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The Australian National University

Kuke background

The Kutang-Nubri region is found in north-central Nepal, on the border with Tibet.

Kutang locator

The languages of the upper Gorkha region are shown in the next map; blue languages are Tibetan, red marks Tamangic, and the Ghale languages are in purple (orange indicates Baraam). White areas are not inhabited; these represent terrain between 2500m and 8000m altitude. Passes connect Samdo and Tsum with Kyirong county in Tibet; indeed, the language of Samdo might be a variety of Kyirong, but no comparative study has yet been undertaken.

Kutang languages

An interesting contrast with the linguistic map is the ethnic self-identification of the different groups, shown in the following map. Note that Kuke-speaking people, despite being linguistically closest to Ghale, identify as members of the Nubri ethnicity, while the Ghale speakers identify as ethnically Gurung (as do the Eastern Gorkha Tamang speakers).

Kutang ethnic groups

Kuke is spoken in an isolated region in the Manaslu Conservation Area, but the region is not isolated.

Geoff Childs writes, in Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal (p. 21-22):

    'Situated between the warm, humid lowlands and the frigid highlands, Kutang is a place where crops grow abundantly on the steeply terraced terrain. Deciduous forests give way to pine on the higher slopes, before the mountainous topography becomes too precipitous to support any trees whatsoever. The land is renowned for its towering cliffs, imposing crags, and plunging ravines, making access to the small hamlets perched on the hillsides a truly rigorous task.'
    'Kutang was probably settled more than nine centuries ago, though no firm evidence exists to bolster this claim. The current inhabitants are an admixture of Ghales, an ethnic group of hill dwellers who mainly inhabit Central Nepal,2 and Tibetans who migrated from Kyirong and other areas to the north. Through time and intensive contact with their neighbors, the people of Kutang became somewhat Tibetanized. That is, they wear Tibetan clothing, their literary language is Tibetan, and they practice Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, they are quite distinct from Tibetans in many ways, most notably in their unique dialect.'
    'The term Kukay literally means “Language of Kutang,” but it has a double meaning in that the first syllable—ku, for Kutang—is a homonym of the first syllable in the Tibetan word for thief, kuma. Therefore, Kukay is also interpreted to mean “stolen language,” since it incorporates words and phrases from several neighboring languages, including Tibetan. Nobody but those who live in Kutang understands Kukay, so it acts as an important mark of ethnic identity to the fifteen hundred speakers of this distinctive vernacular.'
    'In the past, travel to the market center of Arughat, several days’ walk below Kutang, was especially hazardous owing to the lack of bridges and the crude footpaths, which often required one to progress on wooden posts stuck into cliffs overhanging raging torrents. People recall traveling under those conditions, a mere two decades ago, in terms of high adventure and continual peril. Despite the risks involved in getting about, however, the people of Kutang have never remained in isolation. To the contrary, they have always been intrepid travelers who supplement their agrarian economy through trade with neighbors.'
    'The sheer hillsides of Kutang are farmed intensively, yielding an impressive array of vegetables in addition to the staples of barley, wheat, corn, and potatoes. The fact that two New World crops (corn and potatoes) are keys to the subsistence economy attests to Kutang’s connections with the outside world. To augment farming, small herds of cattle and a few chickens are kept for domestic consumption. The resi- dents of Kutang are notably industrious, ranging throughout all vertical zones of the valley in pursuit of a highly diversified, and hence more secure, economic base. Families are rarely together as a single unit, since members are routinely sent to satellite settlements to exploit seasonal resources. Nearly every piece of land that is not too precipitous to plow is put into cultivation. Steep and grassy slopes are communal property used for herding domesticated animals.'
    'Villages are small, consisting of no more than thirty to forty houses clustered in distinct neighborhoods. Houses are two-story structures; the upper is the living quarters for the family, and the lower is a stall for bovines.3 To reach the upper floor one must climb a makeshift ladder— a tree trunk with hollowed-out steps. Walls are constructed by piling flat stones on each other. No mortar is used to solidify the structure, nor is plaster used to keep the wind from seeping through the chinks. Living quarters consist of a single room where everybody eats, socializes, and sleeps. Privacy is never much of a concern. All activity centers on the hearth situated along the midpoint of one of the walls. Since homes do not have chimneys, the dimly lit interiors are congested with smoke that permeates everything, depositing a layer of soot on walls and the bod- ies of inhabitants alike. Lining the inner walls of the house are storage chests where grains and household implements are kept. The natural consequence of storing food within the home is pest infestation. Rats have the run of the place, especially at night when their carousing can prevent even the soundest sleeper from enjoying more than a fitful rest. Needless to say, neither indoor plumbing nor electricity is a feature of these rustic homes.'

Geoff Childs uses the following map to illustrate the social geography of the Kutang-Nubri region (2004: 21). Kuke is spoken around Kok (Kwak), Gyayul and Bi (Bihi), and south to the confluence of the Buri Gandaki with the river running out of Tsum.

Kutang map

In the Nubri/Kutang area the Nubri Cultural and Youth Development Society and Project L.A.M.A. are operating to improve local society. At the School for Himalayan Children a number of children from Nubri board in Kathmandu.

More photos of the Kutang area at Geoff Childs' pages. This is also very informative and useful.

Updated:  25 November 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Mark Donohue/ Page Contact:  Mark Donohue