbooks to learn about history of knowledge of Nepal in the West. It is apparent that India (1520AD) and China (1570) were known to the Western world at least 200 years before Nepal (not mentioned until 1680).

Father Guillespie (Read Father Guillespie’s account of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s acquisition of Lalitpur form 1795AD), probably one of the first to write about Nepal mentions a road via Macwanpur (Makwanpur) leads to Nepal, an “ancient and independent” country, from India. In his account he mentions that Nepal has three principle cities: Cathmanda (Kathmandu) which extends to Thibet(Tibet), Lelit Pattan which borders Macwanpur, and the third city of Bhatgan (Bhaktapur) which borders Ceratas (Kirantas). He also mentions Timi (Thimi) and Cipoli (Siphal may be??) as two small towns. Father Gillespie claims to have witnessed the defeat of the king of Patan,  Gainprejas  by Gorc’ha king Prithvi Narayan Shah. Gillespie writes that Gainprejas paid his soldiers by digging the Treasures of Tolu, which was possessed by Prithvi Narayan Shah upon winning the battle. He claims he saw the treasure that Shah acquired.

Gillespies appears to exaggerate and fantasize about Nepal and portray it as a barbaric and exotic nation. For example, Father Guillespie mentions two religions practiced in Nepal (Kathmandu valley): Baryesu, a religion of Tibetan origins whose practitioners “pluck out all the hair from their heads” and Hindu religion “practiced in its greatest purity” which was adulterated by Mohammedans in India. Hence, his account should not be taken as a historical fact; however it is fascinating to read a document about Nepal in English, from 1700s.  A few memorable mentions from Gillespie are Banga, a castle 3 miles west of Lelit Pattan (not sure if this castle still exists) and the statue of Budhanilkantha. Another book from 1750, Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan also mentions Srinagar, Nepal, and Morung  as countries indepent of Tibet. Hence, these two articles from 1700s appear to corroborate at lest two facts about Nepal:  existence of Limbuwan in the east of Bhaktapur and existence of Morong as a state described by Iman Singh Chemjong in Kirantkalin Vijaypurko Sankshipta Itihaasa (1975). Awesome!!!

Currently, there is a considerable debate on whether Prithvi Narayan Shah unified Nepal or expanded Gorkha and whether he should be viewed in a positive or a negative light. In A view of the rise, progress, and present state of the English Government in Bengal (1772) a Governor of Bengal writes that Rajah of Nepal repeatedly pressed the English to send military aid. This is the time Prithvi Narayan Shah attached Kathmandu valley which again corroborates Iman Singh Chemjong‘s description of Gorkhali attacks in the Valley (Kirantkalin Vijaypurko Sankshipta Itihaasa (1975)). Furthermore, the Governor writes of an “advantageous trade” with Nepal “by which a considerable quantity of gold, and many other valuables were imported. The Rajan being now dispossessed of his country…by the Rajah of Goercullah (Gorkha) the usual channel of commerce has in consequence been obstructed.” This suggests Prithvi Narayah Shah stopped export of riches of the Kathmandu to the English; hence those who view his capture of the valley negatively should reconsider their views.

In summary ngram can be a valuable tool for scholars, both in Nepal and in the West to study history of ancient Nepal. For example, Francis Hamilton’s  An account of the Kingdom of Nepal documents the details of Kirants in 1819 which is similar to Limbuwan’s history in Iman Singh Chemjong‘s  Kirantkalin Vijaypurko Sankshipta Itihaasa (1975). Also, there may be valuable old resources that have been masked by a surge of recent documents that may shed more light on history of Nepal.



Filed under My Life My Thoughts, Nepal

Ancient history of Nepal: A Raw Draft #1

Being a Nepali I always wondered about the History of Ancient Nepal. As I began reading, I realized that most accounts of the history of Nepal are incomplete. This incompleteness probably may have historically resulted due to rulers preventing historians writing about the glorious days of their predecessors and due to lack of materials in ancient Nepal.

I want to highlight though, not being a historian myself, my knowledge of historical accounts related to Nepal is not that deep. However, having grown up in Nepal, I know that at least when we were in schools (SLC batch 1998) we were taught limited history and we were taught that Nepal was a fragmented state before Prithvi Narayan Shah united it into modern Nepal. Many historians subscribe this thought. However it is important, especially in today’s context where Nepal is being divided into ethnic states, to understand the pre-Shah history of Nepal. Who ruled Nepal before the Shahs? When did Nepal as a state begin? When did the peoples of Nepal come to Nepal? Who were the first peoples of Nepal?

