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Documentary Corpus of Chhitkul-Rakchham, an endangered Tibeto-Burman language of Northern India

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Language Chhitkul-Rakchham
Depositor Philippe Antoine Martinez
Affiliation SOAS University of London
Location India
Collection ID 0544
Grant ID SG0531
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The documentary corpus is the first ever of Chhitkul-Rakchham. The recordings took place in the two villages where the language is spoken, namely Rakchham and Chhitkul, and in Reckong Peo, the headquarters of Kinnaur district, during a field trip from September 2018 to June 2019.

The present documentary corpus is of 7 hours and 50 minutes and showcases 56 different speakers (44 men and 12 women), including three members of the lower caste (whose first language is Indo-Aryan) between the ages of 20-85. The corpus consists of 73 recordings of various length (from 01:13 to 25:04) and from different genres: ‘monologues’ (autobiographical or on various topics), everyday conversations (on debatable and non-debatable topics), picture-based tasks (Jackal and the Crow and The Family Story), or of more traditional content (both ‘monologues’ and conversations).

The corpus deals with short autobiographies, ‘monologues’ on specific topics (‘tell me about this hotel place’, ‘winter season in Rakchham’, monologues and conversations on traditional topics (the origins of Chhitkul’s main deity, Mata Devi, the local weighing system, the description of ritualistic functions, of specific festivals, etc.), conversations on debatable topics (‘should Chhitkul-Rakchham be taught as school?’, ‘is the use of pesticides something you recommend?’, ‘Is tourism good for Chhitkul?’, etc., non-debatable topics (‘life in Chhitkul before’, ‘tell me both about your childhood’, ‘Rakchham’s fire incident from 2002’, ‘describe climate change as you experienced it these past few years’, etc., including basic everyday conversations such as ‘what are your plans for the following days?’

More than half of the documentary corpus – the totality of the ‘monologues’, all ten Jackal and the Crow recordings, and a few conversations – is glossed. A great deal of the corpus (6 hours and a half) has been transcribed and translated into both English and Hindi.

The ELAN files include some comments on the recordings and a list of words borrowed, mostly, from Hindi/Urdu, but also English, Kinnauri, and Tibetan. All the recordings are also accompanied by the relevant metadata, i.e. the relevant background information about the speakers (name, age, gender, occupation, social status, education, first language and languages spoken, information about family members) and the recording (date of recording, place of recording, time of recording). Whenever the recording involves two speakers, the metadata also includes some information on the nature of their relationship.


Group represented

There is only one lower caste in Chhitkul (‘Chamangs’, traditionally weavers) and two in Rakchham (‘Chamangs’ and ‘Domangs’, primarily blacksmiths). Members of these lower castes, the so-called Scheduled Castes (SCs), speak a different language that belongs to the Indo-Aryan family. The upper caste is dominant in number, representing over 80% of the overall population in both villages.

In addition to caste membership, community members from both the lower and the upper caste belong to several unilineal (patrilineal-agnatic) segmentary lineage groups referred to as khandan. There are ten different khandan in Chhitkul village (eight for the upper caste and two for the lower caste) and seven in Rakchham (four for the upper caste and three for the lower castes). Marriage is not permitted among members of the same khandan.

The Panchayat has had the function of running government schemes in both villages since the 1950s. The Panchayat system was introduced in Chhitkul and Rakchham following The Himachal Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, which came into force in 1953. Both the chief and the chief-deputy of the village are elected for a period of five years. Typically, the Panchayat deals with issues related to construction, sanitation, administration (registration of births, marriages and deaths), education (primary school) and water supply, this list being non-exhaustive. While women are barred from performing any ritualistic function, they often become elected members of the Panchayat.

The Temple Committee is another important institution in both villages. Members are designated by the local deities. One of the main functions of the Temple Committee is to grant loans in the deities’ name, a function emphasized in Singh (1989).

The early history of the region remains largely unknown, notably due to the paucity of authentic records and to the fact that small West Himalayish communities like Chhitkul-Rakchham have until recently lived in remote and inaccessible mountainous areas.

