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The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya

Selma K. Sonntag
Mark Turin

4. The Significance of Place in Ethnolinguistic Vitality

Spatial Variations Across the Kaike-Speaking Diaspora of Nepal

Maya Daurio

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Group vitality has long been a framework for the inquiry into language maintenance and the sustainability of ethnolinguistic communities (Smith et al. 2017). Giles et al. (1977) conceptualized the vitality of an ethnolinguistic community ‘as that which makes a group likely to behave as a distinctive and active collective entity in intergroup situations’ (308). They outlined three objective ‘structural variables’ which together may ‘permit an ethnolinguistic community to survive as a viable group’ (308): demographics, institutional support, and status. Bourhis et al. (1981) introduced the concept of subjective vitality, the idea that a group’s own perception of its ethnolinguistic vitality and position relative to other ethnolinguistic groups also influences its viability. To better describe how vitality is used in language maintenance studies, Ehala (2015: 1) proposes a new definition, which posits that ‘ethnolinguistic vitality is a group’s ability to maintain and protect its existence in time as a collective entity with a distinctive identity and language.’ Roche characterizes this idea of vitality as the ‘relationship between a language, its speakers, and its wider linguistic, social, and political context’ (2017: 193). Ehala’s conceptualization comprises four key indicators: ‘continuing intergenerational transmission of a group’s language and cultural practices, sustainable demography and active social institutions, social cohesion, and emotional attachment to its collective identity’ (Ehala 2015: 1).

1Following Ehala’s framework, I examine the ethnolinguistic vitality of an endangered language community in Nepal over a four-decade period: the Kaike speakers from Tichurong Valley in Dolpa. I engage with both existing scholarship around vitality, identity, and language maintenance, as well as with ethnographies of the Kaike-speaking diaspora, to assess the variability and uniformity of ethnolinguistic vitality across the diaspora. I suggest that ethnolinguistic vitality among Kaike speakers can be differentiated both geographically and generationally, and is affected by fluctuations in the status and power of the language and its speakers. Building upon existing scholarship on negative demographic shifts and power disparities among language communities, I also argue that another indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality is the ability of the group to maintain and protect its existence — not only in time, but also in place (Landweer (2000), and Hildebrandt and Hu (2017) explicitly address spatial factors in the context of vitality). Memory of, and language about, place is a form of cultural knowledge which is site-specific, processual (Pearce and Louis 2008: 110), and shapes a group’s understanding of itself and its collective history.

Kaike Speakers

Kaike is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by a group of people originating in the Tichurong Valley in Dolpa, Nepal (see Fig. 4.1). Dolpa is one of Nepal’s largest, least populated, and most remote districts. It is bounded by the Tibet Autonomous Region and Nepal’s districts of Mugu, Jumla, Jajarkot, Rukum, Myagdi, and Mustang, located in Karnali Zone. As of the 2011 Census, Dolpa had a total population of 36,700 people (Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 2014: 278) and actually saw a population increase of 2.17 % between 2001 and 2011 (CBS 2014: 24). Dolpa has among the fewest number of outmigrants, with less than 10 % of the population in that category (CBS 2014: 256). It is also not a high inmigration district.

  • 1 Tarang is the Kaike name for the village referred to as Sahartara in Nepali.

2Kaike speakers are often called Tarali, which in fact refers to any inhabitant of the Tichurong Valley, or Tichurongba in Tibetan. Throughout this chapter, I use the term ‘Tarali’ interchangeably with ‘Kaike-speaking Tarali’. Kaike speakers predominantly occupy three villages in the Tichurong Valley, referred to here as Tarang,1 Tupatara and Tarakot. Members of the Kaike-speaking Tarali community also reside elsewhere, with the largest populations outside the Tichurong Valley in Kathmandu and in Dunai, the headquarters of Dolpa district. I conducted research during the course of two separate stays over a span of nine years in Tarang, Dunai, and Kathmandu, as well as virtually. This research is based on informal interviews conducted in Nepali and correspondence over social media and via email in English.

Fig. 4.1. Tichurong Valley. Map provided by the author, CC BY.

Fig. 4.1. Tichurong Valley. Map provided by the author, CC BY.

There are currently no roads connecting the Dolpa district with other districts, and Tarang is a 5–7 hour walk from Dunai, which is several hours walk from Juphal, the main airstrip for the district. There is a marginal road between Juphal and Dunai, with jeeps running regularly between the two locales carrying passengers. As of May 2017, villagers needed to walk several hours from Dunai to a point blocked by road construction except to foot traffic. From here, a single jeep takes passengers as far as a large rock slide, from which point they make their own way on foot to Tarang, crossing the Bheri River and ascending switchbacks to the village.

3Tarang is the largest of thirteen villages in the Tichurong Valley (see Fig. 4.2), with seventy to eighty houses (Daurio 2012) out of 780 households (Central Bureau of Statistics 2014 [Dolpa]: 10) in the Kaike Gaunpalika (Rural Municipality), formerly the Sahartara Village Development Committee (VDC). Prior to March 2017, Tichurong was divided into two VDCs, Sahartara and Lawan, each respectively named after the largest village on either side of the Bheri River in the valley. Both former VDCs have been combined into the Kaike Rural Municipality as a result of local elections, a change which will be addressed in detail below. People largely practice subsistence agriculture in Tarang, growing several varieties of millet, sweet and sour buckwheat, amaranth, corn, potatoes, and a few other vegetables. Household incomes are heavily supplemented by harvesting yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), a highly prized fungus sold primarily to China that grows at around 4,000 meters and is used medicinally and as an aphrodisiac.