In this blog post, I seek to find answers to these questions. I will update this post as I find more materials and I request readers to advise me and correct me where I am wrong. I hope that by making my effort open to public at its nascent I will have more opportunities to reach those that are knowledgeable about the ancient history of Nepal and I sincerely hope that readers will kindly support my endeavor by showering me with constructive criticism, suggestions, and advice.

Nepal as a state emerged in its present for only in the late eighteenth century when the small hill kingdom of Gorkha, some eighty miles west Kathmandu, brought much of the Himalayan foothills and an adjoining strip of the North Indian plain under its control, and the kingdom’s Shah dynasty moved its court to the Kathmandu Valley.

The above quote is from John Whelpton’s A History of Nepal (Cambridge University Press, 2005). This resonates well with the historical accounts provided by other sources such as Nepal Home Page. The more I read about the history of Nepal, the more I realize that the works of Iman Singh Chemjong is not incorporated in works of historians such as Whelpton. According to Iman Singh Chemjong,

According to Wikipedia where book of Rishikesh Shaha is cited, Nepal was inhabited by the “gopālavaṃśi or “Cowherd family”, whose names often end in -gupta and are said to have ruled for some 491 years. They are said to have been followed by the mahaiṣapālavaṃśa or “Buffalo-herder Dynasty”, established by an Indian Rajput named Bhul Singh.” This also resonates well with that we were taught in high school. Wikipedia suggests that Kiratis, “who may have arrived from the west to the Kathmandu valley…ruled for about 1225 years (800 BCE-300 CE), their reign had a total of 29 kings during that time. Their first king was Elam; also known as Yalambar, who is referenced in the epic Mahabharata.” However, this account contradicts with another post in Wikipedia, The history of Limbuwan where it is argued that “First people to live permanently and calling Limbuwan home was the Kirant people”. However, peoples of Limbuwan came from Assam in the West and Kirantis as referenced above came form the West. Also, the time period when Yalamber’s people ruled Nepal (800-300 BCE) and the time period when Bhauiputahang Dynasty of Limbuwan ruled Nepal (580 BC) overlap. This suggests that parts of Nepal was populated by Kiranti of the West around 800 BCE which were then joined by Limbu peoples of the East some 300 years later. Thus, ‘Kirants’ today refer to both these populations in the past. Also, Wikipedia suggests Limbuwan existed with Bhauiputahang Dynasty but Iman Singh Chemjong’s Kirantkalin Vijaypurko Sankshipta Itihaasa (1975) suggests that the regions ruled by the Kirants was only called Limbuwan after the ten Shan Mokwan leaders came victorious over the Kirati kings around 550 AD.

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Chhantyals: The Forgotton Miners of Nepal

Nepal was believed to be a common garden of four varnas and thirty six jaatis (ethnicities). Anthropologists and linguists have identified more than sixty eight ethnicities and seventy plus languages in Nepal. One of these ethnicities is Chhantyals who reside in the mountains and valleys of Myagdi, Baglung, Lumbini, and Mustang districts (Dhawalagiri Zone in the Western Developmental Region of Nepal). Chhantyals have their own culture, rituals, religion, traditions, and language. Although some anthropological research has been able to incorporate the Chhantyals, their origin is still a mystery. The population of Chhantyals is estimated to be around 15,000.

Although Chhantyals look ‘Mongoloid’ and speak Tibeto-Burman language, some believe that they are of Indo-European origins. However, it is possible that they had ancestors of both lineages. According to some anthropologists the Chhantyals came to the Himalayas of Nepal from Tibet about 1500 years ago. In the past Chhantyals (Chhanthyals) have been  miners of copper and once spread from Far-Western Developmental Region to the Western Developmental Region of Nepal.

There are not any scientific studies to suggest either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman origins of the Chhantyals; however, there are ample stories and folktales to tell their tale. According to one of them, Chhantyals used to live in the valley of Sinja (Jumla district of Karnali Zone in the Mid-Western Development Region of Nepal). There have been various official papers discovered indicating the existence of the Chhantyals in Myagdi since V.S. 1654 (1598 A.D.). Also, ancient coins, weapons, and metric tools indicate that Chhantyals were socially sophisticated people. The traditional potteries discovered in various villages indicate they were amateur potters as well. To quote the author regarding the glorious past of the Chhantyals:

Chhantyal nation was in existence before the Unification Campaign of His Majesty the great Prithivi Narayan Shah. As a separate principality they had reigned too. Three swords and a shield found at Kuine Khani Village, Myagdi vouch that Chhantyal was a Marshal Race.

Historically, Nepal consisted of various minute states and they used to battle against each other routinely. It is probable that Chhantyals once had their own kingdom. Various lost battles with other kings might have forced Chhantyals, the indigenous peoples of the Dhawalagiri Zone to move east. Those who reached Chhyantsu in Dhorpatan valley (Baglung Zone) became known as the Chhan Styal and later this name deteriorated to become Chhantyal.