Questioning the veracity of many accounts, Singh (1989: 59) roughly divides the history of Kinnaur in seven main periods:

  1. The pre-Tibetan period (Antiquity-7th century A.D.) – Proto History;
  2. Tibetan period (7th century A.D. – 13th century A.D.);
  3. Period of early State formation (14th century A.D. – 17th century A.D.);
  4. Period of consolidation of State formation (18th century – 1815);
  5. Period of British Paramountcy over Bushahr (1816-1947);
  6. Post-independence period till 1960 (1948-1960);
  7. Post-1960 period.

Among the various tribes mentioned in early literature are the Kinners, often described, in Hindu (although not in the Rig Veda), Jain, and Buddhist scriptures as half human beings and half gods. The depiction of Kinnauris as gifted musicians and dancers is also found in numerous myths and legends.

The Khashas, of Aryan origin, were reportedly the earliest immigrants in the area (Berreman 1972: 15, Majumdar 1944: 10), but this claim is deeply contentious. Van Driem (2001: 411-7) speculates on a link between Indian Eastern Neolithic, the earliest phases of which are estimated between 10,000 and 5000 B.C, and Western Tibeto-Burman populations.

As the first political power in the Western Himalayas, the ancient kingdom of Zhangzhung (Western and North-western Tibet), associated with the Bön religion, extended beyond the actual Tibet autonomous region, but the precise geographical extent of the kingdom is not ascertained, which means it is not known whether Kinnaur was part of it. Some scholars (Shafer 1957, Stein 1971) assign Zhangzhung to the West-Himalayish subgroup.

The kingdom of Zhangzhung was subsequently conquered by the Tibetan (‘Bhoṭ’) empire during the 7th century. The degree of influence the Tibetan empire had on Kinnaur is also subject to controversy. Bajpai (1991: 30) contends that “there was no Tibetan rule in Kinnaur”, which implies that the Tibetan rule was rather indirect, especially from the downfall of the Tibetan empire (in 842) to the 14th century. However, according to Singh (1989: 71), “Bhoṭs must have ruled in Kinnaur because their descendants are higher caste predominant people”. What is more readily admitted is that the region was spared the recurring conflicts between the kingdoms of Kullu and Ladakh (which did involve the neighbouring district of Lahaul and Spiti), and remained largely out of the clutches of the Mughals.

At the beginning of the 14th century, Kinnaur was divided into seven parts “Sat Khund”, each ruled by a Thakur, or local lord. These Thakurs were often in conflict with each other. As a result, state-formation (the so-called Bushahr State) was incremental and was not truly discernible before with the coming to power of Rājā Kehri Singh (1639-1696).

Through a process of “Rājpūtization of the tribes” (Sinha 1962: 36) and the recognition by the Rājā of local deities in exchange for legitimacy, State consolidation took place but was soon jeopardized as the Gurkhas of Nepal invaded the area from the end of the 18th century onwards, ransacking Rampur, the newly-established capital, and destroying the records of the Bushahr State.

From the battle of Plassey (1757) onwards the British influence in the region became more palpable. Taking advantage of its main bases in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, the British East India Company consolidated its position in the area. War was declared against the Gurkhas in 1814 and promptly ended with their expulsion from the area and the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli (1816) which resulted in expanding the British sphere of influence at the expense of the Nepalese. The Sikhs tried to contest the British rule but were also defeated in 1845.

Once the British ascendancy over the area was confirmed, European travellers (Fraser 1820; Kennedy 1824, Herbert 1825; Jacquemont 1829; Hutton 1839, 1840; Gerard 1841; Cunningham 1844; Madden 1846; Kutzner 1857) began to provide accounts of Kinnaur. The construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road, commissioned by the British Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, in June 1850 (Minhas 1998: 83), gave an impetus to trade between Kinnaur and Tibet. During the whole British period, Kinnaur was part of the Bushahr State, or Princely State (one of the two types of territories under the British Raj 1858-1947). In 1898, the Bashahr state, which covered the whole current Kinnaur district, was formally taken over by the British administration, though the Raja was still formally in charge.

Following India’s independence in 1947, Kinnaur was included in a larger administrative unit, Mahasu district. Kinnaur then became a district of its own in 1960 (with three administrative sub-divisions – Nichār, Kālpa and Pooh, reconnecting with the ancient Kinnaurdesh, which covered an area situated between the mountains of the Sutlej and the Yamuna Rivers (Mamgain 1971: 49). The 1962 Sino-Indian war forced Kinnaur to focus entirely on other parts of India for trade.