4Each village in Dolpa near these high-altitude areas has its own identified harvesting grounds for Ophiocordyceps sinensis, and people who come from outside the village are required to apply for access. Some harvesting grounds are more lucrative than others, but one Tarang villager estimated that an entire family can make between Rs. 100,000–300,000 (USD $960–2,800) during the approximately month-long harvesting season. Other people make money from selling goods to people at the harvesting grounds. The income generated by activities related to yarsagumba harvesting constitutes the main source of income for most Tarang villagers and has also led to a decline in agricultural production with greater reliance on purchased grains and goods (Budha 2015).

5Of the thirteen villages in Tichurong, Tarang is the only village with a lower secondary school with classes up to the eighth grade, whereas all the other government schools only go up to the fifth grade. Of the eight or nine teachers, only one is from Tarang. All but two are male. In 2017, a female teacher was hired from Gumbatara, a village an hour’s walk away but visible from Tarang. The other teachers are from outside the district.

6Tarang exerts greater political and economic influence than other villages in the valley. For instance, the majority of forests in the vicinity belong to the village of Tarang. Tansa, the oldest and most important Buddhist monastery in Tichurong, is in the village of Gumbatara but half under Tarang jurisdiction and half under the shared jurisdiction of Gumbatara and Tupatara. A lama and his family from Tarang take up residence in Tansa Monastery every two years and assume all the religious responsibilities that go along with that position. In addition, his family cultivates and reaps the benefits from the land associated with the monastery during this time. A lama from Gumbatara, on the other hand, will alternate residency every other two years with a lama from Tupatara, a village, about an hour’s walk from Gumbatara through Tarang, which is halfway between the two. Tarang is a landrich village, as most of the lands in the former Sahartara VDC belong to the village of Tarang. There is also a larger number of shop-owners from Tarang in the district headquarters of Dunai compared to the other villages in Tichurong. Taralis from Tarang, in particular, as well as from other Tichurong villages, wield disproportionate political power in the district. There have been three MPs and four district chairmen representing the district of Dolpa who came from Tichurong, including the current MP, Dhan Bahadur Budha, who is originally from Tarang.

7There are an estimated fifty adults from Tarang living in Kathmandu, and an estimated 100 children from Tichurong as a whole who have been sent to boarding schools in Kathmandu, fifty to sixty of whom hail from Tarang. Approximately ninety Taralis from the three Kaike-speaking villages in Tichurong live in Dunai, and a number of children study in boarding schools in Dunai, although the exact number is unknown. Taralis are spread out across Nepal in several other locations besides Kathmandu and Dunai, with the next largest concentration of people living in Pokhara (around sixteen individuals), and up to several individuals in smaller locales such as Bhaktapur, Bhentara, and Maikot, in addition to at least four individuals in Tachen, another village in Tichurong. Additionally, there are a handful of Taralis spread out across the world in India, Australia, Belgium, and the United States, who emigrated in the pursuit of employment, education, or marriage. For the purposes of this chapter, I am concerned with the Kaike-speaking Tarali, predominantly from Tarang, who live in Tichurong, Dunai, and Kathmandu.

Fig. 4.2. Tarang in the upper right; Tarakot in the lower left; Tupatara is to the right of Tarang out of the picture. November 2008. Photo courtesy of the author, CC BY.

Fig. 4.2. Tarang in the upper right; Tarakot in the lower left; Tupatara is to the right of Tarang out of the picture. November 2008. Photo courtesy of the author, CC BY.

8Kaike-speaking Taralis residing in Dunai are employed primarily as shopkeepers, and some also engage in yarsagumba trading. Kaike speakers are a sizable minority in Dunai, trailing Chhetris, Kamis, Thakuris, Brahmins, and Magars (see discussion below regarding Magars) in numbers, but more populous than various other ethnic and caste groups residing in Dunai (CBS 2014: 15).

9Among the Kaike-speaking Taralis who live in Kathmandu, there are many who travel back and forth between Kathmandu and Tarang throughout the year. These Taralis primarily reside in Kathmandu during the cold winter months and return to Tarang in the summer to engage in agricultural production and activities related to the harvesting of yarsagumba. The livelihoods of these Taralis remain primarily tied to Tichurong, but they have the financial capacity to travel to and live in Kathmandu for part of the year. The other Taralis who live in Kathmandu have businesses there, with a number of different families owning carpet-manufacturing and export businesses (Fisher 2017: 32) supplemented by trading in yarsagumba, either from Kathmandu or Dunai. Nearly all of the Taralis who reside in Kathmandu at least part of the year raise their children in Kathmandu and send them to English-medium schools, including those Taralis who spend months at a time in Tichurong. The children of Kathmandu-based Taralis rarely travel to Tichurong and do not grow up speaking Kaike, although they hear their parents speaking it. There is a generational divide among Kathmandu Taralis in which those who were born and raised primarily in Tichurong maintain their language, cultural practices such as celebrating indigenous festivals, and an emotional attachment to the Tichurong Valley. Their children, however, do not learn Kaike, rarely visit Tichurong, and in the course of their urban lives, observe celebrations of deities residing in particular trees and glaciers in Tichurong they have likely never seen.

10It is within the context of these divided and at once specific experiences of Kaike-speaking Taralis living in Tichurong, Dunai, and Kathmandu that I explore the uniformity and differentiation of ethnolinguistic vitality.

