April 3, 2010


[In the context of the Himalayas there are, however, two disturbing factors, one, the influence of Sanskrit name-giving and secondly, the steady spread of the Nepålī language as a lingua franca. Both obscure the original distribution of names. For example, name such as Nåråyanī, Kamalå, Bågmati < Skt. Vågmatī, Uttår Gagå (in Dhorpatan) are comparatively late Sanskrit substitutes for often unknown local names. Similarly, the continuing eastward spread of speakers of Nepålī, which has been occurring since the Middle Ages, frequently obliterated, and still continues to efface more and more of the local names.]

Michael Witzel
The prehistory and the early history[1] of Nepal are largely unknown - certainly, as far as the major part of the country is concerned, because it is not situated closely enough to such early cultural and political centers such as Kapilavastu, or medieval ones such as the Kathmandu Valley, Tibet, Chamba or Jumla. Nor can we expect, except from future  xtensive archaeological surveys, more information for those areas that have not left us with written documentation.
In this situation, it may be useful to try to elicit more information not only from the "unwritten history" contained in legends etc., but also from language itself, where such information can be found in an "undiluted" state. For changes in language occur, as is well known, mostly unconsciously and over a period of many years and they are, for the greater part, not directly influenced by official policy or by individual habits.

It is well known that place names such as those of streams, rivers, localities, and mountains often are very persistent. This especially applies to names of rivers. In Europe, for example, where such names have been studied in great detail[2], river names were found to reflect, quite frequently, the languages spoken before the influx of the Indo-European speaking populations. They thus are older, dependent on the date of the spread of Indo-European languages in the various parts of Europe, than c. 4500 to 2500 B.C. It would be fascinating to gain a similar vantage point for the prehistory of Nepal. A toponymical study of Nepal is bound to provide some insight into the settlement patterns of the present and past populations of the area. Such an attempt has not yet appeared though some authors[3] have hinted at the desirability of such an undertaking. In the following pages, I will limit myself to the names of the rivers of the Nepalese Himalayas, to hydronomy, as such names seem to be more conservative than those of settlements (and easier to explore than for example those of local fields or mountains.) 

However, except for the Kathmandu Valley, little has been done so far in studying the names of Nepalese rivers and other points of topographical interest. On the other hand, there exist many and elaborate theories about the early inhabitants of the country, founded on legends and a few entries in the various va śåvalīs. Yet even a brief survey and a first interpretation of the toponymical materials at our disposal opens the possibility to investigate the early strata of populations in and around the Valley. The same can be done for various other areas of the country, after the investigations described above have been carried out.

1.1. The West
In the context of the Himalayas there are, however, two disturbing factors, one, the influence of Sanskrit name-giving4 and secondly, the steady spread of the Nepålī language as a lingua franca. Both obscure the original distribution of names. For example, name such as Nåråya ī, Kamalå, Bågmati < Skt. Vågmatī, Uttår Ga gå (in Dhorpatan) are comparatively late Sanskrit substitutes for often unknown local names. Similarly, the continuing eastward spread of speakers of Nepålī, which has been occurring since the Middle Ages, frequently obliterated, and still continues to efface more and more of the local names.

Apart from this, river names in all of Nepal are formed according to the following general pattern: Where one layer of river names is superimposed on a older one, for example by the movement of Nepålī speakers eastwards in the middle ages, only a "suffix", and mostly that of kholå5, is added to the old name so that we find names like Daron-di Kholå, Yan-guwa Kholå. The original Tibeto-Burmese names, before the addition of kholå already mean "Daron river" in the Magar and "Yan river" in the Rai language. In other cases, a Nepålī name has obviously supplanted an older one, for example names such as in Andheri  Kholå "dark, gloomy river"6, Khål e Kholå "depressed, gorge river",7 etc. which can be found in Western as well as in Eastern Nepal. These words, kholå, -di, -guwa, etc. have the function of a kind of "suffix", a determinative supplement that is automatically added to river names, not unlike the English "prefix" river in designation such as River Thames, River Nile, etc.

This diffusion of Nep. kholå and of W. Nepålī gå is due to the eastward spread  of the Nepålī speaking Khaśa/Khas. The whole west of the country, that is the area west of the Bheri, has been Indo-Aryanized thoroughly and early enough (note the Simjå kingdom of the Mallas) as to eliminate most traces of earlier, Tib.-Burm. names (but see below, for some exceptions).

1.2. The North

The situation, however, is different in the North, that is in the areas beyond the main range of the Himalayas. This region, has only been mentioned sparingly in this paper: names in this area are "Bho ya", in other words, they are based on a South Tibetan dialect.8 They often follow certain stereotypes, just as the bulk of the Nepalese river names, by adding certain suffixed determinatives such as -chu, tsangpo (gtsa.po), drangka, etc. These northern Bho ya groups were one of the last population groups to enter Nepal,9 especially the well-documented Sherpas who came to Eastern Nepal from the North only around 1500 A.D.

The comparatively late Tibetan nomenclature is found as an overlay above some earlier strata, including an older substratum of quite differently formed names (see below: Langu, Manduwa).

It is surprising to note that in this area Gurung and Tamang names for rivers and streams are relatively absent on our maps. Both languages are closely related to Tibetan and one could assume that these tribes have migrated a little before, or along with, the expansion of Tibetan speakers about the middle of the first millenium. However, they apparently only supplied a few names high up in the ranges of the Himalayas while the areas at the higher altitudes, adjacent to present day Tibet, show only (Southern) Tibetan nomenclature. (See, however, below 6., for the commentary of A. Höfer on this situation).

