The last of the Kusunda

Social exclusion by mainstream society is driving this endangered ethnic group and its unique language to extinction

Kusunda students taking exams. Photo: Uday Raj Ale

The Kusunda are one of the two last remaining hunter-gatherer societies left in Nepal, the other being the nomadic Raute. The 2011 Census showed that there were only 273 Kusunda individuals remaining, and there are probably even fewer today. 

The Kusunda language is not related to any other language group in South Asia, and has only one native speaker still alive: Kamala Khatri Sen in Dang district. Decades of social exclusion has nearly obliterated this ethnic group. 

One of the earliest mentions of Kusunda comes from Brian Houghton Hodgson, the British Resident to Nepal in 1833, who extensively documented Nepal’s human and natural diversity. 

‘Amid the dense forests of the central region of Nepal, to the westward of the great valley, dwell, in scanty numbers and nearly in a state of nature, two broken tribes having no apparent affinity with the civilized races of the country, and seeming like the fragments of an earlier population,’ Hodgson wrote of the Kusunda and Chepang.

Listen to this podcast with spoken Kusunda, a language isolate with no other language in its category, one of the rarest in the world with just one native speaker alive. Sewa Bhattarai brings excerpts from this audiobook, and speaks to Kusunda language teacher Uday Raj Ale and one of his students Hima Kusunda.

More than 150 years ago, Hodgson was already calling the Kusunda 'a broken tribe'. Today, they are even fewer in number with a few scattered between Gorkha and Dang, as the groups migrated westwards. 

Researcher Narayan Prasad Adhikari writes that the Kusunda believe their ancestors lived originally in Arghakhanchi, and Palpa, wandering to Tiram of Pyuthan and Ambapur of Dang.  

Read Also: Lost in Translation, Alisha Sijapati

Hodgson noted in 1870 that the Chepang, Kusunda, and Hayu are of the same lineage, and Adhikari notes that there are indeed some similarities in their physical structure and language. Hodgson conjectured that the Kusunda migrated from even further east, and are a branch of the Lhopa of Bhutan. 

Of their lifestyle, Hodgson wrote: ‘They toil not, neither do they spin, they pay no taxes, acknowledge no allegiance, but, living entirely upon wild fruits and the produce of the chase, are wont to say that the Rajah is the lord of the cultivated country as they are of the unredeemed waste. They have bows and arrows, of which the arrow-heads are procured from their neighbours, but almost no other implement of civilization. And it is in the very skillful snaring of the beasts in the field and the fowls of the air that all their little intelligence is manifested.’

Kusunda house and prayer
A model Kusunda house (left) and the place of ritual worship of Kusundas (right). Photo: Johan Reinhard

Kusunda language and grammar cannot be categorised under any regional language family, although some researchers say it is derived from Tibeto-Burman roots because of the similarity of some words. 

“There is no other community like the Kusunda in the whole world,” says linguist Madhab Prasad Pokharel. “They do not drink running water, and only drink spring water. They do not touch cows, or drink cow milk. They hunt and eat monitor lizards and weasels. Their DNA shows some links to the eastern Pacific.” 

Pokharel says Kusunda language has many unique features. For example, although they live in the forest, they have no word for the colour green. The way they create pronouns is different from other languages. My hand is 'tawei', your hand is 'nawai' and his/her hand is 'ginawai'. 

Uday Raj Ale and Tim Bodt note in a 2020 article in the journal Babel, that spoken Kusunda has sounds not found elsewhere. ‘The voiced uvular and the uvular nasal have now basically disappeared from the language, but we can still recognise that they were once pronounced,” they wrote. Uvular stops are relatively common in Caucasian, Semitic, and Pacific Northwest languages, but are absent in South Asia.

Read Also: Mind your languages, Mark Turin

The Kusunda could be a branch of some early migration streams out of Africa en route to the Subcontinent, East Asia and Australasia. The Babel article says: ‘They may have inhabited a much larger geographical area, but were gradually replaced or absorbed by speakers of other languages.’ 

Can we find these stories in the origin stories of the Kusundas? Can their myths trace the path of the primitive humans who had wandered through the earth? Is it possible to find their relationships with the indigenous people of East Pacific Ocean through their folklore? One is curious to know whether the oral history of one of the world's most unique communities can answer these questions. Sadly, we find that the history, mythology, and folklore of the Kusundas have already disappeared a few generations ago.