Language and Identity

In addition to speaking Kaike, Kaike-speaking Taralis identify as (Tarali) Magar, one of Nepal’s most prominent and numerous ethnic groups. According to James Fisher, this identification as Magar ‘is simply a convenient status summation which can be readily and incontestably claimed by anyone (except untouchables) who wants it’ (Fisher 1986: 3). Similarly, Michael Noonan attributes the appeal of this alignment with the Magar ethnic/caste group to the fact that Magars belong to a caste which cannot be enslaved to higher castes (Noonan 2005).

11This self-affiliation with a particular ethnic group or caste is not exclusive to the Magars of Tichurong and has in fact been recorded as a common practice throughout South Asia since medieval times (Turin 2011; Whelpton 2005: 11). In the nineteenth century when the caste system was codified in Nepal, the Magars, Gurungs, and some of the other Tibeto-Burman groups were ‘allocated a position clearly below the high, twice-born castes but were not regarded as ritually unclean’ (Whelpton 2005: 31). Additionally, until the eighteenth century, there had also existed a flexible relationship sometimes resulting in intermarriage between Magars and Khasas, the Nepali-speaking ruling elite of the western middle hills (Whelpton 2005: 32). Later, after the establishment of Gorkhali rule in the eighteenth century, the western hills of Nepal served as a predominant source of slaves (Whelpton 2005: 28), and the Magars were able to remain unenslaved by paying an additional tax for this privilege (Whelpton 2005: 53).

  • 2 Two different Tibetan dialects are spoken in Tichurong and in Upper Dolpa, respectively, b (...)

12It is not known when Kaike speakers or other inhabitants of Tichurong — who speak a dialect of Tibetan2 (Pöke) but also identify as Magar (Fisher 2017: 39) — chose to affiliate themselves with the larger Magar group. The Magars of Tichurong have no particular connection with other Magars in Dolpa outside of Tichurong other than identifying as Magar. Kaike, although recognized as one of three Magar languages, has no relation with the other two Magar languages, other than also belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family. All of the languages within the Magar group are distinct from each other (Whelpton 2005: 14). In contrast to the Taralis in Tichurong, there is an effort among some Kathmandu Taralis to situate themselves within the larger Magar ethnic community in Kathmandu through active participation in Magar associations. One Tarali businessman, for example, is the vice-president of the Nepal Magar Sangh (Magar Society of Nepal), which promotes the interests of the three different Magar groups in Nepal (Fisher 2017: 39).

13Magars constitute the largest indigenous group in Nepal, with a population of 1,622,399, totaling 7.4 per cent of the country’s entire population (Rana 2005). As in other parts of the world, understanding of the word indigenous in Nepal is complicated and fractured. Generally speaking, and in common with most definitions of indigeneity, tenure on the land and a distinct written or oral history are important criteria in Nepal, along with, more uniquely, a group’s cultural traditions separate from that of ruling high castes, according to The National Foundation for Uplift of Adivasi/Janajati Act (Cultural Survival 2017). While addressing the extensive history and subsequent scholarship specific to Nepali ethnic politics (see Lawoti 2008; Shneiderman 2014; and Gellner 2017, among others) is beyond the purview of this chapter, it is necessary to frame Magar self-identification among Taralis within the context of the adivasi janajati (indigenous nationalities) rights movement in Nepal, which has been burgeoning since the People’s Movement of 1990 overthrew the Panchayat system and restored multi-party democracy (Rai 2008: 7). In 2006, the government officially recognized fifty-nine indigenous nationalities and formed the National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) to address and deal with indigenous issues (Muan 2007). The issue of indigenous rights was also pushed to the forefront during the Maoist insurgency and subsequent rule by the CPN (M) party, which in 2009 assembled a list of ethnic and indigenous groups for which quotas in government jobs should be reserved (Nepal News 2009). The practice of establishing quotas for ethnic and indigenous groups in government positions continues today, with varying levels of success.

14Ethnic identity is an ongoing social and political process (Bucholz and Hall 2004; Gellner 2016), which helps people to locate themselves within a particular social, economic, and political context (Chettri 2017: 22). Mona Chettri sums up ethnic politics in the Eastern Himalaya as follows: ‘the political nature of ethnic groups can be explained in terms of their aims to better facilitate access to or control over resources that are controlled by the state’ (2017: 29). Given the size of Nepal’s Magar population, it is clearly a socio-economic and political advantage for Taralis not only to continue to identify as Magar but to seek active and participatory membership of that group, particularly in Kathmandu, where there is greater competition for political and social capital. In Tichurong and Dunai, access to political and social capital associated with Magar ethnicity is more closely related to the position of Magars within the caste system, discussed above, which allows Taralis to situate themselves in positions of power relative to lower caste Dalits and casteless Tibetans or the ethnolinguistically related Bhotiyā, who are of Tibetan descent. Interestingly, identifying as Magar simultaneously allows Kaike-speaking Tarali access to the political and social clout of the larger Magar ethnic group while also distinguishing them among Magars by their unique Kaike language.

  • 3 Fisher was told a version of the story in which there were seven goddesses. See Fisher (19 (...)

