It all started with a single tweet. When I saw a tweet about a new Dictionary of the Kusunda language being published by Nepali language teacher and researcher Uday Raj Aaley, I immediately started googling for information about the language. The results were: an isolated language with only one fluent speaker – Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda. This nudged me to get a copy of the Dictionary.
As I laid my hands on the dictionary, it took me no time to read the introductory section about the Kusundas, the once semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer people living in western Nepal. According to the 2011 Census, there were only 273 Kusundas left, but field studies suggested the actual number to be 150. Currently, Kusundas live in the Kapilvastu, Arghakhanchi, Pyuthan, Rolpa, Dang, and Surkhet districts of Nepal.
When I spoke with Uday, the author of the dictionary, he said that Gyani Maiya’s sister, Kamala Sen Khatri, also spoke the language fluently (Kusundas — a Nepali word — call themselves “Gi mihaq” or “Mihaq.”). I reacted with a sigh of relief at this information, as the reports, including one by the BBC, read that only one person could speak the language fluently.
As soon as I published the story about the dictionary on Global Voices, our translators jumped in so we could share the story in different languages. The story was widely read and when I met with Subhashish Panigrahi, then GV Odia Editor, at the GV Summit in 2017, he showed interest in doing a film about Gyani Maiya. After a series of discussions and much planning, it finally materialized in 2018 as he received a small grant from the National Geographic Society for this project.
Subhashish, Global Voices contributor Ananda KC and I travelled from Kathmandu and were joined near Kulmor by Uday who would be our kind host for the next two days. Meeting with Gyani Maiya at her house in Kulmor village in western Nepal’s Dang district was a dream come true for us. We spent two days interviewing and filming Uday’s conversations with her. As we sat behind the camera and the recorder, Uday would speak with Gyani Maiya and ask her questions in Nepali. She responded mostly in Kusunda with some Nepali, in which she was fluent.
In Conversation with Gyani Maiya Sen, The Last of Kusunda
For years, people knew very little about the Kusunda language of western and central Nepal. The 2011 Census conducted by Nepal’s Central Bureau of Statistics puts the population of Kusundas, a forest tribe of western Nepal, at around 273. To learn more about the language and the culture of the Kusunda people, the Author on behalf of Global Voices spoke with Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda — one of only two fluent speakers of the dying Kusunda language. This story was first published in Global Voice in 11-November, 2018.
‘The Kings of the Forest’
It was hot and humid, the roads were empty, and not even the battery-powered Tuk-Tuk drivers were willing to offer us a ride. We headed to Gyani Maiya Sen’s house in Kulmor village in Nepal’s Dang district with heavy tripods, cameras, and other filming equipment. Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda, in her early 80s, is one of the only two fluent speakers of the dying Kusunda language. The population of Kusundas is believed to be 273; however, field studies by researchers have shown only 150 of them dispersed in the Dang, Rolpa, Pyuthan, Arghakhanchi, and Surkhet districts of Nepal.
Kusundas have settled in villages after their forefathers spent their lives in jungles and caves as nomadic tribesmen. They would visit the villages only to beg alms, and many Kusundas still feel embarrassed to reveal their surname as they are still treated as ‘people from the jungle’. However, nowadays they have taken Thakuri surnames such as Shahi, Sen, and Khan — surnames connected with the ruling clan of Nepal. Kusundas claim themselves to be ban rajas, the kings of the forest.
Read more: Indigenous Nepali Language With Only Two Fluent Speakers Sees Pages of Hope in Newly Launched Dictionary
Kusunda language is an isolated language which means it is not related to any other languages in the world. Leider, it is also defined by a younger generation, that has stopped speaking it — leaving the language to slowly fade out as the older generations pass away. Besides Gyani Maiya, her sister Kamala, in her early 50s, is another fluent speaker of the language from their community.
Uday Raj Aaley, a researcher devoted to reviving the Kusunda language, also speaks the Kusunda language. However, Gyani Maiya fears whether her granddaughter Rakshya will ever speak her mother tongue and keep the tradition alive. When we met Gyani Maiya, she was busy peeling green mangoes together with her granddaughter. She was teaching her granddaughter to peel, slice, and dry the mangoes for future use but unfortunately, they were talking in Nepali.