The State of Himachal has experienced profound social evolutions and significant improvements in living standards over the past half century. As argued by Singh (1989: 246), “it is only after 1960 that the Kinnauri economy has been monetized in a significant way”, successfully initiating a transition from a traditional subsistence-based economy (pastoralism and crops) to commercial horticulture (mainly apples, potatoes and dry fruits). State-led policies, notably the land reforms (implemented during the 1950s and the 1970s), together with the development of infrastructure (the National Highway 22) have played a decisive role in this regard, allowing the Kinnauris to export their production. A boom in the construction sector and a rapid growth in intra-tourism also fuel economic growth. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Himachali authorities have identified hydropower as a sector with great potential. Consequently, various hydro projects have been launched since then (including in Kinnaur district), some of which have been stalled by community resistance. The strong pace of economic and infrastructure development has resulted in a surge of migrant workers, especially from Nepal.

As argued by Rahimzadeh (2016: 68), climate change is now making Rakchham and Chhitkul suitable places for apple production: “in Chitkul Village they have not been able to grow apples up to now, but they will produce in five years. They produced about 8-10 boxes last harvest. Times have changed, weather has changed. This winter we have seen so much snowfall. But in general the weather is hotter and hotter year-by-year. There is a place called Mustarang between the villages of Rakcham and Chitkul. Mustarang land belongs to Chitkul people. Last year they produced eight boxes [of apples]. After five years, they will produce much more” (interview, May 2013). Chhitkul and Rakchham may therefore benefit from the “apple rush” in the coming years. For the time being, the two villages are relying on livestock rearing, crop cultivation, weaving and service in public sector.

According to The World Bank (2015: 13), growth in Himachal Pradesh “has been accompanied by very good human development outcomes”. Although an overwhelming of Kinnauris live in rural areas, considerable progress has been made in terms of literacy (82.8% according to the 2011 census) and education, with elementary education (in Hindi) being now universal. The rate of literacy is lower (50-70%) in more remote areas like Chhitkul though. A primary school was established in Chhitkul in 1952. A high school was also built in 2011 with plans of expansion in the coming years. Youngsters generally go to Sangla, Rampur, Shimla and Solan for higher education.

Chhitkul and Rakchham display a syncretism between Hinduism, Buddhism and pre-Buddhist beliefs. Chhitkul’s most conspicuous deity, Mata Devī (‘the goddess Mata’), is the epicenter of its religious and ritualistic life. During winter, the deity hibernates inside one of the village’s two Buddhist temples. The worshipping of the village’s deity is called ‘puža’ or ‘sarpaling’. All village members are welcomed to attend, though only men perform the rituals. Gupt Raaj is said to have been the first deity to reach Chhitkul. Villagers describe him as some sort of Rishi. Ragunu Devta is one of Mata Devi’s bodyguard gods. Karu Devta takes appearance of a stone, the worshipping of which is a Hindu feature. The other sacred stone is Taŋ Taŋ Naga. Sham Sher Dev, Bagwati Devi and Nagɛs are Rakchham’s three deities.

The role of the village’s deity in money-lending is also emphasized in Singh (1989) and justified by her all-pervasive role and the fact that geographical constraints de facto excluded villages such as Rakchham and Chhitkul from the official credit infrastructure for a long period of time.

According to the legend, the goddess Mata originally came from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, the place where Lord Krishna allegedly spent his childhood. Still according to the legend, Lord Krishna himself assigned Mata Devi to Chhitkul village. This information is part of a narrative from the documentary corpus.

The deity has two main representatives to assist her: the Oracle (grɔktsu), through whom she speaks, and the Interpreter, (ʃu)maʈʰa in Chhitkul-Rakchham and (ʃu)maʈʰɛs in Kinnauri (ʃu means ‘deity’ in both languages). Both typically inherit their respective functions, the deity appointing them, and both are invariably men.