15Kaike is a language firmly rooted in the Tichurong Valley, encapsulated in the origin story of the language. This story tells of a lake of milk in Gumbatara — a village which can be seen from Tarang — where three goddesses3 who were sisters bathed every day. One day a boy, the only inhabitant of Tichurong along with his mother, kidnapped one of the sisters and eventually married her. She only spoke Kaike, which the boy and his mother also learned to speak. The descendants of the boy and the goddess are the Kaike-speaking Tarali people (Fisher 1986; Daurio 2012). The Kaike-speaking Taralis of Tarang are multilingual in Kaike, Nepali, and Pöke, but Kaike is the language in which they conduct their daily lives.

16Like other indigenous language communities, through the longevity of their relationship with a particular place, Taralis have developed detailed and adaptive knowledge about their environment, which is manifested in livelihood systems and expressed and encoded in language (Nettle and Romaine 2000). Similarly, the transmission of cultural knowledge across generations is facilitated largely through oral and performative traditions situated in a particular landscape, which lose their relevance when language speakers no longer reside in that landscape (Harrison 2007; Turin 2013).

17The successful and highly adaptive system of agricultural production (see Fisher 1986 for a broader discussion) is contextualized through oral histories, as is the origin of the Kaike language itself. Taralis ‘situate themselves in their landscape in culturally specific and linguistically coded experiences. Their worlds are strongly delineated, and these boundaries are both named and imbued with spiritual significance’ (Daurio 2012: 17–18). There are, for example, more than twenty Kaike names for areas encompassing different fields, twenty-four names for different areas of forest, and twenty names for different areas of the village of Tarang itself (Daurio 2012: 12). This kind of intimate, place-based knowledge of livelihood systems encoded in the Kaike language is inaccessible to younger, Kathmandu-raised Tarali and is indicative of the centrality of place within the context of ethnolinguistic vitality.

18The actual number of Kaike speakers is difficult to discern. As Ambika Regmi notes, the 2001 Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) reports 794 speakers (2013: 1), which was improbably reduced to fifty speakers in the 2011 Census (CBS 2012). Despite the lack of an accurate count of active speakers, it is considered a seriously endangered language (Yadava 2004). Kaike-speaking Taralis speak Kaike exclusively among themselves, although as previously mentioned, they are also fluent in Pöke and Nepali. Nepal is a country of multiple languages and identities, and multilingualism is the norm. As the other authors in this volume demonstrate, language contact produces multilingualism which is inherently mitigated by the power relations that exist between the language groups in contact. David Gellner (2016: 19) characterizes multilingualism in Nepal this way:

There is a hierarchy, with different forms of language, or even different languages, being spoken at different niches and levels, both by different people and by the same person in different contexts.

The majority of Kaike speakers live in Tarang, Tupatara, and Tarakot, and of the ten other villages in Tichurong, Pöke is spoken in all but Riwa. In Riwa, which is less than a half hour’s walk from Tarang, Nepali is both the lingua franca and mother tongue of the Dalits who perform manual labor such as house building, grinding grain into flour, or tilling fields for the Taralis in Tarang and Tupatara. The Dalits in Riwa migrated to the Tichurong Valley over 165 years ago, and families in Riwa have inherited patron-client relationships with certain families in Tarang and other Tichurong villages (Fisher 1986: 181). A Tarali woman who is separated from her husband and who splits her time between Kathmandu — where her son attends an English-medium school — and Tarang recently gave all of her inherited fields to a family of Dalits from Riwa, in exchange for them providing her with a percentage of the grain they produce on those fields. The people of Riwa also speak Kaike fluently. There is some intermarriage between people from different villages (though not between the inhabitants of Riwa and other Tichurong villages), especially between people from the Kaike-speaking villages and nearby Gumbatara. Interestingly, although both the Taralis and the Dalits speak Nepali and Kaike fluently, Taralis choose to speak with Riwa villagers in Kaike rather than Nepali. Landweer (2000) writes about language choice as a function of group identity and cohesion, and conversely points out that a strong ethnic identity can also influence language choice. Although Taralis are mostly practicing Buddhists, they adhere to the Hindu caste system, and the Dalits of Riwa belong to the lowest caste, untouchables. This, combined with the patron-client relationship outlined above, is indicative that the decision to use Kaike instead of Nepali with the Dalits of Riwa appears to be an assertion of status and power. Given the longevity of the relationship between the Taralis and the people of Riwa, it would be interesting to know whether this has fluctuated over time.

  • 4 Interestingly, a participant originally from Upper Dolpa at the Himalayan Studies Conferen (...)

19In addition to the people of Riwa, some people from Upper Dolpa (Dolpo) also reportedly speak Kaike. The anthropologist James Fisher lived in Tarang from 1968–1970, and he recorded that many Tibetans and people from Dolpo stayed in Tarang during the cold months, escaping the harsher winter in Dolpo and bringing salt from Tibet to trade (1986: 92). The salt trade is largely no longer active, as salt is now conveyed from India via the road system in the Tarai, although Fisher reports that remnants of the salt-for-grain trading circuits persist to some extent (2017: 10). The number of people from Dolpo staying in Tarang in the winter has decreased, but there are a few who still come and occupy the houses of those who go to Kathmandu for the winter or stay with families with whom they have developed relationships over time. There is a long tradition of established business partnerships (netsang) between Dolpo pastoralists and people in each village where they conduct trade (Bauer 2004: 108). These netsang relationships have long existed between Dolpo people and Tichurongba (Budha 2015: 6). Fisher described Taralis in the late 1960s conducting trade with people from Dolpo and Tibetans in Tibetan, and with people from lowland Nepal in Nepali. ‘The Tarangpur trader must endeavor to be all things to all men’ (Fisher 1986: 94).4 This portrayal implies that it was Taralis who were expected to accommodate the dominant language in a particular setting, whether it be Pöke or Nepali. In a more recent observation, Fisher describes listening to a discussion between two political leaders from Tarap, in Upper Dolpa, and the MP for Dolpa District from Tarang, about a dispute over the collection of yarsagumba (2017: 54). The discussion took place in Kathmandu and was conducted entirely in Nepali, instead of in Pöke, which all discussants also speak. Nepali is not the mother tongue for either of the parties. Contact among the various peoples from different geographic regions in Dolpa has resulted in multilingual relationships between individuals from these regions, and language choice appears to be moderated by power and status in addition to location.