Even though the folktales and stories give us a glimpse of the Chhanthyal history, they still do not indicate either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman link. According to NEFIN.org, “as inhabitants of the Magrant region, the Chhantyal culture and habits resemble those of the Magars.” However, Mr. DB Gharabja Chhantyal indicate no association of Chhantylas to Magars. Sometimes scientists use domesticated plants and animals to track people’s ancient history. For example, a Polynesian scientist in Australia was trying to figure out where her ancestors came from using rats because the only way rats could have come to the islands was via the boats that brought her ancestors to the islands.

Unfortunately alternate ways of finding a clue about their past is to no avail because Chhantyals were nomadic and took farming only about half a century ago. Chhantyals were miners; since the twelfth century the Chhantyals have been mining copper ore and paying taxes to the Nepali government. Interestingly, they used no tools while mining; they would survey the area, taste the soil and rocks to pinpoint the exact location of the mine! Being miners they lived around the mines. Thus, the traditional Chhantyal villages in Myagdi and Baglung still have a suffix-“khani” meaning ‘mine’ in Nepali. Although traditional miners, they did not have the ownership of the mines but they were mere workers. The hard working Chhantyals used to mine for seven months per year beginning on the full moon day in Mangshir (November-December) and ending on full moon day of Jestha (May-June). There were a total of 44 mines in Baglung and Myagdi which were mined by the Chhantyals and Magars as well.

Extensive mining and the Nepal-East India war changed the lives of the Chhantyals. The war began in V.S. 1872 (1816 A.D.) and every household was required to send at least one person to be in the military. However, the Chhantyals were excused for mining purposes. They could voluntarily apply for the army but it was not mandatory. Also in V.S.1970 (1914 A.D.) the Rana Regime imposed land tax on Chhantyals who were only required to pay taxes on copper. By then, most of the copper from the mines had been extracted and the mines were not very productive. In addition to the taxes on little copper they could mine, the land taxes laws imposed by the government pushed the Chhantyals into desperate poverty in no time. Although they were excused of the copper tax by the Rana Regime in V.S. 1981 (1925 A.D.), their conditions did not change much.

Even though the Chhanthals were primarily miners, they were also involved in petty agriculture and gatherers. They gave up mining and took agriculture (and animal husbandry) as their major profession only after V.S. 2018 (1962 A.D.). However, since the limited land they owned was around the mines and was not very fertile, agriculture was also not able to liberate them from poverty. During the Nepal-East India War, the Nepalis demonstrated their bravery and dedication; as a result they were recruited in the British Army after the Sugauli treaty in V.S. 1872 (1816 V.S.). Since the Chhantyals were not one of those who served in the war, they were not recruited by the British. Thus, the Chhanthyal men started changing their surnames names to serve in the British Army. Thus those who got richer and educated ended up discarding their names and those who remain today are only the poor ones in various remote corners of
Nepal (there are a handful educated and high-position Chhantyals).

There have been occasions when scientists have used religion to trace lineage. Like many indigenous peoples, Chhantyals are also traditionally nature worshippers. They worship natural resources such as hills, springs and their ancestors’ spirits. They also offer animal sacrifices to their deities. They also have Jhankris (shamans) who are believed to be very powerful and cure people with their power and local herbs. They later took Hinduism and Buddhism. They are not many studies done on Chhantyal religion but the chances of finding a link to their ancestral population using their religion is minute.

It is unfortunate that the Chhantyals do not have alphabets, therefore, all their history has been orally passed down from their ancestors. They do use Devanagiri script, the same that Nepali uses now. Even though NEFIN.org indicates that Chhantyal language called Chhantyal Kham is related to Thakali, Tamu (Gurung) and Tamang languages, the data provided by Mr. DB Gharabja Chhanthyal shows no association with Magar, Thakali, Tamu (Gurung), Tibetan, Tamang, or Chinese. The similarities in language could be a fact or some words could simply have been borrowed from these languages because these clans live close by. Whereas, some also believe Chhantyal “culture resembles that of Magars,” NEFIN indicates that Chhantyals of Bhalamja clan consider Kusundas as their ancestors. It was not clear to me with the reading materials available whether they are linguistically closer to Tibeto-Burmans or the Indo-Europeans.

At present, Chhantyals are indigenous peoples of Nepal but it is not known where they came from and when. There seems to be a few assumptions regarding their origins but none seem to present undisputable evidence about where their ancestors came from.

(All the materials in this article were taken from a book Khyoma “(Chhantyal Bhjasama Saathiharu)” by Mr. Dil Bahadur Gharabja Chhantyal and other sources such as www.nefin.org were also referred.)


Filed under Anthropology, Nepal