No hooves, only claws
As we started talking to Gyani Maiya and she started telling us about their culture and tradition, a stray cow entered the barn. She suddenly rose from her seat, climbed down the ‘lisno’ (a wooden log shaped into a ladder), and shooed away the bovine. When she returned back, she talked to us about Kusunda food habits. She said, “Kusundas avoid animals with hooves but love eating ones with claws.” They wouldn’t even touch cattle including goats and pigs. They would neither kill a deer nor eat venison which shows how they co-exist with nature.
However, they love eating birds, a pheasant being their favorite. And the monitor lizard is their preferred hunt. It’s so special that it has become a part of the bridal ceremony, as they need to present its egg, meat, clothes and of course some money to the would-be bride’s family. If they can’t find a monitor lizard egg, the initial conversation can’t happen between the interested parties. And no monitor lizard meat means ‘no marriage’ at all.
Still hunting and gathering
She then unpacked a tangled bulk of cords. The mesh of cords was a snare to trap jungle fowls and a bag meant to carry the trapped birds. Made from cords extracted from wild creepers, the snare is called ‘aant‘ and the bag is called ‘aamji‘ in Kusunda language. The Kusundas tie the snare between two trees, hide nearby and make sounds like pheasants by putting cycas leaves between their lips. As the birds pass through the trees, they get trapped and then they catch and carry those birds in this bag with perforations.
While we were busy documenting the special words of the Kusunda language, I could see a swarm of tiny insects heading to a small hole in a wooden log. Neither honey bees nor flies, they are called ‘putka’ according to Gyani Maiya and they yield honey-like sweet substance.
Finally, Gyani Maiya showed us her barn. She had planted yams in every nook and cranny. With the help of a small spade, she unearthed some of them and put them in the aamji. For a woman above 80, she was still a strong figure. And above all, her commanding tone was the evidence of the aura she might have carried around when she was young — powerful like a ‘queen of the jungle’.
Filming Gyani Maiya Sen who inspired efforts to revive the dying Kusunda language in Nepal
Getting Gyani Maiya to speak in the Kusunda language in front of the camera and seeing her doing her daily chores on film to capture supplementary footage was not an easy task. It took us the whole day to film her. One of the things she kept repeating was that the young people were not interested in learning the language at all but she was ready to raise a generation of Kusundas speaking their mother tongue.
This is a difficult task. We learned from Gyani Maiya about the acculturation and assimilation of the Kusunda cultural identity. The Kusundas left their nomadic life behind to settle in villages and the young men and women started getting married outside their communities. As a small minority people, the dispersed members began to speak Nepali and other languages, and eventually, even the adults stopped speaking Kusunda. Over time, most adults could not speak Kusunda and so, their children also could not learn.
The 35-minute-long film “Gyani Maiya” was eventually released publicly in 2021 under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license allowing use and derivatives and redistribution. A 21-minute-long DVD version is archived physically at the US Library of Congress. Eventually, the individual interviews will be available online for further research on Kusunda.
Gyani Maiya’s Passing
One and half years after the filming, it was sad to know that Gyani Maiya passed away at her home on January 25, 2020, at the age of 85. When she was still around, Uday, with the Nepal Language Commission’s support, started a Kusunda education pilot with a curriculum. Her younger sister Kamala, who most were not aware was a fluent Kusunda speaker as she was away in India, returned to Nepal and helped with the pilot design. They have continued teaching Kusundas to speak their long-forgotten mother tongue, joined by some non-Kusundas, as well. The young graduates now proudly speak Kusunda.
Although Gyani Maiya is no longer with us, her dream of teaching young Kusundas to speak their language is alive. The revitalization of the language has just begun.
The two of the story on Gyani Maiya Sen Kusunda from Global Voices are compiled into one. The stories are by the author and the filming story was co-authored by Subhashish Panigrahi, then GV Odia Editor.