Imposed mythology

Kusunda ritual sacrifice
Two Kusunda men engaging in ritual sacrifice. Photo: Johan Reinhard

Uday Raj Ale has researched and documented the Kusunda extensively, and has collected some of their origin stories in his book Gemjehaq. The Chepang chapter of Dor Bahadur Bista’s book Sabai Jat ko Phulbari traces the origin myths of Kusunda history to the Ramayana. 

Sita gave birth to a son named Lohori at the Valmiki Ashram. She took the baby out of its crib to play with it, and when Valmiki saw an empty crib, he panicked. He created a baby from the kush grass and put it in the crib. When she returned, Sita was surprised to see another baby in the crib. She raised the second baby as her own. The baby which was made from kush was called Kushari. Kushari's descendants became Kusundas and Lohori's descendants became Chepang.

Interestingly, an aboriginal forest-dwelling community with distinct lifestyle and language unconnected to mainstream Nepali culture has a Hindu story for its origin myth. Elderly Kusunda reject this story, however, as Ale writes in his book. Dhan Bahadur Kusunda, president of Kusunda Development Society, states that the Sita story has no resonance in his community. 

Even the very word 'Kusunda' seems to have been imposed on the community. Ale says that word does not even exist in Kusunda language, and the people call themselves Myak or Gemyehak. He speculates that people who were familiar with Hindu mythology manufactured this lore for the Kusundas.

the last of the kusunda
Jhankri attending to a patient. Photo: Johan Reinhard(Photo: aaram)

But the question remains: how is a community that calls itself 'Gemyehak' come to be called 'Kusunda' in the first place. The answer may be found in the popular meanings of the word Kusunda. In rural Nepal, the word 'Kusundo' is derogatory and and means 'uncivilised' 'barbarian', or 'stupid.'

In the Ghatu dance performed in Gurung and Magar communities in Central Nepal, there is a section called 'Kusunda Ghatu,' where the protagonist King Pashramu wanders into the jungle as a mendicant, hunts deer, and begs for alms.

The 2001 movie Darpan Chhaya also has an episode where the hero is marooned in a jungle, forced to wear leaf-skirts, and expresses his anger by saying he became a Kusunda. Many folklore researchers, like Dharmaraj Thapa and Mukunda Sharma, have documented the use of the word ‘Kusunda’ to mean ‘uncivilised’ in Nepali songs.

The tenth edition of Nepali Brihat Shabdakosh dictionary gives the first meaning as 'a nomadic tribe that lives in the jungles south-west of Kathmandu, and is presently declining' but establishes gives the secondary meaning of Kusunda as असभ्य (uncivilised). 

Overshadowed 'Gemyehak'

It is not clear whether the existing word 'Kusunda' was used to describe the Gemyehak, or whether the lifestyle of the Gemyehak was the reason this word was created. Whatever the reason, the Kusunda today feel insulted that a derogatory word is used to label their community in the country's most respected dictionary.

The Kusunda name for themselves, Gemyehak, has a much more exalted meaning. ‘Ge’ means forest and ‘Myak’ means tiger. Hima Kusunda, 20, from Pyuthan says: “So Gemyehak means tiger, king of the forest. Even today, we call ourselves वनराजा or king of the forest. 

In Pyuthan the Kusunda are called 'Ban Raja, substantiating the claim that Kusunda ancestors were indeed kings of the forest, writes Narayan Prasad Adhikari. Hodgson himself noted that the Kusunda ‘had clearly once known a condition far superior to the present one or to any that has been theirs for ages.’

How did a community that called itself kings of the forest look at nature, life, and mainstream village life? Their perspective was probably quite different from that of social animals in villages and settlements. But today, we can only imagine what it was like, because the myth of 'Kushari' has overshadowed all these earlier narratives.

the last of the kusunda
Gyani Maiya Sen and Kamala Khatri Sen leafing through a Kusunda dictionary. Photo: Johan Reinhard

Although Gyani Maiya and other elderly Kusunda reject the story of Kushari, they have no story of their own to replace it, and are also unable to remember any songs or dances in their language. 