1.3. The South

In the Terai, however, the situation is even more complicated. There has been a large influx of North Indian as well as hill populations of the Nepalese midlands during the past hundred years or so. This immigration intensified after the eradication of malaria and still is continuing due to the increasing pressure of population in the hills. Before that, the area, the notorious malaria infested jungle belt "of 8 kos", was sparingly populated by Tharus, Mech, and other tribes. Most river names in the Terai, however, now are Indo-Aryan, i.e. either Sanskrit or they are based on the Indo-Aryan language that is actually spoken in the area, that is from west to east: Awadhī, Bhojpurī, Maithilī, and Bengalī (in
the extreme south-eastern corner of Nepal).

1.4. The 'Hills'

Even if the areas mentioned so far are largely excluded enough names remain to draw a first map of the designations common in various areas, especially of the middle, `hilly' (pahå ī) belt of the country. In this study, I therefore concentrate on the midland hill area between the high Himalayas and the Mahåbhårat ran'e where we can find the broadest scale of original, non-Indo-Aryan names.

Even a brief survey which can be based on any large scale map of Nepal results in several larger areas in the hills, with several typical clusters of names. Each of them is characterized by the seemingly endless, stereotype repetition of the same type of river names within each cluster.

In fact, one can easily distinguish, in addition to the Tibetan speaking North and the Awadhī/Bhojpurī/Maithilī speaking South, eight or nine distinct areas as characterized by their river names. The westernmost one represents the core of the Nepålī speaking population while the others reflect various Tibeto-Burmese tribes. All these areas will be discussed in some detail, and special attention will be paid to those names which do not fit the general pattern of the particular area under investigation. In a few cases, evidence from early Indian and from medieval Nepalese sources can be compared; this sheds light both on the age of the names as well as on their early forms.

The results of such an investigation are of great interest and suited to start a discussion which I would very much like see to be carried further by specialists of the various Tibeto-Burmese languages spoken in the Himalayas. (Read more)

[1] I am grateful to the organizers of the Franco-German colloquium for their invitation, all the way from a sabbatical in Japan, and for giving me the opportunity to discuss some of the aspects of this paper with colleagues familiar with many areas of Nepal. -- This article was first drafted during a stay at Kathmandu in 1985, and no doubt stimulated by the articles of K. P. Malla (see note 3), which are, in a certain way, a response to my earlier note on the Licchavi capital (Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 5/6, 1980). -- In the sequel, I print all names Anglo-Indice, without diacritics, if I was not sure of their exact pronunciation. Wherever I found diacritics (even the rather limited set of the Anglo-Indian ones of the maps) I include them. The exact value of the vowel a, especially, is not always clear; i and u are short, however, in most languages of Nepal, whatever the 'official' Sanskritizing Nepålī spelling might be.

[2] See the work of H. Krahe and his school on Old European hydronomy, treating the names of rivers, small streams etc.; see e.g., H. Krahe, Vorgermanische und Fruhgermanische Flussnamenschichten. Mittel zu ihrer Unterscheidung;Die Struktur der alteuropaischen
Hydronomie, Abh. Akad. Mainz 1962; Unsere altesten Flussnamen, Fulda 1964; cf. however,
W. P. Schmid, Alteuropaisch und Indogermanisch, Akad. Mainz, Jg. 1968, No.6.

[3] But note the occasional remarks in: D. Snellgrove, Himalayan pilgrimage, London 1961, and note his list of Tibetan names p. 279-284. It was Harka Gurung who actually pointed to the usefulness of a study of place names in his book Vignettes of Nepal, Kathmandu 1980, for example p. 26 "The suffix 'Gad' for streams prevalent here extends as far west as Himachal Pradesh and in East up to Riri where the Bari Gad joins the Kali Gandaki"; cf. his list of geographical and toponymical designations in the glossary appended to the book. – For Thakali toponyms, see S. Gauchan and M. Vindig, Kailash 5, 1977 p. 97-184; for the Kathmandu Valley, see: K.P. Malla, Linguistic Archaeology of the Nepal Valley: A preliminary report, Kailash 8, 1-2, 1981, K.P. Malla, River names in the Nepal Valley: A study in cultural annexation, Contributions to Nepalese Studies 10,1-2, 1982-3; -- A large number of place names has now been collected by Krishna Prasad Shrestha, Sthåna-Kośa, Kathmandu (Nepal Rajkiya Pragyan Pratisthan), VS 2044. Most of them have, however, not been explained beyond their Sanskrit, Newårī, Tibetan and occasional North Indian etymologies. For a study of place names in the Kathmandu Valley see author, Studien zur Indo-Iranistik, vol. 5-6 (Fs. P. Thieme, 1980), p. 311-337 passim; and see the articles by K.P. Malla, River names (1982-3), and: Linguistic Archaeology (1981). -- For a list of medieval place names of the Valley, see also Gopålaråjavaśåvalī, ed. by Dhanavajra Vajråcårya and K.P. Malla, Kathmandu/Wiesbaden 1985, p. 199-203, and Dhanavajra Vajråcårya, The development of early and medieval settlements in the Kathmandu Valley. A review of the inscriptional evidence, in: Heritage of the Kathmandu Valley, ed. N. Gutschow and A. Michaels, St.Augustin 1987, p. 355-364.