20It may be that spatiality is a factor in determining which language is used in interactions between Kaike speakers and people from Dolpo and Tibet. The higher status of Taralis in the caste system relative to the casteless people from Dolpo and Tibetans alike might also influence language choice, as may the fluctuating positions of power and prestige occupied by different groups of people at different times. These fluctuations occur both in terms of how Kaike speakers experience their own language and how Kaike speakers intersect with other speech communities (Pugh 1999). Such interactions and experiences serve to formulate Tarali identity within a ‘flexible system of identities’ (Chandrahasan 2015: 15) situated in changing group boundaries (Chettri 2017; Turin 2014) and informed by power dynamics. As previously referenced, Kaike speakers and Tichurongba enjoy greater political representation at the national and district levels compared to the more remotely located people from Dolpo. Because Kaike-speaking Taralis are multilingual, their interactions with other speech communities that speak Kaike, Nepali, Pöke, or all three, involve a calculated choice about which language to use. This choice is informed by complex understandings of relative occupations of power and status (see Roche et al., this volume) which may confer upon the language the contemporaneous prestige of its speakers. Perceptions of power and its associated characteristics, such as prestige, status, and economic and political dominance, define the dynamics of language contact between groups speaking different languages, regardless of the size of the language group or some intrinsic quality of the language itself (Ehala 2010: 208). ‘Languages do not exist as mere languages. Instead, they reveal affiliations to certain class and socio-ethnic groups that choose to include and exclude elements’ (Ibrahim 2015: 190) of a particular language. Annamalai (2002) refers to this pattern of language choice as the ‘multilingual networking’ of languages, which is based on the functional relationship between the languages in both public and private domains and reflects the social and political dynamics between them. A language’s vitality is higher if it is used in all domains (Hildebrandt and Hu 2017) and depends not only on the number of speakers and the exertion of external forces on the community but also on the attitudes and practices of the speech community itself (Ehala 2010: 204; Hildebrandt and Hu 2017: 154).

21The attitudes of Taralis toward their language have changed over time. In the late 1960s, Taralis thought of Kaike as unsophisticated and primitive (Fisher 2017: 41). Now, Taralis in Tichurong, Dunai, and Kathmandu alike embrace the Kaike language as important and valued. Those Taralis who live in Tarang, who move through their daily lives speaking almost exclusively in Kaike, have no sense that Kaike is an endangered language. Fisher (2017) also observes that the perception of Kaike among Taralis is largely positive and that they possess a sense of pride regarding their language. A young man from Samtiling, a cluster of houses directly above Tarang, is studying to be a monk and also trying to write a Kaike dictionary, an act which would have been unimaginable four decades ago (Fisher 2017: 41).

22For Taralis across the Nepal diaspora, speaking Kaike may hold important symbolic value in defining themselves as a distinctive ‘collective entity in intergroup situations’ (Giles et al. 1977: 308). As Fisher aptly observes about Tichurong, it is not a ‘homogeneous area inhabited by ethnically identical people’ (1986: 25), and language choice among Kaike speakers may be an exertion of group solidarity.

23For those Kaike speakers who live outside Tichurong, the continued use of Kaike is a cultural expression, a means of creating social cohesion beyond the geographic borders of Tichurong Valley. Mark Turin refers to the ‘emotive power of linguistic attachment’ (2014: 372) and to language heritage facilitating a sense of belonging. Compared to the late 1960s, when Fisher lived in Tarang, many Kaike speakers have migrated out of Tichurong. The Taralis who primarily live in Tarang have no sense of the impending loss of their language because they are surrounded by it. In contrast, those who primarily live in Kathmandu are more invested in promoting Tarali culture, participating in Magar or Tarali social groups, and the continuation of the Kaike language, even while they send their children to English-medium schools and while the generation of those Taralis not born in Tichurong lack fluency in Kaike and certainly in the situated knowledge associated with that language. The preference among Taralis to educate their children in the dominant language of English is typical of marginalized (marginalized within the national and global context) speech communities. ‘They want their languages to appear to have power, but they in practice want to have their personal power enhanced through the dominant language (s)’ (Annamalai 2002: n.p.).

24Kathmandu-based Taralis continue to celebrate important cultural rituals, such as Chaigo, the Tarali New Year, as well as Choputa puja, a two-month long celebration of a major deity (Fisher 2017: 36). There are also two cultural organizations founded by Kathmandu-based Kaike speakers to promote and preserve Tarali culture, part of which involves organizing the observance of Chaigo (Fisher 2017). The effort to preserve Tarali culture among Kathmandu-based Taralis precludes the maintenance of the Kaike language among the younger generations living in Kathmandu. Among the generation of Taralis raised outside of Tichurong, Kaike is passively understood but not actively used (Fisher 2017: 42). In contrast to the Kaike-speaking Taralis in Tichurong, whose language use intersects with both the public and private domain, language use among the Kaike-speaking Taralis in Kathmandu occurs solely in the private domain, such as at home and at social events, an expression of cultural identification and of belonging to a group (Annamalai 2002; Chandrahasan 2015; Landweer 2000; Turin 2014).