Special characteristics

Information was so far scarce about the language, but also about the socio-cultural context, which is unique in many respects: paucity of historical records, geographical remoteness, syncretism between Hinduism, Buddhism and pre-Buddhist beliefs, etc. In this regard, of particular importance is the recording about the origins of Chhitkul’s most conspicuous deity, namely Mata Devi. The information contained in this recording – the participant has been Mata Devi’s Oracle for sixty years – contradicts claims (for example McKay 2015: 184) that Mata Devi originally came from Tibet. Rather, she came from Vrindavan, in Uttar Pradesh.

The description of a handful of local festivals (Usko, Sazi, Boi, and Maang) offers a unique insight into important events that punctuate the ritualistic life of both villages. The information contained in these recordings – often of procedural nature – paves the way for further research in this area. In the domain of ritualistic life, the twenty minute-long conversation between Rakchham’s Oracle and Interpreter is of particular interest and so is the description of the function of Interpreter by the second person to occupy this function in Rakchham village. The very same participant also provides a very detailed itinerary for what is called Gunsaa, which refers to the migration of part of the population to lower (i.e. warmer) places during winter season.

Ten of the recordings deal with Jackal and the Crow and provide very useful comparative data (in terms of case (ergative) marking, motion verbs, hybrid speech, linear narration, etc.). In addition, the different steps of this picture-based task – description of the nine pictures one after the other, impersonal narration and narration from the perspective of either the jackal or the crow – result in the use of linguistic forms and constructions that are rarely attested otherwise.

Last but not least, two lower caste members, one in each village, were recorded using their own (unnamed) language, an Indo-Aryan – West-Pahari subgroup according to Saxena (2005) – variety purportedly spoken all over Kinnaur. Its documentation is of critical importance to gain a more refined (and more balanced) overview of the language ecology that prevails in Kinnaur.

One of the recordings highlights a weighing system that seems to be circumscribed to Chhitkul and Rakchham villages.

By covering a variety of genres, the corpus provides a rich and versatile vocabulary, including borrowed words from Hindi and Kinnauri (among others), thus paving the way for a dictionary as “an instrument of language maintenance” (Gippert et al. 2006:71) and as “a resource for research and as a repository of the language for the speech community” (Sperlich 1997: 1).


Collection contents

The collection comprises 7 hours and 50 minutes of video recordings which can be broken down by genre:

  1. 2 hours and a half (about twenty) everyday conversations of various types (more or less structured): topic (non-debatable), or debatable;
  2. 2 hours of ‘monologues’ dealing with either topics or autobiographical (‘personal narratives’) content;
  3. 2 hours of elicited materials (picture-based stimuli tasks). The first picture-based task is Jackal and the Crow (Kelly and Gawne 2011), a tale that consists of nine pictures. Participants describe the nine pictures one after the other, then retell the whole story from scratch and finally tell the story from either the jackal or the crow’s perspective. The second task, The Family Story (San Roque and al. 2012), is a problem-solving task based on sixteen pictures. This task involves two speakers who describe the sixteen pictures one after the other, then put the pictures in whatever order they think is appropriate to narrate a coherent story and then retell the story from one of the character’s perspective;
  4. One hour and half of traditional discourse (both ‘monologues’ and conversations): narratives, description of festivals, the local weighing system, etc.


Collection history

The data was collected during a ten-month field trip to Kinnaur between September 2018 and June 2019. The corpus is exclusively based on video recordings, many of which including contextual (the surroundings) information that provide evidence for the sheer beauty of these two locations throughout the seasons. A significant part of the corpus is transcribed (IPA), translated into English and Hindi, and glossed, based on the interface between ELAN and FLEx. The data has also been deposited at Bhasha, an Indian NGO based in Vadodara (formerly known as Baroda). Bhasha is dealing with linguistic and cultural preservation, focusing on marginalized communities.


Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Martinez, Philippe A. 2020. Documentary Corpus of Chhitkul-Rakchham, an endangered Tibeto-Burman language of Northern India – Himachal Pradesh, Kinnaur District. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here]

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Philippe Antoine Martinez as the principal investigator, the data collector and the researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by respective name(s).

Special thanks to Dhian Singh Negi for the long hours spent on transcription and translation. Your work and dedication shall never be forgotten. Thank you also to Nav Prakash Negi for his remarkable involvement in data collection.

Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should also be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

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