“I believe songs existed in the Kusunda language, because they have words for 'song' and 'dance'. They also remember singing and dancing to celebrate some events in their nomadic past, but when asked to sing, they only sing in the Nepali language,” explains Ale.

Extinction is forever 

The Kusunda language and culture has gone into decline because the community is scattered and not unified. Kusunda society started fragmenting when their nomadic lifestyle became threatened by modernity. 

But when the government started strictly regulating forest use, the Kusunda found it impossible to sustain their traditional lifestyle. They could not find people of their own tribe to marry, and started assimilating with villagers and settled down.

Hima Kusunda’s grandfather and his younger brother lived in the forests as nomads even after their parents died when they were young. But one day, his brother ate a snake egg, believing it to be a lizard egg, and died. 

Hima says, “Then my grandfather had no option but to come live in a village to be near people. Also, there was no Kusunda woman for him to marry so he married a Kawar woman.”

The pace of development, the changing times, socialisation, deforestation, difficulties in livelihood, exogamous marriage system, lack of unity among Kusundas, their reluctance to develop, and their traditional viewpoints were found to be the reasons why Kusunda language and culture are near extinction, writes researcher Adhikari. ‘When Kusundas started marrying villagers and dispersing instead of living together, their language and culture disappeared. They stopped practicing their language and culture in order to assimilate with modern society.’

The Kusunda have been further pushed out of their forest homes by societal exclusion, population pressure and competition for resources. Community forests, national parks and nature reserves have also driven them away. 

The Kusunda started hiding their identity when they inter-married non-Kusunda villagers, and that is also one reason for the decrease in their numbers, says Hima. When her father married a Dalit woman, he was teased and harassed by the villagers. He did not like the Kusunda label, and started calling himself a Thakuri.

Ale says that the drive to identify themselves as Thakuri is widespread among Kusunda, and many have adopted the surnames Sen, Shahi, or Khan. When Kusunda married members of Magar, Kumal, or other communities, their children adopted those names instead of Kusunda.

Saving what is left

the last of the kusunda
Hima Kusunda (left) and Uday Raj Ale (right)

There have been some efforts by the government to save what is left of the Kusunda people, culture and language. With Gyani Maiya Sen and Kamala Khatri as source persons, the Language Commission has already completed three phases of Kusunda language classes. These are facilitated by Uday Ale and have 20 students, most of them Kusunda. Hima Kusunda, a student of class 12, and her younger sister, are among them.

“As a child, when I heard people from other communities like Tharus of Dang and Magars of Pyuthan speak their language, I wished I could speak in my own language too,” Hima recalls. “So, when the opportunity to learn the language came up, I signed up eagerly. The language class has extended the life of the language, but we need to do more.”  

Hima's father and grandfather have died, and she and her sister are the only ones who know the language in their family. The two teach the language to elders at home, and Hima has even written a song in Kusunda which she sings at events. The lyrics are about living with wild animals in the forest and surviving on foraged food, stories she heard from her father and grandfather.

“The next phase of language classes should be held at the family level. Otherwise, the language will not survive past this generation,” Ale says. “Students who have learnt it cannot converse at home, and the language is unable to flourish.”

The government has also been providing social security stipend to the community for the past few years. As soon as a Kusunda baby is born and registered, the family gets a stipend of Rs4,000 per month. 

Read Also: The internet's rescue act, Mark Turin

“I have not faced any harassment for being Kusunda, but my father did,” says Hima. “The government's incentive has made us less embarrassed about our identity.” Indeed, people who had adopted surnames like Sen, Shahi and Thakuri in the past are now reverting back to Kusunda.

The language classes also help extend the lifespan of the language, its corpus and preserve the history and culture of the Kusunda people. 

Says researcher Uday Raj Ale: “Since they lived in the jungle, they had vast knowledge of the forest, wildlife, plants, and nature. When they hunted, they rarely killed, instead skillfully snaring animals. Gyani Maiya Sen used herbs to remedy minor illnesses. But she believed that sharing it would reduce its efficacy. So now all of that knowledge is lost. 

Sewa Bhattarai is a freelance journalist. Her series, On The Margins, will focus on folk music, folklore, and mythology of Nepal's marginalised communities.

Sewa Bhattarai