25The Taralis in Dunai occupy a unique space. Only a day’s walk away from Tichurong and several hours walk (or an hour-long jeep ride) away from the airstrip in Juphal, they have relatively easy access to their childhood homes as well as to urban centers outside of Dolpa, cost notwithstanding. Kaike-speaking Taralis in Dunai, the majority of whom are shopkeepers, exist within a relatively tight-knit community of other Kaike speakers and Tichurongba, who share the town with a variety of other ethnic groups, a number of whom are more populous than the Kaike-speaking Taralis. While I was speaking with a shopkeeper from the village of Tachen, which is in Tichurong, a man in his forties originally from Tarang joined our conversation. He was sent to Kathmandu as a boy to study and subsequently forgot the Kaike language. However, he moved back to Dunai to open a shop and eventually learned Kaike again. A Tarali woman born in Tichurong but raised in Dunai, now working as a teacher, likewise speaks Kaike with her fellow Kaike-speaking Taralis in Dunai. Turin, like Landweer (2000), posits that ‘speech communities maintain and manage their borders to create a sense of cohesion or group belonging’ (2014: 375), and the tendency of Kaike-speaking Taralis in Dunai to interact with one another in Kaike serves to differentiate them from others, and also to form a sort of solidarity among Kaike speakers within the town of Dunai. Language, in a sense, becomes a representation of identity (Samuelson and Freedman 2010: 197). In the process of emphasizing distinctions between social groups as expressed in the ascription of ethnic identity, language is one of the ‘most flexible and pervasive symbolic resources available for the cultural production’ of this identity (Bucholtz and Hall 2004: 371).

26Additionally, among the Taralis I have met living outside of Tarang, many have spoken of the sweet hāwā-pāni (an expression in Nepali literally meaning ‘air and water’) in Tarang and how much they prefer it to that of Dunai or Kathmandu. The man who returned to Dunai and learned Kaike after living there spoke fondly of the food in Tarang, which is grown, harvested, and processed locally. Among those in Tarang with whom I spoke who either live in Tarang full-time or spend part of the year there and part of the year in Kathmandu, there were a variety of opinions about whether they prefer Tarang or Kathmandu. An elderly couple who had been in Kathmandu for several years without returning to Tarang because of illness contrasted the traffic and dust in Kathmandu with the serenity and clean air of Tarang, while a middle-aged woman who splits her time between Tarang and Kathmandu spoke of preferring her lifestyle in Kathmandu, perhaps because her life there requires less manual labor. Although not all among those Taralis who left Tarang continue to return there — often because the initial part of the journey involves expensive air travel, and the latter part of the journey on foot is long and strenuous — most retain a nostalgia for Tichurong. Fisher recently observed ‘those who have settled in urban areas continue to feel as much at home in their ancestral villages as they do in the urban environments where they spend most of their time. Rather than flee their past or deny it, they seem to want to nourish and strengthen it’ (2017: 58).

27In addition to a positive perception of the Kaike language, celebration of Tarali festivals, and active engagement in Tarali cultural organizations, there are other signs of an elevated regard for Tarali culture, the Kaike language, and an attachment to place compared to how Taralis perceived themselves and their language four decades ago, particularly among those who left Tarang as adults to pursue economic opportunities in Dunai or Kathmandu. Not least was a referendum in the May 2017 elections — the first local elections held in twenty years — to combine Sahartara and Lawan Village Development Committees (VDCs) into the Kaike Gaupalika (Rural Municipality), a symbol of both the clout of those from the largest village in Tichurong in Dolpa politics and an indication of the high regard in which Kaike is held. No other gaupalika in Dolpa was designated by the language spoken. This change was promulgated by the current MP from Dolpa, who is originally from Tarang and was recently nominated the Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation State Minister. One community member from Gumbatara is personally dissatisfied with the name and has been lobbying to change it to ‘Tichurong Kaike Gaupalika.’ This man said that among those Tichurongba with whom he has spoken, there is general discontent about the name because the majority of Tichurongba do not speak Kaike but Pöke (personal correspondence, March 2018). In contrast, among the Kaike-speaking Tarali with whom I spoke, both in Kathmandu and in Tarang, the name is a source of pride. The ascription of the name of the Kaike language to a political entity is historically meaningful and culturally significant and memorializes the language in a particular geography (Pine and Turin 2017).

28The use of Kaike by Taralis persists in the foundational social domain of the home (Landweer 2000), across geographic boundaries and, in Tichurong, across generations. The intergenerational transmission of the Kaike language does not occur among those Taralis born and raised in Kathmandu. However, the preference of Taralis in Tichurong, Dunai, and Kathmandu to use Kaike among themselves in spite of the availability of other language choices is an expression of cultural identification with the language itself as well as with other users who have the same preference (Annamalai 2002). The decision to speak in Kaike or not in the public domain, the zone of power where speech communities compete, is more variable depending on whether one lives in Tichurong, Dunai, or Kathmandu, and on the nature of intergroup contact.

