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Language defines culture and language in turn is defined by the proverbs it has. Those of us who speak English know how English proverbs give us an insight into how the English think. Do foreigners know how we Nepalese think? It is an interesting exercise to find choice Nepalese proverbs dealing with Nepalese culture, society and even mundane stuff of life we take for granted and reflect upon its usage.

In English one might say, "A bad carpenter blames his tool." What does the Nepalese counterpart sound like? We say "Nachna jandaina aangan tedo", in other words "one who does not know how to dance blames the dance floor for being unleveled".

In English revenge that lowly human emotion is personified by a dog, as in, "Every dog has his day!" Perhaps there were lots of stray dogs wandering the streets of London in medieval England and one of them would get its revenge by biting the taunting street urchins. In Nepal we address the eternal competition between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law living precariously together in a joint Nepalese family. "Kahile sasu ko pali, kahile buhariko" meaning some times the mother-in-law gets the upper hand and at other times the daughter-in-law. This filial competition has continued through the ages in Nepalese society.

English language refers to dogs again as in "A barking dog does not bite." In rural Nepal the swing is a popular pastime, especially during the festive period leading up to the Dashera holidays. Every village strings a swing in the largest tree available. "Namachhine ping ko saya jadhka", meaning the swing that does not function properly gets a hundred tug. Translation: the person without substance pontificates a lot. It is something akin to the English saying, "An empty vessel makes a loud noise."

We know that we cannot spare the rod and spoil the child, or at least Victorian England thought so. Fagin giving a good hiding to Oliver Twist comes to mind in Dickens' eponymous classic. Today the teacher or guardian would have to face a court of law for child abuse. In Nepal we knew that not only did we have to punish our spoilt brats, but also our wayward grownups. We say, "Laat ko manche lai baat he hunna." or in other words a person who should be disciplined by kicking will not respond to mere words.

When one is put in a big dilemma, we are in "between the devil and the deep blue sea." Both choices seem equally reckless. Hunter's have an equivalent in Nepal. "Nakhaun vane dinvar ko shikar, khaun vane kancha bau ko anuwar". The hunter bemoans the fact that he has bagged an animal after a whole day's toil, but he cannot come around to eating it as the animal looks like his youngest uncle": the hunter had killed a monkey!

"Lanka marne Hanuman, jash paune dhedu" is another classic from the Hindu epic Ramayana. To free the hostage Sita the consort of Ram from demon king Ravana's clutches, Ram's monkey general Hanuman attacked Lanka but the credit went to Dhedu, the bear for defeating Ravana. Sometimes in life we do not give due credit to the right person. Older people blame the collective failure of our leadership in providing good governance to a historical curse put on Nepal by women who were cruelly immolated along with their dead husbands in the funeral pyre adhering to the ancient Hindu rite of Sati. "Sati le sarape ko desh" or "a sati-accursed country" refers to this ancient curse.

How do we describe a hypocrite in Nepali? We turn to religion once again. "Mukh ma Ram Ram, bagali ma chura", meaning some one mouths "Ram, Ram" piously invoking the Hindu God for all to see but actually hides a sharp knife in the pocket. "Jun goru ko singh chhaina, usko nam teekhe", another version signifying hypocrisy refers to the ox. The ox without horn is named Sharpy!

"Ban ko Bagh vanda man ko bagh le kancha", a tiger (fear) in your mind is likely to devour you more than the real tiger in the jungle. A famous politician's fear during the king's takeover probably referred to this proverb as she fled through the jungles on motorbike to India. The real tigers are long gone with reckless logging and poaching.

"Mero Goru ko Bahrai Taka" or "My oxen always fetch the top price" refers to arrogance; whatever I do is correct. Is this what our Maoists feel?

"Raat rahe agrath palaucha", if a fallen seed survives the night cold, even a giant plant like the agrath tree (Shorea Robusta) does grow from the small germinating seed. Nothing is impossible. Has the seed of monarchy again been sown in Nepal?


  1. Very appropriately titled, I must say.
    The tiger in our mind is surely the most dangerous. It devours us from the inside, leaving but a warped caricature of a human being.

    Jai Hos!

  2. My favourite is Kukur ko puchar bhara barsa dhungro ma raktha pani banga bangai. I can just see a Nepali wearing a daura sural carrying out the experiment by first inserting the poor dog's tail into the "dhungro" and 12 years later, Archimedes like, pulling out the dhungro, watching the tail curl back up and saying Eureka, dheknu bhaio, banga bangai rahicha?
    My recent favourite is Aphai Boksi, Aphai Jhankri. Translated: Self witch, self witch doctor!!!!!Like some of our politicians!

  3. Let's start with saying
    " Baarha Barsha ma Poy ghar aayo, yahan Ma randi lai Jwor Aayo." meaning

    Husband came home 12 yrs after
    I am the one who got fever.

    I have always felt how proverbial & Idiomatic ways of speaking makes languages so appealing and aesthetic.

    In Newari ( Nepal Bhasa) "khushiya sithaye gaa Paau" -translation-drying up blanket on the banks of river, meaning, putting major work in danger.

    I think we particularly have to know both culture and history in order to find meaning behind these idioms & proverbs.

    very insightful article for sure

  4. Thank you Pramode for every spark of the latent memory in me you ignite!
    The spoken language of our times was so expressive and apt. Then came the 'academic grammar' phase now the 'short cut' age. It was such fun listening to the everyone get together in the'gaffing' sessions of our family members. The staff who belonged to every ethnic community in Nepal had their own 'gaffing' sessions equally interesting. Our soul was Nepali & we were a proud Race.....Lahara tanda pahara garjiyo.


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