Intergenerational Transmission

As Fisher (1986) describes Tichurong in 1969, the Taralis of Tarang utilized mobility as an adaptive strategy for expanding economic capacity. At the time, Taralis were transporting salt from Tibet to the Tarai and needed supplies in the reverse direction. Multilingualism was important in navigating between the cultural zones in the Tarai and Tibet, both areas with which Taralis maintained interdependent economic relationships (Fisher 1986: 184). Mobility in its current form is multiple. There are, as mentioned before, around fifty adults from Tarang who live in Kathmandu, some of whom split their time residing in Kathmandu and Tarang, or Kathmandu and Dunai. Those that live entirely in Kathmandu do so because their business enterprises (e.g., carpet manufacturing and export) keep them there; some of them engage in trade with yarsagumba, which requires them to spend several weeks each summer in Dunai, where they buy recently harvested yarsagumba and then sell it in Kathmandu to another buyer. Those that return to Tarang for part of the year also do so primarily for economic reasons: to tend to their fields and to harvest yarsagumba or sell goods to those harvesting yarsagumba.

29Another kind of mobility is recorded among more privileged Taralis who choose to send their children to school in Dunai, Kathmandu, and sometimes even farther afield. The reasons for this are clear: formal education is limited in Tarang and across all of the Tichurong Valley, and access to a good education — particularly in an English-medium curriculum — is highly valued and viewed as a pathway to greater opportunity (Fisher 2017). Therefore, those families who can afford to send their children to Dunai, Kathmandu, or, more rarely, to India, Europe, Australia, or the United States, may choose to do so. Many from Tichurong send their children to study at an English-medium school run by a lama near Budhanilkhanta outside of Kathmandu. Parents are required to pay Rs. 80,000 (USD $820) up front, and then the rest of tuition is paid for by foreign donors who support the school.

30Most of the children sent to Kathmandu, India, or further abroad do not grow up speaking Kaike, do not learn about traditional agricultural practices, and do not return to the village to live. There are a few exceptions. I met two men who returned after studying in Kathmandu: the aforementioned man in his forties who returned to Dunai to open a shop and a man in his twenties who couldn’t find a job in Kathmandu and returned to Tarang to start a family. Revealingly, when I asked people if they were worried about the loss of the Kaike language due to the outmigration of children from the village to study, the common response was that if they returned, they would likely relearn Kaike quickly. When I followed up with a question about whether children who are sent to Kathmandu to study generally return to the village, the usual answer is that they do not. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine children raised in Kathmandu to adulthood returning to a village, a provincial way of life filled with backbreaking manual labor, and returning to speak a language in which they have not conversed for most of their lives. For example, I traveled to Tarang from Kathmandu with a twenty-two-year-old nursing student whose elderly parents had recently returned to Tarang for the warmer months. She hadn’t been to Tarang in ten years and had moved away when she was seven. She lived with her brother and his family in Kathmandu and was sent for a short visit to Tarang. She was in most ways a typical young, middle class, Kathmandu urbanite and was wholly out of place, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar with Tarang, its rusticity, and its customs. She could understand a little Kaike but largely spoke and was spoken to in Nepali. She left Tichurong to return to Kathmandu as soon as she was allowed. Her much older brother, by contrast, who was raised in Tarang, is one of the most active Kathmandu-based Taralis in terms of promoting Tarali culture and pride through his leadership in Tarali cultural organizations. He also visits Tarang once every one or two years, speaks Kaike exclusively with his wife and other Taralis in Kathmandu, and maintains an emotional attachment to Tichurong. This fondness for and continued familiarity with Tichurong, with the Kaike language, and with Tarali cultural traditions is exclusive to those Taralis who were born and raised in Tichurong and left as adults, and does not characterize the experience of their children or siblings born outside of Tichurong.

31As previously noted, knowledge about the environment among Taralis in Tarang is extensive and expressed in language. This kind of knowledge is often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Formal education has been associated with the erosion of TEK (Benz et al. 2000; Cruz Garcia 2006; Kuyakanon et al. 2017; McCarter and Gavin 2011; McKinley and Castagno 2009; Ruiz-Mallen et al. 2009; Saynes-Vásquez et al. 2013) and the decline of language vitality (Landweer 2000; Turin 2008 and 2014; Botha 2010; McCarter and Gavin 2011; Reyes-Garcia et al. 2005; Zent 1999). There are many reasons for this. Most environmental knowledge is acquired at an early age and is based on direct experience and interaction with cultural traditions, beliefs, and rituals. Formal education systems often remove children from these place-based and linguistically coded traditional knowledge systems (McCarter and Gavin 2011) or do not account for nor value local knowledge and traditions (La Belle 1982; Ruiz-Mallen et al. 2009). In Nepal, in spite of multiple laws and acts in recent years that adopt policies to provide primary level education in mother tongues (i.e., with mother tongues as the medium of instruction) (Phyak 2015; Singh et al. 2012), these have yet to be implemented on a country-wide scale or for all of the mother-tongue languages that exist. Challenges to mother-tongue-based multilingual education (MTB-MLE) are multifold, including, among others, lack of a writing practice in most mother tongues, lack of involvement of affected stakeholders at the policy level, and lack of community management of mother-tongue teachers (Phyak 2015; see also Pradhan, this volume). Furthermore, although children taught in their mother tongue from an early age tend to perform better and exhibit higher cognitive, linguistic, and social skills compared to their peers educated in the dominant language (Coleman 2015; Pinnock 2015; UNESCO 2003), English-language education in Nepal is still highly valued and heavily invested in (Phyak 2015; Singh et al. 2012) because of its association with greater cultural and economic dominance.

32Ironically, those who seem to hold Tarali customs and traditions, including the Kaike language, in the highest regard — those Taralis who were raised in but who now live outside the Tichurong Valley — are also those who are most invested in educating their children in English-medium schools. They are also more likely to have the financial means to do so. Speakers of marginalized languages around the world often do not prefer the use of their language as the medium of formal education (Annamalai 2002; Coleman 2015; Turin 2014). The English language is associated with economic opportunity as well as the possibility of mobility outside the borders of Nepal. As much as Kathmandu-based Taralis strive to preserve their culture, the prospect of providing better opportunities to their children through an English-medium education trumps the perceived benefits of attempting to preserve their own language from generation to generation by pursuing a mother-tongue-based education, which is currently unavailable in Kaike.

33Those Teralis who reside in Tarang, even without necessarily believing their language to be under threat, are presented with poor choices regarding the educational opportunities they are able to provide to their children, a common experience of smaller language communities (UNESCO 2003: 15). Formal education consists of subdomains where language choices are made, including the language of instruction, of study, the language allowed in recreation, and the language used by teachers to communicate to parents (Landweer 2000). The momentum toward linguistic and cultural erosion in Tarang is not so much a result of the Nepali-medium language instruction and a culturally irrelevant curriculum at the local school as it is the outright removal of children from the social-ecological landscape into which they are born. In the case of Tarang, providing children with a good education and with a strong foundation of traditional knowledge are mutually exclusive endeavors. The fact that only an eighth-grade education is achievable without leaving the valley means that either children are denied access to a full education or they are forced to seek higher education away from family and are denied access to their language, and to the culturally and linguistically transmitted knowledge associated with landscape, livelihood systems, and sacred spaces and practices.

34The Kaike language situates the Taralis of Tarang in a particular landscape and facilitates the transmission of knowledge about that landscape. The pursuit of better education and opportunities for children outside the socio-ecological landscape associated with the Kaike language serves to lower the practical transmission and retention of that language among younger generations, even while the regard for Kaike and the knowledge with which it is imbued continue to rise among older generations, particularly those residing in Kathmandu.


Language can serve as a marker of ethnic identity (Landweer 2000). In Nepal, among most indigenous speech communities, mother-tongue language competence is a key indicator of ethnic identity (Turin 2014). Across the Kaike-speaking diaspora, the choice to speak in Kaike among Taralis solidifies group cohesion and a sense of belonging. The decision about when to speak in Kaike is dependent upon relative positions of status and power among speech communities. Kaike speakers in Tarang occupy a politically dominant position both within Dolpa and Tichurong, which confers greater status on the Kaike language itself.

35Taralis everywhere ascribe a higher value to their language now as compared to the late 1960s, when Fisher described a perception among Taralis that the Kaike language was unsophisticated (see Bendi Tso and Turin, this volume, for a comparable discussion about Chone Tibetan). Positive perceptions of the Kaike language signify greater emotional attachment to both the language and the collective identity it affords its speakers, and is an important indicator of ethnolinguistic vitality (Ehala 2015). Greater emotional attachment to Kaike does not equate with successful intergenerational transmission of the language itself across all Tarali communities, specifically among those who reside outside of Tichurong. The perpetuation of the Kaike language across generations requires situatedness in the landscape in which the language continues to be relevant. Within Tarang itself, Kaike continues to serve as the primary language, and its transmission across generations is facilitated by linguistically encoded and place-based cultural and ecological knowledge.

36Kaike-speaking Taralis persist as a socially cohesive group across multiple locations and operate within a variable and dynamic system of identities, articulated through language and negotiated through economic and political positioning.

37Active participation in social institutions, demonstrable connection to a shared identity, and a capacity to protect one’s existence are indicators of ethnolinguistic vitality (Ehala 2015). In addition, I argue that spatiality is another important factor in the vitality framework, particularly with regard to intergenerational transmission of language and cultural knowledge.



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1 Tarang is the Kaike name for the village referred to as Sahartara in Nepali.

2 Two different Tibetan dialects are spoken in Tichurong and in Upper Dolpa, respectively, but they can be understood by speakers of the other. One man from Gumbatara said that the Tibetan spoken in Tichurong is to the Tibetan in Upper Dolpa as Nepali is to Hindi. He also said that the Tibetan spoken in Tibet is unintelligible to him (personal correspondence, March 2018).

3 Fisher was told a version of the story in which there were seven goddesses. See Fisher (1986: 36).

4 Interestingly, a participant originally from Upper Dolpa at the Himalayan Studies Conference in Colorado in September 2017 informed me that he had once stayed in Tarang for three months, learned Kaike during that time, and that most interactions between Taralis and Dolpo-pa occurred in Kaike, not Pöke.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 4.1. Tichurong Valley. Map provided by the author, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 4.2. Tarang in the upper right; Tarakot in the lower left; Tupatara is to the right of Tarang out of the picture. November 2008. Photo courtesy of the author, CC BY.
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Master of Science in Geography from the University of Montana, where her research focused on language maintenance and social-ecological resilience within an endangered language community in Nepal. She has worked for over eight years in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and is interested in anthropological, ecological, and humanitarian applications of GIS. Concurrent research interests include language endangerment and maintenance, traditional ecological knowledge, social-ecological resilience, indigeneity, and mountain geographies. Maya will be pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.


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